Sound Ideas: Japanese Burrowing Cricket

by Carl Strang

One of the unexpected findings from the field season just past was the discovery of Japanese burrowing crickets at Bendix Woods in St. Joseph County, Indiana.

Japanese burrowing cricket

Japanese burrowing cricket

As described earlier, there is a well-established population of this exotic species in the gravel-filled medians dividing parking lots and drives in the central part of the park. They are well buried, and it was only their distinctive songs that gave them away.

The chirps are distinctly buzzier than those of the fall field crickets that were singing nearby. Here is a fall field cricket recording from 2006 for comparison.

Listening to it, I’m getting a warm reminder of summer. Common true katydids, a striped ground cricket, and wall-of-sound tree crickets and other ground crickets are in the background.

 

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Species Dossier: Pied-billed Grebe

by Carl Strang

Grebes are cool. I love the way pied-billed grebes can sink without diving, and come to the surface with just the top of their head showing as they check out whether the coast is clear. They also have proven to have odd and unexpected evolutionary relationships. A recent study confirmed that the grebes are closest to the flamingos. Once you get your head around that one, add this result: among our local birds, the next closest relatives to the grebe-flamingos are the doves. Here are my observations on this species:

Grebe, Pied-billed

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Common migrant on Maxinkuckee and ponds around Culver, generally appearing as individuals either isolated or on the fringes of duck or coot rafts. Breeder at McKee Marsh in DuPage County, IL. By mid-July the young were foraging with the parents, catching newly metamorphosed bullfrogs. Sings from water, a strange pumping song. “Ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah’dool-ah’dool-ah’dool…” The “ah” syllable increases in pitch untill it is very high when compared with the lower-pitched “dool” syllable.

4AP99. First of year seen, Culver.

10SE99. A single youngster spent a day on the Willowbrook marsh. This is the first one to stop at Willowbrook, perhaps because this was the first year with significant emergent vegetation along the edge. Still had some pied markings on the face.

30OC99. 3 on a lake at Fermilab.

8NO99. Lots of pied-billed grebes scattered among coot and duck rafts at Lake Maxinkuckee. Horned grebes outside, separate, and a few of the pied-billeds as well.

2AP00. One individual at Lincoln Marsh, Wheaton.

1JL00. An adult with at least 2 swimming small young, Brewster Creek marsh at Pratts Wayne F.P.

24SE00. Several migrants at McKee Marsh.

28OC09. Mayslake. A pied-billed grebe on May’s Lake swallowed a small fish.

23NO09. Mayslake. A dozen mallards diving for food in May’s Lake, coming up with aquatic vegetation after being completely under water 3-5 seconds. The grebe that has been staying close to them for a week still is present, and also diving.

5AP10. Mayslake. In the stream corridor marsh, 6 hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe diving for tiny prey, insect larvae and/or chorus frog tadpoles. Two of the mergansers were first-year males, with nearly white, indistinctly defined boundaries, in crests.

15OC. Mayslake. Two pied-billed grebes in the NW corner of May’s Lake. One flew when I came up on them, the other dove.

7SE12. Maylake. In the SE corner of May’s Lake, 25 mallards accompanied by a single immature pied-billed grebe that at times appeared to be dabbling.

 

Literature Review: Evo-Devo

by Carl Strang

One of the most fascinating biological disciplines to emerge in recent years is evo-devo, the study of the genetic regulation of embryological development, with the goal of understanding the role of evolution. Most of the work to date has been done in animals, and the connections between distantly related species often are amazing, as several studies cited below reveal. Plants are increasingly subjects of this form of study, and the general patterns often prove to be similar to those in animals, as illustrated in the Vlad et al. study. Humans don’t escape this type of scrutiny, and we prove to have very similar vocal controls to those of songbirds. Fossil studies often are brought into these researches, as shown in the studies of breathing in turtles and the evolutionary relationships of daddy longlegs (harvestmen). Even the electric organs of various groups of fishes are subject to this kind of analysis.

The first study goes into the development of leaves, which in some species results in their division into separate leaflets as in this buckeye leaf.

The first study goes into the development of leaves, which in some species results in their division into separate leaflets as in this buckeye leaf.

Vlad, Daniela, et al. 2014. Leaf shape evolution through duplication, regulatory diversification, and loss of a homeobox gene. Science 343:780-783. They looked at developmental regulation of leaflet formation. A particular protein produced through homeobox activity represses growth in areas that end up being between leaflets. The associated gene evolved within a duplicated section of DNA. They found a species in which the duplicate was lost, resulting in simple leaves.

Pfenning, Andreas R., et al. 2014. Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science 346:1333. They studied genomes of a variety of birds and primates, and found that song-learning birds and humans share genes that produce connections between their brains and vocal apparatus, genes that are inactive in bird and primate groups that do not sing or speak. Thus brain structure and circuitry features associated with song learning in birds and vocal learning in humans are analogous and similar, and homologous at the level of brain regions. Genetic underpinnings for these structures likewise are similar. “The finding that convergent neural circuits for vocal learning are accompanied by convergent molecular changes of multiple genes in species separated my millions of years from a common ancestor indicates that brain circuits for complex traits may have limited ways in which they could have evolved from that ancestor.”

Lyson, Tyler R., et al. 2014. Origin of the unique ventilatory apparatus of turtles. Nature Communications 5: 5211. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6211  Described in ScienceDaily. They did a detailed study of modern and fossil turtles, focusing on breathing, because turtles are the only air-breathing vertebrates that cannot employ the ribs. Turtles breathe with a ring of muscles surrounding the lungs. This system was in place in the early (260mya, Permian Period) African turtle Eunotosaurus africanus. They found that the system evolved gradually, the body wall stiffening as ribs broadened (for reasons still to be determined), and the musculature gradually developing to take more and more of the load.

Gallant, J. R., et al. 2014. Genomic basis for the convergent evolution of electric organs. Science 344:1522-1525. They studied the genetic and developmental aspects of electric fishes, 6 separate groups of which independently evolved the ability to produce electricity. They found that the same genetic basis and developmental pathway evolved to the same endpoint in all these different lines. Certain muscle cells lost their contraction ability and increased their membrane’s ability to manipulate ions and build up charge. They are set up in series down the length of the fish, increasing the voltage. The most powerful is the Amazon’s electric “eel” (more like a catfish), which one of the researchers characterized as “in essence a frog with a built-in five-and-a-half-foot cattle prod.” These fishes all live in murky waters, and use their electric capability to sense their surroundings, communicate, stun prey, and defend themselves.

Nuño de la Rosa, Laura, Gerd B. Müller, and Brian D. Metscher. 2014. The lateral mesodermal divide: an epigenetic model of the origin of paired fins. Evolution & Development 16 (1): 38. DOI: 10.1111/ede.12061  From a ScienceDaily article. They looked at the fossil record and the genetics of development, and found that the body cavity prohibits development of limbs in the region of body axis where it occurs. The result is a single pair of limbs in front, and a single pair behind that region.

Garwood, Russell J., Prashant P. Sharma, Jason A. Dunlop, and Gonzalo Giribet. 2014. A Paleozoic stem group to mite harvestmen revealed through integration of phylogenetics and development. Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.039  From a ScienceDaily article. They studied a rare early harvestman fossil with x-ray scanning which provided unusual 3D detail. The fossil was 305 million years old (Pennsylvanian Period), from France. It showed an extra pair of eyes, set laterally, which subsequent study revealed appear in vestigial form at a point in embryo development (mature present-day harvestmen have only a single pair of eyes). The authors mentioned that harvestmen are more closely related to scorpions than to spiders.

Lifer

by Carl Strang

Many natural history enthusiasts start out with an interest in birds. At first it usually is at a stamp-collector level, making a list of the species one has seen. Some never move beyond that, but few ever completely abandon interest in their life list, the birds they have encountered in the wild places. Over time though, as that list lengthens, new additions come less and less frequently. Last week I made my first life list addition in two years. It was enabled by technology that did not exist when I was a child, the Internet and a birders’ e-mail list. I learned there was a Barrow’s goldeneye on a river half an hour from my home. Waterfowl were my first love as a group (though the great blue heron gets credit as the species that got me started), and so a lifer duck is doubly exciting. I drove up to the designated location on the Fox River, and found large flocks of common goldeneyes enthusiastically diving in the riffles, probably after the mollusks and crustaceans that are their staples.

Common goldeneyes, the black and white males and the brown-headed females

Common goldeneyes, the black and white males and the brown-headed females

At some point, peeking upstream beneath a bridge, I thought I got a glimpse of the target bird, and hastened there. How gratifying it was on a sunny January morning to see a duck I long had been hoping to encounter.

Male Barrow’s goldeneye with a pair and female of common goldeneyes

Male Barrow’s goldeneye with a pair and female of common goldeneyes

It seemed fitting that this duck looked a little larger than the common goldeneyes around it. As it was a male, with the crescent-shaped spot on the side of the head, it was much easier to pick out than a female would have been.

In a lot of ways, this kind of bird chasing is trivial, but it gets a lot of people out and active, leads to support for wild lands conservation, and despite the fossil fuel burned in such pursuits has to be regarded as a net positive. After all, more in-depth scientific study and conservation work has to start somewhere.

And I confess some pleasure at bringing my bird life list count to 812, which I want to keep larger than my beer life list which currently is at 539.

 

Sound Ideas: Did They Tickle?

by Carl Strang

Today I share a song inspired by the discovery of some coyote scats full of feathers. I take advantage of the opportunity to link our familiar coyote, the animal, to Coyote Man of Native American traditional stories.

“Did They Tickle When They Went Down” pokes some fun at the character of Coyote, but it is true that sometimes the antics of this canid leaves us scratching our heads. For example, a few years ago I shared in this blog the observation of a coyote scat full of a chewed-up tennis ball.

Coyote scat composed of chewed tennis ball

Coyote scat composed of chewed tennis ball

I find a lot of humor in coyotes, both in legend and in fact, and have a hard time understanding the terror with which they are viewed by so many suburbanites.

 

Eastern Wood-Pewee Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier consists of my observations of a neotropical migrant flycatcher, the eastern wood-pewee. This bird is our common small woodland nesting flycatcher, working mainly in the lower canopy and shrub layer, leaving the upper canopy to its larger relative, the great crested flycatcher.

Wood-Pewee, Eastern

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Forages typical flycatcher fashion from all levels, but mainly mid-canopy. Calls “peewee,” slurring the second syllable downward in pitch, then up. Also “peeurr,” slurring all smoothly down.

18JE80. A nest found in Pennsylvania was a neatly woven cup, very similar to the red-eyed vireo’s, in a low understory plant.

1JL90. West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Pair of pewees mobbing a blue jay. Swooped at it as it foraged in low to mid canopy of high trees on hilltop above river. Another jay flew in, both jays gave “kee-tuck-tuck” (ool-ool) call and bowed (a greeting? Seemed that way). One of the jays moved on, both pewees stayed with the other as long as it was on the hilltop, then they stayed behind. Almost every time the jay changed perches, the pewees flew to stay with it (perching nearby, usually behind it), often swooping past just as the jay landed, coming within 2 inches of it and snapping their bills at the closest point of the swoop. Sometimes the jay responded by opening beak and snapping back at them.

28AP99. First of season noted at Willowbrook. Last of spring migration 28MY.

3SE99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last of year there on 22SE.

18JE00. Arboretum near Joy Path. A pewee foraged for a time within the canopies of trees not far from the leafy twig-ends, frequently moving from perch to perch and from tree to tree. Then for a span of at least 10 minutes it stayed on one perch, a dead oak branch that extended into a fairly large subcanopy space. It continued calling frequently throughout, with occasional sallies. I did not observe prey handling, but on one sally I could see the small, slow-flying insect it caught, and it had swallowed the prey before returning to the perch. The calls were nearly all “peewee’s,” but an occasional “peeurr” was thrown into the mix (less than 5%). No move to go to a nest in 20 minutes of foraging between 8 and 9a.m. A pewee was foraging in the same spot 16 days ago.

28JL01. Pewees at White Pines State Park have switched to the “peeurr” call.

23MY02. Suddenly, many pewees have appeared, at Willowbrook and elsewhere. First of year.

Literature Review: Squirrel Communication

by Carl Strang

Those who dislike tree squirrels regard them as rats with bushy tails. Those bushy tails are important in many ways, however. They provide insulation when wrapped around the animal in its nest, and they also are used in communication. Two studies in 2014 focused on tail communication and, in one case, vocalizations. Both studies are ongoing but incomplete, as my notes indicate, but I include them here to remind us that these common animals have something to teach us if we pay attention.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

University of Miami. 2014. “Predicting the predator threatening a squirrel by analyzing its sounds and tail movements.” ScienceDaily, <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141021125943.htm>. This article describes Ph.D. thesis work by Thaddeus McRae on the vocal and visual signals given by tree squirrels in the presence of various predators. “He measured the response of three distinct squirrel sounds: the “kuk” (a short bark), the “quaa” (a longer squeal) and the “moan” (a whistling sound). He also looked for specific patterns for tail motions in combination with these noises. The “twitch” involves a controlled movement in an arc shape, while the “flag” can take the shape of an arc, figure eight, circle or squiggle.” The article does not say which signals are associated with which predators, so future publications by this author will need to be found.

Pardo, Michael A., Scott A. Pardo, and William M. Shields. 2014. Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) communicate with the positions of their tails in an agonistic conflict. Am. Midl. Nat. 172:359-365. They filmed squirrels’ aggressive interactions at feeders, determining dominance (who chases who) and tail position (tightness of bend, 5 levels varying from straight up to sharply bent; and portion bent, 3 levels varying from straight to tip-only bent, to bent about in the middle). Degree of aggression ranged from none to continuing a chase after a subordinate flees. Degree of aggressiveness by the dominant was influenced by the subordinate’s tail position as well as by the dominant’s. For instance, a dominant with a tightly bent tail showed the lowest aggression when the subordinate bent a large portion of its tail. When the dominant bent a small portion of its tail and the subordinate’s tail was loosely bent, the dominant showed low aggression, but this shifted to the highest level when it bent a large portion of its tail and the subordinate’s was tightly bent.

Black Snakeroot in Winter

by Carl Strang

Black snakeroots are woodland members of the carrot family Umbelliferae that are common in northeast Illinois but easily can be overlooked because of their inconspicuous flowers.

Here is one in bloom. The species are similar, and my tentative identification of this one is the Canada black snakeroot, Sanicula canadensis.

Here is one in bloom. The species are similar, and my tentative identification of this one is the Canada black snakeroot, Sanicula canadensis.

As it happens, the winter form of this plant likewise does not stand out so much from other woodland species, for instance the white avens, which also produces bur-like fruit clusters.

Black snakeroot plants in winter. Don’t exactly jump out at you, do they?

Black snakeroot plants in winter. Don’t exactly jump out at you, do they?

Up close, though, the umbels of fruit clusters have an appealing form. They are smaller, rounder and tighter than in the avens.

The hooked bristles are much like those of other plants which latch on to passers-by for dispersal.

The hooked bristles are much like those of other plants which latch on to passers-by for dispersal.

Some leaves persist, at least into mid-January when these photos were taken.

When intact and spread out, the leaves are palmately lobed or divided.

When intact and spread out, the leaves are palmately lobed or divided.

I found signs that birds have some interest in the seeds.

That interest seemed limited, though, as the birds only took advantage of plants bent close to the ground. Those still erect were left alone.

That interest seemed limited, though, as the birds only took advantage of plants bent close to the ground. Those still erect were left alone.

 

Sound Ideas: Variegated and Cuban Ground Crickets

by Carl Strang

One of the highlights of the field season just past was finding variegated ground crickets, a long sought species, right under my nose, as described earlier.

Variegated ground cricket

Variegated ground cricket

Here is a recording I made in 2011 in the lawn at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I have trimmed out all but the critical end portion, which includes the abrupt end of one trill and the crescendo beginning of another:

I had made the incorrect assumption that these crickets, living in cracks and holes in the lawn, were Say’s trigs. Here is a recording of one of the trigs from nearby Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve. The ending likewise is abrupt, but the next trill has a “chuwee” beginning.

In both cases the trills are extended, longer in the trig as a rule. A third species worth comparing here is the Cuban ground cricket. I have not encountered this species in the Chicago region, yet, but I need to be alert for it. Previously known only as a southern species, Lisa Rainsong has found it to be common in the Cleveland area. Ecologically it seems to resemble the variegated ground cricket in liking wet areas near lakes, rivers, and marshes, but is active on the surface rather than remaining out of sight in gravel or in soil crevices. Here is a partial recording of a Cuban ground cricket living in a terrarium in Lisa’s home:

The repeated brief scratches or chirps are from a striped ground cricket in another terrarium. The Cuban ground cricket, a member of the same genus as the variegated, likewise has a crescendo beginning, an extended high-pitched trill, and an abrupt ending. The pitch is just a little lower than that of the variegated, but otherwise they are much the same.

A final note on this topic is that my analysis allowed me to identify a recording from Illinois Beach State Park as belonging to a variegated ground cricket.

The singer was located beneath this vegetation, a few steps from the Dead River. I could not find it, and now realize that it must have been beneath the surface.

The singer was located beneath this vegetation, a few steps from the Dead River. I could not find it, and now realize that it must have been beneath the surface.

Here is an excerpt from the recording (you may need to turn up the volume):

All of this has me primed to document variegated ground crickets elsewhere in the coming season, and to be alert for Cuban ground crickets.

 

House Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

What could be more common than a house sparrow? That question seems less appropriate now than it might have a couple decades ago, given the decline in the species’ numbers in recent years in many parts of its range. Nevertheless, if the length of a species dossier was in proportion to the species’ abundance, this should be one of the longer ones. That it is not is a clue that perhaps I have been neglecting to give this bird the attention it deserves. Even the introductory paragraph that I wrote to kick off the dossier in the 1980’s is perfunctory.

Sparrow, House

Male house sparrow, profile view

Male house sparrow, profile view

Never far from buildings, these birds usually nest in cavities of buildings, light posts, or birdhouses, though sometimes they build large ball-shaped nests in tree or shrub branches. They use much grass and assorted debris and litter in nest construction. The song is an uncomplicated, cheerful chirping sound. Loud “cheep” calls used in agonistic and warning situations. The male has a stiff bowing hopping behavior, with tail and wings elevated, in courtship. They eat seeds and insects. They engaged in vigorous pursuit of emerging termite alates at the East Street house in Carlisle, PA.

Early AU86. Corpus Christi, TX. Young begging by fluttering wings and stretching head toward adult male. He flew to another bush and searched for food grosbeak fashion, little change in perch with much peering at nearby branches in all directions.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

13MY87. Bird foraging in willow tops at Willowbrook. Sits on perch 1-3 seconds, searching nearby vegetation, occasionally reach-probing, changing perches about 8″-2′ apart.

8AP90. Female house sparrow systematically biting off bits of dandelion (leaves) to eat, masticating and swallowing.

17OC92. Vicinity of Cantigny (Winfield, IL) while driving. Kestrel carrying house sparrow low across road. Heavy load for the kestrel. Lost grip, perhaps because of the distraction of my car’s close proximity. Sparrow flew away. Many times I’ve seen kestrels searching vole habitat, carrying or eating mice. This, I believe, is the first bird capture I’ve witnessed.

1JE99. House sparrow picking up insect remains from old coyote feces on trail.

25AU99. House sparrow with several white feathers on tail and wings observed at Willowbrook.

29JA00. House sparrows along with Brewer’s blackbirds, horned larks and juncos feeding on spillage from buffalo feeders at Fermilab.

 

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