Periodical Cicada Update

by Carl Strang

The 2020 periodical cicada emergence in the Chicago region has reached its peak and is winding down. It has been a mad and sometimes confusing scramble to collect data, but an overall complex picture has emerged. First, a wide-angle look:

Collected observations of periodical cicadas in 2020. White dots indicate towns or parks in which at least one or a few cicadas were documented. Yellow dots mark countable numbers, i.e. from one spot you could hear multiple cicadas singing. Orange dots mark small choruses (though sometimes occurring over large areas), in which the cicada songs were blended to the point where individuals no longer could be picked out, but the choruses were not organized. Red dots mark areas with full choruses, formed into periodic waves of song, loud and with both species audible.

These assessments of numbers are conservative. Many of the white dots are taken from iNaturalist submissions based on a photo of one insect. It is possible that in many cases the peak numbers were above that level, some possibly all the way to full wave chorusing. Also, some of the orange dot communities were assessed before the peak time and may well have developed full wave chorusing later. I visited nearly all the red dot communities myself, walking or driving to get some sense of the area involved. Several to many square blocks were typical here, and often I observed mating pairs and females laying eggs or saw lines of eggs in twigs. The wave chorusing lasted up to two weeks in these places.

Cassin’s 17-year cicada laying eggs in Mokena, Will County

Periodical cicada eggs in winged euonymus twig, Woodridge, DuPage County

Areas with wave chorusing generally were imbedded within a matrix of lower level numbers. Overall, the Chicago suburbs saw the emergence of enormous numbers of periodical cicadas. Apart from the specific observations of mating insects, egg-laying females and eggs in twigs, there is reason to believe that this is an on-going, reproducing population separate from the main regional emergence that next will occur in 2024. That reason is that these suburban neighborhoods have relatively few predators. The reason periodical cicadas have been so successful is understood to be that they overwhelm the many species of consumers that eat them. Suburban residential communities cover huge areas and are ecologically depauperate in that they are reduced to mowed lawns and trees, with some shrubs and herbaceous plantings that typically are non-native and therefore support few insects. That results in low numbers and diversity of predators compared to what the remnant forests harbor.

Example of habitat in River Forest, Cook County, a wave chorus area

I simply did not observe predators beyond the rare crow, territorial robins and usual densities of other species typical of these neighborhoods. I suspect that not only has this population split off from the main emergence, it has been building in numbers with each generation (I use the singular here because I am referring mainly to the Cassin’s 17-year cicada. Though Linnaeus’s 17-year cicadas were present in all the red dot areas, their numbers are more difficult to assess, and the only evidence I have of their reproducing is a single submitted photo of a female laying eggs).

Linnaeus’s 17-year cicada laying eggs in southeastern DuPage County. Photo by Leslie Bertram, used with permission.

I do not want to give the impression that predation wasn’t occurring. There were plenty of signs like this. The numbers removed simply were not making a dent in the mass choruses.

Now I want to focus on DuPage County, because I have the background of a detailed study of the cicadas’ history and their 2007 major emergence there.

This is my working map of the periodical cicada emergence of 2007, with superimposed 2020 observations. Pink areas mark the extents of the 2007 emergence areas. Colored dots represent the same levels of 2020 cicada numbers as in the regional map above.

If you find this image bewildering, I welcome you to the club. The emergence pattern was so spotty and localized that I cannot comfortably mark out large uniform areas. Dots are expanded either along my survey driving routes, or to cover the size of areas more expansively explored. To get a sense of the biological significance, try to tune out the white and yellow dots, as those locations had few enough cicadas that predators would have had no trouble wiping them out.

Again the red areas had so many cicadas that I had no trouble finding examples of mating or egg laying. Red areas adjacent to one another could be combined, as the habitat among them was uniform and continuous. This is particularly true of the cluster of red areas in the southeastern quarter of the county where the cities of Downers Grove, Clarendon Hills, Westmont and Hinsdale blend their similar residential neighborhoods. This area in fact continues east across the Tri-State highway corridor into Cook County’s adjacent city of Western Springs.

I am especially interested in the areas with loud, extensive wave chorusing that are outside the 2007 emergence regions. I will be referring to my detailed notes when I return to these locations in 2024.

The big emergences were in residential areas. Forests were a different story. For the most part, forested areas did not rise above the countable numbers of cicadas. I admit to being disappointed by what I observed in Wood Dale Grove and Salt Creek Park Forest Preserves and their connecting and surrounding residential areas. Both species emerged in both preserves, but never got above the countable level at Salt Creek Park. In part of the forest at Wood Dale Grove there was an area of a few acres in which wave chorusing developed, but it was in only part of the forest and lasted at most 3 days before collapsing to countable numbers again. I draw consolation from this result because it supports my suspicion that forests harbor numbers and diversity of predators that contrast with the expanses of residential communities that form the Chicago suburbs. Though the residential areas surrounding Wood Dale Grove and Salt Creek Park resemble those that had large and sustained cicada choruses, it would be easy for predators to spill out of the preserves and consume cicadas emerging in the surrounds. Cicada specialists may be interested to know that I did check Raccoon Grove Forest Preserve in Will County. I heard only two singing Cassin’s males there.

I have one more step this year, and that is to return to many of these places and look for egg damage to trees and shrubs. This will better assess reproductive success than the several but scattered observations mentioned above. Then it will be a wait of four years until the big show, and I wonder if there will be any peculiarities in the spots where there were mass emergences this year.

Owls etc. at St. James Farm

by Carl Strang

This has been an eventful spring at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Thanks to the covid-19 epidemic, volunteers have not been allowed to do restoration work. My response was to take walks through the preserve almost daily in late April and May, gaining a much more detailed understanding of what has been going on there.

Owls, for instance, have provided significant insights. Early in the season I found that great horned owls had commandeered the nest used by Cooper’s hawks the previous two or three years.

My first look at the two nestlings

Though I checked them at a distance, they clearly knew I was there.

Shortly before they branched

The parent, perched nearby, was not concerned.

The youngsters branched (left the nest), and I did not see them beyond a week after that. At the same time, however, I saw an adult great horned owl with a flying youngster at the opposite end of the preserve. Though it is possible that this second nest had been across the road at Blackwell Forest Preserve, the relative number of suitable nest trees leads me to believe there were two great horned owl nests at St. James Farm this year.

The barred owl pair keeps a low profile, and I seldom have heard or seen them. That this is due to the presence of the more powerful great horneds was underlined by my finding on May 13 where an adult barred owl had been killed and plucked. I was left hoping this was a naïve wanderer rather than one of the savvy resident pair, and that hope was intensified when I learned that someone had picked up a young barred owl from one of the interior trails and brought it to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, the rehab facility for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Some days after that I encountered an adult barred owl with a branched youngster, and Willowbrook deputized me to return their bird to its family.

A leaning black cherry provided a good place for the owlet to climb up.

The youngster quickly climbed more than 10 feet above the ground. His wings were sufficiently developed that he probably could fly.

The owls all were elsewhere by the next morning. Normally I would not share information about owls in this way, but at this point in the season they are so good at staying out of sight that it would be a waste of time for anyone to attempt to find them in St. James Farm’s large forest.

Plenty of noteworthy observations added to my knowledge of the preserve’s flora and fauna. For instance, I found a white river crayfish on the lawn near one of the ponds.

White river crayfish

I got a more detailed list of first flower dates this year, thanks to my frequent visits.

Butterweed pops up in widely scattered open areas of the forest.

This was a cold spring, and first flower dates in May were a median 8 days later than in earlier years of my records. A highlight of the season is the blooming of blackhaw, St. James Farm’s dominant understory shrub.

Though some blackhaws mistakenly were cut last winter by some inexperienced seasonal employees, that was in a limited part of the forest, and even there some were missed, as shown here.

The cut ones will resprout, and the restoration clearing of the forest has been followed by places with bunches of small blackhaws, like this one.

It was an enjoyable season, but now my attention shifts to singing insects. Spring field crickets and green-striped grasshoppers are singing, and periodical cicadas have begun to emerge in some open residential areas.

Periodical Cicadas’ 2020 Emergence

by Carl Strang

In the previous post I outlined the history of DuPage County’s periodical cicadas. Part of that story remains to be told, and this next month will reveal much.

Newly emerged periodical cicadas

Huge numbers of our two species of periodical cicadas emerge every 17 years. The last major emergence was in the spring of 2007, so the next one will be in 2024. At least as far back as 1969, however, there has been a significant appearance of the cicadas four years early. This has happened every cycle since, in 1986 and in 2003. Will 2020 bring another instance?

This phenomenon first was noted by Henry S. Dybas, a biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He invited observers to report locations where the cicadas were emerging in 1969. Illinois extension entomologist Phil Nixon followed suit in the next two cycles. These generally were not quantitative records, however, and no one noticed whether the cicadas were reproducing.

Towns where periodical cicadas were reported to Phil Nixon in 2003

As the map shows, most of the locations were in eastern DuPage County, adjacent Cook County, and extending southeast from there to the southern Cook border. I want to repeat this mapping in 2020, with two important modifications: a quantitative aspect, and an effort to document egg-laying. The question that needs to be answered is whether these early emergences are independent of one another. In other words, have they simply represented mistakes by a few individuals each time, emerging after 13 years of development rather than the usual 17? Alternatively, do these cicadas represent a new, splinter population of cicadas whose ancestors emerged four years early at some point, but ever since have reverted to the usual 17-year lifespan and are reproducing each time?

I want to compile site observations with maximum numbers of cicadas observed at each place: counted numbers where they are few, or massed numbers where there are too many to count. Each location also could have one or both species, readily separated by their different-sounding songs. Places with only a few, countable cicadas are worth mapping but have little biological significance, as the insects are munched on by every predator larger than themselves and few if any will survive to mate and lay eggs. The best possibility for an ongoing, separate population will be in places, if there are any, where massed numbers locally overwhelm the predators so that significant reproduction can happen. This is where observations of mating and especially egg laying are important.

Cassin’s 17-year cicadas mating. The area between the red compound eye and the base of the wing is all black in this species. In the slightly larger Linnaeus’s 17-year cicada there is an orange line connecting the eye and the wing.

This female is laying eggs. You can just see the ovipositor that has levered out from her abdomen and is piercing the twig.

The cicadas produce visible rows of slits on the undersides of twigs when laying eggs. This often kills the twig, so that leaves beyond the oviposition site turn brown.

I welcome shared observations to help me in this process. Already in April the nymphs have begun to tunnel to the surface. I suspect this allows them to monitor conditions aboveground so that they can know when best to emerge. Cicadas should begin singing in mid- to late May and continue through much of June, peaking in the first half of June. Location information to report is town plus nearest intersection of streets (or name of park or preserve if relevant). The Cassin’s 17-year cicada song is a rapidly clicking buzz that rises and falls, as with the single individual in this recording:

The Linnaeus’s 17-year cicada song is more of a tone rather than a buzz, starting high and descending, often rendered “pharaoh.” The next recording is of massed songs of Linnaeus’s periodical cicada. I don’t have a good recording of a single cicada singing:

Finally, here is what massed songs of both periodical cicada species together sound like:

Sound recordings and photos will be helpful, especially photos of ovipositing individuals and of twigs with egg damage. Naturally I will be making as many observations as possible myself and will follow up reports of massed cicadas. You can either send me information by e-mail to wildlifer@aol.com, or post your observations on the Insects and Spiders of Illinois Facebook page.

Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 3: Changes Over Time

by Carl Strang

Some of the formalism developed by landscape ecologists clarifies the current status of our singing insects and their prospects for survival. From the standpoint of a given species, the landscape is viewed as patches of habitat imbedded within a matrix of non-habitat. If that matrix is hostile to the species, the habitat edge is a “hard boundary,” and unless the species is good at dispersing long distances, they will be confined to their habitat island. To different degrees that extreme may not be met if there are steppingstones or corridors that can act as acceptable temporary refuges for dispersing individuals. I suspect that such is the case with pine tree crickets, for example. These habitat specialists are common in conifer groves across the region, many of which seem too isolated for such a small, specialized insect to cross the intervening distances. Nancy Collins, a Wisconsin specialist on the subfamily, has noticed that pine tree cricket nymphs can live, at least temporarily, in non-conifer, herbaceous habitats. Edges of conifer groves thus are not hard boundaries for pine tree crickets. In other cases, river corridors and highway rights-of-way can serve as travel lanes. Thus, the little-known dispersal abilities of our various species are key to understanding their status.

Pine tree cricket

In some of the crickets and katydids which normally are short-winged and flightless, long-winged morphs occasionally appear. Roesel’s katydid, mentioned in the previous post, essentially is never long-winged in its native Europe, but commonly is so here, where the species is expanding its range. There is a tradeoff in play for such species. Long-winged variants are good dispersers, but their fecundity is reduced.

Roesel’s katydid, long-winged variant

Dispersal also can be facilitated by humans. I have seen examples, with Japanese burrowing crickets and jumping bush crickets, of individuals and small groups showing up far ahead of the front of their range expansion, in places where landscape materials are stored or sold.

Mate finding motivates some movement by singing insects. The females in general must travel to meet up with singing males. The males themselves also may need to change their position. In DuPage County, where swamp cicadas are relatively few and scattered, I have observed males frequently changing position between songs by tens of meters at a time. An Iowa study (Shaw, Bitzer and North 1982) found that sword-bearing coneheads shifted position an average of 6.2m between nights, but otherwise remained associated with their group of other males.

Swamp cicada

The singing insects whose habitat needs are met by landscape alterations for agriculture and residential areas are the abundant, widespread ones. They are easily picked out by the large number of sites marked on their maps in my singing insects guide. Dispersal is relatively easy for them as there are large habitat blocks well connected by amenable corridors. Even they can suffer local extinction as land is cleared of vegetation for buildings or roadways. As new vegetation grows into such places, the weedy species are quick to re-establish themselves, but this underlines the dynamism of the habitat patch mosaic.

Of greater interest, and greater concern, are those species whose needs are not met by human-created habitats. Here the habitat patches are only a small percentage of the landscape, and elements of patch size, patch isolation, and insect dispersal ability become critical to understanding. Theory suggests that when a habitat falls below 10-20% of the landscape, dispersal ability is expected to drop dramatically in the absence of viable corridors or steppingstones; such is certainly the case for many of our habitat specialists. A few species anecdotally are good dispersers. I have reports, or have seen myself, instances of slender meadow katydids and long-tailed meadow katydids showing up in locations remote from their respective habitats. These individuals were unusual among the small meadow katydids in being long-winged morphs; most cannot fly.

Slender meadow katydid

Patch isolation in some cases is such that successful dispersal is impossible. Distances among the few surviving sphagnum bogs, for example, are too great to be crossed by sphagnum ground crickets. Prairie cicadas can fly, but apparently are disinclined to do so far enough to matter. At one of their sites, the West Chicago Prairie in DuPage County, they remain confined to one area of mixed grasses and forbs. They have not crossed the 350 meters of grasses, small shrubs and wetlands that separate them from a similar area within the same preserve. So far, their populations have persisted in remnant prairies ranging from 1 to a few acres. Can such small populations survive long term?

Prairie cicada

That question raises another concept from landscape ecology: extinction debt. This is the idea that a species’ habitat may have been so reduced that it still may be present but is doomed to fade away to extinction because its numbers are inadequate to maintain reproductive viability. Such may or may not be the case for prairie cicadas. I suspect this is what happened to northern wood crickets (NWC) in the region. NWC were known from two forested areas in northern Indiana at the beginning of the 20th Century (Blatchley 1903). One of these was in Marshall County. Years ago I used the original survey notes and county soil map to reconstruct the presettlement landscape of the township in question.

Presettlement map of Union Township, Marshall County, Indiana. Mesic forest was the large green area east of Lake Maxinkuckee.

Blatchley found NWC in the area of mesic forest which, in 1834, was very large. By the end of the 19th century agricultural clearing would have been well under way, and today only a tiny portion of that forest remains, the rest having been converted to pasture and crops. The same is true of forested areas in Lake County, Indiana, the other area where NWC lived in the late 1800’s. Though fragments of the forests where Blatchley found NWC remain, the crickets are gone, and I have checked all the other relatively large forests in the region without finding them. This raises the disturbing question: how many other species presently in the Chicago region are in a state of extinction debt? Patch size needed to maintain a species is dependent upon the characteristics of the species, its population dynamics, and patch quality. These are unknowns for all the uncommon species.

Our two species are Linnaeus’s 17-year cicada, on the left, and Cassin’s 17-year cicada, on the right

I will close this section with a case study on the periodical cicadas in DuPage County. In pre-settlement times the county was, from the cicadas’ perspective, a matrix of prairies and wetlands with 18 forested areas of various sizes scattered throughout. Historical maps and aerial photos allowed me to trace changes in those forests from the early 19th Century to the present day. I measured the forest sizes, noting their smallest (bottleneck) extents and how those were reflected in the presence of periodical cicada choruses in the 2007 emergence. There was a clear threshold of local extinction: forests which had remained above 61ha (hectares) still had cicadas, those which had fallen below 52ha did not, even when they had grown larger subsequently. Old newspaper accounts placed cicadas in at least some of these. Three forests which fell between those sizes appeared to have been affected by isolation, a remote one lacking cicadas, and two near persisting populations having them. The human history peculiar to the county is important here. DuPage County is immediately west of Chicago. The western half of the county quickly became agricultural, with forests cut back to make room for fields and pastures. Forests lacking cicadas in 2007 were mainly in the west. The eastern half developed residential commuter communities, with forests being protected and expanded as people planted trees around their homes. The largest area with cicada choruses in 2007 was lobular in shape, the various lobes following the routes of commuter-serving railways and the towns that expanded along them, connecting several of the pre-settlement forest locations. When the cicada choruses reached their peak in the first half of June, numbers of the insects suddenly appeared in flight, crossing over highways and other hostile environments. Subsequently, small groups showed up in places remote from the concentration areas. Whether these will result in significant expansion of the species in the county remains to be seen, but this observation supports the notion that competition and population pressure produce responses by the cicadas. They have the advantages of stronger flight capabilities and better vision than other singing insect groups.

Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 2: Human Influences

by Carl Strang

The previous post illustrated that the Chicago region has been a dynamically changing landscape through the recent millennia, but that now is overshadowed by the alterations our own species has made. Burgeoning human numbers have overwhelmed the planet’s ecosystems, and the native habitats described earlier mostly have been replaced by agriculture and urban growth in the Chicago region. One of the more dramatic changes is the loss of the Kankakee wetland, once described as the Everglades of the North. That vast wetland was drained for agriculture, and only a few pockets of it survive in preserves. Much of the Kankakee River in Indiana is now a straight channel with constructed high levee banks. Other smaller wetlands received similar treatment, with drainage ditches spreading across the agricultural portion of the region. This is not universally devastating to wetland species. Northern mole crickets, for instance, occasionally can be found along drainage ditches.

Drainage ditch, upper reaches of the Kankakee River, St. Joseph County, Indiana. Note farm fields on both sides.

Prairie mostly has been replaced by agricultural fields, and fire suppression has led to its invasion by woody plants. Specialists such as the prairie meadow katydid, prairie cicada and short-winged toothpick grasshopper are hard to find.

Prairie meadow katydid

My singing insects research has required a lot of driving to reach the relatively tiny surviving preserves and parks to which many of the species are now restricted. Much management effort is required in these little islands to maintain their habitats. There are exceptions, of course. Many other species have thrived under our influence. These are mainly weedy ones such as the striped ground cricket, short-winged meadow katydid and Carolina grasshopper, which do well in disturbed habitats, along with woodland edge species such as the greater angle-wing, snowy tree cricket, and jumping bush cricket, which can meet their needs in residential neighborhoods dominated by lawns and scattered trees and shrubs.

Jumping bush cricket

Habitat destruction is not the only human influence. Climate change is the probable cause of northward range expansions by several singing insect species, and it likely will lead to the extinction of the sphagnum ground cricket from the region as the sphagnum bogs dry up. Say’s cicada and some northern grasshoppers already appear to be pushed out.

Sphagnum ground cricket

Climate change isn’t simply a matter of rising temperatures, as the term “global warming” may seem to imply. Global warming is an accurate enough term, as the simplest way to measure climate change is to track the global average temperature. But the point is that our changes to the Earth’s thin skin of atmosphere are increasing its held solar energy. That energy alters patterns of atmospheric flow and the behavior of storms. Droughts, more frequent flood-causing rains, and seasonal increases or decreases in temperature that seem abnormal are examples of results we observe locally. The singing insects are forced to adjust as best they can. Droughts force sphagnum ground crickets into the wettest parts of their bogs. The severe drought of 2012 concentrated wetland meadow katydids and marsh coneheads into the small portions of the Great Marsh in the Indiana Dunes National Park that remained wet. Oblong-winged meadow katydids may be pre-adapted to such year-to-year variability. Blatchley (1920) observed that their eggs, laid in moist soil, can take 2-3 years to hatch. In my travels through the region I failed to hear a single individual in the years 2010 and 2019, but in other years they have been abundant and widespread. Some of the cicadas and other species may have similar flexibilities.

Oblong-winged katydid

People also have introduced plant species from other parts of the world which, released from the consumers and competitors which hold them in check in their native lands, have become invasive plants here. Their unfair competitive advantage has led to their displacing the region’s native vegetation in an increasing number of places. This is most evident in our wetlands. Wetland meadow katydids and other singing insects are limited to places where native wetland grasses have not been supplanted by reed canary grass, common reed, purple loosestrife, and hybrid cattails. These invasive plants are proving difficult to control, and the outlook is not good for species such as the dusky-faced meadow katydid and marsh conehead. To my knowledge the once relatively widespread stripe-faced meadow katydid now is confined to a single site, and the slender conehead, never known from many locations, apparently is gone from the region.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Introductions have not been limited to plants. Several species of singing insects also have been imported. Roesel’s katydid is the most common of these in our region. A European predaceous katydid, Roesel’s was introduced to the Montreal, Quebec, area several decades ago and expanded from there. They occur in open habitats with tall herbaceous vegetation throughout the Chicago region. Japanese burrowing crickets are thought to have arrived at the port of Mobile and spread out from there. They are abundant as far north as Indianapolis, and common in Rensselaer in the southern part of our region. With scattered new appearances each year occurring as far north as DuPage County in Illinois, so far, I expect them to become widespread and abundant here. The tropical house cricket represents the possibility of other, short-term introductions that are unlikely to persist in our climate.

Roesel’s katydid

Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 1: Glacial Influences

by Carl Strang

One of my winter projects has been to write new sections for my singing insects guide which go into ecological topics. This was inspired by my reading a newly published textbook on landscape ecology (With, Kimberly A. 2019. Essentials of landscape ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. 641 pp). In the next few posts I will share parts of the added sections. Today’s focus is the impact of the last continental glacier on the landscape and selected insect species:

Though the focus in most of this guide is on the individual species of singing insects, the field of landscape ecology provides a framework of broader patterns and questions for which the ecologically diverse singing insects provide a suitable lens.

Landscape ecology considers geographical patterns and dynamics of their change across time. Any complete biological understanding of the Chicago region must include not only what is here now but also how it got that way. Fortunately, we don’t have to go back too far geologically speaking, as our landscape is less than 20,000 years old. Three major lobes of the most recent continental glacier flowed down from the North and scoured our region’s bedrock, then began their final retreat around 18,000 years ago. As the glacier melted, with occasional periods of stalling when the push from the North was balanced by melting at the edge, it left behind a variably deep layer of various kinds of deposits. The topography was more elevated in the morainal arcs where the melt was stalled for a time, lower and flatter when the melt-back was more uniform and rapid. Occasional pocks formed where blocks of glacial ice were buried and later melted, resulting in small lakes, bogs and other wetlands. Our rivers had their start as glacial meltwater drainage streams. The Lake Michigan Lobe of the glacier picked up and crushed the softer shale from the bottom of what was to become that lake, so it left behind deposits heavy in clay west and southwest of the lake. When glacial crunching and meltwater eroded harder igneous and metamorphic rocks the ice had transported from Canada, gravel and sand resulted. Quartz sand, the most erosion-resistant component of such rocks, accumulated especially around the edge of Lake Michigan and the tributaries of the Kankakee River, which started as a glacial meltwater drainage stream originating in the part of the region covered by the glacier’s Saginaw Lobe.

This glacial history impacted our singing insect fauna in various ways. Some species require, or at least are only abundant, on sandy soils. These include the green-winged and northern dusk-singing cicadas, whose nymphs live on buried plant roots, and some of the grasshoppers, for which the sandy substrate for egg-laying and/or a poor-soil plant community is an important habitat component. A couple of species, the gray ground cricket and the seaside grasshopper, are limited to the beaches and dunes around the Lake Michigan edge.

The beaches at different points on the Lake Michigan shore have different compositions, resulting in selection for different colors in the seaside grasshopper. Here, at Illinois Beach State Park, there is a greater mix of different colors of ground igneous and metamorphic rocks.

The beaches of the Indiana Dunes are a more uniform quartz sand. Here, two seaside grasshoppers (same species as in the previous picture) would be nearly invisible if they were not flashing their inner femur colors at one another.

Kames are gravel hills formed by waterfalls within the melting glacier, and they provide a well-drained substrate. Isolated populations of sulfur-winged grasshoppers and tinkling ground crickets live on a kame in the Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in northern Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Exposed gravel on part of the kame at Lulu Lake.

All species were pushed south by the glacier, surviving in what is now the southern U.S. and being influenced by selective forces then and during the advance north as the climate moderated and plant communities spread back over the barren glacial deposits. Most of our familiar prairie and forest plant species were restricted to rather small refuges in the South during the glacial maximum, though oaks and hickories occupied a large part of the southern U.S.

Black oak savanna, Kankakee County

As the glacier melted back, open sedge tundra with some black spruce trees invaded first, then white spruces filled in to form a recognizable northern coniferous forest until around 15,000 years ago. By around 12,000 years ago most of our landscape was a mix of deciduous species, including woodlands with lots of oaks. Beginning around 10,000 years ago there was a drying period, which led to the spread of prairie through our area. The prairie then retreated as the climate became wetter, so that by 6200 years ago the western part of our region was a prairie with islands of woodlands and wetlands, grading to forest in the eastern part. This reflects a gradient of increasing moisture from west to east, mediated by the flow of wet air circulating north from the Gulf of Mexico. The drier prairies were maintained by fires which frequently knocked back woody plants that otherwise would have converted even the western part of the region into woodlands. The wooded islands within the prairie were not randomly located, but survived where rivers, other wetlands, and topographic breaks shielded certain spots from prairie fires pushed by the prevailing westerly winds. The upshot for our singing insects is a diverse landscape that to this day contains species specializing in prairie, woodland and various wetland habitats, as well as some that thrive around the edges between habitat types. A few species may be relicts of earlier changes in this history. For instance, the delicate meadow katydid, now apparently extinct in the region, is abundant in prairies to the west and probably accompanied the prairie advance. By the early 20th Century it was known in a very few scattered locations. I have not been able to find it anywhere in the present day.

Delicate meadow katydid females have longer ovipositors than their close relatives.

Latitudinal Gradient

by Carl Strang

One of the classical challenges of community ecology is the latitudinal gradient of species diversity, species counts diminishing from the tropics to the poles. The observation is easy to make and applies across practically the entire range of species groups. Many theories have been proposed to account for this pattern, and probably some combination of factors is at play. It never had occurred to me to see whether the gradient applies across the relatively narrow latitude range of my Chicago region survey area for singing insects.

One addition to the next edition of my regional species guide will be an expanded introductory section on range extensions, along with new sections on landscape ecology and community ecology. As I drafted that material, it occurred to me that I might check for latitudinal changes in species counts.

It turns out that the pattern appears in the region’s 6 rows of counties. From south to north, median species numbers are 60, 60.5, 57, 53, 44.5 and 43.

St. James Farm Update

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have written about St. James Farm, where I volunteer as forest steward and monitor. There has not been a lot to report, in part because foot problems have limited my monitoring activity.

Going back to last fall, I noted that the patches of invasive goutweed where we dumped garlic mustard showed a difference. One patch, which had not been hit by herbicide in the spring, pushed its way through the mounds of wilting garlic mustard and was barely slowed.

Other patches like this one, which forest preserve district staff had sprayed earlier in the spring, appeared to be inhibited further by the dumps.

I noted that goutweed does not maintain winter rosettes, but withdraws nutrients into the roots and shuts down the leaves, growing new ones in the spring. This coming fall I plan to hit experimental patches of goutweed with herbicide, with the idea that I might find an optimal time when the poison, drawn down along with the conserved nutrients, will do the most damage to those invasive plants.

Through the winter I took series of monitoring walks twice a month. There was little that was new.

Predators took their tithe, in this case pulled feathers spoke of a male eastern bluebird caught by a raptor.

This buck was one of a group of three that occupied the western part of the forest through the winter.

Though I cut back on monitoring efforts, Wednesday morning restoration activity continued. Our focus through the winter consisted of cutting and stacking common buckthorn, then burning the piles.

Our earlier cutting accumulated 17 piles like this.

Burning them leaves relatively small scars, but the soil is sterilized. I will be interested in seeing what plants invade these little spaces.

Already we have built several new piles. There won’t be enough snow to allow any more burning now, but by next winter there will be plenty to torch.

My feet are under treatment, and I expect to return to full activity soon.

 

Where There’s Smoke

by Carl Strang

Mid-November brought forest preserve district crews to St. James Farm to conduct controlled burns in the forest. These burns are a normal part of oak woodland ecology in northeastern Illinois, and they help control invasive plants. Occasionally the consequences of the burn extend beyond the brief time when the flames consume the dry leaf litter on the ground, and I noted two such incidents this time around.

Carpenter ants commonly hollow out the base of a tree as they tunnel through the dead wood at the core. If the accumulated sawdust catches a spark from the controlled burn, a slow growing smoldering coal can expand to the point where it consumes a significant amount of the remaining wood.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

There had been a larger live stem, and a smaller dead stem (the fractured one in the photo) where the nest had been. The live stem’s base was thinned by the growing coal to the point where it went down, taking the nest stem with it.

The same burn had the remarkable effect of catching in another tree, already knocked down by a storm, which then smoldered for weeks.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

At that point, however, the coal was no longer sheltered. When I returned on the 16th, I found the fire had gone out. It had lasted nearly a month.

 

Exploring the Interior

by Carl Strang

Now that the leaves are down from the trees and shrubs, I have been exploring the areas between the forest trails at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Those areas are large enough that I cannot cover the forest adequately from the trails. I have found deer runs and old equestrian paths that will provide sufficient access for routine monitoring. Along the way I have found some interesting places. One foggy day I zig-zagged my way through part of the western forest.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

The tree had lost the grip of most of its roots in the soil.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The orientation of the trunk relative to those broken roots suggests that a very strong wind from the west was the culprit.

 The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

Each day in this exploration has brought its own delights.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

So now the stage is set for routine coverage of St. James Farm’s ongoing natural history story.

 

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