Wil’s White Box

by Carl Strang

The leading popular singing insects web page is The Songs of Insects, created by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott. Lisa Rainsong and Wendy Partridge of Cleveland, who study northern Ohio’s singing insects much the same as I do for the Chicago region, are friends of Wil’s, and we planned a week together here to help further Wil’s expansion of the Songs of Insects project. We succeeded in finding a number of new species which ultimately will be added to that website. Along the way Wil showed us a white box, the portable version he invented to get amazing photos.

Here Lisa tries out the setup as a rightly proud Wil coaches.

Here Lisa tries out the setup as a rightly proud Wil coaches.

I got to try it, too.

This was my best shot of a confused ground cricket. Wil’s more elaborate home setup allows him to get even better exposures.

This was my best shot of a confused ground cricket. Wil’s experience allows him to get even better exposures.

My try with a marsh conehead was even more satisfactory.

My try with a marsh conehead was even more satisfactory.

As an ecologist, I philosophically prefer field shots of the insects in habitat, but I am tempted to create a white box of my own. The device certainly highlights the structure and colors of these creatures. Wil published the plans on line.

The Currency I Work in

by Carl Strang

The main focus of my research these days is traveling through the 22 counties of my survey area, seeking the singing insects that live in the Chicago region. I am building on previous years’ work, filling gaps in range maps. The currency I work in thus is county records. There are around 100 species known to have occurred here, and so the maximum total would be 2200 county records. This is not going to be the eventual result, however, because many of the species live only in limited areas within the region. For instance, last week I closed the book on the green-winged cicada.

This distant photo is the best I have so far of a green-winged cicada.

This distant photo is the best I have so far of a green-winged cicada.

I do not expect to find green-winged cicadas beyond the 10 marked counties.

I do not expect to find green-winged cicadas beyond the 10 marked counties.

They occur only in sand soil woodlands within the region. Though other counties have some areas with sand soils, I have searched them and failed to find the species. Their numbers clearly diminish at the periphery of their range. Four of these county records have been from this year.

Other species are widespread, and ultimately I expect to find them in every county. Two early season species now have filled maps as a result of my travels this spring and early summer: Roesel’s katydid, and gladiator meadow katydid.

Roesel’s katydid

Roesel’s katydid

There is learning involved in the process. Some species which historically have occurred in the area I have not yet found. Others I have found once or twice. At some point I become familiar enough with a species that I know how to find it. Then I seek it out in the appropriate habitat in the counties where I haven’t found it. The sulfur-winged grasshopper is an instructive example. This year I made a push to complete the map for this early-season species. Though I ran out of time before the end of its season, I got close.

Updated map for sulfur-winged grasshopper

Updated map for sulfur-winged grasshopper (open circles represent historical records)

Next year I will check sandy sites in two of the counties in Wisconsin, LaPorte County in Indiana, and Berrien County in Michigan. Though I suspect that sulfur-winged grasshoppers occur in every county, they are very few and hard to find away from sand soils. Though my own county of DuPage is marked, it is a clay soil county and over the many years I have lived here I have encountered fewer than 5 sulfur-wings in DuPage.

A final example is the northern bush katydid. I had heard two of these in the early summer of 2007, in woodlands in my county. I had heard none since. But a few days ago I went back to one of those sites and tried listening at night with the SongFinder, a device which reduces the pitch of sounds. Lo and behold, I discovered that Parson’s Grove at Danada Forest Preserve has a lot of northern bush katydids. I hadn’t realized that it was the deterioration of my hearing with age that had prevented my detecting them. Now I anticipate finding them in every county in the region.

So far this year I have accumulated 47 county records. I expect to end up with more than last year’s 174.

Literature Review: Plant-Pollinator Ecology

by Carl Strang

Bombus impatiens queen on red clover flower head

Bombus impatiens queen on red clover flower head

Soon we’ll have flowers blooming and bees buzzing. Here are some studies of interactions between plants and their insect pollinators from last year:

Burkle, Laura A., John C. Marlin, and Tiffany M. Knight. 2013. Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science 339:1611-1615. They studied forest understory pollinators around Carlinville, IL, not far from St. Louis, comparing present-day species to those documented by a researcher in the late 1800’s. They found that 50% of bee species have gone extinct there. Changes have included the conversion of most forest and prairie land to agriculture, and an increase of 2°C in spring and fall temperatures which has resulted in phenological mismatches. Focusing on the interactions of forest floor forbs and bees, they found that only 24% of the original interactions had survived, though this was compensated in part by new ones, “such that the absolute difference of interactions lost was 46%.” All 26 species of forbs have persisted. The lost bees were predominantly specialists, parasites, cavity-nesters and those whose interactions with the plants were weak because of limited phenological overlap. They found a reduction in pollinator visits per flower, and expressed concern about this, about the loss of stabilizing redundancy in the entire network, and the continued weakening of phenology matches.

Rasmussen, C, et al. 2013. Strong impact of temporal resolution on the structure of an ecological network. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81694. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081694    They looked at day-to-day changes in pollinator-plant connections in a Greenland tundra ecosystem, and compared them to the season-wide summary typical of past studies. They found that the difference is significant. Many indirect links between species that had been implied by the static network proved to be impossible in the dynamical ones because the species are active at different points in the season. The nature of generalist vs. specialist species also becomes transformed because of the limited phenological availabilities of the various species. Their methods involved a focus on a 500m x 500m study area, with randomly selected plants (or 5x5cm clusters where individual plants were difficult to separate), observed for 40-minute intervals.

Eggs, B., and D. Sanders 2013. Herbivory in spiders: the importance of pollen for orb-weavers. PLoS ONE 8(11): e82637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082637 They looked at the diets of juveniles in two species of orb-weavers, and found that pollen, ingested when the spiders recycled their webs, made up 25% of their diet. Flying insects (flies and hymenoptera) made up most of the rest. The pollen ingestion was not incidental, as the spiders deliberately use an external digestive process to consume pollen grains too large to be eaten without such treatment. They regard these spiders as omnivores rather than carnivores.

Clarke, Dominic, Heather Whitney, Gregory Sutton, and Daniel Robert. 2013. Detection and learning of floral electric fields by bumblebees. Science 340:66-69. They showed experimentally that bumblebees can read electrical information from flowers. The bees themselves transfer electrons that quickly can change flowers’ electrical fields, so that bees can read which flowers have or have not been visited recently by others. Intrinsic electrical qualities also can be added to color and shape to help bees identify flower species and suitability for visits.

Scouting Fulton and Pulaski

by Carl Strang

When I updated my regional guide to singing insects over the winter, I decided to add range maps. This was a little premature, because I barely have begun the survey work, but I also had sources in the scientific literature to augment my own observations.

Here is a page from the guide. The map shows the counties I decided to include in a region centered in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, but extending a little into Wisconsin and Michigan. Black dots are recent observations, open ones are from the literature, which often goes back more than 5 decades.

Here is a page from the guide. The map shows the counties I decided to include in a region centered in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, but extending a little into Wisconsin and Michigan. Black dots are recent observations, open ones are from the literature, which often goes back more than 5 decades.

Another winter project then became to identify sites in all the counties where I could focus my survey efforts, mainly state parks and other public properties. The plan is to start visiting them this year, noting species I can identify through sight and hearing without collecting. If collecting seems necessary, I can seek permits in a future year, but there will be plenty to do without going to all that trouble yet.

Over the weekend I visited sites in Fulton and Pulaski Counties, Indiana, which are the empty counties in the snowy tree cricket map at the eastern end of the bottom row. In Fulton County I had decided to focus on the area around Lake Manitou at Rochester. This proved to be a good choice, as there appear to be representative habitats of nearly every type.

The Judy Burton state nature preserve, for instance, has extensive meadows undergoing prairie restoration, and woodlands, all with maintained trails.

The Judy Burton state nature preserve, for instance, has extensive meadows undergoing prairie restoration, and woodlands, all with maintained trails.

It is early in the season, but I was able to add county records for the green-striped grasshopper and spring trig.

Pulaski County boasts the Tippecanoe River State Park and Winamac Fish and Wildlife Area. The state park is almost entirely forested, so I didn’t spend much time there (early singing insect action is in the meadows and prairies), but it will be great later in the year. The fish and wildlife area has a more diverse array of habitats.

This weedy field had many displaying green-striped grasshoppers and a few spring field crickets, both of which I now can add to the maps.

This weedy field had many displaying green-striped grasshoppers and a few spring field crickets, both of which I now can add to the maps.

This grasshopper, photographed in the above field, appears to be a species of Melanoplus, and so not a singing insect.

This grasshopper, photographed in the above field, appears to be a species of Melanoplus, and so not a singing insect.

As time permits, I will be returning to these areas later in the season. I am looking forward to making the acquaintance of many places in the region’s other counties, as well.

Garter Snake Spotting

by Carl Strang

From time to time I encounter Chicago garter snakes (our local version of the eastern garter snake) at Mayslake Forest Preserve. When I do, I attempt to get good photos. I would like to see if individuals can be distinguished by details of their color pattern. I had good success with this at Fullersburg Woods with fawns, at least until their spots faded. Here is a photo from June 5.

The snake chose to leave before I could get a clearer look than this.

The snake chose to leave before I could get a clearer look than this.

In my files were photos of two other encounters in past years. One of these clearly had a different pattern.

This individual was photographed in 2010. Eight columns of pale scales separate the back of the head from the first dark spot that interrupts the side stripe. That number is only 5 or 6 in the first photo.

This individual was photographed in 2010. Eight columns of pale scales separate the back of the head from the first dark spot that interrupts the side stripe. That number is only 5 or 6 in the first photo.

The final snake, from last year, was more like this month’s individual.

The separation is five columns in this one.

The separation is five columns in this one.

Nevertheless, the two color patterns are different. Check out the small dark stripe, between the head and that first spot, at the boundary of the belly scutes and the side scales. That stripe is confined to the upper edges of the belly scutes in the 2012 snake, except for one little spot. In this year’s individual that stripe extends onto the lower halves of three adjacent side scales.

The color patterns are distinct in these three photos. They only are valid individual markers, though, if they do not change over time. I don’t know if such is the case.

Connor Prairie Bioblitz

by Carl Strang

Each year a bioblitz takes place somewhere in the state of Indiana. Last year I participated for the first time when the Kankakee Sands nature preserve was the location. This year it was at Connor Prairie, a historic interpretive park just north of Indianapolis.

Entrance to Connor Prairie Visitor Center

Entrance to Connor Prairie Visitor Center

It wasn’t all bioblitz. The usual history interpretation was taking place over the weekend.

The barn in the Connor homestead

The barn in the Connor homestead

A tethered balloon ride, providing an elevated overview of the area, is billed as a 19th Century attraction.

A tethered balloon ride, providing an elevated overview of the area, is billed as a 19th Century attraction.

The park invested considerable support for the bioblitz, a 24-hour hunt for as many species as participating scientists could find on the property.

Connor Prairie volunteers provided a wide range of bioblitz related activities.

Connor Prairie volunteers provided a wide range of bioblitz related activities.

Outside exhibitors added enriching educational experiences.

 Introducing children to the world of biodiversity is an important part of a public bioblitz.

Introducing children to the world of biodiversity is an important part of a public bioblitz.

The scientists also were interested in teaching.

A presentation on bats by scientists from Ball State University

A presentation on bats by scientists from Ball State University

Scientists were encouraged to do their work where people could look over their shoulders.

Purdue University entomologists identify beetles. Participating scientists enjoyed sharing their finds with interested members of the public.

Purdue University entomologists identify beetles. Participating scientists enjoyed sharing their finds with interested members of the public.

Tomorrow I’ll share some of what I found at Connor Prairie.

Time Lapse

by Carl Strang

Earlier this week, Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey presented a new idea for crowd-sourced monitoring of environmental change over time. The idea is to set up a standardized station, or set of them, from which photos could be taken with any camera or camera phone. The shared photos then could be standardized as Sam describes, resulting in a series comparing the scene over the seasons and years. (This is not the first time one of Sam’s ideas has appeared in this blog; I featured the Cricket Crawl a while back).

The photo station idea intrigued Jon Marshall of DJ Case & Associates (developers of the Observe Your Preserve website for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, as well as other web-based platforms for natural resource agencies).  Jon put together a website promoting Sam’s idea, including his 3-minute descriptive video (http://monitorchange.org/). We will consider the possibilities for OYP as well.

All of this reminded me of several series of photos I took back in the 1980’s, in which I had spots identified on the ground in prairie, woodland and stream habitats, and took photos through the seasons. The slides belonged to the District, but so far I have been unsuccessful in locating them, except for five duplicates I had at home.

The old dam at Waterfall Glen in August 1984.

The old dam at Waterfall Glen in August 1984.

The same scene in December of that year.

The same scene in December of that year.

Farther downstream on Sawmill Creek in August.

Farther downstream on Sawmill Creek in August.

The same scene in November. Rocks and drift logs in the streambed are largely unchanged, in contrast with the vegetation.

The same scene in November. Rocks and drift logs in the streambed are largely unchanged, in contrast with the vegetation.

Measuring Marsh Recovery

by Carl Strang

Now that Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh is full of water again after several months’ drying out, I am curious as to how fast its animal community will recover. Apart from simply observing what I can on the surface (waterfowl have been back, and last week there were a muskrat and a few singing western chorus frogs), my best tool is the amphibian trap.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Five traps placed around the marsh produced nothing for two days, and were absolutely clean, suggesting little or no activity around them. The third day brought the first capture.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

I don’t believe this species could survive the marsh drying out, so this individual probably was a recent immigrant from the nearby stream.

Friday was the big day, however. The first three traps I checked were empty, but in the fourth I found these:

Five tiger salamanders.

Five tiger salamanders.

Prior to that moment, in two springs of trapping I had caught a grand total of one salamander. But that wasn’t all.

The final trap held two more.

The final trap held two more.

Most of these appeared to be males, but at least one appeared to be a female (proportionately shorter tail, with less tail fin, and much less swelling around the genital area). Furthermore, none of them had spot patterns matching the one I caught last year. With predatory insects diminished, this would seem to be a promising year for tadpole survival. A final observation as I released them was that they swim by folding their limbs against their bodies and propelling themselves entirely with their tails. This is interesting, given that they move about their terrestrial tunnels all the rest of the year with their legs.

Why this sudden success? Looking back, I suspect that in previous years I may have put the traps out too late, and the salamanders were done and gone. This year I got the traps out within days of the last ice melting away.

Literature Review: Citizen Science

by Carl Strang

This week’s citation focuses on a topic close to the center of this blog’s overall theme of “citizen science.”

Fontaine B, van Achterberg K, Alonso-Zarazaga MA, Araujo R, Asche M, et al. (2012) New Species in the Old World: Europe as a Frontier in Biodiversity Exploration, a Test Bed for 21st Century Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36881. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036881  Though new species are being described at the greatest rate in the tropics, an average of 770 new species per year still are being described from Europe. There is a significant citizen science component to this, as 60% of the descriptions are contributed by amateurs.

While it’s true that I hold a Ph.D., like many people with that degree I think of it as something that I did rather than something that I am. My major research interest in recent years has been entomological: singing insects. I have no credentials in entomology, as my degrees are in vertebrate ecology and behavior. But there’s a place for such work, if only for the enrichment of the person conducting it.

I find satisfaction in being the one person tracking the jumping bush cricket’s range expansion in northeast Illinois, for instance.

I find satisfaction in being the one person tracking the jumping bush cricket’s range expansion in northeast Illinois, for instance.

There is a world full of discoveries waiting to be made, and not nearly enough scientists to make them. Science is something one does, not something one is.

Mourning Dove Post Mortem

by Carl Strang

Last week I found a pile of feathers beside the trail at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The distinctive tail feathers indicated that the prey was a mourning dove.

The distinctive tail feathers indicated that the prey was a mourning dove.

At first I was inclined to think the predator was mammalian. A raptor plucking its dinner from an elevated perch would scatter the feathers more widely. The feathers were pulled cleanly, however, and without the tooth marks and salivary gumming up of barbs that might accompany a mammal’s work. Furthermore, there was no blood and there were no bones.

One of the quill feathers showed a distinct cut or crease across the barbs.

One of the quill feathers showed a distinct cut or crease across the barbs.

That kind of mark could have been made by the edge of a raptor’s bill, biting the feather to pull it out. I compared the crease to a great horned owl skull, and the match was perfect, furthermore pointing precisely to a less visible mark made closer to the feather’s attachment point by the other bill edge. The location of the feather pile was well within the woods, and not far from a favorite daytime roost of the local owls. It appears that after removing a bunch of feathers, the owl carried its meal to a more secure, elevated location.

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