Shaking Out the Photo Bag

by Carl Strang

Before I get going on a new series of posts, I want to share a few photos that didn’t fit into last year’s topics.

This seemed to be a good year for gray treefrogs across the region. I frequently ran into small ones.

Gray treefrogs can change colors, making themselves green to blend in.

For some reason, they often rested on milkweed leaves.

It was a good year of singing insect field work. Plenty of questions remain unanswered.

One of the smaller ones was the identity of this grasshopper nymph at the Indiana Kankakee Sands. My best guess is sprinkled grasshopper, which I found there in adult form later in the season.

An interesting observation in the Tefft Savanna Nature Preserve (within Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area) was that short-winged green grasshoppers (Dichromorpha viridis) were the usual green color in wetlands but were brown in the savannas.

A mating pair of brown variants.

Late in the season I visited my friends Lisa Rainsong and Wendy Partridge, who live in the Cleveland suburbs. One goal was to see jumping bush crickets out in the foliage and branches of trees and shrubs. In the Chicago region they almost always stick to the trunks of trees and are difficult to see.

Sure enough, within a few minutes of searching I found a singing male in a bush.

They have an odd angular appearance, as though roughly carved from wood.

That’s it for now. Soon I will share results of a productive winter project.

Ecoblitz Continued

by Carl Strang

The Indiana Forest Alliance, a non-profit conservation organization, has been sponsoring a species survey in portions of two state forests in southern Indiana. As it consists of repeated weekend sessions over a period of years, they are calling it an “ecoblitz” rather than a bioblitz, which is a one-time event limited to a 24- or 48-hour time span. I went down for a weekend last fall, and returned in early August to complete the singing insects portion of the survey.

The area is forested, except for some small areas of tall, dense herbaceous growth in stream bottoms. The singing insect fauna consequently is mainly of forest species.

Confused ground crickets were common on the forest floor.

Confused ground crickets were common on the forest floor.

Say’s trigs by the hundreds sang in the open herbaceous areas.

Say’s trigs by the hundreds sang in the open herbaceous areas.

Widely scattered small groups of rattler round-winged katydids could be heard at night.

Widely scattered small groups of rattler round-winged katydids could be heard at night.

This nymph is recognizable as a male fork-tailed bush katydid by the distinctive appendages at the tip of his abdomen.

This nymph is recognizable as a male fork-tailed bush katydid by the distinctive appendages at the tip of his abdomen.

Some of the other species that sang for us were swamp cicadas, Nebraska coneheads, lesser angle-wing katydids, jumping bush crickets and common true katydids.

I also helped with photography at a night-time moth survey at illuminated sheets.

This small-eyed sphinx was one of the two hummingbird moths we attracted.

This small-eyed sphinx was one of the two hummingbird moths we attracted.

A blinded sphinx also dropped in.

A blinded sphinx also dropped in.

A grape leaffolder

A grape leaffolder

This lesser grapevine looper appears to be sending out pheromone.

This lesser grapevine looper appears to be sending out pheromone.

A Cope’s gray treefrog hopped in, possibly sensing the smorgasbord we had created.

A Cope’s gray treefrog hopped in, possibly sensing the smorgasbord we had created.

 

Recent Travels: Places

by Carl Strang

I have fallen behind on blog posts. The season is heating up, and I have kept busy doing various surveys in various places. Today’s start on catching up will focus on some scenes and miscellaneous photos taken along the way.

The Marquette Trail at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore passes beautiful marsh and sand savanna habitats.

The Marquette Trail at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore passes beautiful marsh and sand savanna habitats.

I found northern wood crickets singing along the trail. They bury themselves in leaf litter like this.

I found northern wood crickets singing along the trail. They bury themselves in leaf litter like this.

Another example of a wood cricket song site. I tried to get a look at one, but they choose deeply stacked litter areas with plenty of hidey holes and escape routes.

Another example of a wood cricket song site. I tried to get a look at one, but they choose deeply stacked litter areas with plenty of hidey holes and escape routes.

Painted turtles wandered the savanna seeking good places to lay their eggs.

Painted turtles wandered the savanna seeking good places to lay their eggs.

Another good sand area is Illinois Beach State Park. Here a trail goes through the zone behind the fore dunes.

Another good sand area is Illinois Beach State Park. Here a trail goes through the zone behind the fore dunes.

Farther back from the edge of Lake Michigan, black oak savanna lines the trail.

Farther back from the edge of Lake Michigan, black oak savanna lines the trail.

Though my main interest was singing insects, there were many four-spotted skimmers to enjoy at IBSP.

Though my main interest was singing insects, there were many four-spotted skimmers to enjoy at IBSP.

I also have spent some time in Kendall County. This plains clubtail was at Hoover Forest Preserve.

I also have spent some time in Kendall County. This plains clubtail was at Hoover Forest Preserve.

This year’s Indiana Academy of Sciences bioblitz was at Goose Pond in southern Indiana. I stopped on the way down for a walk at Turkey Run State Park. Ravines there provide many scenes like this.

This year’s Indiana Academy of Sciences bioblitz was at Goose Pond in southern Indiana. I stopped on the way down for a walk at Turkey Run State Park. Ravines there provide many scenes like this.

I didn’t end up taking any scenery shots at Goose Pond. As I was setting up the UV light, I found this mama spider crossing the road, her back covered with babies. All their eyes glittered like jewels in the headlamp.

I didn’t end up taking any scenery shots at Goose Pond. As I was setting up the UV light, I found this mama spider crossing the road, her back covered with babies. All their eyes glittered like jewels in the headlamp.

SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

Christmas, North Carolina

by Carl Strang

My brother Gary and his wife Lisa have moved from the Eastern Shore of Maryland down to coastal North Carolina, and I joined them there for the week around Christmas. Most of our time went into unpacking and some yard work, but there were plenty of moments to explore the surroundings.

One corner of their property extends into a swamp complete with bald cypress “knees.”

One corner of their property extends into a swamp complete with bald cypress “knees.”

Some of the trees also have the iconic southern epiphyte, Spanish moss.

The most charming critter award went to the anoles that climbed the walls, shrubs and yard furniture.

It’s easy to project lots of personality into these little lizards.

It’s easy to project lots of personality into these little lizards.

Most were wearing their basic brown.

Most were wearing their basic brown.

A few switched to green, demonstrating why some call them “chameleons.”

A few switched to green, demonstrating why some call them “chameleons.”

There still were several species of singing insects performing in the unseasonably warm temperatures of those days. I recognized Carolina ground crickets, southern ground crickets (song identical to that of the striped ground cricket of the North), pine tree crickets, and abundant jumping bush crickets. I was left with a mystery, two individuals of a fifth species that sang from lawns after dark. Here is a recording:

Most of the time the spacing between trills was more evenly rhythmic than in this recording.

The recording was made well out in the lawn in front of Gary’s house.

The recording was made well out in the lawn in front of Gary’s house.

I was able to locate the presumed cricket’s position within a few square inches, but unsuccessful in seeing him. He must have been well concealed in a soil crack or tunnel. At first I thought, from the sound and the habitat, that he must be a ground cricket, but his song was louder than most ground crickets and I have never encountered a ground cricket that sings only after dark. A quick review of ground cricket recordings, and those of other likely cricket groups, in the Singing Insects of North America website, failed to turn up a match. If anyone recognizes this, I would appreciate the tip, but it was great to leave North Carolina with a mystery in hand.

 

Who Let the Frog Out?

by Carl Strang

Native wetlands are represented in my little yard by a container water garden.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergents.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergent.

Early this summer I began to notice little sounds and movements when I passed the container. My suspicions were raised, and eventually I was able to spot the little green frog peeking out of the water from time to time. Green frogs are notorious wanderers, and this little guy not only had traveled more than 100 yards from the nearest wetland, he had detected the water in my container, its surface at least a foot above the ground, and had managed to climb up into it. I hadn’t seen the frog in a while, but I decided I had better empty the water garden for winter earlier than I usually do, in case the frog had not wandered on. The first days of the month were relatively warm, so a safe release was possible.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

I scooped him into the bucket.

I scooped him into the bucket.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

A touch to his back end was enough to stimulate a leap into the water. The frog swam vigorously to the center of the stream and burrowed into the soft mud. He should survive OK, but I don’t expect a return to my garden next year.

Springfield Fen with Scott Namestnik

by Carl Strang

Scott Namestnik is one of those wizard botanists who, I suspect, cheat by having built-in DNA barcode reading capability. How else to explain their ability to identify all those nonflowering stages of grasses and sedges, and their encyclopedic knowledge of plants both common and rare? Fortunately Scott, a professional ecological consultant, also is as personable a guy as you will meet, and loves to share his hard-earned knowledge. He agreed to guide me on my first visit to Springfield Fen, a state nature preserve in LaPorte County, Indiana, last week.

Scott contemplates a lesser fringed gentian.

Scott contemplates a lesser fringed gentian.

At this point in the autumn, the fen is beautiful with patches of royal ferns and poison sumac in full fall color.

At this point in the autumn, the fen is beautiful with patches of royal ferns and poison sumac in full fall color.

The fen proved to be unremarkable in the singing insects we found, but there was much to enjoy. The highlight for both of us was neither botanical nor entomological.

It doesn’t look as cuddly in this photo as it did in person, but this massasauga was so small that it didn’t have a rattle on the end of its tail yet.

It doesn’t look as cuddly in this photo as it did in person, but this massasauga was so small that it didn’t have a rattle on the end of its tail yet.

A bulge in the center of its body suggested that a frog or mouse had provided a final pre-hibernation meal for the little rattler. This is a species of concern in every state or province where it occurs.

Another interesting animal was an unfamiliar bumblebee.

The all-black though hairy abdomen, and the all-yellow thorax except for a black spot in the dorsal center, point to Bombus citrinus.

The all-black though hairy abdomen, and the all-yellow thorax except for a black spot in the dorsal center, point to Bombus citrinus.

This is one of the cuckoo bumble bees, placed by some in the separate genus Psithyrus, the females of which take over the nests of typical bumblebees and have the workers raise their young.

Release the Toad!

by Carl Strang

The mansion at Mayslake Forest Preserve is a big building with a big perimeter. Its window wells can be pitfalls for small animals, for instance the skunk rescued by Nikki Dahlin a while back. Its many entrances offer opportunities for small animals to find their way in, as I told a few years ago in the story of the Phantom of the Mansion. Today brings another such story, this one bringing Nikki together with an American toad that turned up in the basement in the middle of winter. Nikki set it up in a small terrarium, where the Mayslake staff joined Nikki in caring for the little amphibian, feeding it worms and domestic crickets.

The weather warmed up to the point where Toad could be returned to the out-of-doors. Everyone hoped he would stay out of mischief this time (yes, that was a Wind in the Willows reference). We carried him down to the stream corridor marsh.

Nikki turned the terrarium on its side.

Nikki turned the terrarium on its side.

Toad waited a while before hopping out onto the moss.

Toad waited a while before hopping out onto the moss.

We were impressed when Toad immediately slid his or her hind legs under the moss and wriggled down in until he or she was mostly covered.

We were impressed when Toad immediately slid his or her hind legs under the moss and wriggled down in until he or she was mostly covered.

With this reminder that Toad had all the instinctive tools needed to carry on from there, we were content to say goodbye.

Mayslake Marsh Update: Amphibian Traps

by Carl Strang

I set out some amphibian traps in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh to assess how the marsh has recovered from the drought of 2012 and another drying out in 2013.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

 

Literature Review: Bird Evolution

by Carl Strang

As I mentioned last week, the Mesozoic Era is a perennial hot topic in paleontological research. Lately, a hot topic within that hot topic has been the evolution of birds (plus the lead-up to the first birds in the feathered dinosaurs, some studies of which were included in last week’s listing). Here are notes from some studies published last year.

Dinosaur descendant

Dinosaur descendant

Mitchell, Jonathan H., and Peter J. Makovicky. 2014. Low ecological disparity in early Cretaceous birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0608 As described in a ScienceDaily article. They did an intensive study of a collection of fossil birds from China, early in the Cretaceous Period around 125 million years ago, when birds were a relatively new addition to the fauna. They concluded that the collection probably is a reasonably good approximation of what was there, and that it shows a remarkable lack of diversity. The size range and dietary breadth were limited, and large birds and water birds were missing. Most birds were sparrow to crow sized. There were some differences from today, as some species retained teeth or bony tails. Indications are that they lived in the forest and on the ground, and ate mostly insects and seeds. Though some of this limitation might have resulted from competition with established groups such as pterosaurs, the authors point to the lack of time for evolutionary diversification to occur as the main constraint.

Brusatte, Stephen L., Graeme T. Lloyd, Steve C. Wang, and Mark A. Norell. 2014. Gradual assembly of avian body plan culminated in rapid rates of evolution across the dinosaur-bird transition. Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.08.034 As described in a ScienceDaily article. They looked at the evolutionary development of various structural components of birds, such as feathers, wishbone and wings. The elements of the bird body appeared separately over a very long period of time in the fossil record, with a slow convergence on the ultimate bird body plan in the line of theropod dinosaurs that led to them. Thus there is no stepwise appearance of the first bird. However, once the first birds had evolved, their diversification and continued evolution happened much more rapidly, demonstrating the advantages of that body plan.

Puttick, Mark N., Gavin H. Thomas, and Michael J. Benton. 2014. High rates of evolution preceded the origin of birds. Evolution, DOI: 10.1111/evo.12363 As described in a ScienceDaily article. They looked at the fossil record and used computer models to calculate rates of evolution of various traits. Two features essential to birds, small size and elongated forelimbs, began to appear 20 million years prior to Archaeopteryx, so that there were many species of small feathered dinosaurs (paraves) capable of flight well before the first birds appeared.

Meredith, R.W., G. Zhang, M. T. P. Gilbert, E. D. Jarvis, and M. S. Springer. 2014. Evidence for a single loss of mineralized teeth in the common avian ancestor. Science 346 (6215): 1254390 DOI: 10.1126/science.1254390 This portion of the whole-genome bird comparison study found that all modern birds point to a single common ancestor that lost the capability to grow teeth more than 100 million years ago, over a short span of time developing mutations inactivating 6 genes involved in enamel and dentin formation.

Lee, Michael S.Y., Andrea Cau, Darren Naish, and Gareth J. Dyke. 2014. Sustained miniaturization and anatomical innovation in the dinosaurian ancestors of birds. Science 345:562-566. They did a detailed statistical study across the entire range (time and taxonomic) of theropod dinosaurs, and found a trend over the Mesozoic of reduction in body mass, culminating in the birds. This set the stage for other skeletal modifications that made birds possible.

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