Wood Be? Wouldn’t Be!

by Carl Strang

For a couple years now, I have been pursuing early-season crickets that I thought must be northern wood crickets (Gryllus vernalis). These close relatives of our familiar spring field crickets (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) had been reported to occur in two of the counties in the Chicago region, both in northern Indiana. Spring field crickets are abundant in well-drained open grassy areas in my home county of DuPage, in Illinois. When I started hearing chirping Gryllus songs in Indiana woodlands and savannas, coming from accumulations of oak leaves often under trees, I figured these must be wood crickets.

For example, my attention was drawn to clumps of oak leaves surrounded by sand, along the Marquette Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nothing grassy about this!

A few days ago, I headed to the Marquette Trail to make another attempt to see one of these crickets. I wanted to confirm my suspicion, but also to get photos of a living northern wood cricket.

All I had were photos of museum specimens like this. Note the taper from the back of the thorax through the head. Spring field crickets are broader in front.

As I walked along a section of trail beside a road, I heard one of the crickets singing in a narrow band of accumulated oak leaves at the base of a hill.

An earlier controlled burn had removed nearly all the available cover. Puccoons bloomed magnificently above the line of leaves.

I made a sound recording of the singing cricket, and used the shotgun microphone to get his exact location. Then I lifted the layers of leaves to see if I could spot him.

You may be able to see the tunnels in the sand. At first I figured he made a quick retreat into them when I lifted the leaves.

If you look in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, however, you may see a small oval of reflected light. After taking the picture I discovered it was the cricket! I got him into a plastic cup.

I got my photos, and did my best to make him a northern wood cricket, but in fact he was a spring field cricket. Not only were his proportions wrong, but he held still and let me hold calipers just above him for a measurement. Spring field crickets usually are 16mm long, northern wood crickets 14mm, and this one was 16.8mm.

After reviewing my recordings, I think all the woodland Gryllus crickets I have heard in the region in fact are spring field crickets. There were small technical differences in song parameters between crickets in tree leaves and those in grassy areas, but I have to conclude that they don’t represent a species difference. The lesson ultimately is one of habitat. Spring field crickets on clay soils occur only in well-drained grasses. In sandy areas they broaden their habitat into woodland edges, and don’t associate strictly with grasses.

Further review of reference recordings points me toward northern wood crickets having more rapid chirping speed, and a lower pitch, resulting in a slightly less musical impression. So it’s back to square one for northern wood crickets in the region, and my insistence on visual confirmation of suspected but ambiguous species observations is vindicated.

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Bird Feeder Lessons

by Carl Strang

Except for my yard, my neighborhood contains mainly lawns and some foundation shrubs, along with the small trees planted to replace the near monoculture of ashes killed by emerald ash borers. My own plantings had grown to the point where I thought they might provide enough cover to make it worthwhile to put out bird feeders.

I hung a tube feeder above a platform feeder set on the ground. Through most of the winter, safflower seeds were the main fare.

One day I saw a meadow vole popping out from the snow to grab one seed at a time from the platform.

Its main residence appeared to be beneath the inverted water garden container, but underneath the platform feeder it also had excavated a network of tunnels.

Most birds were infrequent visitors. The regulars were a small flock of mourning doves. They are not limited to small winter territories, and their longer distance patrols allow them to find scattered food sources. I hosted up to 20 of them in the early mornings, and 3 or so at dusk.

Eight or so of “the troops,” as I came to call them, are visible in this blurry photo through the kitchen window.

After the morning feed, they often rested a bit before moving on.

One dove that came at mid-day gave a demonstration of limited intelligence.

It happened to land inside the little decorative fence that surrounds the water garden. Reaching through the bars, it fed for a bit but then appeared to become frustrated.

The bird walked back and forth for a good ten minutes, sticking its head through various holes but unable to reach the seeds it wanted. It never figured out that all it had to do was go over the little fence and stand in the feeder to take all the seeds it wanted.

Eventually the dove decided to leave, and jumped up to perch on the fence before heading on its way.

 

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.

 

Singing Insects Guide 2018

by Carl Strang

The general summary of my singing insects research is a 116-page guide, Singing Insects of the Chicago Region. It contains photos, maps, links to song recordings, and information with a page for each species. It is available for free as a 5-6mb PDF document, sent as an e-mail attachment.

This Texas bush katydid continues as the cover photo.

If you are on the mailing list, you should have received the updated version earlier this month. To get a copy and get on the list for annual updates, send me a request at wildlifer@aol.com

This year’s version is expanded significantly, as I created pages for species which occurred historically in the region but which I have not yet found. I also added photos of museum specimens in cases where I have no photos of live insects, and have a new page for the eastern striped cricket, which I found for the first time in 2017. Already I know that I will need to add a page in next year’s version, as Nancy Collins has sent me documentation of a 2005 find of tamarack tree crickets in Berrien County.

The long-term plan is to continue this annual updating through 2024, when periodical cicadas have their next major emergence in the region. Then I will see about getting a print version made. In the meantime, if you have need for a higher-resolution photo than the compressed (but adequate, I think) versions in the guide, send a request to that same e-mail address.

Pilot Mountain

by Carl Strang

On the way to visit my brother and his family in eastern North Carolina for Christmas, I made a stop at Pilot Mountain State Park in the western part of that state. Pilot Mountain is an isolated peak that rises 1500 feet above the surrounding terrain (against only 2 miles’ diameter at the base), and its striking profile is visible from miles away in all directions. My route takes me right past it, and a quick entry is available from that interstate highway.

There are two high points, and you can drive to the top of the lower of those.

This view from the top gives a sense of Pilot Mountain’s dramatic rise.

The sides of this quartzite-cored peak are forested. White, red and chestnut oaks were the dominant trees in the part of the forest I explored.

A nice network of trails wraps around the park.

As a biologist, I was especially interested in the wildlife.

The deer and the gray squirrels looked small as compared to those in northern Illinois. This probably is a latitude effect rather than a peculiarity of the park.

My eyes scanned the trail from time to time, and I was pleased to see some bobcat tracks, but those were dwarfed by a few footprints that had been made by something much larger.

This was the clearest example. At 3-4 inches in diameter, with a circular overall outline and lacking toenail marks, it was close to mountain lion tracks I have seen out West.

Here is an example from Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I passed on my observation to the park staff. A little internet searching revealed that the presence of mountain lions in western North Carolina is debated. I believe my identification is correct, but this does not mean that there is a resident population with Pilot Mountain in a lion’s home range. Our experience in the Midwest is that mountain lions have been wandering outward from the Black Hills, several states away. One was killed in Chicago a few years ago. These cats, though big, are wary and capable of staying out of sight. I would not be surprised at all if eventually it is established that the mountainous region of western North Carolina and surrounding states harbors a resident population of this large predator.

 

One Last Look Back

by Carl Strang

My recent blog posts have shared highlights of this year’s field season, as I searched for singing insects in the 22-county area I define as the Chicago region. Those accounts haven’t told the whole story, though, and I have a few last photos to shake out of the bag. These fill out some of the experience of doing this kind of regional study.

For instance, other animals have enhanced the delight.

The chalk-fronted corporal is a dragonfly I have encountered only in the northern portion of the region, in this case at the Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in northern Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Walsh’s grasshopper was a new one for me. Not a singing species, but an interesting find at the Poverty Prairie in DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Turkey vultures assemble at dusk on the Culver, Indiana, water tower. My travels take me back to my home town a few times each season.

Interesting and beautiful scenes are to be found in the relatively undisturbed wild areas which are my main destinations.

An early evening rainbow at Conrad Station in the Indiana Kankakee Sands presaged a thunderstorm-dodging drive home on July 2.

Pinholes between tree leaves cast solar eclipse shadows at Blackwell Forest Preserve. Though the moon covered around 90% of the sun at peak, I detected no change in singing insect activity.

One of the more beautiful scenes was this panne in the Indiana dunes.

I had hoped to find delicate meadow katydids in the pannes. Dusky-faced meadow katydids were a good find there, but that species has a solid hold in other dunes wetlands.

The Pembroke Savanna in the Illinois Kankakee Sands is one of my favorite sites.

I believe these white pines at Warren Dunes State Park in Berrien County, Michigan, are the same ones where Richard Alexander found treetop bush katydids in 1971. He described the trees as small, but all are tall now. They still foster pine tree crickets, but I did not find any bush katydids.

I ended up with 115 county records for the season, totaling all newly found singing insect species over all the counties.

So far, I have found sprinkled grasshoppers only in oak savannas on sand soils.

Dusky-faced meadow katydids at the Indiana Kankakee Sands were a Newton County record.

This curve-tailed bush katydid at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana provided a Jasper County record for my study.

I found a healthy population of long-tailed meadow katydids, including this brown-legged male, at Ferson Creek Fen in Kane County.

The Ferson Creek population also had green-legged variants, including this female.

Lisa Rainsong, Wendy Partridge and I drove south to Loda Prairie to check out the bush cicadas there. I concluded this year that the species does not occur in the Chicago region.

This Texas bush katydid was singing in early October at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, DuPage County. I had an observation of this species on October 17, my latest ever in the region.

Most of the long winter remains, and as I compile data, write reports, and visit museums, I will be looking forward to another collection of rich experiences as I resume my field study in 2018.

 

Psorting Out Psinidia

by Carl Strang

This year I found longhorn band-winged grasshoppers (Psinidia fenestralis) in Newton County, Indiana, Kenosha County in Wisconsin, and Lake and Cook Counties in Illinois. Previously I had found them in Porter and Marshall Counties, Indiana.

Longhorn band-winged grasshoppers are named for their disproportionately long antennae.

The hind wings of these small grasshoppers usually are bright red.

Two of the newly found populations raised questions. First, at Burnham Prairie in Cook County, they had bright yellow hind wings, in place of the usual red.

I learned that yellow hind wings are known to appear occasionally in the species.

Then I found red-winged ones in the same spot at Illinois Beach State Park where I found insects I had identified as Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers (Trachyrhachys kiowa) in 2014.

That original identification was based on one individual I captured with this wing pattern.

Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers typically have transparent bases in their hind wings, but these can be pale yellow. That fit my photos, and there are historical records for Lake County, Illinois, so I felt that my identification was correct. Now, poring over references and my photos, and going back and forth in my conclusions, I have decided that the 2014 grasshoppers in fact were Psinidia, and the individual I caught was an unusual one with transparent hind wings. The antennae had flattened bases and were as long as the hind femurs, like Psinidia but unlike T. kiowa, which have shorter, finer, rounder antennae. The hind tibias were largely bluish, but had black bands, then yellow, then black at their proximal ends, like Psinidia. Reference photos for kiowa show blue tibias interrupted by yellow bands toward the proximal ends, but no black.

Confusion between these two species is understandable: both are small, and both have heads that protrude above their thoraxes. Unfortunately, this removes the only present-day record I had for Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers in the Chicago region. I still hope to find them, because historical records place them not only in Lake County, Illinois, but also Will County, and Lake, Newton, and Jasper Counties in Indiana.

Seeking Seasides

by Carl Strang

Coming into 2017, I had found seaside grasshoppers (Trimerotropis maritima) in most of the counties bordering Lake Michigan in the Chicago region. This band-winged grasshopper is mainly a beach-dwelling species, though it also occurs at Burnham Prairie, an inland site in Cook County

Seaside grasshopper, Indiana Dunes. This individual belongs to a population living on fine grained quartz sand.

The hind wings are bright yellow, and males can rattle their wings loudly in flight

Seaside grasshopper, Illinois Beach State Park. This one lives on a substrate of mixed fine stones ground by glaciers and waves. Selective pressures clearly have been at work on these hoppers.

Prior to this year I had found the species in Berrien, Porter, Lake (Indiana), Cook, and Lake (Illinois) Counties. In 2017 I added LaPorte County, and went up to Cliffside Park in Racine County, where GoogleEarth showed a narrow line of dunes and beach. I found, though, that storms and a risen lake level had removed these

The edge of Lake Michigan at Cliffside Park, looking north. Waves now wash right up to the cliff base.

Looking south from the same position.

I thought that might mean the end of the search, but a new GoogleEarth survey showed parks in the cities of Racine and Kenosha that looked promising. Both proved to have seaside grasshoppers, so now with the addition of Racine and Kenosha Counties I regard the Chicago region map complete for the species. I remain open, however, to stumbling across seaside grasshoppers at additional inland sites.

More Prairie Meadow Katydids

 

by Carl Strang

Last year I first encountered what I thought were prairie meadow katydids (Conocephalus saltans), in my survey of the Chicago region’s singing insects. Further study confirmed my identifications, and set the stage for finding the species in a third location in 2017. On September 2, Lisa Rainsong and I ran into a cluster of small meadow katydids at the Pembroke Savanna Nature Preserve, a Nature Conservancy savanna in eastern Kankakee County. These proved to be a mix of two species, straight-lanced meadow katydids (Conocephalus strictus) and prairie meadow katydids.

A scene at Pembroke Savanna, which I regard as the most beautiful site in the 22-county Chicago region.

Finding these two similar species together provided us with a tutorial in distinguishing them. Most of the individuals were females, and the contrast in their ovipositors could not be starker. Those of the prairie meadow katydids had a slight curve, and were much shorter.

Female prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Straight-lanced females have straight ovipositors that typically are as long as their bodies, or longer.

Female straight-lanced meadow katydid, Judy Burton Nature Preserve, Indiana. This one is atypical in having long wings. Most have wings about a third the length of the abdomen.

Prairie meadow katydids have wings that usually are only a quarter of the abdomen length. The knob at the tip of the head is more pronounced, though both species have this knob. The sides of the hind femurs also are different. In prairie meadow katydids there is a pattern of thin lines that resemble a ladder, on a brown leg. There usually is a diffuse black line that appears to be within the straight-lanced meadow katydid’s green hind femur. Some variation occurs in many of these features, so I advise caution and the examination of several individuals within a population.

Males have been fewer in both species, in the populations I have examined.

 

Male prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Again, the more exaggerated head knob, shorter wings, and different femur pattern are helpful. Cerci are very different in the two species, also.

Male straight-lanced meadow katydid, from another eastern Kankakee County savanna site.

I did not get a photo showing the prairie meadow katydid’s cerci, but their ends are much shorter, proportionately, than those of the straight-lanced in the photo, comparable in length to the teeth, and bend outward somewhat rather than being straight.

A final curious note from Pembroke was that the prairie meadow katydids were all brown, as the photos show. The straight-lanced meadow katydids had considerable amounts of green color. This may have been the result of local selective pressures, as this is not a consistent difference across the species’ ranges.

Rounding Out Conehead Maps

by Carl Strang

This has been a good year in my quest for coneheads. The coneheaded katydids of genus Neoconocephalus are represented by six species (historically, seven) in the 22 counties I define as the Chicago region.

 

Sword-bearing conehead. This katydid is named for the female’s long ovipositor.

Prior to 2017, I had found sword-bearing coneheads (N. ensiger) in every county. In a recent post, I detailed the completion of the search for Nebraska coneheads (N. nebrascensis), which can be found in all but the three Wisconsin counties of the region. In another post I described progress in finding slightly musical coneheads (N. exiliscanorus).

 

Robust conehead in singing posture

 

Today I can report that I now have found two more species in all 22 counties: the robust conehead (N. robustus), and the round-tipped conehead (N. retusus). Though it extends into Wisconsin, the round-tipped thins out rapidly south to north, and some effort was needed to find a singing round-tipped conehead in the southern portion of Racine County, the region’s northernmost county.

 

Round-tipped conehead. The shape of the cone and the amount of black pigmentation help in species identification. The large jaws help them with their diet of seeds, and teach researchers to use caution in handling them.

The sixth species is the marsh conehead (N. palustris), which so far I have found only in Porter County, Indiana. Though I continue seeking the slender conehead (N. lyristes), I fear that it is extinct in the region.

 

Slender conehead. This museum specimen from the early 20th Century was collected in what is now Illinois Beach State Park. I have failed to find the species in my thorough exploration of its habitats there.

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