Sound Ideas: Big Blue

by Carl Strang

Big bluestem

Big bluestem

This week’s sound recording is another of the songs I wrote for the “Dandelion” story. That story follows a boy, Richard, who is adjusting to an unwanted move from the mountains to a suburb in the prairie. In his dreams he is guided by Dandelion, one of the few plants he recognized from his former home. Here is the lead-in to the song:

That night, Dandelion was back. “Look, Richard, you may be going too far with this people-pleasing routine. If you’re exactly like everyone else, or if everyone were like everyone else, the world would be a boring place. It’s good that you want to enjoy the friendship of others, but don’t give up being honest and being yourself for it. Say, maybe you should meet someone who is a very important part of that prairie you’re studying, but who is at the same time a real individual.”

Suddenly the room went black. And now, sprouting up from the floor of Richard’s room and into a spotlight was a very tall, very thin person, in glittering, rhinestone-covered green clothes that caught the light, sparkled and shone. It seemed there was applause all around, though Richard saw no audience. The green guy held up his hands with their long, thin fingers, and spoke.

“Thank you, thank you. I should introduce myself, since some of you folks are from out of town, new to the prairie. My name is Big Bluestem Grass, though you can call me Big Blue if you want. I am one of the tall grasses that made the prairie what it was. Two hundred years ago, the other prairie plants and I covered square mile after square mile of land. We’re still around, but harder to find. Listen here.” An unseen orchestra started to play, and Big Blue began to sing.

“They call me Big Blue, and my roots go deep,

My top is eight feet tall from my head to my feet.

But that’s not all, my roots go six feet down

To get that water far below the ground.

I’m taller than most other plants and you,

That’s why I’m Big Blue, yeah, Big Blue.

Now when the prairie covered almost all this land,

When the forest by the prairie fire was banned,

The grasses ruled, and up above them all,

Was me, Big Blue, standing proud and tall.

I’m still around, but it’s a rarer view

To see some Big Blue, yeah, Big Blue.

So find a prairie plot,

’Cause you and I should meet.

Look up and find my tops,

Shaped like a turkey’s feet.

Then you can tell your folks and best friends, too,

That you met Big Blue, yeah, Big Blue.

They call me Big Blue, yeah, Big Bluestem Grass.

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Friary Prairie Grasses

by Carl Strang

A prairie is in its early stages of developing on the site of the former friary at Mayslake Forest Preserve. On my most recent check, I was pleased to find scattered prairie grasses in seed, both Indian grass and big bluestem. There is some risk when introducing Indian grass so early in a restoration project, as it can spread quickly and dominate an area. The plants appear to be few and widely scattered, however, so there may not be a problem in this case.

Seeing them reminded me that I need to resume my project of photographing the preserve’s plants in winter. This week’s example will be that big bluestem. Here in its still intact winter mode is a fruiting top.

Note how tightly the seeds are pressed against the branches of the inflorescence, which gave this plant its alternate (and November-appropriate) name of turkey foot.

Here is an inflorescence in bloom, back in the summer:

The flowers are more relaxed out from the stem, and the anthers are releasing their pollen to be wind-carried to other plants.

This is one of the characteristic species of the tallgrass prairie.

Big bluestem can tower above many other of the prairie plants.

So, this made for an easy start. Not all plants are so recognizable in their winter form, as we’ll see.

Return to Illinois Beach

by Carl Strang

A return to Illinois Beach State Park was called for last week, as my first visit was early enough in the season that more singing insects could have become active since. For instance, gray ground crickets were not singing yet in early August, but by last week they were active.

Gray ground crickets are common in the scattered clumps of grasses and other plants behind the Great Lakes beaches.

Hearing is not seeing, however, and despite my best efforts I could not expose a gray ground cricket for a photograph. They were in the larger patches of vegetation and trapped oak leaves, and it was too easy for them to sneak away when I tried lifting leaves and plant stems to look for the hidden singers. That disappointment was relieved somewhat by an amusing dung beetle.

It was having difficulty moving this far-from-spherical chunk.

I had better luck with grasshoppers. Some members of the grasshopper subfamily Oedipodinae are in the park. These qualify as singing insects, as their displays include wing-rattling flights. I found two species. One, a darker form, was in the savanna near the Dead River.

This appears to be a Boll’s grasshopper, a relatively dark individual of the species. The yellow and black hind wings are hidden when folded at rest.

The beach was another grasshopper habitat.

Some grasshoppers prefer this more open vegetation structure.

A common species was pale and well camouflaged.

This one appears to be a seaside grasshopper.

In the night, I followed a tree cricket’s song as it trilled in the gray ground cricket habitat.

The antenna spots don’t show here, but they clearly revealed that this was a four-spotted tree cricket.

Robust coneheads had become common in the campground woods.

This male sings from a patch of big bluestem grass within the savanna.

I found a few more species to add to the site list, but none were particularly uncommon.

Meadow Tree Crickets

by Carl Strang

Some tree crickets live in trees, others live among the trees in the forest understory, but there are a few species that inhabit meadow and prairie areas. Last week I looked at some of these when I did some sweep sampling in two locations. The first was Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve.

This low area dominated by big bluestem grass was part of the habitat I surveyed.

I went there in hope of finding more of the cicadas, tentatively identified as swamp cicadas, that I heard there last year. At the time the song seemed definitive, but I since have learned that Linne’s cicadas sometimes have songs that are similar, and so I was hoping to find one to photograph. All was quiet, however. That’s not necessarily a bad sign. If this is indeed a new population (DuPage is north of the published range for swamp cicadas), they might not be emerging every year. In any case, while I was waiting for singing cicadas I did some sweep sampling, and turned up several tree crickets.

Here is one of the individuals I caught in a goldenrod-dominated area. It has a dark stripe down the top of the head and pronotum, as well as dark antennae. Despite the otherwise pale color, these features point to the black-horned/Forbes’s pair of tree cricket sibling species.

Proper identification of these tree crickets requires an examination of spotting on the basal two antenna segments.

Here the spots on the first, basal segment are very large and smudged. Those on the second segment likewise, to the point where the entire segment looks black at first glance. Also note the dark area on the underside of this tree cricket’s abdomen. All these features point to black-horned/Forbes’s.

The next cricket, from the big bluestem area, is much paler, and shows a different antennal spot pattern.

Here the spots all are smaller, and the outer ones on the basal segments are round and have smeared edges. This is a four-spotted tree cricket.

Another Springbrook tree cricket was more ambiguous.

This individual happily nibbling my finger shows spotting that falls within the range of overlap for four-spotted and black-horned/Forbes’s tree crickets. The most definitive spot is the outer one on the basal segment. It appears just large enough to rule out four-spotted.

The next day I did some sweep sampling at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The sample included several pale tree crickets like this.

The cricket in that last photo had the following spot pattern.

This is a clear indicator of four-spotted tree cricket, the outer spots on both segments small, round, and faded looking.

A final example showed even fainter spots.

Again I identified this one as a four-spotted tree cricket.

There is a fourth meadow species that I have been watching for but so far have not found. The prairie tree cricket is generally pale, like the four-spotted. Its antenna spots are heavy and close together, but without the blurred smudging of the black-horned/Forbes’s species pair.

Gray Ground Cricket

by Carl Strang

The south unit of Illinois Beach State Park is closed. I found that out when I arrived there, having taken a vacation day and driven the hour and a half or so it takes to reach Zion. That squelched singing insect research Plan A, though it turned out for the best, as we’ll see. I would not be able to achieve all my goals, but I could at least try to find gray ground crickets at the north unit.

Grassy area just inland from the beach at Illinois Beach State Park’s north unit.

Between the parking lot and Lake Michigan, this grassy area is protected enough from wind and waves to support tall prairie grasses including big and little bluestem, and Indian grass, as well as a few forbs. The soil appears to be nearly pure sand. All I was hearing at the parking lot were some fall field crickets and Allard’s ground crickets, but I followed a path toward the beach and soon, in the sandy prairie shown in the photo, was hearing scattered gray ground crickets. I kept hoping I might see one out on the path, but no such luck, and I didn’t want to be too intrusive at an area that already gets much use. I’ll hope for a photo opportunity some other time.

The gray ground cricket’s song is distinctive, though in part that is because of the connection to the habitat. There was one place where an Allard’s was singing close enough to a gray to allow a direct comparison. Both ground crickets have long trills, but that of Allard’s is noticeably slower, the individual notes fully distinguishable if a little too rapid to count. The gray ground cricket’s trill is much more rapid, though still audibly composed of distinct notes (i.e. they don’t blend into a single tone). The song is higher pitched than that of Allard’s. In addition, the gray incorporates characteristic pauses here and there. A recording can be found on-line here.

It was only mid-day, so I decided to check another Lake County site on my fall research list, which I had thought would have to happen on another day. I’ll report on that tomorrow.

Native Grasses

by Carl Strang

We are moving into the second half of summer, and late season prairie grasses are beginning to bloom at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Big bluestem has the tallest stature.

The stems reach above your head.

Another name for this grass is turkey foot.

The spikes radiate like a big bird’s toes.

My favorite among the common prairie grasses is Indian grass.

The beautiful color of the coppery spikelets contrasts with the yellow anthers.

Drier places in the prairie support side-oats grama.

Here the anthers are bright red.

Earlier in the season a grass began to flower that I could not identify. Now, with the seeds well developed, I find that it is an unusual species in DuPage County.

A couple clumps of slender wheat grass, Agropyron trachycaulum, are growing at the very edge of the prairie adjacent to the parking lot. I assume the seed came in with a vehicle.

It is native to the area, but apparently seldom finds suitable soil in DuPage.

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