Spicer Lake

by Carl Strang

Spicer Lake is a St. Joseph County (Indiana) park and nature preserve close to the triple border of two Indiana counties and Michigan. It is not far from Springfield Fen, so after thanking Scott last week I headed up there to prospect for singing insects. Those proved to be relatively common species, but it was a beautiful site well worth visiting.

One feature is an extensive flooded swamp fringing Spicer Lake. The photo shows native species, but reed canary grass and purple loosestrife sadly are well established.

One feature is an extensive flooded swamp fringing Spicer Lake. The photo shows native species, but reed canary grass and purple loosestrife sadly are well established.

Winterberry hollies provided delightful spots of color.

Winterberry hollies provided delightful spots of color.

The most common singing insect along the boardwalk was the black-legged meadow katydid.

I especially liked the translucent backlit wings of this singing male.

I especially liked the translucent backlit wings of this singing male.

That visit closed the book on my out-of-state singing insect excursions for the year.

Sound Ideas: Three Meadow Katydids

by Carl Strang

Today I am sharing recordings of 3 species of large meadow katydids (genus Orchelimum). One way or another their songs all fit the ticks-and-buzz pattern characteristic of their group. I will order them idiosyncratically, by how well I can hear them in the field. I will be interested in any comments on how well you can hear them in these recordings. The first is our most common species in the genus, the black-legged meadow katydid O. nigripes.

Black-legged meadow katydid

Black-legged meadow katydid

This was a very warm individual who was rushing the ticks. I render the pattern tickety-buzz, as there usually are 3 ticks leading directly into the buzz, with a brief pause before the next set. This species usually can be found in or near wetlands. I can hear its song unaided without any trouble.

Next up is the long-spurred meadow katydid, O. silvaticum.

Long-spurred meadow katydid

Long-spurred meadow katydid

Here the ticks have much the same quality as the buzz, several very brief rattles that merge into the rattling buzz. This is a katydid of woods edges and adjacent areas with tall herbaceous vegetation. I can hear some of these unaided in the field, on a calm day without other competing sounds, or when there are plenty of reflecting surfaces, but usually I need the SongFinder pitch-reducing device to detect them. I can hear this recording clearly, though.

Finally, here is a species I first encountered this past season, the stripe-faced meadow katydid, O. concinnum. It is a specialist in certain kinds of wetlands, and is much less common than the others.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

This one I can’t hear at all from more than a few feet away, and I can barely hear it in this recording. I really need the SongFinder for this species. The ticks are more numerous, more separated, and more irregularly spaced, than in the black-leg.

Mayslake Catch-up

by Carl Strang

Now that we are getting autumnal weather, it’s a good moment to look back at the summer just past, and at the current hints of what is coming. Here are photos from the past month at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

This dorsal view of a black-legged meadow katydid doesn’t show off his colors, but as he pauses between songs we can see the sound-production structures in the bases of his wings.

This dorsal view of a black-legged meadow katydid doesn’t show off his colors, but as he pauses between songs we can see the sound-production structures in the bases of his wings.

Usually I’m good at spotting bee mimics, but this large syrphid fly had me calling it a common eastern bumblebee for several seconds before I realized my error.

Usually I’m good at spotting bee mimics, but this large syrphid fly had me calling it a common eastern bumblebee for several seconds before I realized my error.

According to BugGuide, “larvae are deposit filter-feeders in water-filled tree holes,” which explains why Mallota bautias don’t turn up very often.

When I spotted the scissor-grinder cicada on the horizontal branch I took advantage of the opportunity for an unobstructed telephoto. Only when I was cropping the picture in the computer did I notice the second individual on the vertical branch.

When I spotted the scissor-grinder cicada on the horizontal branch I took advantage of the opportunity for an unobstructed telephoto. Only when I was cropping the picture in the computer did I notice the second individual on the vertical branch.

So much for summer. Now for hints of the season to come.

This brown, probably male, nymph is a greenstriped grasshopper, the species that will kick off the singing insect season next spring. They get started early because they overwinter in this form rather than in eggs as do most of the species singing now.

This brown, probably male, nymph is a greenstriped grasshopper, the species that will kick off the singing insect season next spring. They get started early because they overwinter in this form rather than in eggs as do most of the species singing now.

This Henry’s marsh moth caterpillar was clambering over the tangled stems of a reed canary grass patch, probably seeking a pupation spot for its winter hibernation.

This Henry’s marsh moth caterpillar was clambering over the tangled stems of a reed canary grass patch, probably seeking a pupation spot for its winter hibernation.

These mink scats, freshly deposited on a path near the stream, are the first sign of that species I have seen in a while. Perhaps this mink will center its winter activities around Mayslake’s wetlands.

These mink scats, freshly deposited on a path near the stream, are the first sign of that species I have seen in a while. Perhaps this mink will center its winter activities around Mayslake’s wetlands.

Reptiles and amphibians are moving toward their hibernacula. Recently I spotted a garter snake that looked different from the usual Chicago version of the eastern garter snake.

It was paler around the head and neck.

It was paler around the head and neck.

The side stripe is on scale rows 3 and 4, and other details support the identification of plains garter snake, a new species for the Mayslake list.

The side stripe is on scale rows 3 and 4, and other details support the identification of plains garter snake, a new species for the Mayslake list.

In Search of the Dusky-faced

by Carl Strang

Last year I recorded an insect song that was much like that of the dusky-faced meadow katydid, at the Bob Kern Natural Area in Fulton County, Indiana. My note from August 31: “I made recording 28 of an interesting meadow katydid that was producing long, loud series of ticks that were irregular but sometimes sort of doubled, followed by a buzz longer than that of a nearby black-leg. It best matches reference recordings of dusky-faced.” A channel too deep and wide for me to cross prevented my getting close enough to see the singer, but I secured a permit to go in there this year. Circumstances delayed me until the last Sunday in September. The marsh has that important quality that seems essential for the rarer wetland meadow katydids: a lack of invasive plants.

The near bog-like soft soil called for hip boots, and slow careful stepping among the bunch grasses and showy Bidens.

The near bog-like soft soil called for hip boots, and slow careful stepping among the bunch grasses and showy Bidens.

I found two grasshoppers of interest. One was a singing species.

This marsh meadow grasshopper had shorter wings than the one I photographed at the magic swale.

This marsh meadow grasshopper had shorter wings than the one I photographed at the magic swale.

The other I thought might belong to the same subfamily, as it had a strongly slanting face.

No question about the head shape.

No question about the head shape.

Later I was glad that I had followed my practice of taking photos of many parts of the grasshopper, from many angles.

Note the oval-shaped area on top of the head in front of the eyes, and the sword-shaped antennae, the basal portion broad and somewhat flattened, the tip more rounded. Those proved to be diagnostic features.

Note the oval-shaped area on top of the head in front of the eyes, and the sword-shaped antennae, the basal portion broad and somewhat flattened, the tip more rounded. Those proved to be diagnostic features.

This was the clipped-wing grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis. Note the end of the wing, which gives the species its common name.

This was the clipped-wing grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis. Note the end of the wing, which gives the species its common name.

It turns out that this species belongs to a small subfamily, the silent slant-faced grasshoppers: a nice wetland insect, but not a singer. I slogged on across the marsh, but the only meadow katydids were numerous black-legs, a common species. I should try again earlier in the season next year, but I have to consider the possibility that the recorded insect was an aberrant black-leg.

Black-legged meadow katydid (St. James Farm, DuPage County)

Black-legged meadow katydid (St. James Farm, DuPage County)

I headed up to LaPorte County, which I had not surveyed as well as most of the others in my 22-county region. I had visited the Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area earlier in the season, and hoped to pick up some county records there from this late date. Indeed I was to end up with 7, but one in particular needs to be related here. One marsh that is adjacent to the Kankakee River has a levee easily walked, so I checked it out, listening with the SongFinder.

The marsh had few invasive wetland plants.

The marsh had few invasive wetland plants.

I heard an unusual meadow katydid song at one point. The buzz was very long, 6 seconds or more, often with long spaces between, and 6 or 7 ticks leading into the buzz. I couldn’t hear it unaided at a distance, but through the SongFinder it was distinctly louder than the songs of nearby short-winged meadow katydids. I slowly moved in closer, needing to be patient and sit still when the singer paused for longer periods, possibly because of my approach.

The location was mundane, a mix of grasses and common forbs, with the insect ultimately proving to be perched on a tall nettle.

The location was mundane, a mix of grasses and common forbs, with the insect ultimately proving to be perched on a tall nettle.

Of all things, it was a dusky-faced meadow katydid.

Of all things, it was a dusky-faced meadow katydid.

In other words, the species I had set out to find in Fulton County showed up in LaPorte County.

This is only the second location I have to date for the species.

This is only the second location I have to date for the species.

I could hear it unaided when I was within 3-5 feet, but the lesson yet again was the necessity of using the SongFinder pitch-lowering hearing aid when searching for these rarer wetland katydids.

Wetland Concerns

by Carl Strang

A continuing theme in my regional survey of singing insects is the paucity of wetland species. The only one that is present in good numbers in many wetlands is the black-legged meadow katydid. Other species common in wetlands are habitat generalists such as the Carolina ground cricket and short-winged meadow katydid, which don’t truly count as wetland insects. One clear cause of this problem is the loss of high quality habitat to four invasive plant species (purple loosestrife, reed canary grass, common reed, and cattails). All four are capable of completely taking over a wetland, and examples of this can be found for all four. Small numbers of the singing insects mentioned above can be found in such places, but not the other wetland insect species.

This female long-tailed meadow katydid was a rare wetland species holdout in a small pocket of surviving diverse wetland plants surrounded by cattails, reed canary grass and common reed at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County, Illinois.

This female long-tailed meadow katydid was a rare wetland species holdout in a small pocket of surviving diverse wetland plants surrounded by cattails, reed canary grass and common reed at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County, Illinois.

On the other hand, there are some good wetlands out there. Many are small, and this along with their isolation may limit them.

This beautiful little fen at Richard Young Forest Preserve in Kendall County is completely surrounded by woodland.

This beautiful little fen at Richard Young Forest Preserve in Kendall County is completely surrounded by woodland.

Many of the interdune swales at Miller Woods in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have been taken over by the common reed. This one was an exception, but I found only black-legs there.

Many of the interdune swales at Miller Woods in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have been taken over by the common reed. This one was an exception, but I found only black-legs there.

This fen-like wetland at Bluff Creek in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest looks very good. I will want to check it earlier in the season next year.

This fen-like wetland at Bluff Creek in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest looks very good. I will want to check it earlier in the season next year.

Still, I have not given up hope. I found a third good population of mole crickets this year, in a swale at Miller Woods.

Mole cricket tunnels look like miniature mole tunnels. They occur around wetland edges, and occasionally have holes to let out the males’ deep chirping calls, and to provide access for attracted females.

Mole cricket tunnels look like miniature mole tunnels. They occur around wetland edges, and occasionally have holes to let out the males’ deep chirping calls, and to provide access for attracted females.

I also found melodious ground crickets at two new sites in Berrien County, Michigan. Though I did not find dusky-faced or delicate meadow katydids at the Indiana Dunes’ Great Marsh this year, I felt curiously encouraged by this.

Both species were there last year, but with the water level higher in 2013, the vegetation was arranged differently and I did not find them in the same place.

Both species were there last year, but with the water level higher in 2013, the vegetation was arranged differently and I did not find them in the same place.

Maybe the populations of many wetland species took a hit in last year’s drought, and were thinly dispersed in the expanded wet areas of 2013. This is, after all, the first year in which I have surveyed many of these sites. If they need a couple years to recover from the drought, maybe I will find the missing species in the future. Still, how to account for the lack of nimble meadow katydids? This species I have yet to find, anywhere. In the heart of the singing insect season I took my sea kayak into an area where they historically were known.

The channels at the south end of Lake Maxinkuckee in Marshall County, Indiana, have become heavily invaded by purple loosestrife.

The channels at the south end of Lake Maxinkuckee in Marshall County, Indiana, have become heavily invaded by purple loosestrife.

Even the patches of emergent water-dwelling knotweeds, a habitat specifically mentioned in some sources as good for nimble meadow katydids, had none as far as I could tell.

Even the patches of emergent water-dwelling knotweeds, a habitat specifically mentioned in some sources as good for nimble meadow katydids, had none as far as I could tell.

So the bottom line is a disappointing season for wetland species, with a few positive points and hope in the possibility that populations are at a low point from which they will recover.

Orchelimum Natural History

by Carl Strang

Last week I made reference to Darryl T. Gwynne’s book on katydid mating system evolution. That book led me to other references, including a Ph.D. thesis by Marianne Feaver, who studied the behavioral ecology of three species of large meadow katydids (genus Orchelimum) under the direction of Richard Alexander at the University of Michigan in the 1970’s. I ordered a copy of Feaver’s thesis, and enjoyed reading it over the weekend. There was much richness of detail that will benefit my observations in the coming months and years. Here I’ll just share a few gleanings.

Male black-legged meadow katydid

Male black-legged meadow katydid

Feaver studied black-legged, common and gladiator meadow katydids. Maturation in the three species required 2 months from hatching to adulthood. In northeast Illinois the earliest species, O. gladiator, matures in late June, implying a late April hatch from eggs laid in the stems of plants.

Female gladiator meadow katydid

Female gladiator meadow katydid

Oviposition plants, food and cover are the three most important habitat features in these species. Upon reaching maturity, females move from nymphal areas that emphasize food and cover to places offering the best mix of food, cover and oviposition sites, and the males follow them there. The males then set up circular territories that space them out. These are defended mainly through song, though in high density populations physical combat often can take place. Defensive songs are characterized by increased number and rapidity of the tick portion of the song, the buzz portion apparently not important here. The territorial male reacts to the singing intruder, who may retreat or approach. In the latter case, after repeated warnings, the territory holder is likely to attack. The heavier male generally wins. Territory holding males tolerate silent males, which apparently are waiting for the territorial males either to be removed by predators or parasites, or to mate, after which they must retreat to gain back their weight.

Male common meadow katydid

Male common meadow katydid

They spend the night buried down in low, dense cover, then males begin spacing themselves out in mid-morning, and are singing by late morning. After territories stabilize, singing continues through the afternoon. Females assess and compare males, with mating taking place in the late afternoon. Females may take several days to choose a mate, however, and only mate once. In the early evening they break off to feed, then climb down into cover to spend the night.

This pattern provides a basis of comparison to other species, which will vary in detail. For instance, though I found a freshly mated female dusky-faced meadow katydid in the mid- to late afternoon, as I mentioned last week, that species reportedly does most of its singing at night.

Learning to Identify Insect Songs

by Carl Strang

One of the obstacles to a singing insect monitoring program is the large number of various songs that need to be learned for identification. This is not really much different from learning bird songs for breeding bird monitoring, however (except that the total number of species is smaller here). Instead of being daunted by the entire process, it is possible to take the learning process in stages, beginning with the songs that are common and easy to recognize, the ones you have been hearing all along but simply didn’t have the species labels. Here is a list of a dozen suggested species to start with in the first stage: spring field cricket/fall field cricket (their songs are identical), Allard’s and striped ground crickets, snowy tree cricket, common true katydid, black-legged meadow katydid, greater angle-wing, round-tipped conehead, dog day cicada, scissor-grinder cicada, and Linne’s cicada (for more information on these species, try the tags at the head of this post).

Snowy tree cricket, one of the species on the starter list

This list and those that will follow are for northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. There would be substitutions in other parts of the country (I encourage readers elsewhere to make comments here with their own suggestions). Go to reference recordings of these species’ songs, either on-line at the Singing Insects of North America website or through the CD that accompanies the Songs of Insects book. It is not too late this year to hear many of the species on this list on the warmer days, though some are finished or nearly so.

My recommended species list to focus on in the second stage of learning consists of 8 species and groups of species: greenstriped grasshopper, gladiator meadow katydid, Roesel’s katydid ( three species that sing relatively early in the season), and then later, Carolina ground cricket, Say’s trig, sword-bearing conehead, two-spotted/narrow-winged tree crickets (no need to worry yet about separating the two), and the meadow tree cricket group (3-4 species whose songs are essentially identical to the ear and will remain so).

Roesel’s katydid is a species from the second-stage list.

This list of common species either will take you to additional, though still readily available, habitats, or else require a little more of a practiced ear (which practice you got with the first species group). In particular, seek out and spend some time getting familiar with the songs of the Carolina ground cricket and Say’s trig. They need a little more effort to recognize in the field, but once you have them, they will be touchstones for many other species (much as robin songs are for learning bird vocalizations). If you are starting now, you might push the Carolina ground cricket to the first list, as it is one of the few species singing on the cooler days and evenings.

Once you have mastered the second list of species, you are ready for the more subtle distinctions needed to distinguish the songs in the third species list. This includes separating out the song of Linne’s cicada from similar songs by the lyric cicada, and in some areas, swamp and/or northern dusk-singing cicada.

Linne’s cicada

Also, by this point you are ready to distinguish the two-spotted tree cricket song from that of the narrow-winged tree cricket. Also, the broad-winged tree cricket should stand out now from other long-trilling species. In addition, you no doubt have noticed and begun to puzzle out other species that are more idiosyncratic in their distribution or smaller in numbers that you have encountered in your favorite places.

And that brings you to the fourth stage, learning the songs of whatever remaining species may live in the area you wish to monitor. For this you will need a regional guide. In the Chicago region, you can meet this need with the guide I am developing. It is available for free as a .pdf e-mail attachment. Simply request it at my work e-mail address: cstrang@dupageforest.com

As you are learning and listening, pay attention to which songs you can hear clearly, and at what distances, and which are marginal. This will inform the limitations you will need to address or acknowledge in your monitoring.

National Lakeshore Wetlands

by Carl Strang

After catching the melodious ground cricket I drove to Pinhook Bog, a part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that is open to the public only on rare occasions. I hoped to find stripe-faced meadow katydids, but the bog’s public access boardwalk was bordered by little in the way of grasses and sedges. I was gratified, however, by the presence of sphagnum ground crickets.

These were the first I have found in Indiana. I have seen them only at Volo Bog in Illinois.

After lunch I returned to the place where Gideon, Nathan and I caught the marsh coneheads in early August. Gideon had relayed the news that some of the meadow katydids Nathan also had caught there were dusky-faced, one of the conservative species I had yet to find. The lead paid off.

The legs were totally green, unlike those of the familiar black-legged meadow katydid.

I caught a couple individuals to hold for close-ups.

The head of the dusky-faced meadow katydid is amber colored, with fine dots and lines of red-brown.

While wading the tall grasses and sedges I also spotted a different large meadow katydid with green legs and a beautiful yellow-green face.

Unfortunately I only saw the one, and the auto-focus on the camera frustrated my attempts at a clear photo before she flew away. Though blurred, the image provided enough information for identification.

This was another species on my conservative wetland singing insects want list: the delicate meadow katydid. So, what was so special about this place?

View of the edge of the portion of the Great Marsh under discussion.

For one thing, invasive Phragmites was absent, and cattails were limited to a few scattered plants. Grasses and sedges were the dominant plants. Black-legged meadow katydids were very few, and limited to the dry-soil edges of the wetland. The plants and katydids were zoned. Just inland from the water and mud-flat edge was a zone of shorter, finer grasses in which the only singing insects I saw were abundant slender meadow katydids. Then came taller grasses of intermediate coarseness, where the dusky-faced and delicate meadow katydids were, along with a few marsh coneheads.

Female marsh conehead

The soil became progressively less water saturated as the vegetation rings went outward. Next came a zone of very coarse sedges. The only species I saw in there was, surprisingly, a long-tailed meadow katydid (a tiny species dwarfed by the big triangular sedge stems).  Interspersed here were patches of taller grasses which contained more dusky-faced meadow katydids. This area gave me a strong image of good marsh habitat to carry as I continue to search for these insects in other places.

Where are the Conservatives?

by Carl Strang

It should be obvious that this title is not a political reference. In this election year both political conservatives and liberals are easy to find as they loudly and shrilly make their cases against each other, trying to attract voters (hm, reminds me of singing insects for some reason). The conservatives I am concerned about here are some of the wetland species of singing insects, habitat specialists that are found only within narrow ranges of ecological parameters and are sensitive to invasive species and other disruptions. Much of my research this year is focused on finding conservative species from my hypothetical list for the region.

I haven’t had a lot of luck with wetland conservatives. The northern mole cricket was one, but I still have not found them anywhere but Houghton Lake. The marsh conehead was another. We thought we also found slender coneheads at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but Gideon discovered when he returned to his lab that they all were marsh coneheads as well, misleading because they were outside the size range of that species he was familiar with in Missouri.

Gideon also learned that the underside of the cone should be black, not gray as it was on the marsh coneheads we found.

But what about the several species of wetland meadow katydids in genus Orchelimum? Regionally there should be four species I haven’t yet found: dusky-faced, stripe-faced, delicate and nimble meadow katydids all have been elusive. I should have found dusky-faced meadow katydids, at least, because they are described as being common in a wide range of marshes. Instead I am finding lots of black-legged meadow katydids, a marsh species that spills into drier areas adjacent to wetlands.

Black-legged meadow katydid

Black-legs sing so loudly, day and night, that I wonder how earlier researchers heard the other wetland species. I wonder if black-legs have become more abundant, conceivably pushing the others out. Have I not been looking in the right places or in the right way? Is the lack of success this year a consequence of the drought? Certainly it takes some effort this year to get wet feet in the marshes. I will continue to look. Last week at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Illinois I saw a number of Orchelimum nymphs that were relatively plain and green.

This female meadow katydid nymph is recognized as an Orchelimum by the curved ovipositor.

On the other hand, black-legs don’t get their full colors until after they mature.

This newly molted adult male black-legged meadow katydid still has not developed his full coloration.

I will continue to look this year, and hope for better conditions next year.

Houghton Lake

by Carl Strang

A priority site in this year’s singing insect survey work was Houghton Lake, a Nature Conservancy property near my home town of Culver, Indiana. The muck, marl and sand soils potentially support communities including wetland crickets and katydids that I have not yet found. Last week I spent an afternoon and evening walking through the site.

The property, named for this lake, is of particular interest as it hosts a population of rare massassauga rattlesnakes.

There are many smaller wet areas on the site, which is a flat postglacial lake plain. It has great botanical as well as zoological biodiversity.

For the most part I found a long list of familiar, common species.

Black-legged meadow katydids, like this female, are expected in wet areas.

As I walked the lanes I heard crickets singing in the pattern of Say’s trigs, but with a more mechanical or buzzing sound quality. I spent some time searching, because I thought they would prove to be a species I had not seen before. This effort was rewarded.

The handsome trig is one of the more beautiful singing insects in the region. They are tiny, around a quarter inch long.

Another unfamiliar sound was a rhythmic “warg warg warg” coming from a couple wet prairie areas. The song’s rhythm was like that of slightly musical coneheads, but that katydid produces a call with a distinctly buzzing quality. A comparison of recordings led me to the northern mole cricket. The mole cricket’s song is a chirp, but so deep that it is not readily characterized as such. Like the handsome trig, this was a species new to my experience. For future monitoring purposes I was pleased at how far their songs carry, and that at least sometimes they can be heard singing in the mid-afternoon.

A few conehead nymphs turned up in sweep net samples.

These probably will prove to be round-tipped coneheads, which mature later than most of their relatives.

An additional interesting insect was a great blue skimmer.

This was only the third individual of this species I have encountered.

Most of the conservative species I’d hoped to find at Houghton Lake eluded me, but I was only able to see part of the site, and I intend to return.

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