Two Winter Grasses

by Carl Strang

This week’s winter botany focus is on two more grasses. This time the species look quite different, so as to emphasize the diversity of winter plant appearance.

Little bluestem has reddish stems that form well defined tufts, standing out from their surroundings.

Up close, the fruiting structures are complex and beautiful.

The seed strands have a delicate, feathery structure.

Little bluestem is a native grass of dry to mesic prairies. The next species, orchard grass, is an Old World import that prefers somewhat shaded areas.

Its denser clusters of seed-bearing structures have a relatively heavy, solid look.

The yellow-brown color of orchard grass in winter is more typical of grasses generally. When blooming, orchard grass likewise shows a clumped floral structure.

Orchard grass in the summer is tinged blue-green.

Orchard grass has some visual interest, but if I had sunny space to fill in a landscape plan, little bluestem would be my choice.

Braidwood Dunes etc.

by Carl Strang

Last week I traveled to southern Will County to seek singing insects in sand country. My main stop was the Braidwood Dunes Natural Area, managed by the Forest Preserve District of Will County. I only got into part of it, and what I saw was outstanding.

There was an extensive dry prairie on sand soil dominated by little bluestem, for instance.

That prairie hosted the largest concentration of common meadow katydids I have encountered to date. In DuPage County I have found only scattered individuals and tiny groups.

It was a windy day, and the katydids were very shy. I took maybe 20 photos to get a couple that were only slightly blurry.

One of the species I specifically was seeking was the gray ground cricket. In places that were very similar in vegetation and soil to those where I heard this species at Illinois Beach State Park, I heard trills that sounded the same in memory.

One of the places where I heard probable gray ground crickets.

I made a recording, and cannot distinguish the sound, in trill speed or tonal quality or pitch, from that in a recording I made at Whitefish Dunes in the U.P. of Michigan a couple years ago (where the only candidate is gray ground cricket). Having no permit, I was not about to try and capture, let alone collect, specimens, so comparisons of recordings will have to do for now.

Otherwise, I heard mainly common species at Braidwood Dunes. I was happy to discover long-spurred meadow katydids in a wooded area, and I also made an observation that at first seemed trivial but later proved more substantive. It seemed that the Allard’s ground crickets were slowing their trill by a huge amount in shaded areas under trees. By the time I made the day’s final stop at Forsythe Woods Forest Preserve, I had realized that the slow ones might have been tinkling ground crickets, a sibling species of Allard’s. I made a recording of one there, and it proved identical in tonal quality and pitch, and in fact had a slightly longer spacing between notes, than the confirmed recording of a tinkling ground cricket by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. This experience highlighted the emphasis here and there in the literature that the tinkling ground cricket is a species mainly of dry woodland edges.

My other stops were along the Kankakee River in my continuing search for variegated ground crickets.

I stopped first at a place with a long sandy river edge.

No ground crickets in the sand.

I also found a stretch with a significant pebbly shore.

The only ground cricket here was a single Carolina ground cricket. That’s it for seeking variegateds this year. Next year I may try for them in areas where they apparently are more concentrated, in southern Indiana. Once I have experience with the species, I may have a better idea of where to look in northeast Illinois.

Late Grasses and Sedges

by Carl Strang

There was a midsummer lull, it seemed, in the appearance of newly flowering grasses and sedges at Mayslake Forest Preserve, but things have picked up again. First came the third foxtail species on the preserve.

Yellow foxtail has more bristles per flower than does the similar green foxtail, giving the heads a more golden appearance.

Another prairie grass began to bloom.

There’s not a lot of little bluestem at Mayslake. It probably began flowering some time before I found it doing so.

Most impressive was a very hairy and very expansive species called old witch grass.

I don’t know how to give this plant its due in a 2D photo. One aspect is a pink cloud, which a cluster of these resembles after expanding. Another impression is a fountain, as the inflorescence erupts from within the stem prior to expansion. The tiny flowers are widely scattered on the long threadlike branches of the inflorescence.

Another grass with tiny flowers is nimblewill.

This grass sometimes appears as a lawn weed, sometimes in woodlands.

The final one for today is Mayslake’s third nut sedge species.

Field nut sedge grows thickly along a portion of the little stream.

Though the season grows late, I won’t be surprised if yet more species pop into flower.

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.

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