Wetland Singing Insects Update

by Carl Strang

For years, now, my biggest conservation concern among the singing insects has been in the wetlands. Though our historically abundant prairies in the Chicago region were diminished nearly to nothing by 19th– and 20th-century agriculture, preservation and restoration projects across the region have halted and, to a small degree, reversed that trend. The same could be said for savannas, and our forests did not suffer as much.

Wetlands, like prairies, declined thanks to agriculture, but a new challenge continues to threaten their integrity: invasive wetland plants. Four of these are especially problematic: common reed (Phragmites australis), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), hybrid cattails (Typha x glauca), and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). These plants, released from consumers and competitors, have displaced the diverse native species in a large and increasing portion of our wetland acreage. The loss of native wetland grasses, especially, appears to account for the difficulty I am experiencing in finding wetland katydids.

Reed canary grass

Two species that were here historically, I have not found at all: the delicate meadow katydid (Orchelimum delicatum), and the slender conehead (Neoconocephalus lyristes). In the past these were known to occur in four and three, respectively, of the Chicago region’s 22 counties, and I am nearly out of places to check where they might still live. The stripe-faced meadow katydid (O. concinnum), once found in 8 of the counties, appears to be down to a single population at Illinois Beach State Park.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Two wetland katydids are doing well. Gladiator meadow katydids (O. gladiator) and black-legged meadow katydids (O. nigripes) are tolerant of the invasive plants, and remain common in every county.

That leaves an in-between category of wetland singing insects that apparently are limited to invasives-free wetlands, and are managing to hang on in a few to several sites. Northern mole crickets (Neocurtilla hexadactyla) occur in wet prairies as well as marshes. In 2017 I added records for two more sites, one of which represented an additional county record. To date I have found them in 10 counties, and remain optimistic that I can add more populations to the inventory.

Dusky-faced meadow katydids (O. campestre) historically were ubiquitous in our marshes. To date I have found them only in marshes with minimal impact by the invasive plants. These katydids seem able to persist in relatively small wetland areas, however, and each year I have been able to add new populations to my list. In 2017 I found them in the Indiana Kankakee Sands preserve, adding Newton County to the record, and in the Tefft Savanna preserve in Jasper County, also a county record. That brings to seven the number of counties where I have found the species, but there are seven more where it once lived, but where my search has been unsuccessful. Dusky-faced meadow katydids also proved this year to be abundant in the panne wetlands at West Beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. That was a good find, but I had hoped for delicate meadow katydids there.

Female dusky-faced meadow katydid, Tefft Savanna

Finally, this year I added a third population and county for the nimble meadow katydid (O. volantum). They were singing from arrowheads (Sagittaria sp.) mixed with cattails along Grant Creek in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. That find was made from a kayak, and that is the vehicle from which further searching for the species will need to happen, as this species likes plants growing in relatively deep water. Some places which historically held nimble meadow katydids no longer have them, but several other sites remain for me to check in future years.

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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.

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.

McHenry County Singing Insects

by Carl Strang

On Saturday I traveled north to McHenry County, Illinois, to continue my regional survey of singing insects. That county is blessed with some impressive sites, and I was able to cover only parts of two of them. Moraine Hills State Park has a wide range of representative habitats covering large acreages.

Wetlands in particular dominate the landscape.

Wetlands in particular dominate the landscape.

Much of the park is spanned by a network of bike paths, and my next survey trip there will involve my bike. I also paid a visit to a McHenry County Conservation District property, Glacial Park.

When I think of Glacial Park I think of glorious vistas.

When I think of Glacial Park I think of glorious vistas.

There are savannas, restored prairie, and wetlands of varied quality.

This marsh looks very good, at least around the edges.

This marsh looks very good, at least around the edges.

The bog so far is holding its own against a fringing ring of reed canary grass.

The bog so far is holding its own against a fringing ring of reed canary grass.

The bog is rich in sphagnum moss, but was quiet on Saturday, so I hope to find sphagnum ground crickets singing when I return in a month or so.

The bog is rich in sphagnum moss, but was quiet on Saturday, so I hope to find sphagnum ground crickets singing when I return in a month or so.

The species count for McHenry County totaled 16, the list mainly overlapping that for Kendall County from the previous day. The differences were interesting, though. Where the day at Kendall was dominated by omnipresent choruses of lyric cicadas, I did not hear a single member of that species in McHenry. At some point I will follow a couple rivers north and south to find the current range limit for that species, which is common in DuPage County not far south of McHenry.

The McHenry woodlands had rattler round-wing katydids, which I did not find in Kendall County, but the latter had Nebraska coneheads which I did not find in McHenry County. I need to find a drier, more open woodland in Kendall County, but the Nebraska conehead likely is a species which, like the lyric cicada, has its northern range limit somewhere between those two counties.

Seeking Singers

by Carl Strang

The middle of August through September is the peak singing insect season, and on Tuesday I took the first of a scattered series of vacation days to work on a long checklist of targets. I started with searches of the McKee Marsh edge at Blackwell Forest Preserve, and the area around the bridge over the West Branch of the DuPage River at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. My main targets were long-tailed and black-sided meadow katydids. I first found those two species in the county last year, and went to these likely locations in hope of finding more. At Blackwell I found mainly black-legged and short-winged meadow katydids, our two most common species in their respective genera. I also saw a few conehead nymphs like this.

Only about an inch long, and lacking wings, these will have to grow fast to complete their development this season. I suspect they are round-tipped coneheads.

After considerable wading through vegetation depressingly dominated by reed canary grass, I finally spotted a female long-tailed meadow katydid. She did not provide a photo op, but I did post some photos last year from another location.

The Winfield Mounds bridge was on the list thanks to my meeting a photographer who had placed a photo of a black-sided meadow katydid on his website. He said he took the picture at the bridge. Again I found a lot of reed canary grass, but dutifully waded in. Again, plenty of black-legs and short-wingeds, but there were scattered others including a female Say’s trig who hopped onto my net.

I didn’t realize how big the females can get, and how they can have long wing extensions reminiscent of a two-spotted tree cricket’s, until I met this individual. She was a good centimeter long.

Shortly after photographing the trig I spotted a black-sided meadow katydid, and so they indeed persist in that area.

Three Grasses and a Bulrush

by Carl Strang

Grasses are starting to flower at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and so I am expanding my study of such plants beyond the sedges. After the meadow foxtail I mentioned earlier, the next species was the abundant Kentucky bluegrass.

This European grass occurs not only in Mayslake’s lawns and trails, but also in meadows and even the savannas.

Orchard grass soon followed.

The clumps of flower clusters are distinctive in this species, which typically occurs in somewhat shady places.

Last week, reed canary grass, also European but much less welcome because of its aggressive invasive quality, began to bloom.

A study found that strains of this grass brought to North America from different locations in Europe have hybridized to produce its problematic vigor.

It’s not all grasses, however. I continue to watch for new sedges, and also found this clump of a large bulrush at the edge of the stream.

The plant is taking advantage of a sunny stretch from which the woody brush has been removed by Mayslake’s restoration group.

I needed to wait for flowering. It appears to be the great bulrush.

As in the sedges and grasses, flowers of the bulrush are organized into units called spikelets.

As long as these plants bloom in a trickle I’ll be able to keep up, but I’m concerned that there may be a flood of species soon.

Return to the Dolomite Prairie

by Carl Strang

I needed to return to the dolomite prairie at Waterfall Glen as part of my targeted singing insects search. This had been my dragonfly monitoring area until I switched to surveying the nearby Des Plaines River by kayak, and I hadn’t been in the dolomite prairie for two seasons.

This is a unique environment, arguably the rarest in the county, as it is a prairie growing in a thin soil layer that has developed atop a shelf of Silurian dolomite bedrock in the few thousands of years since the last continental glacier melted away. In my dragonfly monitoring there I had seen federally endangered Hines emeralds hunting a few times. This prairie is not established as a Hines breeding area, though they are known to reproduce nearby. As I walked through the drier part of the prairie depicted above, I noticed some meadow katydids, including this female straight-lanced.

My particular interest, though, was a small area of tall sedges and grasses in the wetter east end of the prairie.

This is where I took the photograph of the female katydid nymph I shared a couple posts ago, the brown one that might have been a black-sided, might have been a long-tailed. Almost immediately as I entered the area I began to see a few black-sided meadow katydids, including this female.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to one of the highest densities of black-legged meadow katydids I’ve ever encountered, I also began to see all-brown individuals including this female.

This was almost certainly a long-tailed meadow katydid. According to one paper I’d read, as of 1983 at least there were no known places where black-sided and long-tailed meadow katydids occurred together. I don’t know whether that has changed in the quarter-century since that publication appeared, but if not then this could well be the first documentation of such a co-occurrence. Considering the potential significance of this find, I went ahead and collected one of the all-brown males, while taking close looks at others like this one.

It proved indeed to be a long-tailed meadow katydid. As I sampled the area with my sweep net I also turned up some colorful individuals like this one.

It has a brown body, and in fact except for the green legs is much like the all brown long-taileds. I was tempted to regard these as variants of the short-winged meadow katydid, a much more common species, because some of them had very bright yellow abdomen tips.

In the end, though, I had to conclude that this was a population of long-tailed meadow katydids with both brown-legged and green-legged individuals. Photos supported the structure of the green-legs’ cerci being closer to long-taileds’ than to short-wingeds’, and while in the literature I could find some references to long-taileds with green legs I could find no mention of short-wingeds with brown bodies.

Thus this small area at the east end of the dolomite prairie, which also is the only part of the whole site where I have seen Hines emeralds hunting, proves to have considerable scientific value. Unfortunately it may be on the verge of being lost. It is smaller than it was even two summers ago, as reed canary grass is invading and displacing the tall sedges and native grasses. I don’t know if anything can be done about this. Herbiciding the reed canary grass probably would also do in the native species, and as I understand it there are no other options. I have to hope the Hines’ can hunt elsewhere, and that these meadow katydid populations will be able to hang on in the marginal habitat with which they will be left if the trend continues.

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