Prairie Cicadas Ran Late

by Carl Strang

Prairie cicadas are very locally distributed in northeastern Illinois, and I have not yet found them in Indiana or Wisconsin. Their season is brief and variable, and so I rely on a population near my home, at West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve, to tell me when they are active each year. This year has been a bust in my search for new populations. The largest number I counted at West Chicago Prairie was only 4, on July 12, and they were difficult to pick out among the many gladiator meadow katydids, whose briefer buzz has a similar sound quality. Usually the cicadas are finished before the gladiators become numerous. There were no cicadas singing in my final check yesterday.

Side view of one of this year’s few singers.

Side view of one of this year’s few singers.

Dorsal view of the same individual. These guys are little, about an inch long.

Dorsal view of the same individual. These guys are little, about an inch long.

At least some cicada species have the ability to postpone emergence by a year. Perhaps the rain or periods of cool weather at the beginning of the usual emergence period persuaded some of these to wait. If so, there may be increased numbers next year, and I will be able to resume my search for undiscovered populations.

Tennessee Warbler Dossier

by Carl Strang

The Tennessee warbler is one of our more abundant migrants, conspicuous more by sound than by sight in spring as it is well camouflaged and moves slowly, often high in the trees. It often works closer to the ground and more frenetically in the fall.

Warbler, Tennessee

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Seen as migrant in many locations in the eastern U.S. Judging by songs, one of the most abundant warbler migrants. Not an easy bird to see; moves slowly and infrequently, and colors cryptic among tree leaves. Song loud and distinctive, and for a week or so every spring the trees of woods and residential areas ring with their songs. “Sebit, sebit, sebit, sebit, seteeteeteeteetee…” Initial part just like Nashville warbler’s, but last part very loud, rapid and energetic with no slurring of notes.

10MY87. First of season noted.

13MY87. At Willowbrook, one bird thoroughly working one small area, with much turning of its head, short reaches to probe nearby leaves, short hops between branches, relatively slow-moving for a warbler. Also does a lot of slow smooth stepping along a twig. Foraging in box elder, black willow.

13SE87. West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Several Tennessee warblers together in a mixed flock with a magnolia warbler, a red-eyed vireo, a female rose-breasted grosbeak, and several catbirds and robins. The warblers remained within 10 feet of the ground, active and acrobatic, probing, changing perches frequently (2-10 seconds), very chickadee-like and unlike last spring. 11MY88. First Tennessee warbler song of the year. Gone by May 20.

18MY90. Lots of Tennessee warblers at Willowbrook. Cold spring. The only warblers heard on the 24th.

4MY99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last noted there on 25MY.

12MY99. Slow and deliberate, on 1 perch a long time as they look around.

31AU99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. First-year Tennessee warbler very yellow, with yellow eye line, but white under tail. In contrast to spring birds, very frequent perch changes, actively pivoting and reaching. Last migrant at Willowbrook noted 17SE.

7MY00. Several Tennessees in a mixed flock at West DuPage Woods, high in canopy. One was moving steadily when I first saw it, foraging and singing, then was still for over a minute on a perch, apparently doing no foraging, but alternating singing with bouts of preening.

24SE00. Tennessees have been abundant, lately. Today, a couple in hedgelike borders of the Prairie Path at West Chicago Prairie just east of Industrial Drive.

8OC00. A couple Tennessee’s at West Chicago Prairie.

12OC02. A few at Fermilab in old field areas.

Not an Indicator?

by Carl Strang

Prairie cicadas are small, early-season cicadas that I first met on July 4 of last year at Woodworth Prairie in Cook County. Soon after that I found them at West Chicago Prairie and Belmont Prairie in DuPage County. Researchers at Woodworth have documenting them as emerging during a relatively brief period, mid-June to mid-July. This year I have been making weekly checks at West Chicago Prairie, and they did not appear until last Sunday, July 6.

This one sang from a bush clover stalk.

This one sang from a bush clover stalk.

That opened the door to seeking them on other sites, and I have been to two of them so far. I failed to find prairie cicadas at Horlock Hill Prairie in Kane County and at Wolf Road Prairie in Cook County. That spoils my working hypothesis that they would prove to be indicators of prairie remnants.

Here’s another West Chicago Prairie cicada, singing from a dead stem.

Here’s another West Chicago Prairie cicada, singing from a dead stem.

I hope to squeeze in a few more site checks in the next couple of weeks, but already I have the sense that this species is very limited in the locations where it occurs. I’ll also hope to get a sense of how long they are out at a given site. The July 6 appearance seems late, but this has been an odd year phenologically. So far the 11 species of singing insects have ranged from the earliest starting date in my record to nearly the latest, and the median is right in the middle. That is a little surprising given the severity and length of the winter, but first flower dates (which I hope to analyze soon) have been equally all over the place.

Western Chorus Frog Dossier

by Carl Strang

An early sign of spring’s arrival is the sound of massed chorus frogs. Here are my limited specific observations of them.

Western chorus frog

Western chorus frog

Frog, Western Chorus Known in my experience mainly from DuPage County, IL, and the Culver, Indiana, area. In early spring they sing in large numbers, in crickety sounding calls, in temporary ponds. I saw one in the back yard of the house we rented in Glendale Heights. Small and striped, crawling in the grass. Closest pond where they sang was at least 200m away.

7MR87. Singing at West Chicago Prairie.

22MR87. Singing at Fish Hatchery, Culver, in first partial pond west of ditches.

12MR88. Brief song from one at McDowell Forest Preserve.

26MR88. Singing just west of Hartz Lake property.

27MR89. First song of year heard at McKee Marsh.

23AP89. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. I water-stalked a singing frog, close enough to see it, or at least the movement caused by its singing. It was in or just above the water, which vibrated with the song. It was in a place where broken-down cattails created a small (almost completely covering) shelter. They sing in alternation: pairs, high and low. High starts. If a few calls do not involve a nearby frog in a duet, the first stops.

10MR97. Heard one singing while I ran on Prairie Path near Rt. 59.

20MR99. First chorus frogs of spring heard in 2 places.

30OC99. 1-2 (same one found twice?) found on an extensive mudflat at Fermilab.

5MR00. A few singing at Lake Law, Fermilab, in an area of shallow water and dense dead stems of cattails and grasses.

2MY00. A couple still singing.

24SE00. A few individuals singing weakly in the tall, goldenrod-dominated upland vegetation between the large lakes at Fermilab.

14OC00. Occasional song, still, at Fermilab. Much like spring peeper’s pattern of fall singing.

21MR01. First of year, a couple only, heard near Prairie Path east of Warrenville. A cold, lingering winter.

15AP01. Quite a few singing near the McKee Marsh outlet. 12SE01. I heard single brief song beside the prairie path north of Butterfield and west of Fermilab in late afternoon.

12OC02. A few weakly singing individuals at Fermilab, in low spots.

21MR05. One singer at the Hartz Lake property.

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Chorus frogs and American toads have resumed singing after heavy recent rains have raised water levels, here and at Fermilab for chorus frogs, and here and at Fullersburg for toads.

5AP10. Mayslake. A jump in chorus frog numbers from last year. Last year they were at the stream corridor marsh only, and the maximum male count was 12. This year, up to 22. Furthermore, there were satellite groups in the parking lot marsh (3) and the reed-canary-grass pool east of the dog fence (5).

25OC10. Mayslake. Chorus frogs calling, three individuals in three places: one on top of a wooded hill; one in the middle of the meadow west of the dog area, and one a short distance south of the stream corridor marsh.

27OC10. Mayslake. A western chorus frog called from on or right beside the path N of the stream corridor marsh. No hibernaculum candidate there.

17MR11. Mayslake. First singers of the season, in stream corridor and parking lot marshes.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

29SE11. Mayslake. At least 3 chorus frogs calling in close proximity in a reed canary grass area. Another in the main meadow W of dog fence.

Spring 2013. Mayslake. Hardly any chorus frog activity this spring, in the wake of last year’s drought, despite the re-filling of the marshes.

American Tree Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s feature is my dossier of the American tree sparrow, a wintering bird that still is with us but soon will head back to the northern nesting grounds. The following notes reveal my interest in the complex range of this species’ vocalizations.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

Sparrow, American Tree

This songbird is a common winter resident in old fields and residential areas with some bushes, in Culver, around Lafayette, in south central Pennsylvania and in DuPage County, IL. Usually they occur in loose flocks, often mixed with juncos. They feed on the ground, especially, taking seeds. Note: “tsew,” “tsoo” or “tsee” in a slightly melancholy minor key, hint of downward slurring. Has a 3-syllable call, a hair slower and more flowing than junco’s, very musical and pleasant in contrast. Single-note call has a descending tail, is much like white-throated sparrow’s.

26FE87. Song heard in Willowbrook Back 40: “Tsoo-too-doo-doo-dee-chew-chew-chew-chew.” Song loud and clear, of water thrush quality.

7MR87. Another song: “tsee-tsoo-bye-tsee-tsoo-tsoo.” First note held longer than others. Tsee syllables highest pitched, tsoo’s lowest. Sang from perch in top of willow clump, 6 feet up, at West Chicago Prairie.

13MR87. Still hearing them singing.

22MR87. Still present and singing at Culver Fish Hatchery.

15OC99. First tree sparrow of the season at Willowbrook.

20DE99. Tree sparrows eating Indian grass seeds at Fermilab. Sometimes their call notes are simple and flat, but sometimes they add a trailer that so far I cannot tell from white-throated sparrow’s. In conflicts they have beautiful, musical clusters of notes.

29JA00. A flock of 30 tree sparrows and 2 juncos feeding on the gravel berm edge of Swenson Road, Fermilab.

5MR00. A single still at Fermilab, in thick grass area with a few shrubs, beside trail.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

23NO04. Willowbrook. A flock of tree sparrows in tall prairie vegetation using a call I don’t remember hearing before, a pardalote-like “wee’dah.”

16NO10. Mayslake. Many tree sparrows are in the west stream corridor along the southern edge of the mansion grounds. Giving an unusual call, less than a second long, beginning at a high pitch, slurring to a lower one, and quickly back up to the starting pitch.

6JA11. The more complex tree sparrow call can be difficult to pick out when many birds are producing it at once. When a single bird is isolated, the call has the rhythm of a quick, “tit willow,” i.e., three dominant syllables with the last two close together and a little more separated from the first.

2FE12. American tree sparrow call: dedjidu, quickly pronounced.

15NO12. Mayslake. Tree sparrows eating seeds of Canada goldenrod and annuals.

25JA13. Mayslake. On the ground in the off-leash dog area, an enormous flock of at least 100 tree sparrows, 30 juncos with at least one white-throated sparrow mixed in, doing the double-foot scratching to get through the snow and then reach, presumably for seeds.

Okanagana balli in DuPage County

by Carl Strang

Sunday was hot, sunny, and nearly calm, good conditions for seeking short grass prairie cicadas in DuPage County. The University of Illinois at Chicago research group had not sought them in my county, but I knew of two remnant prairies that were good possibilities. I started at the West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. The first short trail loop from the parking lot goes through a high quality prairie portion, and as it happened that was all I needed.

Here is one of 9 Okanagana I heard or saw at West Chicago Prairie.

Here is one of 9 Okanagana I heard or saw at West Chicago Prairie.

Having established them in one location I went on to the Belmont Prairie, a state Nature Preserve managed by the Downers Grove Park District.

Belmont Prairie is much smaller than West Chicago Prairie, but its high quality core is at least as large as the Woodworth Prairie where there is a stable population of Okanagana.

Belmont Prairie is much smaller than West Chicago Prairie, but its high quality core is at least as large as the Woodworth Prairie where there is a stable population of Okanagana.

Some clouds had come in, but the sun appeared frequently, and I heard a few cicada songs.

This one was singing from a gray dogwood adjacent to one of the trails.

This one was singing from a gray dogwood adjacent to one of the trails.

That may be as much as I will be able to do with this species this year, as the end of its brief activity period is approaching.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

As usual, the dossier begins with the paragraph that established the file in the mid-1980’s. In this case I didn’t have much to say because my experience with the species was limited. Since then, dated notes have appended observations that I felt added to my understanding of the species.

Grosbeak, Rose-breasted

This species was relatively rare around my home town of Culver, Indiana. My first were a pair in my neighborhood in the town. The male sang from high in trees or TV aerials. His song began with a phrase much like the theme of the “Guestward Ho” TV series which was current then. That mnemonic has helped me recognize it elsewhere in Indiana as well as Pennsylvania and Illinois. They also have a loud “pick” call distinctive in quality from their close relative the cardinal. Foraging movements are slow, taking their time while visually searching for insects at mid to high elevations in trees. They are uncommon during the breeding season (though abundant in migration) in DuPage County, with occasional single pairs here and there in savannah-like forests. They are especially common for a couple of weeks during migration in May.

Adult male rose-breasted grosbeak

Adult male rose-breasted grosbeak

5MY87. First song of the year heard at Willowbrook Forest Preserve.

25JL87. Hartz Lake, Indiana: An adult male fed 10-15 feet up in saplings. Deliberate: about 10 seconds per perch, looking apparently over a radius of several feet, moving 2-5 feet between perches.

A male reaches for a food item. They can look very parrot-like in this maneuver.

A male reaches for a food item. They can look very parrot-like in this maneuver.

13SE87. A female was in a mixed flock with a red-eyed vireo, a Tennessee warbler, and several catbirds and robins.

7MY88. First song of the year, Culver, Indiana.

11MY88. A female was in Willowbrook Forest Preserve.

8MY89. I saw grosbeaks today and on May 6th at Willowbrook.

Singing posture

Singing posture

4MY99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last observed there 14MY.

26AU99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last one noted 29SE.

4SE99. A grosbeak in female plumage at Willowbrook produced “pick!” notes and bits of low-volume warbling song.

11JE00. Rose-breasted grosbeaks were in a diverse forest near Langlade, Wisconsin, associated with the Wolf River riparian edge and with savanna-like areas where trees were more scattered. Deciduous trees were abundant in those areas. Other birds in those habitats were least flycatcher, Baltimore oriole and black-throated blue warbler.

23-4SE00. Grosbeaks were numerous along the Prairie Path just east of Industrial Drive and bordering the West Chicago Prairie, in the hedge-like edges.

21MY08. Fullersburg Woods. A rose-breasted grosbeak nest was on Willow Island, midway along the east side. It was 10 feet up in the top of a buckthorn, 15 feet in from the trail, female incubating. The nest structure resembles that of the cardinal but thinner so you can see through it in places.

Indigo Bunting Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

In contrast to the species dossiers I have shared recently, this one has relatively little in it. Indigo buntings, though one of our common breeding birds, are gone to Central America for much of the year, and like brushy areas, so more than a casual observation study would be needed to know much about them.

Bunting, Indigo

Male indigo bunting

Frequently observed along railroad tracks (brushy/weedy) near home in Culver, in childhood. Observed in brushy areas, usually with a few high bushes. Also in forest edges and clearings.

Seems to prefer older old fields with plenty of brush, some tall. Occurs with chat, field sparrow, catbird, cardinal. Song, in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, quite variable, but generally 2 up-slurring notes and usually followed by 2 down-slurring notes, then a variable jumble of notes. Sometimes only 5-6 notes altogether. Males sing from exposed perches. In 1985, 2-3 males sang in 43-acre Willowbrook Forest Preserve. A male moves very little when singing, tilting his head up and vibrating his mouth with the song. He changes perches at 2-5-minute intervals. Alarm call alternated cardinal-like high notes with low chips.

24MY86. A male at Maple Grove Forest Preserve sang in the savannah area. A close look showed many brown feathers on his breast. A female fed in the same area, deliberately moving among oak leaves on a large branch 20 feet up.

16MY87. First of year singing at a park in Geneva.

Indigo bunting singing, Mayslake

13MY88. First of year singing, Willowbrook Back 40.

3MY99. First bunting of year at Willowbrook.

22JL99. A late indigo bunting singing at Willowbrook. Still singing 12AU.

17SE99. Last one of year noted at Willowbrook.

11JE00. Alarm note strong and forceful. Species fairly common south of Langlade, WI.

24SE00. Several female-plumaged birds in hedgelike borders of Prairie Path at West Chicago Prairie just east of Industrial Drive.

3JE06. Pair mating mid-morning, female perched on a side branch of a 12-foot-tall, 2-inch DBH tree at edge of woods. Male on her only about 1 second, mating accompanied by a forceful buzzing call. About 20 minutes later we heard the call again from them, same area.

23AU10. Indigo bunting and field sparrow heard singing today.

Eastern Bluebird Dossier

by Carl Strang

A couple weeks ago I shared my dossier on the great blue heron. Today’s choice is an example of a species for which I have not made a lot of observations, and so my personal knowledge is more limited.

Eastern Bluebird

As a child, occasionally I saw these at the horse-jumping practice ground in the Culver Military Academy’s Bird Sanctuary near Culver.

They nested in birdhouses mounted on posts in a tall-grass meadow with widely scattered trees at the Tyler Arboretum near Philadelphia in 1980.

I saw them in a similar area in spring 1986 at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage Co. I also saw them in southern Illinois at Giant City State Park. [Bluebirds once were so uncommon that simply listing the places where I had seen them was most of what I could write when I first created this dossier].

23MR88. A bluebird singing from the top of a nest box, one of those posted out from a fencerow. [Location not indicated; Blackwell?]

29AP90. Indian Knoll Schoolyard, near Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. Bluebird foraging on mowed lawn by perching 8-15 feet up and sallying out 20-40 feet from perch to land on ground and take food, then returning to same perch or moving to another. [I since have concluded that this version of sit-and-wait foraging is their primary hunting method. Other birds I have seen hunting in this way are Australia’s kookaburras. Of course, the latter are after larger insects, small lizards, etc.]

20FE93. Bluebirds at the boundary between Hidden Lake F.P. and Morton Arboretum.

6FE99. Bluebirds wintering in a savannah area in the Morton Arboretum.

29AP00. Apparent territorial boundary dispute between two male bluebirds near prairie at Morton Arboretum. Song “peer, peer, poowee,” wings flutter when singing. Flying bird has an appearance like horned lark or swallow.

8OC00. Flock at West Chicago Prairie.

26MY01. A protracted dispute between a pair of bluebirds and a pair of tree swallows at a nest box in the prairie area at the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail. The male bluebird was at the entrance on the outside of the box, with the female on the ground nearby, when the swallows arrived. At first it appeared that the swallows were attempting to chase the bluebirds away, but then the male bluebird became vigorous in chasing after the swallows. After 5 minutes of this, the bluebirds backed off and a swallow took the perch on top of the house. Soon, though, the bluebirds returned and the male resumed his attack. I never saw any of the birds enter the house.

5JA06. Fullersburg. A small flock of bluebirds feeding on honeysuckle berries near the Visitor Center bridge. (These stayed around for another week or so).

4AU09. Mayslake. Bluebirds nesting near the chapel have fledged at least one youngster.

(Dates are coded with the day, two-letter month code, and two-digit year).

West Chicago Prairie

by Carl Strang

I had high hopes going into West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve in my search for new singing insects. It is our largest prairie area in the county with a history of minimal disturbance, and has plenty of low, wet areas that would seem good places for meadow katydids. This late in the season, however, much of the ground is dry, and I was finding few species.

It’s always an interesting place, though. The above scene was highlighted by beautiful flowers of smooth blue aster.

The highlight came as I went through one of the persistent wet spots.

Up jumped a brown meadow katydid, and it paused in the open long enough for me to take a couple photos.

It was not a black-sided meadow katydid, as it was a mature male with an all-brown abdomen. According to my references, habitat and color rule out all but the long-tailed meadow katydid. I wanted to catch him to double-check by taking a look at his cerci, but he got away, and despite much searching he was the only one I saw. According to one published study, black-sided and long-tailed meadow katydids have never been found together. This is puzzling, as their habitat needs on the surface are identical. I must check out areas at Waterfall Glen, where I took this photo a few years ago.

This tiny nymph has an ovipositor mid-way in structure between the two species, and as far as I know could have developed into either one.

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