Monday, October 3, 2016

Interstate Agility

Labor Day weekend. Fall semester had already begun, and our chances of going back down to Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve in the Ross County Park District any time after Labor Day seemed nonexistent. Park District director Joe Letsche had invited other folks to come to Buzzards Roost  for “All-insect Night” on Friday night, and we were coming from the longest distance. 

As we drove through Chillicothe on our way to the preserve, Wendy and I noticed how different the singing insects combinations are down there. We also observed how we’d come to identify the early September ensemble sound with the Chillicothe area. Our ears told us where we were. 

It certainly doesn’t sound like NE Ohio.  Lesser Anglewings and Columbian Trigs. None of the Black-horned or Forbes’s Tree Crickets I've been recording farther north, but plenty of Broad-winged Tree Crickets. The woods have lots of Tinkling Ground Crickets. There are Robust and False Robust Coneheads along with Round-tipped Coneheads, but none of the Sword-bearing Coneheads that are so abundant in NE Ohio. Having come down to Buzzards Roost four times between late June and mid-September last year, I thought we knew all the singing insects we were likely to find throughout the season.

There was a new meadow area at Buzzards Roost that had just been generously seeded this year. It's up by the park pavilion, adding even more katydid habitat to the already existing field just below it. There are grasses of varying heights, wildflowers, and…lots of coneheads and meadow katydids!

And there were so many meadow katydids! I assumed they were Common Meadow Katydids (Orchelimum vulgare), which prefer drier, upland areas than Black-legged Meadow Katydids and other members of this genus that I know. But I’ve never seen groups of Commons. When I see them at all, there will be one or two here or there.

This, however, was an entire Friday night party in the meadow. These katydids were surprisingly tolerant of our presence and I was able to get close enough for photos. Males and females in close proximity, and mating was definitely on the agenda. 

This female's spermatophore indicates that she's just mated and will be ovipositing in the near future. 

I considered trying to record the singing males, but there was audio obstacle: the nearby Robust Coneheads. 

There was no point in trying to record anything with those ridiculously loud boys so close. I wasn’t particularly concerned about recording, though, as I’d already made Common Meadow Katydid recordings elsewhere in the past few years. 

But when I got home and looked more closely at the photos, they didn’t quite match up with my Common Meadow Katydid expectation.  The eyes were light tan instead of red. The faces were pale tan instead of green. Here's the face of the mystery meadow katydid...

...followed by the face and red eyes of the Common Meadow Katydid.

Their light brown wings were longer than the Common Meadow Katydids I’ve seen, and the female's ovipositor seemed more brown. Here's another comparison: the Buzzards Roost female...

 ...and a Common Meadow Katydid female.

They were in the Orchelimum genus - the katydids' size and the female's curved ovipositor were identifiers but none of them quite matched what I expected to see. 

If anything, they somewhat reminded me of the Dusky-faced Meadow Katydids I’d recently gotten to know. However, these katydids were in an upland meadow, not in a pond edge or wetland. 

Who WERE they? 

When I sent photos to Wil Hershberger, co-author of The Songs of Insects, he recognized them right away. They looked like Agile Meadow Katydids – Orchelimum agile. Except…there were no records of this species in Ohio or any of the surrounding states. According to the range map from Singing Insects of North America, they shouldn’t be north of Tennessee. 

We would need recordings and photos of the male’s cerci. If I’d had any suspicion that I was looking at a species that shouldn’t be in Ohio at all. I would have somehow caught the Robust Coneheads and put them in cages in my car until I was done recording!

                                              (Robust Conehead leaving in a hurry)

Too late for that now, though. It was already September and time was short. Fall semester was underway, temperatures would be dropping, and my schedule was packed. Chillicothe is 4+1/2 hours one way, so it's not a quick trip to the next county.

But of course I had to go back. I left right after work on a mid-September Friday afternoon, and Wendy took off early so she could come as well. Would they still be there? Would the males still be singing? 

We went into the grassy meadow almost as soon as we pulled into the driveway. Although there weren’t quite as many katydids, they were there! Now we had to catch one for a quick photo shoot, and they're named "Agile" for a reason.

It took four of us - Joe, Wendy, myself, and Denise, who is holding the individual below - to get the cerci photos, but I got the diagnostic documentation. It seemed like a very good match for Agile Meadow Katydid.

And the males were still singing!

I made recordings of more than one singing male that night and also a male who sang a great deal the next day. The recordings matched as well.

Here’s the song of the daytime singer. The morning was warm and breezy, but he continued to sing even as his vegetation was blowing him back and forth. Look at the rhythmic groupings and spaces between them: a series of "tics" separated from the "whirrs" that follow. There's generally space between everything.

                        (This is the male who's singing in the recording below)


Now listen to a Common Meadow Katydid. The "tics" go right into the "whirr" and then start again. It really is audibly different if one listens for the space between the “tics” and the “whirrs” of the two songs, as the Common sounds almost nonstop.

Agile Meadow Katydids had moved north into southern Ohio – yet another more southern species expanding northward.

Although none of the meadow katydid species are large insects, some species have longer wings and others shorter-winged species have long-winged individuals. I saw the Agile Meadow Katydids jump, then fly farther out into the meadow. Is that adequate to get them, over time, from Tennessee across Kentucky and into southern Ohio? How did they cross the Ohio River? 

And when did they arrive at Buzzards Roost? In our trips down there last year and earlier this year, we saw exactly one Common Meadow Katydid in the meadows and shrubby fields. The new meadow area had just been seeded earlier this year. Did katydids elsewhere in the area notice there was a great new diner at Buzzards Roost? 

Naturalist Carl Strang, who’s been surveying singing insects in the 22-county area surrounding Chicago for years, found Agile Meadow Katydids in the Indianapolis area two weeks after I found them in Chillicothe. This, too, is a huge range expansion.

Alas, it is now October 2nd. Although temperatures have been seasonal or a little above normal, the number and diversity of crickets and katydids continues to diminish. If only I didn’t have to wait till next July to continue the investigation!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lost and Found

Last year at about this time, I wrote a post titled, “Has Anyone Seen Me?” It was about the Dusky-faced Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum campestre), a wetland species I’d searched for year after year but had never found in Ohio.

Until just recently - specifically, August 23rd.

I knew there were historical records of this species and it appears to have been somewhat common in Ohio. However, Ohio has also lost 90% of its wetlands, and most of what remains is degraded by invasive phragmites and narrow-leaved cattails. 

I’d also written in my post that I thought I’d need to observe these katydids closely in order to learn about their behavior and where they live. 

Wendy and I had a brief introduction to them at Kingsbury Wildlife Area in NW Indiana last year. Carl Strang, who has been doing a 22-county Orthoptera survey in NE Illinois/NW Indiana for years, was our guide when we visited his area last Labor Day weekend. He knew right where to go to find them.

This year, the three of us were joined by Wil Hershberger, co-author with Lang Elliott of The Songs of Insects, for a 5-day exploration of Carl’s area and the crickets and katydids he has found in his region. It was a fascinating trip with companionship as excellent as the insects we found. As Wendy and I headed back to NE Ohio, I felt I was in a stronger position to search for additional singing insects that might possibly be in our area.

It was clear that the first thing I’d need to do is search wetlands that still had native plants, and I’d need to wade out into the water. Since I’m studying the crickets and katydids at Bath Nature Preserve in Summit County this year, I promptly headed for one of the ponds within a couple of days after returning home.

The Garden Pond is not invasive-free, but there’s lots of arrowhead at the edge of the water with other native plants as well.

I started wading into the arrowhead, periodically checking the tops of my rubber boots. I thought I heard a pattern of tics and whirrs that was different from the typical boisterous Black-legged Meadow Katydids that seem to inhabit any damp or wet area in NE Ohio. 

I looked down at my boots: water ½” from the top…

...and there in the arrowhead was a Dusky-faced Meadow Katydid! And then another!

My dilemma, as always, was: record first, or photograph first?

But it wasn’t a problem, as they weren’t going anywhere. These katydids were surprisingly tolerant of my standing in their marsh. Of course, I couldn’t move very quickly, either, as it was dark and my preference was not to fill my boots with water or get stuck in the mucky bottom of the pond.

So I remained relatively stationary, watching and listening. Eventually I saw a few more of them. When I slowly moved to the other side of the pond, I found three or four more – but only when I had waded out into at least a few inches of water. 

I was delighted!

As I wrote last year, their songs are indeed quite loud. It just doesn’t seem that way because the frequency is so very high for human ears. My recorder shot into the red zone, yet my perception was simply that I could hear this katydid better than I thought I would. I couldn’t back up very well, as I was rather embedded in mud by now, so I quickly pulled back my microphone until I could adjust the input level.

I could later see that the song was well over 15 kHz (that’s 15,000 Hz, and the threshold of human hearing is about 20,000 for young ears). Wil confirmed for me that the peak frequencies of the Dusky-faced he recorded were 16.3 -17.7 kHz. 

The pattern of "tics" is irregular, and the "whirrs" (or trills) are of varying lengths. Here's another example from Garden Pond. 

When I returned the next night, my initial little group now had six individuals, all on arrowhead. When they jumped, I could hear the sound of their feet hitting the tough, thick leaves. They not only perched on these leaves and stems, but were eating the leaves as well.


One of the females hopped from a leaf right onto my hand as I was recording a singing male. Perhaps she remembered how much she’d enjoyed nibbling on my skin during our photo shoot the night before. 

Katydids do like to nibble on human skin, but it’s usually just the lightest tickle. Not with this girl, though. I guess it takes more power to chew that tough arrowhead, and I felt sharp little pinches up and down my arms and hands as she explored and I recorded. Did I care? Absolutely not!

I visited the pond three times that week, watching their behavior, noting what plants they were on and how close to the water they stayed, and also observing how dusky their dusky faces were or were not.

There was considerable variation. Some are much darker reddish-tan while others are light tan to almost green. All have interesting wavy lines and spots that remind me of capillaries. Here are some of their faces:



The cerci are bright yellow, and the wings are brown and quite long. Their eyes are tan with a touch of orange, unlike the bright, red eyes of the Common Meadow Katydids, and their legs are green with a little brown toward the back. 

Compare their subtle shades to the yellow and black legs of this colorful Black-legged Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum nigripes) I found at the same location (photo below).

Katydids in the genus Orchelimum are larger than those in the genus Conocephalus, which includeds our very common Short-winged Meadow Katydids and Slender Meadow Katydids. The Dusky-faced Meadow Katydids seem  comparatively substantial even to some of the other Orchelimum members, perhaps in part because they stay calmly in place rather than rapidly leaping from leaf to stem to somewhere out of sight.

They are uncommon, relatively inaccessible, elegant, and - fortunately for me -  tolerant of respectful humans.

This past week, I checked the Garden Bowl wetland, also at Bath Nature Preserve. The preserve had previously been the Raymond Firestone estate before its purchase by Bath Township in 1997, and the wetland was drained in the 1930s for use as a polo field. How excellent that this wetland has recently been gloriously restored! (You can read about the process here.)

I wondered if there was any possibility that it might have had a remnant population from before the destruction. I wasn’t too hopeful, but the area is now quite gorgeous with all its native plants, water, and wildlife. Why not go down right to the water and check? I could see there was arrowhead there, too…

I searched at dusk, and didn’t find any. I waited for darkness, and continued to search. And then – there was a Dusky-faced! 

I found a second one shortly thereafter. I imagine there were more, but I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t lose my boots in the mud below the water. 

But how exciting! Had they been there all along? Did they somehow move in from the Garden Pond? Are there more out at the much larger Bath Pond in areas that are not accessible? 

And maybe, just maybe I’ll find them in other northern Ohio wetlands as well. I now have a better idea of how and where to search. Perhaps I’ll even find one of the other even less common katydid species I have yet to find in Ohio. That’s where I’ll leave the story for now, but you know it will be continued next August!