Friday, May 22, 2020

Covid-free Concerts

It's a difficult time to be a human singer. Singing in public is a dangerous, highly-effective way of spreading coronavirus-infused droplets.  We simply can’t do this until a vaccine is widely available. So I'm singing only to the cats and focusing my listening on NE Ohio's avian and amphibian choruses.

My listening hikes with Wendy restore a sense of presence and balance. Even though we had snow delays in May, birds continued to migrate, establish territories, and nest. Frogs and toads called from any semblance of a wetland whenever adequately warm. And Wendy continued to find a log or a stream bank or the side of a trail from which to make her “15-minute watercolor sketches” (which are often closer to 30 minutes, I have come to understand).

Instead of doing a targeted educational topic for this post, I decided I'd simply share a collection of April observations from three parks.  

April 12th: Lake Erie Bluffs on a cloudy, breezy Easter afternoon with very few people on the trails. The sky expanded out to the horizon and flowed back as water. Birds sounded louder and clearer because human noise had dissipated during the shutdown, and I felt a sense of space I hadn’t experienced since early March.

Wendy chose to paint from a trailside bench near an accomplished Song Sparrow soloist on a territorial perch. 

I followed my ears to find the source of a distant chorus of Spring Peepers proclaiming the triumph of spring from pools of standing water in a gas line clearing. 

When I returned to Wendy's park bench, the Song Sparrow was now singing a different melody from his extensive repertoire.

As we listened, he switched yet again.

Can you hear the difference?

The sonogram below shows one example of each of the three songs. 

That's what we heard. This is what Wendy saw.

April 25th: Eldon Russell Park on the upper Cuyahoga River in Geauga County. Eldon Russell is irresistible to both of us in April. It’s a time of Rusty Blackbirds, Brown Creepers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. 

And the marsh marigolds were in bloom! 

Wendy didn’t need a bench or a log from which to paint. Sitting at the edge of the trail directly facing the expanse of yellow and green was all she required.

While she painted, I walked up the gravel trail from the marsh marigolds towards an old field on my left.  I heard a Northern Cardinal who was adding a light flutter to the end of each of his songs. To my ear, it sounds like the flutter-tongue technique that can be used in a flute piece, though to other people it sounds more like a purr or a light rattle. Look and listen closely - you can probably hear this in the recording and you may be able to see the light, vertical lines at the end of the sonogram.

I've recorded this song extension a few times before. What was especially interesting to me this time was that another Cardinal nearby was exactly matching the first Cardinal's song, likely to define territorial boundaries, but never included the flutter at the end of the first male’s song.

This area was also a perfect habitat for the Field Sparrows who’d arrived earlier in April. The accelerating rhythm of their songs sounds delightfully joyful, though I know the birds are actually proclaiming their territories and advertising for a mate. The pitch can rise toward the end of the song, descend, or stay the same, but it’s the rhythmic pattern that makes the song easily identifiable. 


And of course there were American Robins singing with their typically purposeful enthusiasm. To me, they’re never “just Robins.” Yet I also heard very high, almost squeaky pitches as well. I searched for European Starlings, but there were no starlings, and no cowbirds, either. Northbound Rusty Blackbirds would be closer to the river in the wet woods. So what was I hearing? 

American Robin songs often have a few very high pitches at the end of each song. In The Singing Life of Birds. Donald Kroodsma described the high pitches at the end of many Robin songs as a "hisselly", which makes sense to me because consonants like S’s are at a much higher pitch frequency that vowels in human speech.

Here's how this looks and sounds: 

But the almost constant hissellys were not from the Robin I was recording. I directed my mic above me to another Robin that seemed to be making smaller movements than a typical singer, and the mystery song suddenly came into focus.

Kroodsma wrote that sometimes a Robin might sing using only the high, hisselly pitches. That's exactly what my sonogram indicated: typical robin rhythmic patterns on pitches way up in the "hisselly" frequency range. I don’t believe I’ve heard an entire hisselly song before and I certainly hadn’t recorded it!

Finally, there were indeed Rusty Blackbirds. I find them traveling north along Eldon Russell's river edges and swamp woods every year. They nest in wet boreal forests and bogs, so we typically only encounter them on migration. 

I am always so thankful when I hear them, as their numbers have dropped dramatically. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds online resource, the population has plunged an estimated 85-95 percent over the past forty years.

Each year I hear the Rusties feels like a gift, as I know there may be a time when their songs are absent from NE Ohio in April. 

April 29th: North Chagrin Reservation along the Chagrin River. The Oxbow Lagoon area is not very quiet because of traffic along River Road and thundering processions of substantial motorcycles emerging from hibernation. But it’s relatively close and there’s almost always something engaging to see or hear when I move farther from the road and closer to the river.

Late April typically brings the return of multiple Yellow Warblers, Willow Flycatchers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, as the shrubby fields bordering the lagoon and wetland areas are a welcoming habitat for them. It also brings Wendy to the small observation deck that overlooks the wetland – an excellent location for an artist.

I heard the first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher as soon as I opened my car door in the small dirt and gravel parking area just off River Road.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and Red-winged Blackbirds were calling from all directions as I walked. Warbling Vireos’ songs spiraled upward, ending like an emphatic question. 

Although male birds (and sometimes females) are singing only for their own species, I often hear relationships between the pitches and phrases of different species. Listen to the Warbling Vireo/Blue-gray Gnatcatcher “call-and response duet.” The gnatcatcher’s voice is much higher than the Warbling Vireo, as you can see in the sonogram. Notice, too, the higher, emphatic pitch at the end of each Warbling Vireo song. 


In the distance, there was also a continuous pitch that seemed to be the foundation for all the birdsongs above it –the toads! I thought I had missed the American Toad chorus this year, as Wendy and I had already found toad eggs in a small, marshy area in another part of the park days earlier.  

As with the Spring Peepers earlier in the month I could hear their tantalizing chorus from somewhere I hadn’t yet discovered. The dried seed heads of last year’s cattails suggested a relatively inaccessible wet area nearby. I was careful not to create much disturbance as I quietly slipped between shrubby crabapples and blackberry tangles. Even the Red-winged Blackbirds weren’t overly indignant. 

Finally, there it was: the Toad Concert Hall! 

I didn’t need to wade in for photos. I just wanted to listen under the warm sun, nourished by nature’s songs all around me.  

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Small Delights and Big Discoveries: Field Season, 2019

Gladiator Meadow Katydid singing Mentor Marsh in 2019 after the marsh 
was freed from its phragmites invasion and native plants and insects 
began to return.

Each year in the field brings a few surprises along with interesting documentation of cricket and katydid range expansion. There’s also moments of delight at the small discoveries I’d never see or hear were it not for careful observation as I creep around the meadow vegetation at night. When I step out into the darkness of the singing insect concert halls, I never know in advance everything I’ll hear and see.

The restoration of Mentor Marsh presented an encouraging example of singing insect population recovery with the removal of horribly invasive phragmites. I only heard one Gladiator Meadow Katydid there last year (2018).  This year, visitors on a marsh night walk heard  - and even found - numerous Gladiator Meadow Katydids singing in the native plants on either side of the boardwalk (photo above). 

And look at this lovely couple I discovered at Bath Nature Preserve in western Summit County! 

This female and male Curve-tailed Bush Katydid (Scudderia curvicauda) had just mated, as evidenced by the spermatophore he deposited before they separated. I never see mating katydids, and it’s rare for me to even see the couple together. Bath Nature Preserve provides 404 acres of habitat that supports a healthy diversity of singing insects.

Although I do see molting katydids on occasion each year, I always feel honored when I observe this miracle. The photo below is a bush katydid nymph (genus Scudderia) along Cleveland Metroparks' North Chagrin Lily Lagoon trail along the Chagrin River.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I study northward range expansion of crickets and katydids, especially as more southern species more into NE Ohio’s “snow belt” counties. 

It's quite apparent why the northeast corner of the state is called the 
"snow belt." It's our gift from Lake Erie and occasionally, Lake Huron.

Documentation and data are more than making lists and obtaining photos and recordings. I’m watching change over time occurring right before my eyes and ears. There’s an engaging element of discovery to it, even when I’m stuck in a blackberry tangle again. 

Here’s some of what I learned this year. Where species names are highlighted, the links will take you to pages in my online field guide where you can hear recordings and see more photos.

Several species are steadily – and rather quickly – moving north to Lake Erie, and I document these changes every year. Additionally, any time spent in the field could possibly bring some unexpected observations. 

I used to go down to Summit County to hear Jumping Bush Crickets, as they weren’t up in the Cleveland area. I was delighted the first time I heard one in our Cleveland Heights neighborhood and thrilled when the first ones arrived in our back yard! 

 Jumping Bush Cricket singing in a hydrangea next to our driveway

Now, however, I search the snow belt for the places they haven’t yet arrived. This year was their Lake County triumph. Instead of being in scattered locations, they seemed to be everywhere I checked. There were still a few locations in Geauga County where I didn’t hear them, but that could certainly change next year. 

Handsome Trigs (Phyllopalpus puchellus) are moving fast as well. They, too, are becoming common in Geauga County and are certainly widely present in Lake County. I seldom even mention Cuyahoga and Lorain counties, where both Handsome Trigs and Jumping Bush Crickets are now abundant.

Round-tipped Coneheads (Neoconocephalus retusus) are also lining up along the lakeshore, as I’ve noted in previous posts. I didn’t hear them in rural NE Geauga County, though, so once again, that may be the area where more southern species are going to take longer to get established. Here’s a Round-tipped Conehead I heard - and eventually located with considerable effort – at Leroy Wetlands in Lake County.

A charming little cricket I’ve been documenting recently is the Spring Trig (Anaxipha vernalis). This southern and central Ohio resident is spreading rapidly in NE Ohio. Their silvery songs are even more lovely than the higher-pitched songs of the Say’s Trigs, and they sing well before most singing insects. Just when I feel I can’t wait any longer for the first cricket and katydid songs, there they are, singing in meadows and edges as soon as evening shadows fall across the vegetation. 

As you'll see in my updated map below I’ve discovered additional locations for them this year. I'm learning that they're increasingly common in NE Geauga County and in Lake County, as are the other northbound crickets and katydids I monitor. 

The non-native Roesel’s Katydid (Roeseliana roeselii is not invasive, and this species actually seems to be less common now than several years ago. I realize that’s an anecdotal observation. Still, I find I'm  somewhat surprised when one of these gorgeous little shieldback katydids shows up in NE Ohio’s fields and meadows

A strikingly colored female caught my attention on a hilltop of a closed Lake County landfill that’s being managed for grassland. The grassy habitat was appropriate, but how did she and her predecessors establish themselves up there? I was determined to catch her to show the participants at a park program in progress, and she ultimately was happy to sit on my arm while being admired. 

Northern Bush Katydids are arboreal insects with high, soft, elaborate songs. Consequently, it’s difficult to know where they occur and how common they are. But they do come to lights, and it occurred to me last year that these katydids could inadvertently be attracted by moth enthusiasts to their night-time moth lighting sheets. I inquired about them on Facebook, and sure enough – I got responses and photos from counties where I hadn’t found them.

My amusing Northern Bush Katydid (Scudderia septentrionalis) sighting this year took no effort on my part. While shining a flashlight on a shrub along a trail at the Rookery in the Geauga Park District, a Northern Bush Katydid flew down from the trees and landed right in the flashlight beam on a leaf as if it were a spotlight onstage! Here he is:

Geauga County was also the location of one of my excellent surprises of the season.

I’d gone to Frohring Meadows in the southwest corner of the county just to walk after dark. I had no expectation of hearing or seeing anything of interest. It was cold and I was moping about the chilly weather that had curtailed my annual Black-horned/Forbes’s Tree Cricket survey. Even though I was brooding about whether I’d have another opportunity to resume the study, I still watched all the grasses and wetland edge plants I passed until suddenly…


At least three Dusky-faced Meadow Katydids! This is a katydid I only recently found in our area, though it’s one that should still be present in our remaining wetlands. It seems to have been fairly common at some point in the past. Still, my only locations for them were Bath Nature Preserve in western Summit County (2016) and at both Wolf Creek Environmental Center and Chippewa Inlet Trail North Wetlands in Medina County (2017). 

Most of Frohring’s wetlands were created. I think just one original wet area had been present across the trail from the 2007 wetland construction. (Additional wetlands were created across the meadow in 2013.) I never saw or heard this species when I surveyed Frohring Meadows in detail in 2012, nor did I expect they might possibly be present. But now, there were those beautiful faces and long, elegant wings, and I was amazed and delighted!

In addition, I also found Long-tailed Meadow Katydids (Conocephalus attenuatus) with the Dusky-faceds. 

This uncommon wetland species is one I find only occasionally. Other than a few Short-winged Meadow Katydid, no other crickets or katydids were visible or audible anywhere I walked. 

My mood improved substantially that evening.

Back in Cleveland’s University Circle, there was a new song outside the institutions around Wade Oval. 

Japanese Burrowing Crickets. Velarifictarus micado had arrived.


I knew the song from southern Ohio, where they're now becoming quite common. They often sing from hiding places between rocks, bricks, and pavers. 

But as of 2018, I’d only heard one individual up in NE Ohio. Hidden among the stones and plantings outside the Rocky River Nature Center in the Cleveland Metroparks, he was singing loudly enough to be heard all around the nature center. Here's a recording of him:

What a change this year! Individual males sang triumphantly at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and near the Cleveland Institute of Music. 

Were there Japanese Burrowing Cricket eggs in the mulch used around Wade Oval? I imagine they’ve begun to get established now, so I’ll listen for them next fall semester. Maybe they will have spread across the CWRU campus.

I've saved my most exciting discovery till last – a discovery by ear. 

While half-attentively listening to crickets and katydids at dusk in my friends’ yard in Peninsula, I heard several Lesser Angle-wing Katydids! 

Lesser Angle-wing at the Arc of Appalachia in southern Ohio.

Lesser Angle-wingeds (Microcentrum retinerve) are not supposed to be up here. They should be singing down in Columbus and south. I only knew the songs from my trips to southern Ohio. 


Did I have my recording equipment with me? No. Of course, I came back as soon as possible and recorded as best I could. It was a challenge, as they live up in the trees and I had to listen past the noise from the three freeways nearby.

What route had they taken north? Would I be able to trace them back to central Ohio? I wish I could tell you that I figured it out.

I drove all through Cuyahoga National Valley Park after dark on two subsequent nights, assuming it would be relatively easy to find my way around this extensive park. Not surprisingly, this was quite an unreasonable assumption. However, my pathetically disoriented nighttime rambling did turn up a Summit County Japanese Burrowing Cricket singing near Riverview Road.  

The Lesser Angle-wingeds seemed limited to the Peninsula area along Stine and Riverview Roads. The map below shows the four locations where they were singing in the trees.

The pioneers are definitely up here. With so many species are moving north, why shouldn’t Lesser Angle-wings begin to join their Greater Angle-wing cousins as they do in southern Ohio?

Discoveries and data, songs and surprises to be continued in 2020…

 Female Dusky-faced Meadow Katydid, Frohring Meadows

Monday, January 6, 2020

Crickets - and a Katydid - in the House and the Classroom, 2019

It’s becoming an annual tradition for me – a blog post about what I’ve learned from the crickets that I bring home at the end of the season each year.

Our cat, Dmitri, was so delighted with his beloved Spring Field Cricket last year and his subsequent Fall Field Cricket that I needed to find at least a Fall Field Cricket for him in 2019. 

 Dmitri with his 2018 Spring Field Cricket, Lincoln.

Field crickets are his favorites because they’re larger than ground crickets, they rustle around in their leaves, and they often come out of hiding both to sing and to explore. My success guaranteed another excellent year from Dmitri’s point of view.  

But the Fall Field Cricket did not have a name until the day I brought him to visit my Cleveland Institute of Music theory classes.

I placed him on a music stand at the front of the classroom where students could see and hear him – they could even watch how he created his songs with his wings. They could also observe his behavior since I create miniature habitats for crickets based on where they’re found in the wild.

But he needed a name, they thought. The 8:25 class proclaimed his name would be Frederick. Students in the 9:30 class declared that Frederick was an absolutely inadequate choice and that his name should be Regulus. Some of the 10:35 class members responded that Regulus was ridiculous.

He became Frederick Regulus. 

Frederick wasn't the only cricket to travel to class. I brought a tiny Handsome Trig in a little singing cage and he, too, sang from the music stand through all three consecutive classes. (This cricket did have a name: Phil, as in Phyllopalpus puchellus.)

My students were astonished by how loud he was! They were intrigued and impressed, though some also hoped that he wouldn’t be back during the quiz scheduled for the following day. 

Both crickets were part of the in-class “Cricket of the Week” presentations I did for my students this fall. Other Cricket of the Week presentations were photos and recordings from my field guide and only took about 5 minutes of class time. The focus was on singing insects that they could hear in Cleveland’s University Circle outside their classes and dorms.

Back to the dining room…

I learned a little more about creating Handsome Trig mini-habitats in their little singing cages. In addition to having a little bottle cap of cricket food, water cubes, a slice of apple, a slice of grape, and a piece of lettuce, they really appreciated the addition of one more item:

A leaf – preferably one that would curl up as it dried. Why? That’s where they prefer to sing in the wild. They don’t stand on an exposed stage, displaying for hungry Chickadees to eat. No, the males are on the underside of leaves or in curled up leaves where they are concealed.

Once I realized how much the Handsome Trigs delighted in this addition, our trigs were never without an appropriate leaf or two.

I’ve found that ground crickets very much like to have some grass and a small pile of leaves in which to hide. 

Surprisingly, they also very much appreciate a small rock for a perch and perhaps a little piece of wood. Those rock perches were so popular! Almost all our ground crickets used them for singing and for basking in the late autumn sun.

But what about the sound of their songs? I can observe crickets very well in those plastic cages but listening to them is more rewarding in the screened lid terrariums. Mesh insect cages are a significant improvement over both of these options, but visual observation is diminished. I think I’ll save the mesh cages for the tiniest ground crickets that spend most of their time under their leaves.

My most rewarding change was introducing caterpillar/butterfly cages for the tree crickets. I’ve used stem holders for vegetation in terrariums, but I can now add more height for their plants. My goal is to create a lifelike habitat that provides good singing perches and to enable opportunities for observing their behavior and this worked splendidly!

Forbes's Tree Cricket singing in a blackberry leaf in a mesh butterfly/caterpillar cage. Forbes's and Black-horned Tree Crickets primarily stay near the tops of the plants, but they also travel from the ceiling to the floor to eat dry cricket food, water cubes, and lettuce.


And our Clicker Round-winged Katydid from my October 21st post? He lived in a terrarium setting until the frightening evening when I accidentally caught the edge of it and it crashed to the floor. It shattered! I was horrified! Surely, Clicker had perished! But no - he was still clinging, uninjured, to a leaf stem on the dining room floor, surrounded by shards of glass.

That’s when I moved him into a mesh butterfly cage as well, and he immediately perceived this habitat modification as an immense improvement. I could create an appropriate understory with native shrub and vine leaves for him, and he could climb and hide. He used every inch of space in that cage. 

As native plants lost their leaves in the late fall, I struggled to find sprigs of blackberry. I accessorized with strands of semi-evergreen invasive Japanese honeysuckle, which I can still find in parks even now. I also experimented with putting a romaine lettuce leaf in a pill bottle of water. 

 And, of course, he enjoyed dining on an apple slice mounted on a twig.

The late fall decline in ensemble size is always sad for me. These insects were not young when I brought them inside and life was often hard on them before they were moved into a warm, safe retirement community for their final days. They may live for a month or two in the house - occasionally a little longer – but only two have ever lived into the new year.

This Forbes's Tree Cricket was missing a back leg, but that didn't affect
his ability to hold his appropriate position for singing.

Clicker continued as usual until sometime during the early part of New Year’s Eve, when he literally dropped dead to the floor of the cage. Now only an ancient Broad-winged Tree Cricket remains. His voice has faded to a whisper when he sings a few occasional short phrases during the night instead of his former resounding aria that continued for hours at a time. 

Broad-winged Tree Cricket on 1-1-20

It's already January 6th, and a new year of listening will begin with the first birdsongs of spring at the end of the month. We'll have a new array of singing insects in the house next fall. Still, it's gotten very quiet in the house at night...

I’m currently writing a page about crickets and katydids in the house in my Listening to Insects field guide. It will have more detailed information than I’d put in a blog post, and those of you who want to keep singing insects in the house will have that page and also its link to Songs of Insects as guides.