Did you know that western Ohio once had miles of beautiful tall grass prairie? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you did not, as the area is now miles upon miles of corn and soybeans. But I had an opportunity to see two tiny remnants of what must have been stunning land beyond anything I can imagine – and of course, I listened to hear what kind of insect and avian ensemble might still be present.
My partner Wendy and I had only very recently learned about two tiny prairie remnants just west of Columbus and had the opportunity to spend time in both of them before and after the Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton at the beginning of the month. They are pioneer cemeteries, which is the only reason they haven’t been destroyed and replaced with corn. They are now Bigelow and Smith Cemetery State Nature Preserves. Jim McCormac wrote about Bigelow in his outstanding blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, and you can read about Bigelow here. I had also just heard and seen his account of both cemeteries in a presentation at The West Woods nature center in the Geauga Park District, and they are included Wild Ohio, his gorgeous book with photographer Gary Meszaros.
To our great delight, Cheryl Harner invited us to meet her at these cemetery prairies because she really wanted us to see them! Cheryl is the organizer of Flora-Quest and her blog – which I highly recommend - is Weedpicker’s Journal.
The grave markers are barely visible among all the flowers and grasses, which are so dense and so tall that I could barely see over them! My favorite was Bigelow and Wendy's was Smith, but we loved them both. We returned to spend considerable time in them after the conference ended.
I wanted to know who might be singing in these tiny habitats. Bigelow Cemetery is only one half acre, and Smith Cemetery is one acre. Yes, that’s all that’s left. Not much of a concert hall anymore…
But what a difference from the corn and soybean fields! The towering stands of corn across the road from Bigelow were absolutely silent. I cannot begin to tell you how disturbing it was to hear absolutely nothing but the sound of thick corn plant leaves rustling in the breeze. Nothing else was living there.
The only songs I heard were those of the Allard’s Ground Crickets and Striped Ground Crickets in the grass right along the road. Allard's were more common, and you'll hear primarily this species in the recording. The slower, more separated Striped Ground Cricket can be heard as well, but it's not as close. They look so similar that it's a good thing the songs are quite different. Here are two of the crickets that were in the grass by the road, and each is no more than 1/2" in size.
Even these songs stopped where the corn began. As soon as we crossed the road into Bigelow, however, we heard Song Sparrows, a Chipping Sparrow, an Indigo Bunting, crickets, katydids…. even though it was early August, there was constant bird song.
I was quickly drawn to the song of a meadow katydid I don’t hear very often in my part of NE Ohio. It was the Common Meadow Katydid - a species that I don't find to be very common at all. There were several of them singing and I thought sure we could easily find them.
Not exactly. They have no patience for humans looking at them, especially with a camera. I was able to get a couple of quick photos, but I had better luck with my microphone. Here’s a recording of one of the Bigelow Prairie Chamber Ensemble musicians singing from hiding followed by a photo of him before he disappeared.
Although the adult male had no use for me, this little female nymph was not at all shy. I discovered her chewing on one of the Royal Catchfly plants, almost looking like she was teething.
Without any encouragement on my part, she climbed right onto my hand and began chewing on me as well. I actually had to convince her to return to her plant when I was ready to move down the path a bit.
There were even smaller nymphs present and several adult males, so clearly these katydids were doing well in their little home area. They just cannot expand beyond their half-acre allotment unless one makes it as far as someone’s garden and is not mistaken for a pest species.
The ground crickets were singing in the cemetery as well as along the road, and I also found an Oblong-winged Katydid dining in the flowers.
I was surprised by this discovery. I sometimes find them in meadows but more often in hedge rows and open woods. I don’t think these lovely katydids would have flown in from outside the cemetery. Where would they have come from? Certainly not the corn. Have they been living there in this half-acre of prairie with a few trees for generation after generation?
It would be quite interesting to hear who else sings in the cemetery prairies at night. There are sure to be conehead katydids – Sword-bearing and perhaps Nebraska Coneheads - though they, too sing at night. I’ll bet there are now tree crickets singing that hadn’t yet matured enough to sing when we were there. I suspect it’s a little chamber hall in the middle of a sonic wasteland!
I left happy to have visited, but terribly sad about the losses. Outside of the cemeteries, I heard cars, pickups, a tractor, some planes – but no music. No insect song, no bird song, not even avian call notes. When the concert halls are plowed, bulldozed, or paved over, the music is over. When the insect musicians are poisoned and the avian musicians evicted, there’s nothing left but human noise. Any birds and insects that remain struggle to be heard over the din.
I’ll return to my absolute fascination with Earth’s first musicians in my next post, but today I have to tell you why as musician I have chosen to work to preserve the music of the Earth. They’re our first teachers, and they deserve our greatest respect.