Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Slightly Musical Concert

Did you think that was just a catchy title? No, this post is about Neoconocephalus exiliscanorus, the Slightly Musical Conehead, and where I found an entire concert hall of them.

I’ve made some trips west of Cleveland along Lake Erie to learn more about crickets, katydids, and cicadas as one travels from the Sandusky Bay toward Toledo. I’ve just begun this exploration, but am already noting some differences in what I see and especially what I hear.  

I’ve been to Sheldon Marsh, East Harbor State Park, Great Egret Preserve, Meadowbrook Marsh, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Then it occurred to me: I’d never been to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and its boardwalk in the late summer. 

Probably every birder in Ohio and surrounding states knows Magee Marsh and its famous boardwalk. It’s the destination of great numbers of people who want to see migrating warblers up close during spring migration. It’s one of the important locations in the Biggest Week in American Birding festival each year, and Black Swamp Bird Observatory is located at the turnoff from Route 2 onto the Magee Marsh road.

But what is the music one would hear from sunset into dusk in August? 

I was the only person on the boardwalk, and I was surrounded by crickets, katydids, and cicadas. There were birds, too, and it was a beautiful mix of sounds. 
I’m always delighted to hear Scissor-grinder Cicadas. We don’t have them in Cleveland, but  there was an impressive chorus of them all along the boardwalk. 

There were more Say’s Trigs than I think I’ve ever heard in one area. Soon, the trees and shrubs were filled with Snowy Tree Crickets, Narrow-winged Tree Crickets, Two-spotted Tree Crickets, and Greater Anglewing katydids. (I was rather surprised that I did not hear Common True Katydids.)

Mole Crickets sang from their burrows in a number of locations below the boardwalk - again, more than I’ve ever heard in once place.

As I returned to my car, a large chorus of Fall Field Crickets chirped from every possible hiding place and Confused Ground Crickets sang from inaccessible places under the vegetation and dead leaves. (Listen to the song – sometimes it sounds as if they’re saying, “Confused? Confused? Confused?)

I drove back up the road into the wide open marsh, and I suddenly heard a barely-familiar sound emerging from the overall texture:

Could it be Slightly Musical Coneheads? Lots of them? Singing on both sides of the road?
It had to be! The farther I drove, the more of them I heard! I stopped in the middle of the empty road and jumped out of my car to listen in astonishment. Magee Marsh is north of their central and southern Ohio range, but the habitat was suitable. As you can see on the Singing Insects of North America range map that they have not been reported from anywhere near Lake Erie. But this wasn’t just a few pioneers - they were singing all around this very extensive marsh.

I decided that moving my car to a legitimate turnoff would be more appropriate, and I only needed to walk several steps from the road to record one of the closer coneheads. 

As much as I wanted to actually see one, it was dark and this would not be a safe place to walk. I’d just have to come back.

I did, too - just two days later. I arrived before sunset and noted the three turnouts available to me. I could safely negotiate the tall grasses without falling into the marsh itself if I stayed close to my car and checked carefully for any unexpected drop offs. 

The Slightly Musical Coneheads began singing shortly after sunset and many were singing before it was dark. 

I forgot about the mosquitoes, though. 

This is, after all, a surviving remnant of the Great Black Swamp. Most of the swamp was drained (and its rich habitat destroyed) for agriculture in the second half of the 1800s.

Perhaps I was experiencing a little of what it must have been like back when malaria was an ongoing issue. Even with my mosquito net over my head, it was brutal. 

But it was worth it. Not only did I get some photos to document this species’ presence, I was able to observe some interesting behavior.

The individual conehead I watched closely was very elusive at first. What I thought must be two or three individuals was actually just one. He didn’t just sing from one grass stem perch, but would sing from one, then roam all around, singing at several others, changing positions, climbing up and down, jumping to the next clump…At first it was very hard to keep track of him, but I had greater success when I got a feel for how he moved. And he never stopped singing!

Look at the length of his cone! Their heads look very pointy even for a conehead!

Here's another view of both his cone and his musical instrument. Katydids and crickets create their songs by the movement of a scraper on one wing across a file on the other. This is where the music happens.

I would have loved to observe multiple individuals, but was thankful for the opportunity to study one individual for as long as I could stand the mosquitos. I didn’t want to be a lengthy distraction to his work of finding a mate, either, so I thanked him and returned to my car. A swarm of mosquitoes followed me inside and annoyed me all the way back to Cleveland.

As I drove east along Route 2, I heard Slightly Musical Coneheads singing everywhere there was any remaining habitat for them. Are they really yet another species that’s moving north, or have they actually been here all along? They seem so well established, as if they were a part of the ancient music of the Great Black Swamp. 

I only heard them because of the habitat protected and managed by Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and the other wildlife areas and parks in the region. I’m so glad that at least a few stages remain for the magical marsh concerts of the Slightly Musical Coneheads.

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