Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Beauty Among the Thorns

It’s mid-December, and time for stories from "Tales from the Terrariums, 2016." Let's start with my favorite crickets: Broad-winged Tree Crickets (Oecanthus latipennis).

Last year's Broad-wingedTree Cricket lived in his terrarium until Christmas Day. This year, I brought in a few of them in November when below-freezing temperatures finally seemed imminent along the Lake Erie shore. I looked forward to learning more about their behavior and hearing their songs when the meadows were now quiet. 

Why are Broad-winged Tree Crickets my favorites? They’re exceptionally beautiful, but frustratingly elusive. They don’t sing during the day unless it’s late afternoon and the light already low. Their strong, rich songs carry well over significant distances but are very difficult to pinpoint. They're extremely difficult to find, as they're typically hidden in dense vegetation. Thorny tangles are excellent and blackberry thickets with some grape vines running over them are perfection.

Gorgeous crickets whose beautiful, rich, songs at dusk come from somewhere that’s impossible to determine but is likely rather low and impenetrable. It's a little mysterious. Who could resist the challenge? Well, clearly not me – at least not at the end of the season when they will soon perish if they remain outdoors.

I use my shotgun microphone to locate them as best I can, but I can’t always pinpoint the specific leaf because their songs seems to bounce off every leaf in the vicinity. If I think I'm close to the singer, I'll slowly and carefully turn each leaf over until, if I'm lucky, a cricket is revealed. The next step requires gently breaking off his leaf and sliding the cricket - still attached to his leaf - into a jar. If I’m searching in a blackberry tangle, I’ll also bring home an assortment of thorns embedded in my skin but, well, it’s worth it.

As you know by now, these crickets will spend the rest of their days in terrariums filled with blackberry leaves and other appealing leaves and stems that provide appropriate cover and singing perches. In addition to blackberry, I've learned that broad-leaved plants are favored by Broad-winged Tree Crickets. 

Although I can't say I've seen one eating the lettuce I serve each day, I did have one cricket sing from a lettuce leaf attached to blackberry thorns.

I've started sprinkling a little dry cricket food on a couple of leaves. Dry cricket food is extremely popular with ground crickets, and tree crickets will also eat it - sometimes quite enthusiastically - if it's on the leaves they frequent.

One would think that a cricket in a terrarium will be much easier to find than one in the wild, but that’s not necessarily the case with Broad-wingeds. They hide on the underside of leaves here, too, including leaves that appear too old and dried to be of any interest. I can search every leaf and stem in the terrarium with a flashlight and still not find the cricket. I may think he’s finally deceased, but a day or two later – there he is again!

I learned this all too well when I removed and replaced a blackberry stem whose leaves had dried into crispy curls. (I keep them in stem holders with water, but this is only a short-term solution.) I put the dried stem and leaves outside by the back porch that evening, and the next evening – I heard a Broad-winged Tree Cricket singing under the back porch. 

Wendy and I intensively searched every inch we could access on both sides of the porch steps, but to no avail.  We even tried looking under the porch steps, but we could only find some spiders and a couple of slugs. Whenever we backed away, he's start to sing again! Temperatures were mild for a few days and we heard him sing the next night as well, but he was clearly going to live free or die (or both).

Here are photos of the three Broad-wingeds who lived here this fall. Two behaved as expected, singing a great deal while generally proving difficult to locate. One, however, did not.

I called him “Crazy Boy” because his behavior was so atypical. He sang the first night he was here, and then did not sing again. However, I saw him throughout every day of the weeks he lived here.

Broad-winged Tree Crickets hide and can spend hours motionless as if part of a plant. Not Crazy Boy, however.

Unlike other Broad-wingeds, he didn’t try very hard - or very effectively – to hide. 

He wandered all over the terrarium, exploring everything and occasionally jumping onto my hand or arm when I replaced his food and leaves. One evening, he even added a little flight to his leap, propelling him to the kitchen table.

The other Broad-winged from the same location as Crazy Boy sang such gorgeous performances that we brought his terrarium upstairs at bedtime. Between the cricket and the space heater, I could almost imagine it was an August night. His last concert was his finest, which didn't really surprise me. I’ve often found that a cricket who may be reaching the end of his life will sing a great deal right before he dies.

The remaining Broad-winged was here before the other two and initially sang for hours every night. As he got older, though, his performances became shorter and less frequent. Here he is on November 16th, 2016:


 We started hearing occasional missed pulses in his song and non-musical sounds that were rather rough and scratchy. If you look at these sonogram excerpts, you can see some examples of the occasional missed notes and irregularities.


The last night he sang, he sounded downright creaky. He had a broken antenna now and more brown spots...

...and he didn't sing again for the next five days. I noticed that he'd lost a back and middle leg and was anchoring himself by holding onto his leaf stem with his front legs. Perhaps he needed more support to keep himself in a position required to sing.

On December 11th, he was still hanging on - literally - when we left for a nearby concert. When we returned home, I discovered he'd slipped away and dropped to the terrarium floor. 

I'll have to wait until next August to hear that loud, rich, mysterious song emerge at dusk from the thorny blackberry thickets.  


  1. wow, amazing photos, I love their translucent wings. What a great idea to keep some in a terrarium into early winter, just like I listen to birdsong on tapes these days to remind me of spring.

  2. Spectacular on all accounts. Thanks Lisa!