Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Katydid's Studio Recording Session

Now that a series of cold fronts is bringing singing insect season to its conclusion, I’ll have a chance to write some new posts. I’ve learned a lot, as usual, and have had some interesting and rewarding experiences both in the field and in the house.

This first story is about an elusive project that’s been on my wish list for years now: recording a Fork-tailed Bush Katydid (Scudderia furcata).

Why is this so difficult? They’re common here. I expect to see them in meadows and edge habitats on a regular basis. I’ve recorded Curve-tailed Bush Katydids, Broad-winged Bush Katydids, Texas Bush Katydids, and even a Northern Bush Katydid at my friend Linda Gilbert’s Geauga County property, yet I had never been able to conclusively record a Fork-tailed Bush Katydid.

Fork-taileds are visually easy to recognize. The females have a distinctive pinkish-purple ovipositor, while those of the other bush katydids you’re likely to see will be green.

They may have a little of that same color on their long back legs and pinkish abdominal bands as well 

Males have a dorsal process (supra-anal plate) coloration that is similar to the female's ovipositor. It also really does have a fork-like shape.

Even the nymphs and newly-molted adults show their distinctive colors.

 Fork-tailed Bush Katydid male nymph, above, and
  Fork-tailed female completing her final molt, below. 

They’re a little smaller than the other bush katydids, and their legs look even longer compared with their bodies than the other Scudderia bush katydids. They can be found until a freeze ends their season, and I’ve seen then become more colorful into the fall as if blending in with the changing colors of their vegetation.

It’s the song – such as it is – that has been the challenge for me. 

“Pffftt!” That’s all there is to it. Once stated, the male may not repeat it for quite a while - certainly long enough for me to get discouraged and move on. He could even relocate to another plant before singing again.

So year after year in my singing insect programs, I’d have a slide with Fork-tailed Bush Katydid photos – both male and female – and no recording. I’d just demonstrate by exclaiming, “pffftt!”

There have been times I thought I might have heard or even recorded one, but the song was more likely the “tzit!” call that Greater Anglewings can make in addition to their “tic-tic-tic-tic-tic” songs. I’d hear katydids proclaiming their “tzits” back and forth and think, “You know, I’ll bet those are really Greater Anglewings…”

And then I’d hear one say “tic-tic-tic-tic-tic...,” which would confirm my suspicion.

The “tzit” calls would be pretty easy to hear, and that was another clue. Greater Anglewing calls are somewhat lower in pitch and more accessible to human ears. The Fork-tailed’s “song” might be loud, but it’s at a higher frequency and may therefore be more difficult to hear as well.

It was becoming increasingly obvious to me that I’d have to bring a male Fork-tailed home for a visit and record him here. I assumed that finding one wouldn't be too hard, because I typically see them in multiple locations every year. What I hadn’t expected was that I simply would never come across a single individual in Medina County, which is where I focused my study (and therefore my time) this year.

I needed a singer to record and I just wasn’t finding one! 

My fortunes changed at a location I would not have expected: Mill Creek MetroParks’ Canfield Farm in Mahoning County. (For those of you who may not know where Canfield is, it’s a little south of the Youngstown area and not far from the Pennsylvania border.)  

I was at the Farm to do a program on singing insects, and I knew we’d find some crickets and katydids in the lush native plantings right outside the building where the program was held. The attendees went outside with me after the indoor presentation so we could search for singers. The first one they found was…a male Fork-tailed Bush Katydid! 

I explained the significance of their discovery and they seemed quite pleased that this boy was going to be heading into the recording studio.

So home to Cleveland Heights we went. 

At first, he seemed to be getting settled into his terrarium. He sang a few songs here and there, but never often enough for me to record him.

He sang the most frequently the evening he escaped from his terrarium into the entire downstairs of our bungalow.

Initially, I didn't even know he was out. I was sitting in my little studio in the back of the house thinking, “That Fork-tailed sounds so loud it’s as if he’s in the dining room!”

That’s because he WAS in the dining room! I didn’t yet realize this, however, and then I heard him even closer to my studio. At that point, I knew there was a problem requiring my immediate attention.

He flew back into the kitchen and landed above the kitchen sink. His next stop was above the stove, then finally onto the kitchen window. He could land and stay attached to anything! Each flight was initiated with an impressive jump, and he'd then extend his wings once he was airborne. 

Catching him took a lot of skill, strategizing, and apprehension suppression. Fortunately for both of us, I was eventually successful. But just how was I going to record him if his favorite place to sing was flying around the house?

I knew that Wil Hershberger has an insect recording studio set up in a carpeted closet at his home. He places the cricket or katydid he wants to record in a “singing cage” in the closet, turns on his recorder, and lets it run overnight. In the morning, he can then look at the track and see/hear what he’d been able to record. 

Well, we do not have a single closet to spare here, but I figured I could set him up back in the studio.

I let the recorder run overnight, checked in the morning and…


Although he didn't sing continuously through the night, he did make periodic “pffftt” statements that were caught by the recorder.

Please be aware that there was even more space between songs than it would appear from the sonogram. I trimmed some of the silence between pairs of songs because you’d otherwise have time for a micro-nap between them. Greater Anglewing "tzit" calls are much more frequent.

You may be able to see that the pitch is a little higher than the Greater Anglewing "tzit" calls. The song was emphatic, but it wouldn’t sound loud at a distance in a meadow filled with lots of other singers.

Although some songs were single, they generally seemed to occur in pairs with the second song several seconds after the first. Here's the recording once more so you can look more closely.

I had told the Fork-tailed Bush Katydid that once I recorded him, he would be free to go. Although I typically return insects to the location where I found them, I was going to need an alternate arrangement this time. Canfield would be a 140-mile round trip.

Since we’d occasionally seen a Fork-tailed Bush Katydid male or female in our yard or next door over the years, I assumed it would be reasonable to release him right here. Our back yard resembles the kind of shrubby edge habitat a Fork-tailed would find suitable, and it has shelter where he could hide from the many birds that are always present. 

I gently coaxed him from the terrarium into one of my handy Parmesan cheese containers that are so excellent for catching and transporting singing insects. The Fork-tailed Bush Katydid and I then walked back through the darkness to an aging park bench that is gradually being reclaimed by the soil and the gray dogwood saplings sprouting up between the wood slats. 

I opened the container and he stepped out. 

In seconds, he flew off into the darkness as I thanked him for his assistance. 

1 comment:

  1. Recording all night! That must produce a horrendously large file. I'm glad you were able to sort out their song.