Monday, July 19, 2010

Sounds of the night

Participants in last weekend's Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists workshop gather at twilight on Saturday night. We were out for whatever we could find, especially singing insects, or Orthopterans.

I LOVE nighttime excursions. A whole new world emerges after nightfall, and not nearly enough people get out to see the strange creatures of the blackness. Especially prominent from mid-July on through fall are the various insects that make sound: katydids, crickets, coneheads and their ilk. Insect songs can be learned just as those of birds, and knowing the nighttime singers adds an entirely new dimension to one's appreciation of natural history.

There are not an abundance of opportunities to get out with people who know these things, but attendees at the Midwest Native Plant Conference certainly will. The conference venue is the Marianist Environmental Education Center, 150 or so acres of plant diversity. We'll have night walks both Friday and Saturday night, and the numbers and diversity of singing insects should be spectacular. More conference info HERE.

We heard scads of Gladiator Meadow Katytdids, their songs resembling the shuffling of salt being roughly shaken in a shaker. It wasn't long before Nina of Nature Remains found one of the little singers doing its thing. These are showy little animals, somewhat resembling lime-green grasshoppers with lemon-yellow cerci and orangish eyes.

I use my I-pod Touch to play the songs of these bugs for people, so they can better learn to pick the targeted song from the cacophony of night sounds. When I played the Gladiator Meadow Katydid's song, a few of the insects clearly responded, just as birds will do.

There were plenty of Nebraska Coneheads about, the males singing their loud short buzzes. George Keeney eventually collared this fellow. Some coneheads, especially the Robust Conehead, are astonishingly loud and everyone who ventures into the countryside at night hears them. Few, probably, would suspect the crackling buzzes emanate from this very cool looking insect.

Nina's sharp eyes once again rewarded the group by finding this Broad-winged Bush Katydid snacking on the flowers of Sullivant's Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii. These critters must have bulletproof constitutions, as all parts of milkweeds are infused with highly toxic cardiac glycosides.

Here's a male Broad-winged Bush Katydid ascending a flowering stem of Small-flowered Agrimony, Agrimonia parviflora. This species is also called the "Counting Katydid" and they are cool in the extreme. The slightly drawn out raspy notes are quite distinctive and easily recognized. And they truly count! A typical series begins with two notes; the next contains three; followed by four, etc. Sometimes they'll count all the way to eight!

It seems as if the males like to ascend tall plants to sing, perhaps the better to project their voice. If you know their song, it isn't too tough to find the singer.

Around these parts - central Ohio - the Common True Katydids have just started producing their loud rasps. Last Saturday night was the first time I had heard any this summer. Normally, the katydids are too high in the trees to see, but I happened to notice this male down low on the foliage of an American Elm, Ulmus americana. They are big, and look astonishingly leaf-like.

To learn more about singing insects, visit Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliot's outstanding Songs of Insects website. You can even play the songs of our Orthopterans there. Wil has a sensational talk filled with brilliant imagery and sounds, and he is keynote speaker at the aforementioned Midwest Native Plant Conference. And I'm sure he'll come along for our Friday evening foray into the dark.


Helen Ostermiller said...

Do you have an app for your iPod Touch that has insect sounds on it, or have you transferred from some other program?

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Helen,

Via I-tunes, I downloaded the CD that comes with the book The Songs of Insects. Works like a charm and is very cool to have on the pod.


Heather said...

Jim, I wanted to tell you that the counting katy that you photographed on the milkweed did quite a number on those flowers! We were in that field the next afternoon for our butterfly excursion, and I could see that that plant really took a beating. Still plenty of flowers left for pollination, but it was obvious it had been heartily munched.

Nina said...

These nighttime excursions are such eye-openers!
As you say, knowing the songs of the night reveals another entire kingdom few take the time to investigate.
There's nothing cooler than following a sound and finding at its source these lovely cryptic creatures.
(of course, it helps to have a well-trained ear like yours along for the hike!)

Jim McCormac said...

It was great having you two along on this foray, Nina and Heather!