Sunday, August 21, 2011

Songs of Insects workshop

The group heads into the bush during a field trip associated with this weekend's Singing Insects Workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. This class was one of a series of Advanced Naturalist Workshops organized by the Cincinnati Museum and taught at the Eulett Center.

Topflight experts are brought in to teach these weekend long courses, and this weekend the instructor was Wil Hershberger. Wil is an authority on the Orthoptera, our "singing" insects and that was the focus of this seminar. I really appreciate Chris Bedel and Mark Zloba of the Cinci Museum allowing me to attend for one day; that's all that time would permit. So, off I went to Adams County yesterday to learn from Wil and as expected it was a great experience.

This book created a landslide of interest in singing insects: crickets, katydids, cicadas, etc. Released in 2007, the Songs of Insects is now in its third printing and has served as the vehicle by which many thousands of people have taken a greater interest in the sounds that are created by the singing insects. If you are curious about the ever-present sounds that are now at a crescendo and surround you each time you go outside, this is the book to have. Wil collaborated with recordist extraordinaire Lang Elliott, and the men spent six years conducting field work for the project.

I've known Wil for five or six years, and time spent in the field with him is worth its weight in gold, even at today's prices. He can recognize all of the insect singers by voice and is a master at locating them in the grass and thickets. We saw and heard a great many species, as the workshop was split between indoor lectures and outdoor excursions. As a personal bonus, Wil solved a three year mystery for me. For the last trio of summers, I have had a cricket in the flower beds that delivers a series of deep forceful chirps in series of a dozen notes or so. My attempts to learn its ID were fruitless. Until this workshop, when we heard the same bug in a weedy lawn. Japanese burrowing cricket, Velarifictorus micado! That one wasn't on my radar screen and apparently Columbus, where I live, is near the northern limits for this nonnative insect.

To say the insects were cooperative would be an understatement. Here, a greater anglewing, Microcentrum rhombifolium, perches on a participant's camera, making for a tough shot for him but an easy photo op for me. These large katydids are seemingly everywhere this year and we saw and heard scads of them. I recently posted about greater anglewings HERE.

We get up close and personal with an anglewing, so much so that you can see one of its ears. Just below the "knee" on its leg, you'll notice a small linear opening, or pore. That's the katydid's hearing organ, and there is another on the opposite leg. Having their ears spaced like this probably allows for better triangulation of sounds, and that helps the females to pinpoint the location of the singing male. Who, of course, is singing to attract a mate.

We weren't ten minutes out the door on our first field foray when we noticed this curious happening - not something you'll see everyday. It is a woodland meadow katydid, Conocephalus nemoralis, in the act of molting. Like caterpillars, orthopterans go through a series molts on their way to adulthood, emerging from each a bit larger and more mature. Normally this process takes place under cover of night, which is why people rarely encounter it.

We stopped to watch for a bit and make photos. It didn't take long and the katydid popped free of its old exoskeleton. The insect will then commence to rapidly dry and harden, and will soon be on its way and, as this one is a male, adding its song to the tremendous symphony of sound created by its brethren.

Even the seasoned masters get a "life" cricket every now and again, and this little beauty was a lifer for Wil Hershberger (and nearly everyone else, your blogger included). It is a prairie meadow katydid, Conocephalus saltans. There were plenty of them in fields near the Eulett Center. Several species of these little meadow katydids can be extraordinarily abundant in old fields, and people tend to think they are grasshoppers. But meadow katydids, as wih the other accomplished singers in the Orthoptera, have tremendously long antennae. Grasshoppers, which don't produce melodious sounds, have short, comparatively stubby antennae.

To make the photo above, we brought the animal indoors and placed it in a white box. Every species in Wil's book is photographed in this way; the white background really causes the insect's intricate details to stand out.

This is a restless bush cricket, Hapithus agitator. It's a big, handsome cricket, characterized by bold yellowish stripes running down the sides of the body. You'll not find them by song, at least at these latitudes: restless bush crickets are not known to sing in the north. However, populations in Florida and Texas do sing, and you can hear that sound HERE.

UPDATE: We were all fooled by this one. After seeing my photos, which show details of the eyes and cone well enough for an identification, Wil realized that this insect is actually the slender conehead, Neoconocephalus lyristes. It sounds very similar to the robust conehead but has dark eyes, and a mostly dark cone. This is a new Adams County record. I had labeled it as robust conehead, N. robustus, in the original post.

A personal favorite are the coneheads, which are big torpedo-shaped katydids. They'll not win any awards for melodious song. The one above is a slender conehead, Neoconocephalus lyristes. They deliver an incredibly loud dry crackling trill that can be heard from hundreds of feet. You've probably heard them or other coneheads as you've driven country lanes in the evening. So much energy is created by this singing that the conehead's internal temperature can elevate as much as 21 degrees F!

Here's how the coneheads come by their name. Other than song, coneheads can be identified to species by the pattern of coloration on the underside of their cones. It was a real conehead fest in the field below the Eulett Center last night, with a cacophony of buzzes created by slender coneheads, Nebraska coneheads, and round-tipped coneheads. It was a quiet windless evening, and this area has little in the way of noise pollution from passing vehicles, industry, or other human-caused sources. The collective din produced by the loud buzzing of all of these coneheads is absolutely remarkable.

This beautiful insect was new to me, and one that I had long wanted to see and hear. It is a common virtuoso katydid, Amblycorypha longinicta. Its song, which the male in the photo was delivering as I took a series of pictures, is very quiet but astonishingly varied and beautiful if heard well. CLICK HERE to listen to one of these songsters.

Thanks to Wil for a wonderful day, and kudos to the staff of the Cincinnati Museum for orchestrating this excellent workshop series.

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