Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Monarch cats

While on a trip into a remote part of Hocking County today, we came across a patch of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, that was loaded with monarch butterfly caterpillars. It was necessary to stop and admire the colorful little larvae, and make a few photos. I suppose monarch cats are one of the best known and most familiar of the some 2,500 species of caterpillars that ply their trade in Ohio.

As is typical, further inspection of the milkweed foliage revealed other tubular units hiding here and there. Monarch caterpillars are very host-specific, snacking only on plants in the Asclepiadaceae, or milkweed family, with occasional forays onto very closely related dogbane plants. Milkweeds are pretty nasty when it comes to edibility and you'll not want to garnish your salads with the stuff. The thick white sap which flows freely if you cut or a bruise a plant, is loaded with cardiac glycosides. You or I would get very sick if we ate  this stuff, but the caterpillars have evolved an immunity.

Monarch caterpillars are relatively fearless, because they are chemically protected. Predators quickly learn the folly of dining on a caterpillar that is loaded with poisons. But even the monarch cats can apparently find the toxic sap a bit much, and sometimes resort to the trick shown in the photo above.

This caterpillar has chewed through most of the leaf petiole - the short stem that attaches the leaf to the main stem. By doing so, it has largely shut down sap flow into the leaf that it is feeding upon, and thus reduced the volume of poisonous milky sap that it will ingest.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Great Borer Expedition II

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while may recall my fascination with a certain beetle that we call the "amorpha borer", Megacyllene decora. I first laid eyes on the bug three summers ago, and instantly became fascinated with the gorgeous insect. I was with some topnotch field people, and none of us knew what it was in spite of the animal's extremely showy and distinctive appearance.

In an effort to learn more about the beetle, we organized The Great Borer Expedition I, last summer. Success came our way, and we found two of the beetles. But only two, and that was after several hours of searching appropriate habitat.

Flash forward to the banks of the Ohio River between Portsmouth and Cincinnati, and The Great Borer Expedition II, which took place last Sunday. Eight hardcore beetle enthusiasts gathered near what we now know to be Ground Zero for Ohio amorpha borer sightings, briefings were had, and out we set.

We believe that this beetle is rather rare in Ohio, and possibly even rarer than "rather rare". Other than Eric Eaton, who first identified our beetle for us after we couldn't find it in any books, I don't know of anyone outside of our expedition members who has actually seen one of these things in the wild, in Ohio. Eric lived in the Ohio River town of Cincinnati for eleven years, yet only saw one of these beetles in that time.

Anyway, Megacyllene decora is quite host-specific, apparently, using only plants in the genus Amorpha, which are part of the pea family (Fabaceae). In Ohio, that leaves only the plant in this photo, false indigo, Amorpha fruticosa. It reaches its NATIVE northern limits along the banks of the Ohio, although it is widely introduced and established northward. So, one must look for good-sized stands of this stuff on or near the Ohio's river banks, then start searching flowering patches of late-flowering thoroughwort, Eupatorium serotinum, and early goldenrod, Solidago juncea. The adult beetles come to these plants to seek nectar.

Well, I know you've been eagerly waiting to know if we were successful. The answer is a big fat YES! After poking about for a bit, John Howard excitedly called us over, and there she was. The group was elated, and with good cause. It was a life beetle for everyone, save seasoned borer veterans John and I, but this is much more than a new tick on a list. Here our quarry peeks coyly from a wreath of tall ironweed, Vernonia gigantea, flowers. I mean, just look at that thing! What's not to like?

Despite close searches over a few hours, we could only locate this one beetle. We think that it is the females that visit the flowers for nectar, perhaps to gather an infusion of energy and nutrients to help them complete their reproductive cycle. Most of this borer's life is lived as a grub, boring through the tissue of its host plant. Good luck finding one at that stage. The adults, we think, only emerge briefly in late summer, so one's search window is rather narrow.

Even the fabled Bug Guide website has but eight photos of this beauty, which is circumstantial evidence of how rare the beetle may be. If it were widespread and frequently seen, I can about guarantee that there would be plenty of other photos. And of those eight photos, one is mine, and two are of pinned specimens.

As the amazing amorpha borer clambered about, allowing the paparazzi some photo ops, I was able to make this photo showing the prominent tigerlike striping of the abdomen. This beetle is apparently yet another wasp mimic, and even resembles a big wasp or hornet when in flight.

At one point, the beetle got all up in my grill, letting me see its formidable mandibles. We didn't handle it, but had we, whoever was doing the holding would have felt the power of the incredible amorpha borer's jaws as it would have certainly put the pinch on them.

A great many photos were made of the bug, and there may be other images emerging on the Internet that are better than mine. Megacyllene decora is particularly appealing aesthetically in part, I think, because its dominant color is a very interesting shade of tangerine. I am hard pressed to cite another beast, bird or otherwise, that matches this hue. The black markings provide fascinating and artistic contrast, and the overall effect is quite striking. Couple the beetle's showiness with its apparent rarity and you've got an animal that captivates people. At least strange people such as myself and some of the company that I keep.

Expedition members display their elation at discovering this chitinous pot of gold at the end of the Amorpha rainbow. From left, we've got the always searching John Howard, David Hughes, Laura Stalder, Heather Aubke, Derek Hennen, John's son Andy who has had his fill with the beetle-hunting by this time, and Nina Harfmann.

I appreciate everyone who participated in this year's Borer Expedition. And of course, we didn't just see the borer - scads of other interesting life forms were noted and photographed. I could probably make 20 blog posts from trips like this and all of the stuff that we find.

If you know anything, anything at all, about Megacyllene decora the amorpha borer, especially based on firsthand field experience, please let me know.

Monday, August 29, 2011

King of the wasps

I was once again fortunate to be able to attend another excellent Advanced Naturalist Workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. My sincere thanks to Chris Bedel and Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History for letting me audit the Saturday portion. I don't know how these guys do it, but they consistently bring in the top experts in the country to teach about various facets of natural history. Be sure to attend one of these workshops next year.

Last weekend's subject was the wide and often wacky world of wasps, and the instructor was none other than Eric Eaton.

These workshops combine lots of field work with classroom lectures, just as any course on natural history should. That's Eric, 2nd from left and facing away from the camera with the hat on. Brian, far right with net, would win Olympic gold if there were a contest for bagging fast-moving insects.

Eric Eaton is the principal author of the acclaimed Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. If you don't have this handy guide, be sure and get one. It is easily the best and most useful of any of the general insect guides, and Eric deserves major props for an uncanny ability to distill down the 10's of thousands of insect species in North America to include the ones that you are most likely to see. If you are a casual bug enthusiast, the chances are good that you'll find your mystery bug, to the species, in this book. If you are a bit harder core and interested in more obscure bugs, the book will quickly get you to the right family and probably genus, and you can proceed from there.

We spent quite a bit of time out in the field, and saw a surprising number of wasps. I love getting out with people who are real experts in groups that I don't know much about. It always amazes me how I'll then see a plethora of "new" organisms, even in places that I've been scores of times. Ohio abounds with wasps, and while one is likely to notice the larger flashier models there are a tremendous number of much more obscure species that require a trained eye to key in on.

I did my best to make photos of some of the wasps that we encountered, but they are often not the easiest subjects to work with. The bruiser above is a cicada-killer, Sphecius speciosa. These brutes are massive, and the females provision their ground burrows with huge annual cicadas. An egg is laid upon the unfortunate cicada, the wasps seals the tomb, and when the wasp grub hatches it is ensured of fresh meat. This rather morbid life cycle is a recurrent theme in the wasp world. Cicada-killers tend to make communes of burrows in favored spots, often dry sandy banks, and perhaps you've seen cicada-killer colonies.

The aforementioned Brian managed to net a cicada-killer and we temporarily detained her for inspection. His thumb gives you a scale of just how huge this wasp is. As would be expected, cicada-killers strike fear into the hearts of many who see them, and the first thought many people will have is that they are in mortal peril if this thing stings them. Not to worry - cicada-killers, like nearly all wasps, are amazingly passive towards people, and you'd essentially have to grab one to get it to sting you. And it'll only be females who could do that - no male wasps, of any of our species, have stingers.

Eric had another interesting point about the seemingly most ferocious wasps that possess powerful neurotoxins that can rapidly knock out large prey. If you DO get stung by one, it is excruciatingly painful, BUT the agony only lasts for about three minutes, and the sting leaves no lasting blisters, localized flesh necropsy, or other ill effects. I'll take his word on that.

Wasps most certainly do have a bad rep with the average Joe or Jane, and the group's negative connotation is largely due to a few species that are commonly encountered. The one above is probably one of them. It is the northern paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus, and they commonly build their hemispherical nests under eaves of buildings. Thus, people are occasionally stung by the protective insects.

Like many wasp species, this one spends much time nectaring at flowers; indeed, wasps as a group are major pollinators and thus extremely important ecologically. Paper wasps also capture caterpillars, which the adults masticate  - chew into a fine gruel - and feed to their larvae. I've said this before and will repeat it again: DON'T come back as a caterpillar. You'll have no friends, only fierce enemies.

Before this workshop, I didn't know much about wasps, so it's no surprise that this one was a "lifer" for me. It is a grass-carrier wasp in the genus Isodontia. These interesting animals line their nest cavities with blades of grass. They're known to use the tracks of sliding windows so you may have encountered a grass-carrier's nest and not known what it was. We even saw an adult or two flying with proportionately enormous grass blades projecting like streamers.

Grass-carrier wasps capture various tree crickets and provision their nests with them.

A beautiful but luckless catalpa sphinx moth larva, Ceratomia catalpae, is a walking dead caterpillar. This one was still alive and moving, but it won't be for long. A braconid wasp of some sort - there are scores of species - had discovered the caterpillar and injected her eggs into its tissue. The wasp grubs consumed the caterpillar's innards, taking care to conserve the most vital organs for last so that the caterpillar remains alive and better able to avoid other predators such as birds. In a grisly finale, the wasp grubs burst from the skin and create those small cyclindrical cocoons from which the adult wasps will soon emerge.

Perhaps my favorite wasp of the day - and another lifer - was this "katydid" wasp, Sphex nudus. In spite of the "katydid" moniker, as I understand it the females primarily go after Carolina leaf-rolling crickets, Camptonotus carolinensis, whch is what this wasp has captured. Just behind the wasp and nearly under that little stick is her burrow, and it was into that crypt that she dragged this victim. Same story as the other nest-provisioning wasps: find victim, paralyze victim with debilitating neurotoxin, lug victim to nest, seal victim within to eventually be consumed by the wasp's larva.

We found this cricket-killer and a number of others in the gloomy confines of a barn. The soft powdery soil in such sites is perfect for burrowers such as the "cricket-killer".

Impossibly iridescent and a feast for the eyes are cuckoo wasps in the genus Chrysis. When the light hits one just so, the wasp explodes in a riot of color. Getting a photo can be devilishly hard as they scurry about madly. They are also tough to pin a specific name on, as there are a bunch of different species and many look nearly alike.

This one and others were working the exterior of the barn in which we just observed the cricket-killer wasp. Cuckoo wasps - which have no sting - are parasites of carpenter bees and wasp species that create nests in wood. When a nest site is located, the cuckoo wasp boldly enters and attempts to lay its egg within the nest chamber. If successful, the cuckoo wasp egg will hatch prior to the host egg, and the cuckoo wasp grub then consumes whatever prey the host had provisioned he nest with, and possibly even the larva of the host species.

Note the heavy platelike armoring of this cuckoo wasp. It needs it. The wasp probably has no way of knowing whether Mrs. Carpenter Bee or other savage stinging host is in the cavity when it enters, or even more psychotically, the cuckoo wasp may know but not care. If the rightful owner is home, the cuckoo is apt to be attacked and stung, but in theory its armoring will protect it.

This is good ole Eremnophila aureonotata, the species of caterpillar-hunting wasp that I recently photo-documented in THIS POST. We saw quite a few, but none topped this cute little couple. Brian saw them in the act of producing more of themselves, and rather rudely I might add, netted the pair. When placed in a vial, they promptly went right back at it. So we gently tipped them back out of the container and onto a leaf, and they just kept going so we had some outstanding photo ops. Note the massive mandibles of the female. She uses them to grasp and carry her caterpillar prey.

Saturday evening, Eric gave a fascinating presentation entitled "Wasp, or not?". He had great images of wasps and wasp wannabes side by side, and in some cases it was quite hard to tell who the real wasp was. As we've seen, most wasps are not to be trifled with, and many other predatory animals wil have learned to give them a wide berth. Thus, if you are some lesser, harmless insect it'll benefit you to look as much like a stinging wasp as possible. Then maybe the bad guys will avoid you, too.

Well, it was our good fortune to encounter the fascinating insect above yesterday. I suppose most people would quickly identify it as a wasp and with good reason. But it isn't - not even close.

It is a moth, and I think it's Synanthedon sigmoidea but I'm not positive of the specific identity. I find it amazing that a moth, of all things, could evolve such a fantastic mimicry. And I'm sure its ruse is effective at keeping away unwanted attention.

Thanks to Eric Eaton for coming all the way to Ohio from Colorado Springs, and conducting such an outstanding workshop, and to the crew at the Edge of Appalachia preserve for facilitating these excellent workshops.

Black Vultures

Looking like attendees at an undertaker's convention, a hex of Black Vultures adorns an abandoned building in southern Ohio. I took this shot yesterday, in Adams County along the Ohio River. This species is not common and widespread in Ohio, which is at the (for now) northern limits of the black vulture's range. There are a smattering of hotspots for Black Vultures in the state, and Adams County, especially in the vicinity of Ohio Brush Creek, is one of them.

But Black Vultures are expanding, and overshoot migrants turn up well north of the normal range with increasing frequency, and their numbers seem to be increasing in traditional strongholds.

One still sees FAR more Turkey Vultures, and I took this shot not far from where the Black Vultures were perched. These are all Turkeys. Occasionally Black Vultures will mix in these flocks, but for the most part the two species remain rather separated in their habits.

Black Vultures become increasingly abundant as one moves southward, and if you make a trip to the Central American tropics, it'll likely be the first bird you see upon arrival. It'll be interesting to watch their northward expansion, and see what the status of Black Vulture is in Ohio and other northern fringe states in a decade from now.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Spun Glass Slug

The following animal ranks high on the list of utterly bizarre creatures, and one-ups even all of the caterpillian oddities that I assembled in THIS POST. Our strange beast comes courtesy of John Howard, who is an accomplished caterpillar hunter. It was high on his wish list of hoped for finds, and he finally scored a few days ago in Highland County (birthplace of Johnny Paycheck). Thanks to John - Howard, not Paycheck - for sharing these photos.

Photo: John Howard

Appearing crystalline and utterly unreal, this spun glass slug caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri, looks like something created by Swarovski rather than a living, crawling caterpillar. We can see right through its feathery appendages, and it appears to have balls of molten frosted glass attached to its dorsal (top) surface.

In marked contrast to this beautiful - at least to my eyes - caterpillar, the adult is a rather Plain Jane little brown moth - certainly nowhere near as extravagant as its fascinating larva.

Photo: John Howard

Looking down on the animal, we can see right through the body and to the innards. That dark stripe running the length of the caterpillar is the gut. Leafy matter enters the anterior end, gets digested as it passes down that dark tract, and what's left emerges from the posterior end as frass - caterpillar poop.

Spun glass slugs consume the foliage of beech and various oak trees, so that's where you'll want to look. They're normally going to be found on the underside of leaves, and like most other caterpillars, are most likely to be found at night.

Thanks to John for sharing this incredible discovery and his great photos.


On a recent trip around Lake Erie's Sandusky Bay, I came across a nice colony of one of our most handsome mints, the obedient-plant, Physostegia virginiana. It was growing in a low-lying meadow, and the early buds of Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, are beginning to turn the backdrop field an amber color. Black-horned tree crickets and other of the Orthoptera were in full song, making for a classic late summer scene.

Few of our native plants look better than obedient-plant. Its copiously flowered spires can reach three feet or more in height, and most people would find the color of the blooms appealing. It's also not very common, so encountering a population is always a treat.

The curious name stems from the "obedience" of the flower. The calyx is attached to the rachis, or main stem, in such a way that the flowers can be swiveled as if on a groove. Take a finger and push the blossoms from one side of the stem to the other, and there they'll stay, obediently in their new position.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some very cool cats

We are about at the acme of caterpillar abundance and diversity. The winged creatures - butterflies and moths - that produce these wriggling bags of goo as ACT II of their four-pronged life cycle (egg, caterpillar, cocoon/chrysalis, moth/butterfly) are but the most obvious and often very ephemeral stages of an incredibly important group of animals. Caterpillars are by far the most numerous herbivores in the landscape, and without them there would be utter ecological collapse. Most of our songbirds would vanish, many other animals would disappear, plants would run amok, and many of the products that we depend upon in our daily lives would vanish as well.

Get rid of caterpillars, and it probably wouldn't be long before we'd go down the tubes as well.

In my wanderings of the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to cross paths with some of our coolest cats. Ironically, in most cases the adult moths that most of these will become if all goes well are obscure little brown jobs that are seldom noticed.

This is the caterpillar of the viceroy, Limenitis archippus, the sole butterfly amongst the examples in this post. These caterpillars feed on various species of willow, and are bird dropping mimics. And one must admit - they do look rather unappetizing!

One of our more bizarre caterpillars is that of the black-waved flannel moth, Megalopyge crispata. It resembles a tiny turtle that has been covered with shag carpeting. Look, but don't touch - there are spines under that fur that can deliver a punishing sting. Black flannels eat a wide variety of plants, and we found this one on the non-native bristly smartweed, Polygonum cespitosum.

Checkered-fringe prominents, Schizura ipomoeaea, are outstanding leaf mimics. They eat their way into the leaf - box-elder, Acer negundo, in this case - and their body becomes one with the leaf. The brown coloration of the caterpillar even mimics dead leaf tissue - perfect for blending with late season leaves that are often dappled with necrotic tissue.

Seen from further afield, the caterpillar is scarcely noticeable and it takes a sharp eye to spot one. The goal is to mask oneself from the prying eyes of birds, which are a major group of caterpillar predators.

A study in bristly architecture, this is the caterpillar of the giant leopard moth, Hypercompe scribonia. These caterpillars, like many other moths, are polyphagous, meaning that they'll consume many different species of plants. Butterfly larvae are far more finicky a a rule, and in some cases butterfly species will only eat one species of plant. Unlike some other other moth caterpillars featured here, the adult giant leopard moth is a very cool and extremely distinctive animal.

Some would cast their vote for the monkey slug, Phobetron pithecium, as our strangest caterpillar. This group of moths is primarily tropical, and it is thought that the caterpillar's appearance is meant to mimic a shed tarantula skin. Whatever it is doing by looking like this, the effect is overwhelmingly bizarre and most people would probably not even recognize it as a caterpillar.

Seen from a lower perspective, the monkey slug appears even more outlandish, almost like a starfish. We found this one snacking on the foliage of a sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, but they'll consume many other species of trees.

Grouped en masse and resembling a thickened twig are these spotted datana caterpillars, Datana perspicua. The individual caterpillar is quite striking, being prominently striped with bold bands of lemon and maroon. When agitated, the spotted datana often arches each end skyward, bending itself into a C shape. For a moth, this is a selective species, apparently only feeding on sumac. These were on a fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica.

This one is high atop my list of favorites. It is a stinging rose caterpillar, Parasa indetermina. They are beyond outrageous in appearance and resemble a colorful sea slug. Those columns of spines aren't just for ornamentation - they pack one heck of a sting, supposedly. Stinging rose caterpillars can be diverse in coloration, and in some individuals the lemon-yellow is replaced by orange, red, or even pinkish tones. Like many moth species, they're garbage heads that eat many plants. We found this one on a sycamore.

Finally, the jumbo of this crew and a truly spectacular beast, the promethea moth caterpillar, Callosamia promethea. This one was probably nearing pupation time and was huge. We could see it from some distance, and it had defoliated a good chunk of the spicebush, Lindera benzoin, that it was feeding on.

When you're out and about, carefully scan leaves and plants and sooner than later you'll find some very cool cats.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wasp scores caterpillar

While on a field excursion last Saturday in Adams County, I noticed this thread-waisted wasp carefully searching the leaf litter of the forest floor. My initial hunch was that it was one of the spider-hunting species, and by the way it was behaving I figured it was on the trail of a victim. Even though such dramas play out countless times each day, anywhere that decent habitat exists, one doesn't often get to witness a hunt such as this. So, we quietly settled in to watch, and I made a series of photos.

Later, we determined the species of the wasp: Eremnophila aureonotata. I haven't found a species specific common name, other than thread-waisted wasp, and there are many of those.

Our hunch was correct, although it was a caterpillar and not a spider that was in the wasp's sights. After a few minutes of circling and seemingly homing in on a certain spot, the wasp suddenly pounced and in the blink of an eye seized this luckless caterpillar and began tugging it from a niche in the leaves. The wasp undoubtedly stung it, but that happened so quickly that we couldn't see it. I've seen spider-hunting wasps capture spiders a few times, and their paralyzing sting also takes place with such rapidity that you can't even tell it happened.

It didn't take long and the wasp had completely extricated the inert but living caterpillar. We later determined that the victim was a variable oakleaf caterpillar, Lochmaeus manteo. This species of caterpillar reportedly can expel a noxious acid in an attempt to repel predators, which may account for these wasps' ability to sting and disable the caterpillar with such speed.

Most caterpillars hide during the day, largely to avoid fates such as this. The majority of their predators are diurnal (day active), hence it behooves caterpillars to emerge and feed at night, when most birds, wasps, flies and other enemies are mostly inactive. Hide as they may, there will be still be hunters that ferret them out.

In a herculean display of strength and endurance, the wasp began trundling off with a load that must have outweighed it by many times. Over sticks, branches, and leaves it went, and we had front row seats to the spectacle. By now, we were guessing that the wasp had a burrow somewhere close at hand, and it was hauling the prey to its crypt. There, the wasp would entomb the doomed caterpillar after laying an egg on it. When the wasp grub hatches, it has fresh meat to feast upon.

As with all photos on this blog, you can click the picture to enlarge it. Do that on the one above, and you'll have a pretty good look at the long powerful mandibles that this wasp sports. It grabs the caterpillar with these tongs, straddles it, and scampers along with impressive speed.

We were quite surprised when the wasp reached the trunk of a Virginia pine - this was about ten feet from where it caught the caterpillar - and headed right up the tree with no hesitation. Now this strongman feat took on a whole new dimension. Climbing vertically while carrying what, to a human, would be the equivalent of holding a sleeping bag filled with 500 pounds of coins in your mouth while free-climbing a wall. It was even more impressive when the wasp dropped the caterpillar at the five foot level, went back to the ground and retrieved the victim, and started all over.

By now, we're confused as to the outcome. This must either be a wasp that builds an aerial mud adobe nest, or uses tree cavities, we think. Or, it is climbing to gain altitude, and will then launch and flutter-drop out to where its ground burrow is located. In this photo, the wasp and its caterpillar are near the end of that broken branch some 15 feet off the forest floor and right at the edge of my camera's ability to focus with its macro lens.

The red arrow points to the wasp. To our surprise the wasp began to eat the caterpillar, starting with the head or so it appeared from our lowly perch. I know some wasps will consume caterpillars in addition to using them to provision their nests, so I guess that's what was going on. By this point, we really had to go as the wasp hunting diversion had made us late for other activities. When we left, the insect was still munching away. Later research revealed that Eremnophila aureonotata does indeed raise its offspring on caterpillars that are entombed in ground burrows, but apparently the adults eat them too.

No human possesses anything even close to the strength and endurance to do what this wasp did, on a comparable scale. In human terms, it would probably be akin to a 200 lb. man ascending the side of the Dubai Tower bare-handed while carrying three sacks of cement - in three minutes. It makes me wonder if anyone has ever studied the physiology that allows an insect such as this to carry out such remarkable feats.

Black Witch in Ohio!

Photo: Rusty Shuffelton

Dave and Rusty Shuffelton made an extraordinary find back on August 13, when they entered Dave's Shelby County garage and discovered a female black witch, Ascalapha odorata. This enormous tropical species strays far to the north with regularity, but nonetheless Ohio records are few and far between. I don't think they are found here annually, or at least not that I hear of. Records are always noteworthy, and if you find one I'd love to hear about it.

This record illustrates the utility of cell/smart phones, nearly all of which seem to have cameras included these days. That's what Rusty used to document this record.

Last September, Greg Raterman turned up a black witch in Pickaway County, and I wrote about these interesting moths in more detail in that post. CLICK HERE if you would like to peruse that piece.

Thanks to Dave and Rusty for documenting and sharing this record.

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.