Saturday, October 19, 2013

Singing insects' swan song

Here in Ohio, nighttime temperatures have plummeted and that, coupled with ever shorter days, have stimulated the onset of a riot of color. There is nothing like the explosion of fall colors in the great eastern deciduous forest, and we're nearing the peak in central and southern Ohio. Here, a pair of Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit clusters brightly punctuate a forest floor littered with fallen ash leaves.

The increasingly cool evenings are putting the kibosh on the fantastic fall symphony of singing insects, and I always find it a bit depressing when these charismatic fiddlers begin to wane. We're soon to enter winter's dormancy, when the singing insects - and nearly all other bugs - disappear. They're there, often in egg form, but out of sight and out of mind.

I managed to find and photograph quite a few Orthopterans ("singing insects") this summer and fall, and following are a few pictorial highlights.

This Differential Grasshopper, Melanoplus differentialis, is an Orthopteran, but it isn't really a "singing insect". Grasshoppers make rough blatting sounds with their wings that are termed crepitations. It isn't really very musical at all. The singing insects featured below are far more melodic. They also make music with their wings, but in general their sounds are far more pleasing to the ear than the crackles of a grasshopper.

A Black-horned Tree Cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis, on Canada Goldenrod. This stunning cricket is frequent in goldenrod meadows, and sings during the day.

One of the more melodic of our evening trillsters is the Broad-winged Tree Cricket, Oecanthus latipennis. This male is in full song. To sing, tree crickets raise their wings perpendicular to their body, which forms a translucent fan. He then rapidly vibrates the bases of the wings together, which rubs the file on one wing against the scraper of the opposing wing. Voila! Beautiful music! The expansive wing surfaces act like the cone of a stereo speaker, booming the cricket's trill forward. Move a bit to the side of the singer and the song dims noticeably; stand right in front and the volume greatly increases.

Orthopterans are tough and adaptable. They've been here for nearly 300 million years. That's WAY longer than humans (ca. 200,000 yrs). I suspect the songs of insects will still serenade the landscape long after we've managed to overpopulate ourselves out of existence.

This is a female meadow katydid (unknown species) snacking on the grains of grease grass. Orthopterans, at least most of them, eat plants and often common readily available fare, hence their abundance.

A Curve-tailed Bush Katydid, Scudderia curvicauda, on the browning leaf of a redbud. If you wish to find and photograph singing insects, you'll want to head out after dark. These animals are mostly nocturnal, and can often be easily found and approached at night.

A Fork-tailed Bush Katydid, Scudderia fasciata. teed up and singing atop a thistle. This is a large insect, but it creates a rather inconsequential song of one or a few zip notes. People are often surprised by the size of the insect, after first hearing the feeble song.

I was delighted to encounter a meadow in Adams County this September that was full of interesting Orthopterans, including many of these. This whimsical looking beast is the Common Virtuoso Katydid, and it has the most ornate song of any of the singing insects. CLICK HERE to hear one.

If you couldn't hear the entire song of the Virtuoso Katydid at the link above, you're not alone. Many of the notes of this species, and other Orthopterans, are at a frequency that is beyond our hearing. Part of this species' song is a soft pleasant shuffling, and that component of the song jumps out to me, and that's how I find them. Many of the Virtuoso's notes are apparently beyond my ear's capabilities.

Most people have no problems hearing Lesser Anglewings, Microcentum retinerve. They're quite loud, and create a castanetlike shuffling sound. They're also drawn to nightlights and often appear on door screens and walls around porch lights.

A personal favorite is the coneheads. Yes, coneheads. That's really what this group of bullet-shaped katydids are called. Coneheads are hardly melodic, but their songs are usually distinctive and in the case of several species, ear-splittingly loud. This is a Round-tipped Conehead, Neoconocephalus retusus, a common species of grassy roadsides and meadows. CLICK HERE to hear its loud trill, which sounds like a shorted out electrical line. It may ring a bell.

Visual identification of coneheads is aided by inspecting their namesake cone. Round-tipped Coneheads have a glossy black line cresting the front of the cone.

This conehead is probably the loudest of them all. It is the aptly named Robust Conehead, Neoconocephalus robustus. CLICK HERE to listen to one. These sound files come from The Songs of Insects, an epic book and website by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott. Here's what they have to say about the Robust Conehead: "Can be heard more than a thousand feet away! At close range, it becomes painful to listen to. One would think that the insect would burst into flames from the friction produced from creating such an intense song".

In tight on the greenish unmarked cone of the Robust Conehead. The powerful mandibles - just under the leg - are formidable. Coneheads eat lots of hard seeds, and have the jaw power to deal with such things. I've handled many of them, and they can put a bit of pinch on the soft flesh of your fingers!

This is the Sword-bearing Conehead, Neoconocephalus ensiger. It creates a loud shuffling quite unlike the two previous coneheads. Around here, this species along with the Round-tipped Conehead is a common duet along grassy roadsides at night. The animal in the photo is in full song. It basically "fluffs" its wings and rapidly rubs the translucent areas at the front of the wings together to make its music.

Just a handful of tough singers are hanging on, and even they will soon be gone. I still hear the jerky sputterings of Carolina Ground Crickets, wheezy chirps of Striped Ground Crickets, and the slightly more melodic trills of Allard's Ground Crickets. An occasional grating crackling of a Round-tipped Conehead still issues from the grasses, and the ubiquitous Jumping Bush Crickets give occasional chirps. By and large, the symphony is in intermission until next summer, though.


Wil said...

I too find it hard to give in to winter's silence. The season of singing insects is all too short. Thanks for the marvelous epilog to the wonderful season of singing insects.

Lisa Rainsong said...

What a beautiful post, Jim! Splendid photos, wonderful narrative. I love how you express your appreciation and affection for our singing insects.

Michael Owen said...

Great post as always. Have enjoyed reading your interpretation of nature since I was recommended your page a couple months ago. Fall colors and singing insects are marvelous but I also can't wait for the hush of winter on a snowy forest floor.

Mary Huey said...

Monday evening, 10/21, still one katydid singing before the rain began -- oh, I will miss that!

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