Well it’s been two months since I last posted here, but the absence hasn’t been for nought. Cornell has taken away quite a bit of my free time, and the free time I do have is spent out collecting, harvesting the last of the summer’s insect fauna. I could go on and on about various interesting animals I have encountered here, but I want to write about a particularly fascinating species that managed to elude me for a long time – the black-sided meadow katydid.
Before coming to Ithaca I had done a bit of research on BugGuide, the Orthoptera Species File (OSF), and Singing Insects of North America (SINA) to see what sorts of orthopterans I could expect to find in the area. Many names were ones I was already familiar with from Maine, but there were records of quite a few other traditionally southern species that have been pushing their way northward into western New York. One name stuck out in particular: Conocephalus nigropleurum. In the same genus as several very common little meadow katydids in Maine, this is a gorgeous animal with reddish head and thorax, glossy green wings, and a shining black abdomen. From what I could gather, this was mostly a great lakes and upper midwest species, and western New York was one of its furthest east points. Apparently it preferred marshy habitats. On OSF there was a record from “Ithaca, NY”, so I fully expected them to be pretty easy to find, given that most meadow katydids I have encountered sing from relatively easy-to-find perches and sing in broad daylight.
Sure enough, when I first sallied forth into the wilds surrounding the Cornell campus, I heard the calls of tons and tons of meadow katydids. Some quick detective work led me almost immediately to 2 different species: Conocephalus brevipennis, the short-winged meadow katydid, and Conocephalus fasciatus, the slender meadow katydid. The short-winged species sings a short buzz, followed by a “tick-tick-tick”, repeated over and over. The slender species sings a long sustained buzz, followed by a long series of “dzt-dzt-dzt-dzt”, repeated over and over. I recognized these two animals from Maine – both are common there. Although it was good to see some familiar faces, I was looking for other, more exotic game. Everywhere I went, I listened for and captured every meadow katydid that sounded even slightly different. Always, however, it ended up being either brevipennis or fasciatus.
At this point it was getting into mid-October, and I was beginning to get worried that I wouldn’t get the chance to see this species before winter set in. Luckily, a couple of events fell into place at just the right time. I came across a photo on BugGuide of a beautiful female C. nigropleurum taken in New York! Location: Thousand Acre Swamp Preserve in Penfield, NY, an almost 2-hour drive from Ithaca. There was no way I was getting there without help. It just so happened that my dad was in town to visit, so we planned a trip to hunt down the elusive animal.
Thousand Acre Swamp didn’t look too special on first glance. It appeared to be mostly woodland and old field habitat, same as Ithaca. When I stepped out of the car I immediately keyed in to some C. brevipennis singing in the grass at the edge of the parking lot. Again, nothing special. However, as soon as we had made out way out to the cattail marsh, I knew that nigropleurum had to be here. It was perfect habitat, and the boardwalk through the marsh was exactly the same boardwalk as in the photograph from BugGuide. I tracked down a couple of familiar-sounding calls that turned out to be C. brevipennis again before I finally heard it: the softest, quietest buzz I had ever heard, barely audible over the wind. As soon as the sound reached my ears I knew that this was my quarry. By some amazing chance the singer was not 20 feet out into the marsh, but only about 3 feet out.
He was surprisingly easy to find. I spotted him sitting head-down on a cattail head, with his wings raised and sputtering softly as he sang his song. I felt a little flutter inside when I saw his jet-black form against the marsh grasses. Here was the object of my search, the reason for my two-hour drive. I stood entranced for a while, just watching him sing. Then I got a hold of myself. I photographed him where he stood, and then gingerly worked a net out to his position and snatched him up in a vial. Conocephalus nigropleurum, at last!
This might have been the end of the story, but there are two more short chapters. I heard no more nigropleurum at Thousand Acre Swamp, not a one. I theorized that the species was restricted to cattail marshes in the area, so my dad and I, with the help of Google Maps, drove around looking for parks with cattail marshes. First up was one Center Park in Fairport, NY, the next town over. Among scores of C. brevipennis, I found a single nigropleurum male. Our next stop was White Brook nature area, which to our surprise hosted an enormous cattail marsh. Nigropleurum was by far the most common meadow katydid there, and this is where I found my crowning jewel – a female of the species. The males might be gorgeous, but she was magnificent. Brandishing a light brown ovipositor almost longer than her body, she was a sight to behold. After this we decided to call it quits. I had come, and I had conquered. I had discovered Conocephalus nigropleurum.
After photographing them back in Ithaca, I set them up in a nice terrarium of their own, complete with lots of cattail heads. The males sang for several weeks, and it was a pleasure to hear them every day after classes. They eventually died, probably because of old age. The female is still alive as of today, and she has been ovipositing in the cattail stems almost every day. With luck, I will have little nymphs of this wonderful species to raise up in the spring!