Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Grasshopper Hunt

The Aiken Audubon Society here in Colorado Springs asked me to speak at their September monthly meeting, and to lead a field trip beforehand. I chose the topic of grasshoppers since there is so much diversity here. The field trip was to Homestead Ranch Regional Park near Peyton, Colorado (El Paso County). I was surprised and delighted by the turnout, and the interesting animals we encountered.

Carolina Grasshopper basking

We were fortunate to have two young men, Seth and Zach Vogel, and their father, Tim, along for the trip. The boys helped find many more animals than we would have were we left to my own devices. They have a keen eye, endless stamina, and great enthusiasm. Tim employed a GoPro® camera to record parts of the expedition in this video.

© Tim Vogel

The Mile High Bug Club was represented by Bell Mead and myself; and Aiken Audubon by Jeannie Mitchell, Leslie Holzmann, and Bill Maynard. Alison Kondler even came down from the Denver area. Thankfully, the weather was sunny, but not too hot.

Plains Lubber grasshopper

We had not even made it beyond the playground and picnic shelter before we saw Carolina Grasshoppers basking on the pavement, and the boys had found an enormous Plains Lubber Grasshopper, Brachystola magna. The latter brought out the "'hopper-razzi," cameras clicking away.

Plains Lubber grasshopper draws a crowd

Further along the trail through grassy habitat on a gentle slope, we encountered several species of spur-throated grasshoppers in the genus Melanoplus, plus Pallid-winged Grasshoppers (Trimerotropis pallidipennis), and the Northwestern Red-winged Grasshopper, Arphia pseudonietana.

While I was explaining how to identify a particular species, the boys brought over a really nice find: a male Mormon "Cricket." The Mormon Cricket, Anabrus simplex, is not a true cricket, nor a grasshopper, but a kind of shield-backed katydid.

Mormon "Cricket" male

Seth and Zach located these large insects by homing in on their "song," a kind of buzzing sound produced by the males rapidly rubbing their short wings together.

We entered a narrow zone of pine trees near the summit of the slope we were traversing, and that brought us another species of grasshopper, apparently confined to that wooded habitat. The Kiowa Grasshopper, Trachyrhachys kiowa, is another of the "band-winged grasshoppers" named for the dark band on the colored hind wing. The hind wings are only visible when the insect flies, and most grasshoppers fly only short distances before landing and once again becoming nearly invisible owing to their superb camouflage.

Kiowa Grasshopper with hind wing spread

Band-winged grasshoppers can make noise in flight. This is called "crepitation," and is a rattling or crackling sound, presumably as front and hind wing rub together....but the sound can be produced at will, so it is something of a mystery how it is produced.

The hill terminates in a rolling plateau, and the grassland changes a bit in composition. Here we heard slant-faced grasshoppers, hidden from view. Slant-faced grasshoppers cling to vegetation in the vertical plane rather than crawling on the ground like band-winged grasshoppers usually do. They produce sound not by crepitation but by "stridulation." The male grasshopper rubs the inside surface of his hind femur ("thigh") against veins of the folded front wing. The result is a "zip-zip-zip" kind of song.

We ended our hike at a circular water trough for horses and cattle, fed by a well with a windmill pump. The water looked awful, but was full of life. It took no time at all for Zach to spy a Barred Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium), one of at least two inhabiting the pool.

Barred Tiger Salamander

There were also water striders (insect family Gerridae), backswimmers (Notonectidae), diving beetles (Dytiscidae), and a Giant Water Scavenger Beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis (family Hydrophilidae). Various dragonflies circled as well.

Giant Water Scavenger Beetle

Everyone appeared delighted by the whole adventure, and I am very happy to see what is apparently a growing demand for field outings geared to organisms other than birds, or at least in addition to birds. I would very much like to do more of this kind of thing, all over the U.S., so keep those invitations coming!

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