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"Owzat" - Cricket Lovely Cricket!

The sound of leather on willow fills the air, the sun shines overhead and the sun cream, dated from 3 years ago (!), comes out of the cupboard. It is summer and therefore the cricket season. But another sound signifies that it is cricket season to us naturalists, the high pitched ‘stridulation’ of insects in the order Orthoptera, the Crickets and Grasshoppers! This high-pitched sound is the mating call of the males and is produced by the insect rapidly rubbing its wings against each other or their legs along a series of corrugated bumps. For some of us this sound is just too high-pitched to hear, but for others it means that the meadows are alive with the sounds of hundreds of male orthoptera competing for females. Different species produce different calls and the expert, and keen-eared, naturalists can tell which species are in the meadow. For the rest of us it’s a matter of moving slowly through the grass and looking for movement, usually as the insect jumps away from us and then we rely on our eyes to tell where it has landed to be able to identify it.


The distribution of orthoptera is such that certain areas tend just to have the commoner species, which is the case on my local patch, Newchurch Common near Whitegate in mid-Cheshire. But every so often a new species can be found and that is the whole reason that we go onto our local patch day-in and day-out, it is that anticipation that we may find something new. Sometimes that something new is noteworthy on a local/national scale and that makes the excitement even greater.


This year has seen a long dry and hot spell of weather which followed a wet period, perfect for haymeadow growth, which in turn are perfect for several species of grasshoppers and crickets. Another area of my patch in which I have had success finding orthoptera is the lowland bog and heath known as Abbot’s Moss. It was here that I found the first orthopteran of the year whilst searching for the apex insect predator here, the Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris).


Green Tiger Beetle


An insignificant looking tiny insect caught my eye on the bare patch of ground between stands of heather on a drier part of the heath. On closer investigation I found that I was looking at my first Common Groundhopper (Tetrix undulata), a small cousin of the grasshoppers and one commonly found in damp habitats but also in sandy areas, both of which describe the Abbot’s Moss habitat type perfectly. These insignificant little hoppers are stocky and well armoured, but with flecked brown colouration and so they blend in really well with the heather amongst which I found it. This was the first time I had discovered a groundhopper on my patch and was the first odonata of the year and was a very welcome find. Since that first sighting I have found several more Common Groundhoppers on the mosslands and even one in the meadows north of the fishing pools in a grassy, but still sandy, habitat. This species has probably been present for all the 7 years that I have been recording on my patch, but no doubt overlooked.


Common Groundhopper


As the high-pressure area settled over the UK and the hot and dry conditions prevailed, I started to concentrate even more on invertebrates and spend more time in the habitats in which I find them rather than birding on the lakes. This brought its rewards with lots of new species for the year seen and photographed. Notable amongst these were butterflies and dragonflies, the ‘showy’ inverts that everyone notices on countryside walks. Some really nice finds were Holly Blue, Small Copper and Brimstone butterflies, plus Emperor, Black-tailed Skimmer and Broad-bodied Chaser dragonflies.


Holly Blue


Brimstone


Black-tailed Skimmer


The meadow north of ‘Big Pool’, the main fishing water on my patch becomes my main focus over the summer months with its mix of habitats including rough grassland, bramble banks, hedgerows and mature trees with crop fields to the north and the pool to the south. On each visit here new invert species were added to the growing list for 2023, with some weird and wonderful beasts such as the Sieve-winged Snailkiller (Coremacera marginata), Furrow Orb-weaver Spider (Larinioides cornutus) and Scorpion Fly (Panorpis communis).


Seive-winged Snailkiller


Scorpion Fly


Walking through the grassland it was impossible to not notice grasshoppers jumping away from my every step. An investigation of these showed, as I expected, that these were of two species which I have also seen every year since starting recording on my patch, namely Common Green Grasshopper (Omocestus rufipes) and Meadow Grasshopper (Pseudochorthippus parallelus).


Common Green Grasshopper


Meadow Grasshopper


As the name suggests the former species is predominantly green and is fully winged, allowing it to glide away as it jumps. The latter species is more variable, coming in a range of colours and being short-winged and flightless. With careful stalking I managed acceptable shots of both species and found some weird and wonderful colour variants of Meadow Grasshopper. Some of these variants were ghostly white whilst several bright orange early instar (young) hoppers were found. The final common grasshopper species found was the Common Field Grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus).


Common Field Grasshopper


Try as I might though, I couldn’t ID them as anything other than the common species. Little did I know it was all about to change!


A walk on Sunday June 11th was a pleasant stroll around the patch, especially in the meadows looking for inverts to photograph, as I had been joined by a fellow naturalist, former Focalpoint employee (like me!) and drinking buddy, Paul Hill. Some nice species were found and photographed but the one that got away was the most interesting. As we walked through grass that seemed to be growing noticeably every day that I visited, a small movement and a brief view had us interested. Paul suggested that it could have been a certain species, see below (!), but with that being rare for the whole of Cheshire and one only just starting to reach this far north in England we gave up looking after a very brief search.


For that day our walk ended with no further mention, but I was intrigued and on my next visit three days later I concentrated my search in that meadow, widening it out to cover more ground. Being extremely thorough I checked out everything that moved and finally got my reward when I found a beautiful, but tiny, Roesel’s Bush Cricket (Roeseliana roeselii) nymph. Given the rarity in Cheshire of this species I was elated to have found it and set about getting photos to prove my find. This was easier said than done with the minute cricket climbing off and hopping through the dense grass to avoid my lens! The hot weather didn’t help at all with all invertebrates at the moment seemingly supercharged and ready to zoom off at the slightest vibration. I managed several record shots and then set about finding more. Approximately five nymphs were found, all in a pretty small area of the meadow and venturing away from this core area produced nothing other than Common Green and Meadow Grasshoppers. As many shots as possible were taken and then I headed back home to both process the magnitude of the find in my head and to process the pictures on my pc!

Several more visits were made over the next week or so and adult crickets were found and photographed, and with the pressure off these photos were ten times better, I was a very happy bunny now! On two return visits I took along first my wife, Carys, and then Paul Hill, armed with a DSLR, and for both I came up with the goods and found Roesel’s Bush Crickets for them pretty easily.


Roesel's Bush Cricket


Not quite a needle in a haystack, but with a little local knowledge of visiting that meadow and seeing them daily I had pinned down their favoured areas. This year seems to be the breakthrough year for this species since as soon as the news of my discovery went public subsequent searches found them at a couple more sites in inland Cheshire. So soon this will be a regular in the orthopteran fauna for the county and it will continue its expansion northwards.


Roesel's Bush Cricket


Roesel's Bush Cricket


Another cricket that retains its Cheshire rarity status is also found on my patch. In fact, I rediscovered it just 5 years ago on Shemmy Moss whilst out on a walk, coincidentally with Paul Hill again! This species had been considered extinct in the county after having been recorded from only a couple of sites previously. This is the Bog Bush Cricket (Metrioptera brachyptera), one of the larger bush crickets and one with specific habitat requirements. In the past I had waited until later in the year and gone in search of this species and found the adults on the lowland bog/heath that is Shemmy Moss, the northern section of the bigger Abbot’s Moss. However, given my success with Roesel’s Bush Cricket and finding nymphs of those relatively early in cricket season(!!) I decided that a search for Bog Bush Cricket nymphs would be a good idea.


Bog Bush Cricket


So just one day after my initial discovery of the Roesel’s nymphs I headed over to Shemmy Moss on another warm and still day to try my luck. I liken searching for Bog Bush Crickets to fishing. I walk slowly through the heather watching ahead for a tiny twitch or movement in the clumps ahead of me. That twitch (or ‘bite’ to use angling terminology) is a sign that deeper down in the heather something is moving, having felt my approach. More often than not a grasshopper will jump, and a fly species will take to the wing, but crickets tend to clamber and that’s the giveaway. Once that telltale twitch is seen it's a matter of carefully searching down in the heather and trying to find a cryptically coloured insect on a tangle of plant stems. Looking for adults that are 18mm in length is hard enough, but this time I was searching for tiny nymphs.


Bog Bush Cricket


Not too long after I had started, I got a ‘bite’ and sure enough, after dropping down on hands and knees, I found a Bog Bush Cricket nymph, perfect! I continued to search and try to get decent photos of these wee creatures that have the sole intention of burrowing deeper into the heather to hide from you. In total 12 nymphs were found, and I got my pictures, both as proof and for social media and to send in as scientific records, always important to me as a scientist.


Bog Bush Cricket


Whilst searching for the Bog Bush Crickets a bonus species was found, and one that isn't at all common in Cheshire, again due to its particular habitat requirements. This again was found on Shemmy Moss and was the Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus). These were found both hidden away in the heather but also out on a bare patch of ground, stridulating (making a 'call' by rubbing their legs against their wing cases) to attract females, much like a Lek is used by some bird species. Again the scarcity of this species attracted photographers who snapped (!!) up the chance to get images of this mossland inhabitant.


Mottled Grasshopper


A very late addition to the cricket score was a new species for me that I found in my home garden. This was found attracted to the ultra-violet light of my back garden moth-trap one night in late September and was only the 6th fully documented Cheshire Record of a species that is spreading northwards through the UK, namely Southern Oak Bush Cricket (Meconema meridionale). Having never seen one before I knew at first sight that my find was something special and thought it looked superficially like Oak Bush Cricket. Soon after, with a bit of detective work, I nailed the ID as a new species for me and for the area I live in. As with all the other finds this was submitted as a scientific record to aid the study of the expansion of this species in the UK.


Southern Oak Bush Cricket


Southern Oak Bush Cricket


Southern Oak Bush Cricket


So, this year’s cricket season had been a winning one with three ‘scarce’ local cricket species found and two of these being seen on my little, ‘insignificant’ local patch in two days in mid-June. I had chosen my local patch almost at random, as somewhere close to my home and where no one was doing any wildlife recording and it had paid dividends yet again. The important thing about local patching is to go down regularly and often and that way the effort and input will be rewarded by wildlife finds. Over the years my patch has produced female Smew, drake Ring-necked Duck, a flock of 500 wintering Bramblings, Essex Skippers, Green and Purple Hairstreaks, Downy Emerald, and Hairy Dragonflies and most recently, just last week, a Muntjac Deer skull! Hopefully I will continue to find things of interest, both to me and to visitors, for many years to come.


Muntjac Skull


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