Wild Side: Black-horned tree crickets

Man, can they sing!

A male black-horned tree cricket with his wings raised to "sing," or stridulate. — Matt Pelikan

Here’s a story that shows how it goes with insects and me. I first encountered a black-horned tree cricket in early September 2016, while bugging in a wetland in Lexington. Amid the songs of three or four species, and perhaps 15 or 20 individuals, one call sounded wholly unfamiliar: a sustained, slowish trill, liquid but with an odd metallic tone quality and tendency to stutter or stumble.

The obvious next step, for me anyway, is to find the little devil that’s singing and take his picture. But insects generally hide very well, with self-preservation a compelling motivation. Orthoptera are particularly deft, physically resembling parts of plants, and skilled at keeping twigs or leaves between themselves and threatening objects — including human observers, making this important step for learning about orthoptera difficult. Of, say, 20 calling individuals that I try to hunt down, I might see one.

But in this case, the mystery caller made things relatively easy. He was perched well up in a tangle of shrubbery, roughly eye-height for me, and within just a few feet of the deer trail I was on. Moreover, instead of calling from a concealed perch, like many insects do, he had parked on the surface of an alder leaf.

I already had a rough idea what to look for; the sustained, musical trill was a typical tree cricket tune. These are ethereal insects, pale and gangly, about an inch long. But man, can they sing! Males support a pair of stiff, transparent wings — they look like they’re made of cellophane — that serve as megaphones when the male strops roughened wing veins against each other.

Tree crickets of both sexes feature prodigious antennae, supple, expressive organs projecting like fly rods from the insect’s forehead. In general, these are pale green; but on one species in the Northeast, they are black. And that’s what I first noticed on my bold little singer.

His wings blurred as I watched, vibrating to make his song. Keen on getting a photo by way of documentation, I moved the camera clumsily into line. Rookie blunder! The cricket dropped headfirst, irretrievably, into the tangle beneath him.

I instantly froze, hoping not to make the screwup worse. And a moment later, a female tree cricket ambled into the open. Perhaps she wondered why her voluble Romeo had suddenly gone silent. I cautiously re-trained the camera and managed a few quick shots before she, too, noticed me and nosedived.

About a year later, on a hunch, I visited the same place and paused to listen, primed to hear the odd song again. Luck was with me this time; I zeroed in instantly on a singing male, even photographing his wings hoisted aloft in full-throttle stridulation.

This second encounter helped wedge the song into my mind, and a few weeks later, along a dirt road in West Tisbury, I suddenly realized I was hearing it again — my first inkling that this black-horned tree cricket might occur on the Vineyard. But the singer was hopelessly deep in a shrub swamp.

A week or so after that, I thought once again that I recognized this call, from shrubbery in downtown Edgartown! And again, despite the amiable tendency of this species to perch on the topsides of leaves, I couldn’t get a look, much less a photo. It was not until the gorgeous afternoon of Oct. 20 that I finally got the goods on a Vineyard black-horn.

I had driven to the Quansoo parking lot, on the hunch that some of the wealth of seaside goldenrod down there might still be in bloom, serving as a magnet for insects, and that the day’s southerly winds might contribute a vagrant butterfly with a thirst for nectar. But just before pulling into the parking area, the song of a black-horned tree cricket suddenly registered, just outside the car window.

A male black-horned tree cricket at Quansoo.

He proved to be the first of about five in the area, one of which I finally found, well off the ground on a goldenrod leaf. Getting into position carefully — no “buck fever” this time! — I ran off 50 frames as he sang, groomed, and basked. I left him there, undisturbed, enjoying the sun.

It’s not much of an acquaintance, I’ll admit, but I feel like I’m starting to get to know this species: what it sounds like, what kind of setting it likes, even what sort of disturbance it’s most twitchy about. And I’ve always considered it an especially cool insect, with its dramatic coloration combined with basic tree cricket style. So I’m happy to have it as a friend.

And “friend” is how I find myself thinking about animals, even insects, and somehow both as species and as individuals: stimulating company, objects of my concern, distinct personalities that have something to teach me. I enjoy the hunt, to be sure, and intellectually, I enjoy learning the life histories of wildlife. But the main thing I feel is gratitude for the privilege of knowing such exquisite creatures.