Nebraska Project WILD


Cicadas: The Not Locust September 4, 2018

Filed under: Cicadas,Uncategorized — projectwild @ 9:41 AM
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This one is for parents, teachers, friends of children and nerds of all ages. This one is for anyone who has ever wanted to drop mad knowledge about the end of summer insect shrieking.  The interwebs have allowed me to gather just a notch above the basic information along with some nerd style imagery to share with you about CICADAS, the not locust.

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Adult Cicada Photo Credit:

First things first. Take a look at the two images above.  The first is an exoskeleton from a final molt or, to use a fancy word, ecdysis,  that  an adult has left behind. I’m sure you remember finding these as a kid and wearing them as jewels on your sweaters. No? outdoor classroom kid with shelsMaybe it was just me. Anywho, the second image above is of an adult.  Now, many of us as children were told by well-meaning grown-ups that these are locusts. They are not.  These are cicadas.

Locusts and cicadas are different insects.  They are as dissimilar as ladybugs are to butterflies. Locusts are a kind of grasshopper in the order Orthoptera.  Locusts are a grassland insect.  Cicadas are true bugs more closely related to stink bugs or boxelder bugs and are classified in the order Hemiptera.  Cicadas live in and around trees.

Now that we have that straight let’s do a proper nerd out.  Nebraska is home to 24 species of cicadas.  There are two main groups.  Most famous are the periodical cicadas, Magicicadas spp.  Periodical cicadas have 13 to 17 year life cycles. These are the kind that get all the celebrity and huge write ups in the newspaper or outdoor magazines when they emerge  The second group is named the dog day or annual cicadas. These are the kind I most often find and I’m sure you are most familiar with as well. Annual cicadas have two to five year long life cycles but the life cycles overlap so there is a batch emerging every summer.

Male cicadas are the screamers.  Their call is what most calls are purposed for, attracting a mate. From approximately mid-July through the end of August males will just sit high up in trees waiting and screaming.  When a female fancies a particular male she will fly up and land nearby making a clicking sound with their wings in response.  After they do their carnal business the female will be laying, or be fancy and use the term ovipositing, her eggs within three to five days in late summer.

A female cicadas have an absolutely wicked way of ovipositing her fertilized eggs. She will use their ovipositor to saw slits in small living twigs or branches where she will deposit her 20 or so eggs in nests. When the eggs hatch they fall to the ground as nymphs and burrow 15 to 18 inches below the surface where they will continue to live, they do not hibernate, burrowing and sucking the xylem from plant roots.

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Female Cicada Ovipositor Photo Credit:


Ovipositor sawing motion. Photo Credit:

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Slits in twigs made by female cicadas. Photo Credit

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Cicada eggs in nest. Photo Credit

The nymphs will grow through several instars, or growth stages. Cicadas go through incomplete metamorphosis so they have no pupal stage.  In their emergence year fully grown nymphs will move above ground leaving behind ½ inch exit holes and will crawl up trees, house siding or picnic table legs to attach themselves for their final larval instar. During this instar their exoskeleton will harden and  the adult will molt through a crack in the thorax.  What is left behind are the shells we see clinging to tree trunks and other surfaces. The adults that emerged will live two to four weeks.

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Cicada nymph exit holes. Photo Credit

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I bet you have seen these if you have ever dug in the ground.  Cicada nymphs. Photo Credit

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An adult cicada and the final molt it has emerged from. Photo Credit

I wrote earlier the males are the screamers.  Their little screamer gadgets are so COOL!  They make their classic end of summer mating call using tiny instrument called a tymbral organ. It’s a thin membrane, only a ¼ inch in diameter, attached to muscles that they will shake like ‘flapping a sheet in the wind’, but super-fast.  Their abdomen is partially hollow and curved serving to amplify and project the sound, similar to a tuba or trumpet.

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Tymbal organ of male cicada. Photo Credit 

To close down this show I would like to add, know your audience when you are bequeathing unto them your new found cicada nerdom.  I only know of a handful of first graders, and less grown-ups, that care what order cicadas are in.  I find, especially in adults,  all  we need do is guide the inborn sense of wonder and curiosity.  Then when a question is asked you can delve as deep as needed or request.  Don’t get distracted by the science but use it to immerse yourself and others in the awe of the world around us.

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As always, I did do the nerd search but I could have gotten my wires crossed somewhere. I also pulled a bunch of this out of my brain.  I am not an expert so please let me know if you think I may have misunderstood any of my research.



Thanks for the Distraction April 17, 2018

Filed under: Nebraska winters,Uncategorized — projectwild @ 1:16 PM
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For just a moment I am going to be another person who is whining about this long hard winter. I know it seems as though spring may never come, but I think we have all seen and heard some signs.  One sign imparticular inevitably carry spring on their wings as an unbroken promise year after year that life will come again to this frozen prairie landscape.  While the snow keeps falling here in the Midwest, I have certainly had my spirits lifted by the sights and sounds of birds returning.

For example, a few weeks ago it snowed again. Yeah I know, it’s always snowing again.  I so badly wanted to be crabby about it.  How many times is spring going to be yanked out from under us?   But the snow was falling in big fat flakes straight out of the sky.  We don’t get vertical precipitation too often here on the prairie, so I just stood there in the  moment looking and listening to the snow fall.  Then, out of character for the thick blanket of white all around me, a red-winged black bird would occasionally call.  By that time these fellas have been back for a while but what my eyes where seeing did not line-up with the sounds I was hearing.  It was an utter contradiction, a jolt to my dormant spring energy that has been waiting to burst out from under the crust of winter.  So below is an ode, a thank you of sorts, to the red-winged black bird.  I know it isn’t a species that bird nerds get all excited about, but many of us are just wannabe bird nerds.

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Male Red-winged Blackbird Image Found Here


I’m pretty sure the red-winged blackbird was one of the very first native species of grassland song birds I learned about in the field and not from my fourth-grade Nebraska chapter in social studies.  I often see the males protecting their territory and the females nesting where water will collect on the landscape, in or near ditches or in wetlands.



Female Red-winged Blackbird with nesting material.  Photo Credit:    Mia McPherson


These birds make their nests higher in the structure of grasses and forbs compared to say, a meadowlark that make their nest directly on the ground.  The female red-wing blackbirds will grab some nesting material, dried grasses most often, and weave anchors for the nest on the gathered bunches of tall grasses and flowering plant. Once secure the nest itself is weaved with plant material and molded with mud into a cup shape that is then lined by softer, finer grasses.  The females will lay two to four eggs that are the light blue of robin eggs but also smeared with brown wriggly misshapen lines. Females can potentially have two broods in a nesting season.



Red-winged Blackbird nest.  Photo Credit Gerrit Vyn

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Red-winged Blackbird eggs.  Photo Credit:


The male red-winged blackbirds are highly territorial. I’ve been dive bombed while checking nests for survival rates on my first job right out of college.  Males can also have up to 15 females that are nesting in their territory. The bright red markings on the wings are flashed to attract a mate or to show another male who is in charge.


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Male Red-winged Blackbird declaring its territory.                                                 Image Credit Flickr Creative commons/KristinChicago


Although the population of red-winged blackbirds have decreased over the last 40 years, they are still one of the most abundant and recognizable of those to return in the spring.  The male mating call, konk-a-reeee, listen here, is a sound of home and a promise of the new life spring will bring.


Signs of Spring February 28, 2018

Filed under: Spring,Uncategorized — projectwild @ 1:35 PM
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I know we are barely out of February yet, but this last piece of dragging prairie winter is when I start looking for any sign that shows a promise of spring.

Black-capped chickadees are known for a couple of their calls.  This common visitor to your backyard feeder these past months makes a, ‘chicka-dee-dee-dee’ call. It’s a harsh territorial sounding call. Their mating call though, marks the spring with, ‘springs here’. I know on those freaky warm winter days black-capped chickadees will sing their spring song but there is now doubt the difference it resonates in a person in late February.  Check out the two calls here, so you too can recognize the sounds of spring.

I was going to move on past our sense of hearing but your ears will register this next sign of spring before you see it.  The iconic ‘v’ in a sunny blue sky.  Unless you’re looking skyward, the Canada goose will let you know it snuck into your air space by its ‘honk’.  Check out the Canada goose call here.  I think Aldo Leopold says it best in ‘A Sand County Almanac’,

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

I will read and reread this every spring.  The geese are our prophets that, oh yes indeedy, spring will come.  I’m sure my kids roll their eyes when I sit them down to make the ‘Leopold Spring Proclamation’.

What signs of spring have you found so far?


Winter Scavenger Hunt February 12, 2018

Oh February.  The shortest most infinite month.  The prelude to true anticipation of spring.  I rather enjoy winter or maybe it’s just the changing of the seasons.  Whatever the case I’m starting to get the itch for change, but we still have a bit of winter left.

It is very important for, a variety of reasons, to get outside this month.  Not just you, but your kiddos to.  Cabin fever is a very real thing as is seasonal effective disorder.  We need fresh air and a disconnect from screens that have provided us comfort these past weeks.  If you are feeling all, ‘the winter of my discontent’, then your kiddos are too.  Take them out on a quick little winter scavenger hunt to scratch the cabin fever itch.

For the itty bitties that can’t read yet, simple images do the trick.  Find shapes, colors, and images of a variety of outdoor winter scenes they could stumble upon.  You can even add images of things they probably won’t find to foster questions about seasonal connections.  ‘Why do you think we didn’t find a spider?’   Make your own or use this one, Winter Scavenger Hunt.  Bundle up, grab a clip board and get out there for a winter adventure.

Time Outdoors is Time Well Spent



Hoarfrost and Camera Fails January 31, 2018

Filed under: January Prairie,Nature Activities,Nebraska winters,winter — projectwild @ 11:27 AM

Did you happen to catch the beautiful hoarfrost we had last Wednesday morning after our big ‘ole blizzard here in northeast Nebraska?   As a new camera nerd, fumbling my way through learning my equipment, I was super bummed when on my way to work and filled with awe at the wintry spectacle I realized I had…yup you got it…forgotten my camera.  I’m a new nerd.  I repeat, new nerd.

Hoping to forecast my next photo opportunity I looked into the weather conditions that form hoarfrost. Let’s begin with something we are familiar with, dew point.  Dew point is simply the temperature that water vapor needs to be cooled to saturate the air. Apparently you need constant pressure as well. I have a really interesting tangent about the differences in pressure between dew point and frost point but let’s stay on track here.   When we have hit the dew point temperature, this is the point when relative humidity has reached 100 percent.  All this means is the air cannot hold any more water.  If the temperature drops below the dew point, water vapor will condense on grass, leaves or the iPhone you left out by the fire.

What does this have to do with hoarfrost you ask? I wanted to start with dew in relation to the formation of hoarfrost because I think we have all had experiences with dew. Think of a short walk through the grass in summer and arriving at work with soaked shoes.   I took you on that little journey to get us to frost point.

Frost point is similar to dew point in that it represents the temperature at which air has been saturated. But rather than condensing on a surface, like dew, when saturated air bumps into a surface below 32 degrees, water vapor will jump straight from gas to a solid in a process call deposition.  FANCY SCIENCE WORD!    The opposite of deposition is sublimation, straight from a solid to a gas. (Think dry ice.)

So, when we have saturated air and solid surfaces that are below the freezing temperature of water we get frost.  The size of those tiny crystals are determined by the amount of time they have been building up and the amount of water vapor in the air.  This my friends, is when we get hoarfrost.   Those conditions happen on cold nights with no insulation from clouds resulting in surfaces that are colder than the surrounding air.

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Hoarfrost captured on a spider web. Image source 

Keep your eyes out for our next hoarfrost, and hopefully I’ll be sharing some of my very own photos with you on our Nebraska Project WILD Facebook page.



Blizzards and Prairie Critters January 22, 2018

Filed under: Animal Information,Nebraska winters — projectwild @ 3:48 PM
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I know not all of our readers are currently shut-in for the blizzard  blowing its way through parts of Nebraska.  I am however and while the drifts in northeast Nebraska continue to increase in depth I wonder how our prairie critters are managing.

It seems many of us consider hibernation synonymous with winter survival.  While there are some true hibernators in the prairie our most commonly thought of and seen Nebraska animals do not hibernate but rather, go into torpor.

While hibernation is still a bit of a mystery to scientists, (side note: as are many things still are), hibernation is considered a deep sleep triggered by day length and hormone changes. It can be categorized by a significant drop in heart rate and body temperature for an extended period of time. Animals in hibernation can and do wake up to eat or dispose of their bodily waste but they rarely forage for food or leave their winter shelters.   Woodchucks, ground squirrels and bats are a few of Nebraska’s true hibernators.

Torpor is, shall we say, a less committed form of hibernation.  Torpor is also a deep sleep influenced by temperature and food availability. There is a drop in body temperature as well as metabolism, but as far as I can tell from my research, it seems to be far less dramatic than true hibernation.  Raccoons, striped skunks and occasionally opossums are a few common Nebraska prairie inhabitants that enter torpor as a winter survival technique. Let’s check in, with just a little more detail, what it is these critters are doing to survive our winters.


Raccoons will fatten up during the summer using their stored body fat to survive from late fall to early spring.  They shelter in hollowed trees or deserted homes vacated by their previous owners. They are also found in abandoned or not so abandoned


A raccoon peaks out of its den. [image source]

buildings.  Once they are hunkered down out of the weather and air temperatures are below 25 degrees, raccoons enter torpor .  During our winter warm spells they will venture out in search of food.

Striped Skunks

Like raccoons striped skunks too will survive on their winter coat of fat gained in the summer and late autumn months.  Skunks raise their young in dens or burrows but will move to a den in a different location for the winter. While they are capable of digging their own burrows they save energy by reusing abandoned ones or seeking shelter under your porch or deck. Eek! I hope you have never had to experience this.  Once set on a winter home, they block the entrance with dirt or other material.  Unlike raccoons, skunks will share their burrows in the winter with other skunks utilizing…WAIT FOR IT…FANCY SCIENCE WORDS… social thermal regulation.  Which simply means, shared regulation of body temperature.


An opossum wonders in search of food during a winter warm spell. [image source]


Aw the poor opossum.  By far this creature has the hardest time surviving a prairie winter.   First of all, its naked ears and tail are susceptible to frost bite. Second, they don’t stock pile food or insulated their bodies with fat from late autumn feasting.  They do line dens with grass or leaves for a bit of extra protection from harsh weather, but they tend to switch den sites several times a season while on the hunt for nourishment their non-existent fat stores can’t give them.

What observations have you made this or in winters past, about our prairie critters?


Feature photo Image Source


Project Feeder Watch January 10, 2018

Are you looking for nature-based science investigations for you, your family or classroom this winter?  Project Feeder Watch may be just what you are looking for.

First, if you don’t already know, allow me to introduce you to citizen science.  Citizen science carves out a path for us normal every day folks to participate in real scientific investigation.  Not just participate but actually contribute to the scientific understanding of the world around us.  There is just not enough resources for scientist or researchers to gather the vital information needed to answer the questions they have.  This is where YOU step in.

Citizen Science projects are created by scientists, researchers or academics.  They create an easy to follow protocol, the resources and training needed and a place, usually a website, for information to be sent once gathered.  Then volunteer citizen scientists do the ground work collecting or even analyzing data.  Many projects provide the collective results on their websites by way of maps or graphs.

Project Feeder Watch, out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is one such citizen science project.   Essentially this project is a winter long, November through early April, survey of backyard feeder birds. People of all ages and skill levels are invited to participate.   The data collected provides information about the weekly changes of bird distribution and abundance across the U.S. and Canada.

The protocol consists of selecting two consecutive count days per week and observing your feeder site, which can be right out your favorite window, as much or as little as you want during those two days.  You will be recording the maximum number of each species at your site at any one time.  This is the number the project leaders want from your counts days.  If you see two blue jays at 8:15 am on Saturday while sipping your morning coffee and but then you see seven blue jays on Sunday at 2:00 pm then you report seven blue jays on your data sheet.  If you miss a week or only monitor one week this season, Project Feeder Watch still wants that data.

The website is full of information and I assure you they cover any question you may have.  There are detailed instructions from selecting your count site and choosing count days to tricky bird ID and submitting your counts.

Many citizen science projects are free to participate but Project Feeder Watch requires an annual registration fee of $18.  The money goes to materials, web design, support staff and other such things.  At the end of the year they compile results and publish a ‘Winter Bird Highlights’ report.  Find the last seasons report here.  When you register you will also receive a research kit containing some really great goodies for bird lovers.

Last season marked the 30 year anniversary of Project Feeder Watch.  To celebrate Cornell Lab published three decades of Project Feeder Watch data!  Find the article highlights here.

If you want to participate this season it is not too late, go to  If you would like to contact me about questions or facilitating a Feeder Watch training or other citizen science training in the northeast Nebraska area, email me at  Or join me Feb 3rd from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm at the Plainview Public Library for a Project Feeder Watch community event.

As they say, “Embrace Winter!  Count Birds for Science!”


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