Nature watchers often ask “What’s happened to such and such? I don’t see them anymore.” Usually the “such and such” is something charismatic — birds or butterflies or wildflowers, for example. Those are groups of organisms most people notice. More dedicated followers of nature’s trends may mention more esoteric creatures such as wooly bear caterpillars, frogs, salamanders or dragonflies. I’ve never heard anyone mention grasshoppers.
I think just about everyone knows about these common insects, but many people may not notice them. Grasshoppers are pretty much everywhere — in gardens, fields, woods and wood edges, marshes, shrublands, even golf courses and mowed lawns. I normally notice them only when they move. Habitually they either sit still or escape quickly in a blur of wings, coming to rest and blending into the background.
Grasshoppers got me into natural history at the age of five. On a walk with my mother along a rural road in Ohio farm country dozens of grasshoppers leapt into the air with our every step, landing and leaping again and again as we strolled. I was hooked.
When we moved to a suburb of Canton the following year I caught a grasshopper on my way home from school. I put it in a jar and noticed it was missing a hind leg, one of its big jumping legs. I raised it to full size and it grew a new leg. The leg was not full size but it worked just fine. After I set my captive free in the nearest vacant lot I became obsessed with the neighborhood Orthoptera, not just grasshoppers but also crickets and katydids. Over half a century later I’m less obsessed but still at it.
This summer grasshoppers popped up sporadically around our house, maybe because we’ve been working on the house and yard. Anita made our first grasshopper sighting of the year when she noticed one sitting on an old window screen frame. It was an average grasshopper, about an inch and a half long, gray, speckled, modest, unobtrusive. But a closer look revealed a complex anatomy, intricate patterns, an object of superb functional utility and intriguing beauty. It turned out to be the pine grasshopper (Melanoplus punctulatum), said to prefer coniferous forest habitat, but all we have are a few white pine trees.
Photographically collecting a few more “specimens” set us on the path of this article. Last week at the Comeau parking lot we noticed a decent number of grasshoppers, about the size of the one we found on the window screen at home. These were clearly different, and familiar to me from Ohio, the common red-legged grasshopper (M. femurrubrum), probably the most common and widespread grasshopper in the eastern states.
I happened to be in Kingston near the Thruway exit, so I started scouting along Hurley Avenue in a neighborhood that reminded me of my old Ohio stomping grounds. I was looking for a hopper I remembered from those days, a big one, olive-colored, and the most urban of all. The differential grasshopper (M. differentialis) was happy in back yard flower beds and edges of lawns that mowers missed, where as a kid I’d found the fat, lazy leapers basking on brick walls of houses and cinder blocks of garages.