The common groundhopper (Tetrix undulata) is a relative of grasshoppers and bush-crickets; the order Orthoptera. It is not considered a common species but it is thought that it is probably under recorded given its relatively small size and choice of habitat.
This insect could not be considered a 'looker'! At first sight I thought it was a bird dropping on a sedge leaf but then it moved and I took a closer look, Having never seen anything like it before I had to take a photograph and then thumb through the books when I got home. It is quite small, about half an inch long, is a dull mottled brown and has quite warty or undulating skin (undulata).
It is one of three species of groundhopper found in Britain and all three are found in Dorset too. This is the most likely to be found although, as I said, it is not common. It favours damp habitat around rivers, water seepages, gravel pits and so on. I found this one next to the Longham reservoirs which fits with this habitat exactly!
Roesels Bush Cricket: spreading its wings
Roesel's Bush Cricket (Metrioptera roeselii) is new to Dorset being first recorded here in 2005. In his excellent book "The Grasshoppers, Bush-crickets and allies of Dorset" Bryan Edwards explains that this was once a species confined to the south east of England but in the 1990's it started to increase its range becoming common in the Thames Valley and then spreading further west and is now well established here in Dorset. It seems to like riverside vegetation and is present in some numbers along the Stour and Avon valleys. Although still mainly an east Dorset species it is still gradually pushing further west.
This is a brown bush-cricket but it does have a distinguishing feature that is readily visible. It has a bright yellowish-green border to the plates covering the thorax area. That said, they are not often seen as they quickly disappear into thick grass and undergrowth as soon as they detect the movement of a potential predator (and that would include us humans who would not wish to harm it!). Getting a photograph was a bit tricky and this slightly blurred one was the best I could do.
It is strange how populations of some species can suddenly expand like this after being stable for many years. It may be down to climate change, of course.
Speckled Bush-cricket: scratching about
The speckled bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) is superbly camouflaged for its life on nettles, brambles and other rough vegetation. The speckles on its body casing enable it to blend in with the shrubby environments it lives in.
This is a common species of bush-cricket here in the south of England but, despite that, they are rarely seen because they are relatively small and their preferred habitat is ideal for hiding them. The best way to at least establish their presence is to listen for their 'song', a very short and feeble scratching sound repeated every few seconds. I have to use a bat detector to track them down now as my hearing can no longer detect them.
They are active from the beginning of August right through until the autumn, October certainly, possibly even in to November. This species crops up in houses in autumn, possibly attracted by lights as the days shorten.
Long Winged Conehead: twixt and between
This is not a grasshopper as the antennae are too long and it is not a bush-cricket as the body shape is wrong, so just what is it? It is caught in between and is called a 'conehead'. There are two British species of conehead; the long winged and the short winged, this is the long winged conehead (Conocephalus discolor).
Whilst similar in size there are two main distinguishing features between the two. The first is, obviously, the wings on this species go right back to the tail end. The long-winged does not have such a dark brown stripe down its back either.
Once quite rare, the long winged conehead is quite common across southern England now but is not always easy to find as they like long grass and scrub in which they can hide and from where they make their continuous and fairly loud stridulating sound (a bit like a distant knife grinder says my book!) so I was most fortunate to find this one out in the open.
Short Winged Conehead: expect the unexpected
Always expect the unexpected! When I happened upon this little creature on the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Kilwood I was chuffed to be able to get a photo of what I thought at the time was a long winged conehead. When I got it home and had a proper look at it, to my delight I saw it was a female short winged conehead (Conocephalus dorsalis)! Why should I be so pleased? Because in the last 30 years the then rarer long winged conehead has spread rapidly and is now quite common whereas the short winged has stayed quite rare.
The 'coneheads' are crickets rather than grasshoppers but rather look like a cross between the two. The very long antennae is the most obvious indicator that it is a cricket rather than grasshopper. On this specimen you will see the wings only come half way down the back, the long winged have wings down to their 'tails'. The short winged also has a much darker stripe down its back.
This female (see the long 'tail' or ovipositor) was on common fleabane near some damp grassland, their preferred habitat, the long winged preferring dryer, rough grassland.
Great Green Bush-cricket: bite your hand off
The great green bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima) is a real little beast with a nasty bite if you get your hands too close! None the less, a beautiful creature that is by far our largest bush-cricket at over 2" long.
They are quite common here in Dorset on scrub and bramble, especially on the coastal cliffs and along the Purbeck Ridge. I have seen them in various places from Durslton and Swyre Head to Corfe Castle and Creech Hill.
Although a large insect their green colouring makes them difficult to spot but if you have good hearing then you will be able to pick up their 'loud' sewing machine like stridulation. At my age I can't hear them but I do have a bat detector to help me find grasshoppers and crickets. This one is quite deafening through the detector and you can pick them 50 yards away.
Grey Bush-cricket: albo (white) punctata (spotted)
The grey bush-cricket (Platycleis albopunctata) is not only a scarce Dorset species, it is scarce nationally too. It is very much a coastal species and is found mainly along the grassy tops of cliffs along the south coast of England from Cornwall to Kent and so, in Dorset, that means it might be seen almost anywhere near the sea. I say it 'might be seen' as I have only ever seen one, this one at Hengistbury Head!
It is quite a distinctive insect and unlikely to be confused with any other species with the possible exception of the dark bush-cricket but the 'grey' is much lighter in colour than the 'dark'; being, yes, greyish rather than brownish! The grey bush-cricket also appears to be mottled because it has white spots on the upper side - albo (white) punctata (spotted).
If you feel inclined to go looking for it then you need a seaside location with short turf interspersed with bare patches and with some scrub nearby. Good hunting!
A bush-cricket of wet bogs, not uncommon in Dorset but hard to find due to habitat preference.
Dark Bush-cricket: the dark side
The dark bush-cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) is easy to identify as it is our only all brown bush-cricket. The other brown bush-crickets we have in this country have some white and green on them, are much smaller, are far less common and tend to be found in specialist habitats where the 'dark' does not occur. That said, the colouring can vary from a chestnut colour to almost black, the female usually paler than the male although this female I photographed is pretty dark in colour.
This insect can be found in any rough vegetation such as hedgerows, woodland scrub, roadside verges and quite often in garden shrubberies. They are quite common in these habitats and are one of the most frequently seen bush-crickets. There are adult insects about from July until the colder nights come in October or November.
They do not really 'sing', making a single high pitched squeak repeated intermittently. They do 'sing' by day but are far more active in the evening and if you have young ears you can quite clearly hear them.
Common Green Grasshopper: an ambiguous common name
Because the name, common green grasshopper (Omocestus viridulus), implies that this is a common, green grasshopper there is a tendency to think all common, green grasshoppers are common green grasshoppers! I know that is ambiguous so let me explain!
Of the few grasshopper species that occur in Dorset, or in the British Isles if it comes to that, there are more than one species that are green. Not only is the common green green but so too is the meadow, the stripe-winged, the two marsh grasshoppers and the female mottled grasshopper. My point is that not all green grasshoppers are common green grasshoppers. Secondly, there are species of grasshopper that are more common than the common green, notably the meadow and the common field. Hopefully you are beginning to understand what my opening statement meant!
Whilst widespread in Dorset this species is restricted to areas where the grass is quite long and it occurs mainly on the chalk although it can be found on the grassy areas of the Purbeck coast and the Purbeck Ridge. That said, it can be found elsewhere, on grassy woodland rides for example.
To me, this species sums up everything that is difficult about identifying grasshoppers. Several species are so alike and several species can have considerable variation within the same species; it really is a job for the expert. The rest of us just have to do the best we can!
A local species found in damp habitats.
Woodland Grasshopper: in glades and rides
No guesses as to where you will find the woodland grashopper (Omocestus rufipes); it is, of course, primarily an insect of warm, sunnny, open patches of woodland and woodland rides. It likes coppice and broadleaf woodland but it can also be found in conifer plantations.
This is a southern species of grasshopper and, whilst not exactly widespread in Dorset, where it does occur it can be quite numerous. There are signs that it may be extending its range and also widening its habitat choices.
A distinctive grasshopper, it cannot really be mistaken for any other species as it is so much darker, the male being almost black with a red tip to the abdomen.
Common Field Grasshopper: but uncommon in grassy fields!
I shunned grasshoppers as 'too difficult' for many years so when I got the chance to spend a day with one of Dorset's authorities on them I 'jumped' at the chance! As always, it seems, the same process applies; get to know a couple of common species well and then you will know when you have found something different. When you do find something different get to know that well. Over time your knowledge grows.
I started with a couple of really abundant ones, the meadow grasshopper and this one, the common field grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus). This one is 'quite' easy as it is predominantly dark brown with lighter markings on the abdomen, this can be a reddish colour towards the tail-end on the male. It also has two light stripes on the shoulders (but so do other species!). It is quite a large species and has wings that extend almost the full length of the body.
This species, although the 'common field', is not a great lover of lush grassland and likes patches of clear ground and against bare earth they are quite well camouflaged. Once they 'fly', of course, and you follow them to where they land they have no hiding place. If you catch them when the sun goes in you can get quite close.
Stripe Winged Grasshopper: cracking the code
Here in the south of England on calcareous chalk and limestone grassland, and there is a lot of that in Dorset, we find the stripe winged grasshopper (Stenobothrus lineatus). They have a preference for shorter grass and for southerly facing slopes. They have white and black stripes on the outside of the wings but they are hard to tell apart from the common green grasshopper which is similar. In any event, adults of the same species can vary!
Grasshoppers are tricky chaps to tie down unless you have an experienced eye as they can fly away from you (yes, they fly in short bursts rather than hop) as they are pretty sensitive to movement. If you have good hearing you may be able to identify them by sound. All grasshopper make differing sound patterns (stridulation), it is a bit like the concept of Morse code, and that is the best way to identify them but it takes time and effort to understand and match the patterns of sound to the species of grasshopper. If your hearing is past its best then a bat detector can make the sound audible at a lower frequency, as a crackle, and you can then home in on them. If you are really careful you can strike lucky, especially if the sun goes behind a cloud at the right moment!
Often in the company of meadow grasshoppers and common field grasshoppers just to make things more challenging but neither of those species have green along the back.
Mottled Grasshopper: welcome to the club
Who said identifying grasshoppers is easy? The mottled grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus) can be extremely variable in colour and the males especially can be confused with common field grasshopper and the rare heath grasshopper. To make matters worse, the mottled grasshopper is most frequently found in similar habitat to these two look-a-likes! The females can be quite striking with white patches on a green background and if you encounter one like this they are quite unmistakable.
Whilst the mottled grasshopper is the smallest species in Dorset it is not possible to identify them on size alone! The most distinctive feature of this species, and one that tells it apart from its similar cousins, are the clubbed tips to the antennae. If you can get a good enough view and can see the antennae appear swollen at the end then you have, indeed, found a mottled grasshopper.
Far from common, you are most likely to find this species on dry heathland, especially in the Poole basin and eastern Dorset.
Heath Grasshopper: amongst the heather
The heath grasshopper (Chorthippus vagans) is a nationally rare species found only on the heaths of Dorset and Hampshire (in the New Forest). It is one of several species of animal and plant that thrive only in such habitat and that is why heath is such an important treasure that needs to be cherished and protected.
The heath grasshopper is much like other heath dwelling species, the common field grasshopper and the mottled grasshopper, so you need a good view to be sure you have found this notable species. In essence the differences boil down to the mottle grasshopper having clubbed antennae which the heath grasshopper does not have and the wings on the heath grasshopper extend only to the knees whereas the on the common field grasshopper they extend beyond the knees! Those are not the only differences but unless you have a trapped specimen it is almost impossible to separate them unless you have an experts eye for detail.
The heath grasshopper seems to prefer dry heath rather than boggy or damp areas. Where ling, bell heather and dwarf gorse can be found then that is where you may find this species of grasshopper. This means that they can be found on dryer areas of heath south of Poole Harbour as well as in the east of the county near the New Forest border. Remnants of heathland in and around Poole and Bournemouth also have populations.
Meadow Grasshopper: jumping Jack Flash
The othoptera order, grasshopesrs and crickets, present a tricky identification challenge. Like the common field grasshopper, the meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus) is very common but, unlike the 'field', it has green around the face and thorax. The abdomen tends to be stripy brown and quite often has tinges of orange and I have even found one bright purple (this often occurs in the females I believe).
The meadow grasshopper, as it name implies, can be found on almost any grassland habitat but is especially common where the grass is moist. Just after the entrance to Powerstock Common there is some rough, moist, grassy scrub and as you walk through it you see 'clouds' of these jumping out of the way of your path. This species is also common on the Dorset heaths too.
If you have good enough hearing then you may catch their 'song', like a sewing machine in three second bursts and repeated every ten to fifteen seconds gradually getting louder. You should be able to find both the 'meadow' and the 'field' from July thriugh until the end of October and possibly in to November if the weather remains mild.