Rufous Grasshoppers

Field Paintings

At first glance the Rufous Grasshopper Gomphocerippus rufus looks much like any other grasshopper. But this species has a beautiful courtship display which is one of the secret treasures of the British countryside. These grasshoppers are at the northern edge of their range in England and inhabit tussocky grass and scrubland on chalky soils.

The undercliff at Branscombe near Sidmouth is my favourite place to watch them. The tiny nymphs emerge in late May, about a month after most other British grasshoppers and develop over the summer. Some are still moulting in to their adult stage in September so courtship activity is at a peak during early Autumn. They favour sheltered hollows on the undercliff where they can soak up the last of the summers’ warmth.

By late September the sun is getting weaker so they can often be found basking on rock surfaces and bare ground. This is a great time to see the display of the male. This begins as he spots a female and makes short buzzing calls. He then sidles up to her and angles his white-tipped, clubbed antennae down. Whilst facing her he rocks his head from side to side then loops his antennae around and waggles his chalky white palps in an attempt to woo the female.

The males are almost always unsuccessful, with the female walking or jumping away seemingly unimpressed with his performance. I once even saw a female kick out at a male which sent him flying a few feet through the air! I have seen this display hundreds of times and never tire of watching it but have only ever found one mating pair. The females are obviously very choosy about picking the best display males as fathers for their young. Watch videos here and here. Watch BBC One Show film here.

In mild autumns these grasshoppers can survive until early December during which time the females will have laid their eggs in the soil ready for next spring.

John Walters

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