Insects as Art

It’s obvious that I’ve developed quite the obsession with insects, right? I was talking to a friend the other day about how often people respond to my insect posts on social media with comments like, “Gross!” or “Bugs are disgusting!”  She told me that her sister works in costume design and whenever they need to create a costume that’s scary, they look to insects for inspiration. Just think about the creatures in the Alien movies and you’ll see that idea put to good use.

If you want to read a little about the science behind why so many of us fear bugs, go here. But I wanted to do my part to show my favorite insects in a way that you can appreciate them, even if you generally don’t like insects. So I’ve been making an effort to take photos of them in pretty settings instead of always cropping them closely to show the details of their beautiful bodies. So I present to you some of my favorite dragonfly photos from recent weeks. Enjoy.

Calico Pennant w sig

Calico Pennant

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Blue Dasher w sig

Blue Dasher obelisking to keep cool

Widow skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Eastern amberwing

Eastern Amberwing, like a golden ballerina

Posted in Birds, Insects, Photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Please Stop Killing Snakes!

Sigh. I was in the process of writing a very pleasant post about some lovely dragonflies, but something more important has come up, prompting this brief subject detour.

Three times recently I’ve seen posts by friends on Facebook proudly proclaiming “victory” because they’d killed a snake in or near their home. The posts look something like this: “Me 1: Snake 0,” as if it’s some sort of competition…or even a war. They usually go on to describe the weapon they used to murder the poor animal, and then lament the mess of blood they have to clean up afterward. And these posts are usually responded to with cheers from their friends congratulating them for their bravery. Never once does anyone ask if it was a venomous snake or was threatening them in any way. That doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is “off with its head!”

Hog-nosed Snake - head crop

Young  Eastern hog-nosed snake, about 8 inches long. He eats toads, not people. (Toledo, Ohio)

I get that lots of people are afraid of snakes, I really do. I’ve been startled by them many times on my walks, as they suddenly slide across a path and slither into a meadow. I don’t like that feeling of being startled. But this attitude of killing every snake just because, well, it’s a snake…well, that bothers me deeply. I think if people took the time to learn more about snakes they wouldn’t be so quick to act with aggression. So that’s why I’m writing this today, to urge everyone to just slow down and think about these fascinating animals.

I know many people will have stopped reading this already because they feel a sermon coming on. And I guess there’s nothing I can do to reach those people who aren’t willing to reconsider their views. But for those who are open-minded enough, I decided to write a little bit in support of snakes, and to suggest ways to overcome that all-too-human instinct to decapitate them and then want a medal for it.

Garter snake head closeup (800x662)

Eastern Gartersnake, very common and completely harmless (Toledo, Ohio)

And by the way, I’m not trying to say that you should welcome snakes into your home, not at all. They need to be removed to the outdoors, gently and safely, by someone who knows how to do that. This is about the indiscriminate killing of snakes outside, in yards and gardens.

Okay, let’s do this. First of all, I find the best way to overcome any fear is to educate myself about whatever it is I’m afraid of.  The Ohio Division of Wildlife has a fantastic series of guides to help us learn about the various types of animals in our state. Your state may have something similar. A quick perusal of the snake section in their Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide tells me that there are 28 species of snakes in Ohio and only three of them are venomous. Here’s their page on the Eastern Massasauga, for example:

Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake Ohio

They also give you tips for determining if a snake is venomous or not:

Venomous vs non-venomous snakes Ohio DNR

This little booklet has helped transform my fear into curiosity and wonder at these beautiful creatures. And even if I’m still “afraid” of venomous snakes, I know that they prefer to get away from me and will usually only strike if provoked. I guess I’m more respectful than afraid, really.

So, now we’re armed with knowledge about which snakes are venomous, and therefore we know that none of the others should be feared. At all.

But there’s more…not only are they not to be feared, they are desirable animals. One of my friends who killed a snake recently has also been concerned with rodents in her garden. The irony of this was not lost on me because I know that a snake will take care of that rodent problem for you, lickety-split. (Now there’s a phrase from the early 19th century for your enjoyment.)

Not only do snakes control rodents around homes, but they do it for free! And they don’t destroy the garden by digging holes either (although they do use holes dug by other animals). They don’t spread diseases. They don’t harm your plants. And they don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. They just want to be left alone to live their quiet, unobtrusive lives.

Garter snake sketch (1) (800x600)

Gartersnake sketched from my photo.

A few years ago I tried to sketch a garter snake I saw on the beach in Michigan. I’m not much of an artist, clearly. But the process of trying to draw this one forced me to look at it much more closely than I’d ever done before. And when you look closely at them, they’re incredibly beautiful. Worthy of admiration rather than scorn, in my humble opinion. Could you catch a mouse or frog if you had no arms or legs? Didn’t think so.

I just wish we could all be more appreciative and accepting of wildlife instead of killing every insect or reptile that dares to come near us. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

Thanks for reading. Back to dragonflies soon. 🙂

Posted in Humans vs All Other Animals, Ohio | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Elves and Sprites: More Dragon-Hunting Gems

Elfin Skimmer for blog

The tiny Elfin Skimmer male ( Nannothemis bella), less than an inch long!

As I said in my last post, my friend Ryan and I finished out the weekend after the dragonfly conference by spending Sunday visiting several spots in search of some more species of dragon- and damselflies. We went to Cedar Bog first and found Elfin Skimmers, Eastern Red Damsels, Paiute Dancers, and Seepage Dancers, all very cool species to see.

Elfin Skimmer female for blog

The female Elfin Skimmer looks almost like a wasp

I’d seen my first of the teeny tiny Elfin Skimmers (Nannothemis bella) at Cedar Bog a few weeks ago, but only saw the males that time. These are the smallest dragonflies in North America, easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for and where to look. The males are gorgeous, but this time I really wanted to see the females too, as I was told they could be confused for bees if you’re not paying attention. We saw at least five male Elfin Skimmers and I was just about to give up on the females when one landed right in front of me and I was able to get a couple quick photos.

And, as luck would have it, someone in one of my odonata groups just posted a photo of this species alongside our largest dragonfly, the Dragonhunter, for a very impressive size comparison. Thanks to Derek Bridgehouse for giving me permission to show you his photo, taken in Nova Scotia.

Dragonhunter and Elfin Skimmer comparison by Derek Bridgehouse with permission

Dragonhunter, above, and Elfin Skimmer female, below. Wowie!

Our next species, the Paiute Dancer, has an interesting story. A few weeks ago one of them was discovered in Ohio by Jim Lemon, but not at first recognized as a Paiute Dancer. It took some discussion and consulting with a variety of people before someone realized what it was…and then the excitement grew! Prior to this sighting, the easternmost records of this species were in Iowa and Missouri, so this is a significant range expansion.

Paiute Dancer for blog

Paiute Dancer (Argia alberta), only recently discovered in Ohio

But the more interesting part of the story is that since Jim discovered the Paiute at one location, he found more at Cedar Bog, and then discovered that he has taken photos of this species at that location all the way back to 2015 but didn’t realize what he had. And now that we all know it’s here, we look more closely in the field and at our photos later. So because of this interesting story, I was thrilled to find my first Paiute at Cedar Bog on Sunday.

I suspect lots of ode hunters are combing through their unidentified damselfly pictures to see if they have pictures of this species languishing in a file named “To be identified.”

On my last trip to Cedar Bog I’d seen my lifer Gray Petaltail but wasn’t able to get a photo of it as it flew tight circles around me before zooming far up into the trees. So this time I wanted to find it again so Ryan could see it, and we both wanted to photograph it. But after two hours of searching, we came up empty and reluctantly left for our next destination.

Sphagnum sprite LIFER for blog

Sphagnum Sprite (Nehalennia gracilis), like a needle floating around in the grass

A bit disappointed, we drove to Kiser Lake State Park just to see what we could turn up there. We weren’t having much luck at first, but we suddenly struck gold when Ryan spotted the itsy bitsy teeny tiny Sphagnum Sprites. These guys are also less than an inch long, but the Elfin Skimmer can be a bit smaller than even these guys, believe it or not.

We took as many pics of them as we could and moved on. We’d begun checking the time, thinking we’d need to move along to our next target location when suddenly something big flew past Ryan’s head and we both gasped as it landed on a tree trunk about 30 feet in front of us. Gray Petaltail!!

Gray Petaltail w sig

Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi)

When I say “big,” I mean about three inches, making it one of the largest dragonflies in this part of the country. We were both transfixed as we watched this perfectly camouflaged insect repeatedly fly out to grab insects and then come back to rest on the tree. If you took your eyes off of him it was hard to find him again because he blended in so well with the bark. At one point we could see him eating something that might have been another dragonfly. And we saw him try to grab a fritillary butterfly too, but he missed that one.

I just learned an interesting fact about this species: Most dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects, but the larvae of the Gray Petaltail are semi-terrestrial, feeding on land insects and spiders. Here’s another view showing just how well his camouflage works against the tree bark.

Gray Petaltail camoflage with arrow

Another view of the Gray Petaltail showing his perfect camouflage

After getting our fill of the petaltail, we headed to our final destination for the day, where we hoped to find the Jade Clubtail. This is another species just discovered in Ohio about ten days earlier, again by Jim Lemon. At Odo-Con, Jim had given us directions to the spot where he’d seen it, including the exact buoy it had perched on. And Rick had been there watching them while Ryan and I were at Cedar Bog and Kiser Lake, so when we arrived he’d already done the hard work for us.

Rick and Ryan photographing Jade Clubtail - for blog

Rick and Ryan shooting photos of the Jade Clubtail

We walked along the shore scanning the rocks where Rick had seen a couple of them earlier. He said he hadn’t been able to get very close to them because they were very wary, so we were all surprised when we quickly found one and were able to get within a few feet of it for photos. It might have been just because it was later in the heat of the day and it was tired and too hot to keep moving, I’m not sure. But we felt like we had brought a little bit of luck with us, and we took turns stepping down into the edge of the lake to get photos of the insect’s face as it perched facing the water every time.

Jade Clubtail LIFER nice face shot for blog

Jade Clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), a new species for Ohio

Jade Clubtail LIFER obelisking for blog

Jade Clubtail in the obelisk position on a hot day

As I mentioned, it was a pretty hot day and so the dragonfly did what dragonflies do on a hot day: assume the obelisk position. This is a posture that points the abdomen tip toward the sun to minimize the surface area receiving direct rays, which apparently works well to help them moderate body temperature as they sit on hot rocks along the water’s edge. I took my turn stepping down into the water for photos too, and appreciated the opportunity to feel the cool water on my feet for a moment.

Me taking photo of Jade Clubtail - by Rick Nirschl for blog

This was such a satisfying and fun weekend, with great friends and great odes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover next!

Posted in Insects | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hooked on Odes

Calico Pennant dragonfly in the hand

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

This past weekend was the long-awaited Odo-Con, the dragonfly conference of the Ohio Odonata Society. This was my second year to attend, and I was glad that this time I would know more people and not feel like such a newbie. I’d convinced my friend Ryan to go along this year and was looking forward to seeing his reaction to being around so many other odonata afficionados.

The location for this year’s conference was the Oakwoods Nature Preserve in Findlay, Ohio. It was nice to have the conference in our corner of the state this time, although our weather forecast was not very good for the weekend — we were supposed to have scattered thunderstorms and overcast skies Friday and Saturday.

We spent Friday evening indoors listening to a variety of presentations on topics like the ethics of collecting insects, identification tips, and photography techniques. Whereas birders can report their birds to eBird without photos, our dragonfly survey requires photographic evidence of each species, making it very important to  know the best ways to get those photos. The photography panel discussion included Judy Semroc and my  friends Rick Nirschl and Jim McCormac, each with their own expertise and suggestions for the equipment and techniques that work best for them. It was a great discussion and I came away with some good notes.

Two-banded Petrophila - Petrophila bifascialis

Two-banded Petrophila moth that came to our lights – click to see him larger

Friday night after dark, they hung out sheets and lights to attract moths, and I enjoyed seeing some new moths and poking around in the woods with flashlights trying to find caterpillars.

Saturday morning was also filled with more interesting presentations and time for socializing. And, in a stroke of good fortune, the weather cooperated for our afternoon field trips after all. My trip was to a spot that sounds unappealing — the Hancock County dump. But this property has some amazing ponds and meadows, and we couldn’t even see (or smell) the actual landfill part of it while we were there.

Mocha Emerald dragonfly

Mocha Emerald (Somatochlora linearis)

And my gosh, were there lots of great odes there! Our group of about ten people was led by Linda Gilbert and Jim McCormac, and they showed us a grand time for about four hours, turning up about two dozen species of odes. One of the best finds of the day happened in the first 20 minutes of our outing, but we didn’t know what it was until the end of the afternoon when we pulled out my field guide and looked it up. It was a Mocha Emerald, a brand new species for me, and a very impressively-sized one too. We watched it flying over our heads for several minutes, until it finally landed on some vegetation along the path and we were able to creep up slowly and get some photos.

Halloween Pennants in tandem ovipositing w sig

Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina) ovipositing in pond

A little while later we made our way to the first pond, where we found lots of species flying. There were many pairs of Halloween Pennants “in tandem,” which is how we describe their mating position when the male is clasping the female behind her head. In the photo above they’ve already fertilized the eggs and he’s holding on to her while she dips her abdomen in the pond to deposit them. His goal is to make sure no other male interrupts her before she’s finished the job.

We found this female baskettail species (below) hanging in the meadow as she began releasing fertilized eggs from the end of her abdomen. We watched as the egg clusters got bigger and bigger, and finally she flew off over the adjacent pond and deposited them in the water. We can’t be positive about her species because we can’t see the terminal appendages with all those eggs covering them, but most likely this was a Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura).

Baskettail species with eggs w sig

Baskettail female with eggs

We came to another pond that had just a narrow area of shoreline access, where our entire group couldn’t spread out at the same time. So our always-prepared leader went into the pond with a net to catch some specimens for us to examine on shore. I think he was having the most fun here, as the rest of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in this particular area. But it was worth it, because he brought us some beautiful insects to see.

Jim McCormac with net in pond

Jim is really in his element here, wading in the pond to net some bugs for us to examine.

For example, here’s a damselfly he netted, being held by our other leader, Linda Gilbert. This one is an Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis). In case you’re wondering, all of the insects we netted today were released unharmed after only a couple minutes.

Elegant spreadwing held by Linda Gilbert

Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis)

Spreadwings are a group of damselflies that are easy to distinguish from other damsels because of their habit of holding their wings partially outspread when perched. And many of them have beautiful metallic green coloration, like little winged jewels. I love them, even though many of them are frustratingly difficult to identify to the species level.

I’ll finish this installment with a few pics of an amorous pair of Stream Bluets that I photographed during a break between presentations at the Oakwoods Nature Preserve. First, the unsuspecting female just hanging out, minding her own business.

Stream Bluet female w sig

Next thing she knows, this guy grabs her by the back of her neck.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 1 - w sig

Not much she can do about it at this point, but it all seemed to work out, as seen below as they form the “heart” shape when she reaches her abdomen up to obtain a sperm packet from the male to fertilize her eggs. When they’re done with this part, she’ll oviposit into the vegetation in or near the water so their offspring can live in the water until they’re ready to emerge as these awesome winged creatures.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 2 - w sig

There’s much more to tell about our post-conference dragon hunting on Sunday, but I’ll save that for the next post. Suffice it to say that this was a fascinating weekend spent with naturalists and scientists, and I’m already looking forward to Odo-Con 2019. The only question is, how many more of my friends can I get hooked on odes before then?

Posted in Insects | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig

Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)

Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig

Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison

Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blog v3

Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Happiness and Gratitude, Insects, Ohio, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Circle of Life, Insect Edition

I'm waiting avatarAs I mentioned a few weeks ago, this is the time of year when the focus of my nature explorations turns away from birds and toward dragonflies and other insects. And just like the birds this year, the dragonflies seemed to arrive later than usual, requiring enormous amounts of patience from those of us eagerly awaiting them.

But in the past week or so the dragonfly activity has finally picked up and boy, oh boy, am I having fun! I’ve got so many photos to show you that it’s hard to know where to start. This first post is going to describe an exciting encounter I had today, and then in another post I’ll show a wider variety of species from my dragon-hunting expeditions.

A few days ago a friend told me about a good spot to see a lot of clubtails, a group of odes that I need more experience with. The location is in Oak Openings Preserve, one of our much-loved metroparks. So I headed over there on Thursday and spent about 90 minutes taking photographs of the many clubtails and other species in the meadow and adjacent mowed lawn area.

Blue dasher - WW Knight w sig

Blue Dasher

The weather today was cool and overcast, not the best conditions for odonata to be flying. But I couldn’t resist going out anyway, just to see what I could turn up. My first stop at another nature preserve was discouraging because nothing was flying. At all. I took photos of various fishing spiders on lilypads. I saw a turtle. The sun started peeking out as I was leaving, and I finally found a single Blue Dasher and a single Common Whitetail. That’s when I decided to go back to Oak Openings to check out this meadow again. And boy am I glad I did!

By the time I emerged from the wooded trail into the meadow clearing, the sun was shining brightly and there was a light, cool breeze. It didn’t take long to start finding the clubtails either resting in the grass or flying…up & down and up & down…in their signature roller-coaster flight style. They’re so much fun to watch.

There was lots of cottonwood fluff blowing around, making it look like it was raining cotton balls.

And that’s when it happened.

A dragonfly swooped down in front of me and grabbed what I thought was a clump of cottonwood seeds. Immediately his flight seemed to be more difficult, and he quickly dropped to the ground a few feet away. I’m no fool, and I knew this was going to be good. So I instantly started shooting photos, not even stopping to figure out what he’d nabbed for lunch.

As I shot frame after frame, I quickly determined that he’d nabbed not a clump of cotton, but a large-ish fly-type insect.  Now I know that the prey was a Summer Fishfly, aka Chauliodes pectinicornis. I don’t know much about fishflies, but have learned a bit in writing this for you. Their life cycle is similar to that of the dragonfly, interestingly enough. They spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, then emerge as these winged adult flies. The fishfly adult can live for about a week — if it doesn’t get eaten by another winged insect, as this one did.

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (1) w sig

The prey: a male Summer Fishfly (Chauliodes pectinicornis)

Notice the large mothlike antennae on this one — that’s how we know it’s a male. And look at the pretty black-and-white veining in those translucent wings.

As I watched the clubtail begin chewing into its body, the fly thrashed its thorax back and forth in an attempt to escape. At one point it looked like the fishfly was trying to hold on to a blade of grass as the clubtail tore into his abdomen.

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (5) w sig

The last pair of eyes the fishfly ever saw

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (3) w sig

The struggle was on…back and forth

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (2) w sig

Notice the jaws on the fishfly — they look intimidating but they’re no match for a dragon!

I think this dragonfly is an Ashy Clubtail, but I’m not positive about that yet. It’s pretty hard to differentiate a couple of the clubtail species without extreme closeup photos of the reproductive organs on the tip of the abdomen. I’m still examining various photos from this series to try and pin that down, but whatever it turns out to be, isn’t this so cool?!

As I witnessed this predator/prey drama, I was standing alone in this large clearing surrounded by immense trees. When the clubtail finally flew (with much difficulty), taking the remains of its prey up into one of those tall trees, the smile on my face was a mile wide. I think I might even have giggled out loud from sheer joy.

And now I’ll leave you with a calmer image, one of a pretty little Pearl Crescent butterfly feeding on clover…blissfully unaware of what lurks nearby…in the meadow of death.  😉

Pearl Crescent butterfly w sig

Pearl Crescent butterfly, Phyciodes tharos

 

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The Wings That Lifted Me Up

I just had the most extraordinary experience thanks to the kindness of a friend. I’d been feeling down for a few days and was keeping to myself, refusing to socialize with anyone. I knew I just needed some time away from people to get myself re-centered after a couple of bad experiences earlier this week. So I was spending my days with my hands in the soil, transplanting my many native plant seedlings. It was good and fulfilling work, and I could feel myself slowly getting ready to face the world again.

By the way, I read about a study years ago that showed that microbes in soil can actually lift your mood, and my experience seems to back that up.

So anyway, my friend Rick didn’t know I was going through this, but he happened to call today to ask if I wanted to come watch him release his two newly-emerged Giant Swallowtail butterflies. It took me about a half second to say “Yes, of course!” I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Not only did he have those beautiful butterflies to show me, but this would be my first visit to his extensive and award-winning native plant garden. He’s been one of my mentors in my new native gardening project, and so I was just as excited about talking plants with him.

As I arrived at his house, he was standing in the yard holding an aquarium containing the two swallowtails. As I oohed and ahhed over them, he said he had yet another surprise for me. We walked into the back yard and he showed me a freshly-eclosed Hyalophora cecropia, aka Giant Silkworm moth! I almost jumped out of my skin because I’d been dying to see one of these for a long time.

Cecropia moth on Rick's arm - full view from above

Cecropia moth on Rick’s arm

Is that not stunning?! I still can’t believe I finally got to see this species, the largest moth in North America with a 6″ wingspan. And not only that, I was able to let it crawl around on my arm and feel the prickles of its tiny feet! I was rather surprised to notice that as it walked, that gorgeous fat abdomen just dragged along under the wings. I would have expected it to be lifted up. I may need to do some research about that to see if maybe that was just because it was newly-eclosed.

Cecropia moth showing underwings and abdomen pattern

Rick gently lifted the wings so I could get this shot of the gorgeous pattern on the abdomen.

This moth had been in its cocoon all winter long and will live just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation. If you’d like to see photos of the entire life cycle of this fascinating insect, go here.

As with all moths, it had lush comb-like antennae, as shown below. We believe this one is female because the antennae on the males are much larger than those on the female.

Cecropia moth at Rick's house - close crop of antennae

Here’s another Cecropia still in its cocoon:

Cecropia moth cocoon

I sometimes forget to make the distinction between a cocoon and a chrysalis. A butterfly emerges, or ecloses, from a chrysalis. A moth emerges from a cocoon. #ScienceTidbit

Here’s one of the Giant Swallowtails after we placed it on a wafer ash tree in Rick’s yard:

Giant Swallowtail on wafer ash tree w sig

Here’s the chrysalis after the butterfly emerged out of it:

Giant swallowtail chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged - smaller file size

The camouflage is perfect, isn’t it? If I saw that branch in nature, I’d probably not even notice the chrysalis. Here’s a short video of the butterfly resting before making its first flight:

I’m incredibly grateful for the timing of Rick’s call today, and that I was able to spend a couple hours soaking up the beauty of his yard and the knowledge in his native-plant-growing brain. And, of course, I left his house with a few more native plants in my arms.

This is proof that, sometimes, one small gesture can turn your day around. The second I saw those crisp new life forms fluttering their delicate wings, I forgot all about the things in the human world that had made me sad. Once again, nature was my therapy.

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude, Insects | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Adjusting the Focus

Blackpoll Warbler - Bayview Park - 2018 w sig

Blackpoll Warbler – Bayview Park, Toledo, Ohio

I’ve been doing so much birding this year that, to my surprise, I found myself quickly climbing the rankings in my county’s eBird list. I hadn’t set out to compete with everyone else, but when I saw my name hit the top of the list of “Top 100 Birders in Lucas County,” something clicked in my head. I began to feel pressure to keep my name from dropping back down the list. I noticed that on days I was ahead of everyone, I felt good. And when I was behind, I felt bad. I realized I wasn’t enjoying the birds as much because I was always thinking about which species I still needed to find, and where I had to go next to find them.

Osprey building nest at Howard Marsh

Osprey adding to their nest at Howard Marsh Metropark

I did, however, want to improve on my own number from last year, which was 201 species. So this year I wanted to get to 202 species in a single county, just to prove to myself that I could do it.

I was sitting on the beach at Magee Marsh the other day having lunch with a friend when we saw four American White Pelicans fly over us. That was species number 202 for 2018 for me! So, after savoring the achievement of beating my own record from last year, I decided to change my settings to hide my eBird reports  from the publicly-displayed rankings. I didn’t like feeling that I was competing with my friends. I admit I did take a screenshot showing my name at the top of the list, but that’s just so I’ll remember what this felt like.

Pelican in flight w sig

(I photographed this pelican in Texas back in January, not at Magee Marsh)

I don’t want to see birds as just items to be checked off my list. They’re beautiful and fascinating living creatures, and I want to admire and enjoy them. In the past couple of weeks I’ve spent time with several friends who are either new birders or are not at all involved in eBirding, and when I’m with them I notice that I see the birds differently. It’s a completely different experience in which I can almost recapture the feelings of wonder and discovery that I had when I was new to birding.

Song Sparrow singing on boardwalk at Howard Marsh w sig

Song Sparrow singing at Howard Marsh, our newest Toledo Metropark

Cornell’s eBird database is a wonderful source of records about bird sightings around the world, but I’m not fond of the fact that they encourage competition by displaying a constantly-updated list of our names and ranks. I understand that it helps them by getting more people out looking at birds and reporting them to eBird, but I’ve seen that ranking list have some negative effects among local birders. I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing anyone who truly enjoys the competitive aspect of that, but it’s just not for me, that’s all.

Besides, I feel it’s time for me to adjust my focus more toward the insect world for the rest of the spring and summer. Dragonflies and damselflies are showing up now, and I’m going on a butterfly walk next week as part of Blue Week festivities here in the Oak Openings region of Ohio. I had so much fun photographing insects last year, and I’m looking forward to much more of that in the coming months, especially as my native garden begins to take shape. Native plants bring more cool insects! 🙂

Fragile Forktail - Maumee Bay east end FOY

Fragile Forktail, Maumee Bay State Park, May 2018

 

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Wordless Wednesday: YELLOW!!

Prothonotary warbler

Prothonotary Warbler — shockingly vibrant in the shadows of the woods

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I’m Exhausted and We’re Just Getting Started

Magnolia Warbler - Magee 2018 (2) w sig

Magnolia Warbler

Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.

My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:

Hooded Warbler - Metzger 2018 (2) w sig

Hooded Warbler

Kentucky Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig

Kentucky Warbler

And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.

Cerulean Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig

Cerulean Warbler

At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.

The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans

Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.

Standing beside me in this photo is Katie Fallon, author of Cerulean Blues, a book about the plight of this declining species.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig

Bay-breasted Warbler at Magee Marsh

I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby. Blue-winged Warbler - Magee 2018

Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.

Blackburnian Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig

Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)

And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.

I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences.  There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.

I’m so thankful that I discovered birds —  the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable.  There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂

Red-eyed vireo - Magee 2018 w sig

Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Migration | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments