What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring

Earlier this year I was asked by Metroparks Toledo to start a program to monitor the dragonflies and damselflies at one of our local parks. I wrote a little bit about it in this post at the beginning of the summer, but now I’m finishing up the first monitoring season and have some thoughts about the experience.

Lake view at Wiregrass
View of Wiregrass Lake from the south end

Just to quickly recap for those who don’t want to click back and read the earlier post, the park system has some concerns about what might be causing a perceived decline in odonata at Wiregrass Metropark. This property is basically a small lake with a half-mile walking trail circling the water, and it’s known as one of the best parks in Toledo for watching odes. (This is where I led the dragonfly walk for Toledo Naturalists Association in June.) But Metroparks wants to gather data to see if there really is a significant decline happening here, and if so, to take action to remediate any negative environmental factors that might be contributing to it.

Path around Wiregrass Lake with goldenrod
Trail around the lake

So we divided the lake into quadrants and I was to visit once in every ten-day period through the summer to do a survey.  I counted the numbers of each species that I found in each quadrant, and made note of weather conditions on each count day.  I thought I was pretty familiar with this lake from my own visits there to photograph odes in the past couple years, but I have a different relationship with it after visiting so often and watching things change week by week.

As you know, I’m interested in all insects, not just odonata. And I pay attention to plants too, especially noting what’s native and what’s not. My plant knowledge is much more basic than my bug knowledge though. I’ve enjoyed watching not only the changes in insects through the season, but the changing landscape when different plants are in bloom.

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant

Dragonflies don’t have any connections to specific plants in the way that butterflies and moths do. For example, moth and butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are restricted to feeding on specific plants or plant families, so their populations fluctuate with the presence or absence of their host plants.  Odes don’t tend to perch on flower heads because they’re not pollinators, but I’m always hoping for those extra nice photo opportunities when they do.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Dragonfly exoskeleton after emergence

Some things that could impact the populations of odes at this location could be water quality, or the quantity of emergent vegetation around the edges of the lake. Many species of dragonflies lay their eggs in plants that grow in the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will be able to drop down into the water. Dragonflies and damselflies live most of their lives as underwater insects before crawling out of the water and becoming adult winged insects.

The northern half of Wiregrass Lake’s shoreline is pretty heavily vegetated, with the only access being provided by several stone fishing platforms. The southern half is much more open, and Metroparks has placed signs prohibiting shore access on the southern end of the lake, in hopes of protecting the habitat there. This is where I see most of the odes on my surveys, but I can’t be sure if that’s due to the particulars of the habitat or just because it’s the most accessible portion. There could be just as many dragons flying on the north end, but I can’t see the lake up there, except for a few small openings.
Stay on Trail sign at Wiregrass

Prince Baskettail in flight
Prince Baskettail

Some species are most likely to be seen flying over the water, like the Common Green Darner, Black Saddlebags, and Prince Baskettail. Others are often found on the land, like many of the pennants and meadowhawks.  It’s always easier to get photos of them when they’re perched, but sometimes I manage to get in-flight shots of the ones that rarely land. This Prince Baskettail is a species that I’ve never found perched, but since it flies a shoreline patrol pattern that’s fairly predictable, I manage to get decent photos of this one usually.

My survey for the Metroparks doesn’t require that I take photos, but I try to photo-document at least one of each species so I can submit them to the three-year-long Ohio Dragonfly Survey. That statewide effort ends in 2019, so next year I won’t have to spend as much time taking photos and my ode surveys can be done in less time.

Meadowhawk on ironweed w sig
Meadowhawk on ironweed, a native plant

That raises another point about what I’ve learned from doing these surveys so far. In the past couple of years, I’ve relied heavily on my photos to help me confirm identifications of many ode species. Sometimes that’s necessary for the species that require up-close viewing of reproductive appendages, so that’s okay. But I found that I’d relied so much on my camera that I wasn’t able to identify many of the small damselflies in the field. As soon as I started these surveys, I realized that was a problem. On my first survey day, I had to take dozens of photos of damselflies, and then come home and sort through them all to confirm my counts. I tagged them all with their quadrant number based on the time stamps on each photo, so I could put them in the correct column of the count sheet after I identified them.

It was tedious, and that was not going to work for an entire summer!

Here’s just a sample of three species of bluets so you can see how similar they are — keep in mind that they’re about the size of a sewing needle. (You should be able to see them larger if you click on the photos.)

So, I immediately went to my field guides and forced myself to learn them better so I could name them in the field and not have to take so many photos. Things went much faster after I did that.  You would think that someone doing insect surveys must be a very observant person, but I definitely have my weaknesses in that area. In fact, I wrote about an embarrassing episode of mistaken identify here.  I still have to use my camera sometimes to see the detailed marking on the damselflies, but I can usually name them right away now, and don’t have to spend much time at home studying photos.

Blue dasher on pink - blog w sig
Blue Dasher

One other thing I learned is that it’s very difficult to count insects, especially the tiny ones. Sometimes as I move along the trail, I’ll count a Calico Pennant, for example. Then it flies off and I keep walking, and then I see another Calico Pennant land in front of me. Determining if it’s the same one or not is tough sometimes, but I do my best to decide if it could be the one I just saw earlier, or if it’s likely to be a different one. Believe it or not, sometimes I can tell individuals apart by the wear and tear on their wings, so that helps me to avoid double counting. And I’m sure I miss many more than I count, particularly the tiny damselflies that float around in the grass. But I’m hopeful that this survey method will still give us useful data going forward.

I’m so pleased that I’m able to do something worthwhile for Metroparks Toledo, and am also glad that this experience has improved my identification skills. I’m already looking forward to next year, to see how the numbers may be different and whether any new species will show up.

Eastern amberwing - blog sig
Eastern Amberwings are one of the most abundant species at Wiregrass Lake

12 thoughts on “What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring”

  1. We entertained our young artist friend over the weekend, and I was amused to discover she had a new love of photographing and sketching insects. She was especially interested in photographing orb spiders, and the damels and dragons that seem to be everywhere right now. I’ve sent her the link to your blog. Kim, I’ve learned so much from you. Thank you for educating all of us in a fun and interesting way!

    1. How interesting that she’s sketching insects! I’d love to see some of her work sometime. And I’m glad you enjoy learning from my posts — I learn so much as I’m writing them too. And of course I always learn from your writing as well; in fact, you’re one of my primary inspirations for what I’m doing here.

  2. Love seeing your dragonfly posts! Thank you for the good work you are doing, Kim. Are you seeing migration right now? We had big swarms move through last Tuesday in the Chicago region.
    Cindy 🙂

    1. Hi Cindy! Yes, I think it was last Tuesday when there were large migrating swarms seen all over Ohio, including up here at Lake Erie. Unfortunately, I had gone home a little too early and I missed them. I’m just about to head up to the lake shore now to see the monarch butterfly migration. There were a couple thousand of them yesterday, and I’m hoping for more today. This time of year is so exciting.

  3. What do you know about the stone fishing platforms? If ànything?

    We Hiked a big stone platform on Lake Erie. We were almost all the way out to a far edge on a very nice hike, when the wind came up. My husband had heard about it years ago, when he worked at Cedar Point. No rain just waves i assume blown up from the wind. We were that close to dying, but we managed to get back.. We were soaked from the waves. A local policeman knew nothing about this wind. We asked.

    1. Cindy, I’m not familiar with the stone platform you’re talking about on Lake Erie….maybe someplace on Kelleys Island? The ones I wrote about in this article are just a few big limestone rocks stacked on the edge of Wiregrass Lake for fishermen to stand on.

      1. It is on the shoreline. It is big. Some old timer had told my husband about it. You have to park and walk down to it. They have had problems with teenagers. You know, there were galleys on the Great Lakes. Stone workers were exiled after a fort, particularly by the French, was finished. They could return home after a certain time had passed. They were given this n that to do. The voyagers rowed in unison and sang. This may have been a white elephant project. If the workers died, so what. Maybe between Cedar Point and Cleveland, maybe towards Toledo. It was a small town. He complained about outsiders wanting to build there. Maybe it was a pier. It has not been removed.

        Sent from my iPad

        >

  4. A beautiful post. I do love dragonflies and damselflies. I have a pretty good selection of photos of them here in Arkansas. Nature is such a thrill to see and capture in my camera lens. I would have loved doing what you did around that lake – gathering information. The more time a person spends in nature the more they learn. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. You’re so right about that, Peggy. As I’ve spent a lot of time studying nature over the past decade, I have learned so much about the functioning of the life systems on this planet, and it has enriched my life immeasurably. I often feel sorry for people who don’t pay close attention to nature because they’re missing out on so much amazing stuff.

      1. Yes, nature is absolutely amazing. I am always checking for information on little creatures trying to learn more about them. People who live in a big city or just stay indoors most of the time are truly missing the beauty and wonder of this planet called Earth.

  5. The work you are doing is very valuable, Kim. I can now tell the difference between damselflies and dragonflies, thanks to you. Thank you for your diligence and clear and concise writing about your experiences.

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