Two Things Are Bugging Me

When I wrote my post on January 13 about starting Kim’s Big Bug Year (KBBY), I had completely forgotten that I’d already photographed an insect in 2020. Back on January 5, this little moth was hanging out in my house. He was here for a couple days and then I couldn’t find him again; I wouldn’t be surprised if the last thing he saw was a cat paw.

Grass tubeworm moth
Possible grass tubeworm moth (Acrolophus sp.)

At this point, my best guess is that he was one of the grass tubeworm moths in the genus Acrolophus. I’ve posted this photo in my KBBY project on iNaturalist, and am hoping someone more knowledgeable than me can help narrow down the identification. One of the frustrating things about insect identification is the fact that sometimes you can’t determine the species without examining the bug under very high magnification or seeing various photographic angles. And sometimes you just can’t get the shots you need before the critter disappears. I’ve learned to accept that reality and I’m just happy to learn whatever I can and move on.

This past weekend I participated one of our many Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trips. Our objective was to find urban birds in a metropark along the Maumee River, and we certainly had a gorgeous day for it. The temperature was in the mid-50s…in February…in northwest Ohio! And just look at that sky. That’s a cell phone photo without any editing. So pretty.

Anthony Wayne Bridge over Maumee River

But on this birding trip, I had a side mission: to find a winter stonefly.

As we searched for birds, my friend Mark helped in the quest for stoneflies. He’d told me before that I should be able to find them as my first insects of the year. And sure enough, I found this one basking in the warmth of the sun on the back of a bench beside the river.

Winter stonefly at Middlegrounds
Small winter stonefly (Capniidae family)

These are some of the earliest insects to emerge from the water each year, and they have the ability to withstand much colder temperatures than most other insects. I found an article on the blog of Scientific American that goes into great detail about how they’re able to survive the winter cold, so jump over and read that if you’re interested. (Winter Stoneflies Sure Are Supercool.)

Eastern Comma butterfly - blog
Eastern Comma

So I’ve tallied my first two insects for the year, with many more to come after winter ends. Over in the right sidebar you’ll see my KBBY logo; it’s linked to my observations on iNaturalist so you can check my progress whenever you want. Feel free to place bets on which insect will be my next sighting. I’m thinking it might be one of the butterflies that overwinter here, like a Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, or Question Mark…stay tuned!

My Big Bug Year Begins…Soon

By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!

Great spreadwings ovipositing w sig
Great spreadwings ovipositing (inserting eggs into the branch)

I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself.  I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far.  I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.

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A cute little jumping spider!

I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019.  (All but two of those were in Ohio.)  And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.

I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected.  (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.

Trophic pyramid from Ck12 dot org - creative commons license
(c) CK-12 Foundation; Licensed under Creative Commons

As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.

When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.

Fifth instar monarch caterpillar on my hand w sig
Last instar of monarch caterpillar, after eating lots of milkweed
Bringing Nature Home cover image Tallamy
Doug Tallamy’s book explains all the basics of insect-plant relationships

The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply.  Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.

Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.

So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)

Song Sparrow with food - blog
Song Sparrow with a beak full of protein for nestlings

Kim's Big Bug Year logo 2020.jpgI’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects.  And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.

So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?

I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.

(In the meantime, if you want to learn more about using native plants in your yard, hop over to the “Learn” page on my chapter’s Wild Ones website.)

This Too Shall Pass

Rattlesnake master with snow - B&W
Rattlesnake master in my garden today

Well, I sure wasn’t ready for this yet! We got our first snow of the season yesterday, and it wasn’t just a teaser, it was a smack-you-in-the-face-wake-up-call. Of course I’m being dramatic (it’s only four inches), but I really dread the cold sloppiness of a northwest Ohio winter.  I cleaned my gutters twice last week because they were jammed with leaves from my prolific maple trees, and today I shoveled snow. Most years we have time to get through fall before winter comes lumbering into our lives like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It feels unsettling to have a significant snow this early. There’s supposed to be a rhythm to the seasons, gosh darn it, with time to make the mental adjustment to the next one.

Rudbeckia with snow - blog
Rudbeckia with a snow toboggan

I complain mightily now, but I know in a few weeks I’ll be resigned to it and will be able to find enjoyment in (some aspects of) winter.  This morning after I shoveled the driveway, I begrudgingly trudged around the backyard with my phone, taking photos of the native plants in their winter hats and coats.

I remember a day about a decade ago when I went for a walk in the woods one winter and had a sort of awakening, because I’d never done that before. It seems unbelievable to me now, but before that day, I had never gone outside in winter for the sole purpose of taking a walk. Sure, I’d gone sledding or birding, but never just walking and paying attention to the details.  I found interesting ice formations on a creek, wind patterns in the snow, and the stunning sight of bluebirds in the black-white-gray woods. I felt I’d discovered an exciting new world, and now I treasure winter walks.

Fire in woodstove - blog
My favorite spot on a cold day – my Happy Chair

I must admit, though, that one of the best parts of a winter walk is coming back to the warmth of the house and curling up with a blanket and hot cup of tea.

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, already starting its job as Melter-in-Chief.  I’m grateful for that today; it helps me see the beauty of the snow and not dwell (too much) on the long, dark months ahead. Sophie is making the most of her favorite sunspot, blissfully unaware of the cold on the other side of those windows.  I envy animals sometimes for their ability to live in the moment, without worrying about the future.

Sophie in sunspot - blog
Sophie napping in her favorite sunspot

WInd patterns in the snow - blog

When I started writing this, it was intended to be a sort of venting of my begrudging acceptance of winter. But as I’ve been writing and thinking about it, I’m reminded that we only appreciate the warmth because we know the cold.  We appreciate the flowers and insects in summer because of their absence in winter. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere that didn’t have the dramatic seasonal changes that we have here. Change is what makes things interesting.

Spring tree birds avatar - blogI doubt I’ll ever be converted to one of those people who love winter, but I can tolerate it, and sometimes even appreciate it. Well…as long as I know there’s another spring at the end of it.

Before I go, here’s a short video I just took looking out my kitchen window, showing leaves falling on fresh snow. That’s just not right, LOL.

Senescent Saturday

Fall foliage at Secor - Kim Clair Smith

Senescence is the process of deterioration with age. We humans like to deny or ignore it in our own bodies, but we’re huge fans of it in trees. The changing colors of leaves in the fall are a result of senescence. As a natural part of the life of a tree, the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing the other pigments beneath the green.

Song for Autumn excerptSay what you will about spring and the rebirth it symbolizes, but I’ve always been partial to autumn. The most obvious reason for this attraction is the stunning beauty of the trees draped in splendiferous* robes of gold, red, brown, and orange. But when I’m in a more contemplative state of mind, as I am today, I think of how my appreciation of fall is also driven by the knowledge that it will be so brief. Fans of summer or winter have months to enjoy those seasons, but autumn demands your full attention before it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Or after a day of wind and heavy rain, as we’re having right now in Toledo.

Fall at Secor v2 Kim Clair Smith

I almost let fall slip past me this year, and have only gotten out briefly a couple times so far to take it all in. I fear by tomorrow much of the beauty will be on the ground, leaving us only bare branches to gaze upon for many months.

I’ve traveled to chase birds and dragonflies before, but this is the first time I’ve considered chasing fall. I might take a trip to southern Ohio to get a few more opportunities to capture fall with my camera. It’s a bit challenging up here in the flatlands of northwest Ohio to get interesting angles for landscape photos, but I expect it’ll be quite a different story in the hills down near the Ohio River. I’ll be anxiously watching the weather forecasts to decide if I can manage to fit in a quick trip.

Fence and fall foliage
The rain was just starting to fall as I made this last quick stop at Salamander Flats today. 

Fall foliage with gnome - Kim Clair Smith

Alert readers of this blog will have noticed this little guy before. He seems to show up often when I walk in the woods, and I’m always tickled to see the interesting places he chooses to take his naps. This time he was comfortable on this enormous tulip tree leaf — it was almost twice as big as my hand. I wonder if he’ll show up in the Appalachian foothills of Shawnee State Forest next week?

Gnome on fence - Kim Clair Smith

*Yep, splendiferous is a real word! I had to check, LOL.

Relax, You Don’t Have to Rake Those Leaves!

leaves and rake

Imagine a world in which fall is a time for enjoying the beauty of the season before the onset of winter, without the burden of hours of raking, leaf blowing, and garden cleanup. Just think about it: If you don’t have to face the drudgery (and futility) of trying to make the outdoors as “neat” as the indoors, what else could you be doing on a gorgeous fall Saturday? How about walking in the woods? Or going on a country drive to admire the fall foliage? Or picking apples with your family? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Gnome in the woods - fall leaves - blog

Allow me to suggest that this utopian world is already here, if we can just change our way of looking at things. And I know some of you are already saying, “But the neighbors will disapprove!” And I get it, I really do. It’s tough to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning. But please keep reading.

Back in the day, it was considered important to “clean up” your garden each fall, but now we know better. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any garden cleanup, just that we reduce what we do.  There’s a growing movement to begin looking at gardens as part of the ecosystem rather than just something pretty for humans to look at. Our species has a tendency to try to bend the natural world to our will, rather than considering ourselves part of it and trying to work with nature rather than against it. This encouraging new perspective impacts our choice of plants as well as how we care for the overall ecosystem in our yards.

Now we understand that if we remove all the fallen leaves from the ground, we’re killing innumerable caterpillars who overwinter in those leaves. By destroying caterpillars, we’re killing many of the butterflies and moths who would have graced the garden next summer. Some butterflies migrate south, that’s true. But so many of them overwinter in our yards, whether as adults or in pupal or larval forms tucked into crevices or leaves.

Hollow stems of boneset left for winter
Hollow stem of boneset, ready for overwintering insects

The way we tend our gardens in the fall has a huge impact on the amount and diversity of wildlife it can support there in the next spring and summer. Many of our native bees spend the winter tucked into hollow plant stems, like those of our native monarda (aka bee balm). That’s why it’s important to leave some of those stems standing over the winter. In my garden, for instance, I’ve cut my 5-foot tall monarda down to 3-foot stems, so any insect that wants to use those hollow stems will have easy access.

Hollow stems of monarda left for winter (2)
Monarda stems cut at about 3-feet tall, so insects can overwinter in them

And let’s talk about birds….

Sure, seed feeders help get birds through the scarcity of winter. But did you know that seeds only comprise a small percentage of a bird’s diet? They get most of their nutrition from spiders and caterpillars or other insects, many of which spend the winter tucked into fallen leaves or hollow plant stems. Well, they do unless you cut all those stems down and blow all the leaves away.

Brown creeper w sigCan you start to see how restraining your fall cleanup impulses can result in having more birds in your yard? I sure hope so, because that’s the whole reason I’m writing this.

What I’ve been doing the past couple of years since I learned about this is to gently rake most of my leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Not only does this preserve the insects who are tucked into them, but it helps my plants survive the winter and it enriches the soil as the leaves break down. Now I admit, some of the leaves get mulched up by my lawn mower as I do that final mowing of the year in late October, but other than that, I restrain myself from removing all the leaves that drop after that.

Many birds come to the yard in winter to flip leaves over to find food, or to harvest the seeds from the native plants I’ve left standing for them. Goldfinches are pros at this and I’ll often see a dozen or more of them bouncing around on brown stems in the garden.

And if you like to take photos, that’s one more great reason not to cut down your flower stems in the fall. You can get some lovely images of frost and snow on spent flower heads.

Frost on flower head - reduced size - blog

Try it this year and see if you can’t get used to it. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want our priorities to be, isn’t it? And if anyone comments on your yard, why not take that golden opportunity to tell them why you chose not to rake those leaves? You never know who you might influence with your actions. (#EachOneTeachOne)  Feel free to copy the image below and use it on social media with a link to this post. And thanks for reading!

Fairy - leave the leaves @NIMT

Fall Nectar Bonanza

I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees.  I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud

Common buckeye on asters w sig
Common Buckeye, feeding on asters
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Wild Indigo Duskywing, looking a bit tattered, feeding on asters
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Bronze Copper, feeding on asters
Meadow fritillary on asters w sig
Meadow Fritillary, feeding on asters
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And Common Checkered Skipper, also feeding on asters

 

Creatures of the Night, Again

I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!

In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that these are not exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.

Using a UV flashlight to light up a caterpillar
A few of my friends on the hunt for caterpillars

Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them.  Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.

Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:

Waved sphinx moth w sig - blog
Waved sphinx moth larva (Ceratomia undulosa)

I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal.  So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.

Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.

Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!

Io Moth caterpillar
Io moth (Automeris io)

During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:

Io moth on Angie's pant leg - blog

I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern.  In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.

This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.

This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:

Promethea moth caterpillar close head crop - blog
Promethea moth caterpillar (Callosamia promethea)

I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.

Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.

Tiger swallowtail caterpillar - blog
Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)

Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.

Stick mimic moth caterpillar - blog

As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes.  I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings.  On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.

Pawpaw sphinx moth caterpillar - blog
Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar (Dolba hyloeus)

The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.

And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!

White furcula moth caterpillar - blog

That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator.  Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!

Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest.  That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)

Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.

Spring peeper - blogOkay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!

And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.

Kim on night hike
Kim the Bugdork (don’t judge me, LOL)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Eastern Amberwings are one of the most abundant species at Wiregrass Lake

Celebrating a Boy Named Laura

Before you get too far into this, let me just say that this one is more about the story than the photos. There aren’t any stunning pics here, but I hope you’ll enjoy the tale anyway. Okay, here we go.

The other day I went on a day-trip with a friend to look for three specific species of odonata around northeast Ohio. These were all species that are very uncommon in this area, and all three would be lifers for me. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but “lifer” is a term we use for the first time we see a particular species, and it’s something usually celebrated in some fashion, be it a favorite food treat or just a silly “lifer dance” in the woods. The way you celebrate your lifers isn’t important, as long as you do something to commemorate the excitement of the moment.

We had notes about where these species had been seen recently, so we weren’t just blindly searching for them. We left Toledo early on this beautiful-blue-sky-day and arrived in the Amish area of Holmes County by mid-morning. At our first hunting spot we stood on a bridge over a creek on a rural road, scanning the water below for our target, the Smoky Rubyspot (Hetaerina titia). This was the one we thought would be the easiest to find in this very specific spot, but for the first few minutes we couldn’t see anything flying. We didn’t want our day to start with a miss, so we were relieved when a flash of dark color darted past below us. We both went on high alert, and suddenly Rick said, “There it is, on the bare branch down there.”

Smoky Rubyspot LIFER w sig
Smoky Rubyspot (Hataerina titia)

We both instantly jumped into photo documentation mode, trying to make sure we got shots from multiple angles. Many odonata can’t be pinned down to the species level without views from the top and sides, so it’s always advisable to get dorsal and lateral shots if possible. That usually provides enough documentation, but there are also the frustrating species that can’t be identified unless you’ve got them in the hand to closely examine the reproductive organs. (Yes, meadowhawks, I’m talking about you!)

We did the best we could from our limited vantage point on the bridge, and decided to get right back on the road for the 45-minute drive to our next location near Massillon, Ohio.

We arrived at the designated spot and clambered down a steep bank to the Tuscarawas River, at a shallow area with some rapids, just under a bridge.  The quarry here was the Arrow Clubtail (Stylurus spiniceps). I clearly hadn’t done enough research in preparation for this one, because my impulse was to start scanning the rock-covered shores as I normally do for clubtails (remember my last post about hunting the Flag-tailed Spinyleg from my kayak?). Rick gently informed me that, since the Arrow is one of the Stylurus clubtails, it would be more likely to be seen hanging in the trees than resting on the rocks. That’s why it pays to hang out with someone more experienced — I always learn something that helps me improve my own skills.

Example of blurry water shot
Many blurry water shots ensued!

After standing around for a half hour or so, we almost gave up on this one. But then we started seeing some kind of dragonfly cruising low over the surface of the river, very fast and in an unpredictable pattern. It was moving in and out of shady areas, making it tough to get any photos to begin to nail down the identification. But as usual, we both clicked off as many shots as we could each time it went past us. It’s a frustrating process that usually results in lots of photos of blurry water or leaves. But persistence pays off, and we ended up with what we needed. These are still blurry, but good enough to identify this species.

That was a more satisfying experience than finding the Smoky Rubyspot, because we had to spend time watching and waiting, and take a couple hundred photos just to get good enough shots.  But if I thought that was satisfying, well, I had no idea what was to come on our third stop.

After a brief lunch in the car, we headed north to Geauga County. Our goal there was Laura’s Clubtail (Stylurus laurae). This is a very uncommon species in Ohio, and we’d been to this same location last year and spent two hours looking for one with no luck. Our attempt last year was prompted by a report from Linda Gilbert and Jim Lemon, who had finally found a Laura’s there in September of 2018 — after Linda had spent 15 years looking for them!

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Clamp-tipped Emerald found while waiting for Laura’s

After our disappointment last year, I really wanted to find one. Linda had found one trapped in the window netting at the nature center a week or so earlier, but hadn’t yet seen one flying this year. Of our three targets for the day, this was the one I thought least likely to be found. But after our good luck earlier in the day, I was cautiously optimistic. We walked through the woods to a wooden footbridge that crossed a narrow sandy stream. This spot has heavy vegetation on both sides of the bridge, leaving only about 30 feet of open space where we could possibly see a clubtail flying before it would disappear into the woods. So conditions were tough — limited field of view, with blinding sunlight in one direction and dark shade in the other. Our eyes took a beating as we watched and waited for more than an hour. We were tired after driving for hours. We got momentarily excited when we saw a dragon fly under the bridge, but it turned out to be a Fawn Darner. Not that the Fawn isn’t cool too, but we wanted Laura’s. And we couldn’t even get a photo of the Fawn because it kept flying quickly under the bridge below our feet, then disappearing.

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Fawn Darner seen last year at this location

I was almost ready to suggest that we give up, but I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits. I later found out that Rick was feeling the same way. Neither of us wanted to be the quitter! It’s a good thing we both felt that way, because that’s the reason I decided to “kill time” by continuing to scan all the leaves that were hanging down low over the water.

And that’s how I found a beautiful male Laura’s Clubtail, just sitting there on a leaf about a foot above the water’s surface. He was in deep shade and facing away from us, and we had to struggle to find a way to get photos of him from the bridge. We did the best we could as he flew a few sorties from his leaf to grab invisible insects from the air, returning to the same leaf each time.

Laura's Clubtail LIFER - first photo
First view deep in the shade, just above the water surface

Then he flew away. We panicked, not sure if we’d gotten good enough shots to confirm the identity. Then he reappeared on the sunny side of the bridge in much better light, and we started clicking the shutters again. As we continued to try and get the best photos possible, we kept laughing and saying how we couldn’t believe we’d actually found it. I’m still smiling as I write this, thinking back to that moment when we realized it was right in front of us. That’s good stuff.

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Much better view, right out in the open. Check out his club!

We got one last obstructed look at him as he flew to a branch above us and peered down at us with those gorgeous eyes. And then he was gone.

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One last look and he was gone

We got back to Toledo just after sunset and congratulated ourselves on a successful mission. Oh, I almost forgot — we celebrated our lifer Laura’s Clubtail very simply, with high fives and huge smiles.  (Well, I might have also eaten some chocolate when we got back to the car….) And I’ve written this account of the day so I’ll have an easy way to recall the excitement for years to come.

You might wonder who ‘Laura’ is, and why this bug is named after her. A quick search indicated that it was named in honor of Laura Ditzler, a member of the group that first identified this species in 1931. I’m pretty sure it’s a rare thing for a species to be named for a woman, so perhaps I should dig into that a bit more at some point. Maybe a project for the winter…when the bugs aren’t flying to distract me.

(By the way, if you’re disappointed by the lack of ‘pretty’ photos in this post, you’ll be much happier with what’s coming next. Trust me…I’ve been having cool some adventures.)

 

 

 

 

 

Know Your Quarry

Experienced hunters understand that they’ll have more success if they take the time to learn about the lives of their target species. Someone hunting deer or rabbit needs to know the needs and habits of those animals in order to track them down: Where do they eat? Where do they go for water? Where do they sleep?

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Lilypad clubtail

And so it is with hunting dragonflies. Of course I’m not hunting them to kill them, but I do need to be stealthy in order to shoot them with my camera. After all, these are insects with a field of vision very close to 360 degrees. so they’ll always see you coming. Your best chances of getting close to them are when they’re so preoccupied with eating or mating that they don’t pay as much attention to you as they normally would.

Right now seems to be peak flight time for Flag-tailed Spinylegs, one of my favorites in the clubtail family.  As their name indicates, clubtails are distinguished, in part, by the enlarged sections at the end of their abdomen. The width of the “club” varies among the species, from barely noticeable to knock-your-socks-off-and-pop-your-eyes-out-noticeable. Just for reference, I’ve shown you two species that don’t have large clubs: a Lilypad Clubtail above, and an Eastern Least Clubtail below.

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Eastern Least Clubtail

At the opposite end of the spectrum are species like the Skillet Clubtail and Cobra Clubtail, with massively enlarged clubs. I’ve not seen either of those two species yet, so  until I find one of them, the most impressive clubtail I’ve found has been the Flag-tailed Spinyleg.

Flag-tailed spinyleg in obelisk position - blog

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Flag-tailed Spinyleg — check out his big “flag”

Flag-tailed spinyleg - flag cropClubtails tend to rest on the ground rather than on vegetation like some other dragonfly families. They often use large rocks as hunting perches, and one of the best ways to find them is to search the surface of each and every rock along the edge of a body of water.  It’s not really that difficult to track them down, but there’s a slight problem in getting photos of them. You see, since their prey consists of insects flying over the water, they tend to perch with their faces turned toward the water — and away from me standing on the shore. And so that has meant that it’s been hard for me to get photos of their beautiful faces.

But I’ve got a new strategy. I’m hunting them from a kayak now, so I have a better chance of seeing those stunning blue and green eyes as they sit on the shore watching the water. Pretty smart, huh? It’s not a perfect system though, because I’m on the water and constantly moving, therefore making it even harder to hold steady for a sharp photo.  But it’s fun to keep trying, and to see how close they’ll let me get as I slowly drift toward them from the water instead of walking up behind them from the land. Being in a kayak gives me a lower, less-threatening profile too.

I recently discovered a large quarry lake and have been having a ball kayaking around the perimeter hunting for Flag-tailed Spinylegs. The video above gives you an idea of what it’s like to hunt them. You may notice something fly quickly from left to right in the last few seconds of the video — that’s one of the spinylegs. And that’s the reason the video stopped at that point, so I could turn around and photograph him.

The other day I spent three hours out there and saw at least a dozen spinylegs. It was windy though, and often my kayak would be pushed in the opposite direction from the dragonfly I was trying to photograph. It was quite the challenge! Luckily there are some little coves around the lake, so I tucked my boat into those and got some shelter from the wind. A couple times my kayak drifted so close to the odes that it was too close for my lens to shoot them. When that happened I just took the opportunity to sit quietly and watch them up close for as long as they would allow me.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - leg crop of spinesSo you know where they got the “flag-tailed” part of their name, but what about the “spinyleg” part? I think this photo explains that pretty well. Wouldn’t it be easy if everything had such a perfectly descriptive name? I had some fun writing about ode names last summer, in a post titled, “What’s in a Name?” I hope you’ll check that one out if you missed it the first time.

Limestone quarry lakes have the most beautiful, clear water. The limestone leaches calcite crystals into the water, turning it an incredible blue. As I drifted lazily along gazing into that azure water, I could almost believe I was in the Caribbean instead of in rural northwest Ohio.

Quarry scenery

Rocks under clear water at Silver Rock Quarry

Double-crested cormorant in quarry lake - blue green
Cormorant drying its wings on a tree snag in the quarry lake

This quarry has several miles of shoreline to explore, so I expect to have many more hours of enjoyment out there. And it seems to be a well-kept secret because I’ve only seen a couple other people on my first couple of visits. There aren’t many places left in this world where you can get space from other people, so I’m thrilled to find this spot close to home. I just wish I’d discovered it earlier in the summer when there were more dragonfly species flying. But that just gives me a reason to anticipate getting back out there next spring.

Writing that sentence made me sigh as I thought about how close we are to the end of summer. It seemed to take forever to get through the rainy spring this year, and once we finally got into summer, it seemed to fly by so quickly. I can’t believe it’s going to be time to pull out sweaters and jeans soon. I love autumn, but I’m so not ready for it yet!