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.

Bold jumper - spider - cute face view w sig
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.)

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
wild indigo duskywing on asters w sig
Wild Indigo Duskywing, looking a bit tattered, feeding on asters
Bronze copper on asters w sig
Bronze Copper, feeding on asters
Meadow fritillary on asters w sig
Meadow Fritillary, feeding on asters
common checkered skipper on asters w sig
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.

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

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!

Clamp-tipped emerald LIFER w sig
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.

Fawn darner - lifer
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.

Laura's Clubtail in sunlight w sig
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.

Laura's Clubtail farewell pic w sig
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?

Lilypad clubtail LIFER w sig
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.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
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

Flag-tailed spinyleg - blog
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!

Lookout, It’s an Ambush!

Garden at Wildwood visitor center - mid-August
A small portion of the lovely gardens at Wildwood Metropark

After my walk in the woods today, I stopped to admire the flower garden at my local metropark. It’s a beautiful garden of both natives and non-natives, and I was checking to see if there were any interesting insects hanging out there.  My passion for native plants has turned me into a total bug geek, and I can’t resist looking beyond the simple beauty of the flowers to find the other hidden lives within their parts.

Since I’d been on a fitness walk, I only had my cell phone with me and so I started trying to take photos with it. But it’s terrible at macro shots. And so when I saw something new, I ran to the car for my real camera so I could document my cool discovery.

Jagged ambush bug on black-eyed susan - dorsal view w sig Kim Clair SmithThis is an ambush bug, a member of the assassin bug family. I believe this one is a jagged ambush bug (genus Phymata). This is the first ambush bug I’ve ever photographed, so I was very excited to discover him hiding in plain sight on top of a Black-eyed Susan flowerhead. As the name implies, they hunt by sitting in wait for a hapless victim to wander within reach of their lethal grasp.

After photographing his dorsal side, I slowly moved around to get a lateral view. Often when I’m shooting tiny subjects like this, I can’t fully see the details until I zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. And as I did that, I had to restrain myself from giggling out loud when I saw this adorable face:

Jagged ambush bug on black-eyed susan - side view Kim Clair Smith

I know, it might be adorable to me, but I wouldn’t want to be a small beetle trundling around those petals, I’ll tell you that. I mean, just look at those forelegs — they give you an indication of the reach he’s capable of.  And little did I know then, but I was about to see one of these guys in action. Well, sort of.

I moved along, photographing other insects, and then came upon another great piece to the story of the jagged ambush bug. I found this second one with a recently-acquired victim! All I can tell is that it’s some kind of bee. As I took my photos, the bee seemed to still be moving slightly, so that’s why I figured I’d just missed the grab.

Jagged Ambush bug with bee prey sig Kim Clair Smith

If you look closely at that last picture, you can see the bug’s proboscis stabbed into the bee’s abdomen. After he grabs his prey with those powerful legs, he injects poison that liquefies its insides. The insides are then sucked out through a rostrum, a straw-like structure inside the proboscis. Is that not cool or what?!

Aren’t we lucky these things are so small? With its powerful pincer legs, an ambush bug can easily take an insect up to ten times its size. Imagine a dog-sized ambush bug lurking in the shrubbery as you take your evening stroll…yikes!

Okay, that was a little bit unnerving, wasn’t it? Here’s a nice calming photo of the trail in the woods…take a deep breath…and forget all about ambush bugs. For now, at least.  😉

Red trail at Wildwood - lush and green in mid-August

 

 

 

 

Well, That Was Interesting!

Female calico pennant on spent flower head Kim Clair Smith
This female Calico Pennant and her flower perch have both seen better days.

I had a rewarding experience today while doing my dragonfly monitoring at Wiregrass Lake. It was a beautiful morning and there were only a couple other people at the park, so there were few distractions as I was concentrating on counting odes and taking documentation photos.

About halfway around the lake, a guy with a fishing pole came past me and stepped out onto one of the little stone fishing platforms. They’re popular fishing spots because there aren’t many accessible areas of shoreline from which to cast a line. But they’re also preferred perching spots for certain dragonflies, so I always approach them slowly and hope to find something interesting there.

So when this guy stepped out onto the rocks, I admit to feeling a little twinge of irritation that he would have flushed any good bugs that might have been there. But I know the parks have to serve people with varied recreational interests, and his interest just happened to conflict with mine. I have to be accepting of that, I get it.

But here’s where things became interesting.

Just as I said a friendly hello to him, a pair of mating Common Green Darners landed on some floating vegetation in front of us and began ovipositing. I was very excited because I’d been trying to get some photos of those darn darners as they flew around the lake, so this was a perfect opportunity to get an easy shot. As I often do, I expressed my excitement to the person who happened to be nearest to me, the guy with his fishing line barely ten feet from my target insects. I admit that I was also telling him about them so he wouldn’t throw his line at them and scare them before I got my photo. My comment was ignored, or so I thought. He didn’t say anything as I shot several photos, and I thought he must just think I’m a weird bug dork. (And I am, I know.)

Common green darners in tandem - blog Kim Clair Smith
Common Green Darner pair ovipositing in floating vegetation

But then he started asking me questions about what they were doing. He wanted to know if they were laying eggs in the water. He wanted to know how long it would be before the eggs hatched, and how long dragonflies lived. I was overjoyed to find someone who actually wanted to hear this stuff, and so I dove in and gave him much more information than he’d bargained for. I told him about how green darners migrate like monarch butterflies. I explained about how their larvae emerge from their “shells” just like cicadas do. Each time I spouted another fact about their life history, he seemed eager to know more.

But finally I realized I would just go on for an hour if he didn’t stop me, and so I apologized for bombarding him with information and started to leave. But he actually thanked me and said “That was very interesting!” and that instantly became one of the best moments of my entire day.

ODES license plate and BugDork sticker
Yep, that’s my car!

It’s human nature to want other people to share our interests, isn’t it? I wrote about nonconformity and social acceptance in my last post, and I’m reminded of it again today. I’m used to being looked at as an oddity when I gush about my latest nature passion, whether it’s birds, dragonflies, or hoverflies. It doesn’t bother me much, because these things give me a deeper appreciation for the workings of the natural world, and make my life rich and rewarding. So I can deal with being looked at that way. But on those occasions like today, when a total stranger shows interest in something and lets me tell them about it, I’m overjoyed and feel like I’ve made an important contribution to that person’s connection to the natural world too.

monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed, its host plant.

As I walked away to continue my monitoring, I smiled to myself as I imagined that guy telling his wife about our encounter over dinner tonight. “Honey, would you pass the salad please? And by the way, did you know that dragonflies can live under water for years before they emerge as flying insects?” You never know, it could happen. And that’s exactly why I write this blog, to share what I learn about nature with the hope that you, my readers, will be excited enough about it to tell someone else.  And if you do, I hope you’ll tell me about it. 🙂

Creatures of the Night

Luna moth with frame and sig
Luna moth (Actias luna) – he’s about 4 inches across

It stands to reason that if you want to see things that are out in the dark, you need to become a creature of the night as well. And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend.

Basswood leafroller w sig
Basswood Leafroller

You’ve certainly heard of events celebrating birds and butterflies, but you may not have heard of Mothapalooza. It’s an event held in southern Ohio every other year, and the main activity at the weekend affair is gathering at lighted sheets in the middle of the night to look at moths. This was my first time to experience it, and I loved the geekiness of it all, and the chance to see so many stunning moths. The lodge at Shawnee State Park is the headquarters, and that’s where the talks and meals take place. Many attendees stay in the lodge and more fill the two dozen cabins behind the lodge. I stayed in a cabin with my friends George, Angie, and Jackie.

Most people don’t give moths a second thought unless they’re swatting them away from the porch light to keep them out of the house. Did you know that many moths are pollinators? Yep, butterflies and bees do this important work during the day, while moths work the night shift. It’s so cool to realize that the ecosystem doesn’t sleep when we do; there are critical interactions happening all night long!

Mothing sheets (4)
Typical mothing setup at Mothapalooza

I’ve tried setting up my own light system to attract moths here at home, but have had limited success with that so far. (I think it’s partly because I hesitate to use a bright enough light for fear my neighbors will complain about the crazy bug lady.)

Kim holding polyphemus moth
Nighttime selfie with Polyphemus moth

As you can see from this photo, some of the moths are huge, but there are also micromoths that are hard to see without a hand lens. I focused on photographing the larger ones this time, but maybe next time I’ll be calmed down enough to try the smaller ones. When I walked up to the first mothing sheet on Friday night, I was blown away by the beauty and variety of insects that had gathered there. I hope I can convey some of that excitement to you by sharing a few photos.

The sizes of these moths range from about 6 inches (wingspan) for the big silk moths, down to less than a tenth of an inch for the micromoths. I’d say most of the moths I photographed fall in the range of about 1-3″ wingspans.

So here’s how Mothapalooza works:

Regal moth w sig
Regal moth, another big one (Citheronia regalis)
Regal moth face view w sig
Face view of a Regal moth

Each evening the organizers set up lights and sheets around the lodge area, and we could go visit the sheets at our leisure, walking through the night with flashlights to get from one station to the next. I joked that I felt like I was going trick-or-treating as we walked through the cabin area in the dark, visiting the moth sheets of other people to see what they’d attracted. They also had a half dozen remote locations set up, and they offered a shuttle service to take us to those. Mothing was scheduled from 10 pm to 2 am each night, but I know quite a few people who stayed up much later than 2:00. I learned that the moths tend to come to the lights at different times, so there are apparently some that you won’t see unless you’re willing to check the lights all through the night. I barely made it until 1:00 the first night and 2:00 the second night, despite being a night owl in my normal life. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could sleep until noon the next day, but there’s so much cool wildlife to see down there that we all felt we should be awake and exploring for as many hours as possible. (Moths by night, dragonflies and butterflies by day!)

Beautiful Wood-nymph moth - Eudryas grata w sig
Beautiful Wood-nymph — yes, beautiful is in its name!
Kim photographing moths- by angie (2)
That’s me trying to get the moth face shots I love so much (Thanks to Angie Cole for this shot.)

Kim with polyphemus moth on shoe by angie cole with caption

Luna moth face shot w sig Kim Clair Smith
Face view of a Luna moth — those thick bipectinate antennae are characteristic of male moths

A couple years ago I got my first look at the spectacular caterpillar of the Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), and this weekend I saw the adult form of the same animal. First the caterpillar:

Pandorus Sphinx Moth - Eumorpha pandorus - caterpillar w sig

And then the adult moth:

Pandorus sphinx - Eumorpha pandorus w sig.jpg

Is that not a marvelous creature?! The host plants for the caterpillar are grape and Virginia creeper, and when my friend and I found the caterpillar, it was indeed feeding on grape leaves. I was so enchanted by that caterpillar that I can’t resist scanning every grape leaf I pass on my walks, just in case I can find another one. And this moth is quite substantial, so when one of them crashes into your head, you definitely notice it.

I’m going to put a lot more photos on my blog’s Facebook page instead of posting them all here. So if you’re on Facebook, you can “Like” and “Follow” my page to see more cool photos than you can see here. (Here’s the link.)

I’m so glad I had this exciting experience! I got a change of scenery, met new friends, learned more about the natural world, and was inspired to share it with you here. I hope this might motivate some of you to hang a sheet outside and point a light at it and see what shows up. You just never know what surprises are out there in your own backyard!

Here’s a brief video to show what it’s like at a mothing station:

I took a couple extra days after Mothapalooza to drive around the southern counties of Ohio looking for dragonflies, so I’m still trying to get rested and get myself back on a normal schedule. I’ll have some fun dragon stories and photos to share next time, so I hope you’ll come back. 🙂

Dragonfly Rescue

Dragonflies are fierce predators of other insects, seemingly invincible as they zip around ponds and meadows at warp speed. But they themselves fall prey to birds and even other dragonflies, in the dog-eat-dog (dragon-eat-dragon?) insect world.

One predator you might not expect to feast on something as fast as a dragonfly might be a spider. But the spider’s deathly weapon — the web — can definitely ruin a dragonfly’s day.

My friends Hal and Ginny woke up one morning on their recent vacation to find a young Calico Pennant ensnared in the sticky strands of a web outside their cabin in northern Michigan.  They immediately jumped into action to try to free the little guy. Hal wrote an account of their efforts for our Wild Ones Oak Openings Region newsletter (he’s our chapter President), and he has given me permission to reprint an excerpt of his article for you. So here it is:

During the night a spider had constructed a web of fascinating geometry. Normally the sparkling dew-laden strands would have caught my attention first. But, not this time! A large dragonfly was solidly entangled in the sticky threads. It must have been there a  long time as it had given up and appeared to have gone to dragonfly heaven. I was surprised the web’s eight-legged architect hadn’t already wrapped this prize up for a later feast.

Rescued dragonfly - Hal Mann Ginny Mann v3
Calico Pennant stuck in spider web (Photo by Ginny Mann)

Not seeing the spider, I decided to get a better look at the prey. I pushed my finger to move the colorful insect and SURPRISE! Two of its legs not entangled wiggled and grasped my forefinger. It was alive. Now what do I do? I felt bad for this fascinating creature. But I was witnessing the natural food web in action, up close and personal.

I again looked for the arachnid whose livelihood I was messing with. Didn’t see it. So, I pulled a little and the dragonfly clutched more strongly. It tried flapping its wings to escape but the threads held. I pulled a little more and one of the wings came free of the web. The dragonfly held tighter on to me. Pulling some more, two more wings came free. Another easy tug freed the final wing, but four legs were still tangled up. Putting my fingers behind its wings prevented them from being recaptured while I pulled at the remaining silk chained to the legs.

Now, completely free from the web, the dragonfly sat on the deck railing. It tried again to fly but couldn’t. I saw a piece of silk holding the right fore and hind wings together. By now, Ginny had heard me. She brought some flat toothpicks and took pictures. There was enough space between the wings for me to insert the toothpick and gently extract the silk.

Now testing its freed wings, the dragon rose into the air a little, but quickly landed back on the railing. Noticing a gob of web residue holding several of the legs together, some more toothpick work was in order. Using two toothpicks I was able to separate most of the constraint. The insect rose a few inches above the wooden railing. Again, it quickly returned but this time to my finger. This time it took a little while to find one last vestige of the spider’s handywork wrapped around the right front leg. The silk didn’t let go easily. But finally, it did release.

That little creature must have been exhausted from its brush with death. Slowly it climbed farther up on my finger and rested for a few moments. As we looked at each other, I wondered how I appeared to it. Ever so slowly it rose vertically into the air, hovered for a second, flew a couple of feet to my left, turned 180 degrees, and flew to the right, then returned to hover in front of me for what seemed like a breathtaking minute. Then it was gone.

Rescued dragonfly - Hal Mann Ginny Mann v2
Freed from the web! (Photo by Ginny Mann)

Knowing what kind people Hal and Ginny are, I’m not the least bit surprised that they wanted to help this beautiful creature. I’m very impressed with how they delicately disentangled it and gave it a chance to live out its life. Thanks Hal and Ginny, for sharing this story with all of us. I bet that Calico Pennant has already found a girlfriend and told her how you saved him so just he could make babies with her!