This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.
Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?
Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.
But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.
Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually…. And then, suddenly, it was here!!
I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it. Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.
Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.
If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.
I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life. Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)
What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:
So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!
I know I promised to write about a special native wildflower this time, but there’s BIG news today, so that will have to wait. Yes, thanks to all that’s good and holy, I have FINALLY found my first dragonfly of the season!!! This is what I’ve been waiting for, the thing that I knew would help pull me out of this wretched depressed state.
I had to force myself to go for a walk today, as I’d been moping around at home for days, simply unwilling to be among people. I logged out of the time-sucking social media site a week ago, and have been wallowing in my isolation loneliness. But that’s a self-defeating behavior, I know. In a time when I most need to be around people, I avoid them because it reminds me of how much I miss my friends and how I can’t hug anyone. But I digress.
Just look at this Common Green Darner (Anax junius)!!!!
I hadn’t expected to find any odes flying today with the cold north wind, but suddenly there she was, flying low and slow on the edge of a small pond. The cold wind helped bring her to the ground where I was able to get very close to her from a few different angles.
Dragonflies have virtually 360º vision, with their only “blind spot” directly behind the head. So my first approach was from the rear, verrry slowly. I couldn’t believe I was able to get within about four feet of her, shooting from almost directly above. That angle allowed a great view of the distinctive bulls-eye mark on the top of the head of this species.
Here’s a closer crop of the head:
Green darners are usually the first species I see each year because they’re migratory, and arrive here before other non-migratory species emerge from the water.
Whenever I get a chance to get close photos of a dragonfly, I get lost in the wonder of their fascinating bodies and lives. Today during the few minutes I spent with this individual, I was transported out of a world of suffering and fear and into a place where nothing mattered except this insect and me, sharing a moment.
I don’t think she could have possibly enjoyed our special time nearly as much as I did, but I’m grateful that she allowed me to watch her resting and then feeding on tiny insects I couldn’t even see as she grabbed them out of the air. I constantly tell people that nature is healing, but sometimes I forget just how intensely important that healing can be. Like right now.
Notice the difference in this second Bitmoji compared to the first one above? That’s what nature can do for you. It’s an exaggeration of how I felt today, but it expresses my relief at finding affirmation that the natural world continues despite our human problems. Our current troubles will end at some point, and I will be able to walk side-by-side with my odeing buddies again. I’m holding on to that for dear life.
Be well everyone, and look for that special wildflower post next. 🙂
So what is it now, something like week five of the “new normal”? Or is it 500? It’s hard to keep track of time these days. And if you’re like me, you’ve perhaps been surprised at how many different emotions you can feel in a single day on this roller coaster. But I think I’m starting to get adjusted to the routine-that’s-not-a-routine of my new daily life. There’s some peace in accepting that, I suppose. There’s no point in fighting it, in any case.
I’ve been helped enormously by the emergence of insects, so I can really dig into Kim’s Big Bug Year — finally!!! Every year I watch with envy as my friends to the south start posting their photos of insects many weeks before we have any up here along the shore of Lake Erie. But it’s finally our turn to play, and I’m so grateful that I started this project a couple months ago. And as I’ve been out looking for insects lately, I’ve been surprised to find that I’m rediscovering the joy of birding. Today, for instance, I was walking around a small lake surrounded with woods, when I heard the distinctly beautiful song of a Brown Thrasher. And the encounter was made more special because I was there alone with the bird for a couple minutes, so I could enjoy him without distraction. (You can hear their song here.)
Our native wildflowers are just starting to bloom, and that’s why the insects are suddenly here in larger numbers and easier to find. I spent a half hour observing various pollinators visiting the alabaster blossoms in a bloodroot patch. One of the insects I see most often on bloodroot is the Greater Bee Fly. Even before I focus my camera on it, I can see the long, stiff proboscis probing the center of the flower. I always thought a proboscis was used to gather nectar, but I’ve just discovered that bloodroot doesn’t have any nectar; it only offers pollen to its insect visitors. I think I need to investigate this further, because it doesn’t seem possible that pollen could be sucked up by the proboscis, so why is this particular insect so fond of this plant? In times like this I wish I could have a quick conference call with a botanist and an entomologist!
The lovely leaves of bloodroot persist long after the flower is gone, sometimes until mid-summer.
Also among the insects cruising among the bloodroot were hover flies, mostly a single species in the Helophilus genus. I believe they’re H. fasciatus, the Narrow-headed Marsh Fly. Hover flies (aka flower flies) are some of my favorite insects because of their intricate patterns of brown and yellow. This one was enjoying a lovely pink patch of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).
I’ve also discovered a few new-to-me species, like this Unequal Cellophane Bee. I was intrigued by the name, and found that this family of bees are so named because of a clear substance they use to line their underground nests. I saw lots of them crawling out of their burrows in the sandy soil and flying around low to the ground. Occasionally a pair would “tussle” on the ground, which I assume was mating behavior.
And this Ridged Carrion Beetle was obviously well named, as you can clearly see the ridges on his elytra.
Spiders are out in full force now too, but I know lots of people are squeamish about them, so I’ll only post the one I know can’t possibly be scary to anybody. Meet the most adorable Orbus Paradise Spider, one of the jumping spiders. Jumping spiders have a way of looking at you like they’re as curious about you as you are about them. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this group of spiders, and I was so excited I was in my own little paradise as I watched him hopping around in the dead oak leaves for about five minutes. He’s so tiny that each leaf must have been like a mountain to him, but he never faltered, never hesitated, just took a flying leap and kept going. Over and over again.
Come to think of it, that’s probably a good attitude for all of us as we navigate the coming weeks. We have so little control over what’s happening right now, and that can be scary. But maybe the thing to do is just take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And until things get back to normal, maybe we should also make sure to take a cue from this other little guy, and make some time to nap under the wildflowers.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?)
I’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.
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
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 thesearenot exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.
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:
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?!
During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Okay, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
Clubtails 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.
So 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.
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!