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!
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.
This 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:
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.
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. 😉
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.)
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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!
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.)
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:
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!)
Black-waved Flannel Moth
Face view of same moth
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:
And then the adult moth:
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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!
I had planned to write about my visit to Lynx Prairie after Odo-Con, but time is getting away from me and it seems every day brings something else new and exciting that I want to share. I’ve got a huge backlog of things to write about — and perhaps I’ll still write about Lynx Prairie later — but today I want to tell you about a recent day that was very special to me.
I’ve been on the board of Toledo Naturalists’ Association for about a year and a half now, and have often felt that I should step up and serve as a leader for one of our many field trips. But I was nervous about not having enough experience or knowledge to be a “good” leader, so I didn’t speak up and volunteer. At our board meeting last August, I was asked to lead the annual dragonfly field trip this year and, caught off guard without a good excuse, I agreed to do it. In the ensuing nine months, whenever I thought about it, I got a little bit nervous. Would anyone show up? Would I show my ignorance when I couldn’t answer all their questions? But I determined to be as prepared as I could, and to bring my natural enthusiasm and hope that would be enough.
On the designated Saturday I arrived at Wiregrass Metropark to find a half dozen people already there waiting for me, and we ended up with 19 people on the walk. I was so pleased at the good turnout, and happy to have many friends there to support me on my first leading experience. Those friendly faces eased my nerves quite a bit, and I started off the morning by giving the group some basic facts about dragon- and damselflies and showing them the field guides I use. I had obtained a supply of the excellent dragonfly field guide pamphlets from the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and handed those out to people who wanted them.
The plan was to spend two hours walking the 0.6-mile loop trail around the lake looking for odes and anything else interesting we could find. I was worried about the weather, because it was mostly cloudy, which isn’t optimal for finding flying dragonflies. As ectothermic insects, they can’t generate their own body heat and must rely on the sun to give them the energy to fly. I’m always amazed at how quickly they respond to the sun and clouds on a day when the clouds are moving a lot. I can be watching dozens of them flying over a pond in the sunlight, and then a big cloud covers the sun and they all disappear almost instantly. Then in a few minutes when the cloud moves past the sun, the bugs start flying again pretty quickly too. It’s really fascinating to see.
Our walk started out a bit slow, but very shortly things picked up and we had a grand time with good looks at more than a dozen species. I knew people would love seeing the flashier dragonflies, like Twelve-spotted Skimmers (below) and Calico Pennants (above).
But I especially enjoyed showing them the tiny little damselflies that flit around in the grasses, like this Double-striped Bluet. I explained that you have to train your eyes to watch for the movement of “little blue needles” in the grass. It was fun to see their joy when they finally locked in on one of them and saw how small they are. This one, for example, is only about an inch long:
And this Emerald Spreadwing was a real crowd pleaser too:
Here’s a pic of the baskettail we were looking at in the photo above:
This experience was gratifying for me on two levels: First, because everyone seemed to have a really good time, and, second, because it helped me overcome my fear of putting myself out there as a leader. I learned that I don’t have to have all the answers, and that enthusiasm can more than make up for any lack of experience. And I’ve got enthusiasm in spades when it comes to odes.
I seem to find a way to bring dragonflies into just about any conversation these days. Which is how I ended up volunteering to start an odonata monitoring program for Metroparks Toledo. Back in the very early spring, I was meeting with their research supervisor to talk about my work in their raptor monitoring program, and I happened to mention my love of dragonflies. She asked if I’d be interested in helping them track the odonate populations at one of our local parks. And I instantly said, “Yes, of course!”
The park happens to be Wiregrass Lake, the same one where our field trip took place. Wiregrass is a newer Metropark, having only opened to the public in 2015. Prior to the park opening, my friend Rick Nirschl made frequent visits to the site to study dragonflies, and he provided Metroparks Toledo with a great deal of initial data about the odonates on the property, as well as suggestions for managing it to protect their habitats. Largely due to his efforts, Wiregrass has become known as the Metropark with the largest number of odonate species. Since the park’s opening, though, there has seemed to be a decline in the variety of species as well as overall numbers. And that’s what prompted this effort to gather more data.
Over the next few weeks, we discussed what the park system wanted to achieve and then we set up a monitoring protocol loosely modeled on those used to monitor butterflies. We divided the park into transects, and once each ten days I go there and count the number of each species present. I’ve found that counting dragonflies is much more difficult than counting birds or even butterflies, but I’m doing my best to get an accurate representation of the populations.
Two years after moving to Toledo, I continue to view our Metroparks as one of the best parts of my life here. There are endless opportunities to volunteer in the park system and I feel like a valued member of the community when I participate. Just this morning I spent two hours with other volunteers (from my Wild Ones Oak Openings chapter) helping remove invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Wildwood Metropark. It was 90 degrees in the morning, and it was hard work, but the results were clearly visible when we were done. And that felt good.