What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring

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

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

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

Path around Wiregrass Lake with goldenrod
Trail around the lake

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

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

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant

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

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Dragonfly exoskeleton after emergence

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

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

Prince Baskettail in flight
Prince Baskettail

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

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

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Meadowhawk on ironweed, a native plant

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

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

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

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

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Blue Dasher

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

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

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

Celebrating a Boy Named Laura

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

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

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

Smoky Rubyspot LIFER w sig
Smoky Rubyspot (Hataerina titia)

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

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

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

Example of blurry water shot
Many blurry water shots ensued!

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

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

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

Clamp-tipped emerald LIFER w sig
Clamp-tipped Emerald found while waiting for Laura’s

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

Fawn darner - lifer
Fawn Darner seen last year at this location

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

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

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

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

Laura's Clubtail in sunlight w sig
Much better view, right out in the open. Check out his club!

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

Laura's Clubtail farewell pic w sig
One last look and he was gone

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Know Your Quarry

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

Lilypad clubtail LIFER w sig
Lilypad clubtail

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

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

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail

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

Flag-tailed spinyleg in obelisk position - blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarry scenery

Rocks under clear water at Silver Rock Quarry

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

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

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

Well, That Was Interesting!

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

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

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

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

But here’s where things became interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragonfly Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading My First Field Trip

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.

Me leading my first TNA field trip (Photo courtesy of Marian Fisher)

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.

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

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).

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)

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:

Double-striped Bluet (Enallagma basidens)

And this Emerald Spreadwing was a real crowd pleaser too:

Emerald Spreadwing (Lestes dryas)
Looking at a dragonfly (Photo courtesy of Sherry Plessner)

Here’s a pic of the baskettail we were looking at in the photo above:

One of the baskettails, unidentifiable to species from this photo

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.

 

Odo-Con 2019 Finds a New Ohio Record!

Spangled skimmer by Kim Clair Smith w sig
Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), sporting some nice “wing bling”

I’ve just returned home from this year’s Ohio Dragonfly Conference — also known as Odo-Con (Odonata Conference). This was my third year to attend, and it just keeps getting better. The conference moves around the state each year, allowing us to get a taste of the odes outside our home areas. The 2017 conference was in Ashtabula County, in the northeastern quadrant of the state. Last year’s was in Findlay (Hancock County), here in the northwestern corner of the state. This year’s Odo-Con was held in Gallia County in southern Ohio, down in a tiny little place called Rio Grande.  I just discovered that the population of the village of Rio Grande was 830 in the last census, so I wasn’t exaggerating when I used the word tiny. But even so, they have a university there, and that’s where we held our conference.

Eastern pondhawk and eastern amberwing in one shot by Kim Clair Smith w sig
Eastern Amberwing (left) and Eastern Pondhawk

Because they’re ectothermic, weather is a big factor in whether or not the odonata will be flying on any given day (they need the warmth of the sun to generate enough body heat). So I was discouraged when I arrived in the area late Friday afternoon as thunderstorms were passing through. I’d hoped to do a bit of dragon hunting before the evening presentations started at 6:00, but it just wasn’t meant to be.  But the evening went well; I learned a lot and had a great time reconnecting with friends from around the state, and meeting some new friends too.

Since the weather hadn’t cooperated on Friday evening, I decided to skip the morning presentations and go out hunting on my own Saturday morning. The ode season has been very slow in coming to northwest Ohio because of our cool and wet spring, so driving four hours south felt like going on an exotic vacation and I was eager to find some interesting bugs.

Field trip group at Odo-Con 2019 by Kim Clair Smith w sig
A group of ode hunters looks much like a group of birders, with the addition of a few nets

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much that morning because it was still pretty cloudy. But the universe threw us a bone in the afternoon, allowing the sun to shine for our field trip groups as we explored Gallia and Jackson counties. My group first visited a small city park, which didn’t seem too exciting at first, but that’s where I saw my first lifer, a Citrine Forktail. I didn’t get a good photo of it, but saw another one later in the day, and that’s where I got this decent shot. Keep in mind, this dude is less than an inch long!

Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata), a lifer species for me on this trip
Citrine forktail in hand LIFER reduced file size
The Citrine Forktail is about an inch long!

And as I was reading about this species, I learned something fascinating: in the Azores, Citrine Forktails are parthenogenetic, meaning that females lay unfertilized eggs that become new females. Ahem, no males needed. Dennis Paulson’s book says that this is the only species of odonate known to reproduce this way. So I wonder if that means there are no males in the Azores, or if they’re just redundant. (There are so many possible jokes I could make here, but I’ll exercise restraint. I’m giggling though.)

Things were starting to get exciting when we found a Great Blue Skimmer perched on a branch hanging over a small stream. We took turns holding back foliage so we could all get a look at it, and I managed to get a good enough shot to document it. It’s too bad he wasn’t turned more toward the camera so you could see his cool white face with blue eyes.

Great blue skimmer by Kim Clair Smith w sig - doc shot
Great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans), found throughout Ohio

Soon we moved on to Cooper Hollow Wildlife Area, where we spent several hours visiting a few ponds. The first pond was absolutely loaded with the flying monsters, and we had a blast. It was so overwhelming that I found myself feeling like I didn’t know what to photograph first. I’d be shooting a Spangled Skimmer right in front of me, and someone would say, “Hey, there’s a darner flying!” and I’d want to try and shoot that one too. At the same time there would be clubtails landing on the ground all around my feet, and those usually require photos from two or three angles, so they’re a challenge. Here’s a photo of the pond — the electrical lines were emitting a constant crackling/buzzing sound which was a bit unnerving, but still worth it for chance to see so many dragons zipping around us.

Pond in Cooper Hollow for Odo-Con
This is the jackpot pond in Cooper Hollow Wildlife Area

The Ohio Dragonfly Survey requires either a photo or an actual insect specimen to document every sighting. That makes it quite a bit harder than submitting an eBird report, on which you can report birds without photos (you can even report birds that you’ve only heard and not seen, if you’re certain of the species). This is the third and final year of the new survey, and we’re busy searching the records to see which counties don’t have records of certain species, and trying to fill them in if we can. The results of the three-year survey will be published in book form, and I know quite a few people who will be anxious to get their hands on it. (By the way, if you take pictures of dragonflies or damselflies and would like to contribute your sightings to the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, go here to see how easy it is.)

Widow skimmer by Kim Clair Smith w sig
Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)
Slender bluets in tandem by Kim Clair Smith w sig
Mating pair of Slender Bluets (Enallagma traviatum)

I saw about 20 species just at this pond, and overall we saw more than 40 species during the conference. (Plus, there are some clubtails that we’ll probably never be able to confirm down to species level.) Not too bad for a few hours of field time! Our state survey coordinator, MaLisa Spring, was my field trip leader, and she found a new species for Ohio right at this pond. It’s being discussed by the experts now, but what was thought to be a weirdly-uncolored Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata) has likely turned out to be a first state record for Double-ringed Pennant (Celithemis verna). Very exciting! (If you’d like to see the photo and the ensuing discussion about it, go to iNaturalist, here.)

Slaty skimmer on clover flower by Kim Clair Smith w sig
Presumed Slaty Skimmer, but possibly a Double-ringed Pennant

I photographed what I thought was a Slaty Skimmer at this pond, but now there’s a chance this is another one of the Double-ringed Pennants. It may not be possible to tell for sure because I only got this one angle documented, but the discussion is continuing on iNaturalist.

Odo-con field trip at Cooper Hollow

That’s some good stuff right there. I had such fun on this trip. Nature people are some of the most interesting people you’ll ever run across, and I learn something from every person I interact with at these events. I’m excited to be leading my first dragonfly field trip here in Toledo this Saturday (for Toledo Naturalists Association), and I hope to get some more local people enthused about contributing to our state dragonfly records.

On Sunday morning I decided to take the very long way back to Toledo, stopping along the way to hunt for more cool insects. I’ve got another post coming about a special place I stopped later in the day, but here’s what I found first thing Sunday morning.

Blue corporal dragonfly - can you see it
What, you don’t see him?

This is a state endangered species, the Blue Corporal. Ohio is at the far northern boundary of its range, and we were hoping to document it this weekend. It was discovered by another field trip group on Saturday, so I knew the general location to begin my search on Sunday morning. I drove sooo far out a narrow gravel road that I lost cell reception and started to feel a bit nervous. As I got to the small lake that was my destination, I passed two guys sitting beside the road in a pickup truck. I started to think it might not be such a good idea for me to be way out there alone, and was wondering if I should just turn around. So I was extremely relieved to find another ode hunter already down at the parking lot on this dead end road. Not only did that make me feel more safe, but he had just seen the Blue Corporal and took me on a walk down a muddy road and pointed to the trunk of an evergreen tree and said, “There it is, just above the base of that branch that has been cut off….about a foot to the left.” And indeed, there it was, another lifer!

Blue corporal dragonfly w sig
It’s still not a great photo, but you can see him better here. Blue Corporal (Ladona deplanata)

I took a few documentation photos but didn’t want to get too close and risk scaring it away, because I knew there would likely be other people coming to see it in the next couple of hours. Since I had many hours of driving ahead of me, I left right after seeing this bug, and just a half mile up the road I came across a couple who appeared to be lost and I knew right away what they were looking for — I gave them directions and headed off, winding my way to the west through the many small towns in southern Ohio.

Come back for some stories about the rest of this day’s adventures soon!

Two-Fer!

Dragon- and damselflies don’t often perch on photogenic flower heads, so when I found this one yesterday I was pleased. Of course it’s not a flower, but close enough.  This is a female emerald spreadwing damselfly (Lestes dryas), clutching the seed capsule on a stem of seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). I’m calling it a two-fer because it’s an ode on a native plant, two awesome things for the price of one!

Another emerald spreadwing female - on seedbox native plant w sig

I discovered seedbox last fall while helping to collect seeds for my Wild Ones chapter, and instantly fell in love with its square seed capsules. They’re filled with tiny little seeds that rattle when shaken. Each seed capsule has a hole in the top, presumably so the seeds can fall out when the plant is blown by the wind or otherwise jostled. This plant has lovely yellow blooms in the summer, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as these little brown boxes, if you ask me. 🙂

Seedbox square seed capsules - native plant - w sig

 

Odes in Winter: Where Are They Now?

Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.

I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)

And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - MBSP (1) w sig
Flag-tailed spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus)

Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.

This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:

Frozen pond at MBSP - blog
Frozen fishing pond at Maumee Bay State Park, just a stone’s throw from a frozen Lake Erie

Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!”  Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Empty exuviae of a dragonfly, possibly one of the darners

Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.

If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.

Dragonfly exuviae w sig KCS blog
Exuviae of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuviae I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.

I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)

According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival.  I think I can make it.  In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!

Black-shouldered spinyleg - really cool pic w sig
Black-shouldered spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

A Visual Ode to the Holiday

Insect Valentine's Day - heart - damselflies in tandem

These are Familiar Bluets in their heart-shaped mating wheel. These damselflies belong to the insect order called Odonata, and we often shorten that to “odes” when talking about them among other ode lovers.

And below is a photo of one of my favorite woodland wildflowers, Dicentra canadensis. As you might imagine, it’s related to the pink bleeding hearts that are common in gardens, but the pink ones are not native to North America. This plant has little yellow bulblets that look like kernels of corn, thus the common name of Squirrel Corn. I hope to get a photo of those sometime this spring.

Bleeding hearts - Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn - Goll Woods w sig

Insects and wildflowers are much more interesting to me than cultivated flowers and candy so I just wanted to present the Nature Is My Therapy version of Valentine’s Day. And by the way, is it spring yet?!