Bugs and Not-Bugs

Multiple painted skimmers were chasing each other through the wet prairie

After a painfully-slow start to dragonfly season, suddenly things are off and running (or flying, I should say). In the past two weeks almost 30 species of odes have been observed in Lucas County, my home county here in northwest Ohio. June is the month with the highest species diversity each year, so I’m really looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring. We should see more than 80 species by the end of the summer.

Unknown blue flag iris species, playground of iris weevils

My time has been occupied with our big annual native plant sale for most of the past few weeks, but the other day I finally got caught up enough with other obligations that I was able to take an afternoon all to myself to go look for bugs. (Note: dragonflies aren’t “bugs” but I often use that term as a shorthand, and it’s less confusing than “odes.”) I spent three blissful hours at Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve and photographed close to 30 species of insects. That number surprised me, even for an ecological treasure trove like Irwin Prairie. Only six of those were dragons and damsels, but that was okay with me because I found so many other interesting things. I felt like a kid in a candy store, and more than once found myself standing on the boardwalk grinning from ear to ear. I even told an inquisitive passerby that I was crouched down with my camera beside a bunch of irises because –wait for it– I was anticipating some mating behavior between two iris weevils. (I wasn’t surprised to see the odd look on his face…I’m used to that.) And I did see the mating, but it happened so fast and I wasn’t quick enough to get a sharp photo of it.

Iris weevil (Mononychus vulpeculus) on iris, of course

I remember the day I discovered these weevils on irises and came home to find out that they were actually called iris weevils. Every year since then, I can’t pass a patch of irises without checking for their presence. I love all kinds of weevils because of that dorky snout that protrudes from their little faces…so cute. Weevils aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera) either, but rather are in the beetle family (Coleoptera). The true bugs are distinguished by having sucking mouth parts, whereas beetles and other insects have chewing mouth parts more similar to our own. (Well, vaguely similar to our own, I guess. There are some crazy insect mouth parts out there!)

I found another, much larger, weevil on the same day. This one is harder to identify, but I was thrilled to find him sitting out in the open on the wooden boardwalk. I got down on my stomach to get a face shot.

A rather large and cooperative weevil

In the past couple years I’ve become more interested in beetles, mostly because it seems there are endless kinds of them to find everywhere, and they often have bold color patterns to make identification easier…well, sometimes. Many of them can’t be identified unless you have them under a microscope, so a beetle fan has to be comfortable with some degree of not knowing. And I think that’s okay with me. (Wait, did you see how close I just came to calling myself a Beatles fan? Ha! Different beetles….) In fact, it makes them all the more fascinating when there’s so much mystery about who they are and how they live their lives. It makes the world seem so much bigger and complex and…special, I suppose. (Have I mentioned that a connection to insects has made my life richer? I’m pretty sure I have.)

Northern leopard frog — not a bug

Did you know that 20% of all living organisms on earth are beetles? And that beetles play very important roles in the ecosystem? It’s true. While some of them can cause serious damage to trees (and homes and crops), others are essential nutrient recyclers as they eat decomposing plant and animal matter. And gardeners are familiar with the service provided by ladybug beetles, who are happy to eat aphids by the mouthful.

I was captivated by eyes and faces on this day, and got some nice photos for a little collage that I’ve titled “Three Flies and a Spider.” And of course it made me think of the famous poem by Mary Howitt that begins, “‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the spider to the fly.” In the case of my collage though, the spider is outnumbered and outsized, so these flies are safe from his flattery and manipulations.

This group shows, from the top left and going clockwise:

  1. Broad-banded hornet fly (Spilomyia alcimus) – one of the syrphid flies, a hover fly that can’t sting but looks and acts like a hornet to scare predators.
  2. Dimorphic jumping spider (Maevia inclemens) – jumping spiders are some of the friendliest spiders you’ll ever meet, and so darn cute!
  3. Scorpion fly (Panorpa genus) – This pic doesn’t show it very well, but his abdomen curls up in the back and he must have reminded some scientists of a scorpion. And I just realized that their faces are similar to weevil faces.
  4. Horse fly (Hybomitra genus, maybe) – check out those mesmerizing eyes.

It wasn’t my first time to see any of those insects, but every year I feel like I’m meeting old friends after a long winter in northern Ohio. Here’s a closer look at that syrphid fly — isn’t it fabulous?!

Broad-banded hornet fly, a syrphid fly, not a hornet — totally harmless!

And here’s a damselfly, the lovely emerald spreadwing. They’re named spreadwings because of how they tend to hold their wings spread at a 45-degree angle, which is different from the pond damselflies who hold their wings folded flat alongside the abdomen.

You might notice small dark round things beneath his thorax; those are parasitic water mites. A small number of them probably won’t impact the lifespan of a damselfly, but sometimes they occur in large numbers and can be deadly. They attach to the dragon or damselfly while it’s a nymph living in the water, and when it emerges from the water to become a flying insect, the mites quickly transfer from the shed exoskeleton to the adult insect, and thus are able to ride around and feed off of it. I’ve seen much heavier parasite loads on some dragonflies, like this meadowhawk:

White-faced meadowhawk with a heavy load of water mites

Are you still with me? I realize I may have just gone a bit too far into squeamish territory for some of you, so sorry about that! Let’s end this with a pretty picture then. I give you tiger swallowtails feasting on the native buttonbush that grows in wild abundance at Irwin Prairie. Yep, that oughta do it. Thanks for sticking with me for the reward at the end. 🙂

The Dragon and the Pearl

It’s amazing how quickly things can change at this time of year. For example, I wrote this opening paragraph for a draft post yesterday:

Pearl crescent on blue vervain

It’s mid-May and I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of my favorite insects, the dragonflies and damselflies. At this point I’ve still only found common green darners, but the next couple weeks should bring us at least a dozen more species as we kick off this summer’s dragonfly season. Knowing that any day might be “the day,” I keep going out looking for odes. That’s how I happened to stumble, almost literally, onto a really rare photo opportunity the other day.

So I wrote a bit more on that draft post and left it to be finished later. And then I went out today and found three more ode species! Today was, in fact, finally “the day”!! But back to the story of the rare photo opportunity I stumbled upon:

Darners are large, fast-flying dragonflies, and so anytime I find one perched is exciting. I nearly stepped on this one, and was surprised when he didn’t fly away instantly. Often when they’re newly-emerged adults (teneral), they’ll sit still like this as they’re waiting for their wings to harden, but this one didn’t look teneral to me. I always try to approach them from directly behind when possible, because that’s the only place they can’t see me coming (they have a field of view that’s nearly 360 degrees with those big compound eyes). But even so, this one stayed put long enough for me to start shooting pictures from almost directly above.

Common green darner (Anax junius)

And then THIS happened! The little pearl crescent butterfly landed on top of the dragon’s wing and sat there for maybe ten seconds. All I could think was that it’s always best to be behind the dragonfly’s mouth if you’re a butterfly.

A very brave pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

I held my breath and kept shooting, and even took five seconds of video before the butterfly flew away. I figured somebody might not believe this really happened, so I wanted proof that I didn’t Photoshop it!

My gosh, that was so exciting, I still smile about it when I think of how I felt in the moment!

Then today I was back at this same location and was treated to another lovely view of this very common butterfly. These pearl crescents are so ubiquitous that I usually stop taking pictures of them rather early in the season as I have so many already. But this one landed briefly in a field of little bluestem, and I couldn’t resist making another image.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is such a great native grass, and this particular Nature Conservancy parcel is loaded with it. Little bluestem’s big brother is, not surprisingly, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). While both are gorgeous prairie grasses, I’m partial to the little one that only gets about four feet tall. I find it particularly gorgeous in late fall and through the winter, when the dry stalks are a warm brown that glows in the sunlight. I’ve tried many times to photograph it, but have never been satisfied with what the camera captures.

Here’s a short video clip I made in March, as the grasses were swaying in the wind. There wasn’t much sun shining on this day, but it’s still very pretty.

I hope you enjoyed meeting some of the plants and animals from one of my favorite places. Most people who drive past this former-agricultural-field-now-restoration-project would think it’s just a “weedy field,” and not give it a second thought. But I love traipsing around out there, because you just never know what’s next to discover as the long-dormant native plants begin to stir from the seed bank, and new animals come to make their homes among them.

Pearl crescent on black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta)

Six Weeks and Counting

“Hey Miss Dragonfly I see you look at me with your beautiful eyes
You must be wondering what type of creature am I”
~ Dragonfly, by Ziggy Marley

As we move into March, I suddenly realize that in about 4-6 weeks I should start finding some green darners ! Last year I found my first of the year on April 18. This is the hardest time of year, when it’s so close and yet…so far. But since I’m dealing with major drywall damage from an ice dam, I need to redirect my attention to something positive, so let’s look at some beautiful dragonfly eyes tonight, shall we? Just a few pretties….

This post was inspired by the Ziggy Marley song referenced above. I’ll link it below the photos so you can enjoy it too.

Blue dasher
Dragonhunter
Spotted spreadwing

See, I can do a short post if I try hard, LOL. Okay, here’s Ziggy’s song — enjoy!

Stop the Presses!

Calico pennant with background blurred - w sig
Calico pennant male on equisetum (aka scouring rush)

This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.

Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?

Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.

But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.

Chasing Dragonflies book
Finally, in my hands!!

Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually….  And then, suddenly, it was here!!

I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it.  Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.

Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.

If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.

I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life.  Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)

What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:

So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!

Boo-yah! Stop the Presses!

Kim depressed Bitmoji
I don’t have blue hair yet, but I’m considering trying it out.

I know I promised to write about a special native wildflower this time, but there’s BIG news today, so that will have to wait. Yes, thanks to all that’s good and holy, I have FINALLY found my first dragonfly of the season!!! This is what I’ve been waiting for, the thing that I knew would help pull me out of this wretched depressed state.

I had to force myself to go for a walk today, as I’d been moping around at home for days, simply unwilling to be among people. I logged out of the time-sucking social media site a week ago, and have been wallowing in my isolation loneliness. But that’s a self-defeating behavior, I know. In a time when I most need to be around people, I avoid them because it reminds me of how much I miss my friends and how I can’t hug anyone. But I digress.

Just look at this Common Green Darner (Anax junius)!!!!

Common Green Darner FOY - blog

I hadn’t expected to find any odes flying today with the cold north wind, but suddenly there she was, flying low and slow on the edge of a small pond. The cold wind helped bring her to the ground where I was able to get very close to her from a few different angles.

Dragonflies have virtually 360º vision, with their only “blind spot” directly behind the head. So my first approach was from the rear, verrry slowly. I couldn’t believe I was able to get within about four feet of her, shooting from almost directly above. That angle allowed a great view of the distinctive bulls-eye mark on the top of the head of this species.

Common Green Darner female - view from above v1 - blog

Here’s a closer crop of the head:

Common Green Darner FOY top of head crop - blog

Green darners are usually the first species I see each year because they’re migratory, and arrive here before other non-migratory species emerge from the water.

Common Green Darner profile head crop - blog

Whenever I get a chance to get close photos of a dragonfly, I get lost in the wonder of their fascinating bodies and lives. Today during the few minutes I spent with this individual, I was transported out of a world of suffering and fear and into a place where nothing mattered except this insect and me, sharing a moment.

I don’t think she could have possibly enjoyed our special time nearly as much as I did, but I’m grateful that she allowed me to watch her resting and then feeding on tiny insects I couldn’t even see as she grabbed them out of the air. I constantly tell people that nature is healing, but sometimes I forget just how intensely important that healing can be. Like right now.

Kim Bitmoji yayNotice the difference in this second Bitmoji compared to the first one above? That’s what nature can do for you. It’s an exaggeration of how I felt today, but it expresses my relief at finding affirmation that the natural world continues despite our human problems. Our current troubles will end at some point, and I will be able to walk side-by-side with my odeing buddies again. I’m holding on to that for dear life.

Be well everyone, and look for that special wildflower post next. 🙂

What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring

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

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

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

Path around Wiregrass Lake with goldenrod
Trail around the lake

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

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

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant

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

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Dragonfly exoskeleton after emergence

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

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

Prince Baskettail in flight
Prince Baskettail

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

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

Meadowhawk on ironweed w sig
Meadowhawk on ironweed, a native plant

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

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

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

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

Blue dasher on pink - blog w sig
Blue Dasher

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

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

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

Celebrating a Boy Named Laura

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

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

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

Smoky Rubyspot LIFER w sig
Smoky Rubyspot (Hataerina titia)

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

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

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

Example of blurry water shot
Many blurry water shots ensued!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Know Your Quarry

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

Lilypad clubtail LIFER w sig
Lilypad clubtail

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

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

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail

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

Flag-tailed spinyleg in obelisk position - blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarry scenery

Rocks under clear water at Silver Rock Quarry

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

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

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

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!