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 exuvia 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
Exuvia of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuvia 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?!

A Speeding Green Bullet!

Autumn has long been my favorite season of the year — colorful tree foliage, cooler air for comfortable hikes, clear cerulean skies, cozy sweaters…I could go on. But this is also a season tinged with sadness for the end of summer.  Lately I’ve been feeling a bit gloomy about the impending end of dragonfly season. It’s frustrating to have such a short time each year to watch these fascinating insect predators.

I’ve written before about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey and how you can contribute to it. I’ve submitted many records of my observations to the survey in the past two years, and look forward to adding more in the third and final survey year next summer.  A few weeks ago I got a message from one of the survey coordinators pointing out that they would like a few 2018 reports from Fulton County, and asking if I would keep that in mind while I was out and about.

I live in Lucas County, which has a few very active odonata observers, including one of Ohio’s experts. So there’s not much chance of me finding something here that hasn’t already been documented. But Fulton County is a rural county just to the west of Lucas County, and it has far fewer people reporting odonata sightings. So that means I can more easily make a meaningful contribution to the database with my sightings there.

So the other day, after doing some online location scouting and armed with a list of three target species, I drove west through the corn fields.

The three target species were all damselflies: blue-fronted dancer, fragile forktail, and stream bluet. I knew one good pond location from earlier visits in that area, but I knew that spot wouldn’t be likely to have the dancer or the bluet, both of which are usually found near rivers or streams rather than the pond that I was headed to first.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first bug I saw was one of my targets, the fragile forktail. He’s easy to identify because of the green exclamation mark on his thorax.

Fragile forktail - blog
Fragile forktail (Ischnura posita)

I spent about 45 minutes more at this pond location, documenting some other species, before heading off in search of flowing water.

I went to a place called Tiffin River Wildlife Area. I was optimistic about this location until I got there and found that there was virtually no access to the water. I found one small gravel parking lot with barely enough room to turn the car around, but it was surrounded with head-high vegetation and no paths. Hmmm. This would require some ingenuity.  I drove around a bit and found a dirt driveway that dipped down toward the water, but it had a chain across it about 75 yards down and a sign that said “No Trespassing.”

Blue-fronted dancer - blog
Blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis)

I figured, okay, I can walk on this first section as long as I don’t go past the chain and the sign. I wasn’t going to do any harm, and it didn’t look like anyone had driven that driveway in a long time; it was full of deep ruts and bordered by tall weedy vegetation. And amazingly, I found my second target species on that driveway: blue-fronted dancer. I almost did a happy dance after I got my photograph for documentation.

I also got this pretty picture of a viceroy butterfly nectaring on loosestrife.

Viceroy butterfly w sig - blog

So, two down, one to go. The only other spot I could find with the potential for running water was Harrison Lake State Park. From the map view I’d noticed there was a dam at one end of the lake, with potential access to the stream below it. So off I went further west.

I’m sure it had a lot to do with the beautiful weather on this day, but this park impressed me immediately. I saw that their campground was full of people on this late summer Friday, but somehow it wasn’t noisy. It felt peaceful and relaxing. And even better, there was access to the stream below the dam, just as I’d hoped. And this is where something exciting happened.

I’d found a couple interesting species (orange bluet and dusky dancer), and was taking photos of them and just quietly observing the water. I was looking down at something on the ground, and as I lifted my head I saw an enormous pair of green eyes speeding directly toward me, only a dozen feet away. I barely had time to think “River cruiser!” when it whizzed past me like a green bullet and went high up into the trees behind me. I spent a half hour searching for it, desperate to document it for this location. I had a hunch it could be a species that hadn’t been recorded there before. But, alas, I didn’t find it again.

I eventually gave up and walked back up the hill to the top of the dam, and then slowly toward the parking lot.  I was enjoying the beautiful day, but couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected after the close encounter with the river cruiser and then losing it.

I was in the parking lot, about 100 yards from my car, when –BZZZZZT! — something big flew past my head and perched in a tree 30 feet above me. I knew what it was before I saw it: River cruiser!

Wabash River Cruiser - Fulton County Record (2)
Wabash river cruiser (Macromia wabashensis)

I started taking photos immediately, not knowing how long it would stay there. My first impression was that it was a Wabash river cruiser, a hard-to-photograph hybrid species. And indeed, that’s what it was! I couldn’t believe my luck, and took probably 70 photos of it, even though it barely moved. I always try to get multiple views of any dragonfly, because sometimes you need to see multiple field marks to confirm an identity. The diagnostic field mark on this species is the moth-shaped yellow mark near the end of the abdomen.

And not only did I get a killer view of this dragonfly, I photographed a really interesting behavior: the transfer of a sperm packet.

Wabash River Cruiser transferring sperm packet
Wabash river cruiser transferring sperm packet prior to mating

Prior to mating, the male has to transfer sperm from his primary sexual organ to his secondary genitalia, where the female will have access to it when they link their bodies in the mating process. This photo shows him doing exactly that.  And this made me believe that I’d seen two different individuals; the first one I saw below the dam might have been the female.

I felt great that I’d gathered some valuable data for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (the Wabash river cruiser did turn out to be a new species for Fulton County), and I left that park with a smile a mile wide.

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800I’m so glad I take the time to write about these nature experiences; not just to share them with you, but for myself too. They’re fantastic memory joggers as I reminisce in the winter, sitting beside a crackling fire counting down the days until the first ode sighting next spring. I’m also planning to do some hard-core studying this winter, as I’ve been enlisted to lead the annual dragonfly field trip for Toledo Naturalists’ Association in June. I don’t need to be an expert by then, but I’d like to be as prepared as possible so everyone has fun and learns something on our outing.

A couple years ago I wrote about this little reminder I kept on my refrigerator, and it’s still working well for me. As long as I keep making plans for interesting things to do, life is good. 🙂

 

What’s In a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~ Juliet to Romeo, Wm. Shakespeare

As if dragonflies weren’t already fascinating enough just by virtue of their body structures and behaviors, I’ve been thinking about another reason I love them: their names. Juliet may have had a point, but she clearly wasn’t thinking about dragonflies.

Since they’re predators, it makes sense that many of them would have names indicating ferocity, strength, speed, or weaponry. I’m thinking here of groups like these:

Dragonfly names word cloud

If you didn’t know that these creatures are small and harmless (at least to humans), you might think they were some sort of giant monsters! Heck, even when you know they’re small and harmless, those names engender respect.

Of course, there are some less-fearsome names of dragonflies too, like these:

Dragonfly names v4 word cloud

Mind you, regardless of how serene-sounding some of the names are (elfin skimmer, for example), every one of these critters is a ferocious predator. They’ll eat practically any other insect they can catch, including members of their own species.

Damselfly names, on the other hand, are much less threatening:  bluet, dancer, spreadwing, jewelwing, sprite, and forktail (well, that one has a weapon in it, I guess).

Powdered dancer and Stream bluet face-off w sig
Powdered Dancer faces off with a Stream Bluet. (They didn’t eat each other.)

Some specific dragonfly names that tickle my fancy are things like Elfin Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Rusty Snaketail, Riffle Snaketail, Black-shouldered Spinyleg, Unicorn Clubtail, Pronghorn Clubtail, Splendid Clubtail, and Gilded River Cruiser.  Aren’t they wonderfully evocative names?

Black-shouldered spinyleg - really cool pic w sig
Black-shouldered Spinyleg, a type of clubtail

One of my favorites is the Cyrano Darner, named for Cyrano de Bergerac, he of the infamous large nose. It’s easy to see how this species got its moniker.

Cyrano Darner by LadyDragonflyCC via Flickr Creative Commons license
Cyrano Darner  and his “nose” by Christine Cimala (via Flickr)

And lest we forget, the most formidable of them all is the DRAGONHUNTER! Recently I had my best Dragonhunter photo printed on a 2 foot wide canvas (below), which now hangs prominently in my living room. I’m not sure if people will think it’s odd to have large insect photos on the walls, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Dragonhunter at Swanton Reservoir w sig
Dragonhunter!!! 

 

 

Insects as Art

It’s obvious that I’ve developed quite the obsession with insects, right? I was talking to a friend the other day about how often people respond to my insect posts on social media with comments like, “Gross!” or “Bugs are disgusting!”  She told me that her sister works in costume design and whenever they need to create a costume that’s scary, they look to insects for inspiration. Just think about the creatures in the Alien movies and you’ll see that idea put to good use.

If you want to read a little about the science behind why so many of us fear bugs, go here. But I wanted to do my part to show my favorite insects in a way that you can appreciate them, even if you generally don’t like insects. So I’ve been making an effort to take photos of them in pretty settings instead of always cropping them closely to show the details of their beautiful bodies. So I present to you some of my favorite dragonfly photos from recent weeks. Enjoy.

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant
Halloween Pennant
Halloween Pennant
Twelve-spotted skimmer
Twelve-spotted Skimmer
Blue Dasher w sig
Blue Dasher obelisking to keep cool
Widow skimmer
Widow Skimmer
Eastern amberwing
Eastern Amberwing, like a golden ballerina

Elves and Sprites: More Dragon-Hunting Gems

Elfin Skimmer for blog
The tiny Elfin Skimmer male ( Nannothemis bella), less than an inch long!

As I said in my last post, my friend Ryan and I finished out the weekend after the dragonfly conference by spending Sunday visiting several spots in search of some more species of dragon- and damselflies. We went to Cedar Bog first and found Elfin Skimmers, Eastern Red Damsels, Paiute Dancers, and Seepage Dancers, all very cool species to see.

Elfin Skimmer female for blog
The female Elfin Skimmer looks almost like a wasp

I’d seen my first of the teeny tiny Elfin Skimmers (Nannothemis bella) at Cedar Bog a few weeks ago, but only saw the males that time. These are the smallest dragonflies in North America, easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for and where to look. The males are gorgeous, but this time I really wanted to see the females too, as I was told they could be confused for bees if you’re not paying attention. We saw at least five male Elfin Skimmers and I was just about to give up on the females when one landed right in front of me and I was able to get a couple quick photos.

And, as luck would have it, someone in one of my odonata groups just posted a photo of this species alongside our largest dragonfly, the Dragonhunter, for a very impressive size comparison. Thanks to Derek Bridgehouse for giving me permission to show you his photo, taken in Nova Scotia.

Dragonhunter and Elfin Skimmer comparison by Derek Bridgehouse with permission
Dragonhunter, above, and Elfin Skimmer female, below. Wowie!

Our next species, the Paiute Dancer, has an interesting story. A few weeks ago one of them was discovered in Ohio by Jim Lemon, but not at first recognized as a Paiute Dancer. It took some discussion and consulting with a variety of people before someone realized what it was…and then the excitement grew! Prior to this sighting, the easternmost records of this species were in Iowa and Missouri, so this is a significant range expansion.

Paiute Dancer for blog
Paiute Dancer (Argia alberta), only recently discovered in Ohio

But the more interesting part of the story is that since Jim discovered the Paiute at one location, he found more at Cedar Bog, and then discovered that he has taken photos of this species at that location all the way back to 2015 but didn’t realize what he had. And now that we all know it’s here, we look more closely in the field and at our photos later. So because of this interesting story, I was thrilled to find my first Paiute at Cedar Bog on Sunday.

I suspect lots of ode hunters are combing through their unidentified damselfly pictures to see if they have pictures of this species languishing in a file named “To be identified.”

On my last trip to Cedar Bog I’d seen my lifer Gray Petaltail but wasn’t able to get a photo of it as it flew tight circles around me before zooming far up into the trees. So this time I wanted to find it again so Ryan could see it, and we both wanted to photograph it. But after two hours of searching, we came up empty and reluctantly left for our next destination.

Sphagnum sprite LIFER for blog
Sphagnum Sprite (Nehalennia gracilis), like a needle floating around in the grass

A bit disappointed, we drove to Kiser Lake State Park just to see what we could turn up there. We weren’t having much luck at first, but we suddenly struck gold when Ryan spotted the itsy bitsy teeny tiny Sphagnum Sprites. These guys are also less than an inch long, but the Elfin Skimmer can be a bit smaller than even these guys, believe it or not.

We took as many pics of them as we could and moved on. We’d begun checking the time, thinking we’d need to move along to our next target location when suddenly something big flew past Ryan’s head and we both gasped as it landed on a tree trunk about 30 feet in front of us. Gray Petaltail!!

Gray Petaltail w sig
Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi)

When I say “big,” I mean about three inches, making it one of the largest dragonflies in this part of the country. We were both transfixed as we watched this perfectly camouflaged insect repeatedly fly out to grab insects and then come back to rest on the tree. If you took your eyes off of him it was hard to find him again because he blended in so well with the bark. At one point we could see him eating something that might have been another dragonfly. And we saw him try to grab a fritillary butterfly too, but he missed that one.

I just learned an interesting fact about this species: Most dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects, but the larvae of the Gray Petaltail are semi-terrestrial, feeding on land insects and spiders. Here’s another view showing just how well his camouflage works against the tree bark.

Gray Petaltail camoflage with arrow
Another view of the Gray Petaltail showing his perfect camouflage

After getting our fill of the petaltail, we headed to our final destination for the day, where we hoped to find the Jade Clubtail. This is another species just discovered in Ohio about ten days earlier, again by Jim Lemon. At Odo-Con, Jim had given us directions to the spot where he’d seen it, including the exact buoy it had perched on. And Rick had been there watching them while Ryan and I were at Cedar Bog and Kiser Lake, so when we arrived he’d already done the hard work for us.

Rick and Ryan photographing Jade Clubtail - for blog
Rick and Ryan shooting photos of the Jade Clubtail

We walked along the shore scanning the rocks where Rick had seen a couple of them earlier. He said he hadn’t been able to get very close to them because they were very wary, so we were all surprised when we quickly found one and were able to get within a few feet of it for photos. It might have been just because it was later in the heat of the day and it was tired and too hot to keep moving, I’m not sure. But we felt like we had brought a little bit of luck with us, and we took turns stepping down into the edge of the lake to get photos of the insect’s face as it perched facing the water every time.

Jade Clubtail LIFER nice face shot for blog
Jade Clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), a new species for Ohio
Jade Clubtail LIFER obelisking for blog
Jade Clubtail in the obelisk position on a hot day

As I mentioned, it was a pretty hot day and so the dragonfly did what dragonflies do on a hot day: assume the obelisk position. This is a posture that points the abdomen tip toward the sun to minimize the surface area receiving direct rays, which apparently works well to help them moderate body temperature as they sit on hot rocks along the water’s edge. I took my turn stepping down into the water for photos too, and appreciated the opportunity to feel the cool water on my feet for a moment.

Me taking photo of Jade Clubtail - by Rick Nirschl for blog

This was such a satisfying and fun weekend, with great friends and great odes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover next!

Hooked on Odes

Calico Pennant dragonfly in the hand
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

This past weekend was the long-awaited Odo-Con, the dragonfly conference of the Ohio Odonata Society. This was my second year to attend, and I was glad that this time I would know more people and not feel like such a newbie. I’d convinced my friend Ryan to go along this year and was looking forward to seeing his reaction to being around so many other odonata afficionados.

The location for this year’s conference was the Oakwoods Nature Preserve in Findlay, Ohio. It was nice to have the conference in our corner of the state this time, although our weather forecast was not very good for the weekend — we were supposed to have scattered thunderstorms and overcast skies Friday and Saturday.

We spent Friday evening indoors listening to a variety of presentations on topics like the ethics of collecting insects, identification tips, and photography techniques. Whereas birders can report their birds to eBird without photos, our dragonfly survey requires photographic evidence of each species, making it very important to  know the best ways to get those photos. The photography panel discussion included Judy Semroc and my  friends Rick Nirschl and Jim McCormac, each with their own expertise and suggestions for the equipment and techniques that work best for them. It was a great discussion and I came away with some good notes.

Two-banded Petrophila - Petrophila bifascialis
Two-banded Petrophila moth that came to our lights – click to see him larger

Friday night after dark, they hung out sheets and lights to attract moths, and I enjoyed seeing some new moths and poking around in the woods with flashlights trying to find caterpillars.

Saturday morning was also filled with more interesting presentations and time for socializing. And, in a stroke of good fortune, the weather cooperated for our afternoon field trips after all. My trip was to a spot that sounds unappealing — the Hancock County dump. But this property has some amazing ponds and meadows, and we couldn’t even see (or smell) the actual landfill part of it while we were there.

Mocha Emerald dragonfly
Mocha Emerald (Somatochlora linearis)

And my gosh, were there lots of great odes there! Our group of about ten people was led by Linda Gilbert and Jim McCormac, and they showed us a grand time for about four hours, turning up about two dozen species of odes. One of the best finds of the day happened in the first 20 minutes of our outing, but we didn’t know what it was until the end of the afternoon when we pulled out my field guide and looked it up. It was a Mocha Emerald, a brand new species for me, and a very impressively-sized one too. We watched it flying over our heads for several minutes, until it finally landed on some vegetation along the path and we were able to creep up slowly and get some photos.

Halloween Pennants in tandem ovipositing w sig
Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina) ovipositing in pond

A little while later we made our way to the first pond, where we found lots of species flying. There were many pairs of Halloween Pennants “in tandem,” which is how we describe their mating position when the male is clasping the female behind her head. In the photo above they’ve already fertilized the eggs and he’s holding on to her while she dips her abdomen in the pond to deposit them. His goal is to make sure no other male interrupts her before she’s finished the job.

We found this female baskettail species (below) hanging in the meadow as she began releasing fertilized eggs from the end of her abdomen. We watched as the egg clusters got bigger and bigger, and finally she flew off over the adjacent pond and deposited them in the water. We can’t be positive about her species because we can’t see the terminal appendages with all those eggs covering them, but most likely this was a Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura).

Baskettail species with eggs w sig
Baskettail female with eggs

We came to another pond that had just a narrow area of shoreline access, where our entire group couldn’t spread out at the same time. So our always-prepared leader went into the pond with a net to catch some specimens for us to examine on shore. I think he was having the most fun here, as the rest of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in this particular area. But it was worth it, because he brought us some beautiful insects to see.

Jim McCormac with net in pond
Jim is really in his element here, wading in the pond to net some bugs for us to examine.

For example, here’s a damselfly he netted, being held by our other leader, Linda Gilbert. This one is an Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis). In case you’re wondering, all of the insects we netted today were released unharmed after only a couple minutes.

Elegant spreadwing held by Linda Gilbert
Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis)

Spreadwings are a group of damselflies that are easy to distinguish from other damsels because of their habit of holding their wings partially outspread when perched. And many of them have beautiful metallic green coloration, like little winged jewels. I love them, even though many of them are frustratingly difficult to identify to the species level.

I’ll finish this installment with a few pics of an amorous pair of Stream Bluets that I photographed during a break between presentations at the Oakwoods Nature Preserve. First, the unsuspecting female just hanging out, minding her own business.

Stream Bluet female w sig

Next thing she knows, this guy grabs her by the back of her neck.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 1 - w sig

Not much she can do about it at this point, but it all seemed to work out, as seen below as they form the “heart” shape when she reaches her abdomen up to obtain a sperm packet from the male to fertilize her eggs. When they’re done with this part, she’ll oviposit into the vegetation in or near the water so their offspring can live in the water until they’re ready to emerge as these awesome winged creatures.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 2 - w sig

There’s much more to tell about our post-conference dragon hunting on Sunday, but I’ll save that for the next post. Suffice it to say that this was a fascinating weekend spent with naturalists and scientists, and I’m already looking forward to Odo-Con 2019. The only question is, how many more of my friends can I get hooked on odes before then?

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)
Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

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Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

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Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

The Circle of Life, Insect Edition

I'm waiting avatarAs I mentioned a few weeks ago, this is the time of year when the focus of my nature explorations turns away from birds and toward dragonflies and other insects. And just like the birds this year, the dragonflies seemed to arrive later than usual, requiring enormous amounts of patience from those of us eagerly awaiting them.

But in the past week or so the dragonfly activity has finally picked up and boy, oh boy, am I having fun! I’ve got so many photos to show you that it’s hard to know where to start. This first post is going to describe an exciting encounter I had today, and then in another post I’ll show a wider variety of species from my dragon-hunting expeditions.

A few days ago a friend told me about a good spot to see a lot of clubtails, a group of odes that I need more experience with. The location is in Oak Openings Preserve, one of our much-loved metroparks. So I headed over there on Thursday and spent about 90 minutes taking photographs of the many clubtails and other species in the meadow and adjacent mowed lawn area.

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Blue Dasher

The weather today was cool and overcast, not the best conditions for odonata to be flying. But I couldn’t resist going out anyway, just to see what I could turn up. My first stop at another nature preserve was discouraging because nothing was flying. At all. I took photos of various fishing spiders on lilypads. I saw a turtle. The sun started peeking out as I was leaving, and I finally found a single Blue Dasher and a single Common Whitetail. That’s when I decided to go back to Oak Openings to check out this meadow again. And boy am I glad I did!

By the time I emerged from the wooded trail into the meadow clearing, the sun was shining brightly and there was a light, cool breeze. It didn’t take long to start finding the clubtails either resting in the grass or flying…up & down and up & down…in their signature roller-coaster flight style. They’re so much fun to watch.

There was lots of cottonwood fluff blowing around, making it look like it was raining cotton balls.

And that’s when it happened.

A dragonfly swooped down in front of me and grabbed what I thought was a clump of cottonwood seeds. Immediately his flight seemed to be more difficult, and he quickly dropped to the ground a few feet away. I’m no fool, and I knew this was going to be good. So I instantly started shooting photos, not even stopping to figure out what he’d nabbed for lunch.

As I shot frame after frame, I quickly determined that he’d nabbed not a clump of cotton, but a large-ish fly-type insect.  Now I know that the prey was a Summer Fishfly, aka Chauliodes pectinicornis. I don’t know much about fishflies, but have learned a bit in writing this for you. Their life cycle is similar to that of the dragonfly, interestingly enough. They spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, then emerge as these winged adult flies. The fishfly adult can live for about a week — if it doesn’t get eaten by another winged insect, as this one did.

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The prey: a male Summer Fishfly (Chauliodes pectinicornis)

Notice the large mothlike antennae on this one — that’s how we know it’s a male. And look at the pretty black-and-white veining in those translucent wings.

As I watched the clubtail begin chewing into its body, the fly thrashed its thorax back and forth in an attempt to escape. At one point it looked like the fishfly was trying to hold on to a blade of grass as the clubtail tore into his abdomen.

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The last pair of eyes the fishfly ever saw
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The struggle was on…back and forth
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Notice the jaws on the fishfly — they look intimidating but they’re no match for a dragon!

I think this dragonfly is an Ashy Clubtail, but I’m not positive about that yet. It’s pretty hard to differentiate a couple of the clubtail species without extreme closeup photos of the reproductive organs on the tip of the abdomen. I’m still examining various photos from this series to try and pin that down, but whatever it turns out to be, isn’t this so cool?!

As I witnessed this predator/prey drama, I was standing alone in this large clearing surrounded by immense trees. When the clubtail finally flew (with much difficulty), taking the remains of its prey up into one of those tall trees, the smile on my face was a mile wide. I think I might even have giggled out loud from sheer joy.

And now I’ll leave you with a calmer image, one of a pretty little Pearl Crescent butterfly feeding on clover…blissfully unaware of what lurks nearby…in the meadow of death.  😉

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Pearl Crescent butterfly, Phyciodes tharos