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.)

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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

 

Falling in Love…with Beetles

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Bicolored leaf beetle (Calligrapha bidenticola)

I might be in the early stages of a love affair…with beetles. A sort of beetle-mania, so to speak. I was aware that there are more species of beetles than plants on our planet, but hadn’t paid any special attention to this group other than occasionally admiring a new one I discovered. But after a couple recent encounters, I’m finding myself growing interested in further study of this very cool group of insects. And since dragonfly season is taking forever to get here, I might as well use this time to get better acquainted with the insects that are already active.

Beetles are in the order Coleoptera, which comes from the Greek words koleos which means sheath (or shield), and ptera which means wings. As this name indicates, they have a hardened pair of forewings called elytra that protect the softer hindwings below.

You may have noticed the common beetle flight style while watching ladybugs; the elytra are lifted up to allow the softer wings below to open. It makes them appear to be somehow handicapped, as if they can’t manage to get those cumbersome appendages out of the way.

It seems that wouldn’t be the most efficient way to fly, but they seem to do just fine. (In fact, I read a study that found that the elytra do provide extra lift in flight, but they reduce aerodynamic efficiency.)

A few days ago I met the pigweed flea beetle; actually I met quite a few of them. I was enjoying a leisurely walk on a quiet trail in one of the less-traveled areas of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. A half mile from my spot there were throngs of birders jostling for views of a Connecticut warbler, but I was in blissful peace, crouched on the ground watching beetles go about their business.

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Pigweed flea beetle (Disonycha glabrata)

This particular one taught me something interesting. I watched him (her?) repeatedly open and close the elytra before finally achieving liftoff. I wonder about the purpose of the opening and closing of the elytra so many times; it could be part of a mating display or serve some other function.

Bumble Flower Beetle - Euphoria inda w sig
Bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda)

Just a few days after being enchanted with the pigweed flea beetle’s display, I’ve met another beetle who taught me more cool stuff. This is the bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda). Whereas the pigweed flea beetle was about a quarter inch long, this one was much bigger, more than a half inch long. (A quarter inch is significant in the insect world!)

As I was researching this species, I came across an article that claims this one is unique among beetles because he doesn’t raise the elytra when he flies. I haven’t seen reference to this claim to fame anywhere else, but if it’s true, it’s just one more reason to enjoy meeting this magnificent furry creature.

And before you scroll too far, go back and check out those awesome lamellate antennae! Beetles have some of the most interesting antennae I’ve yet come across in my insect studies. I often remember this guy, the big blister beetle I found on my front sidewalk a couple years ago. He’s got those impressive segmented (moniliform) and weirdly-kinked antennae. And his elytra are partially wrapped around his abdomen, in contrast to those of the species above.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (3) w sig

Beetles come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and I look forward to a summer of meeting many more of them and learning more about their fascinating lives!

(Above, clockwise from left: Spotted cucumber beetle, banded longhorn beetle, dogbane leaf beetle)

Dandelion Delight

Yes, you read that right — I said, “Dandelion Delight,” alright. Many people despise these little yellow flowers that pop up in lawns in early spring, and do everything they can to eradicate them.  In fact, there may be no more-hated flower than the hapless dandelion.

Dandelions and violets at Salamander Flats w sig

You may be thinking, “Hey, aren’t you all about native plants now? What gives?”  It’s true, the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) isn’t native to North America, and I sure wouldn’t advise you to plant it on purpose. But it’s here and it’s widespread, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But there’s a silver lining to this dilemma, and it’s the fact that dandelions are sometimes useful to early spring pollinators.

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Black-shouldered drone fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

For example, right now there are very few native flowers blooming in my part of Ohio. And yet some of the pollinators have already emerged or migrated back. Luckily for these early bird insects, dandelions are a plentiful food source to get them through until more of our native flowers are blooming. The other day I went to a local nature preserve that has a thriving population of dandelions, because I wanted to show you some of the pollinators that were feeding on them.

First was the black-shouldered drone fly shown above. Then I found one of my favorites, a hoverfly. I believe this may be the American hoverfly (and I hope to confirm that when my new field guide arrives very soon!).

American Hoverfly maybe (Eupeodes americanus) on dandelion w sig
Possibly an American hoverfly (Eupeodes americanus)

Butterflies may not be as efficient at pollinating as bees and flies, but they still make a valuable contribution to this essential step in botanical reproduction. Small amounts of pollen can attach to their wings or other body parts as they feed on nectar, thus allowing them to inadvertently carry that pollen to other flowers. On this day I saw many red admirals and American ladies feeding on the pretty yellow dandelion blooms.

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Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

And check out this greater bee fly with his long rigid proboscis. Unlike a butterfly, this fly can’t retract his “tongue.” That seems like it would be cumbersome, but he apparently makes it work.

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Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

His lovely wing pattern at first tricked me into thinking he was a tiger bee fly (which I wrote about last summer), but I quickly realized he was different. In fact, I had only seen my first of this species a couple days before, when I visited Goll Woods to photograph wildflowers.

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Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

I found a nice article about greater bee flies by Eric Eaton, so if you’d like to read more about them, I suggest you go to Eric’s blog, here.

So I hope this will give you pause the next time you’re considering yanking dandelions from your lawn, or even worse, pouring toxic chemicals on them. If we can learn to see them as beneficial to the ecosystem, and even — gasp! — enjoy their beauty, perhaps we can eventually learn to live in harmony with the rest of the life on this amazing planet.

White-crowned Sparrows amongst the dandelions - blog
White-crowned sparrows amongst the dandelions

Penguins and More – Galápagos, Part 3

On the morning of March 12, the ship anchored off the coast of Isabela Island near Elizabeth Bay. We piled into the zodiacs in groups of about 15 people, and headed off to explore the beautiful and peaceful mangrove lagoon.

Mangrove lagoon scenery - blue sky and water

Almost as soon as we entered the cove, we found a lone Galápagos penguin resting on a rock. He lay there calmly as our boat idled 20 feet away, allowing us to take some nice photos before moving on into the lagoon. These are the only penguins in the northern hemisphere, and are endemic to the Galápagos. The Galapágos Conservation Trust says this about their current conservation status: “In 1982, there was a particularly strong El Niño event that caused 77% of the population to die of starvation and the population has been recovering ever since. The current population is estimated to be just 2,000 birds.”

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Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

We soon saw a sea turtle napping in the shade, using the mangrove branches to keep himself afloat.

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Another one popped up to say hello.

Green sea turtle w sig

I absolutely love turtle heads, don’t you? They look like toothless old men, but in a cute way.

In this lagoon we also got our first and only fleeting looks at golden rays. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of them before they were gone. I was also excited to see quite a few dragonflies zipping around above us. I’d not held out much hope of finding any dragonflies on this trip, so it was a big thrill. Dragonflies need fresh or brackish water, and I knew that most of our trip would be spent on salt water. But I believe the lagoon is brackish water, so that’s why there were dragonflies there. I was trying so hard to get a photo of one of them, and the boat driver tried to get me close to one, but I just couldn’t get the photo as the zodiac bobbed on the water. Talk about frustration! But all wasn’t lost in the ode department, because I managed to get a photo of one dragonfly on North Seymour island later in the week.

Dragonfly from Galapagos
Striped Saddlebags (Tramea calverti) photographed on North Seymour island

Galapagos penguins swimming in mangrove lagoon w sig

Small groups of penguins entertained us as they swam around us. We found two sea lions tucked up in the mangrove trees enjoying naps in the shade. I was a little bit irritated that our guide nudged the boat into their little sheltered hideaway to allow people to take pictures of them. Most times the guides were very good about keeping a decent distance from the wildlife, but this time I felt they went too far in invading the space of the sea lions, so I was glad when we finally backed out of the little inlet and moved on. I didn’t take any pictures of them because I felt bad that we were there.

This striated heron was lurking in the shelter of the mangroves too. I’ll have more to say about this species in a future post.

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Striated heron (Butorides striata)

As we began our return trip out of the lagoon, a great blue heron flew in and landed in a mangrove tree, and I had that weird feeling that I often get when birding in a far-off location and seeing a bird that I see in Ohio. It’s like seeing a friend from home and saying, “Hey, I know you!”

There was one more treat to discover before we went back to the ship, and boy, was it great! This flightless cormorant was sunning itself on a rock as we emerged from the lagoon, and it made for such a gorgeous photo with the backdrop of the brilliant turquoise water.

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Flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

The flightless cormorant is another endemic species in the Galápagos, so this was high on my bucket list of species I wanted to see. We only saw a few of them on the entire trip, and this was the closest we got to one. This photo is perfect for highlighting his stunted wings, which are the obvious reason that he’s flightless. He doesn’t even use those wings to propel himself through the water when fishing, instead relying on his powerful feet for propulsion. Because his wings don’t produce much oil, he can’t waterproof his feathers and has to spread the wings to dry in the sun after he’s done diving.

Okay, that’s three posts on the Galápagos trip, and I haven’t even mentioned Darwin’s finches yet. Stay tuned!

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?!

Cocooning

The weather here in northwestern Ohio has turned colder and wetter as we enter the depths of autumn. Humans turn to furnaces and fireplaces for comfort and survival, and insects have their various methods of doing the same.

This year I’ve been raising a polyphemus moth caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus). I was given about a half dozen of the tiny early instar caterpillars back on August 23. They were feeding on maple leaves when I got them, but they can feed on a variety of tree species, so I was able to change them over to elm leaves. I have two maple trees but they’ve been trimmed so high that I can’t reach the leaves without a ladder. The elm tree has enough low-hanging branches that I could reach more fresh leaves each day.

I was excited to begin this adventure with a species I’d never raised before. Raising monarch butterfly caterpillars (cats) is a relatively quick and easy project, as they only feed for a couple weeks before going into their chrysalis form. I knew the polyphemus moth cats would take a bit longer, but I didn’t know much about what to expect along the way.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar eating elm leaf - Sept 10 2018 blog
The lone survivor eating an elm leaf – Sept 10

As it turned out, there were some surprises. The first was that I would only end up with one caterpillar. I’m not sure if the little guys somehow escaped the enclosure or if they ate each other, but after a couple weeks, there was only one left. You may remember that I wrote about my experience with milkweed tussock moth caterpillars back in August, in which I believe they cannibalized each other. You’d think that would have made me more cautious with this species, but I guess I assumed that the tussock moth cat behavior was some sort of anomaly. And besides that, these guys were so tiny and had enormous amounts of food available to them, I couldn’t imagine they would eat each other.  I don’t think they could have escaped from their enclosure either. But whatever happened, I ended up with just the single caterpillar after a couple weeks.

I fed him fresh elm leaves each day and waited  eagerly for signs of impending pupation. And waited. And waited.

Polyphemus caterpillar turning brownish - blog
Polyphemus moth caterpillar turning darker near the end of September

Near the end of September, he started to turn a darker olive green at the head end. I hoped that meant he was almost ready to make a cocoon, but it didn’t. I also wondered if he was sick or had been parasitized somehow. But after a couple weeks like that, he turned back to his bright green color and continued eating.

Before you go on, if you haven’t done it yet, I suggest clicking to enlarge one of these photos so you can fully appreciate the body structure of this fascinating insect. I just love the brown alien-looking face, and the colorful bumps that adorn much of the body. And the backside, which I’ve come to call the butt flap, where the relatively large pellets of waste are ejected. You can see one of the “pellets o’ poo” on a leaf in the background of this photo.

I took him out of his enclosure on Tuesday to take some more photos, and this turned out to be his very last photo shoot. Is he not amazing?! Look at those gripping feet!

Polyphemus caterpillar's last photoshoot Oct 30 2018 - blog

Take a look at the various dots of color along the abdomen in this photo. There are some with hairs (or setae) coming out of them, and then there’s a row of brownish spots without hairs; those are the spiracles. The caterpillar doesn’t have lungs like we do, but instead breathes through those spiracles. And by the way, if you’d like to read much more detail about the life cycle of this moth, check out this site from the University of Florida.

And it wasn’t until yesterday — finally — that he crawled into a dried elm leaf and began spinning silk to enclose himself. This photo was taken around 10:00 in the morning. Notice a few strands of silk on the left end of the leaf.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 10 am - blog

And this one was taken when I got home around 6:00 pm.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 6 pm - blog

And I took this final photo this morning.

Polyphemus cocoon finished on Nov 1 2018 - blog

He’s tucked in there nice and cozy now, and will spend the winter and early spring “napping.” And it’s weird, but I don’t quite know how to think about him in this phase. With monarch butterflies spending such a short time in their chrysalis form, it’s easy to imagine that they’re actively transforming into butterflies each day. But with these guys, I have no idea what happens in that cocoon for so many months. Does he stay in this caterpillar form, only transforming into a moth right before emerging in the spring? Or does he begin the transformation as soon as he’s wrapped up? I’d like to know the answer to that, but I also love wondering about it, letting my imagination run with the possibilities.

I’ve now put him in the garage for the winter, along with the four black swallowtail chrysalises that are wintering in there. Both of these species need to be exposed to the cold of winter so that their emergence in the spring will be at the same time as the rest of their species. That’s important so that they can find mates. The polyphemus moth doesn’t even have mouth parts to feed, so it will live as an adult moth for less than a week, just long enough to reproduce the next generation.

I’m anxious to see the moth and the butterflies eclose from their winter abodes next year. It’s going to be so hard to wait. I can imagine trudging into the garage all bundled up in February to get the snow shovel and seeing this cocoon tucked in the corner, with the caterpillar doing whatever it’s doing in there. I think that will bring a smile to my face no matter how much I hate shoveling snow.  #FindingTheJoy