There’s a nature preserve a few miles from my house that has quickly become one of my favorite places to explore. It’s called Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve. It’s a couple hundred acres of wet prairie, sedge meadow, shrub swamp, grass meadow, and swamp forest. Now I don’t pretend to understand the botanical nuances of each of those habitats, but I get the general idea. The life forms that live in each part of the preserve depend on the soil and water conditions.
Even though I visit Irwin Prairie often, each time I find new and interesting things to learn about. My computer has a folder with hundreds of photos from this amazing place — wildflowers, birds, dragon- and damselflies, beetles, snakes, frogs, turtles, and much more. I’m planning to share many of those soon, but today I just want to do a quick post about the butterflies I saw there this afternoon.
I’d actually gone over there hoping to find some more dragonflies, but the odonata were scarce on this beautiful but windy day. The butterflies, on the other hand, were plentiful and cooperative. I saw at least a half dozen Monarchs, always a welcome sight considering the declining numbers of this important species in recent years.
This little guy was a new species for me — a Bronze Copper. I first thought he was one of the Blues, since I’d recently seen my first Tailed Blue and this one had very similar patterns on the underwing. But when I saw the other side of the wings, I knew it had to be something else.
This next species kept landing on the boardwalk in front of me, seemingly asking to have his portrait made. So I obliged. This is a Common Buckeye. I love the “eyes” on his wings, and the pretty combination of brown and orange.
And last but not least were several beautiful and elegant Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. And for once, they gave me some great photo opportunities as well!
Did you notice that several of these butterflies are feeding on the same plant? Yep, that’s Swamp Milkweed, which serves as a host plant and/or nectar source for so many species of butterflies. I’ve got to get some of that for my new garden!
I’m heading off to Maine this week for a long-awaited visit to Acadia National Park. I’m going to search for dragonflies and birds that we don’t have here in Ohio, so I hope to have some good photos to share with you when I get back home in a couple weeks.
Before I go, here’s a short video of the grasses blowing in the wind at Irwin Prairie today. I think it looks like ocean waves. What a beautiful day this was!
If you ever find yourself bored at home, I have a suggestion: Go into your yard or garden with a magnifying glass and/or a macro lens on your camera. Get down on the ground and spend some time investigating who’s crawling around among the blades of grass or under the bark of the tree. I guarantee you won’t be bored for long.
A few weeks ago, for example, I noticed this insect stuck in a spider web on the outside of my kitchen window.
I gently freed him, and he immediately spread his wings and gave me this great photo opportunity. This is a type of crane fly, of which there are many hundreds of species in North America alone. My amateur entomologist status doesn’t even begin to qualify me to attempt a more specific identification of this guy…or gal.
Adult crane flies only live a few days, just long enough to pass along their genes to the next generation. They’re completely harmless to humans — they can’t bite and they don’t even eat anything, despite their colloquial nickname of “mosquito eaters.” (Their larvae, on the other hand, can do some damage to your lawn–if you care about such things.)
I was in the yard the other day playing with my macro lens, and I found this common house fly. I watched him for a couple minutes while he fed on something too tiny for me to identify. I took some video, but of course as soon as I turned on the video, he stopped moving. So I got video of a completely motionless fly–aka, a photograph. The joke was on me that time, I guess.
Isn’t it fascinating to see the minute parts of an insect like this? I didn’t even use a tripod for this shot, but you can still see the hairs, the antennae, and the veins in the fly’s wings. By the way, if you really want to have your mind blown by macro photos of insects, I suggest you check out Mark Berkery’s blog.
After the fly flew (haha), I noticed quite a few of these little Boxelder Bug nymphs crawling around on the dying yucca plants. (I’m killing the yuccas on purpose because, well, they’re hideous.) These bugs don’t cause any damage that I’m aware of, and they’re pretty, so they can stay. I really don’t like to kill any insects unless they’re doing major damage that’s going to cost me a significant sum of money. I do make an exception for mosquitoes though. I feel absolutely no remorse after slapping a mosquito on my arm. They. Must. Die.
That being said, I just discovered somebody unwelcome inside my house. Yep, this is a Meal Moth, on my living room wall. Before I figured out what species he was, I was excited because he’s so pretty. But now I have to worry that my pantry might have more of them. I think I need to do some reading about them before I decide if I have a problem or not. But isn’t he pretty? He’s only about 3/4 of an inch across. I’m not sure why, but it seems weird to see him facing downward instead of upward. I don’t suppose it makes that much difference to him whether he’s facing the floor or ceiling, but it feels wrong to me. In fact, I almost rotated this picture before posting it, just so I wouldn’t be bugged by it. But then I realized that sometimes you just have to step away and let nature do what nature wants to do, so I left him upside down. 🙂
This morning I participated in a Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trip to Wiregrass Lake Metropark. I joined this organization months before I moved to Toledo, but this was my first opportunity to join them on a field trip. The purpose of today’s outing was to find dragonflies, but we also looked at birds, butterflies, flowers, and moths.
And I found that I really enjoyed being with a group of people with such varied interests. When we found a wildflower, there was someone who knew exactly what it was and whether it was native or invasive. When we found a moth, someone else knew that one. And quite a few of us knew the birds as well. What a fun and educational morning!
Even without paying much attention to the birds, I recorded 26 species during our walk, including Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-breasted Chat, all singing their beautiful songs.
This is an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas). This adorable little critter was less than an inch across. The identification key to this species are the orange spots on the hindwing, and the little tail spikes.
This is my first photo of a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), and isn’t he a beauty? I call this photo “Green on Green” because of how the greens of the insect contrast nicely with the green foliage in the background. I find it very visually interesting. Can you see the green exclamation mark on his back?
And then we have one of my favorite damselflies, the Violet (Variable) Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacia). First of all, he’s purple! I mean, c’mon, how cool is that? And look at this guy — it looks like he’s taking a drink from a raindrop on the leaf. Seriously, this just makes me smile. (I don’t think they actually drink water like this, but still….)
I photographed another Variable Dancer perched on horsetail (above), an ancient plant that, to me at least, looks like a cross between bamboo and asparagus. It’s a very cool-looking plant, but you do not want it in your garden because it will spread everywhere, and it’s apparently a nightmare to eradicate.
This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemiselisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.
This last one is a photo I took of Wiregrass Lake a couple days ago when the water surface was calm enough to see the reflection of the clouds above. One of these days I’m going to get a kayak out on that lake and spend hours sneaking up on dragonflies….
I wish I could go on a hike like this every week, with a variety of subject-matter experts like we had today. Not only did my brain get what it needed, but my body got sunlight and fresh air, and my soul absorbed the sights and sounds of nature — a Gray Catbird chattering from the edge of the woods, a Green Heron flying high over the lake, a Comet Darner zipping back and forth along the shore as he patrolled his territory, and butterflies feeding on fragrant milkweed flowers. You know you’re getting some serious ecotherapy when you can feel your breathing slow as you turn your face to the sun and feel the gentle breeze across your cheeks. Yep, today reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: Nature Is (definitely) My Therapy.
I can’t imagine ever getting tired of learning new things, can you? There’s something so energizing about the beginning of a new passion, that time when you’ve discovered something that is so fascinating that you just can’t get enough of it. You buy books, you join new clubs or social media groups, and you want to talk about it with everyone you meet.
That’s where I am with odonata right now. In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for a few years. But now I’ve got dragonflies and damselflies on my mind every day. I have insect field guides on my bedside table. I even bought t-shirts with dragonflies on them so I have an excuse to talk to people about them.
This has been a common pattern in my life when I develop a new interest…I put other interests on the back burner for a while (or maybe forever), and I become obsessed with learning as much as I can about the new object of my enthusiasm. My family are used to it, and they just laugh and say, “Here she goes again!” It may make me seem fickle to some, but I don’t care. In my opinion, if you’re not learning, you’re not living. Learning something new is what keeps life interesting for me.
So anyway, at this point in my newfound obsession passion, when I found out that there was going to be an actual dragonfly conference….well, of course I had to go! The Ohio Odonata Society organized this special conference (in conjunction with their annual meeting) as a way to kick off their Ohio Dragonfly Survey. They did their original survey from 1991-2001, and now this new survey will run from 2017 to 2019 to update the data. And we’re all invited to participate as citizen-scientists! (If you’re interested, see the note at the end of this post for info on how to submit your Ohio dragonfly sightings to the database using iNaturalist.)
This is an Eastern Amberwing, a species that looks especially beautiful in the bright sunlight. And I admit I tweaked the color saturation in this photo to make it look a little more golden, just because I like it that way.
So I spent last weekend in the far northeastern corner of Ohio, learning about odonata from the experts. The meeting portion of the event took place at a Nature Conservancy property called the Grand River Conservation Campus, located in Morgan Swamp Preserve. I know a lot of people in birding circles from my many years of birdwatching, but this was something totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know any of the speakers on the schedule for this event, and I wondered if the “bug people” would be friendly to me. I was a bit nervous.
But I needn’t have worried at all! I had two friends who were attending, both of whom are well-known and well-liked naturalists. They both took me under their wings, so to speak, and introduced me around. And everyone was so nice to me….I had a wonderful time talking to them and they seemed genuinely interested in talking to me too.
On Saturday afternoon we all dispersed to various locations for field trips. My trip was for beginners and photographers, and was led by well-known Ohio photographer Ian Adams. Ian took us to Holden Arboretum in Lake County, a place he knows like the back of his hand. He took us around to several ponds on the property, where we saw lots of dragonflies and damselflies. The sun was very harsh that afternoon, so even though the insects were abundant and active, I struggled to get good photos. But as you can see from the pictures in this post, I did manage to get a few keepers.
One of the highlights of the afternoon for all of us were the Comet Darners. First we saw this female ovipositing in one of the ponds. That means she’s depositing her fertilized eggs on the vegetation just under the water’s surface. Little nymphs will hatch from the eggs, and after spending some time as underwater predators, those nymphs will eventually emerge from their exoskeletons as these awesome adult dragonflies.
The more experienced dragon hunters have told me that some people go years without ever seeing a Comet Darner, so this was a very special sighting for all of us. And a short time later we found several more of them, including a beautiful male with his brick red abdomen, who flew repeated tight circles around our group, delighting us all.
After dinner that evening we were treated to a photography talk by Ian, as well as a very interesting talk about the types of dragonfly habitats in Ohio by Jim McCormac. I could have listened to these guys talk for days. Just fascinating people.
Oh, I forgot another highlight: Before dinner that night, someone had found a rare Golden-winged Skimmer on one of the trails behind the conference building at GRCC. So despite being famished after our field trips, we all went traipsing out through the woods to see this special find. I believe they said this was only the 4th sighting of this species in Ohio, so that’s why people were so excited. It reminded me of the way birders all go running off to see a Kirtland’s Warbler, only on a smaller and more relaxed scale.
I’ll finish with some more pictures from this weekend’s adventures, but don’t forget to see the information below about how to participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey if you’re interested.
These two damselflies are in the mating wheel, a position in which the male (above) clasps the female behind her head, while she curls her abdomen under him to retrieve a sperm packet to fertilize her eggs. Later she’ll deposit the eggs on aquatic vegetation, often with the male still holding her behind the head to make sure no other male can get to her before she finishes. Their mating behavior is so interesting to see.
This bullfrog just sat there while dozens of bluets flew all around him. I missed the great shot someone else got when one of them landed on the frog’s back. I was surprised he didn’t make a meal out of any of them, but maybe he was full already.
Remember, if you’re not learning, you’re not living.
How you can participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey: You’ll need an account at iNaturalist.org to submit your sightings. (But it’s free.)Just go to this page for all the details of the project.
This year as I take a break from birding, I’m stepping up my efforts to learn about and photograph odonata. So yesterday I spent the afternoon dragon hunting with a friend who is much more knowledgeable about them than I am. And more skilled at finding them as well. He took me to a place where he knew we could find clubtails, a type of dragonfly I’d never seen before. And sure enough, within a few minutes of arriving, we’d seen multiples of two different species, the Pronghorn Clubtail and the Dusky Clubtail. I didn’t get a good photo of the Dusky, but here’s one I like of the Pronghorn, even though his tail end is out of focus. I like his face.
As we continued walking and chatting, he would casually point out another species over there, and then another one over here, even identifying them as they flew far out over the water. I was impressed with how easily he could name each species, and it was a little bit overwhelming. It reminded me of how I felt the first year I came to Ohio to see the warbler migration — people around me were pointing out one species after another and I could barely look at one before they pointed out another.
But just as it did with warblers, this will just take some time and experience. One of the tricks with learning birds, which I think will work the same with the dragons, is to get very familiar with the common species first. Then it becomes easier to know when you’ve found something different, and you can pay closer attention to it.
And, as with birds, you learn the particular habitats for each species, and the timing of their migrations and/or breeding cycles, and all of that information helps you to figure out what you might see at a given time in a given location.
Unlike birds, there are many species of odonata that can only be identified if you have them in your hand to examine the fine details of their complex bodies. That’s why some people use nets to catch them and see them better. But I don’t see myself doing that, at least at this point. (And you usually need a permit to do that in a park or nature preserve.) So I’ll have to accept the fact that, even if I get excellent photos, I won’t always be able to identify every species I come across. But that’s okay with me. This is something I’m doing for fun, for the simple pleasure of learning new things.
Will I keep a species list? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy being outdoors in the sunshine surrounded by these fascinating creatures. There’s something so refreshing about just being, without the need to record everything I see. Yeah, I think I could get used to this feeling.
By the way, go back up to the top picture of the Calico Pennant–did you notice that the red spots are heart-shaped? I didn’t either, until my friend Donna pointed it out to me. I think this one will now be nicknamed the Love Dragon. 🙂
Note: All of the odonata in this post were photographed on June 6, 2017 in northwest Ohio.
This spring I’ve spent more time than ever before searching for wildflowers around northwest Ohio. I’m a novice at identifying them, but I’m having a blast and am learning new things every day.
One rainy day in April I took a road trip west to visit Goll Woods in Butler County. I’d read that it’s the place to go for spring wildflowers in this corner of the state, so I grabbed my rain jacket and headed into the woods. One thing I always tell people when they look at me like I’m nuts for walking in the rain: “Hey, if you want to have a place almost to yourself, then walk in the rain.” And it was true on this day too, as I only saw two other people there for the two hours I walked.
Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle two cameras, binoculars, and an umbrella, but I made it work. Luckily it wasn’t a heavy rain, so occasionally I could put the umbrella on the ground in order to take some flower photos. I could have left the binoculars in the car, though, because birds were few and far between on this day. I guess I have such a habit of always carrying the binoculars that I didn’t even consider leaving them behind.
There were hundreds and hundreds of White Trillium in bloom, and a few pinkish ones, which I believe are still White Trillium but they turn pink as the flowers age. I’m still investigating this.
After I got accustomed to all the trillium, I was able to begin to look at things that were not trillium. And that’s when I found one of my most-sought-after wildflowers of the day. This is Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d never seen in person before.
They really do look like pairs of pants hung out to dry, don’t they? Apparently there was some controversy in Victorian times about calling them “breeches,” as it was considered rude to refer to clothing that covered the–ahem–lower portion of the body. (A little tidbit I learned from one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders.)
And then I found another surprise, a white variety of Bleeding Hearts:
I later learned from my friend Kelly that these are commonly known as Squirrel Corn. I couldn’t understand where that name came from until she told me that if you dig just below the soil surface, you’ll find little bulblets that look like kernels of corn. I wish I’d known that while I was there so I could have seen them for myself. But here’s a link to Kelly’s blog where she shows you a photo of the “corn” kernels.
Goll Woods has some of the oldest trees in Ohio, with some as much as 400 years old. And trees that live that long tend to get pretty darn big. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter. This one made me think of Ents from Lord of the Rings. (Ents are a race of tree-like creatures…read more here if you like.) My imagination instantly saw that tree as a sleeping Ent who might, at any moment, rise up and tower over me. Fun stuff.
A couple weeks ago I was on my way home from Cleveland and decided to take a slight detour south near Sandusky to visit Castalia Prairie. I wanted to see White Lady’s-slippers for the first time and I was not disappointed. I saw hundreds of them all over the place. I had my macro lens and tripod but wasn’t sure about what the rules were there for going off the trail. To be honest, there was barely a “trail” at all, just a path where I could tell someone else had walked and flattened the grass down. I did my best to get some photos without stepping on anything endangered, and had a great time discovering new things. (And the next morning I made a less-welcome discovery, as a tick had hitched a ride on me…shudder. Reminder to do a tick check immediately, not the next morning. Duh.)
I also found a bunch of these one-inch snail shells scattered around. I didn’t find any evidence of the former inhabitants of the shells though.
It’s funny, I just realized that I’m traveling around to see flowers in much the same way I would normally search for birds. Except the flowers are easier to find and to photograph because they can’t fly away. It’s a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically, and it’s great to be learning about an entirely different part of the ecosystem.
I’m excited to be heading down to Urbana this week to meet a friend and see the Showy Lady’s-slipper orchids at Cedar Bog. And I may also be going up to Ann Arbor to see the magnificent peony garden at Nichols Arboretum. If I could only have one type of flower in my garden for the rest of eternity, it would be peonies. I can almost smell them now….sigh. So stay tuned for more botanical beauties!
The region of northwest Ohio where I live is called the Oak Openings. It’s one of the world’s rarest habitats, a band of sandy soil about five miles wide and 80 miles long, stretching across Ohio and southeastern Michigan. When the last glacier receded from this area 15,000 years ago, it left in its wake a large lake that eventually became present-day Lake Erie. That ancient lake deposited large amounts of sand on top of the clay soil, and this unique combination is what has allowed the formation of a variety of ecosystems, ranging from open oak savannas to wet prairies to sand dunes. The Oak Openings region is home to dozens of rare species of plants and animals. And since I live here now, I want to learn all about it.
What better place to begin my exploration than Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the Toledo Metroparks. We’re in the midst of “Blue Week” here, an annual celebration of the special flora and fauna of the Oak Openings area, particularly those that are blue. The iconic plant associated with Blue Week is the Wild Lupine, which is found in large swaths throughout the metropark right now.
I had seen lupines before, but never in such abundance. I love the gorgeous blue spikes rising above the bright green blanket of leaves. And the circular arrangement of the leaves is really pleasing to my geometry-loving brain.
There’s a tiny endangered butterfly that can only breed in places that have Wild Lupines, and so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them as well. They’re a subspecies of Blue butterfly called the “Karner Blue.” I’d read that they were the size of a nickel, so I had a feeling it would be hard to find them. I was standing out in a sandy path listening to birds when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw fluttering movement. I glanced down to see a tiny blue butterfly flitting among the grasses at the edge of the path.
I wasn’t able to get very good pictures of this guy, and I first thought it was a Karner Blue. But I think it’s actually an Eastern Tailed Blue instead. Another very pretty butterfly, but a disappointment on this particular day.
I wish I’d been able to see a Karner Blue, and maybe I will one day. If you want to read more about why this species is endangered, the US Fish & Wildlife website has some good information. Before I realized this wasn’t a Karner Blue, I had a “connect the dots” moment out there in that windswept sandy prairie, seeing the endangered plant and (I thought at the time) the endangered butterfly that depends on it for survival.
And, as luck would have it, just as I was finishing this article for the blog, I got to do this:
Yes, I got to help the metroparks by transplanting some Wild Lupines from cell packs to 4″ pots. I had volunteered for a day of potting tree seedlings, but when I arrived for my shift they had already finished the trees. I was very disappointed, thinking I’d made the 30-minute drive for nothing. So I asked if there was anything else I could do, and that’s how I ended up spending almost three hours with the lupines.
I found this to be such a satisfying job now that I know how important those plants are to the ecosystem. Each time I popped a tiny plant out of the cell pack, I envisioned it standing tall and blooming on the sand dunes at Oak Openings, providing nourishment for the Karner Blue butterflies that can’t survive without it.
And as if that wasn’t enough for a gratifying experience, they gave me six tiny lupines for my yard! I had mentioned to the greenhouse supervisor that I was considering trying to grow them in my garden, and as I was preparing to wrap up my shift, she made the sweet gesture of offering me a six-pack of baby plants. I was overwhelmed, and cannot wait to find the perfect (sandy) spot in my garden for them.
Speaking of my garden, perhaps in an upcoming post I’ll show you some of the plants that have been blooming here lately. My new yard has been full of surprises!
P.S. I found an interesting bird-related trivia tidbit about the phrase “to have the blues.” It goes back at least as far as 1827, when John Audubon used the phrase in a letter to his wife Lucy.
(Well, maybe a few words…. For the next month or so, I’ll be too busy birding and editing photos to write much, so I’ll just post a selection of pictures a couple times a week to show you what I’ve been seeing. Thus “No Words, Just Birds” — I hope you enjoy these!)