It’s amazing how quickly things can change at this time of year. For example, I wrote this opening paragraph for a draft post yesterday:
It’s mid-May and I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of my favorite insects, the dragonflies and damselflies. At this point I’ve still only found common green darners, but the next couple weeks should bring us at least a dozen more species as we kick off this summer’s dragonfly season. Knowing that any day might be “the day,” I keep going out looking for odes. That’s how I happened to stumble, almost literally, onto a really rare photo opportunity the other day.
So I wrote a bit more on that draft post and left it to be finished later. And then I went out today and found three more ode species! Today was, in fact, finally “the day”!! But back to the story of the rare photo opportunity I stumbled upon:
Darners are large, fast-flying dragonflies, and so anytime I find one perched is exciting. I nearly stepped on this one, and was surprised when he didn’t fly away instantly. Often when they’re newly-emerged adults (teneral), they’ll sit still like this as they’re waiting for their wings to harden, but this one didn’t look teneral to me. I always try to approach them from directly behind when possible, because that’s the only place they can’t see me coming (they have a field of view that’s nearly 360 degrees with those big compound eyes). But even so, this one stayed put long enough for me to start shooting pictures from almost directly above.
And then THIS happened! The little pearl crescent butterfly landed on top of the dragon’s wing and sat there for maybe ten seconds. All I could think was that it’s always best to be behind the dragonfly’s mouth if you’re a butterfly.
I held my breath and kept shooting, and even took five seconds of video before the butterfly flew away. I figured somebody might not believe this really happened, so I wanted proof that I didn’t Photoshop it!
My gosh, that was so exciting, I still smile about it when I think of how I felt in the moment!
Then today I was back at this same location and was treated to another lovely view of this very common butterfly. These pearl crescents are so ubiquitous that I usually stop taking pictures of them rather early in the season as I have so many already. But this one landed briefly in a field of little bluestem, and I couldn’t resist making another image.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is such a great native grass, and this particular Nature Conservancy parcel is loaded with it. Little bluestem’s big brother is, not surprisingly, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). While both are gorgeous prairie grasses, I’m partial to the little one that only gets about four feet tall. I find it particularly gorgeous in late fall and through the winter, when the dry stalks are a warm brown that glows in the sunlight. I’ve tried many times to photograph it, but have never been satisfied with what the camera captures.
Here’s a short video clip I made in March, as the grasses were swaying in the wind. There wasn’t much sun shining on this day, but it’s still very pretty.
I hope you enjoyed meeting some of the plants and animals from one of my favorite places. Most people who drive past this former-agricultural-field-now-restoration-project would think it’s just a “weedy field,” and not give it a second thought. But I love traipsing around out there, because you just never know what’s next to discover as the long-dormant native plants begin to stir from the seed bank, and new animals come to make their homes among them.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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:
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:
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
My 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.
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.
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.)
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.
So 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.
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!
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!
And 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.
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
As 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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be misled by that title. But if you’re new around here and are expecting photos of people swimming…well, sorry about that.
I did spend a couple hours at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie yesterday, but I was hunting for insects to photograph. Just prior to this solo outing, I had spent a day with a friend who’s an expert botanist and photographer, and he gave me lots of tips that reinvigorated my interest in learning to use my camera better. So this time I wanted to go out on my own to see what kind of results I could get.
All the photos in this post were taken in an area about 50 yards wide, less than 30 yards from the lake edge. I barely had to move at all to discover a whole world at my feet.
Armed with my new secret power — finding the insects by examining their food plants — I planned to start by investigating a small stand of young Staghorn Sumacs. But as I walked toward them, I almost walked right into this:
It’s a Common Green Darner resting on a dead milkweed stem. I think it’s a teneral stage, meaning that it’s in the first day of life since it emerged from its exuvia. When they first emerge, they have to give their wings time to “inflate” before they can perform the aerial maneuvers for which they’re known. This relative immobility made it easy for me to kneel very close to it and take a few shots with my 100mm macro lens. Notice that “bullseye” mark on the front of the head? I love that. Here’s a closer view of that part:
After I backed up from the dragonfly, I immediately noticed a couple caterpillars feeding on the sumac. I took some photos of them and then noticed that there were at least a dozen of this same species of caterpillar feeding all around me.
These are the larvae of the Spotted Datana moth (Datana perspicua), and sumac is one of their primary food plants. See how this works? You find their food source and you find the insects. See, I told you it was a secret power.
And by the way, my favorite field guide for caterpillars is Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner. It includes an index to the plants as well as the insects, so you can look up a plant and see which caterpillars use it as a food source. And even if you aren’t going to go hunting for caterpillars, you can have your mind blown just by flipping through this book to see the incredible variety of camouflage techniques and other defensive adaptations that have evolved in these critters.
I watched the cats for a while, hoping to see one of them begin to pupate into its chrysalis form. I saw one begin to dangle from a fine filament and curl up into a ring shape, and I quickly set up to shoot some video. But I got about two seconds of video before he dropped to the ground. Disappointed, I went looking for another possible target. I saw another one drop to the ground, and this time I continued watching it. Some caterpillars burrow into the ground instead of making a hanging chrysalis on a plant. And sure enough, this guy began digging into the soil beneath the sumacs and within about 90 seconds he was gone.
It’s incredible how much more you can learn when you spend more time watching them go about their lives, rather than just shooting a few photos and going in search of something else. I must have spent a half hour watching the Datanas on those sumacs, and it was hard to pull myself away from them.
But eventually I wandered slowly along the sandy path and found quite a few more interesting specimens.
Then I saw this female Field Cricket who was missing one of her rear legs. When she didn’t hop away, I realized she was dead. But a dead insect is much easier to photograph, so there’s that, I guess. I found a few more dead crickets near her, so I’m not sure what happened there. Some sort of cricket apocalypse, I guess.
As I walked on the beach next to the water, I spotted this small and fast-moving character, who turns out to be a Webworm Moth larva.
You may have seen these critters living in big groups in large webby “tents” that cover the ends of tree branches. They make the tree look messy, but from what I’ve read, they aren’t generally a severe threat to the health of the tree.
I went back to the sumacs once more and took a video of one of the Datanas eating leaves (that video is at the bottom of this post). But while there, I heard a katydid singing from inside the sumacs. I believe most katydids are nocturnal singers, but this species is a daytime singer. Meet the cutest little katydid you’ll ever see:
He sat still for me for about five seconds, and then he quickly hid behind a thick stem. I kept trying to get as close as possible for photos, and he would peek around one side of the stem, see me, then move to the other side. We played a little game of peek-a-boo for a minute or so, and then I backed off and left him in peace.
I also like how these photos show the hairs on the young stems of the sumac that gave it the name Staghorn, because of the resemblance to a deer’s antlers when they’re covered in velvet.
There were lots of interesting creatures out and about on the beach that day, and I had a fantastic time playing detective in the sand. And I’m really happy with the results I’m getting with my photography now too. I can’t wait to get back out there!
Oh, before I go, here’s the video of the Spotted Datana eating a sumac leaf:
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.