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!

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.)

Widow skimmer by Kim Clair Smith w sig
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!

Falling in Love…with Beetles

Calligrapha bidenticola - Bicolored Leaf Beetle w sig
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.

Pigweed flea beetle collage w sig
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.

Black-shouldered drone fly on dandelion - blog w sig
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.

Red Admiral butterfly on dandelion cropped w sig
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.

Greater bee fly on dandelion with long proboscis w sig
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.

Greater bee fly on dandelion w sig
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

Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog
Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

What’s In a Name?

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

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

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

Dragonfly names word cloud

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

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

Dragonfly names v4 word cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragonhunter at Swanton Reservoir w sig
Dragonhunter!!! 

 

 

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

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

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

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

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

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

Hell hollow creek view

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig
Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

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

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

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

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

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blog v3
Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

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

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

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

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

The Wings That Lifted Me Up

I just had the most extraordinary experience thanks to the kindness of a friend. I’d been feeling down for a few days and was keeping to myself, refusing to socialize with anyone. I knew I just needed some time away from people to get myself re-centered after a couple of bad experiences earlier this week. So I was spending my days with my hands in the soil, transplanting my many native plant seedlings. It was good and fulfilling work, and I could feel myself slowly getting ready to face the world again.

By the way, I read about a study years ago that showed that microbes in soil can actually lift your mood, and my experience seems to back that up.

So anyway, my friend Rick didn’t know I was going through this, but he happened to call today to ask if I wanted to come watch him release his two newly-emerged Giant Swallowtail butterflies. It took me about a half second to say “Yes, of course!” I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Not only did he have those beautiful butterflies to show me, but this would be my first visit to his extensive and award-winning native plant garden. He’s been one of my mentors in my new native gardening project, and so I was just as excited about talking plants with him.

As I arrived at his house, he was standing in the yard holding an aquarium containing the two swallowtails. As I oohed and ahhed over them, he said he had yet another surprise for me. We walked into the back yard and he showed me a freshly-eclosed Hyalophora cecropia, aka Giant Silkworm moth! I almost jumped out of my skin because I’d been dying to see one of these for a long time.

Cecropia moth on Rick's arm - full view from above
Cecropia moth on Rick’s arm

Is that not stunning?! I still can’t believe I finally got to see this species, the largest moth in North America with a 6″ wingspan. And not only that, I was able to let it crawl around on my arm and feel the prickles of its tiny feet! I was rather surprised to notice that as it walked, that gorgeous fat abdomen just dragged along under the wings. I would have expected it to be lifted up. I may need to do some research about that to see if maybe that was just because it was newly-eclosed.

Cecropia moth showing underwings and abdomen pattern
Rick gently lifted the wings so I could get this shot of the gorgeous pattern on the abdomen.

This moth had been in its cocoon all winter long and will live just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation. If you’d like to see photos of the entire life cycle of this fascinating insect, go here.

As with all moths, it had lush comb-like antennae, as shown below. We believe this one is female because the antennae on the males are much larger than those on the female.

Cecropia moth at Rick's house - close crop of antennae

Here’s another Cecropia still in its cocoon:

Cecropia moth cocoon

I sometimes forget to make the distinction between a cocoon and a chrysalis. A butterfly emerges, or ecloses, from a chrysalis. A moth emerges from a cocoon. #ScienceTidbit

Here’s one of the Giant Swallowtails after we placed it on a wafer ash tree in Rick’s yard:

Giant Swallowtail on wafer ash tree w sig

Here’s the chrysalis after the butterfly emerged out of it:

Giant swallowtail chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged - smaller file size

The camouflage is perfect, isn’t it? If I saw that branch in nature, I’d probably not even notice the chrysalis. Here’s a short video of the butterfly resting before making its first flight:

I’m incredibly grateful for the timing of Rick’s call today, and that I was able to spend a couple hours soaking up the beauty of his yard and the knowledge in his native-plant-growing brain. And, of course, I left his house with a few more native plants in my arms.

This is proof that, sometimes, one small gesture can turn your day around. The second I saw those crisp new life forms fluttering their delicate wings, I forgot all about the things in the human world that had made me sad. Once again, nature was my therapy.