Where I live along the western shore of Lake Erie, we don’t have any of the Brood X periodical cicadas that are emerging this year. The Brood X locations are shown in yellow on this map — it looks like the largest concentrations of them are in Indiana, western Ohio, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Even though this map doesn’t show them in Williams County (far northwest corner of the state), I’d heard that they were there and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t make the drive (about an hour and 15 minutes) to experience this infrequent phenomenon of the insect world.
If you haven’t heard of them, they spend 17 years underground in their larval form (longest life cycle of any insect) and then emerge by the millions billions to complete their life cycle as flying insects. The emergence is accompanied by loud and persistent “singing” as the males seek females to mate with. They only live a few weeks after emerging from the ground, just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation of Brood X that will emerge in 2038.
When I arrived in the general target area I stopped to check for dragonflies at one of my regular locations and could already hear the cicadas off in the distance about a mile to the north of me. I felt the adrenaline spike right away, and quickly headed that direction, car windows down despite the extreme heat of the day. I wanted to enjoy the sounds as I got closer and closer.
I stopped on a rural road and stood slack-jawed beside my car as I absorbed the immensity of the experience. But I quickly closed my mouth as I noticed that cicadas don’t seem to have much control over their flight. I’ve heard that they’re tasty snacks, but I wasn’t hungry just then. 😉
I couldn’t access the wooded area where the sounds were coming from, but I could imagine how much louder it would be if I’d been able to be in the middle of a big concentration of them. And I was suddenly glad that they weren’t in my neighborhood, because that incessant droning would probably drive me crazy! Here’s a short video I made so you could hear them:
I wasn’t able to photograph any of them flying, but got some pictures of the ones that landed in the grass or other vegetation. I regret that when one of them smacked hard into my throat, I was so startled that I swatted it off rather than gently picking it off for a closer look. Luckily the cicada seemed fine after it recovered its bearings.
If you have any opportunity to experience the cicadas, I highly recommend it. And in closing, I’ll leave you with this fun song parody written and performed by teacher Eric Chandler last year to mark the emergence of the Brood 9 cicadas. Such a nice way to teach kids (and grownups) about this marvel of the natural world.
Tiger beetles, that is. (Yes, I used “click bait” to get you excited, and I’m not sorry.)
I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for news of my Big Bug Year, but I’m having some difficulties downloading the data I need from iNaturalist. That will come soon enough, but for today I want to introduce you to one special kind of beetle that’s starting to attract a wider fanbase of human admirers lately.
Tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) are a subfamily of the ground beetle family of insects (Carabidae). They’re fast-running beetles with massive, scary jaws. They can run so fast that their vision gets distorted, and they have to stop periodically to reorient themselves as they chase down their prey. This behavior results in their movements being compared to those of shorebirds who run/stop/run/stop. Imagine being an ant and seeing those jaws coming toward you.
Part of the reason there’s more attention on them lately is that my friend Judy Semroc is working on a new book about the tiger beetles of Ohio. I invited Judy to be the speaker at our annual meeting of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association this past week, and our members were enthralled by her talk. She’s one of three co-authors compiling data from around our state for the book, to be published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You’ll remember that Ohio recently finished a three-year survey of our dragonflies, right? (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you definitely read about it multiple times, as I participated quite enthusiastically.)
The Ohio dragonfly survey was lead by a fantastic team of coordinators in each region of the state, and it’s starting to sound like many of those dragon hunters are going to be on the tiger hunting team next summer too. Bug geeks unite! It’s so nice to have something to look forward to these days; this has really lifted my spirits quite a bit.
Anyway, let’s talk tiger beetles now. Like dragonflies, these insects are quite charismatic, and easily observed with very little training once you know where to look. Ohio has 21 recorded species of tiger beetles, with 18 species recorded on iNaturalist. (I’m not sure about the missing three species, but I’m guessing they’re just too rare to be on iNat yet. I know I’ll get the answer to that question and many more when the new book is published.) By the way, there’s a project set up on iNat where you can contribute your own photographs of tiger beetles to help Judy and her fellow researchers make the new book as complete as possible.
As you can see from the photos, they’re quite distinctive insects, with their big eyes, long legs, and often metallic backs. The shell-like coverings on their backs are called elytra, and they protect the membranous wings. Tiger beetles hunt primarily on the ground, but when they fly, those elytra lift up so the flight wings can extend. Many of their elytra are brown or black with cream-colored markings that have their own sort of beauty, but the ones that seem to be crowd-pleasers are those that are bright metallic green or blue or purple. This six-spotted tiger beetle is the most common one in Ohio as well as nationwide.
Tiger beetles live in a variety of habitats including power line cuts, clay banks, and sunny forest patches. Here in the globally-rare Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sandy places, one of the best places to find these pretty beetles. I’ve found them on the beaches of Lake Erie and on sandy paths in many of our metroparks. But even with all the sand in this area, I’ve only photographed six species of tiger beetles so far. That might be because my attention has been laser focused on dragonflies though. Next summer, while I’ll continue my dragonfly chasing and monitoring activities, I’ll also be making a point of trying to find some more species so I can help fill in our statewide distribution map.
I hope you’ll follow me next summer on my quest to find more of these fascinating beetles and learn more about their lives.
By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!
I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far. I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.
I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019. (All but two of those were in Ohio.) And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.
I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected. (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.
As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.
When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.
The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply. Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.
Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.
So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)
I’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects. And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.
So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?
I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.
I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!
In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that thesearenot exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.
Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them. Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.
Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:
I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal. So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.
Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.
Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!
During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:
I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern. In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.
This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)
The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.
This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:
I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.
Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.
Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.
As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes. I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings. On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.
The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.
And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!
That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!
Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest. That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)
Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.
Okay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!
And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.
Earlier this year I was asked by Metroparks Toledo to start a program to monitor the dragonflies and damselflies at one of our local parks. I wrote a little bit about it in this post at the beginning of the summer, but now I’m finishing up the first monitoring season and have some thoughts about the experience.
Just to quickly recap for those who don’t want to click back and read the earlier post, the park system has some concerns about what might be causing a perceived decline in odonata at Wiregrass Metropark. This property is basically a small lake with a half-mile walking trail circling the water, and it’s known as one of the best parks in Toledo for watching odes. (This is where I led the dragonfly walk for Toledo Naturalists Association in June.) But Metroparks wants to gather data to see if there really is a significant decline happening here, and if so, to take action to remediate any negative environmental factors that might be contributing to it.
So we divided the lake into quadrants and I was to visit once in every ten-day period through the summer to do a survey. I counted the numbers of each species that I found in each quadrant, and made note of weather conditions on each count day. I thought I was pretty familiar with this lake from my own visits there to photograph odes in the past couple years, but I have a different relationship with it after visiting so often and watching things change week by week.
As you know, I’m interested in all insects, not just odonata. And I pay attention to plants too, especially noting what’s native and what’s not. My plant knowledge is much more basic than my bug knowledge though. I’ve enjoyed watching not only the changes in insects through the season, but the changing landscape when different plants are in bloom.
Dragonflies don’t have any connections to specific plants in the way that butterflies and moths do. For example, moth and butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are restricted to feeding on specific plants or plant families, so their populations fluctuate with the presence or absence of their host plants. Odes don’t tend to perch on flower heads because they’re not pollinators, but I’m always hoping for those extra nice photo opportunities when they do.
Some things that could impact the populations of odes at this location could be water quality, or the quantity of emergent vegetation around the edges of the lake. Many species of dragonflies lay their eggs in plants that grow in the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will be able to drop down into the water. Dragonflies and damselflies live most of their lives as underwater insects before crawling out of the water and becoming adult winged insects.
The northern half of Wiregrass Lake’s shoreline is pretty heavily vegetated, with the only access being provided by several stone fishing platforms. The southern half is much more open, and Metroparks has placed signs prohibiting shore access on the southern end of the lake, in hopes of protecting the habitat there. This is where I see most of the odes on my surveys, but I can’t be sure if that’s due to the particulars of the habitat or just because it’s the most accessible portion. There could be just as many dragons flying on the north end, but I can’t see the lake up there, except for a few small openings.
Some species are most likely to be seen flying over the water, like the Common Green Darner, Black Saddlebags, and Prince Baskettail. Others are often found on the land, like many of the pennants and meadowhawks. It’s always easier to get photos of them when they’re perched, but sometimes I manage to get in-flight shots of the ones that rarely land. This Prince Baskettail is a species that I’ve never found perched, but since it flies a shoreline patrol pattern that’s fairly predictable, I manage to get decent photos of this one usually.
My survey for the Metroparks doesn’t require that I take photos, but I try to photo-document at least one of each species so I can submit them to the three-year-long Ohio Dragonfly Survey. That statewide effort ends in 2019, so next year I won’t have to spend as much time taking photos and my ode surveys can be done in less time.
That raises another point about what I’ve learned from doing these surveys so far. In the past couple of years, I’ve relied heavily on my photos to help me confirm identifications of many ode species. Sometimes that’s necessary for the species that require up-close viewing of reproductive appendages, so that’s okay. But I found that I’d relied so much on my camera that I wasn’t able to identify many of the small damselflies in the field. As soon as I started these surveys, I realized that was a problem. On my first survey day, I had to take dozens of photos of damselflies, and then come home and sort through them all to confirm my counts. I tagged them all with their quadrant number based on the time stamps on each photo, so I could put them in the correct column of the count sheet after I identified them.
It was tedious, and that was not going to work for an entire summer!
Here’s just a sample of three species of bluets so you can see how similar they are — keep in mind that they’re about the size of a sewing needle. (You should be able to see them larger if you click on the photos.)
So, I immediately went to my field guides and forced myself to learn them better so I could name them in the field and not have to take so many photos. Things went much faster after I did that. You would think that someone doing insect surveys must be a very observant person, but I definitely have my weaknesses in that area. In fact, I wrote about an embarrassing episode of mistaken identify here. I still have to use my camera sometimes to see the detailed marking on the damselflies, but I can usually name them right away now, and don’t have to spend much time at home studying photos.
One other thing I learned is that it’s very difficult to count insects, especially the tiny ones. Sometimes as I move along the trail, I’ll count a Calico Pennant, for example. Then it flies off and I keep walking, and then I see another Calico Pennant land in front of me. Determining if it’s the same one or not is tough sometimes, but I do my best to decide if it could be the one I just saw earlier, or if it’s likely to be a different one. Believe it or not, sometimes I can tell individuals apart by the wear and tear on their wings, so that helps me to avoid double counting. And I’m sure I miss many more than I count, particularly the tiny damselflies that float around in the grass. But I’m hopeful that this survey method will still give us useful data going forward.
I’m so pleased that I’m able to do something worthwhile for Metroparks Toledo, and am also glad that this experience has improved my identification skills. I’m already looking forward to next year, to see how the numbers may be different and whether any new species will show up.
Before you get too far into this, let me just say that this one is more about the story than the photos. There aren’t any stunning pics here, but I hope you’ll enjoy the tale anyway. Okay, here we go.
The other day I went on a day-trip with a friend to look for three specific species of odonata around northeast Ohio. These were all species that are very uncommon in this area, and all three would be lifers for me. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but “lifer” is a term we use for the first time we see a particular species, and it’s something usually celebrated in some fashion, be it a favorite food treat or just a silly “lifer dance” in the woods. The way you celebrate your lifers isn’t important, as long as you do something to commemorate the excitement of the moment.
We had notes about where these species had been seen recently, so we weren’t just blindly searching for them. We left Toledo early on this beautiful-blue-sky-day and arrived in the Amish area of Holmes County by mid-morning. At our first hunting spot we stood on a bridge over a creek on a rural road, scanning the water below for our target, the Smoky Rubyspot (Hetaerina titia). This was the one we thought would be the easiest to find in this very specific spot, but for the first few minutes we couldn’t see anything flying. We didn’t want our day to start with a miss, so we were relieved when a flash of dark color darted past below us. We both went on high alert, and suddenly Rick said, “There it is, on the bare branch down there.”
We both instantly jumped into photo documentation mode, trying to make sure we got shots from multiple angles. Many odonata can’t be pinned down to the species level without views from the top and sides, so it’s always advisable to get dorsal and lateral shots if possible. That usually provides enough documentation, but there are also the frustrating species that can’t be identified unless you’ve got them in the hand to closely examine the reproductive organs. (Yes, meadowhawks, I’m talking about you!)
We did the best we could from our limited vantage point on the bridge, and decided to get right back on the road for the 45-minute drive to our next location near Massillon, Ohio.
We arrived at the designated spot and clambered down a steep bank to the Tuscarawas River, at a shallow area with some rapids, just under a bridge. The quarry here was the Arrow Clubtail (Stylurus spiniceps). I clearly hadn’t done enough research in preparation for this one, because my impulse was to start scanning the rock-covered shores as I normally do for clubtails (remember my last post about hunting the Flag-tailed Spinyleg from my kayak?). Rick gently informed me that, since the Arrow is one of the Stylurus clubtails, it would be more likely to be seen hanging in the trees than resting on the rocks. That’s why it pays to hang out with someone more experienced — I always learn something that helps me improve my own skills.
After standing around for a half hour or so, we almost gave up on this one. But then we started seeing some kind of dragonfly cruising low over the surface of the river, very fast and in an unpredictable pattern. It was moving in and out of shady areas, making it tough to get any photos to begin to nail down the identification. But as usual, we both clicked off as many shots as we could each time it went past us. It’s a frustrating process that usually results in lots of photos of blurry water or leaves. But persistence pays off, and we ended up with what we needed. These are still blurry, but good enough to identify this species.
That was a more satisfying experience than finding the Smoky Rubyspot, because we had to spend time watching and waiting, and take a couple hundred photos just to get good enough shots. But if I thought that was satisfying, well, I had no idea what was to come on our third stop.
After a brief lunch in the car, we headed north to Geauga County. Our goal there was Laura’s Clubtail (Stylurus laurae). This is a very uncommon species in Ohio, and we’d been to this same location last year and spent two hours looking for one with no luck. Our attempt last year was prompted by a report from Linda Gilbert and Jim Lemon, who had finally found a Laura’s there in September of 2018 — after Linda had spent 15 years looking for them!
After our disappointment last year, I really wanted to find one. Linda had found one trapped in the window netting at the nature center a week or so earlier, but hadn’t yet seen one flying this year. Of our three targets for the day, this was the one I thought least likely to be found. But after our good luck earlier in the day, I was cautiously optimistic. We walked through the woods to a wooden footbridge that crossed a narrow sandy stream. This spot has heavy vegetation on both sides of the bridge, leaving only about 30 feet of open space where we could possibly see a clubtail flying before it would disappear into the woods. So conditions were tough — limited field of view, with blinding sunlight in one direction and dark shade in the other. Our eyes took a beating as we watched and waited for more than an hour. We were tired after driving for hours. We got momentarily excited when we saw a dragon fly under the bridge, but it turned out to be a Fawn Darner. Not that the Fawn isn’t cool too, but we wanted Laura’s. And we couldn’t even get a photo of the Fawn because it kept flying quickly under the bridge below our feet, then disappearing.
I was almost ready to suggest that we give up, but I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits. I later found out that Rick was feeling the same way. Neither of us wanted to be the quitter! It’s a good thing we both felt that way, because that’s the reason I decided to “kill time” by continuing to scan all the leaves that were hanging down low over the water.
And that’s how I found a beautiful male Laura’s Clubtail, just sitting there on a leaf about a foot above the water’s surface. He was in deep shade and facing away from us, and we had to struggle to find a way to get photos of him from the bridge. We did the best we could as he flew a few sorties from his leaf to grab invisible insects from the air, returning to the same leaf each time.
Then he flew away. We panicked, not sure if we’d gotten good enough shots to confirm the identity. Then he reappeared on the sunny side of the bridge in much better light, and we started clicking the shutters again. As we continued to try and get the best photos possible, we kept laughing and saying how we couldn’t believe we’d actually found it. I’m still smiling as I write this, thinking back to that moment when we realized it was right in front of us. That’s good stuff.
We got one last obstructed look at him as he flew to a branch above us and peered down at us with those gorgeous eyes. And then he was gone.
We got back to Toledo just after sunset and congratulated ourselves on a successful mission. Oh, I almost forgot — we celebrated our lifer Laura’s Clubtail very simply, with high fives and huge smiles. (Well, I might have also eaten some chocolate when we got back to the car….) And I’ve written this account of the day so I’ll have an easy way to recall the excitement for years to come.
You might wonder who ‘Laura’ is, and why this bug is named after her. A quick search indicated that it was named in honor of Laura Ditzler, a member of the group that first identified this species in 1931. I’m pretty sure it’s a rare thing for a species to be named for a woman, so perhaps I should dig into that a bit more at some point. Maybe a project for the winter…when the bugs aren’t flying to distract me.
(By the way, if you’re disappointed by the lack of ‘pretty’ photos in this post, you’ll be much happier with what’s coming next. Trust me…I’ve been having cool some adventures.)
Experienced hunters understand that they’ll have more success if they take the time to learn about the lives of their target species. Someone hunting deer or rabbit needs to know the needs and habits of those animals in order to track them down: Where do they eat? Where do they go for water? Where do they sleep?
And so it is with hunting dragonflies. Of course I’m not hunting them to kill them, but I do need to be stealthy in order to shoot them with my camera. After all, these are insects with a field of vision very close to 360 degrees. so they’ll always see you coming. Your best chances of getting close to them are when they’re so preoccupied with eating or mating that they don’t pay as much attention to you as they normally would.
Right now seems to be peak flight time for Flag-tailed Spinylegs, one of my favorites in the clubtail family. As their name indicates, clubtails are distinguished, in part, by the enlarged sections at the end of their abdomen. The width of the “club” varies among the species, from barely noticeable to knock-your-socks-off-and-pop-your-eyes-out-noticeable. Just for reference, I’ve shown you two species that don’t have large clubs: a Lilypad Clubtail above, and an Eastern Least Clubtail below.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are species like the Skillet Clubtail and Cobra Clubtail, with massively enlarged clubs. I’ve not seen either of those two species yet, so until I find one of them, the most impressive clubtail I’ve found has been the Flag-tailed Spinyleg.
Clubtails tend to rest on the ground rather than on vegetation like some other dragonfly families. They often use large rocks as hunting perches, and one of the best ways to find them is to search the surface of each and every rock along the edge of a body of water. It’s not really that difficult to track them down, but there’s a slight problem in getting photos of them. You see, since their prey consists of insects flying over the water, they tend to perch with their faces turned toward the water — and away from me standing on the shore. And so that has meant that it’s been hard for me to get photos of their beautiful faces.
But I’ve got a new strategy. I’m hunting them from a kayak now, so I have a better chance of seeing those stunning blue and green eyes as they sit on the shore watching the water. Pretty smart, huh? It’s not a perfect system though, because I’m on the water and constantly moving, therefore making it even harder to hold steady for a sharp photo. But it’s fun to keep trying, and to see how close they’ll let me get as I slowly drift toward them from the water instead of walking up behind them from the land. Being in a kayak gives me a lower, less-threatening profile too.
I recently discovered a large quarry lake and have been having a ball kayaking around the perimeter hunting for Flag-tailed Spinylegs. The video above gives you an idea of what it’s like to hunt them. You may notice something fly quickly from left to right in the last few seconds of the video — that’s one of the spinylegs. And that’s the reason the video stopped at that point, so I could turn around and photograph him.
The other day I spent three hours out there and saw at least a dozen spinylegs. It was windy though, and often my kayak would be pushed in the opposite direction from the dragonfly I was trying to photograph. It was quite the challenge! Luckily there are some little coves around the lake, so I tucked my boat into those and got some shelter from the wind. A couple times my kayak drifted so close to the odes that it was too close for my lens to shoot them. When that happened I just took the opportunity to sit quietly and watch them up close for as long as they would allow me.
So you know where they got the “flag-tailed” part of their name, but what about the “spinyleg” part? I think this photo explains that pretty well. Wouldn’t it be easy if everything had such a perfectly descriptive name? I had some fun writing about ode names last summer, in a post titled, “What’s in a Name?” I hope you’ll check that one out if you missed it the first time.
Limestone quarry lakes have the most beautiful, clear water. The limestone leaches calcite crystals into the water, turning it an incredible blue. As I drifted lazily along gazing into that azure water, I could almost believe I was in the Caribbean instead of in rural northwest Ohio.
This quarry has several miles of shoreline to explore, so I expect to have many more hours of enjoyment out there. And it seems to be a well-kept secret because I’ve only seen a couple other people on my first couple of visits. There aren’t many places left in this world where you can get space from other people, so I’m thrilled to find this spot close to home. I just wish I’d discovered it earlier in the summer when there were more dragonfly species flying. But that just gives me a reason to anticipate getting back out there next spring.
Writing that sentence made me sigh as I thought about how close we are to the end of summer. It seemed to take forever to get through the rainy spring this year, and once we finally got into summer, it seemed to fly by so quickly. I can’t believe it’s going to be time to pull out sweaters and jeans soon. I love autumn, but I’m so not ready for it yet!
I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water. I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!
And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them. I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.
But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.
It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.
I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.
Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.
By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations. But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.
These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.” As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.
As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors. Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.
Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice. I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.
Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.
So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust. Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.
I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it. Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.
I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.
I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:
REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES
This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.
So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.
I spent last Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, attending a spring wildflower symposium. After the day’s events concluded, I spent a couple hours photographing wildflowers in the area. Dayton is about 150 miles south of Toledo, and so things bloom earlier down there. It’s always so hard to wait for things to bloom up here when I start seeing pictures from more southern parts of the state. But down there I got my first looks at this year’s Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches, and that got me excited about getting out to see what might be blooming up here in the northern part of the state.
So a few days ago I drove west to Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a remnant of the black swamp forest that once covered much of northwest Ohio. Not only does Goll Woods have oaks and cottonwoods that are 200-400 years old, but it contains a magnificent cornucopia of spring wildflowers as well.
I was disappointed at first, when I couldn’t find anything blooming in the first few minutes of my walk. But as I slowed down and looked closer, I began to find single early blooms here and there. I figured I might not get the photos I’d hoped for, but then again, this was a good opportunity to study the leaves of the soon-to-bloom wildflowers and learn to identify them before the flowers appear.
It was easy to identify trout lilies by their fish-inspired leaf patterns:
Last year I photographed a huge swath of trout lilies, shown here:
And I had just learned about waterleaf on Saturday, so it was another easy one to identify. It looks like there’s water spattered on the leaves, doesn’t it?
Another flower I just learned about is this one, harbinger-of-spring, also known as salt-and-pepper, for obvious reasons. It’s very tiny, only a couple inches tall.
I soon found little clumps of spring beauties and hepatica, and then a few larger clusters at the bases of trees or next to decaying logs. Hepatica is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and maybe it’s able to survive the cooler temps of late winter and early spring with help from its hairy stems and leaves. I’ve sometimes found this flower by gently moving aside decaying leaf litter in March to find it tucked underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth from its winter protection and reach for the sun.
I found a small patch of bloodwort in full bloom but the bright sunlight made it hard to get a nice photo, so here’s a single alabaster bloom:
All of these flowers are known as spring ephemerals, flowers that arise from the leaf litter early in spring, taking advantage of the sun before the trees get their leaves to shade them out. They bloom and then retreat back into the ground to await their next performance the following spring.
Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate things that are only around briefly? I’m thinking of the fall colors on trees, or cherry blossoms, or warblers during spring migration, and of course, spring wildflowers. And conversely, we take for granted those that are around more often. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of the time I was chatting with some birders from California who had traveled to Ohio for the spring migration. They were excitedly telling me about the cardinals they’d seen, and it renewed my appreciation for this common yet stunningly beautiful bird that lives in my backyard all year long.
And speaking of getting excited…I am geeking out over something insect-related right now. At Goll Woods I saw my first hoverflies (aka flower flies) of the year. They were plentiful but the only species I was able to photograph was Helophilus fasciatus, the narrow-headed sunfly. Isn’t he lovely?
Last fall I wrote a post about my budding obsession with these tiny but important pollinator flies that are sometimes mistaken for bees. (You can go back to that post for some background and prettier photos.)
As I was googling around to confirm my identification and refresh my memory from last year, I stumbled upon this new book. Several months ago someone told me this book was going to be published soon, but I’d totally forgotten about it. I just pre-ordered it and it’ll be here in a few short weeks, and I’ll finally have a resource to help me identify these little cuties. I’m trying hard to restrain my excitement as I write this, but I am oh so geeked right now!
P.S. You can be sure there’s going to be more talk of hoverflies here in the very near future.
Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.
I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)
And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.
Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.
This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:
Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!” Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.
Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.
If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.
Here’s another exuvia I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.
I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)
According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival. I think I can make it. In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!