Insects as Art

It’s obvious that I’ve developed quite the obsession with insects, right? I was talking to a friend the other day about how often people respond to my insect posts on social media with comments like, “Gross!” or “Bugs are disgusting!”  She told me that her sister works in costume design and whenever they need to create a costume that’s scary, they look to insects for inspiration. Just think about the creatures in the Alien movies and you’ll see that idea put to good use.

If you want to read a little about the science behind why so many of us fear bugs, go here. But I wanted to do my part to show my favorite insects in a way that you can appreciate them, even if you generally don’t like insects. So I’ve been making an effort to take photos of them in pretty settings instead of always cropping them closely to show the details of their beautiful bodies. So I present to you some of my favorite dragonfly photos from recent weeks. Enjoy.

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant
Halloween Pennant
Halloween Pennant
Twelve-spotted skimmer
Twelve-spotted Skimmer
Blue Dasher w sig
Blue Dasher obelisking to keep cool
Widow skimmer
Widow Skimmer
Eastern amberwing
Eastern Amberwing, like a golden ballerina

Elves and Sprites: More Dragon-Hunting Gems

Elfin Skimmer for blog
The tiny Elfin Skimmer male ( Nannothemis bella), less than an inch long!

As I said in my last post, my friend Ryan and I finished out the weekend after the dragonfly conference by spending Sunday visiting several spots in search of some more species of dragon- and damselflies. We went to Cedar Bog first and found Elfin Skimmers, Eastern Red Damsels, Paiute Dancers, and Seepage Dancers, all very cool species to see.

Elfin Skimmer female for blog
The female Elfin Skimmer looks almost like a wasp

I’d seen my first of the teeny tiny Elfin Skimmers (Nannothemis bella) at Cedar Bog a few weeks ago, but only saw the males that time. These are the smallest dragonflies in North America, easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for and where to look. The males are gorgeous, but this time I really wanted to see the females too, as I was told they could be confused for bees if you’re not paying attention. We saw at least five male Elfin Skimmers and I was just about to give up on the females when one landed right in front of me and I was able to get a couple quick photos.

And, as luck would have it, someone in one of my odonata groups just posted a photo of this species alongside our largest dragonfly, the Dragonhunter, for a very impressive size comparison. Thanks to Derek Bridgehouse for giving me permission to show you his photo, taken in Nova Scotia.

Dragonhunter and Elfin Skimmer comparison by Derek Bridgehouse with permission
Dragonhunter, above, and Elfin Skimmer female, below. Wowie!

Our next species, the Paiute Dancer, has an interesting story. A few weeks ago one of them was discovered in Ohio by Jim Lemon, but not at first recognized as a Paiute Dancer. It took some discussion and consulting with a variety of people before someone realized what it was…and then the excitement grew! Prior to this sighting, the easternmost records of this species were in Iowa and Missouri, so this is a significant range expansion.

Paiute Dancer for blog
Paiute Dancer (Argia alberta), only recently discovered in Ohio

But the more interesting part of the story is that since Jim discovered the Paiute at one location, he found more at Cedar Bog, and then discovered that he has taken photos of this species at that location all the way back to 2015 but didn’t realize what he had. And now that we all know it’s here, we look more closely in the field and at our photos later. So because of this interesting story, I was thrilled to find my first Paiute at Cedar Bog on Sunday.

I suspect lots of ode hunters are combing through their unidentified damselfly pictures to see if they have pictures of this species languishing in a file named “To be identified.”

On my last trip to Cedar Bog I’d seen my lifer Gray Petaltail but wasn’t able to get a photo of it as it flew tight circles around me before zooming far up into the trees. So this time I wanted to find it again so Ryan could see it, and we both wanted to photograph it. But after two hours of searching, we came up empty and reluctantly left for our next destination.

Sphagnum sprite LIFER for blog
Sphagnum Sprite (Nehalennia gracilis), like a needle floating around in the grass

A bit disappointed, we drove to Kiser Lake State Park just to see what we could turn up there. We weren’t having much luck at first, but we suddenly struck gold when Ryan spotted the itsy bitsy teeny tiny Sphagnum Sprites. These guys are also less than an inch long, but the Elfin Skimmer can be a bit smaller than even these guys, believe it or not.

We took as many pics of them as we could and moved on. We’d begun checking the time, thinking we’d need to move along to our next target location when suddenly something big flew past Ryan’s head and we both gasped as it landed on a tree trunk about 30 feet in front of us. Gray Petaltail!!

Gray Petaltail w sig
Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi)

When I say “big,” I mean about three inches, making it one of the largest dragonflies in this part of the country. We were both transfixed as we watched this perfectly camouflaged insect repeatedly fly out to grab insects and then come back to rest on the tree. If you took your eyes off of him it was hard to find him again because he blended in so well with the bark. At one point we could see him eating something that might have been another dragonfly. And we saw him try to grab a fritillary butterfly too, but he missed that one.

I just learned an interesting fact about this species: Most dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects, but the larvae of the Gray Petaltail are semi-terrestrial, feeding on land insects and spiders. Here’s another view showing just how well his camouflage works against the tree bark.

Gray Petaltail camoflage with arrow
Another view of the Gray Petaltail showing his perfect camouflage

After getting our fill of the petaltail, we headed to our final destination for the day, where we hoped to find the Jade Clubtail. This is another species just discovered in Ohio about ten days earlier, again by Jim Lemon. At Odo-Con, Jim had given us directions to the spot where he’d seen it, including the exact buoy it had perched on. And Rick had been there watching them while Ryan and I were at Cedar Bog and Kiser Lake, so when we arrived he’d already done the hard work for us.

Rick and Ryan photographing Jade Clubtail - for blog
Rick and Ryan shooting photos of the Jade Clubtail

We walked along the shore scanning the rocks where Rick had seen a couple of them earlier. He said he hadn’t been able to get very close to them because they were very wary, so we were all surprised when we quickly found one and were able to get within a few feet of it for photos. It might have been just because it was later in the heat of the day and it was tired and too hot to keep moving, I’m not sure. But we felt like we had brought a little bit of luck with us, and we took turns stepping down into the edge of the lake to get photos of the insect’s face as it perched facing the water every time.

Jade Clubtail LIFER nice face shot for blog
Jade Clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), a new species for Ohio
Jade Clubtail LIFER obelisking for blog
Jade Clubtail in the obelisk position on a hot day

As I mentioned, it was a pretty hot day and so the dragonfly did what dragonflies do on a hot day: assume the obelisk position. This is a posture that points the abdomen tip toward the sun to minimize the surface area receiving direct rays, which apparently works well to help them moderate body temperature as they sit on hot rocks along the water’s edge. I took my turn stepping down into the water for photos too, and appreciated the opportunity to feel the cool water on my feet for a moment.

Me taking photo of Jade Clubtail - by Rick Nirschl for blog

This was such a satisfying and fun weekend, with great friends and great odes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover next!

Amateur Backyard Entomology

Crane Fly stuck in spider web on screen - my yard
Stuck to a spider web….temporarily

If you ever find yourself bored at home, I have a suggestion: Go into your yard or garden with a magnifying glass and/or a macro lens on your camera. Get down on the ground and spend some time investigating who’s crawling around among the blades of grass or under the bark of the tree. I guarantee you won’t be bored for long.

A few weeks ago, for example, I noticed this insect stuck in a spider web on the outside of my kitchen window.

I gently freed him, and he immediately spread his wings and gave me this great photo opportunity. This is a type of crane fly, of which there are many hundreds of species in North America alone. My amateur entomologist status doesn’t even begin to qualify me to attempt a more specific identification of this guy…or gal.

Crane Fly on my window - after I released him from spider web resized w sig

Adult crane flies only live a few days, just long enough to pass along their genes to the next generation. They’re completely harmless to humans — they can’t bite and they don’t even eat anything, despite their colloquial nickname of “mosquito eaters.” (Their larvae, on the other hand, can do some damage to your lawn–if you care about such things.)

I was in the yard the other day playing with my macro lens, and I found this common house fly. I watched him for a couple minutes while he fed on something too tiny for me to identify. I took some video, but of course as soon as I turned on the video, he stopped moving. So I got video of a completely motionless fly–aka, a photograph. The joke was on me that time, I guess.

House Fly in my garden v2 w sig

Isn’t it fascinating to see the minute parts of an insect like this? I didn’t even use a tripod for this shot, but you can still see the hairs, the antennae, and the veins in the fly’s wings. By the way, if you really want to have your mind blown by macro photos of insects, I suggest you check out Mark Berkery’s blog.

Box Elder Bug nymph (Boisea trivittata) w sig

After the fly flew (haha), I noticed quite a few of these little Boxelder Bug nymphs crawling around on the dying yucca plants. (I’m killing the yuccas on purpose because, well, they’re hideous.) These bugs don’t cause any damage that I’m aware of, and they’re pretty, so they can stay. I really don’t like to kill any insects unless they’re doing major damage that’s going to cost me a significant sum of money.  I do make an exception for mosquitoes though. I feel absolutely no remorse after slapping a mosquito on my arm. They. Must. Die.

Meal moth - in my house - uh oh - w sig

That being said, I just discovered somebody unwelcome inside my house. Yep, this is a Meal Moth, on my living room wall. Before I figured out what species he was, I was excited because he’s so pretty. But now I have to worry that my pantry might have more of them. I think I need to do some reading about them before I decide if I have a problem or not. But isn’t he pretty? He’s only about 3/4 of an inch across. I’m not sure why, but it seems weird to see him facing downward instead of upward. I don’t suppose it makes that much difference to him whether he’s facing the floor or ceiling, but it feels wrong to me. In fact, I almost rotated this picture before posting it, just so I wouldn’t be bugged by it. But then I realized that sometimes you just have to step away and let nature do what nature wants to do, so I left him upside down. 🙂

Ladybug pupa - not larva
Lady beetle pupa — it will grow up to eat many aphids in my garden. 🙂

Dragonfly School – Odo-Con ’17

Kim holding Swamp Darner at Odo Con 2017 (480x640)
Me holding a Swamp Darner, such a beautiful dragonfly

I can’t imagine ever getting tired of learning new things, can you? There’s something so energizing about the beginning of a new passion, that time when you’ve discovered something that is so fascinating that you just can’t get enough of it. You buy books, you join new clubs or social media groups, and you want to talk about it with everyone you meet.

That’s where I am with odonata right now.  In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for a few years. But now I’ve got dragonflies and damselflies on my mind every day. I have insect field guides on my bedside table. I even bought t-shirts with dragonflies on them so I have an excuse to talk to people about them.

This has been a common pattern in my life when I develop a new interest…I put other interests on the back burner for a while (or maybe forever), and I become obsessed with learning as much as I can about the new object of my enthusiasm. My family are used to it, and they just laugh and say, “Here she goes again!”  It may make me seem fickle to some, but I don’t care. In my opinion, if you’re not learning, you’re not living. Learning something new is what keeps life interesting for me.

So anyway, at this point in my newfound obsession passion, when I found out that there was going to be an actual dragonfly conference….well, of course I had to go! The Ohio Odonata Society organized this special conference (in conjunction with their annual meeting) as a way to kick off their Ohio Dragonfly Survey. They did their original survey from 1991-2001, and now this new survey will run from 2017 to 2019 to update the data. And we’re all invited to participate as citizen-scientists! (If you’re interested, see the note at the end of this post for info on how to submit your Ohio dragonfly sightings to the database using iNaturalist.)

Eastern Amberwing edited saturation (640x567)
Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

This is an Eastern Amberwing, a species that looks especially beautiful in the bright sunlight. And I admit I tweaked the color saturation in this photo to make it look a little more golden, just because I like it that way.

So I spent last weekend in the far northeastern corner of Ohio, learning about odonata from the experts. The meeting portion of the event took place at a Nature Conservancy property called the Grand River Conservation Campus, located in Morgan Swamp Preserve. I know a lot of people in birding circles from my many years of birdwatching, but this was something totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know any of the speakers on the schedule for this event, and I wondered if the “bug people” would be friendly to me. I was a bit nervous.

But I needn’t have worried at all! I had two friends who were attending, both of whom are well-known and well-liked naturalists. They both took me under their wings, so to speak, and introduced me around. And everyone was so nice to me….I had a wonderful time talking to them and they seemed genuinely interested in talking to me too.

On Saturday afternoon we all dispersed to various locations for field trips. My trip was for beginners and photographers, and was led by well-known Ohio photographer Ian Adams. Ian took us to Holden Arboretum in Lake County, a place he knows like the back of his hand. He took us around to several ponds on the property, where we saw lots of dragonflies and damselflies. The sun was very harsh that afternoon, so even though the insects were abundant and active, I struggled to get good photos. But as you can see from the pictures in this post, I did manage to get a few keepers.

Comet Darner female ovipositing v2 (612x640)
Comet Darner (Anax longipes), ovipositing

One of the highlights of the afternoon for all of us were the Comet Darners. First we saw this female ovipositing in one of the ponds. That means she’s depositing her fertilized eggs on the vegetation just under the water’s surface. Little nymphs will hatch from the eggs, and after spending some time as underwater predators, those nymphs will eventually emerge from their exoskeletons as these awesome adult dragonflies.

The more experienced dragon hunters have told me that some people go years without ever seeing a Comet Darner, so this was a very special sighting for all of us. And a short time later we found several more of them, including a beautiful male with his brick red abdomen, who flew repeated tight circles around our group, delighting us all.

After dinner that evening we were treated to a photography talk by Ian, as well as a very interesting talk about the types of dragonfly habitats in Ohio by Jim McCormac. I could have listened to these guys talk for days. Just fascinating people.

Golden-winged Skimmer (640x477)
Golden-winged Skimmer (Libellula auripennis), a rarity in Ohio

Oh, I forgot another highlight: Before dinner that night, someone had found a rare Golden-winged Skimmer on one of the trails behind the conference building at GRCC.  So despite being famished after our field trips, we all went traipsing out through the woods to see this special find. I believe they said this was only the 4th sighting of this species in Ohio, so that’s why people were so excited. It reminded me of the way birders all go running off to see a Kirtland’s Warbler, only on a smaller and more relaxed scale.

I’ll finish with some more pictures from this weekend’s adventures, but don’t forget to see the information below about how to participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey if you’re interested.

Orange Bluet v2 (640x285)
Orange Bluet (Enallagma signatum), a damselfly
Slaty Skimmer dorsal view (640x555)

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), dragonfly
Spreadwings to ID v2 (640x608)
Two spreadwing damselflies, unidentified so far
Pickerelweed - Pontederia cordata - native to Ohio (1) (640x427)
Pickerelweed at Holden Arboretum
Damsels in mating wheel - to ID (640x539)
Azure Bluets (Enallagma aspersum) in mating wheel

These two damselflies are in the mating wheel, a position in which the male (above) clasps the female behind her head, while she curls her abdomen under him to retrieve a sperm packet to fertilize her eggs. Later she’ll deposit the eggs on aquatic vegetation, often with the male still holding her behind the head to make sure no other male can get to her before she finishes. Their mating behavior is so interesting to see.

Eastern Amberwing with Pickerelweed in background (640x554)
Eastern Amberwing with pickerelweed in the backgrund
Carolina Saddlebags (640x547)
Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)
Familiar Bluet v2 to confirm (640x392)
Familiar Bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile)
Bullfrog on lily pad with bluets nearby (640x427)
Bullfrog surrounded by damselflies

 

This bullfrog just sat there while dozens of bluets flew all around him. I missed the great shot someone else got when one of them landed on the frog’s back. I was surprised he didn’t make a meal out of any of them, but maybe he was full already.

Remember, if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

######################

How you can participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey:  You’ll need an account at iNaturalist.org to submit your sightings. (But it’s free.) Just go to this page for all the details of the project.

Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap

You know how great it feels when your day off coincides with a fantastic weather forecast? Well that’s what happened for me on Monday this week, and I took full advantage of it to get outdoors and poke around to see what I could find. I was particularly grateful for this day because I’d spent the previous day in bed with a migraine that lasted for 19 hours. Yep, that’s right, 19 hours.  After losing an entire day, it’s no surprise that I was eager to reclaim my life the next morning. I usually feel like I’ve been reborn on the day after a migraine, and am reminded to be thankful for every pain-free day I have.Lotus flowers in bloom at Meadowbrook v2

So on this glorious day I decided to visit one of the locations on the Lake Erie Birding Trail (LEBT). The Ohio LEBT Guidebook, published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife just a couple years ago, is a compilation of 88 birding locations along the Lake Erie shore of Ohio. It’s a really handy book that I often keep in my car in case I feel like exploring someplace new. So far I’ve visited 21 of the sites on the “trail” — and I also happen to work at one of them (#73, Black Swamp Bird Observatory).  Today my  destination was Meadowbrook Marsh, a property of 190 acres that includes a large marsh and meadows surrounded by tall trees. As you can see in the photo above, the gorgeous lotus flowers are in full bloom now.

Pearl Crescent butterfly -Phycoides tharos v2
There were hundreds of these Pearl Crescents fluttering in the grass (Phyciodes tharos)

As I started walking the grass path alongside the big meadow, I noticed that the ground was dancing beneath my feet. There were hundreds of little Pearl Crescent butterflies feeding on clover and other flowers — it was really something to see. I tried to get a video that would convey the magic of it all, but wasn’t able to get anything I felt was worth sharing here. So just close your eyes and imagine walking slowly in the grass,  watching dozens of butterflies taking flight in front of you with each step. It was so pretty — they’d flutter a few feet away and alight on their next food source. I felt like I was in some sort of fairy land! And so it was that my walk started off with a big smile.

Common Checkered Skipper best shot (800x663)
Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Mixed in with all those Pearl Crescents, I found a little butterfly that I’d never seen before. It was about the same size, maybe an inch and a half across, but the wings were black with whitish spots, and the body had a bluish tint to it. It turned out to be a Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis). I love discovering something I’ve never seen before because each discovery makes me appreciate the diversity of life that’s around me every day. So much of the natural world goes unnoticed in our busy lives, doesn’t it?

House Wren
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)

A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable chattering of a House Wren and was able to quickly find him moving through the trees beside me. There were several of them in a mixed group that included Common Yellowthroats (a type of warbler) and Indigo Buntings. All three species were agitated by my presence, and I saw quite a few curious juveniles who were apparently being scolded by their parents to get away from the human!

Common Yellowthroat - fall immature male
Common Yellowthroat, a type of warbler. This is a young inquisitive male.

I continued walking and came upon another pocket of bird activity. This one had young Brown Thrashers and several Great Crested Flycatchers, and a single tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher buzzing around the treetops and flicking his long tail.

Brown Thrasher (800x701)
A young Brown Thrasher

One of my favorite birds was this pretty female Cape May Warbler, who posed nicely for me:

Cape May Warbler fall female v2 (800x629)
Female Cape May Warbler

Grasshoppers are always hard to photograph because they leap so fast and far at the slightest movement. But I managed to get a couple shots of this one, at least. I think it’s a Red-legged Grasshopper.

Red-legged Grasshopper - I think (712x800)
Red-legged Grasshopper (at least I think that’s the right species)

And take a look at this close crop of his leg joints on the hind legs. It’s clear that they’re very specialized to allow him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Oh wait, that’s Superman, isn’t it?)

Grasshopper showing back leg specialized joints (717x635)
Close-up of semi-lunar processes on grasshopper’s hind legs

Those joints are called the semi-lunar processes. I found a website that explains how they function, and it even includes slow-motion video to show the mechanics of the spring motion. If you’re curious, it’s here.

There weren’t too many dragonflies around on this day, but I did manage to get a photo of an Eastern Amberwing, one of our smaller dragonflies:

Eastern Amberwing - close crop
Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

Before I realized it, I’d spent two hours at Meadowbrook and the sun was starting to get a bit too intense. So I reluctantly ended my walk after having seen 27 species of birds, about a half dozen types of butterflies (including a couple Monarchs), and lots of other insects that I haven’t identified yet.

I just find these quiet walks in natural places to be so life-affirming and renewing. So today I’m grateful for those “Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap,” for all the ways they enrich my experience of life on this beautiful planet.