Know Your Quarry

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?

Lilypad clubtail LIFER w sig
Lilypad clubtail

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.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail

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.

Flag-tailed spinyleg in obelisk position - blog

Flag-tailed spinyleg - blog
Flag-tailed Spinyleg — check out his big “flag”

Flag-tailed spinyleg - flag cropClubtails 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.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - leg crop of spinesSo 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.

Quarry scenery

Rocks under clear water at Silver Rock Quarry

Double-crested cormorant in quarry lake - blue green
Cormorant drying its wings on a tree snag in the quarry lake

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!

Ah, Back in the Saddle Again

Well, I should say “Back in the Kayak Again.” I eagerly anticipate our maiden voyage each year, that day when we load our boats on top of the car and head out to one of our local lakes for some relaxation on the water. We took our first trip of 2014 last weekend and — surprisingly — managed to get out again this weekend. I was a bit disappointed last summer that we only got our kayaks wet two or three times, so we’re starting this year off with a renewed burst of enthusiasm.

Kayaking on Big Seven Lake
On Big Seven Lake

When we got our boats a few years ago I added a section in our “outdoor notebook” to record what we liked and didn’t like about each lake we visited. My entries go something like this:

Nice clean lake with interesting marshy coves to explore. No motorboats so very relaxing. Negatives: beach noise (in season) and few shady banks for breaks. Looks like it will be gorgeous in October too.

Sometimes I’ll add notes about the bird species we’ve seen there. These notes come in handy when we’re trying to decide where to go and all the lakes seem to run together in our minds.

One of our favorite smaller lakes is Lake Sixteen in Orion Oaks County Park. It’s only 90 acres, so we can easily explore the entire perimeter in a slow-paced morning. I think we might approach a kayak outing differently than people who aren’t birders though. When I see other people heading out on the lake, it seems they generally head straight for open water. We, on the other hand, tend to stay on the edges so we can scan the trees and shrubs for bird activity. This edge-exploration pattern also makes it easy to take breaks under the shade of overhanging trees when the sun starts to feel too hot.

View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch
View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch

So on our morning on Lake Sixteen we had the lake virtually to ourselves; I think we saw two other kayakers and one guy fishing in a rowboat. There were two pairs of nesting Mute Swans that we made sure to give a wide berth as we headed back into a small hidden cove. A couple years ago I’d seen my first Marsh Wren nests there, and I hoped to see another one. My wish came true a dozen times over as we were surrounded by the songs of the little birds. Over here, over there, behind you, there’s another one!

They can be very hard to see and even harder to photograph because they move so quickly in and out of the vegetation. But being down low in a kayak is a bit of an advantage because you can slowly drift closer as you watch for movement down inside the grasses. I managed to get this short video (47 seconds) showing one of them gathering fluff from a cattail and taking it into the nest. The first part of the video is a wide shot showing the nest on the right side of the screen. Then I zoom in on the bird so you can see him/her singing and plucking fluff from the cattail. You’ll hear quite a few other species of birds singing in this video, but the Marsh Wren is the one that sounds like a little sewing machine…you’ll know it when you hear it:

Yesterday’s outing was on Big Seven Lake at the aptly-named Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan. This lake is 175 acres, so it’s almost twice the size of Lake Sixteen. There’s a beach on this one though and sometimes it can detract from our enjoyment of the lake. But despite it being a beautiful day, there were only a handful of people at the beach.  When we launched around 9:30 there was nobody else on the lake, the sun was shining, and a light breeze was blowing. As soon as we hit the water I heard the very distinctive song of a Veery from the woods to our right. Here’s a link so you can hear what a Veery sounds like and see some photos. What a special way to start the day!

Kim taking photos in kayak by Eric (800x600)
Eric’s shot of me taking bird photos

After enjoying the Veery’s beautiful song for a few minutes we moved on. Very quickly we found catbirds, kingbirds, and lots of other lovely birds. Eric and I don’t stay together once we get out on a lake, so he went off to do his thing and I spent some time sitting in a cove listening to the various singing birds and trying to see as many as I could. I was thrilled to find a Willow Flycatcher, a bird I’ve only recently learned to identify from its songs and calls. Soon after that I spied a pretty male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and several Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers buzzing around near the water.

After a while I went to the far side of the lake and watched a muskrat swimming around and lots of huge carp splashing as they spawned in the shallow water at the edges of the lake. Then I heard a Red-tailed Hawk calling and looked up to see him soaring in big circles over the woods, with a very persistent Red-winged Blackbird repeatedly dive-bombing him. These photos show the size difference in the two birds — those blackbirds have no fear though. (I should say that I think this is an immature Red-tailed Hawk, but I’d love to be corrected if you know I’ve got it wrong.)Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA v3 (800x732)

Red-winged Blackbird attacking RTHA (800x699)
Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA (2) (800x739) Red-winged BL attacking RTHA v4 (800x725)

My best photo opportunity of the day happened just as I was getting ready to put my camera away and paddle back to the boat launch. A Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared around a bend and flew at eye-level beside me. I grabbed the camera and started shooting as he passed and went behind me. Considering that I didn’t have time to check my camera settings, I’m pretty happy with this one. The photo might not be perfect, but the memory of that special moment is!

Grace in motion!
Grace in motion!
Heading home after a day on the water
Heading home after a day on the water