A Speeding Green Bullet!

Autumn has long been my favorite season of the year — colorful tree foliage, cooler air for comfortable hikes, clear cerulean skies, cozy sweaters…I could go on. But this is also a season tinged with sadness for the end of summer.  Lately I’ve been feeling a bit gloomy about the impending end of dragonfly season. It’s frustrating to have such a short time each year to watch these fascinating insect predators.

I’ve written before about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey and how you can contribute to it. I’ve submitted many records of my observations to the survey in the past two years, and look forward to adding more in the third and final survey year next summer.  A few weeks ago I got a message from one of the survey coordinators pointing out that they would like a few 2018 reports from Fulton County, and asking if I would keep that in mind while I was out and about.

I live in Lucas County, which has a few very active odonata observers, including one of Ohio’s experts. So there’s not much chance of me finding something here that hasn’t already been documented. But Fulton County is a rural county just to the west of Lucas County, and it has far fewer people reporting odonata sightings. So that means I can more easily make a meaningful contribution to the database with my sightings there.

So the other day, after doing some online location scouting and armed with a list of three target species, I drove west through the corn fields.

The three target species were all damselflies: blue-fronted dancer, fragile forktail, and stream bluet. I knew one good pond location from earlier visits in that area, but I knew that spot wouldn’t be likely to have the dancer or the bluet, both of which are usually found near rivers or streams rather than the pond that I was headed to first.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first bug I saw was one of my targets, the fragile forktail. He’s easy to identify because of the green exclamation mark on his thorax.

Fragile forktail - blog
Fragile forktail (Ischnura posita)

I spent about 45 minutes more at this pond location, documenting some other species, before heading off in search of flowing water.

I went to a place called Tiffin River Wildlife Area. I was optimistic about this location until I got there and found that there was virtually no access to the water. I found one small gravel parking lot with barely enough room to turn the car around, but it was surrounded with head-high vegetation and no paths. Hmmm. This would require some ingenuity.  I drove around a bit and found a dirt driveway that dipped down toward the water, but it had a chain across it about 75 yards down and a sign that said “No Trespassing.”

Blue-fronted dancer - blog
Blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis)

I figured, okay, I can walk on this first section as long as I don’t go past the chain and the sign. I wasn’t going to do any harm, and it didn’t look like anyone had driven that driveway in a long time; it was full of deep ruts and bordered by tall weedy vegetation. And amazingly, I found my second target species on that driveway: blue-fronted dancer. I almost did a happy dance after I got my photograph for documentation.

I also got this pretty picture of a viceroy butterfly nectaring on loosestrife.

Viceroy butterfly w sig - blog

So, two down, one to go. The only other spot I could find with the potential for running water was Harrison Lake State Park. From the map view I’d noticed there was a dam at one end of the lake, with potential access to the stream below it. So off I went further west.

I’m sure it had a lot to do with the beautiful weather on this day, but this park impressed me immediately. I saw that their campground was full of people on this late summer Friday, but somehow it wasn’t noisy. It felt peaceful and relaxing. And even better, there was access to the stream below the dam, just as I’d hoped. And this is where something exciting happened.

I’d found a couple interesting species (orange bluet and dusky dancer), and was taking photos of them and just quietly observing the water. I was looking down at something on the ground, and as I lifted my head I saw an enormous pair of green eyes speeding directly toward me, only a dozen feet away. I barely had time to think “River cruiser!” when it whizzed past me like a green bullet and went high up into the trees behind me. I spent a half hour searching for it, desperate to document it for this location. I had a hunch it could be a species that hadn’t been recorded there before. But, alas, I didn’t find it again.

I eventually gave up and walked back up the hill to the top of the dam, and then slowly toward the parking lot.  I was enjoying the beautiful day, but couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected after the close encounter with the river cruiser and then losing it.

I was in the parking lot, about 100 yards from my car, when –BZZZZZT! — something big flew past my head and perched in a tree 30 feet above me. I knew what it was before I saw it: River cruiser!

Wabash River Cruiser - Fulton County Record (2)
Wabash river cruiser (Macromia wabashensis)

I started taking photos immediately, not knowing how long it would stay there. My first impression was that it was a Wabash river cruiser, a hard-to-photograph hybrid species. And indeed, that’s what it was! I couldn’t believe my luck, and took probably 70 photos of it, even though it barely moved. I always try to get multiple views of any dragonfly, because sometimes you need to see multiple field marks to confirm an identity. The diagnostic field mark on this species is the moth-shaped yellow mark near the end of the abdomen.

And not only did I get a killer view of this dragonfly, I photographed a really interesting behavior: the transfer of a sperm packet.

Wabash River Cruiser transferring sperm packet
Wabash river cruiser transferring sperm packet prior to mating

Prior to mating, the male has to transfer sperm from his primary sexual organ to his secondary genitalia, where the female will have access to it when they link their bodies in the mating process. This photo shows him doing exactly that.  And this made me believe that I’d seen two different individuals; the first one I saw below the dam might have been the female.

I felt great that I’d gathered some valuable data for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (the Wabash river cruiser did turn out to be a new species for Fulton County), and I left that park with a smile a mile wide.

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800I’m so glad I take the time to write about these nature experiences; not just to share them with you, but for myself too. They’re fantastic memory joggers as I reminisce in the winter, sitting beside a crackling fire counting down the days until the first ode sighting next spring. I’m also planning to do some hard-core studying this winter, as I’ve been enlisted to lead the annual dragonfly field trip for Toledo Naturalists’ Association in June. I don’t need to be an expert by then, but I’d like to be as prepared as possible so everyone has fun and learns something on our outing.

A couple years ago I wrote about this little reminder I kept on my refrigerator, and it’s still working well for me. As long as I keep making plans for interesting things to do, life is good. 🙂

 

The Circle of Life, Insect Edition

I'm waiting avatarAs I mentioned a few weeks ago, this is the time of year when the focus of my nature explorations turns away from birds and toward dragonflies and other insects. And just like the birds this year, the dragonflies seemed to arrive later than usual, requiring enormous amounts of patience from those of us eagerly awaiting them.

But in the past week or so the dragonfly activity has finally picked up and boy, oh boy, am I having fun! I’ve got so many photos to show you that it’s hard to know where to start. This first post is going to describe an exciting encounter I had today, and then in another post I’ll show a wider variety of species from my dragon-hunting expeditions.

A few days ago a friend told me about a good spot to see a lot of clubtails, a group of odes that I need more experience with. The location is in Oak Openings Preserve, one of our much-loved metroparks. So I headed over there on Thursday and spent about 90 minutes taking photographs of the many clubtails and other species in the meadow and adjacent mowed lawn area.

Blue dasher - WW Knight w sig
Blue Dasher

The weather today was cool and overcast, not the best conditions for odonata to be flying. But I couldn’t resist going out anyway, just to see what I could turn up. My first stop at another nature preserve was discouraging because nothing was flying. At all. I took photos of various fishing spiders on lilypads. I saw a turtle. The sun started peeking out as I was leaving, and I finally found a single Blue Dasher and a single Common Whitetail. That’s when I decided to go back to Oak Openings to check out this meadow again. And boy am I glad I did!

By the time I emerged from the wooded trail into the meadow clearing, the sun was shining brightly and there was a light, cool breeze. It didn’t take long to start finding the clubtails either resting in the grass or flying…up & down and up & down…in their signature roller-coaster flight style. They’re so much fun to watch.

There was lots of cottonwood fluff blowing around, making it look like it was raining cotton balls.

And that’s when it happened.

A dragonfly swooped down in front of me and grabbed what I thought was a clump of cottonwood seeds. Immediately his flight seemed to be more difficult, and he quickly dropped to the ground a few feet away. I’m no fool, and I knew this was going to be good. So I instantly started shooting photos, not even stopping to figure out what he’d nabbed for lunch.

As I shot frame after frame, I quickly determined that he’d nabbed not a clump of cotton, but a large-ish fly-type insect.  Now I know that the prey was a Summer Fishfly, aka Chauliodes pectinicornis. I don’t know much about fishflies, but have learned a bit in writing this for you. Their life cycle is similar to that of the dragonfly, interestingly enough. They spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, then emerge as these winged adult flies. The fishfly adult can live for about a week — if it doesn’t get eaten by another winged insect, as this one did.

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (1) w sig
The prey: a male Summer Fishfly (Chauliodes pectinicornis)

Notice the large mothlike antennae on this one — that’s how we know it’s a male. And look at the pretty black-and-white veining in those translucent wings.

As I watched the clubtail begin chewing into its body, the fly thrashed its thorax back and forth in an attempt to escape. At one point it looked like the fishfly was trying to hold on to a blade of grass as the clubtail tore into his abdomen.

Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (5) w sig
The last pair of eyes the fishfly ever saw
Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (3) w sig
The struggle was on…back and forth
Clubtail with fishfly prey - series for blog (2) w sig
Notice the jaws on the fishfly — they look intimidating but they’re no match for a dragon!

I think this dragonfly is an Ashy Clubtail, but I’m not positive about that yet. It’s pretty hard to differentiate a couple of the clubtail species without extreme closeup photos of the reproductive organs on the tip of the abdomen. I’m still examining various photos from this series to try and pin that down, but whatever it turns out to be, isn’t this so cool?!

As I witnessed this predator/prey drama, I was standing alone in this large clearing surrounded by immense trees. When the clubtail finally flew (with much difficulty), taking the remains of its prey up into one of those tall trees, the smile on my face was a mile wide. I think I might even have giggled out loud from sheer joy.

And now I’ll leave you with a calmer image, one of a pretty little Pearl Crescent butterfly feeding on clover…blissfully unaware of what lurks nearby…in the meadow of death.  😉

Pearl Crescent butterfly w sig
Pearl Crescent butterfly, Phyciodes tharos

 

Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads

Have you seen any herps lately? Not sure? How about odes? I’m sure you have, they’re hard to miss right  now. I’ve seen tons of them, but if you’d asked me those questions a couple years ago I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. As I know now, “herps” is a term for reptiles and amphibians; “odes” is short for odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies.

Mid-July is a rather quiet time in the world of birdwatching: the activity of migration is over, there’s not as much boisterous singing to attract mates, and everybody is either sitting on a nest or busily raising young. So to celebrate these fun words — and to give me an excuse to stay inside where it’s relatively cool — I thought I’d show you some of the herps and odes I’ve seen lately.

Ebony Jewelwings - damselflies (800x533)I almost deleted this first picture because it wasn’t in focus, but then I realized it was still interesting. These are mostly Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (and one other type I’ll show you better below). They were swarming over the river at Wolcott Mill Metropark on a recent visit and I sat on a rock in the shade to snap a few photos of the aerial symphony they were creating. Isn’t the blurred background almost like an Impressionist painting? I love it.

Since I’m a newbie at identifying dragon- and damselflies, I sat down with my “Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies” to put names to the ones I saw. I hope you’ll tell me if I have any of these wrong.

American Rubyspot damselfly male

I wasn’t sure about this one at first, but then I found this next photo of it with wings spread and was able to figure out that it’s an American Rubyspot damselfly. I think we can figure out how it got that name…very distinctive, isn’t it?

American Rubyspot damselfly
American Rubyspot (above) and Ebony Jewelwing, both damselflies.

There were also lots of Eastern Pondhawks, a type of dragonfly. The males and females look very different, as you can see here:

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female (click to enlarge)
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male

I like the green female better. 😉 And guess what else I just learned? Within the order Odonata, dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera which means “unequal wings,” while damselflies belong to the suborder Zygoptera, which means “equal wings.” This is because all four wings of damselflies are the same size, while those of dragonflies are different.

If this sounds familiar, you might be remembering my explanation about woodpecker feet being zygodactyl (“equal toes”), as contrasted with the feet of most other birds which are anisodactyl (“unequal toes”). Here’s that article if you want to refresh your memory (scroll down to the green box on that page).

I can feel my brain getting bigger by the minute, how about you?

And then there was this beautiful Widow Skimmer dragonfly, another male. Apparently the males (of dragons and damsels) are very territorial at the water, and females are thought to hang out elsewhere to avoid the aggressive males until it’s time to lay eggs. I don’t blame them one bit.

Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male
Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male

After an hour or so trying to photograph those speedy fliers, it was a piece of cake to snap pics of the frogs in a nearby pond. I’m not proud to reveal the extent of my lifelong disconnect from the natural world by telling you that I’d never seen a frog with those big flat discs on its head before. At first I thought it had a button stuck to it…seriously, I had no clue. I now know that these are its ears, and if you tell anyone about my ignorance, I’ll say that I knew it all along….

Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by
Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by

That was a Green Frog, and this next one is a Bullfrog. I’m sure both of them were hoping to have some nice crunchy odes for lunch.

Bullfrog
Bullfrog

Those of you who are paying attention will be thinking, “Hey, where are the toads you promised us?” You, my friends, get gold stars for staying here this long! Here’s your toad:

Eastern American Toad
Eastern American Toad

This guy and his girlfriend almost gave me a heart attack last month when I was moving some bags of mulch in the yard. They didn’t seem to want to move from their moist, shady spot, but I gently herded them to a safer location so I could finish the yard work. I know they can’t hurt me, but something about an animal that jumps unpredictably freaks me out, so it took me an hour to get them far enough away that I could get all of my mulch moved without fear of them hopping onto my head. Geez, what a baby.

Well, this was fun for me, and I hope you learned something too. There’s one last frog to show you. This is One-eyed Joe who lives in a planter beside the garage. I’m not afraid of him.

One-eyed frog