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!

Hooked on Odes

Calico Pennant dragonfly in the hand
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

This past weekend was the long-awaited Odo-Con, the dragonfly conference of the Ohio Odonata Society. This was my second year to attend, and I was glad that this time I would know more people and not feel like such a newbie. I’d convinced my friend Ryan to go along this year and was looking forward to seeing his reaction to being around so many other odonata afficionados.

The location for this year’s conference was the Oakwoods Nature Preserve in Findlay, Ohio. It was nice to have the conference in our corner of the state this time, although our weather forecast was not very good for the weekend — we were supposed to have scattered thunderstorms and overcast skies Friday and Saturday.

We spent Friday evening indoors listening to a variety of presentations on topics like the ethics of collecting insects, identification tips, and photography techniques. Whereas birders can report their birds to eBird without photos, our dragonfly survey requires photographic evidence of each species, making it very important to  know the best ways to get those photos. The photography panel discussion included Judy Semroc and my  friends Rick Nirschl and Jim McCormac, each with their own expertise and suggestions for the equipment and techniques that work best for them. It was a great discussion and I came away with some good notes.

Two-banded Petrophila - Petrophila bifascialis
Two-banded Petrophila moth that came to our lights – click to see him larger

Friday night after dark, they hung out sheets and lights to attract moths, and I enjoyed seeing some new moths and poking around in the woods with flashlights trying to find caterpillars.

Saturday morning was also filled with more interesting presentations and time for socializing. And, in a stroke of good fortune, the weather cooperated for our afternoon field trips after all. My trip was to a spot that sounds unappealing — the Hancock County dump. But this property has some amazing ponds and meadows, and we couldn’t even see (or smell) the actual landfill part of it while we were there.

Mocha Emerald dragonfly
Mocha Emerald (Somatochlora linearis)

And my gosh, were there lots of great odes there! Our group of about ten people was led by Linda Gilbert and Jim McCormac, and they showed us a grand time for about four hours, turning up about two dozen species of odes. One of the best finds of the day happened in the first 20 minutes of our outing, but we didn’t know what it was until the end of the afternoon when we pulled out my field guide and looked it up. It was a Mocha Emerald, a brand new species for me, and a very impressively-sized one too. We watched it flying over our heads for several minutes, until it finally landed on some vegetation along the path and we were able to creep up slowly and get some photos.

Halloween Pennants in tandem ovipositing w sig
Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina) ovipositing in pond

A little while later we made our way to the first pond, where we found lots of species flying. There were many pairs of Halloween Pennants “in tandem,” which is how we describe their mating position when the male is clasping the female behind her head. In the photo above they’ve already fertilized the eggs and he’s holding on to her while she dips her abdomen in the pond to deposit them. His goal is to make sure no other male interrupts her before she’s finished the job.

We found this female baskettail species (below) hanging in the meadow as she began releasing fertilized eggs from the end of her abdomen. We watched as the egg clusters got bigger and bigger, and finally she flew off over the adjacent pond and deposited them in the water. We can’t be positive about her species because we can’t see the terminal appendages with all those eggs covering them, but most likely this was a Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura).

Baskettail species with eggs w sig
Baskettail female with eggs

We came to another pond that had just a narrow area of shoreline access, where our entire group couldn’t spread out at the same time. So our always-prepared leader went into the pond with a net to catch some specimens for us to examine on shore. I think he was having the most fun here, as the rest of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in this particular area. But it was worth it, because he brought us some beautiful insects to see.

Jim McCormac with net in pond
Jim is really in his element here, wading in the pond to net some bugs for us to examine.

For example, here’s a damselfly he netted, being held by our other leader, Linda Gilbert. This one is an Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis). In case you’re wondering, all of the insects we netted today were released unharmed after only a couple minutes.

Elegant spreadwing held by Linda Gilbert
Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis)

Spreadwings are a group of damselflies that are easy to distinguish from other damsels because of their habit of holding their wings partially outspread when perched. And many of them have beautiful metallic green coloration, like little winged jewels. I love them, even though many of them are frustratingly difficult to identify to the species level.

I’ll finish this installment with a few pics of an amorous pair of Stream Bluets that I photographed during a break between presentations at the Oakwoods Nature Preserve. First, the unsuspecting female just hanging out, minding her own business.

Stream Bluet female w sig

Next thing she knows, this guy grabs her by the back of her neck.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 1 - w sig

Not much she can do about it at this point, but it all seemed to work out, as seen below as they form the “heart” shape when she reaches her abdomen up to obtain a sperm packet from the male to fertilize her eggs. When they’re done with this part, she’ll oviposit into the vegetation in or near the water so their offspring can live in the water until they’re ready to emerge as these awesome winged creatures.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 2 - w sig

There’s much more to tell about our post-conference dragon hunting on Sunday, but I’ll save that for the next post. Suffice it to say that this was a fascinating weekend spent with naturalists and scientists, and I’m already looking forward to Odo-Con 2019. The only question is, how many more of my friends can I get hooked on odes before then?

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

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

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

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

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

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

Hell hollow creek view

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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

 

Hanging Out With Naturalists

Bee on Chicory flower - close up w sigThis morning I participated in a Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trip to Wiregrass Lake Metropark.  I joined this organization months before I moved to Toledo, but this was my first opportunity to join them on a field trip. The purpose of today’s outing was to find dragonflies, but we also looked at birds, butterflies, flowers, and moths.

And I found that I really enjoyed being with a group of people with such varied interests. When we found a wildflower, there was someone who knew exactly what it was and whether it was native or invasive. When we found a moth, someone else knew that one. And quite a few of us knew the birds as well.  What a fun and educational morning!

Even without paying much attention to the birds, I recorded 26 species during our walk, including Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-breasted Chat, all singing their beautiful songs.

Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly - Cupido comyntas w sig

This is an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas). This adorable little critter was less than an inch across. The identification key to this species are the orange spots on the hindwing, and the little tail spikes.

Fragile Forktail damselfly - nice one w sig

This is my first photo of a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), and isn’t he a beauty? I call this photo “Green on Green” because of how the greens of the insect contrast nicely with the green foliage in the background. I find it very visually interesting. Can you see the green exclamation mark on his back?Variable Dancer damselfly drinking from raindrop w sig

And then we have one of my favorite damselflies, the Violet (Variable) Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacia). First of all, he’s purple! I mean, c’mon, how cool is that? And look at this guy — it looks like he’s taking a drink from a raindrop on the leaf.  Seriously, this just makes me smile. (I don’t think they actually drink water like this, but still….)

Variable Dancer damselfly on Horsetail - close crop w sigI photographed another Variable Dancer perched on horsetail (above), an ancient plant that, to me at least, looks like a cross between bamboo and asparagus. It’s a very cool-looking plant, but you do not want it in your garden because it will spread everywhere, and it’s apparently a nightmare to eradicate.

Horsetail - ancient plant - aggressive (640x427)
Horsetail (I think this is Equisetum arvense)

This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.

Calico Pennant on horsetail w rudbeckia w sig

This last one is a photo I took of Wiregrass Lake a couple days ago when the water surface was calm enough to see the reflection of the clouds above. One of these days I’m going to get a kayak out on that lake and spend hours sneaking up on dragonflies….

Clouds reflected on Wiregrass Lake w sig

I wish I could go on a hike like this every week, with a variety of subject-matter experts like we had today. Not only did my brain get what it needed, but my body got sunlight and fresh air, and my soul absorbed the sights and sounds of nature — a Gray Catbird chattering from the edge of the woods, a Green Heron flying high over the lake, a Comet Darner zipping back and forth along the shore as he patrolled his territory, and butterflies feeding on fragrant milkweed flowers. You know you’re getting some serious ecotherapy when you can feel your breathing slow as you turn your face to the sun and feel the gentle breeze across your cheeks. Yep, today reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: Nature Is (definitely) My Therapy.

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.

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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.

Here There Be Dragons!

Calico Pennant male at Wiregrass lake
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

It’s that time again–it’s early summer and the odonata are plentiful and active. You may have noticed that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for several years, and have written about them a few times:

Thrashers, Dashers, and Mayflies (July 2016)

Things That Float and Things That Fly (July 2015)

Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads (July 2013)

This year as I take a break from birding, I’m stepping up my efforts to learn about and photograph odonata.  So yesterday I spent the afternoon dragon hunting with a friend who is much more knowledgeable about them than I am. And more skilled at finding them as well.  He took me to a place where he knew we could find clubtails, a type of dragonfly I’d never seen before. And sure enough, within a few minutes of arriving, we’d seen multiples of two different species, the Pronghorn Clubtail and the Dusky Clubtail. I didn’t get a good photo of the Dusky, but here’s one I like of the Pronghorn, even though his tail end is out of focus. I like his face.

Pronghorn Clubtail dragonfly
Pronghorn Clubtail (Gomphus graslinellus)

As we continued walking and chatting, he would casually point out another species over there, and then another one over here, even identifying them as they flew far out over the water. I was impressed with how easily he could name each species, and it was a little bit overwhelming. It reminded me of how I felt the first year I came to Ohio to see the warbler migration — people around me were pointing out one species after another and I could barely look at one before they pointed out another.

But just as it did with warblers, this will just take some time and experience.  One of the tricks with learning birds, which I think will work the same with the dragons, is to get very familiar with the common species first. Then it becomes easier to know when you’ve found something different, and you can pay closer attention to it.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly - Irwin Prairie
Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) with a mite on the back of its head

And, as with birds, you learn the particular habitats for each species, and the timing of their migrations and/or breeding cycles, and all of that information helps you to figure out what you might see at a given time in a given location.

Painted Skimmer dragonfly
Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata)

Unlike birds, there are many species of odonata that can only be identified if you have them in your hand to examine the fine details of their complex bodies. That’s why some people use nets to catch them and see them better. But I don’t see myself doing that, at least at this point. (And you usually need a permit to do that in a park or nature preserve.) So I’ll have to accept the fact that, even if I get excellent photos, I won’t always be able to identify every species I come across. But that’s okay with me. This is something I’m doing for fun, for the simple pleasure of learning new things.

Bluets at Wiregrass Lake
Two different species of Bluets, a type of damselfly

Will I keep a species list? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy being outdoors in the sunshine surrounded by these fascinating creatures. There’s something so refreshing about just being, without the need to record everything I see. Yeah, I think I could get used to this feeling.

By the way, go back up to the top picture of the Calico Pennant–did you notice that the red spots are heart-shaped? I didn’t either, until my friend Donna pointed it out to me. I think this one will now be nicknamed the Love Dragon. 🙂

Note: All of the odonata in this post were photographed on June 6, 2017 in northwest Ohio.

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.

Things That Float & Things That Fly

While millions of my fellow Americans spent their time blowing things up this weekend (Happy Birthday, America!), I spent the first two days of the long holiday weekend indoors getting started with packing for my upcoming move to Ohio. Such drudgery for a beautiful weekend, right? But never fear, I managed to get outside today for some much-needed nature therapy.

Crooked Lake boat launchWhen I moved out of the house last fall I wasn’t able to take my beloved kayak with me, so when Eric asked if I wanted to go out on the water today it took me about one-half of a second to say yes. So this morning we headed to Independence Oaks County Park and launched our boats into Crooked Lake. This is a great lake because there’s no beach (thus no beach noise), and because there’s always a lot of wildlife to see there. And today was wonderfully quiet. I guess most people were still recuperating from July 4 festivities, because we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were a couple guys fishing from rowboats but nobody else on the entire 68 acres until we passed two other kayaks as we were paddling back to the ramp three hours later. A perfect little slice of heaven on a Sunday morning.

Eric watching a  Great Egret hunting along the banks
Eric watching a Great Egret hunting along the banks
Blue Dasher with water mites
Blue Dasher with water mites

I continued my attempts to get good photos of dragonflies and damselflies, and ended up with a few good ones. This male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is one of my favorite dragons. Something about the combination of the powdery blue abdomen and the gorgeous blue-green color of the eyes, contrasted with the brown and yellow pattern on the thorax. Just pleasing to my eye, I guess. And when I got the picture up on the computer, I was immediately curious about those little red spots under the thorax. I discovered that they’re water mites, tiny parasites that attach to the dragonfly while it’s still a nymph living under the water. I found a very interesting blog post (by Jim Johnson) that explains more about the relationship between the dragonflies and the mites, so if you want to know more, click over here.

And then there was this lovely Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). I think this is the first time I’ve photographed and identified this species. There were quite a few of them engaged in aerial combat with each other.

Slaty Skimmer
Slaty Skimmer

Did you know that dragonflies can fly at speeds up to 20 miles per hour? They can fly forward, backward, and hover like a helicopter. But despite their speed and acrobatic maneuvering skills, they’re no match for Eastern Kingbirds, who like to eat them. Today I watched the parents of a brood of kingbird fledglings working overtime grabbing dragonflies one after the other in mid-air all around me as I sat in my kayak amidst a floating “meadow” of water lilies.

Kingbird with dragonfly
Kingbird with dragonfly

The picture above was taken by Eric a couple years ago. Here’s a shot from today, minus the meal:

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings
Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

It might sound strange, but I absolutely love the “snap” and “crunch” sounds when a hungry kingbird or Cedar Waxwing snatches a dragonfly out of the air. When I first started spending a lot of time watching animals, I realized that I was going to have to learn not to get upset about one animal eating another. And most of the time I handle it pretty well. Especially when the death of the prey animal is quick, as is the case with insects eaten by birds. If you’re a prey animal and you have to die, then faster is better, right?

But the times when I’m witness to the less-swift death of an animal are much harder to deal with. As was the case a couple weeks ago when I happened upon a Northern Ribbon Snake chasing a little frog, when I had to listen to the screams of the frog after the snake caught it. I had no idea a frog could make sounds like that. It was very distressing to me at the time, but also exciting to see a part of nature I’d never seen before. I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t get pictures of that encounter, aren’t you?

Here’s another cool behavior I got to photograph today:

Bluets in mating tandem
Bluets in mating tandem
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

These are bluets, a very common type of damselfly but one I can’t identify down to any one species. They’re all such similar combinations of blue and black that my eyes just glaze over when I flip through the bluet section of my field guide. But that’s okay with me. What’s interesting in this picture is that the two at the top are locked in a tandem, which means that the male is grasping the female behind the head. This is part of their mating process, but it’s uncertain whether they’ve already mated or are preparing to mate. The male will often continue to hold on to the female after mating to prevent other males from getting to her and removing their sperm (yep, they can do that). And if I’m understanding what I see here, there does appear to be another male very interested in this particular lady. So Bachelor #1 seems to be wise to hold on for a while longer.

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break
Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Today was a lovely, relaxing day–exactly what I needed to energize me for the coming week of packing and attending to the many tedious details of moving. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much here until I get settled, but I look forward to showing you the natural beauty that abounds in the marshes of northwest Ohio…very soon!