Odes in Winter: Where Are They Now?

Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.

I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)

And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - MBSP (1) w sig
Flag-tailed spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus)

Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.

This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:

Frozen pond at MBSP - blog
Frozen fishing pond at Maumee Bay State Park, just a stone’s throw from a frozen Lake Erie

Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!”  Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Empty exuviae of a dragonfly, possibly one of the darners

Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.

If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.

Dragonfly exuviae w sig KCS blog
Exuviae of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuviae I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.

I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)

According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival.  I think I can make it.  In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!

Black-shouldered spinyleg - really cool pic w sig
Black-shouldered spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

Brain Food or Useless Fruit?

osage orange tree and fruits on ground w sigA few weeks ago I was counting birds in rural Marion County in central Ohio. My count partner Jim and I were participating in one of the many Audubon Christmas Bird Counts that take place all across the country each December.

We’d stopped at a small park to walk a trail around a little lake, where we found some downy woodpeckers and American tree sparrows, but not much else. As we emerged from the woods, we came upon this fascinating osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). The ground beneath the tree was littered with dozens of spectacular, grapefruit-sized fruits. I couldn’t resist a brief stop to examine them more closely.

If you’ve never seen one of these strange fruits before, your first impression is likely to be that it looks oddly like a brain.

osage orange fruits close crop w sig
When fresh, the fruits are bright green. These were obviously past their prime, and many were rotting. Some had lovely reddish coloring, and a few had been tasted by unknown critters, possibly squirrel or deer. I’m told they aren’t very palatable, and I’m not willing to taste one to find out.

osage orange fruits w sig

I examined one of the fruits that was split open, and found that it has sections that remind me of broccoli or pineapple.

As we talked about this tree, I learned the concept of anachronistic plants. They’re still here, long after the demise of any animals that would have been large enough to forage on them. So they apparently don’t serve much purpose any longer, at least for larger animals. I would imagine there are insects that feed on this tree and birds that nest in it, although Ohio is not its natural range. It occurs naturally in Texas, but here in Ohio it’s considered an alien species. It was brought here by early settlers who had found that the thorny osage orange could be used as an effective livestock barrier when planted in thick hedges (thus the alternate name of hedge apple).

Despite very little scientific evidence, many people continue to believe that osage oranges can be used to repel insects or spiders around the home.  I came upon this humorous post on a message board while researching for this article:

“I used whole hedge apples in my house to run out spiders, and was I ever wrong in doing it! They drew gnats, my house was full of them! And then they rotted. Gross! I got rid of them, got rid of the gnats, and learned a lesson.”

I guess the lesson she learned was to keep the hedge apples outside of the house. 🙂
osage orange fruits v2 w sig

Finding the Joy, Redux

I’ve written here before about how birds helped me discover a love and appreciation for the natural world rather late in life. They gave me years of enjoyment and also led me to my current passions for native plants, dragonflies, and other insects.

That’s why my life was turned upside down when, about two and a half years ago, I had a very painful experience related to the birding community. It had such a negative impact on me that I soon found myself turning down invitations to go birding with friends, just to avoid reminders of what had happened. I decided to get some distance from birding, at least in my part of Ohio.

robin eating sumac fruits w sig
American robin feeding on fruits of staghorn sumac

I had convinced myself that I just didn’t care about birds anymore.  Deep inside I knew that was a rationalization to allow me to keep my distance from the pain. But lately, finally, I feel myself wanting to acknowledge that I still love watching birds.

I’ve skipped all of the local Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the Toledo area this year, but I was invited to do two counts in other parts of Ohio recently, and eagerly accepted. Having now done those counts, I’m finding myself rediscovering what made me love birds in the first place. Not only are they fascinating animals, but birds are with us all the time, everywhere. Even in the depths of a midwestern winter, when it seems everything else is silent, dead, or dying, birds are here.

I can go virtually anywhere and find birds to watch, while the rest of the world scurries past, oblivious to these engaging little creatures living among them. That realization always makes me a bit sad for those muggles, but also gives me a bit of a thrill as I realize I’ve got a secret that’s right in front of them, if only their eyes would focus on it.

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Northern mockingbird keeping an eye on us

I did both of the recent CBCs with naturalist Jim McCormac, who writes a fantastic blog right here.  (I encourage you to visit his blog and poke around; your life will be richer for doing so.)  We did the Killdeer Plains CBC last weekend, and the Hocking Hills CBC this weekend.  Both were exhausting days, but full of great birds and conversations.

Because I’ve pulled back from birding recently, my limited skills were in desperate need of a tune-up. I’ve long known that the best way to improve my skills is to tag along with people who are more skilled than I, and birding with Jim is perfect for that because of his lifetime of experience with birds. To someone like me, he seems to have a magical sixth sense about where to find the birds. When I bird alone, I can fool myself into thinking I’m doing pretty well, and get a false sense of confidence. But birding with someone as experienced as Jim makes me realize just how many birds I’ve been missing.

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Northern mockingbird checking up on us again

When I expressed my frustration at not being able to pick out many of the calls he was hearing, he reminded me of the decades of birdwatching that gave him those skills. I get that, and I appreciated his encouragement about it. Having started birding so late in life, it’s doubtful that I can ever hope to develop those great birding-by-ear skills. But I don’t want to give up trying to improve.

On the Hocking Hills count yesterday, we spent some quality time with a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who was feeding on a bountiful supply of rose hips on a multiflora rose shrub along a rural road. This type of birding is most rewarding to me, when I get to take time to watch an individual bird’s behavior. We were very quiet and respectful of this bird’s space, and just observed how he interacted with other birds. He was zealously guarding “his” rose hips from a good-sized flock of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in an adjacent field. At one point when he was off chasing bluebirds, I saw a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) slip inside the rose shrub, momentarily undetected. Sly bird.

mockingbird eating rosehips from multiflora rose w sig
Northern mockingbird feeding on rose hips of the invasive multiflora rose

The mockingbird occasionally popped out to make sure we were keeping our distance, but continued feeding calmly on rose hips between his bluebird patrols. At one point a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) dropped down through the branches of a maple tree in an unsuccessful attempt to nab one of the bluebirds. He then quickly recovered and flew directly toward us, barely 15 feet over our heads. He briefly landed on a power pole beside the car, and then soared off across the fields. Sure wish I’d been quick enough on the shutter button to get that shot.

I’m grateful to have rediscovered a part of my life that had been put on the back-burner for too long. I’m not going to go so far as to say “New Year, New Me,” but I am determined to reclaim the parts of life that make it richer and more meaningful for me. Life is too short to let bad memories steal your chances of making new ones.

#FindingTheJoy

Nope, That’s Not a Bee

Eastern calligrapher fly - toxomerus geminatus - for blog
Eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

When I first started photographing insects, I noticed — but didn’t really look at — lots of little “bees.” I noted their brown and yellow abdomens and quickly dismissed them as uninteresting. But once I actually photographed one of them and looked at it, I was enchanted by the pretty patterns I saw, and wanted to study them further. As an example, notice the intricate designs on the one in that first photo above.

I learned that they aren’t bees at all; they’re a family of insects known as hover flies or flower flies. Many of them resemble not only bees, but wasps as well. It’s believed that this mimicry aids their survival by making potential predators think twice before attacking them. A simple way to distinguish flies from bees or wasps is the number of wings; flies only have two wings, whereas bees and wasps have four.

My familiarity with taxonomic structures is mostly limited to my high school memories of reciting “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I’m doing the best I can to make sure I give accurate information about scientific classifications here, but keep in mind that I’m a real amateur in insect identification. I write these articles to educate myself as much as to entertain and educate my readers. 🙂 And, if you read something here that’s wrong, I’d really appreciate hearing from you so I can correct it.

taxonomic hierarchy graphic

So, within the Insecta class, there are further subdivisions called orders. For example, the order Odonata contains my beloved dragonflies and damselflies. The order Hymenoptera contains bees, ants, and wasps. These hover flies are in the order Diptera. And within that order, they’re in the family Syrphidae (and are thus also known as syrphid flies).

So whether you call them hover flies, flower flies, or syrphid flies, you should know that they are valuable pollinators in the garden.

Prairie gentian with American Hoverfly for blog
Hoverfly on Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta)

And if you have aphid problems, you’ll be happy to find out that the larvae of syrphid flies are little wormlike creatures that are ravenous consumers of aphids. If you see these lovely little flies in your yard, keep your fingers crossed that they like it enough to stick around and lay their eggs there. You can make it easier for them by not removing leaves from your garden in the fall because that’s where they spend the winter.

These flies really seem to love the ubiquitous asters that are blooming in the early fall, and that makes it easier for me to find and photograph them. I just walk up to a group of asters and wait until they show up. This is one of my favorite recent photos of a syrphid fly on asters:

Oblique Stripetail - Allograpta obliqua on aster
Oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua) on asters

Interestingly, hover flies share some extraordinary capabilities with dragonflies: they can hover, and fly forward, backward, sideways, up, and down.  Their flight abilities make them fascinating to watch; I can easily lose track of time when I’m focused on watching them zipping around a patch of flowers, feeding on the nutritious nectar and pollen.

Narrow-headed sunfly - Helophilus fasciatus w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)
Chrysotoxum sp of hover fly v2
This one is in the genus Chrysotoxum, but I don’t know which species

I plan to continue my study of these syrphid flies, and will hope to be able to write more about them in a future post.  If you get a chance, pull up a chair beside a group of asters or goldenrod soon and see if you can catch a glimpse of any of these charming flower visitors.

There’s a little bonus for you below, but I just want to share one more photo.  One day I was watching this Chinese mantis as it preyed upon bees from its perch on top of a cushion of goldenrod. In this photo, the mantis is eating a honeybee while a syrphid fly feeds only a couple inches from its head, seemingly unconcerned about the monster lurking beside him. Perhaps he realized the mantis was occupied and was no immediate danger to him.

Syrphid fly watches as Chinese mantis eats honeybee

Bonus Deep Dive Content: Okay, if you’re interested in watching a syrphid fly larva eat an aphid, you can spend 25 minutes watching this amazing video I found on YouTube by someone called “Insect Man.” I confess I fast-forwarded through some of it, but it’s way cool.

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. 🙂

 

Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog
Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

Special Garden Visitors

At the risk of getting ahead of myself before I catch you up to real time in the new native garden series, I want to share some observations from my garden today. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the primary reasons I’m creating a garden full of native plants is to provide food for our native insects at all stages of their lives, from larva to adult. As I get started with the garden, I’ve been eagerly documenting every insect I can find on my plants. These are just five of the species I found today as I did yard work.

This first one was near the garden but not feeding, at least while I was watching. This is a tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), and I just found out that it’s a predator of carpenter bees, which probably explains why it’s in my yard — I have plenty of those. This very large fly lays its eggs at the entrance to a carpenter bee tunnel, and when the fly larvae hatch, they find and eat the bee larvae.

Tiger Bee Fly - blog
Tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I always enjoy learning about the relationships between various insects and plants, so this is a fascinating discovery.

These next four species were all feeding on common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), one of my favorite native plants. Whenever I see this plant in other places, it’s covered with insects, so I had high hopes for seeing a good variety of bugs when I planted this.

In this picture the boneset is the tall one with white flowers at the back of the bed.

boneset in my garden

Not only is it pretty, it has a subtle sweet fragrance I adore. So here are four species I found on the boneset today.

First is the stinkbug hunter (Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus) — isn’t that a great name?

Stinkbug Hunter
Stinkbug hunter, a solitary wasp

I’ve read that this wasp preys on the non-native brown marmorated stinkbug, making it a most welcome insect in my yard!

Next up is another wasp, the grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana). Interestingly enough, this species sometimes uses abandoned carpenter bee nests for its own young. One more inter-species relationship discovered today.

Grass-carrying Wasp - Isodontia mexicana
Grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana)

Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.

Beewolf - Philanthus gibbosus
Beewolf wasp (Philanthus gibbosus)

And finally, one of my favorite diurnal moths, the lovely little ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). They’re very common but I always get a thrill when I find them.

Ailanthus webworm moth - blog
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

I had trouble getting a sharp photo today because it was breezy and this guy was moving pretty quickly as he crawled around the flowers to feed. But just look at the pretty patterns of orange, black, and yellow. Most of us are well aware of the beauty of butterflies, but fewer people notice that there are lots of gorgeous moths as well. That’s probably because most moths fly at night, but there are quite a lot of them that are daytime feeders (diurnal) too.

So there you have it — my nascent native garden is already proving its value to the ecosystem!

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

Please Stop Killing Snakes!

Sigh. I was in the process of writing a very pleasant post about some lovely dragonflies, but something more important has come up, prompting this brief subject detour.

Three times recently I’ve seen posts by friends on Facebook proudly proclaiming “victory” because they’d killed a snake in or near their home. The posts look something like this: “Me 1: Snake 0,” as if it’s some sort of competition…or even a war. They usually go on to describe the weapon they used to murder the poor animal, and then lament the mess of blood they have to clean up afterward. And these posts are usually responded to with cheers from their friends congratulating them for their bravery. Never once does anyone ask if it was a venomous snake or was threatening them in any way. That doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is “off with its head!”

Hog-nosed Snake - head crop
Young  Eastern hog-nosed snake, about 8 inches long. He eats toads, not people. (Toledo, Ohio)

I get that lots of people are afraid of snakes, I really do. I’ve been startled by them many times on my walks, as they suddenly slide across a path and slither into a meadow. I don’t like that feeling of being startled. But this attitude of killing every snake just because, well, it’s a snake…well, that bothers me deeply. I think if people took the time to learn more about snakes they wouldn’t be so quick to act with aggression. So that’s why I’m writing this today, to urge everyone to just slow down and think about these fascinating animals.

I know many people will have stopped reading this already because they feel a sermon coming on. And I guess there’s nothing I can do to reach those people who aren’t willing to reconsider their views. But for those who are open-minded enough, I decided to write a little bit in support of snakes, and to suggest ways to overcome that all-too-human instinct to decapitate them and then want a medal for it.

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Eastern Gartersnake, very common and completely harmless (Toledo, Ohio)

And by the way, I’m not trying to say that you should welcome snakes into your home, not at all. They need to be removed to the outdoors, gently and safely, by someone who knows how to do that. This is about the indiscriminate killing of snakes outside, in yards and gardens.

Okay, let’s do this. First of all, I find the best way to overcome any fear is to educate myself about whatever it is I’m afraid of.  The Ohio Division of Wildlife has a fantastic series of guides to help us learn about the various types of animals in our state. Your state may have something similar. A quick perusal of the snake section in their Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide tells me that there are 28 species of snakes in Ohio and only three of them are venomous. Here’s their page on the Eastern Massasauga, for example:

Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake Ohio

They also give you tips for determining if a snake is venomous or not:

Venomous vs non-venomous snakes Ohio DNR

This little booklet has helped transform my fear into curiosity and wonder at these beautiful creatures. And even if I’m still “afraid” of venomous snakes, I know that they prefer to get away from me and will usually only strike if provoked. I guess I’m more respectful than afraid, really.

So, now we’re armed with knowledge about which snakes are venomous, and therefore we know that none of the others should be feared. At all.

But there’s more…not only are they not to be feared, they are desirable animals. One of my friends who killed a snake recently has also been concerned with rodents in her garden. The irony of this was not lost on me because I know that a snake will take care of that rodent problem for you, lickety-split. (Now there’s a phrase from the early 19th century for your enjoyment.)

Not only do snakes control rodents around homes, but they do it for free! And they don’t destroy the garden by digging holes either (although they do use holes dug by other animals). They don’t spread diseases. They don’t harm your plants. And they don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. They just want to be left alone to live their quiet, unobtrusive lives.

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Gartersnake sketched from my photo.

A few years ago I tried to sketch a garter snake I saw on the beach in Michigan. I’m not much of an artist, clearly. But the process of trying to draw this one forced me to look at it much more closely than I’d ever done before. And when you look closely at them, they’re incredibly beautiful. Worthy of admiration rather than scorn, in my humble opinion. Could you catch a mouse or frog if you had no arms or legs? Didn’t think so.

I just wish we could all be more appreciative and accepting of wildlife instead of killing every insect or reptile that dares to come near us. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

Thanks for reading. Back to dragonflies soon. 🙂

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!