A 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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
I’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. 🙂
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!
On 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.
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.
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!
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.
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!”
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.
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:
They also give you tips for determining if a snake is venomous or not:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
My 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.
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.
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.)
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.
So 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.
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!
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!
And 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.
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