Newsflash: Damsel (B)eats Ogre!

Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

Mark Knopfler, The Bug Song

Dragonfly season is fast coming to a close, and this is always a melancholy time of year for me. I get so much pleasure from going out to watch them (and other insects) and it’s hard to let go of that every fall. But then again, if they were here all year long I might not appreciate them as much. It helps if I think about it in the way I think about rainbows: we’d take them for granted if they were permanent fixtures in the sky, but we value them because they’re so brief and infrequent.

This summer has been sort of miserable — either raining endlessly or so hot I could barely tolerate it. And the mosquitoes were ravenous! I spent much less time in the field this summer, and I sure hope I’ll be back to my normal level of nature explorations next year. But the other day we got one of our first beautiful fall days, with a crystal blue October sky (in September!) and refreshingly cool north winds. It’s been wonderful to turn the air conditioner off and open all the windows in the house to get some fresh air in here.

So on this gorgeous day I took advantage of the comfortable temperatures to get out for one of my last dragonfly surveys of the season. As I started out I was feeling sort of dejected because there was hardly anything flying, dragonfly or otherwise. My spirits lifted a bit when I saw a tiny gnat ogre, our smallest robber fly at about 1/4″ long. There are three possible Holcocephala species in Ohio, and they’re not easy to identify. But they’re one of my favorites and I’ve seen lots of them at Wiregrass Lake this year, although they’ve gotten scarce in the past few weeks. I took some quick photos of the tiny predator on his hunting perch and moved on to resume my dragonfly count.

A gnat ogre, a robber fly that’s only a quarter inch long — tiny but fierce! (Holcocephala species)

A few minutes later I was taking photos of a female spreadwing damselfly, and getting much happier because spreadwings are rare at this location, and this was the first one I’d seen here all summer. This is most likely a Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis).

Slender spreadwing damselfly, female – Lestes rectangularis

Spreadwings are so-named because of the way they hold their wings outspread, in contrast to other damselflies, who hold their wings folded together. I think they look like they’re wearing ballerina tutus, and that makes me smile.

My spirits soared yet again when the damselfly grabbed a gnat ogre right in front of me! It happened so fast that I didn’t realize what she’d caught until I enlarged the pics on the back of my camera. A case of predator becoming prey, or as Mark Knopfler put it, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug!”

Slender spreadwing with gnat ogre prey

I sat on the ground and watched her for ten minutes as she enjoyed her meal. She started with the head, then ate the thorax, dropping the wings on the ground. Here’s a short video so you can see some of the action. There’s some wind noise but you might be able to hear crunching sounds as she munches on her lunch. (I don’t think the video needs a “gross” warning, and if you haven’t clicked away already, you’ll be fine!)

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Predatory insects are fascinating because you just never know what you might get to see. And in this case, when one predator catches another one, it’s very dramatic. (If you want to see a series of dramatic photos I took of another insect interaction, check out “The Circle of Life, Insect Edition.)

As I left the damselfly to finish her meal, I snapped a photo of the scene. The circle indicates where she was, in the vegetation alongside Wiregrass Lake. If you weren’t tuned in to these insects, you could easily walk past them and not have a clue about the life-and-death drama that was playing out at your feet!

That’s one of the things I love about being out there paying close attention to insects. It’s like I’m living in a fascinating secret world that nobody else is noticing. And yet I know there’s still so much out there that I’m missing, and that’s what keeps me going out again and again.

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Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

Meadow at Creek Bend Farm - early fall (800x533)
Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm

Silver-spotted Skipper on thistle (800x741)
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)

So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.

Cabbage White - Pieris rapae (800x759)
Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.

Viceroy Butterfly (800x533)
Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience!  I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:

Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:

Path at Creek Bend Farm with coneflowers (800x533)

Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird v2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

Ruby-throated hummingbird v3

I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.

Robber fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly - see closeup (800x666)

But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly v2 - see close up (800x610)

This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal Fly - promachus genus (800x547)

My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:

Red-footed Cannibal Fly - 2 of them (800x535)

They’re a couple of inches long and very intimidating. Especially if you’re a smaller insect! And I discovered that these predators have been known to prey on…wait for it….hummingbirds! So I guess the little hummer in the next tree was very lucky this hungry killer had already found a victim.

Okay, this has been long already, but I don’t want to leave you with visions of gut-sucking cannibals, so here are some pretty dogwood berries. I hope that makes up for it. 🙂

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood
Dogwood berries