What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring

Earlier this year I was asked by Metroparks Toledo to start a program to monitor the dragonflies and damselflies at one of our local parks. I wrote a little bit about it in this post at the beginning of the summer, but now I’m finishing up the first monitoring season and have some thoughts about the experience.

Lake view at Wiregrass
View of Wiregrass Lake from the south end

Just to quickly recap for those who don’t want to click back and read the earlier post, the park system has some concerns about what might be causing a perceived decline in odonata at Wiregrass Metropark. This property is basically a small lake with a half-mile walking trail circling the water, and it’s known as one of the best parks in Toledo for watching odes. (This is where I led the dragonfly walk for Toledo Naturalists Association in June.) But Metroparks wants to gather data to see if there really is a significant decline happening here, and if so, to take action to remediate any negative environmental factors that might be contributing to it.

Path around Wiregrass Lake with goldenrod
Trail around the lake

So we divided the lake into quadrants and I was to visit once in every ten-day period through the summer to do a survey.  I counted the numbers of each species that I found in each quadrant, and made note of weather conditions on each count day.  I thought I was pretty familiar with this lake from my own visits there to photograph odes in the past couple years, but I have a different relationship with it after visiting so often and watching things change week by week.

As you know, I’m interested in all insects, not just odonata. And I pay attention to plants too, especially noting what’s native and what’s not. My plant knowledge is much more basic than my bug knowledge though. I’ve enjoyed watching not only the changes in insects through the season, but the changing landscape when different plants are in bloom.

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Calico Pennant

Dragonflies don’t have any connections to specific plants in the way that butterflies and moths do. For example, moth and butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are restricted to feeding on specific plants or plant families, so their populations fluctuate with the presence or absence of their host plants.  Odes don’t tend to perch on flower heads because they’re not pollinators, but I’m always hoping for those extra nice photo opportunities when they do.

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Dragonfly exoskeleton after emergence

Some things that could impact the populations of odes at this location could be water quality, or the quantity of emergent vegetation around the edges of the lake. Many species of dragonflies lay their eggs in plants that grow in the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will be able to drop down into the water. Dragonflies and damselflies live most of their lives as underwater insects before crawling out of the water and becoming adult winged insects.

The northern half of Wiregrass Lake’s shoreline is pretty heavily vegetated, with the only access being provided by several stone fishing platforms. The southern half is much more open, and Metroparks has placed signs prohibiting shore access on the southern end of the lake, in hopes of protecting the habitat there. This is where I see most of the odes on my surveys, but I can’t be sure if that’s due to the particulars of the habitat or just because it’s the most accessible portion. There could be just as many dragons flying on the north end, but I can’t see the lake up there, except for a few small openings.
Stay on Trail sign at Wiregrass

Prince Baskettail in flight
Prince Baskettail

Some species are most likely to be seen flying over the water, like the Common Green Darner, Black Saddlebags, and Prince Baskettail. Others are often found on the land, like many of the pennants and meadowhawks.  It’s always easier to get photos of them when they’re perched, but sometimes I manage to get in-flight shots of the ones that rarely land. This Prince Baskettail is a species that I’ve never found perched, but since it flies a shoreline patrol pattern that’s fairly predictable, I manage to get decent photos of this one usually.

My survey for the Metroparks doesn’t require that I take photos, but I try to photo-document at least one of each species so I can submit them to the three-year-long Ohio Dragonfly Survey. That statewide effort ends in 2019, so next year I won’t have to spend as much time taking photos and my ode surveys can be done in less time.

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Meadowhawk on ironweed, a native plant

That raises another point about what I’ve learned from doing these surveys so far. In the past couple of years, I’ve relied heavily on my photos to help me confirm identifications of many ode species. Sometimes that’s necessary for the species that require up-close viewing of reproductive appendages, so that’s okay. But I found that I’d relied so much on my camera that I wasn’t able to identify many of the small damselflies in the field. As soon as I started these surveys, I realized that was a problem. On my first survey day, I had to take dozens of photos of damselflies, and then come home and sort through them all to confirm my counts. I tagged them all with their quadrant number based on the time stamps on each photo, so I could put them in the correct column of the count sheet after I identified them.

It was tedious, and that was not going to work for an entire summer!

Here’s just a sample of three species of bluets so you can see how similar they are — keep in mind that they’re about the size of a sewing needle. (You should be able to see them larger if you click on the photos.)

So, I immediately went to my field guides and forced myself to learn them better so I could name them in the field and not have to take so many photos. Things went much faster after I did that.  You would think that someone doing insect surveys must be a very observant person, but I definitely have my weaknesses in that area. In fact, I wrote about an embarrassing episode of mistaken identify here.  I still have to use my camera sometimes to see the detailed marking on the damselflies, but I can usually name them right away now, and don’t have to spend much time at home studying photos.

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Blue Dasher

One other thing I learned is that it’s very difficult to count insects, especially the tiny ones. Sometimes as I move along the trail, I’ll count a Calico Pennant, for example. Then it flies off and I keep walking, and then I see another Calico Pennant land in front of me. Determining if it’s the same one or not is tough sometimes, but I do my best to decide if it could be the one I just saw earlier, or if it’s likely to be a different one. Believe it or not, sometimes I can tell individuals apart by the wear and tear on their wings, so that helps me to avoid double counting. And I’m sure I miss many more than I count, particularly the tiny damselflies that float around in the grass. But I’m hopeful that this survey method will still give us useful data going forward.

I’m so pleased that I’m able to do something worthwhile for Metroparks Toledo, and am also glad that this experience has improved my identification skills. I’m already looking forward to next year, to see how the numbers may be different and whether any new species will show up.

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Eastern Amberwings are one of the most abundant species at Wiregrass Lake

Leading My First Field Trip

I had planned to write about my visit to Lynx Prairie after Odo-Con, but time is getting away from me and it seems every day brings something else new and exciting that I want to share.  I’ve got a huge backlog of things to write about — and perhaps I’ll still write about Lynx Prairie later — but today I want to tell you about a recent day that was very special to me.

I’ve been on the board of Toledo Naturalists’ Association for about a year and a half now, and have often felt that I should step up and serve as a leader for one of our many field trips. But I was nervous about not having enough experience or knowledge to be a “good” leader, so I didn’t speak up and volunteer. At our board meeting last August, I was asked to lead the annual dragonfly field trip this year and, caught off guard without a good excuse, I agreed to do it. In the ensuing nine months, whenever I thought about it, I got a little bit nervous. Would anyone show up? Would I show my ignorance when I couldn’t answer all their questions?  But I determined to be as prepared as I could, and to bring my natural enthusiasm and hope that would be enough.

Me leading my first TNA field trip (Photo courtesy of Marian Fisher)

On the designated Saturday I arrived at Wiregrass Metropark to find a half dozen people already there waiting for me, and we ended up with 19 people on the walk. I was so pleased at the good turnout, and happy to have many friends there to support me on my first leading experience. Those friendly faces eased my nerves quite a bit, and I started off the morning by giving the group some basic facts about dragon- and damselflies and showing them the field guides I use. I had obtained a supply of the excellent dragonfly field guide pamphlets from the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and handed those out to people who wanted them.

The plan was to spend two hours walking the 0.6-mile loop trail around the lake looking for odes and anything else interesting we could find. I was worried about the weather, because it was mostly cloudy, which isn’t optimal for finding flying dragonflies. As ectothermic insects, they can’t generate their own body heat and must rely on the sun to give them the energy to fly. I’m always amazed at how quickly they respond to the sun and clouds on a day when the clouds are moving a lot. I can be watching dozens of them flying over a pond in the sunlight, and then a big cloud covers the sun and they all disappear almost instantly. Then in a few minutes when the cloud moves past the sun, the bugs start flying again pretty quickly too. It’s really fascinating to see.

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

Our walk started out a bit slow, but very shortly things picked up and we had a grand time with good looks at more than a dozen species.  I knew people would love seeing the flashier dragonflies, like Twelve-spotted Skimmers (below) and Calico Pennants (above).

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)

But I especially enjoyed showing them the tiny little damselflies that flit around in the grasses, like this Double-striped Bluet. I explained that you have to train your eyes to watch for the movement of “little blue needles” in the grass. It was fun to see their joy when they finally locked in on one of them and saw how small they are. This one, for example, is only about an inch long:

Double-striped Bluet (Enallagma basidens)

And this Emerald Spreadwing was a real crowd pleaser too:

Emerald Spreadwing (Lestes dryas)
Looking at a dragonfly (Photo courtesy of Sherry Plessner)

Here’s a pic of the baskettail we were looking at in the photo above:

One of the baskettails, unidentifiable to species from this photo

This experience was gratifying for me on two levels: First, because everyone seemed to have a really good time, and, second, because it helped me overcome my fear of putting myself out there as a leader.  I learned that I don’t have to have all the answers, and that enthusiasm can more than make up for any lack of experience. And I’ve got enthusiasm in spades when it comes to odes.

I seem to find a way to bring dragonflies into just about any conversation these days. Which is how I ended up volunteering to start an odonata monitoring program for Metroparks Toledo. Back in the very early spring, I was meeting with their research supervisor to talk about my work in their raptor monitoring program, and I happened to mention my love of dragonflies. She asked if I’d be interested in helping them track the odonate populations at one of our local parks. And I instantly said, “Yes, of course!”

The park happens to be Wiregrass Lake, the same one where our field trip took place.  Wiregrass is a newer Metropark, having only opened to the public in 2015. Prior to the park opening, my friend Rick Nirschl made frequent visits to the site to study dragonflies, and he provided Metroparks Toledo with a great deal of initial data about the odonates on the property, as well as suggestions for managing it to protect their habitats. Largely due to his efforts, Wiregrass has become known as the Metropark with the largest number of odonate species. Since the park’s opening, though, there has seemed to be a decline in the variety of species as well as overall numbers. And that’s what prompted this effort to gather more data.

Over the next few weeks, we discussed what the park system wanted to achieve and then we set up a monitoring protocol loosely modeled on those used to monitor butterflies. We divided the park into transects, and once each ten days I go there and count the number of each species present. I’ve found that counting dragonflies is much more difficult than counting birds or even butterflies, but I’m doing my best to get an accurate representation of the populations.

Two years after moving to Toledo, I continue to view our Metroparks as one of the best parts of my life here. There are endless opportunities to volunteer in the park system and I feel like a valued member of the community when I participate. Just this morning I spent two hours with other volunteers (from my Wild Ones Oak Openings chapter) helping remove invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Wildwood Metropark. It was 90 degrees in the morning, and it was hard work, but the results were clearly visible when we were done. And that felt good.