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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Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads

Have you seen any herps lately? Not sure? How about odes? I’m sure you have, they’re hard to miss right  now. I’ve seen tons of them, but if you’d asked me those questions a couple years ago I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. As I know now, “herps” is a term for reptiles and amphibians; “odes” is short for odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies.

Mid-July is a rather quiet time in the world of birdwatching: the activity of migration is over, there’s not as much boisterous singing to attract mates, and everybody is either sitting on a nest or busily raising young. So to celebrate these fun words — and to give me an excuse to stay inside where it’s relatively cool — I thought I’d show you some of the herps and odes I’ve seen lately.

Ebony Jewelwings - damselflies (800x533)I almost deleted this first picture because it wasn’t in focus, but then I realized it was still interesting. These are mostly Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (and one other type I’ll show you better below). They were swarming over the river at Wolcott Mill Metropark on a recent visit and I sat on a rock in the shade to snap a few photos of the aerial symphony they were creating. Isn’t the blurred background almost like an Impressionist painting? I love it.

Since I’m a newbie at identifying dragon- and damselflies, I sat down with my “Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies” to put names to the ones I saw. I hope you’ll tell me if I have any of these wrong.

American Rubyspot damselfly male

I wasn’t sure about this one at first, but then I found this next photo of it with wings spread and was able to figure out that it’s an American Rubyspot damselfly. I think we can figure out how it got that name…very distinctive, isn’t it?

American Rubyspot damselfly
American Rubyspot (above) and Ebony Jewelwing, both damselflies.

There were also lots of Eastern Pondhawks, a type of dragonfly. The males and females look very different, as you can see here:

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female (click to enlarge)

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male

I like the green female better. 😉 And guess what else I just learned? Within the order Odonata, dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera which means “unequal wings,” while damselflies belong to the suborder Zygoptera, which means “equal wings.” This is because all four wings of damselflies are the same size, while those of dragonflies are different.

If this sounds familiar, you might be remembering my explanation about woodpecker feet being zygodactyl (“equal toes”), as contrasted with the feet of most other birds which are anisodactyl (“unequal toes”). Here’s that article if you want to refresh your memory (scroll down to the green box on that page).

I can feel my brain getting bigger by the minute, how about you?

And then there was this beautiful Widow Skimmer dragonfly, another male. Apparently the males (of dragons and damsels) are very territorial at the water, and females are thought to hang out elsewhere to avoid the aggressive males until it’s time to lay eggs. I don’t blame them one bit.

Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male
Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male

After an hour or so trying to photograph those speedy fliers, it was a piece of cake to snap pics of the frogs in a nearby pond. I’m not proud to reveal the extent of my lifelong disconnect from the natural world by telling you that I’d never seen a frog with those big flat discs on its head before. At first I thought it had a button stuck to it…seriously, I had no clue. I now know that these are its ears, and if you tell anyone about my ignorance, I’ll say that I knew it all along….

Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by
Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by

That was a Green Frog, and this next one is a Bullfrog. I’m sure both of them were hoping to have some nice crunchy odes for lunch.

Bullfrog
Bullfrog

Those of you who are paying attention will be thinking, “Hey, where are the toads you promised us?” You, my friends, get gold stars for staying here this long! Here’s your toad:

Eastern American Toad
Eastern American Toad

This guy and his girlfriend almost gave me a heart attack last month when I was moving some bags of mulch in the yard. They didn’t seem to want to move from their moist, shady spot, but I gently herded them to a safer location so I could finish the yard work. I know they can’t hurt me, but something about an animal that jumps unpredictably freaks me out, so it took me an hour to get them far enough away that I could get all of my mulch moved without fear of them hopping onto my head. Geez, what a baby.

Well, this was fun for me, and I hope you learned something too. There’s one last frog to show you. This is One-eyed Joe who lives in a planter beside the garage. I’m not afraid of him.

One-eyed frog