Category Archives: Odonata

The odonates — dragonflies and damselflies

Here be Dragons (and Damsels)!

Yes, back to the NYSDEC’s excellent Five Rivers Environmental Education Center preserve yet again, but this is something I anticipate writing frequently in this blog now that we are living once more in the Hudson Valley!

[Also see ‘Other Photos from Five Rivers’ – same location & day]

A 'baskettail' species of dragonfly, and - because it is perched in bushes away from water - this one is likely to be a female
A ‘baskettail’ (Epitheca) species of dragonfly, and – because it is perched in bushes away from water – this one is likely to be a female

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of spring is seeing the reappearance of odonates (a.k.a. ‘odes’)– the dragonflies and       damselflies – and even though they are only just getting started, today’s short hike (May 14) was no    disappointment.

Because dragonflies are predators and are more robust than – say – butterflies, they tend to have less human admirers, but that’s a pity because they    really  are remarkable and often spectacular.     Damselflies are   predators too,  but are typically much smaller and more delicate.

This photo, from animal-kid.com, shows how enormous ancient dragonflies used to be
This photo, from animal-kid.com, shows how enormous ancient dragonflies used to be

They are also very ancient creatures and fossils of very large dragonfly ancestors are found from 325 million years ago. Indeed, in those days, due to there being more oxygen in the atmosphere, dragonflies used to grow much bigger, with wingspans up to 750mm / 30 inches across.

None-the-less, in recent years far more people have started taking a lot of interest, particularly in dragonflies – often birders who are finding it to be an additional and equally enjoyable use for their binoculars. (Close-focusing binoculars are by far the best for getting a good look at timid dragonflies and butterflies without frightening them away.)

A male baskettail patrolling his territory, over water, waiting for a female to arrive
A male baskettail patrolling his territory, over water, waiting for a female to arrive

One of the challenges with getting interested in odonates is that some of them are very difficult to tell apart. Recognition of various species can literally require catching them and taking a very close look with a hand lens.  The good thing is that they can be caught and handled then safely released with no harm done, but in my case I have more than enough to carry in the form of camera gear without adding a long-handled net to the burden, so I will apologise now for not always being able to give a definitive identification for all of my ‘ode’ photographs.

Damselflies' eyes are set wide apart, like a dumbbell, whereas dragonflies' eyes (see above) typically touch at the top of the head
Damselflies’ eyes are set wide apart, like a dumbbell, whereas dragonflies’ eyes (see photos above of the baskettail species) typically touch at the top of the head

As the photos in this blog show, this hike turned up a beautiful dragonfly (just one species, I believe) and at least two species of damselflies.  (I should add that in both types of creature it is common for males and females to look very different, but that is not always the case.)

Apart from the positioning of the eyes (see the above photo caption) another good way to tell dragonflies from damselflies is how they hold their wings when they are not flying.  If you look at the top photo on this page, of a dragonfly, you can see that it rests with its wings straight out at right-angles to the body.  Now look at the damselfly photos, above and below this paragraph and you can see that their wings are held along the body, not sticking out to the sides.

A beautiful male 'Eastern Forktail' damselfly
A beautiful male ‘Eastern Forktail’ damselfly (Ischnura verticalis)

One thing they do all have in common is a need for water for the reproductive phase of their lives, so any water (other than the sea) can be a good location to see ‘odes’, whether it is a large pond, a small pond, a fast stream, a slow stream or even a tiny ‘seep’.

If you decide to try photographing them, be aware that they have huge eyes for a reason.

I believe this is a female but I'm not yet sure what species. (It also has a distinctive kink in its abdomen.)
I believe this is a female but I’m not yet sure what species. (It also has a distinctive kink in its abdomen.)

They have near-360-degree vision and because many birds will eat them they react instantly to fast movement, so approach very, very slowly.  Some species are easier to photograph, though, because they will habitually come back to the same twig or blade of grass as a perch, so watch where they land then move closer – at which point they will probably fly away – then move closer again and keep your fingers crossed that they do come back to the same place.  Patience will pay dividends!

If you would like to look at books on this enjoyable subject, I wholeheartedly recommend (for North America):

  1. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson; Princeton Field Guides
  2. Unsurprisingly the same author does a book for the ‘West’, too
  3. Dragonflies Through Binoculars, by Sidney W. Dunkle; Oxford University Press.

[Also see ‘Other Photos from Five Rivers’ – same location & day]

 

New Dragonfly & New Moth at Tillman Road

A last-minute change of plans took us back to our old stamping ground in Western New York State at the weekend, so I grabbed a couple of hours to re-visit the Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area, at Clarence.  The WMA is described by the NYS DEC as “a wet lowland with an emergent marsh, open water, grassy fields, a deciduous swamp and hardwood forest.”

A male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly
A male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly

Tillman’s greatest appeal to me, over the last 12-or-so years that I have been a regular visitor, is that one never knows quite what will be found on any visit and ‘drawing a blank’ is rare.

Carolina Saddlebags, rear view to show wing detail
Carolina Saddlebags, rear view to show wing detail

This time, I turned up two new insect species I had never before  seen or photographed:  a male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly  (Tramea Carolina), and what – to the best of my very limited ability with moths – I believe to be a White Spring moth (Lomographa vestaliata).  The latter sat motionless on a leaf, to the extent that I wrongly presumed that it would be some sort of ‘bird dropping moth’ but the former was on high-speed patrol along the margin of a pond and settled only briefly, each time, before doing another lap of its territory.

I believe this to be a White Spring moth
I believe this to be a White Spring moth

I’ve been very careful in identifying the dragonfly because it is very similar, in both appearance and range, to the Red Saddlebags (T. onusta) but I’m fairly confident I’ve got it right… However, as is always the case on my blogs, if anyone recognizes that I’ve made a mistake please do add a    comment below to put me right, and I will correct any error.

The various species of ‘saddlebags’ dragonflies get their name from the dark patches on the inner section of their wings, and when seen – usually in silhouette – from below, this creates an outline that looks like what the name says.

A Red Admiral butterfly, laying an egg
A Red Admiral butterfly, laying an egg

Up where we were, close to Lake Ontario, the Carolina is fairly close to the northern limit of its range, which is over the border in southern Ontario province. Even in this part of New York State, it is further north than its usual breeding range.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)
Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

 

My other insect of the day was a rather worn-looking Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atlanta) which – to my surprise – was laying eggs in low, rough vegetation where I could see no trace of any of the future caterpillars’ necessary food plants.  Does a first-brood adult lay eggs randomly around an area in the hope that at least some of their offspring will find suitable food after the plants all grow?  Or was this one operating by smell (chemical sensing) and by that means actually knew the right places to leave eggs?

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow

As for the other photographs, well I’m always a sucker for violets and I’m not going to walk past a ‘posing’ Tree Swallow, either!

Nature at Olana

It could be argued that if ever architecture looked out-of-place for its location it is at Olana, in the Hudson Valley, New York State, on the east bank of the river, on the opposite side to the town of Catskill.  It’s origins, however, are of significant artistic interest.

Frederic Edwin Curch's Persian-style mansion at Olana
Frederic Edwin Church’s Persian-style mansion at Olana

Olana is a Persian-inspired mansion that was built for Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), an American landscape painter born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, and perhaps best known for painting large panoramic landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets… Church’s paintings emphasise light and a romantic respect for natural detail…  [For more detail, go to Wikipedia.]

Rue Anemone
Rue Anemone

I paid two visits to the grounds (which is free on weekdays but costs just a few dollars for admission on weekends and public holidays), once in late April and again early in May.  As I was short of time on both of these occasions I limited my walks to a lap of the man-made lake     although there are several other walks available to visitors.

Hepatica
Hepatica

On both of my visits only a couple of spring ephemerals were present: Rue Anemones and Hepatica, although the latter was past it’s best on my May walk.

As for the lake itself, I have been here a few times but this was the first time I was able to see that there are some Koi carp present (either that or some very large goldfish, if that’s not the same thing!).  The other non-native that was present, but fortunately in very small quantities was the invasive reed Phragmites.

Koi Carp in the lake at Olana
Koi Carp in the lake at Olana

Much more interesting were the male Common Green Darner dragonflies that were patrolling sections of the shoreline, waiting for the arrival of females.

Several birds were present, though I didn’t get good photos of as many as I usually manage.

The ones not photographed included:

  • Northern Flicker
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Blue Jay
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Song Sparrow
A male Baltimore Oriole
A male Baltimore Oriole

I certainly expected to see more species of migrating warblers passing through but             disappointingly that didn’t happen.

The two species that did surrender to my lens were the      ubiquitous America Robin and the spectacular Baltimore Oriole.

My bird ‘stalking’ usually gets more prolific results!

Last but by no means least, the humble Inch Worm!
Corrected caption:  NOT an Inch Worm but likely a Noctuid moth caterpillar!

While I was there, though, what I took to be an ‘inch worm’ dangling in the sunshine caught my eye.  Most Americans undoubtedly have seen inch worms but after I got home from this walk I looked it up and was staggered to find the claim that there are, in fact, over 1400 different species of inch worm in North America!  To check further, I sent the above photo to someone vastly more knowledgeable than I about entomology and their response was that this was not even an inch worm – a fact     given away by the number of pairs of ‘sucker’ legs!  Instead, this is likely to be the caterpillar of a ‘Noctuid’ species of moth, and there are hundreds of different species of those, too!  My thanks to ‘Ask An Entomologist’ – on Twitter @BugQuestions – for this information.

For those people interested in Mr. Church, his home and his artwork, guided tours of the house are available on certain days. For details go to: www.olana.org/plan-your-visit/

Over the delightfully-named Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the town of Catskill, one can also visit the home of Thomas Cole – a famous English-born artist – which is now a National Historic Site. More info at: www.thomascole.org/visit-main/

 

Dragonflies — Demonic to their Prey but Delightful to the Eye

Make no mistake, if you were a flying insect dragonflies would represent a brutal threat to your existence, and in earlier stages of life, dragonfly nymphs — in their months or years underwater — make the ‘Aliens’ of movie-fame look like wimps!

Go back in time and they were even more fearsome. Meganeuropsis permiana, which was related to the present-day dragonflies, had an estimated wingspan of almost 28 inches, and this is the length of a big man’s arm, all the way from armpit to outstretched fingertips.  As its species name shows, Meganeuropsis lived in the Permian era, and the fossils showing its size were found at Elmo, Kansas.

The stunning looks of a small African dragonfly (Cameroon).  Photo copyright 1981, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
The stunning looks of a small African dragonfly (Cameroon). Photo copyright 1981, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Many people may see butterflies as being more attractive than dragonflies — although some of us would disagree with that — but when it comes to evolutionary excellence the dragonfly is surely a candidate to be the king of the insect world.  Their eyesight is astonishing and their flying abilities must surely leave helicopter and fighter pilots envious!

Twelve-spot Skimmer (Western New York State). Photo copyright, 2010, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Twelve-spot Skimmer (Western New York State). Photo copyright, 2010, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Dragonflies (Anisoptera) and their cousins the damselflies (Zygoptera) together form an order of carnivorous insects called the Odonata (a.k.a. odonates, or simply ‘odes’ in everyday conversation).

Exuvia of a recently-emerged dragonfly. (Capital District, NY State.) Photo copyright 2012, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Exuvia of a recently-emerged dragonfly. (Capital District, NY State.) Photo copyright 2012, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Philip Corbet & Stephen Brook, in their ‘New Naturalist’ series book, ‘Dragonflies,’ (2008, UK), go one step further in recognising the amazing hunting skills of dragonflies when they suggest that true Anisopterans perhaps should be known as ‘warrior flies’.

Common Green Darners mating (male at top of photo). Photo copyright 2013, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Common Green Darners mating (male at top of photo). Photo copyright 2013, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

To quote the British Dragonfly Society[BDS], “Dragonflies are good indicators of the health of a habitat, so any variation in distribution or population size can indicate changes on a wider environmental scale.”  And in this day and age, that aspect alone is a serious reason for us taking interest.

Here on the west side of the Atalantic, there are a couple of key organizations:

  • The Dragonfly Society of the Americas [DSA] was organized during 1988 by several US Odonatists. Its purposes are to encourage scientific research, habitat preservation and the aesthetic enjoyment of Odonata;
  • The Xerces Society — nothing to do with Persian kings! — exists for the conservation of all invertebrates, odonates included.

In addition, and with strong support from both of the above, there is the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership [MDP], and as soon as time permits, I will be adding another page on this blog about the MDP ‘citizen science’ training day I attended (and greatly enjoyed) in New York State, in April 2014.

Female Calico Pennant (Western NY). Photo copyright 2013, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Female Callico Pennant (Western NY). Photo copyright 2013, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Last but by no means least, there is Odonata Central, an excellent resource for anyone wishing to identify dragonflies or damselflies that they have encountered.

Eddie Wren

 

Dragonfly Conservation in the USA

If you are interested in conservation and have an interest in insects, in their own right, or odonates in particular (i.e. dragonflies and damselflies), you are likely to find this 1 hour 23 minute YouTube video to be very informative indeed.

The video is of a webinar developed for Natural Resource Conservation Biologists that covers dragonfly life history, ecological roles, conservation status, habitat needs, and their intersection with the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program.

A separate, very useful website for anyone interested in odonates is:  www.odonatacentral.org

West Seneca Oxbow Wetland Restoration, WNY

As someone who is not exactly from Western New York originally — {:-) — I had no idea that there even were any old oxbow lakes in the area, let alone one on which restoration efforts had been made, but there is and its in West Seneca.

The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper [BNRK] website states that “West Seneca’s oxbow wetland on Buffalo Creek is just a few miles upstream from the industrialized Buffalo River, a Great Lakes ‘Area of Concern’. As one of only three major wetlands in the lower Buffalo River watershed, it is considered a source area for future habitat and species restoration in the AOC.  Planning studies over the past 40 years have recommended that the oxbow site be protected.”

According to the  ERIE [Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange] webpage, “the restoration of the  oxbow wetland began in 2008 as part of the Buffalo River Watershed and AOC  restoration effort.  The project was led by BNRK and funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“In Fall 2009, six ERIE trainees became involved  in the restoration project… [and] donated over  1000 hours in fieldwork and analysis of flora, fauna, soils and groundwater.  The trainees developed a habitat restoration  and management plan for the 14-acre parcel of the oxbow. The plan used an  adaptive management framework to control invasive plant species and reintroduce  native plants to the site based on historical and nearby reference  communities. ”

To see pictures of the Oxbow and ERIE trainees working on the project (courtesy of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper), click here.

IfI can establish that there is public access to this site, or get us permission to visit, then this seems like a good venue for one of our ‘Wildlife Watchers & Nature Photographers’ group walks.  I’ll let you know the outcome of this.

A photo of a dragonfly found in W.N.Y. wins a ‘Highly Honoured’ in the 2013 Nature Best Wildlife Photography Competition

You don’t have to travel in order to find good subjects for wildlife photography and competitions!

By pure chance, I found a page on a British wildlife photographer’s blog, showing his award-winning shot of what was, to him, an unusual species of dragonfly but to us in Western New York is a common species.  So if — as he writes — he was only able to grab two photos of the ‘halloween pennant’ in question, imagine how much advantage we “locals” have when we can see it and photograph it up close, every summer!

Richard Peters’ photo was taken in Florida but there are certainly plenty “Halloweens” here in Erie County, and by happy coincidence one of my own shots of this species is currently the ‘feature photograph’ at the very top of the ‘Site Index and About Us‘ page on this blog.

See Richard’s photograph here.