Tag Archives: Dragonflies

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!