Fall Dragonflies

This is a meadowhawk – probably, according to the helpful folks at BugGuide, a Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, although all the dragonflies in this genus look the same to my eyes. (Apparently this one has “long pterostigma,” which is a word I had to look up. It’s that colored cell at the front of each wing.) These are everywhere along the edges of the lakes right now, and some of them are hard at work making more meadowhawks.

We’re supposed to get three inches of snow tonight. One of the advantages of keeping a blog is that I know exactly when the first significant snow was last year, because I posted photos of it – it was November 9. Much earlier this year!


Video: Spider Eating a Dragonfly

Over the weekend I hiked out to one of my favorite spots on campus, the same place where I photographed grass-pink orchids this summer and watched courting turtles last fall. It’s this amazing area along a lakeshore where old logs in the water have been colonized by bog plants, creating little islands of habitat. Getting out to them requires scrambling down a bank and then walking out on the newer vegetation-free logs.

While I was crouching on a log admiring the sundew and pitcher plants, a meadowhawk dragonfly (I’m not sure of the exact species) blundered into a big spiderweb next to me. I admired it for a moment, thinking I might take a photo and then free it, since the spider seemed to be nowhere in sight. Then the dragonfly twitched and the enormous spider appeared out of its hiding place.

After a second it occurred to me to switch my camera to video mode. Ta-da! I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating. You can see the spider working to crunch the awkwardly-shaped dragonfly down into a more manageable package, crumpling up its wings and abdomen.

It was hard to keep the video perfectly in focus, since I was balancing on a log and couldn’t see what I was doing terribly well. But I’m not gonna lie, this was a pretty darn cool thing to watch. What a big meal for that spider!


My Favorite Dragonfly Genus: The Whitefaces

Because this genus is part of the skimmer family, which I’ve already blogged about, let’s call this…

Know Your Dragonflies Part 1b: Genus Leucorrhinia, the Whitefaces

It’s hard to explain why I would call these my favorite dragonflies (at least, of those I’ve identified so far). They’re small, and pretty in a subtle way, and they love boggy boreal habitats. They’re just cool! This is a genus within the family Libellulidae that contains about fifteen species, and they’re called whitefaces for one simple reason.


Know Your Dragonflies, Part 2: The Clubtails

Once again it’s time to learn along with me as I muddle my way through dragonfly identification. Last time I introduced you to the skimmers, the biggest and most diverse dragonfly family. Besides the skimmers, though, there is one family that stands out as being particularly common where I live.

Know Your Dragonflies Part 2: Family Gomphidae, the Clubtails

I have good news and bad news about clubtails. The good news is, there’s a single, easy-to-spot trait that is shared by all members of this family and will help you instantly recognize its members.

Look deep into my eyes…

Their eyes don’t touch. At all. They are spaced widely apart on the head. There is one other family of dragonflies like this, the Petaltails, but luckily for me there are no petaltails in my neck of the woods (those living in other parts of North America may want to be on the lookout for Gray Petaltails in the east and Black Petaltails in the west, and they’re on other continents, too). Damselflies’ eyes are separated, too, so make sure you know how to recognize a damselfly when you see one.

Now for the bad news about clubtails: though easy to identify to family, they can be (at least for me) very hard to identify to species. That one above is something in the genus Gomphus, probably either an Ashy or a Dusky Clubtail, but when I posted the photo on BugGuide I was told that to positively identify it I would need to catch it and look at “the shape of the subgenital plates.” I think I’ll pass.

Luckily not all of them are so cryptic. Here is a Black-shouldered Spinylegs, Dromogomphus spinosus.

This is a male, and it’s showing the characteristic that gives clubtails their name: in a lot of species in this family, the male’s abdomen is tipped with a swollen “club.” Beware, though. Not all male clubtails have this, and none of the females do. Here’s a female Lancet Clubtail, Gomphus exilis, with a clubless abdomen.

So there you have it. Next time you’re out on a walk with your friends and you notice a dragonfly with widely spaced eyes and a fat-tipped tail, you can sound very smart by saying “Aha, look, a clubtail!”


More Bog Life!

After our jaunt through a black ash swamp, the North Woods Native Plant Society group moved down the road a little ways to walk out into a bog – a very wet, squishy walk. You all know how I love bogs. Here’s a sample of what we saw.

At the center of the bog was a small open lake. I described how this happens last week.
Wild cranberry in bloom
Sundew, a tiny carnivorous plant. Look closely – this one has a couple insects it’s digesting.
Frosted Whiteface, a boreal, bog-loving dragonfly. I practically fell into the lake while trying to get this photo.

Totally, totally worth getting my boots and socks soaked through!


Know Your Dragonflies, Part 1: The Skimmers

Sooo I wrote recently about wanting to improve my dragonfly skillz. Since then I’ve photographed and identified three more species, and I decided that since I really want to be able to recognize dragonfly families more readily, I should organize the photos I have into folders based on that.

In doing this and seeing how the different species fit together, I realized that I actually know a couple of the families a bit better than I thought I did. I still may not be the most qualified person to write this, but I can’t be the only person who thinks it would be useful to have some basic grasp of dragonfly taxonomy, so this post will the first of a (mumble)-part series… Know Your Dragonflies!


Dragonflies, Please Sit Still!

Earlier this spring I told someone that now that I’ve sort of got a handle on butterflies, the next thing I’d like to work on learning is dragonflies. The problem is, dragonflies are a lot more challenging. If I see a butterfly I don’t know, my usual approach is to follow it around with my camera until it lands somewhere and holds still long enough for me to snap a photo, which I can then compare to my field guide and various butterfly ID sites online. Dragonflies, on the other hand, almost never let me get close enough to take a usable photo.

There are some exceptions – I found this guy on a cool evening recently, too sluggish to take off when I approached. Of course, it’s one of maybe three species of dragonfly I can already identify on sight, the Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella.

One of the students I worked with last fall was interested in dragonflies as a hobby, but he collected them (as in, caught them and popped them in the freezer to kill them, then mounted them – he had permits, he was doing this for a nature center). I completely respect collecting, as long as it’s done responsibly, because it contributes a lot to our knowledge of wildlife, but I don’t think I personally could ever purposely kill a dragonfly or anything else.

So, any suggestions for enjoying dragonflies in their natural environment?


Dragonflies Before the Freeze

We’re under a frost advisory for tonight. If it comes to pass, it will be the first one of the season. Despite the dip in temperatures, though, there have still been plenty of insects active in the past few days, including dragonflies. (The Ozarkian did warn me that odonates are addictive…)

These small hyperactive red guys have been everywhere. I think this is a Ruby Meadowhawk, Sympetrum rubicundulum. Never mind, it’s a White-faced Meadowhawk, Sympetrum obtrusum. They move around so much that this (above) was the best photo I could get, and this is with my camera all the way zoomed in and held at arm’s length, and the result cropped.

I had better luck with this one, who, after I’d stalked it patiently for a couple minutes, obliged by perching against a nice leafy backdrop in the late afternoon light. Look at those colors! The bronze-y wing patches, the neon orange chevrons running down its back! The kind folks at BugGuide identified it as a Calico Pennant, Celithemis elisa.

As it starts to get colder I know I’ll be seeing fewer and fewer insects, to the point where I’ll have to wait until next April or May to get my next fix. Oh well… winter has charms all its own.


Watch Me Geek Out About Dragonflies

Remember that post about the teneral dragonfly at the edge of Lake Superior (ooh, teneral, listen to my fancy new vocabulary)? Well, there’s more to that story. After taking the photos you’ve already seen, I climbed back up to our campsite and excitedly told the others about what we’d found. A few minutes later one of the other grad students, who goes by the name “Coolia” on the web, sidled up to me and said thoughtfully, “You know a lot about dragonflies, huh?”

“Um… define ‘a lot.'”

“Can you talk about them for thirty seconds for a Cool Things in Nature video?”

“Yes! Yes I can!”

Coolia, you see, is just as much of a nature nerd as I am, but rather than blogging she produces her own video series. So the two of us clambered happily back down to the shore, relocated the dragonfly (now signficantly drier and almost ready to fly away), and geeked out about it while she shot a video on her digital camera. Neither of us is an entomologist, and it shows, but what we lack in knowledge we make up for in excitement.


A Brand-New Dragonfly

While we were frolicking on the shore of Lake Superior we came across something I’d never seen before.

A young dragonfly, just emerged from its nymph stage, still resting on a rock and drying its wings in preparation for flight. (At first I wasn’t one hundred percent sure this was a dragonfly, given the damselfy-like way its wings were folded across its back at this point, but they spread out as they dried.) While doing a little research in preparation for writing this post I learned that there’s a technical term for that cast-off exoskeleton still visible next to it: the exuvia.

I don’t know anything about identifying dragonflies, but when no one answered my initial “ID Request” posting to BugGuide I resorted to trying to figure it out myself. It was the Wikipedia article on dragonflies that finally helped me get it to family level, because it mentioned that the only family of dragonflies whose eyes don’t meet in the middle are clubtails. Ta-da! After that it was merely a matter of browsing through the clubtail photos on BugGuide until I found something that matched. This is, I believe, an Eastern Least Clubtail, Stylogomphus albistylus. Many of the images showed a much darker-colored and more boldly-marked dragonfly, but I finally figured out that apparently their color changes as they dry and become flight-worthy.

I’d seen dragonfly nymphs before, and I’d seen adult dragonflies before, but I’d never seen one just past that moment of transition like this. Very cool.