Odonata Chronicles: Second Edition

Are you ready for some more in the dragonfly tales? I thought for this second edition, and actually the third and fourth to follow, I’d stick with the stocky Skimmer family.

We’ll begin with the Four-spotted Skimmer, (Libellula quadrimaculata. I shouldn’t have favorites, but this is one. It’s as if it was given the crown jewels to display.

The name comes from the black spots at the nodus (that point in the wing where it appears notched and some veins begin) about halfway across each wing, and stigma at the wing’s tip. If you count going across, you have four spots. If you count instead the fore and hind wings, you have four spots, making for an easy ID when one perches to consume a meal like this one did.

And then there is that incredible stained-glass black basal spot on the hind wing that is interwoven with amber venation. My heart be still.

Look for Four-spotted Skimmers near shallow water during the summer season. I saw this one in a meadow located between a brook and lake.

As you can see, the lighting wasn’t quite right on this lady, but notice how her coloration is sorta similar to the Four-Spotted, thus forcing the brain to work. I have to slow myself down when in the field and remember key characteristics. Both may share shades of brown and creamy yellow, but upon closer inspection, they aren’t the same at all. The clue to the identity of this skimmer is the white stigmas on the wings. To my knowledge, no other dragonfly shares this feature. (Till one does, of course.) And in the case of this female Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), the tips of her wings are dark.

Those white stigmas really stand out on her male counterpart. Spangled Skimmers fly in my neck of the woods. from June through August near lakes and ponds and fields and woodlands, so keep your eyes open for the white flags.

A bit smaller in size to the Four-spotted and Spangled, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is another handsome specimen. That white face. Those green eyes. Can you see that the eyes have a metallic blue hue on top? His female’s eyes are red over gray, though they also turn green as she matures.

In a combination of colors, the thorax is striped, abdomen bluish with a black tip, wings with an amber base patch, and then, of course the eyes and face.

Floating or emergent vegetation, such as this Spadderdock, are preferred as Blue Dashers are spotted throughout the summer season. I’ve read that some migrate along the Atlantic Coast.

Some dragonflies are easier to identify than others because of unique features and such is certainly the case with the Widow Skimmer ((Libellula luctuosa). It’s the large dark patch that stretches from the base of the wing to the nodus that gives away her identity. Where her abdomen has a dark stripe down the middle that widens toward the tip, and yellow stripes on each side, his abdomen is entirely gray blue above. And his wings feature the same black patch with an adjacent white patch reaching almost to the stigma. Do you see a. bit of the whitish patch on the wings?

Perhaps the white is a little more evident now? I think I’m correct in stating that this brown-eyed specimen is an immature male due to the hint of white as well as the dark face. While both male and females have brown eyes, his face is dark, where hers is tan. Does that make this a widower? Hmmm. Not sure how that works. The Latin luctuosa in its scientific name refers to feeling sorrowful and I suppose these dragonflies were considered to be wearing black in mourning.

While they are summer fliers beside water bodies, fields, and woodlands, I’ve only ever encountered this one . . . that I can remember.

And just when you thought you had it, another species with black patches on its wings flies into the scene. But, there are differences. First, there’s the dark, wide crossband stretching from top to bottom of each wing and from nodus to stigma. Then, there’s the basal patches: black on fore wings; black with a white patch below on hind wings.

This dragonfly is known as a Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Huh? Well, you are actually looking at an immature male. The female is similar in that she also has the yellow slashes along the sides of her abdomen, but she lacks white patches on her hind wings. So how does the “whitetail” fit into the name?

The abdomen being the tail, this male demonstrates how the name came to be. I may have used the term “pruinosity” before, but this mature male surely illustrates it–a frosted or powdery appearance caused by pigment on top of an insect’s cuticle that covers up the underlying coloration. It’s my understanding that for some dragonflies like Blue Dashers and Common Whitetails, displaying pruinescence on the abdomen to other males is a territorial threat.

Common Whitetails are also summer fliers who prefer to perch on or just above the ground.

Finally, the last species for today, which is hardly the least. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifaciata)because I only just made its acquaintance this summer. My first thought when we met was that it was a Calico Pennant Skimmer. I got the skimmer correct, but not the actual ID. Notice that cherry-colored face that is tan on the sides. That gave me the first inkling that I might be on the wrong track.

The wings provided the next clue. While the Calico has dark patches on its wings, the Painted features bands that extend from top to bottom toward the tip of each wing about halfway down beginning at the nodus. Likewise, the abdomen differs for each species, with the Calico’s featuring heart-shaped spots, while Painted’s is brown with yellow sides and black triangles and lines on segments 6 and 7, plus wide black stripes on segments 8 through 10.

This is a face I hope to remember for a long time as the Painted Skimmer and I got to know other during a few brief moments along a forest road near a river in June. Until we meet again . . .

One final note: if you are with me in the field, I may not remember every little detail or the common name. I definitely won’t know the scientific name. But the more time I spend with them and the more I study and write about them, the more I learn and I hope you are learning a wee bit as well.

I leave you with my latest creation: Indigo Skimmer (Libellula indigofera), formed from deconstructed blue jeans.

Odonata Chronicles: First Edition

Somehow the words my high school Spanish and Latin teacher, Mr. Cretella, wrote in my yearbook have always stayed with me: “Never lose your desire to learn.” Indeed. That said, in Latin 1 during my senior year, if I couldn’t remember the answer, I substituted a Spanish term. I don’t remember how he reacted to that–probably with a groan on the outside and a smile within.

And so, my friends, please join me as I continue to learn about Odonatas, aka dragonflies and damselflies , those winged insects we all love to celebrate because they eat those that bug us the most, including blackflies and mosquitoes. Hmmmm, what about ticks?

Periodically, over the course of the summer my intention is to share some information and/or story with you about these predatory fliers. I may not always be correct, but hey, that’s how I learn, and I hope you’ll wondermyway for the journey.

One distinction I want to make is that mature dragonflies always have their wings spread out whether in flight or perching, while damselfly wings are together over their backs when perching (except for the Spreadwing family of damsels).

With 468 North American Species of Odonates at this time (new discoveries are always being made), Maine is home to 160 species.

One thing I want to point out about dragonflies is that the abdomen consists of ten segments. That will become important for identification purposes.

I thought we’d begin with the dragonflies known as Skimmers.

Skimmers, like the Four-Spotted Skimmer above, are the most ubiquitous dragonflies and range in size from small to large. They tend to have stocky bodies and spend much of their time perching on the ground and other flat substrates near muddy ponds and stream.

Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers are active May through July.

This chunky northern male skimmer has dark markings at the base of his otherwise clear wings. His hind wing patches are triangular, and the forewing patches are smaller or non-existent.

He has dark brown eyes and a black face. Notice the whitish/grayish/bluish stripes on his thorax–those are his “corporal” stripes.

The first half of abdomen is the same color and the rest of it is black.

Chalk-fronted Corporals tend to be in dense populations. Often, as I walk along a woodland path or beside a pond, these dragonflies lead the way, flying a few feet ahead, stopping on a rock or something else ahead of me and then as I approach, moving ahead again.

This baker’s dozen I spotted on a rock beside a small mountain pond.

The Female Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmer’s eyes are brown and face tan. But where his thorax was whitish gray, her’s is brown. 

Her abdomen, however, is like his.

Would you have guess that this was an immature form of the same? Just when you thought you nailed the Chalk-fronted Corporals. The immature features a lovely orangey brown with a black strip down the middle. The immature stage last for about two weeks in any species.

Active June through August, Slaty Blue Skimmers are about two in length.

The mature male is entirely blue except for black face and brown eyes. I typically find them flying and perching beside lakes and ponds.

Notice how he doesn’t have the patches at the base of his wings like the Corporals did.

Like most species, the female Slaty Blue has a look all her own with a brown thorax highlighted with yellowish-tan stripes. Her abdomen has a dark brown to black stripe down the top with a yellowish-tan stripe along the sides. 

She’ll darken with age to a uniform brown or gray color and her eyes will become red-brown. Immature of both sexes resemble a young female, just to confuse you more.

Much smaller in size at about 1.2 inches as compared to a two-inch Slaty Blue are the Calico Pennants, active May through August.

The male has red heart-shaped spots on abdomen segments 4 to 7 (remember, all dragonflies have 10 abdominal segments so you need to start at the base below the thorax and begin counting from there.)

All four wings have a small dark patch at the wing tips. And the hindwings have a large, mottled dark patch at the base which reminds me of stained glass.

The stigma, on the leading edge of each wing toward the wingtip, and the face are red. 

His claspers at the end of the abdomen are also reddish.

The female is the same as her male counterpart, but her spots and stigma are yellow. Again, it’s that stained glass effect that captures my attention.

From May through September you might spot an Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer near a lake or pond.

The entire thorax and abdomen of a Male Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer are powder blue; and his claspers at the tip of the abdomen are white.

Often found perching on lily pads, his face is green and eyes blue.

The female Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer is bright green with black markings. Her green thorax is unstriped.

In flight from May through August, the Dot-tailed Whiteface male is an easy one to identify in the field. First, there’s that white face. But wait. Some other dragonflies also have white faces, so don’t stop there. While his eyes are brown, his body is black overall, but he has a conspicuous yellow spot on segment 7.

You might not recognize his mate as being a Dot-tailed because, well, she has lots of dots. Her abdomen is yellow at the base and then large dots on segments 3 through 6, with a smaller one on segment 7. She also has along the sides of her abdomen.

There are more to share just in the Skimmer family, but for the first edition of Odonata Chronicles, we’ll leave it at that. Five species with so much variation is a lot to digest.

Summer Falls

Today dawned the chilliest in a while with 29˚ registering on the thermometer at 6am. But as these September days do, it warmed up a bit and I didn’t need my gauntlet mittens, aka hand-made wrist warmers, for long.

As I ventured forth, I noticed, however, that the fairies had worked like crazy and prepared for the temperature and their beds were well covered.

Further along, Cinnamon fern fronds curled into themselves as is their manner at this time of year, but really, it looked like they had donned caterpillar coats in an attempt to stay cozy. So named cinnamon for the color of their separate fertile frond in the spring, the late season hue also sings their common name.

Upon another stalk that also appeared cinnamon in color, paused a Swamp Spreadwing Damselfly, its days diminishing as its a summer flyer.

For a while, I stood in an area where Bog Rosemary and Cotton Grass grow among a variety of others. One of those others blooms late in the season and added a tad bit of color to the display.

As I wandered, I wondered. Where are the pollinators? For the early hours I suspected they were tucked under the flowers, but eventually the day warmed enough and the action began and no one was busier than this Bumblebee.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, for Hover Flies did what they do: hovered. And occasionally landed.

Notice the hairy fringe? Hover or Drone Flies as they are also known, mimic bees in an attempt to keep predators at bay. Perhaps the hair also keeps the cold temp from tamping down their efforts?

Crossing streams more than several times, Water Striders skated while the tension between feet and water created reflections of the still green canopy and blue sky. And do you notice the tiny red water mites that had hitched a ride on the strider?

Meandering along, the natural community kept changing and so did the plant life. One of my favorites, Hobblebush, spoke of three seasons to come: autumn’s colorful foliage, winter’s naked buds a bit hairy in presentation, and spring’s global promise of a floral display forming between the buds.

One might think this was a serene hike in the woods and through the wetlands. One would be slightly wrong. Ah, there were not man-made sounds interrupting the peace, but the grasshoppers and cicadas did sing, birds did forage and scatter and forage some more, and red squirrels did cackle. A. Lot.

Perhaps their dirty faces indicated the source of their current food source: white pine seeds. It certainly looked like sap dripped from facial hairs.

And I’m pretty sure I heard a request for sunflower seeds and peanuts to be on the menu soon.

I wandered today beside a muddy river,

through a Red Maple swamp,

and into a quaking bog.

In each instance it was obvious: Summer falls . . . into autumn. It’s on the horizon.

Drawn by the Sapsuckers

This morning’s tramp found me checking on a couple of bird nests. The first, which belonged to a Phoebe family, was empty.

And so I wandered along a path through a cathedral in the pines.

It seemed apropos that I should spy the works of an Oak Apple Gall wasp in such a place for it is believed that circa 800 A.D., monks from a Columban monastery created the Book of Kells and used such galls for their green colorant. The wasp uses it as a place for a larva to pupate.

I knew I’d reached the second nest I wanted to check on because from about twenty feet away I could hear the peeps of the babes within. Their father tossed in a meal, much differently than how he was feeding them only a week or two ago when he entered the nest hole every few minutes.

Today, no sooner did he leave when a nestling popped out and begged for more. I watched for a bit and then gravity pulled me in a different direction.

And so I trespassed onto a neighboring property. Well, I don’t think of it as actually trespassing since it’s not posted and I know the owners who have invited me to visit on numerous occasions. They just didn’t know today would be one of those; nor did I until it was. The deer flies buzzed all about my head, but thankfully some old friends in the form of dragonflies (uh oh, here I go again) snatched the pesky insects and then dined.

It took a few minutes, but eventually Slaty Blue gobbled every bit of the fly. One down; a gazillion to go.

While the lupines had been in full bloom the last time I visited, today’s flowers of joy were the Milkweeds. Even the ants agreed.

On a leaf below one flowerhead, I noticed something tiny and by the pattern on its back, knew who I was spying.

About the size of a nickel, it was a Spring Peeper. Located about two feet above ground, this little frog could hide from predators all day, waiting to munch on insects and spiders at night. Do you see the X on its back? Its scientific name–Pseudacris crucifer–breaks down to Pseudo (false), acris (locust) and crucifer (cross bearer).

While I continued to admire him, a dash of color brightened the background and then flew down onto the path.

Bedecked in orange and black, it was a Fritillary butterfly. There were actually two today and where the colors of the lupines had passed, the butterflies contributed greatly with their hues.

The Fritillaries weren’t the only adding a dash of color for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also pollinated the meadow flowers.

Canada Tiger Swallowtails also fly in this part of Maine and so I’m forever trying to remember how to tell the two apart besides size, which doesn’t help when you only see one. The trick, however, is to look at the yellow line on the underside of the forewing. If it isn’t one continuous line as this one wasn’t, then it is the Eastern variety.

I’ve probably completely confused you, but the next will be easy:

A pop quiz: 1. Who is this? You tell me. (Hint: Emerald family)

2. Who is this? (Hint: Clubtail family)

3. Who is this? (Hint: Skimmer family)

4. Who is this? (Hint: Skimmer family)

Extra credit if you can identify this lady. (Hint: Skimmer family)

The skimmers are many and each has something unique and lovely to offer. But my greatest thrill today was to encounter this delightful specimen just before I was about to depart the meadow. For those who joined me yesterday as I hunted for the Common Whitetail Skimmer, you may have noted the zigzag pattern on her abdomen. Take a look at the pattern along the abdomen of this beauty. The side spots form a smooth stripe. Her honey, whom I have yet to see, has not only the black patches on the wings, but also white. Who might this be? A Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

Before departing, I checked back on the sapsucker nestlings. Papa was doing the same from a tree about ten feet away. I got the sense he wanted to tell them to be patient and stop begging.

But how can you resist such a baby face? I know I couldn’t.

I gave great thanks to the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers for drawing me into this place and to Linda and Heinrich Wurm for allowing me to trespass and spy their meadow once again and all that it has to offer.

P.S. Quiz answers: 1. Racket-tailed Emerald; 2. Ashy Clubtail; 3. Spangled Skimmer; 4. Dot-tailed Whiteface; Bonus: female Great Blue Skimmer (a first for me) How did you do?

Hunting the Common

I knew when I headed out this morning that there was one member of the Odonata family that I wanted to meet. But . . . where oh where to find her.

Her habitat includes muddy-bottomed ponds, lakes, and streams, as well as disturbed areas. Hmmm. That should make the quest easy.

With that in mind, I first stopped beside a muddy-bottomed pond that flows into a brook, which at its start more resembles a stream. It is there that Slaty Blue Skimmer and I got reacquainted after so many months have passed since our last encounter.

He reminds me that dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which means “different wings” since their hindwing differ in size and shape from the forewings. Those differences may be subtle, but they are there.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I watched Slaty Blue come and go, defending his piece of the shoreline from his family members, I suddenly spied something under the Winterberry leaves: a newly emerged skimmer resting while its wings dried.

And then one shrub over a Racket-tailed Emerald, with neon green eyes paused longer than I expected. (This one is for you, Kate Mansfield Griffith–it doesn’t have the full green body of the Eastern Pondhawk that walked down your Connecticut driveway today, but the eyes were a good match of color, don’t you think?)

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Upon a Pickerel Weed in the water I notice a favorite of mine, this one also recently emerged and drying its wings before taking flight: a female Calico Pennant Skimmer. For some who have been watching, you’ll be happy to know that there were males about, but they were busy and didn’t wish to pose for a photo shoot.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Old friends, like Kate who was one of my first playmates and even if we can’t spend time together we can still share moments of wonder like we did as kids, make themselves known such as this male Chalk-fronted Corporal. I’ve described it before as being kid-like in behavior because its kind love to play leap frog and land three feet ahead of me with each step I take.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I soon leave the pond behind and find myself walking with intention along a woodland pathway and into an old log landing located near another brook. Guess who greets me? Yes, another Chalk-fronted Corporal, this one a female.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I continue to look, one with whom I struck up a conversation last summer flew in and snatched a moth before settleing on leaves to partake of the meal. Meet my friend: Black Shouldered Spinyleg, a clubtail so named for its black shoulders and spiny hind legs.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Next, a Spangled Skimmer with black and white stigma on its wings took me by surprise and I vowed to remember it for no other has the dual-colored stigmas.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

In the shadows I spotted another I’m getting to know this year, the Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly was stunning, but I found it amusing that its common name refers to tiny spots when so much more could have been honed in upon for a descriptor.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I was about ready to head for the hills when another dragonfly caught my attention. Okay, so that’s a bit of an understatement as so many more than I’ve shared made themselves known to me and I stood still and watched how they moved, where they rested, and how big their territory was.

How common are you? Very, and I AM the one you seek.

I wanted to find this female Common Whitetail Skimmer because she hardly seemed like an every-day dragonfly to me. Those zigzag stripes on her abdomen. The way each segment stood out more 3-D than most. And those three black patches upon each wing. Words fail to describe her beauty.

How common are you? Very and yet . . . not at all.

I set out to hunt for the common and along the way I met others equally common, but in the end the one I sought was hardly common at all . . . despite her common name.

Marvels of the Meadow

“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.

The first hint that we were in for a treat was the greeting along a woodland path where small butterflies teased us into admiring them. Erratic in flight, we rejoiced when one finally paused and we could zoom in on its pattern displayed in so many shades of brown.

It didn’t take long to reach the meadow . . . well, that is after we also paused along the way to try to gain a better understanding of leaf rollers and every other little thing that caught our attention.

But then . . . our focus was upon the scene before us.

Lupines everywhere we glanced.

They ranged in presentation from those with pinkish hues . . .

to deep purple . . .

and every shade between.

In the midst of all the purplishness stood a lone white spire.

As we started down one of the mowed paths, it soon became apparent that there was even more to see, like the face of this clubtail dragonfly who refused to leave its perch even when I tried to coax it onto my finger.

And then . . . my heart almost burst for upon one of the flowers were two immature Stream Cruisers and I couldn’t recall ever becoming acquainted with them in a prior life. Certainly one wouldn’t forget that chocolate and cream layered cookie face. (Yes, it was noon.) Okay, so I forget a lot of things, but really . . .

that was one memory to behold.

Of course, there were others, such as the canoodling craneflies who thought they’d escaped my vision by carrying out their love act below a leaf.

And then one of the most curious, made even more interesting because we’d examined some rolled up leaves on our way to the meadow . . .

Under our watch (mind you we took turns going in for a closer look as is our new way of being in the same place at the same time), a secretion was discharged as this little critter turned its head from side to side and ever so slowly the leaf curled inward.

Though we didn’t see any honeybees, the bumbles were there to perform their magical act.

Occasionally we pulled our focus away from the lupines and noticed other flowers in bloom, such as lilies and columbines, and daisies, and buttercups, and cinquefoils, and even those promising future blossoms like the milkweed. A Sedge Sprite damselfly waited for its next meal to pass by, while a larval bagworm hid within its protective case.

Upon another leaf, we spotted another clubtail, and I assumed it was the same species as the first dragonfly that had greeted us. Though I called both Sir Lancelot, for I thought perhaps they might be Lancet Clubtails, I knew that I’d have to figure it out back at home. If I’m not mistaken, because there are no markings on the last two segments (segments 9 & 10 in dragonflyspeak), rather than an Arthurian legend, this was actually an Ashy Clubtail.

As the sun’s rays grew stronger, Ashy changed its orientation, extending its abdomen directly toward the star at the center of the solar system in order to cool off. The obelisk position reduces the surface area to heat. It’s behaviors like this that boggle my mind, but they are innate.

Not to go unnoticed, for they made sure we paid attention with each step we took, were the Chalk-fronted Corporals. Their behavior reminds me of small children as they run ahead and just as I catch up, they run (fly) ahead again and wait, and just as I catch up, they run ahead and . . . you get the picture.

Others also made themselves known and it seemed the more time we spent looking, the more we saw. Well, maybe “seemed” isn’t the right term, for indeed . . . the more time we spent looking, the more we saw, like this Four-spotted Skimmer shimmering in the sunlight.

And a Racket-tailed Emerald showing off its gorgeous green eyes.

There were even a couple of female Calico Pennants, but not a red-colored male in sight.

The meadow isn’t all that large, but . . . we spent at least two and a half hours circling it and shared a vision of others wondering as night fell where we might be . . . in our happy place.

Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by midafternoon, much as the canoodlers had done. But our bug eyes were as wide open as his.

In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun.

And then a Grackle flew in with a meal in beak.

I didn’t realize what that meal was until . . .

while expounding on one topic or another of which I’m sure I thought I was the authority, I stopped mid-sentence with a mouth open wide in surprise for upon a tree trunk a newly emerged dragonfly showed off its slowy unfolding wings as it moved back toward the exuviae from which it had just emerged. Why did it move back? I don’t know, but they often cling on nearby as they let their wings dry before flying. It was at that point that my lecture changed focus and suddenly I knew that our being there was important for we were saving this vulnerable being from becoming the Grackle’s dessert.

As for our lunch, my guy found a spot and . . . dined alone. I was beside myself with joy and knew there were more discoveries to make. Thankfully, he has the patience of Job in many situations, and this was one of them.

A brisk breeze blew, which kept the Black Flies at bay, a good thing for us, and perhaps it was also a welcome treat for the dragonflies as they dried their wings in preparation for first flight.

Some managed to keep wings closed over their abdomens, but again, that was another sign of new emergence for as adults, wings are spread while resting.

In the sunshine of the early afternoon, those cloudy, moist wings glistened and offered a rainbow of subtle colors.

Upon a variety of vegetation different species clung in manners of their ancestors until ready for takeoff.

At one point I turned and was surprised to find this friend upon a sapling beside my knees.

And so we began to chat . . . until he’d heard enough and flew off.

But in that same second another flew in even closer, and I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he?

He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose.

The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

Emergence


Oh dragonfly, oh dragonfly
In your infancy, you laboriously 
climbed upon a slender stem.
Ever
so
slowly
seams split.
Soft and squishy, you spilled forth into this sunlit world.
Perched upon your former self, wispy strings recalled aquatic breaths. 
Moments slipped
into an hour. 
Your body of velvet pulsed as blood pumped into cloudy wings.
Standing guard watching you, I noted preparations for first flight. 
Eyes bulging
you chose
a spot
of viewpoint vantage.
Colors changing, 
you gained 
the markings
 of generations past.
Wings drying 
you offered
a reflection 
of stained glass.
Beyond understanding
you flew 
a dance
of darting restlessness.

Odonata, Odonata,
You have known 
both worlds. 
First playing 
beneath the surface.
Then in a manner 
so brave,
climbing skyward
to ride summer’s breeze
on gossamer wings.
Forever in awe 
of your transformation
from aquatic nymph 
to winged adult, 
I can only imagine
the wonder of
 emergence.

Thanks to the Hare

I should have known it would be this kind of a day when I spotted a Snowshoe Hare on the road. It’s a rare spot for me, though all winter long I see their tracks and scat. Only occasionally do I get to glimpse one and even then, it’s just that . . . a glimpse.

But today was different. As I drove to a Greater Lovell Land Trust property, movement on the pavement slowed me down. To. A. Stop. Not wanting to scare it, I took a photo from behind the windshield and then watched as it hopped on the road for a couple of minutes and then off into the grass.

My destination was just around the corner where the Sundews grow. Carnivorous Round-leaved Sundews. Check out the glistening droplets at the ends of the hair-like tendrils that extend from each round leaf. The droplets are actually quite sticky. Just like a spider sensing a bug on its web, the tendrils detect the presence of prey and then curl inward, thus trapping the victim.

The whole leaf will eventually wrap around an insect and in the process of digesting it, the plant will absorb the bug’s nutrients. Can you see the action in process of the lower leaf on the left?

Sundews tend to grow in areas that lack sufficient nutrients, so this is the plant’s way of supplementing its diet. And if that isn’t enough–it’s just plain beautiful.

When I first ventured onto this wildlife refuge with others for a morning of trail clearing, the sky was overcast and mosquitoes plentiful. But . . . the sun eventually burned through the clouds and with that, some of my favorite over-sized, prehistoric looking insects did fly. Thankfully, they also paused so I could admire their structures, colors, and habits. This member of the Odonata family loves to skim across the land at low level and pause on rocks or leaves. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking with them for such is their behavior to lift off from one rock as I approach and settle on the next just a few feet ahead. That is, until I approach that one and then they move on to the next. Over and over again. Of course, all the time they’re hunting for a meal.

The two photographs above are of the same species and same gender. Both are females of the Chalk-fronted Corporal sort. But notice the cloudier abdomen of the second. There’s just a bit of the grayness in the first photo. So here’s a word to stick under your hat and remember: Pruinescence–meaning a “frosted or dusty looking coating on top of a surface.” The female’s abdomen turns chalky gray with pruinosity. In my under-educated brain, I’d say the second is older than the first for her pruinose markings are more obvious.

I was standing in the middle of a former log landing when I began to notice the insects. It’s an area where forest succession is slowly occurring and may need to be addressed. But for now, the wildflowers include Yellow Hawkweeds. And because their resting position is different from the Corporals, upon the flowers perched Calico Pennants. The first I saw was a male, so identified by the red markings on its abdomen.

In many male/female contrasts, be it dragonflies, damselflies, or even birds, the female is in no way as attractive as the male. But for the Calicos, both are worth celebrating. Check out those wings–their basal patches like stained glass windows.

It wasn’t just dragonflies that visited the field, for as I said it’s a land once stripped of vegetation that now plays hosts to flowers and shrubs and saplings all competing for space. And Syrphid flies also competed, their focus not on other insects, but rather pollen and nectar.

Equally stained-glass like are the wings. And notice the hair on its body. The natural world is incredibly hairy. Looks rather like a bee, doesn’t it? I was fooled, but my entomologist friend Anthony corrected me–thankfully.

Notice the lack of pollen baskets on those big funky hind legs, lack of antenna with “elbows,” and the shape of the eyes. Similar to a bumblebee, yes, but with subtle differences.

Other visitors who sampled the goods in a much faster manner included Hummingbird Clearwing Moths. The wings of this one pumped so quickly that it appeared wingless. If you look closely, you may see the comb-like structure of its antennae, which helps to differentiate moths from butterflies with their club-like antennae.

I had been feeling rather blessed for all I’d seen to this point and then an old friend made itself known. This dragonfly is one that I know I’ll eventually photograph on my hand or leg this summer and it honors me with those landings for I feel like a Dragonfly Whisperer in those moments. Today we were merely getting reacquainted. And instead of landing on me, it let me photograph its face. Take a look and wonder.

And then look at the abdomen of the same dragonfly: a Lancet Clubtail. By its bluish gray eyes that remind me of my own, and narrow yellow daggers on each segment of its abdomen, I hope you’ll recognize it going forward should you have the opportunity to meet.

Butterflies were also among the visitors of the field, including a Tiger Swallowtail with a tale to tell of how it lost a part of its tail.

And then I spotted a skipper or two moving just a wee bit slower than the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. My what big eyes you have.

As I slowly made my way back up the trail, it was the Kennedy’s Emerald, named for Dr. Clarence Kennedy, a renowned Ohio State University professor and odonatologist that asked to be noticed. I knew we’d met before when I realized it had two downward-arched yellow spots on the first two segments of its otherwise dark abdomen. The yellow coloration indicated it was a female.

Then I watched a most curious thing as I stood by a fence that stands beside a short portion of the trail. Do you see the dragonfly crawling along the fence?

It seemed to be on a mission that I couldn’t understand.

Perhaps it had its sight on an insect I couldn’t spy.

For a few minutes it posed and gave me time to at least decide it was a darner, though I keep changing my mind about which one. But notice its markings. The venation of its wings was rather fine compared to so many, yet the markings on its abdomen were well defined. Oh, and do you see the paddle-like claspers–used to hold the female’s head during mating? And then it flew off.

My heart was filled by all that I’d been seeing. And then . . . in flew another that seemed to top the rest. A Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Count each one on all four wings–twelve dark spots. Crazy beautiful. And to think that I always used to think dragonflies were dragonflies and they were wonderful because they consume mosquitoes and make our woodland hikes so much more bearable. But like ferns that I always thought were all the same, they are not. Slowly I’m learning them by their names and give thanks for every moment I get to spend in their presence.

What’s not to wonder about and love–notice the yellow hearts on the female Calico Pennants abdomen. And her reflection on the leaf below.

I knew that hare brought me good tidings. And will be forever grateful.

Prehistoric Lovell

It only takes a few minutes of time to realize that Lovell, Maine, like all other New England towns, is rich in history–both human and natural. And though we may be able to assign dates to certain events that shaped the town, there are reminders in our midst that predate our understanding.

p3-white admiral

Think about it. According to the American Museum of Natural History’s website, our knowledge of “Butterfly origins is based on the study of living Lepidopteran species. We can often learn about evolution from the fossil record, but there are relatively few butterfly fossils. Those that do exist, like the 40-million-year-old Prodryas persophone, are remarkably similar to modern-day forms—so the fossil record sheds little light on the origin of today’s butterflies.

Many scientists think that the specialized association between today’s butterflies and flowering plants suggests that butterflies developed during the Cretaceous Period, often called the “Age of Flowering Plants,” 65 million to 135 million years ago—a time when dinosaurs also roamed the earth.”

And there I was this afternoon at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve admiring a White Admiral, Limenitis arthemis.

p4-white admiral

In quiet reflection above Heald Pond, one seemed to contemplate life. A cool fact about this butterfly is that rather than seeking nectar, the White Admiral is known to extract much of the water and nutrients it requires from mammal scat. Though I didn’t see one on scat today, I knew that the we shared a special connection–scat, after all, happens and has done so since the beginning of time.

p7-dragonfly exuvia

And then there were the dragonflies that may have been older than even the dinosaurs. Certainly by the structure of the exuvia left behind once they emerge, one gets a sense of that ancient time.

p5-chalk-fronted

Today’s great finds at H&B included male Chalk-fronted Corporals that followed me everywhere,

p9-female chalk-fronted

and their occasional female counterparts.

p4-lancet club

There were plenty of Lancet Clubtails,

p6-racket-tailed emerald

and even a Racket-tailed Emerald.

p10-female common whitetail

In keeping with the same theme at the Kezar River Reserve, I spied a female Common Whitetail–which was anything but common,

p11-female and male ebony jewelwings

and atop bracken ferns a female (note her white dots) and male Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly.

Again, the earliest fossils of the Odonata so far discovered come from Upper Carboniferous sediments formed about 325 million years ago. The group of fast-fliers represented by the fossils went extinct about the time of dinosaurs, and yet today we have their relatives to admire.

Even the bracken fern on which the jewelwings paused spoke to an earlier time when it stood much taller than today’s three feet.

p12-snapping turtle

And then on my way home it was a dragon of a different sort that made me stop on a bridge, put the truck in reverse, park it and hop out. The snapping turtle may look much older than all the other species I encountered today, but it has haunted our wetlands for only 90 million years. A young’un in this neck of the woods.

p13-snapper's nails

These critters were the most intimidating, however, as noted by those claws,

p14-snapper's tail

that tail,

p16-snapper's face 1

and its snout.

p16-snaper's wink

Despite that, we shared a wink . . .

p15-snapper's face

and then each went our own way.

The next time you step outside, whether in your backyard or on a land trust property, be sure to pay reverence to those that have brought a prehistoric time closer to home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying on the Wild Wind of Western Maine

My intention was good. As I sat on the porch on July 1st, I began to download dragonfly and damselfly photographs. And then the sky darkened and I moved indoors. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, the wind came up. Torrential rain followed. And thunder and lightening. Wind circled around and first I was making sure all screens and doors were closed on one side of the wee house and then it was coming from a different direction and I had to check the other side. Trees creaked and cracked. Limbs broke. And the lightening hit close by. That’s when I quickly shut down my computer and checked my phone to see how much battery life it had. And saw two messages. One was an emergency weather alert. Tornado Watch. And the other was from my friend Marita, warning me that there was a tornado watch for our area. I stood between the kitchen door and the downstairs water closet, where a hatchway leads to the basement. But, there was stuff in the way and I really wanted to watch the storm. At the same time, I was frightened. Of course, in the midst of it all, the power went off.

ph 3 (1)

It didn’t last all that long, as storms go, but the damage was incredible, including telephone poles left standing at 45-degree angles. Soon, the neighbors and I assessed our properties. We somehow lucked out and only two branches plus a bunch of twigs fell. Others were not so fortunate. Trees uprooted along the shoreline or crashed onto houses, sheds, vehicles and boats. Our neighbors float shifted about thirty feet north from its usual anchored spot. And the National Weather service did indeed determine it was an EF-1 Tornado with winds of 90-100 miles per hour.

d-firetruck on causeway

At first traffic along the causeway moved extremely slowly because fallen trees had closed the south-side lane, but eventually the police shut the road down and the fire crew arrived to begin the clearing process. After the first storm, it rained on and off, but once my guy got back to camp (he dodged a detour–don’t tell), we still managed to grill a steak and sat on the porch in the dark, which is our evening habit anyway. Central Maine Power worked most of the night and they’ve been at it all day–resetting poles and lines while neighbors’ generators and the buzz of chainsaws filled the air.

And my focus returned to others who also fill the air–though in a much more welcome manner, to we humans that is. Damselflies and dragonflies. Other insects don’t necessarily agree with us–as they become quick food.

Therefore, it seems apropos that the Book of July is the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, with Donald & Lillian Stokes.

d-book

It’s not a big book by any means, and doesn’t include all species of the insect order Odonata, but for me right now, it’s enough. And it fits easily into my pack. I can not only try to give a name to what I see, but more importantly to recognize the subtle differences in these favorite of insects.

d-book key

One of the features I really like is that it has a key on the inside cover, first divided between damselflies and dragonflies, and then further divided by families based on size, percher or flier, flight height, wings, body colors, eye position and other clues. As you can see, there are color tabs and I can quickly move to that section and search for the species before me. I’ve discovered that I’m now looking at eye position and colors as a quick key, with other features falling into place.

The book also discusses the life cycle and behavior of damselflies and dragonflies.

d-pond damsels mating, Marsh bluets 1

Of course, it all begins when he grabs her–for damselflies such as these marsh bluets, he clasps her by the neck. Dragonflies do the same, only he clasps his female of choice behind the eyes.

d-damsel love, variable dancers

Eventually damsel love occurs as the mating couple forms a “copulation” wheel, thus allowing him to remove any sperm she may have already received from another, and replacing it with his own. Sneaky dudes. Soon after, hundreds to thousands of eggs are deposited, either in the water or on vegetation, depending on the species.

d-damselfly nymph1

Emerging from an egg, the larvae develop underwater. Damselflies such as this one, obtain oxygen through the three tail-like projections at the end of their abdomens. From 8-17 times, they molt, shedding their outer shells, or exoskeletons.

d-exoskeleton shrubs

In the spring, the big event happens. We all celebrate the emergence of the last stage in the larval skeleton, when the insects climb up vegetation or onto rocks, or even the ground, and make that final metamorphosis into the damsel or dragonfly form we are so familiar with, thus leaving their shed outer shell (exuviae) behind.

d-emerging dragonfly

On a warm, sunny spring day toward the end of May, there’s no better place to be than sitting in the presence of an emerging adult.

d-emerging 2

I encourage you to look around any wetland, even as the summer goes on, for you never know when those moments of wonder might occur.

d-Broad-winged damsel, River Jewelwing 1

In the guide, the authors include all kinds of observation tips. And then, the real nitty gritty. The first thirty-six pages of the Identification section are devoted to damselflies. And those are divided into Broad-winged damsels, Spreading, and Pond damsels. This is a river jewelwing, and for me it was a first a few weeks ago. I spotted this beauty beside the Saco River in Brownfield Bog–its iridescent green body showing through the dark-tipped wings.

d-pond damsel, ebony jewelwing, male

In the same category, the ebony jewelwing is equally stunning with brilliant green highlighted by black accents. This was a male; the female has a white dot or stigma toward the tip of her wings.

d-spreadwing, common spreadwing

Spreadwings are next and so named for their spread wings. This one happened to be a common spreadwing, though really, I don’t find them to be all that common.

d-pond damsel, variable dancer

The pond damsels are the ones I do see often, including the female variable dancers. Check out her spotted eyes.

d-pond damsel, sedge sprite 1

And one of my favorites for its colors and name–the sedge sprite. If you noted the dancer’s eyes, do you see how the sprite’s differ?

From page 79-155, dragonflies are identified. I don’t have one from every type, but I’m working on it.

d-clubtail, lancet clubtail, male

Clubtails have clear wings, and their coloration is often green, yellow or brown. Check out those eyes–and how widely separated they are. Meet a lancet club tail, so named for the yellow “dagger” markings on its back.

d-Emeralds, Ameican Emerald 2

The emeralds are known by their eyes, which are often green. This American emerald has a black abdomen with a narrow yellow ring at the base near the wings.

d-baskettail, common baskettail 1

Also included with the emeralds is the common baskettail. Notice how stout this handsome guy is.

d-skimmer, chalk-fronted corporal male

Among the easiest dragonflies to actually get a good look at are the skimmers. And it seems that on many paths I follow, the chalk-fronted corporals are there before me. His thorax has two bluish-gray stripes with brown on the sides. And his wings–a small brownish-black patch.

d-skimmer, slaty blue 2

Then there’s the slaty skimmer, in a shade of blue I adore. His wings are clear, except for the black stigmas toward the tips.

d-skimmer, common whitetail

The common whitetail is also a skimmer. Not only is his abdomen different–with white markings on the side, but he has wings with black and chalky white bases and broad black bands in the middle.

d-skimmer, calico pennant, male

They’re all pretty, but I think that so far, my all time favorites are the calico pennants; the male with red highlights including stigmas on his wings and hearts on his back, plus a hint of red everywhere else.

d-skimmer, calico pennant female

For once the male isn’t to be outdone in the color department, and the female looks similar except that she’s yellow.

d-skimmer, yellow legged meadowhawk, wings

There’s so much to admire about damselflies and dragonflies. I mean, first there are those compound eyes. But look at the thorax–where both the three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings attach. I find that attachment to be an incredible work of nature. It’s awe inspiring at least.

d-ending, female calico pennant on screen

Then again, nature is awe-inspiring. When I awoke as the sun rose yesterday morning, I wondered about the damsels and dragons. Did they survive the storm? I stepped outside to once again check for damage and look who I spotted on the porch screen. Mrs. Calico stayed for about an hour or two, letting her wings dry off before heading out to perform today’s duties–flying on the wild wind of western Maine.

Damselflies and dragonflies are one more point of distraction for me these days. I won’t always get their ID correct, but I’m thankful for the Book of July, Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies, that I found at Bridgton Books.

Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, with Donald & Lillian Stokes. Little, Brown and Company, 2002.