Sunday, March 20, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Hunting Dragons

During the summer of 2009, I had planned to try to find and photograph as many species of dragonfly and damselfly as I could, mainly in Michigan as I had no plans to travel. Well, Mother Nature had different ideas, and the cool wet summer that year was not at all favorable for dragonflies. I think I might have only found a dozen species at the most. But summer of 2010 was completely different; warm and not too dry or too wet, and with a surprising number of species found. It was a great success, and here I present some dragonfly highlights to help ease you out of winter and into spring (only an hour away from arriving as I write this).

The dragon hunt started out well, in late May, when a Carolina Saddlebags decided to perch among the vegetation near the Field Nets at the bird banding station at Metro Beach Metropark. This is a southern species, until this year only known from a few southern counties in Michigan and collected only once before in Macomb County. I managed a poor photo of it, shown here.

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)

It turned out to be a remarkable year for Carolina Saddlebags. A friend, Curt Powell, told me about another southern wanderer at Lower Huron Metropark, Wayne County, and there were at least two Carolina Saddlebags there as well. When orchid-hunting later in the summer, I came across at least two or three at West Lake in Kalamazoo County. But, despite several chances to observe this beautiful bug, I only had one chance all year for a photo. Friends in the Upper Peninsula managed quite good photos of Carolina Saddlebags in Marquette County, well north of where they've ever been recorded in Michigan.

The other southern species that Curt put me onto at Lower Huron Metropark was the Comet Darner, perhaps confirmed from even fewer Michigan counties than the saddlebags. This was a very active dragonfly, and although I managed repeated views there (and in Ann Arbor) over the course of two months, I never saw a male perched. In desperation, I took some shots of flying males, with the following results.

Male Comet Darner (Anax longipes)

Male Comet Darner

I was able to photograph a female much closer, as she was laying eggs; certainly a very rare event in Wayne County.

Female Comet Darner laying eggs.

Other early successes included several Four-spotted Skimmers in late May at Tuttle Marsh, Iosco County, when I went up to (successfully) chase the Purple Gallinule found their by my friend Karl Overman earlier in the month. While the previous two species were "lifers", Four-spotted Skimmer was not as I'd seen them once before, in Alaska in 2004, and it is not a rare species in Michigan.

Four-spotted Skimmer (Libellula quadrimaculata)

And in early June, I came across this wonderful Rusty Snaketail at the Port Huron State Game Area, St. Clair County, where many dragonfly discoveries surely lurk. I'd seen this snaketail at this same locale in 2008.

Rusty Snaketail (Ophiogomphus rupinsulensis)

Throughout the summer, I found pretty much all the common species I was expecting, though most are uncommonly beautiful. Some were found while banding hummingbirds, like the Black-tipped Darners that were everywhere in one yard in Jackson County, or while searching for orchids in bogs across the state.

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Black-tipped Darner (Aeshna tuberculifera)

An uncommon species, found in Ann Arbor, was the Swamp Darner, largest of Michigan's dragonflies (slightly longer than the Green Darner). I've only encountered this species regularly at Metro Beach Metropark, and most often tangled in my mist nets.

Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros)

Another widespread species is the Slaty Skimmer. I'd seen them before, but during summer 2010 they were very common at many locales.

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta)

I would be remiss if I didn't share the beauty of the smaller members (flying toothpicks!) of this interesting group, the damselflies and spreadings. But, I am on much shakier ground with these as identification is difficult in many species. So, while I feel fairly confident in those shown below, I don't guarantee that I've identified them correctly! Still, they're beauties worth a look.

Blue-fronted Dancer (Argia apicalis)

Mating Blue-ringed Dancers (Argia sedula)

Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis)

Spreadwings are named after their habit of perching with their wings partly open, unlike damselflies which perch with wings closed (as above) or dragonflies which perch with their wings flat. They are also extremely difficult to identify, so identifications in the photos below are definitely not guaranteed.

Amber-winged Spreadwing (Lestes eurinus)

Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis)

Swamp Spreadwing (Lestes vigilax)

A small group, somewhat different from other damselflies, are the broad-winged damselflies which includes two common species in Michigan, one uncommon, and one rare. The common species are Ebony Jewelwing and American Rubyspot.

Male and female Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata)

Male American Rubyspot (Hetaerina americana)

Trips to bogs were always rewarding, not only for the flowers (including orchids), but for the dragonflies. Here there were uncommonly observed species, including a few "lifers" for me. The Chalk-fronted Corporal is a fairly common species, as long as you're in or near a bog.

Male Chalk-fronted Corporal (Libellula julia)

But the Band-winged Pennant and Spangled Skimmer were both unexpected and beautiful "lifers" both at the same bog.

Band-winged Pennant (Celithemis fasciata)

Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

A bonus was a species I'd only seen once before, in the Upper Peninsula, the very cool Stream Cruiser.

Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa)

Ashy and Dusky Clubtails are difficult to tell apart, and both inhabit bogs. I believe the individual below is a Dusky, but no guarantees on this ID.

Dusky Clubtail (Gomphus spicatus)

At a bog in Kalamazoo County, the Frosted Whiteface was quite common, and very near the southern edge of its range in Michigan. I'd only seen them before in the Upper Peninsula and in New England.

Frosted Whiteface (Leucorrhinia frigida)

Smaller denizens of the bogs included the somewhat unusually marked Aurora Damsel, the bright Fragile Forktail with two exclamation points on its shoulders, and the tiny Sedge Sprite (a flying needle).

Aurora Damel (Chromagrion conditum)

Male Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita)

Female Sedge Sprite (Nehalennia irene)

In late summer, yet another tip from Curt sent me to the Leonard Preserve in Washtenaw County, where I'd been only once before. Here there were two really spectacular bugs, both of them in the clubtail group, and both "lifers". The first was the large Arrow Clubtail.

Arrow Clubtail (Stylurus spiniceps)

The other was the Tyrannosaurus rex of dragonflies, the aptly named Dragonhunter, which feeds almost exclusively on other dragonflies, some quite large. It looks very big, and it is, probably the heaviest of Michigan's dragonflies but not as long as the Swamp Darner.

Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus)

As summer starts giving way to fall, a number of other common dragonflies emerge. There are about a dozen species of Meadowhawk in Michigan, small, mostly red, and some difficult to identify even in the hand. Below are two species that aren't too difficult, so I'm reasonably sure of the identifications, the White-faced Meadowhawk and Band-winged Meadowhawk.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum)

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum)

Lingering only into late summer were Dot-tailed Whitefaces which, unlike most of its relatives, is not associated with bogs.

Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta)

And one of the commonest species of late summer well into October is the Black Saddlebags.

Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata)

A surprise in the mist nets during bird banding at Metro Beach in late August was yet another "lifer" dragonfly, the uncommon Mottled Darner, named for the mottled pattern on the sides of its thorax.

Mottled Darner (Aeshna clepsydra)

Thanks to the wonderful blog (Urban Dragon Hunters) of my friends Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien, I was able to "borrow" some information about some species I was trying to see. One of these was the Citrine Forktail, which is uncommon and local in Michigan. I visited a Wayne County locale several times before coming up with the photo of a female below. Many immature damselflies are yellow when they first emerge so this isn't as easy an ID as it might seem. I'll have to try again this summer to see, and hopefully photograph a male.

Female Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata)

This locale also provided a good opportunity to see a fairly easy to identify damselfly, the Double-striped Bluet. There were many mating pairs, as below, as well as immatures. Some of the immatures would flush and fly straight up into the air until they were out of sight. For one of these, it ended with a loud SNAP as a Cedar Waxwing sallied out from a branch and grabbed it in midair!

Double-striped Bluet (Enallagma basidens)

As the fall season progressed, and it got cooler, it was more difficult to find dragonflies and damselflies, and very difficult to find new species for the year. Thanks again to Urban Dragon Hunters, I found myself at two different Wayne County locales on two different dates, looking at two rare species for Michigan. The first was at apparently the only known locale in the state, adjacent to a shopping mall of all places, where I managed to find a grand total of 14 Great Spreadwings. I did try to find this species in Monroe County, without success, but was rewarded with being able to collect what I believe may be the first specimen of Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) for Monroe County. Unlike the other 10 or so species of spreadwing in Michigan, the Great Spreadwing is the size of a small dragonfly...really Great! And I really love the genus name; it sounds really prehistoric.

Great Spreadwing (Archilestes grandis)

A little later in the fall, and right on the very rusty barrel in the creek where it had been the day before, was the rarest of the four species of broad-winged damselflies in Michigan, the Smoky Rubyspot, the last species for the year (#83) and a "lifer" too.

Smoky Rubyspot (Hetaerina titia)

As I finish this blog entry, spring is now two hours old, it is dark and raining outside, which reminds me that the salamanders should be emerging soon, if they haven't already. I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings about chasing dragonflies last summer as much as I've enjoyed sharing them with you. I promise that the next blog posting will get back to birds, as the bird banding season at Metro Beach begins April 3.

End of post