Dragon Hunting in Jefferson County

August 18, 2009
Yesterday, Nancy & I met for a full day of odonate hunting. I had been anxiously anticipating this outing for the last week and was expecting to see lots of new and different odes. We did manage to net three new species (common odes in general, but new to me & my camera), however, we were rather puzzled by the lack of both abundance and diversity.

We started the morning off at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield. They have wetlands that were created years ago as mitigation for the C470 highway construction. With all the rain we’ve recieved this  summer, they seem to be functioning more as ponds and are surrounded heavily by cattails in places. There were a handful of darners at the first pond we explored but we wondered – Why so few and where were all the skimmers and other pond-loving odes? Are we too late in the flight season? Did cooler nights this past weekend decrease the population? We didn’t have the answers, but it did give me ideas of things I would like to track and study in future years.

Back to the darners, these turned out to be Blue-eyed Darners (Rhionaeschna multicolor). We netted three males and a female.

Blue-eyed Darner male

Blue-eyed Darner male

Blue-eyed Darner female

Blue-eyed Darner female

Aren't those blue eyes incredible? Aren’t those blue eyes incredible?

We also found small swarms of damselflies in along the shoreline. It was the typical suspects. As usual, the females prove to be a real identity challenge.

Pacific Forktail (male)

Pacific Forktail (male)

Familiar Bluet (male)

Familiar Bluet (male)

Unknown female damselfly

Unknown female damselfly

This damselfly is still a mystery to me. I’ll need to pour over “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West” again to try to figure her out. She doesn’t have the thoracic stripes for a Familiar Bluet and no thoracic spots or stripes for a Pacific Forktail. She is a very pretty green…

As we moved around the other ponds, we found a Striped Meadowhawk perched on some low vegetation. We headed for some open shoreline and finally found something to get excited about. A male Common Whitetail was on patrol! OK, so I know whitetails are, well, common but up until now I had not been able to photograph or catch one. Every time I’ve seen them in South Platte Park, I either didn’t have a camera or net with me or they stealthily avoided my net and vanished.

Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) male

Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) male

Common Whitetails are also nice because there is no doubt on the identification and no need to squint through the hand lens trying to decide if a bump on the last segment matches the size and shape of a mystery bump described in the field guide.

We walked up the creek on our way out of the park, hoping that the change in habitat would be more productive. Nothing. Didn’t even seem like there were mosquitoes around to annoy us. Strange. It was probably in the 70s, clear skies and only a light breeze at times. As we got to some deeper water and downed tree obstacles, we decided to work our way out to the trail and jump in the cars for the next location.

Then it happened! A darner – and it wasn’t a Blue-eyed Darner this time – flew into the bottom of a nearby tree. Determined not to let this one get away, we were successful in netting her on the first try. Identifying her, though, was not so easy. I took a number of photos and spent last evening learning about the differences between members of the Aeshnidae family.

Possible female Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta) - heteromorph yellow Possible female Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta) – heteromorph yellow form

Feeling much better about our morning, we headed off to another nearby area with ponds. This site was private property that I’ve explored many times in the past with herds of school children on environmental education field trips to the neighboring nature center. It always seemed to support droves of dragonflies and damselflies. But this afternoon we did not see much flying.

There were Widow Skimmers on the first pond, all of which easily avoided capture. A darner was seen making a bee-line across the pond occasionally. In the openings between willows on the shoreline and on the primitive trail around the pond Striped Meadowhawks were active. I saw a pair copulating and flying over the water in tandem. We caught some for closer looks (and to boost our egos after what seemed like dozens of misses for the skimmers).

In among the cattails there were Spotted Spreadwings and Pacific Forktails.

Pacific Forktail (male) - These are difficult to distinguish from Plains Forktails and you must examine the end of segment 10. For now, I believe these are Pacific's and would like to one day find a Plains for comparison.

Spotted Spreadwing (male) - I found this one hanging on a willow near the shoreline. I was amazed at how close I got and then even more amazed when I was able to just cup my hand around it and pick it up!

Pacific Forktail (male) - I squint my eyes through a 16x hand lens every time I catch a forktail, examining the end of segment 10. This is the only way to differentiate them from Plains Forktails. For now, I believe we have Pacifics, but would love to catch a Plains Forktail one day for comparison.

Pacific Forktail (male) - I squint my eyes through a 16x hand lens every time I catch a forktail, examining the end of segment 10. This is the only way to differentiate them from Plains Forktails. For now, I believe we have Pacifics, but would love to catch a Plains Forktail one day for comparison.

I was rather disappointed with the general lack of odes at this point and fustrated that I couldn’t even catch a Widow Skimmer. We decided to try one more pond and then call it a day. This last spot turned out to be the most fruitful (but still fustrating) location of the day. Widow Skimmers were patrolling again, but so was something new – Eight-spotted Skimmers… oooooh, what I would’ve given to have a telescopic lens on my camera.  No matter how long the net handle is, they always seemed to be able to dart two inched farther away at the last possible second.

As I worked my way along the shoreline in the water and muck, I found something solid to brace my foot on. Keeping my eyes glued to the skimmers, I felt the “rock” start to slide away in an eery fashion. A quick glance down revealed a snapping turtle larger than a dinner plate sticking his long claws out to slowly swim away. It immediately became invisible in the muddy water. I decided that walking the trail to the other side of the pond was a better idea.

Still in hot pursuit of the Eight-spotted Skimmers, I also was elated to find a small swarm of pondhawks. There was a green female ovipositing in some mossy water with three males arguing in the air above her. I assume that one had copulated with the female and was trying to defend his progeny from the other two intruders. I had caught a female Western Pondhawk a week ago, but this one appeared to have a green abdomen broken up by black stripes. They were all so close to the water and always just far enough away that I never could catch one. Even swearing didn’t help! Once the female decided that she was done and flew away, the males quickly vanished too.

It was time to leave and I was feeling defeated as we worked our way back to pick up backpacks and gear left on a picnic table. One last scan of the shoreline gave me renewed determination – a male pondhawk by himself! It might have been sheer will power but we netted him and excitedly grabbed a field guide and camera. I was even more excited when we realized that his male appendages were white, not dark and that this meant an Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). What a nice way to end the day.

Eastern Pondhawk - This young male still has some green coloration left on his thorax.

Eastern Pondhawk - This young male still has some green coloration left on his thorax.

Female Eastern Pondhawks, by the way, have green abdomens with black bands which matches the female pondhawk I saw ovipositing. I just glanced at Paulson’s range map again and realized that these individuals are a bit farther west in Colorado than he shows.

All in all, it was a beautiful day to be outside and it is always wonderful to be on a dragon hunt with a friend… our flight season might be winding down for 2009, but I have all winter to study and plan for 2010 field trips.


A Lesson in Observing Every Detail

August 13, 2009

I’ve started carrying my net and camera just about every time I go outside at the park and it is starting to pay off. On a hike to do a quick survey of plants along the East Trail today, I paused at the Dad Clark Wetlands to see what odes were about.

I caught a spreadwing damselfly again. The last time I netted spreadwings in this area, I was confused about their identify and finally theorized that they must all be immature Spotted Spreadwings who didn’t have their spot yet because we had previously caught Spotted Spreadwings in another wetland area in the park. Things didn’t exactly match up though, to the field guide descriptions.

This time when I went through the field guide, I tried to be more thorough and soon realized that I had never measured any of the spreadwings. It dawned on me that the ones I’d been watching at the Dad Clark Wetlands seemed to be much larger than the Spotted Spreadwings. This is significant and is probably one of the keys to identifying this ode. I need to get in the habit of measuring every ode we catch. I now believe that these ‘new’ damsels are Great Spreadwings. The photos below help to show relative size of these two damselflies.

Spotted Spreadwing caught at Newton Trust Wetlands on July 31, 2009.

Spotted Spreadwing caught at Newton Trust Wetlands on July 31, 2009.

Great Spreadwing caught at Dad Clark Wetlands on August 6, 2009.

Great Spreadwing caught at Dad Clark Wetlands on August 6, 2009.

I also got to examine the meadowhawks in-hand again and after more study of the field guide, feel confident that this one is a Striped Meadowhawk.

Striped Meadowhawk - This one allowed me to get close enough for a decent photo after I laid my net down!
Striped Meadowhawk – This one allowed me to get close enough for a decent photo after I laid my net down!
My last treat of the day was netting a “new” darner near the end of my hike. At first the yellow-greenish stripes on the thorax got me excited thinking (or perhaps, hoping) that is was a new darner for me. It gave me the opportunity to study mosaic and neotropical darners. Looks like another Blue-eyed Darner, but this time it is a female. It may not be a new species, but I am still amazed by the colorful pattern of these darners.
Blue-eyed Darner female

Blue-eyed Darner female

I’ve also learned not to assume (most of the time) that I know what species an ode is just from a fly-by.

UFO Identified!

August 12, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote about being fustrated by a handful of UFOs – that’s Unidentified Flying Odonates – that we couldn’t catch. That was still on my mind today and after a day of being captive in the office, I was ready for a nature break, even if only for 15 minutes.

On my way out of the park, I stopped at the small pond on the south end of Eaglewatch Lake. Yesterday, I had seen three to five smallish (smaller than the Widow Skimmers & Twelve-spotted Skimmers) dragons that resembled the shape of skimmers. Their wings were clear and their abdomen, thorax and head it seemed was close to the same light bluish prinosity color that you see on the other skimmers. They perched about six to eight feet from me, but I didn’t stand a chance sneaking up on them or getting a clean swing through the bulrushes. The one I did net momentarily just did a u-turn and flew out of the net while I swore under my breath.

This afternoon when I worked my way around the tiny pond, there wasn’t much activity. A couple of male Widow Skimmers occasionally battled it out in the air or perched on the bulrushes near a Twelve-spotted Skimmer. I saw and missed a couple meadowhawks zipping by. Then I noticed an unfamiliar dragon hovering among the tall grasses. This time I caught my target easily (actually, I also netted a damsel but was so intrigued with the dragon I just let it go.)

This was definitely a new dragon for me! Clear wings, distinct ovipositor at right angle to the abdomen, four to five cm long. Most amazing was the green color of the head, eyes, thorax and abdomen.  Beautiful!

Here she is – a female Western Pondhawk.

Western Pondhawk (female)

Western Pondhawk (female)

Western Pondhawk - abdomen

Western Pondhawk - abdomen. I love the intricate colors and patterns on these dragons! You never realize how amazing they are until you have one in-hand.

The bluish ones I saw yesterday were likely male Western Pondhawks.


Odonate Survey at South Platte Park

August 11, 2009
Gotta love a job where you can spend part of your day chasing odes with adventurous volunteers! Today Nancy, myself and four new volunteers explored the south end of the park to see how many different species of odonates we could find.
Variegated Meadowhawk (female)

Variegated Meadowhawk (female)

Before everyone arrived, I managed to net a female Variegated Meadowhawk near the classroom. The trailing edge of her wings were tattered, so I suspect she’s had plenty of opportunities to lay eggs and was “an old lady” by ode standards. After she chilled out for a few minutes in my cooler, everyone got an up-close look at dragonfly anatomy before we let her go.

We started our adventure off by getting knee deep into Ladybug Lake. The odes were definitely buzzing when we arrived but after we spread out around the lake a few bugged out – mainly the ones that I was really hoping to catch. I am almost certain that there was a Black Saddlebags that I missed about three times. I’ve seen this always-just-out-of-reach dragon before and need to net one for a positive ID. There were Common Green Darners (wonderful big, bulky dragons flying purposefully across the pond) and some smaller dragons that I couldn’t ID. They seemed to be smaller than Blue-eyed Darners (which might have also been present at times) but they liked to stay out over the middle of the pond where we couldn’t get a good read on field marks.

 

Widow Skimmer (male)
Widow Skimmer (male)

The Widow Skimmers were very active and we managed to net both males and females. There was also an occasional Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

Widow Skimmer (female)

Widow Skimmer (female)

Meadowhawk pairs flying in tandem would also zoom in and could be seen ovipositing out in the middle of the pond. In the vegetation around the pond, we did net a Band-winged Meadowhawk.
 
Band-winged Meadowhawk (female)

Band-winged Meadowhawk (female)

I also came up with the Meadowhawk below, which I brought back to the office to try to identify. It is a male, but does not have the yellow spots on the thorax like a Variegated. My best guess at this point is a Striped Meadowhawk, but I need to reread the field guide descriptions again.

Possible Striped Meadowhawk (male) ???

Possible Striped Meadowhawk (male) ???

We did look at damsels, too! There were many little Bluets over the water surface, some ovipositing in tandem. Along the shore of Eaglewatch Lake, we caught two males, but the difference in the amount of blue on the middle segments of the abdomen made us stop and wonder if both were Familiar Bluets. We collected both a typical Familiar Bluet and the Bluet with more black on the abdomen. After comparing them side to side and pouring over the field guide, yet again… I think that the one pictured below is a Tule Bluet. Pretty much all the field marks are similar to Familiars but the middle segments have more black than blue.

Tule Bluet (male)

Tule Bluet (male)

We wrapped up the day with a visit to a small wetland / pond on the south end of Eaglewatch Lake. After nearly losing my Keen sandals to the powerful suction of muck (and momentarily wondering if I would ever break free from its grip), we decided the shoreline was safer. It turned out to be safer, but incredibly fustrating. Dragons appeared that resembled Widow Skimmers (which were dashing about) but they had clear wings. For creatures of very little brain, they have the remarkable and uncanny ability to always be an inch or two beyond the net. I even had one in my net for a split second before it turned on a dime and flew out. There were also more small unidentified darners, or at least they appeared to be darners. I’m left yearning for a telephoto lens and another chance with my net to catch a UFO (Unidentified Flying Odonate).


Dragon Hunts

August 10, 2009
Wow! The last couple weeks have been busy and I have been fortunate to slip in dragon hunts whenever time allows. Unfortunately, I have been delinquent in adding posts as I learn the blogging technology and struggle with photo editing software (or lack thereof). Since everything is new each time we catch and examine an ode, I’ve been spending what little spare time I have reviewing my photos, field guides and online sources.

This adventure has been exciting and I’ve been joined by a park volunteer and new friend, Nancy. Together we’ve been overcoming the fustrations of having dragons gracefully avoid our nets at the last possible second, while we (not so gracefully at times) swing wildly in the air. Our first attempt at surveying the odes at Bufflehead Lake in the hot sun left us fustrated and wondering what we were doing wrong. Add to that the confusion of trying to see and correctly match male appendages of damsels to the drawings in the field guide for identification… Well, I went home, got online & ordered a large green net bag with 6 feet of handle and a much better hand lens – surely the new equipment would help???

Our next trip into the Newton Trust wetlands proved more successful. I didn’t have my new net yet, but was becoming a bit more adept and obsessed with catching new dragons and damsels. After a many near misses (or is it near catches?), it was exhilerating to finally catch a Twelve-spotted Skimmer!

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Nancy and I were both shouting excitedly each time we bagged our prey. What an adrenaline rush dragon catching turned out to be! More on this mini-adventure later…

For now, I will conclude by saying that I have been able to photograph three species of damselflies (Familiar Bluet, Pacific Forktail and Spotted Spreadwing) and eight species of dragonflies (Blue-eyed Darner, Common Green Darner, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Widow Skimmer, Band-winged Meadowhawk, White-faced Meadowhawk, Variegated Meadowhawk, Pale Snaketail) since I started this blog. Once I can get my photos resized & submitted to Dragonfly Society of America, this will add three new species to the Arapahoe County list. We’ve seen the Common Whitetail and need to net one for a photo shoot. I also believe I’ve seen Black Saddlebags, but so far they’ve been too fast and too far out over the water for me to catch. Closer to home, we have American Rubyspots (a damsel) in the Cherry Creek – I need to take my camera and net with me next time I am walking along the bike trail.


Welcome!

July 20, 2009

I’ve started this blog to share my passion for dragonflies and damselflies. I have been fortunate to work as a naturalist for over 17 years and I have led the occasional dragon and damsel hike. Now, however, odonata is one of my primary areas of interest that I want to explore in depth. Throughout this blog we will explore together identification, natural history, behavior, habitat and any other intriguing odonata-related topics I uncover.

My goal is to photograph every species of odonata in Colorado and to learn as much about dragons and damsels as I can along the way. Given the demands of an almost-full-time job and raising a family, this may take awhile. I also have a great deal to learn about odonata and photography in the process (and would love to one day have a telephoto / macro lens!).  This blog will chronicle my experiences on this path.

It would also be fun to build a community of fellow dragonfly watchers, similiar to birding clubs. If you are interested, drop me a line.


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