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.
- 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.