Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eastern Red Damsel

Small raised fen in west-central Ohio. I had the good fortune to get afield with Troy Shively the other day, and he showed me a few new fens in western Ohio. A fen is a highly alkaline wetland fed by a constant flow of artesian spring waters that have just percolated from the depths of subterranean limestone deposits. This creates very cold root-level temperatures, and in conjunction with the high pH soils, fens are a tough place to eke out a living for the vegetable crowd. The plants that do grow there are highly specialized and extremely interesting; ditto for the animals.

The yellow flowers dotting the fen are of a beautiful woody plant, Shrubby Cinquefoil, Dasiphora fruticosa. There are few better fen indicators than that species. Essentially, if you find wild-growing Shrubby Cinquefoil in Ohio, you are probably semi-mired in the wet mucky soils of a fen.

While Troy and I found many noteworthy critters, I was delighted to run across what may be my favorite damselfly. The Eastern Red Damsel, Amphiagrion saucium, is impossibly tiny - nearly our smallest species. They're easy to miss, and for a six-footer standing upright, they're nearly invisibly as they silently whir low in the sedges along the margins of chilled flowing rills.

I devoted some time to Red Damsel stalking, and was eventually rewarded when one of them made a kill, and settled to consume his gnat-sized prey. With some bitternlike swaying and stalking, I was eventually able to get my camera barrel within six inches of the damsel and obtain some decent shots.

In the above photo, the damsel is perched on a rare plant, for Ohio at least, and in fact is surrounded by rare plants. At least they are far rarer than once was the case, as we've managed to obliterate well over 90% of the fens that once pocked Ohio's landscape. Anyway, its perch is Walking Spikerush, Eleocharis rostellata, an obligate species of fens and often a dominant. This sedge essentially spreads by walking; as the stems elongate, they bend to the point where the tip eventually contacts soil. This stimulates specialized tissue formation, and from there a new stem is sent out, thus the plants walk themselves into new terrain.

Back to the damsel, and aren't they a gorgeous shade of deep red with perhaps a tinge of orange mixed in. I've caught his eye here, and he's turned to give me a piercing stare. Lucky for me he isn't the size of a Tundra Swan or it'd be your narrator being crunched and munched rather than that gnat.

Like so many things in nature, the Eastern Red Damsel is not obvious. By taking time to investigate the superficially obscure, like this insect, one is often rewarded with the opportunity to admire something that puts many of our larger showier creatures to shame. You've just got to get close.

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