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A morning spent slaying dragons

Jim Lemon scans for dragonflies along an old quarry in Champaign County, Ohio. Lemon, a former IT guru returned to his entomological roots, made an outstanding discovery here last year. He found the state's first record of an exquisite dragonfly known as the Swift Setwing, Dythemis velox.

This is a southern species that has been actively expanding its range northward. Nonetheless, prior to Jim's find, the nearest populations to Ohio were about 200 miles south and west, in southern Indiana and adjacent Illinois.

As soon as I heard about these setwings, I wanted to see them (of course!). It never worked out last year, but finally, yesterday was the day. I met Jim at 9 am, and we spent a few hours chasing setwings and finding many other dragonfly species in the process.

These forays often become natural history free-for-alls, and we pointed our cameras in the direction of non-dragonfly points of interest. This stunning critter is the caterpillar of the Brown-hooded Owlet Moth, Cucullia convexipennis. Trust me, the adult moth is completely outshined by its larva. BHOM's eat asters and goldenrods, primarily. This one is snacking on Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima.

A Long-jawed Orbweaver, Tetragnathus sp., lies in wait along the petal of a Wing-stem flower, Verbesina alternifolia. These slender spiders have impossibly long legs, and when in hiding they stretch them fore and aft, and blend remarkably well with their surroundings.

It was dragons we had come to hunt, though, and mostly that's what we shot. Almost immediately upon exiting the vehicles, we noticed virtual swarms of Autumn Meadowhawks, Sympetrum vicinum, in the grasses. This species is sometimes known as the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, a name which requires no explanation.

All but three of the images in this post was shot with Canon's fabulous 180mm f/3.5 macro lens. This is basically a telephoto macro, and it allows the shooter to stay back far enough that spooky subjects often are not flushed. It was connected to the Canon 5D Mark III, and rigged with Canon's Twin-Lite setup. Settings for this shot were f/11, ISO 200, and 1/200 shutter speed. I frequently tweak flash intensity on the commander module mounted to the camera's hot shoe, but usually have it turned down one or even two stops, so that it is basically providing fill flash.

Blue-ringed Dancers, Argia sedula, abounded. These little damselflies forage amongst grasses and other low vegetation, plucking tiny insect victims from the foliage. On hot days, such as this one, they can be a challenge to stalk as they're prone to flushing easily - always, it seems, just as one as ready to trip the shutter. This image is a classic "mug shot", showing the animal from a nearly perpendicular perspective, so that everything from eyes to abdomen tip is in focus. Dragonflies and damselflies are also fun to shoot head-on, to emphasize the huge eyes. This image was made with the exact same settings as the previous one.

The quality of the background of an image is known as the "bokeh", which is a Japanese word which basically means "blur". Note how the out of focus area of this image - the backdrop - is a rich blurred green color. It is mostly uniform, and does not distract from the targeted subject. That's what a quality lens can do - create pleasing bokehs. The photographer (should) soon learn to assess backdrops, though. If there is some whitish branch or other dissonant distraction that conflicts with the overall color of the backdrop, it will somewhat mar the photo's overall quality. You can see that in the images that bookend this one. With a keen eye for backdrop, the photographer can sometimes adjust his/her angle to eliminate distractions, or physically move them from the field of view. However, when working with living creatures on their terms, this is not always possible and one must make the most of the situation that is presented.

We saw a couple of Ruby Meadowhawks, Sympetrum rubicundulum. Males are stunning with their brilliant cherry-red abdomens. This dragon was actually quite far off when I made the image - probably 20 feet or so distant. For a while, I had clipped on a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens, which can be quite effective for shooting larger insects at much greater ranges than any macro lens would allow. This meadowhawk was shot with the lens fully extended to 400mm, and the camera set to f/5.6, ISO 100, and 1/640 shutter speed. Exposure compensation was dialed down 2/3rd's of a stop.

I've said it before, and will again: If I could have only one lens, it'd likely be this one. The 100-400mm zoom is sharp as a tack, incredibly versatile, and easily handheld.

This Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina, was even more distant than the meadowhawk in the previous shot. Nonetheless, the 100-400 pulled it in fairly well. This photo, like nearly all images posted on this blog, is a quick down and dirty minimally edited version of the jpeg file. I preserve all images as RAW files, too, and with some more considered post-processing work, even a distant dragonfly shot such as this one could be shaped into a very nice image. I don't think it's that bad even in this minimally edited form. The settings were the same as the previous image, except the shutter speed was bumped to 1/800 of a second.

Spreadwing damselflies are always worthy of inspection. This Swamp Spreadwing, Lestes vigilax, perches in classic spreadwing posture with the wings flared out at 45 degree angles from the body. We saw a fair number of spreadwings, but couldn't pin names to all of them.

It was back to the 180mm macro for this one - settings at f/11, ISO 200, shutter speed 1/200. In general, when shooting macro (which is almost always with flash), I keep the camera on full manual at f/11 and 1/200 shutter speed, with ISO somewhere between 100-400. At those settings it is usually ready to go, and quick and usually minor tweaks can be made as need be.

While Jim probably ID'ed this spreadwing when we were afield, it's stumping me now. Perhaps Slender Spreadwing, Lestes rectangularis, but I'm not sure of that. Doesn't seem quite right. Whatever it is, it's a beautiful bug. Note how widely spaced its eyes are - another feature of spreadwings. Camera settings were the same as for the previous image.

Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata, are often very tough to image. These big skimmers are extraordinary flyers and spend much time aloft. And that's how one typically sees them - zooming back on forth on the wing, never seeming to alight. This animal was very young, just passing out of the teneral stage, and thus was less prone to flying. Some slow, careful stalking allowed for close approach. The photo was made with usual settings: f/11, ISO 200, 1/200, muted flash.

The saddlebags was so tame that it allowed for various approaches and different angles, and only once did it flutter a short distance to a new perch - the old head of this Spotted Knapweed plant. This shot better shows the business end. Its legs are heavily armed with stiff raptorial spines, the better with which to seize prey. Enormous eyes don't miss a trick. Powerful mandibles will make mincemeat out of whatever it can catch and hold.

Most of the settings were the same is the previous shot, but I stopped the lens down to f/18 to get more depth of field, as I was shooting this image from very close quarters - as close as the lens's minimal focusing distance, which is a bit under two feet. I also had to bump up the flash intensity.

 Finally, to the guest of honor, the Swift Setwing! They certainly merit the "swift" moniker. When one of them took wing, it was often gone like a shot. To compound the difficulty of tracking one, the largely black coloration dappled with some whitish flecks is very effective disruptive camouflage. When the setwing shot through a shady patch, it entirely disappeared and often we could not pick it up again when it emerged from the shadows.

This shot was made from a fair distance with the 100-400mm lens, at a focal length of 263mm. Settings were f/5, ISO 100, 1/640, and exposure compensation dialed down 1/3rd of a stop.

When we encountered our first setwing, and I saw what seemingly wary bullets they were, I wondered if I'd get a killer closeup. Not to worry, one of them obligingly hung itself from a branch, and we were able to stalk in as close as we wanted and make a series of detailed images. In this shot, the ornate patterning and coloration come out - this is truly a handsome dragonfly. Same old, same old for this one - 180mm macro, f/11, ISO 200, 1/200, subdued flash.

It will be interesting to see if Swift Setwings turn up in other places around Ohio in the near future. Highly mobile strong flyers such as dragonflies seem to be hyper-responders to warming mean temperatures.

Congratulations to Jim Lemon for this excellent find, and I appreciate his guiding services for the day!


Ian Adams said…
Jim: I enjoyed your excellent blog post on dragonfly photography. Jim Lemon gave a great program at our Ohio Odonata Society meeting at Cedar Bog in July, and guided us to the Swift Setwings at the marl lakes. The heat index was in the high nineties, and although I managed a record shot with my 150mm macro lens, the setwings were too "swift" for a great close-up that day.

Ian Adams

Jack and Brenda said…
Excellent photos Jim!!
Mommer1 said…
Your photos sparkle and, along with a Bach cantata, make my office a magical place! Thank you!

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