Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Artful Dragons

The Oak Openings is always a fascinating place to visit, and last Sunday didn't disappoint. I visited some of the best areas along with Rick Nirschl and Cheryl Harner, seeking birds mostly, but also other flying objects. We scored lots of the former, including a cooperative singing Clay-colored Sparrow, and what surely must have been his mate, although she was quite hard to pinpoint amongst all of the shrubs and dewberry. A Blue Grosbeak was still warbling his rushed Purple Finch-like song, and counter-singing Summer Tanagers serenaded us. Maniacal family units of Red-headed Woodpeckers chortled and kweeaad everywhere.

But one of our targets was something very rare and non-avian, big and golden. And we saw it.

But first, a few of the lesser lights that crossed or paths that hot, sunny day.
Starting with the Lilliputian and proceeding up the scale to the gargantuan, this is an Azure Bluet, Enallagma aspersum. Nearly all bluets are showy and worth a look; this one especially so. It's rich royal blue thorax contrasts nicely with the light blue terminal end of the abdomen.

A Blue-fronted Dancer, Argia apicalis. They nearly always perch on the ground, or rock, or something on or close to the substrate. The pale whitish-blue thorax looks as if it is armored in small plates that were welded together. Note how dancers hold their wings pressed together but elevated well above the abdomen; bluets hold them lower, with the abdomen between the wings.
One of my favorites and one of our most common dragonflies, the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis. They often sit at the tips of exposed perches like tiny insectivorous Rough-legged Hawks, surveying their domain and dashing out to grab small insects or drive off other dragonflies. This one looks a bit like an old biplane in this pose, and he is obelisking; tilting his abdomen directly at the sun to minimize heat absorption.

Calico Pennants, Celithemis elisa, were especially obvious this day, the cherry-red males striking eye-catchers. Sometimes when shooting dragonfly photos, I use a large shutter aperture - low F-stop number - which blurs out the background, allowing the insect to stand out in sharper relief.

This is a female Calico Pennant. They are strongly sexually dimorphic - sexes look quite different - just like many species of birds.
One of our largest and most striking dragonflies is the male Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella. They are common and easily found nearly anywhere there is water. Males, like the one above, are especially beautiful in flight, their wings catching the sun and sparkling in a kaleidoscope-like display.
This magnificent insect is what we were specifically seeking, and we were not disappointed. It is a Golden-winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis. Rick had found a small colony here a few weeks prior, and two were still left. Giant and golden, they stood out from extreme distances, especially when in flight over the water. Their wings are infused with burnished golden tones that positively glow in the sunlight; I should think that even an insect-hater would be impressed with this one.

I apologize for the rather shoddy photos of the golden-wings, but we couldn't get near them. They remained out by the water's edge and beyond where we could go, at least without some heavy wading. This and the shot above were taken with 12x zoom. Golden-winged Skimmer had only been documented in Ohio twice before, and both prior records were decades old. Hence, our excitement. This find is on a par with something like a Burrowing Owl appearing. Evidence is suggesting that dragonflies may be on a northward march as temperatures steadily warm, so perhaps finds of southerners like this species are going to become more commonplace.

Any day that is great for dragonflies will also produce lots of butterflies, and we had many species of skippers and butterflies, too. The above is a rather stunning species, Aphrodite Fritillary, Speyeria aphrodite. Which reminds me to put in a plug for the upcoming Appalachian Butterfly Conference. If you enjoy insects, you will have a great time at this event. Butterflies will be the primary focus, but we'll see plenty of dragonflies, and other goodies. Just visit THIS LINK for all the details.


Kathi said...


I'm starting to get interested in dragonflies (and relatives) but need a good field guide. Any recommendations?


Lisa at Greenbow said...

I just love these photos. I was just thinking how good they are for dragonflies since I can't seem to get a picture of them they are worse than trying to take pictures of birds due to their flighty behavior. I guess it is those compound eyes that see you coming. I have always thought they could feel me approaching them.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your positive feedback on the photos, Lisa. Dragonflies can be tricky as they do see so well; sneaking up on one is nearly impossible. One must employ stealth and slow movements, and even the warier ones can often be approached closely.

Glad you are getting into the dragons, Kathi - they are very rewarding and well worth our admiration. As for references, Dragonflies Through Binoculars is good to start, as is a free booklet published last year by the Ohio Division of Wildlife entitled Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio. Just contact Wildlife about that one.


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