Sunday, August 30, 2015

“Hanging Up”...Not the Phone or Your Clothing

In dragonfly parlance “hanging up” is a phrasal verb describing perching behavior of certain species of dragonflies; the term defines a dragonfly species clinging to vegetation in a vertical manner. So, what is the big deal? Well, if you want to identify or photograph a certain species, finding said species hanging up might be the best/only opportunity. Why?  Some dragonflies fly almost constantly and they are referred to as “fliers” (duh:-)

The 41 species of the Darner family (Aeshnidae) are notorious fliers. How often do they hang up? No pattern or cycle has been identified or published, it seems to be all random. Now imagine trying to find a two to three and a half inch long dragonfly, using a mental search image, hanging from a leaf, branch, snag from ground level to tree top. Mission unlikely unless you see one hang up in real time. Following a dragonfly in flight is tricky; they can move in any of six ways instantly: forward, back, left, right, down and up. Even only at 34 mph, typical maximum flight speed (Wikipedia), following a dragonfly can be difficult.

Like everything else, once you do something regularly your skills, knowledge improve and actions uncover more opportunity. Your actions become quick, instinctual, a novice might describe it as magic (think identification when birding). A veteran dragonfly enthusiast from Texas, Troy Hibbitts, related a recent experience with a flier on the Texas Odes listserve:

Regal Darner would be a New County Record and westernmost record for the species here in Kinney County.  I've now seen 4 here . . .but alas no photos!

Last year, I had 3 Regal Darner fly-bys at Fort Clark Springs, two of which were at close range (once while I was driving out to the wastewater treatment ponds, and one while I was swimming at the pool). No real photo opportunities last year.

Today, while my wife and I were running trails, I flushed a large darner.  I was in front, and going slowly enough that I was able to stop and watch it hang back up.  Boom! Regal Darner at close range, hung up!  Dagnabit!  Camera 2 miles away at home!  So we edged carefully around it, and left it hanging up.  It never once moved.  I'd estimate the run back to the truck at 5 minutes, 10 minutes to drive back to the house, grab the camera, and drive back.  Got back.  Still hanging.  Still at a distance, it noticed me, rocked once.  I should have taken the obscured by branches "safe" shot.  Stupidly, I did not.  Took half step to right to get the unobstructed "safe" shot.  It flew off its perched, right over my head, thought about hanging up right there, then wheeled back out over the trail and flew up into the canopy!!! 

Troy’s wonderful, dramatic story highlights the upside and downside challenge of “doing” dragonflies. By the way, this has happened to me just not on the same scale. Have been lucky lately. Photographed two Paddle-tailed Darners (Aeshna palmata below) hung up on the same day (first for me), one found by search image (low in grass) and the other in real time (20 foot up in cottonwood).

I encourage you to hang around at your favorite nature hang out, perhaps you will hang with some cooperative dragonfly species. Just don’t get hung up on instant success...the fun is in the long-term doing :-)

Paddle-tailed Darner

Paddle-tailed Darner

Sunday, August 2, 2015

No Wildfires Close to Home...Yet

Almost two years ago a wildfire started about 11 miles from our house in Lolo, Montana. Over several days it got's the blog story. Well, smoke came into the Bitterroot Valley today, most significant so far IMHO. Fortunately it's not of local origin, really dry here. The smoke is not nearly as bad as two years ago (photo below, compare to blog video).
Lolo, Montana
Still it is incredible that fires from the Pacific coast and central Washington can impact our air quality. Not so much, just navigate to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality website for many links and overviews of current fires/impacts. There are 11 large incident fires in play right now, most in California.

Keep the firefighters in your thoughts and prayers as they try to can keep the fires in check safely.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Using a Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM AutoFocus Telephoto Lens

Digital Camera World posted "75 Canon photography tips for taking control of your camera"...great stuff! I especially liked #51 Marvelous Macro, since I just finished renting the Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM AutoFocus Telephoto Lens from Lens Rentals on my Canon 70D for four days.

As background, I own two other Canon macro lenses: the 100 mm L IS model and the MP-E 65 1-5x model. Plus, I use the 70-300 mm L telephoto model also for "close shots" of dragonflies and butterflies. These bugs are what I'm currently focused on (excuse the pun). Well the rental equipment was...incredible!!! Some comparison shots (uncropped and unprocessed except for conversion from RAW to jpeg) are below, caveat none of these photos were controlled in an exacting measure except all were taken using a tripod.

Initial impressions, the 100 mm macro and telephoto take sharp photos, but don't fill the crop sensor frame (yes, it's dependent on distance, many cases these critters cannot be approached with camera/tripod in hand). Note the 180 mm, very sharp and large image...what's not to like? I'm going to have to buy this lens; you should too :-) BTW, the rental experience was excellent.
Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 100 mm macro

Striped Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 70-300 mm telephoto

Striped Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 180 mm macro

Monday, July 27, 2015

Birders - 10 Reasons You Should Also Dragonfly Watch

  1. Use the same equipment -  Yep, close-focus binoculars and a camera (probably a good point & shoot zoom) are basically all you need. Yes, you can net these animals, but in most cases it is not necessary. Sheryl Chacon website has a good overview of equipment et al.
  2. Similar habitats as for birding - Dragonflies require water habitats for breeding, but many can be found far from water outside of reproduction. That includes upland, desert, grassland and even urban/people places. You can start a yard list even without a created wetland (dragonflies in our yard eat bugs attracted to our flowers) suggested by the National Wildlife Federation.
  3. Best time for dragonfly watching is mid-morning through dusk - Birding definitely falls off during this time, fill the gap with dragonflies. My field trips (kind of go/no-go decision) target conditions of ~60 F (minimum temperature as defined by this paper by T. Sformo and P. Doak) and sunny as necessary for dragonfly flight activity. Midday anywhere USA fits the bill for those minimums. C.L. Goforth has a blog outlining weather and odonate behavior. 
  4. Many dragonfly populations are at their peak in the summer - Birding slows in the summer, while dragonfly activity peaks. Dragonfly action starts late spring into summer/fall for the temperate areas of the U.S. Areas of the south can have substantial activity year round because of warmer seasonal temperatures.  Texas Parks and Wildlife (authors Mark Klym and Mike Quinn) has a comprehensive guide (pdf) for download.
  5. Numerous individuals to identify - The journal Ecology (56:302–317) has a paper by Arthur C. Benke and Susan S. Benke (1975), Comparative Dynamics and Life Histories of Coexisting Dragonfly Populations (abstract here). The authors measured an average of about 1000 dragonfly larvae/square meter in a 1 hectare farm pond. 
  6. Colors, shapes and behaviors mimic bird diversity - Excellent field guides/references exist for dragonflies. The comprehensive field guide by Dennis Paulson (2012), Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West outlines the 348 species of the American West. He also has a companion guide for the eastern U.S. Another national field guide is from Sidney W. Dunkle (2000), Dragonflies Through Binoculars. If you live in the south check out Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast (Giff Beaton 2007) or Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and South-Central United States (John C. Abbott, 2005).  
  7. Be 1st to discover the dragonfly community of your favorite birding patch - As a citizen-scientist, contribute dragonfly records to Odonata Central that assist in detailing “the distribution, biogeography, biodiversity, and identification of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) world-wide”.
  8. Appreciate falcon and flycatcher skill in catching dragonflies - You might be surprised to find out that even Northern Cardinals eat dragonflies (The Birders Bug Book by Gilbert Waldbauer, 1998).
  9. About 50 dragonfly species migrate - Can be a spectacle along coasts or even at a hawk watch, e.g. Hawk Ridge at Duluth (Kurt Mead, 2009, Dragonflies of the North Woods).
  10. Symbol of clean water...they eat mosquitos :-)Earth Times has a short overview of dragonfly species as clean water indicators. 

Eight-spotted Skimmer

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pine White Butterfly - Current Wildlife Spectacle

There seems to be a boom right now in the Pine White (Neophasia menapia) Bitterroot Valley population. I got a second hand report of clouds of white butterflies floating about the crown of Ponderosa Pine at the Bass Creek NRA campground. I saw many on a weekend hike at Blodgett Canyon Overlook. According to Pyle (2002), this species of White (Pieridae family) is unusual for its preference of conifer as larval host and the population booms (outside of this, common most years).

Who hasn't watched the nature specials on television highlighting the wildebeest migration in Africa. Or read of the extinct Passenger Pigeon migration numbers. Though this event is not on equal footing, it is surreal, poetic and memorable. We wildlife watchers wish to be there for these displays of life. They are special to see and be part of. Check your flower garden, maybe your plantings have contributed to an increased number of locally common butterfly...that is just as exciting!

Below is a photo from August 2011 at Bass Creek NRA illustrating the incredible spectacle of white butterflies there that year:

Below are close-ups of a female (creamy with reddish coloring on trailing wing edges) and a male (white with thin black lines):
Female Pine White

Male Pine White

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dragonflies Get "Fleas" of a Sort,Too

I recently posted a photo of a male Tule Bluet (Enallagma carunculatum) with ectoparasites on a Google Plus post+Bette Kauffman commented on the presence of "mites" on this damselfly; +Didier Houbrechts expressed that mites were also "in Europe and on dragonflies too"  and +viviane godenne weighed in "seen in Belgium also...sometimes in impressive numbers."

So, I did some research on this. Found several references that researched these parasites. And yes, they are mites, Water Mites (Arrenurus sp.) to be more precise. Corbett (1999) is cited by R. J. Andrew et al [Journal of Threatened Taxa 7(1): 6821–6825] having identified 55 species of mites that are parasitic on Odonates. Andrew et al went on to identify 7 species of dragonfly with mite infestations in central India; only 9.3% of the 365 sampled odonates had mites. The main attachment site was the thorax and females (39%) had more mites than males (9%).

The mites attach to adult dragonflies as these insects morph from their aquatic form to terrestrial form. Mites mainly chew through the dragonfly exoskeleton where "plates" intersect and are "structurally weak". However, there instances of mites attaching to the wings, here is a link to Google Images illustrating this.

A. Zawal [Biological Lett. 2006 43(2) 257-276] researched water mites in northwest Poland and found the mites infested nine species of damselfly. The rate of attachment was 77% with high numbers per host animal (up to 195). Attachment sites were the thorax and the abdomen.

The mites engorge on the host dragonfly expanding to 140 times original size (M. R. Forbes et al Experimental and Applied Acarology 34: 79–93, 2004). They drop off the host dragonfly when the odonates return to the water to breed. Forbes et al overview research that indicates mites (few or many) affect their hosts in a negative fashion though effects aren't consistent.

Most interesting correlation is the coloration of mites as they mature; all attached mites change color with age in a synchronous pattern [R. Mitchell American Midland Naturalist
Vol. 82, No. 2 (Oct., 1969), pp. 359-366]. Mitchell proposes this is one way an odonate can be also aged; it has been done with mosquitos!

So here are a couple of my photos of what you can now look for and add to the science of this subject :-)

Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

Lestes sp.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rethought Green Lawn...What's Flowering Instead?

Several years ago we stopped mowing our lawn and incrementally started adding "wildflowers". For sure, this is not a pure/pristine restoration effort, i.e. this will never mirror a historic plant community. The objective is: a) propagate larval host plants for butterflies b) cultivate plant species known as key nectar sources for pollinators c) demonstrate/be-a-catalyst for rethinking the "green lawn".

Have had success in meeting objectives though the yard is still evolving/changing. Have been adding different native species (seeds) every year. Of course, this takes time and patience. This method is pure expectation and fun. I wonder what will take root and multiply. Will Monarchs appear at some point in time on the Showy Milkweed? Build It and They Will Come exampled butterfly usage a few years ago. Nothing like looking out the window and seeing some beautiful flowers (see below) at a minimum. Consider using a part of your lawn for ecology and beauty. Thank you :-)

Black-eyed Susan


Wild Flax