Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dragon Hunting in the Adirondacks

We see them darting about over streams, ponds, and lakes. Sometimes they are cruising the parking lots, or hanging out on the tops of hills or mountains. Dragonflies: they are a marvel of engineering and the “latest thing” to identify.

Every summer I assign myself something new to study. Unfortunately, I find myself distracted by all the options and never settle on just one new thing. But this year I really want to work on my dragonfly identification skills. Afterall, we see them everywhere, and if we can ID warblers and sparrows, how hard can a dragonfly be?

There are two good books out there for beginning dragonfliers: Cynthia Berger’s Dragonflies, part of the Wild Guide series, and the Stokes Beinnger’s Guide to Dragonflies. You can also try Dragonflies Through Binoculars, but I found that one to be a bit more of a challenge.

Now, the first thing you have to do is determine if you are actually looking at a dragonfly. I have been surprised to discover that a great many people will look at a damselfly and call it a dragonfly. While they are both members of the order Odonata, they are different suborders. (Remember Biology 101? King Phyll Came Over For Gathering Strawberries: Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species – the classification system into which all living things are placed.) So, take a good look. Does it have a very thin, fragile-looking body, or is it big and chunky? How are the wings held when it is at rest: horizontally out to the sides, or together over the back? Damselflies are dainty, thin insects who hold their wings up. Dragonflies are chunky and hold their wings open to the sides (like an airplane). Once you have settled this question, you are ready to move on.

What time of year is it as you stare at your dragonfly? Some species, like the Green Darner, come out in early early spring. Others are out and about in early summer, while still others wait until the end of summer to begin their flights. Knowing which species come out when will help you narrow down your choices.

In our part of the world (and dragonflies are found all over the world), we can concentrate on six dragonfly families as we start our ID journey: Darners, Clubtails, Spiketails, Cruisers, Emeralds, and Skimmers. What follows is a brief description of each.

Darners These can be enormous dragonflies! Most of them have clear wings and multicolored bodies. When they perch, they tend to do so vertically (like on a plant stem). They can be found in many kinds of habitats, and they are usually flying, rather than perching.

Clubtails These dragonflies are easy to identify because of the shape of their abdomens: they bulge at the end, like a club. Like the Darners, most have clear wings. Their bodies sport camouflage colors, but what’s camo to them may not look like camo to you. For instance, they can be black with bright yellow stripes! These dragonflies like to perch (and they perch horizontally on the ground, rocks, logs, etc.), although the males will make long patrol flights around their territories, which are mostly rivers and streams, but sometimes ponds and lakes.

Spiketails Another clear-winged family of dragonflies, these get their name from the spike at the end of the female’s abdomen (she uses it to jab her eggs into the mud of shallow streams). Their eyes are usually blue or green, and their bodies are boldly patterned in black or brown, with yellow stripes. Look for two or three stripes on the sides of the thorax. If perched, they hang more or less vertically, but they spend most of their time in flight. Look for them along streams.

Cruisers As the name suggests, these dragonflies are strong fliers. Again, most of them have clear wings and are usually brown or black with yellow spots on the abdomen, a single yellow stripe on the thorax, and yellow stripes on the face. These guys like rivers and large lakes, but will also hang out over roads and in clearings.

Emeralds These dragonflies get their name from the color of their eyes, which are described as a “luminous green.” They are not very common, though, so finding one is a real treat. Emeralds tend to hang out at bogs, which means up here in the Adirondacks we have a greater chance of seeing them since we have so many bogs in our boreal habitats. They have mostly clear wings and rather non-descript bodies. If you see one perching, it will be hanging vertically, but they spend most of their time on the wing.

Skimmers These are probably the dragonflies we notice the most, and most likely this is because a) there are so many species of them, and b) they have colorful spotted wings. As you would expect from the name, Skimmers skim over the surface of the water. Still water, that is, like ponds and marshes. Don’t look for them around whitewater.

Once you know what family your dragonfly fits, you could stop there; you’ll be miles ahead of most other people at this point. But to really impress your friends and family, or even yourself, try to figure out the genus and species. To do this, you will have to take note of field marks (stripes, spots, colors), and really look at behavior. Don’t be too disappointed if you can’t figure them out, though, for some species actually require a microscope to identify, even by the experts.

Here are a few hints based on season:

Early Spring – Green Darner (but it is also around summer and early fall)
Spring – Common Baskettail, Lancet Clubtail
Early Summer – Twin-spotted Spiketail, Slaty Skimmer
Midsummer – Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, Calico Pennant
Late Summer/Early Fall – Wandering Glider, Shadow Darner
Late Fall – Yellow-legged Meadowhawk (that’s the one in the photo, taken in late August 2008)

So grab yourself some binocs and a field guide or two, and plunk yourself down by some water. Be patient. Bring a camera (I find a photo holds still a lot longer than a live animal, making ID a bit easier). Before you know it, you will start to look on dragonflies as familiar friends, able to pick your favorite species out of any crowd.


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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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