Chasing Dragonflies and Damselflies
Birding and butterflying have long been popular. With the advent of easy-to-use field guides and common, colorful names like neon skimmer and thornbush dasher, the pursuit of dragonflies and damselflies is finally taking off.
Scientists are taking advantage of the growing interest in odes and putting all that enthusiasm to work. Many states, including New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Ohio, have launched surveys for the "pure and simple documentation of distribution--which species are currently here," says Erin White, a zoologist for the New York Natural Heritage Program who oversaw much of New York's five-year effort. Though it wrapped up in 2009, White continues to analyze the data for answers to some very basic questions. Little is known about why common species are common and rare species are rare, and she hopes to generate some hypotheses by relating distributions to specific habitat information. For instance, the subarctic darner, a three-inch-long dragonfly with a yellow face and blue or green stripes on its hefty, dark-brown midsection, was observed at only two sites, one during the survey, one just after. "We know they like sphagnum bogs, but we have a lot of bogs in the Adirondacks where it didn't occur," White says.
Three of the state's 59 damselfly species--the pine barrens bluet, the scarlet bluet, and the little bluet--were listed as threatened at the start of the survey, so extra effort was put into monitoring them. Indeed, while surveyors spotted some of the damsels at new sites, the three threatened species were limited to Suffolk County. They may be further threatened by land use changes in this heavily populated part of Long Island, including vehicle use near pond habitats and invasive plants such as phragmites that displace native shoreline species.
New Hampshire, meanwhile, has just finished its own five-year survey, says coordinator Pam Hunt, an Audubon Society of New Hampshire biologist. Hunt has records dating back to the 1800s, since prominent entomologists of the day, such as Samuel Scudder and Philip Calvert, did field work in the White Mountains. In studying the data on hand, she noticed something curious: Forty-six species--about one-third of those in the state--were listed as being of potential conservation concern. "That was the first justification to launch the survey," she says, invoking the common refrain of conservationists: "We can't conserve what we don't know."
Like White in New York, Hunt spent a lot of time training volunteers how to identify dragonflies and damselflies. A small cadre of them became quite dedicated. "They're what I call my nut jobs and crazy people, who drive all over the state, who spend their vacations doing this," she says, and I can almost hear her smile through the phone. "We love each other dearly."
As with birders, some dragonfly chasers keep life lists and treasure new finds. And those avian admirers who take to this hobby find new ways of observing their favorite places and new reasons to check out unfamiliar ground--especially wet habitats. Common predators of dragonflies included cedar waxwings and eastern kingbirds, so birders may also gain a new appreciation of the food chain.
Most of the newcomers are birders who are quite comfortable using their binoculars, though not necessarily nets. "Netting is a bit of a sport, worthy of stories around a campfire," says Donnelly. "Clubtails are the prize," he adds, because they're so hard to catch and have a short season. Walter Chadwick, from Yonkers, New York, uses close-focus binoculars to observe and identify dragonflies in the field. He also has a small DSLR camera to capture his quarry digitally. And although he sometimes carries one, he says, "I stink with a net."
Chadwick heard about the New York dragonfly survey and attended one of White's training sessions. "I just got hooked," he says. On a hot August day I joined him at a meadow in Harriman State Park, about an hour north of New York City. He swept his net back and forth, casting a shadow to spook out of hiding any perching odes in the waist-high grasses and goldenrod, but all we saw were large dragons flying overhead. Common green darners were recognizable by their metallic shimmer as much as their green and blue coloring. Many odes, such as darners and baskettails, fly quite high, which is when binoculars come in handy.
A clump of cattails revealed a small pond, no bigger than a puddle really, where Chadwick thought he spotted a spreadwing--a damselfly that doesn't fold its wings together above its body. He took a few snapshots and looked closely at his camera screen for the field marks he knows by heart. Blue eyes, yellow-blue stripes on the thorax, and no coloration on the tip of the abdomen: It was a slender spreadwing.
Part of the game is simply spotting a flying ode. After more than an hour and not much to show for it, Chadwick continued to patiently tromp through the grasses, sometimes entering the dappled shade under the trees, other times approaching a nearby stream. He pointed out another damselfly--just a tiny floating wisp, hard to distinguish from a broken fragment of pale grass. I'd see it, then lose sight of it again. Chadwick followed it gamely and noted its features aloud--yellow overall, some darker markings, about an inch long, very thin--before trying to catch it in his net. He missed, but it turned out he had seen enough. Back at the car, he checked his guide: "Tiny size and bright-yellow coloration of males are distinctive." A citrine forktail--species No. 90 or so on his life list.