Jul 192019
 

The Kawarthas is home to a fascinating variety of odonates

The buzz on our street this summer is not the usual gossip shared by neighbours. Rather, it’s the sound of mosquitoes. June’s warm, wet weather created perfect conditions for mosquito reproduction, and they took full advantage of it. Up until the last week or so, working outside was nearly impossible without some kind of bug protection. Few of us stop to think, however, that nature has its own mosquito control system – ancient flying machines that love nothing more than dining on these blood-sucking pests. Enter the odonates.

From gardeners to birders, and children to adults, dragonflies and damselflies intrigue us all. Known collectively as odonates (from the insect order Odonata), they also have evocative names like ebony jewelwing, Stygian shadowdragon and racket-tailed emerald. Odonates also keep civilized hours – most  don’t become active until mid-morning – and prefer warm, sunny weather.

When we look into their huge eyes, we are seeing life as it existed millions of years ago. They are as old as the first reptiles and far older than the first flowering plants. Their basic structure has hardly changed in all this time. Clearly, evolution mastered odonate design a long time ago.

Dragonflies and damselflies are easy to tell apart. Damselflies tend to be small – often only an inch or so in length – with a thin body. They are weak, tentative fliers and hold their wings closed or only partially spread when at rest. Dragonflies, on the other hand, are much larger with thick bodies. They are also strong fliers and keep their wings completely open when resting.

Odonates of the Kawarthas

Our knowledge of the dragonflies and damselflies of the Kawarthas dates to only 1993 when a small group of local naturalists began keeping detailed records of their sightings. Now, over 100 species have been recorded in Peterborough County alone, approximately one-third of which are damselflies.

Although dragonflies and damselflies are usually found around water – marshes, in particular – they also frequent fields, roadsides and gardens. All our local rail-trails provide great odonate-watching (also known as “oding”) opportunities, especially in sections that pass through wetlands. Jackson Park, GreenUP Ecology Park, and the Imagine the Marsh Conservation Area in Lakefield (off D’eyncourt St.) are also excellent destinations for seeing odonates. Watching from a kayak or canoe can be especially fun and productive.

Four-spotted Skimmer – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Like butterflies, different species fly at different times of the year. In July, some of the most common and easy-to-identify dragonflies are the “skimmers”, a group characterized by prominent wing patches and body markings. They include the painted, chalk-fronted, four-spotted, twelve-spotted, and widow skimmers as well as the Halloween pennant. Darners, too, are easy to find. The male common green darner is especially beautiful with its bright green thorax and blue abdomen. This species is migratory, with large numbers moving along the shore of Lake Ontario in early fall. By late summer, smaller dragonflies called meadowhawks become abundant. In most species, the males are red, while the females and immatures are yellow.

 

 

 

 

Twelve-spotted Skimmer- adult male -Drew Monkman -June-23 2014

As for damselflies, now is a good time to see ebony jewelwings, a species that often turns up in gardens. They are quite large and, at first glance, appear almost entirely black. In the proper light, however, they radiate a beautiful metallic green lustre. Other common damselflies on the wing right now include spreadwings, forktails and bluets. The latter are tiny, powder blue damselflies, which are often seen on marsh vegetation and around docks. They love to land on fishing rods.

 

 

Interesting behaviours

Odonates attract our attention in many different ways. For example, large numbers of the same species often emerge at the same time.  Black and white chalk-fronted skimmers are typical in this regard. In  early summer, hundreds often congregate along cottage roads. They fly up  each time a car passes and then immediately return to land on the road surface. Later in the summer, you’ll often see swarms of dragonflies feeding on flying ants. Dozens of ant-eating Canada darners entertained us for hours one summer as we sat on the dock at my brother’s cottage.

The rough-and-tumble world of odonate sex is especially fascinating. If you’ve ever seen a pair of mating dragonflies in the act, you probably have an idea of how much flexibility is required. First, the male bends his abdomen beneath him to transfer sperm from its production site near the tip of the abdomen to a slit in the penis, which is located near the junction of the abdomen and thorax. Next, he forms a tandem with the female by literally grabbing her behind the head with claspers, which are also located at the tip of his abdomen. The pair then alights and goes into the “wheel” position. To do so, the female  bends the tip of her abdomen around until her genitalia are brought into contact with the male’s penis. In this way, the couple forms a closed circle with their bodies.  Now, this is where things get even more interesting. The male will then use special “scoopers” to clear out any sperm that a previous male may have deposited in the female. This helps to assure that only his genes will be transferred to future generations. Having cleaned house, he injects his sperm into the female, and the wheel is broken. To keep rival suitors away, some males will actively guard their mate – or even retain her in their hold – until she has finished depositing her eggs in the water.

A pair of bluet damselflies in the wheel position – Rick Stankiewicz

 

Photography

Odonates are among the most photogenic of our insects. Many species also have the cooperative habit of returning to the same perch time and time again. You can therefore pre-focus on the perch and wait for the dragonfly or damselfly to land. All that’s required is some patience. Although a macro lens provides the best results, you can still get good pictures with a standard telephoto lens.

Try to take advantage of the softer, diffused light of cloudy days when odonates are less active and easier to approach. For species like darners that don’t often land, you can sometimes find them perched during the cool temperatures of early morning before their flight muscles warm up. You might even find a few covered in dew. Always focus on the eyes and take shots from different angles. Some of the most satisfying pictures can be achieved by shooting the dragonfly from the side with the camera’s sensor parallel to the insect’s body. Whenever possible, look for a background that contrasts with the colours of the dragonfly.

Taking a picture is also useful for identification purposes. Although most species are relatively easy to identify with a guidebook or website photo (see below), you can also upload the picture to iNaturalist.org where someone else will identify it for you.

Viewing and identifying

Almost everything that applies to butterfly-watching is also true for oding. Many species  can be readily identified with the naked eye. For the more skittish varieties, however, a pair of close-focusing binoculars is a must.

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

Because some species rarely land, a butterfly net can also come in handy. A net is also fun to use, especially if you’re trying to catch a dragonfly in a swarm. Once you’ve caught it, transfer the insect to a  jar or Zip-lock bag for closeup viewing. Another option is to hold the dragonfly in your hand by placing your thumb and index finger on either side of the thorax and then gently move your fingers upwards. Pinch all four wings together over the body between your fingers.

I also recommend purchasing a copy of the “Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area”. It is an excellent resource and includes all the species found in the Kawarthas. The main author is Colin Jones, a local naturalist and biologist. The beautiful illustrations are by Peterborough native, Peter Burke. A great on-line resource can be found at www.odonatacentral.org. Start with the checklist feature to get a list of those species found in Ontario. You can then go on to browse the photographs. A checklist of Ontario Odonata is also available by contacting the Toronto Entomologists’ Association at www.ontarioinsects.org

Spend some time learning the key field marks and behaviours of each of the three families of damselflies and six families of damselflies. For example, are the eyes separated or connected? Are the wings clear or patterned? Does it fly high or low? Does it perch often and, if so, how and where? Remember, too, that the males and females of some species can look quite  different, as can some of the immatures.

Odonate-watching can become a fascinating hobby. You’ll soon be enamored by their jewel-like colours, their intriguing behaviours and the challenge of finding new species. As with butterflies, the odonates are yet another window onto the amazing biodiversity of the Kawarthas.

Chalk-fronted Skimmer – adult male – Drew Monkman

 

Climate Crisis News

Climate alarm bells just keep on ringing. Boosted by a historic heat wave in Europe with temperatures reaching 45.9 C in France, Earth just registered its warmest June ever. July is on track to set a new heat record as well. Unprecedented warming is also continuing unabated in the Arctic. This past Sunday, Canadian Forces Station Alert, located at the tip of Ellesmere Island, hit a record 21 C, which was warmer than Victoria, B.C.  The normal is 7 C. For a sobering overview of just how serious the climate crisis is – and what can be done about it –  pick up the August issue of MacLean’s magazine. It includes a 26-page section entitled “The Climate Crisis. And how to stop it.”
 

May 192016
 

The Kawarthas is home to at least 100 species of butterflies, 135 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies and a thousand or more different moths. Learning to identify the more common species is a great way to connect to the natural world around us and get kids interested in nature.

Butterflies

Who has not been enchanted by butterflies – the delicate, colorful wind danc­ers that are the hallmark of a warm spring or summer day? Belonging to an order of insects known as Lepidoptera, butterflies are easy to observe and turn up everywhere from woodland trails to backyard gardens. In fact, butterfly-watching also adds a whole new level of enjoyment to gardening. Compared to birding, which can involve getting up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of peak avian activity, identifying and photographing butterflies is a more civilized affair. Butterflies are rarely on the wing before 8 am and are most active on warm, sunny days.

Getting good looks at butterflies is easiest with a pair of binoculars, especially those that focus to within six feet or less. A camera with a zoom lens also comes in handy. By taking a picture of the butterfly, you can identify it later. Lots of excellent guide books and apps are available such as the “ROM Field Guide to the Butterflies of Ontario” and the “Audubon Butterflies” app. Some butterfly-watchers also use a net for catching hard-to-identify species such as skippers, which tend to be very similar. The butterfly can be transferred to a plastic viewing jar and then released.

Here are a few additional suggestions to keep in mind.

1. To find a given species, research the time of year it flies and its preferred habitat. Spring azures, for example, are most often seen in May; Canadian tiger swallowtails are active in June, while many of the fritillaries are observed in mid-summer.

Spring Azure - male - Wikimedia

Spring Azure – male – Wikimedia

2. Roadsides and wetland edges can be particularly productive, as long as there are sufficient flowers in bloom.

3. Learn to identify the plants that attract butterflies, either for nectar or as “larval plants” on which to lay eggs. Among the most important are the milkweeds.

Coral Hairstreak on Butterfly Milkweed

Coral Hairstreak on Butterfly Milkweed

4. Watch for butterflies basking in the sun on gravel roads (e.g., anglewings) and tree trunks (e.g., satyrs). Some species are attracted to animal dung and muddy puddles, which serve as a source of minerals, amino acids and nitrogen.

5. Be careful not to cast a shadow on the butterfly, since this will usually cause it to fly away.

6. Pay special attention to the butterfly’s size, wing shape, color and pattern­ing. The pattern on the underside of the wing, usually visible as the butterfly feeds, is especially important for identification purposes.

Moths

If you would simply prefer that insects to come to you, then moth-watching may be your thing. Mothing, as it is sometimes called, can be as simple as leaving on the porch light and checking periodically to see what’s clinging to the screen door. Unlike butterflies, most moths are nocturnal. However, there are exceptions. To distinguish moths from butterflies, remember that butterflies have club-like knobs on the ends of the antennae and usually perch with their wings held upwards. Moths, on the other hand, perch with their wings outspread and have antennae that closely resemble bird feathers.

While a simple incandescent light will attract some moths, the most effective bulbs are those that project light in the UV spectrum such as a black light CFL. Grow bulbs, designed for plants or aquariums, also work well. An even more effective option is to use a mercury or sodium vapour bulb, which broadcast an extremely bright light and draw in moths from further away. Set the light up in front of a wall or, even better, a white cotton sheet where the moths can land and be studied at close range.

Not all moths, however, are interested in lights. Some are nectar-feeders and will come to bait such as over-ripe bananas. A particularly effective way to entice moths is with a syrupy “goop.” One mixture calls for one over-ripe banana, a dollop of molasses, a scoop of brown sugar and a glug or two of beer. Mix the ingredients in a blender and spread the concoction on a tree trunk or a hang­ing rope. Check regularly after dark to see what has been attracted. With any luck, species such as Catocala (underwing) moths will show up. During the day, the bait may also attract butterflies.

Gallium Sphinx moth - June 4, 2016 - Gwen Forsyth

Gallium Sphinx moth – June 4, 2016 – Gwen Forsyth

A lot of the fun in mothing comes from taking pictures of the insects. Be aware, however, that using a flash may create washed-out images. A way to get around this is to carefully catch the moth in a small container, put it in the fridge overnight and take a picture the following morning using natural light. Place the moth on a pleasing background such as a leaf or a piece of bark. Make sure your camera settings are ready, because you will only have 30 seconds or so before the insect warms up enough to fly away. Placing a ruler beside the moth for one of the shots serves as a simple size reference.

Moth identification can be challenging, so keep in mind the following tips:

1. Start by focusing your ef­forts on the larger moths and those that stand out from the rest because of their large size and distinctive colours and markings (e.g., giant silkworm moths, sphinx moths).

2.  Take note of how it holds its wings when at rest. Are they spread out to the side or tent-like over the back? The former is probably a moth in the family Geometri­dae while the latter likely belongs to the family Noctuidae.

3. Once you have a rough idea of what family the moth might belong to, look more closely at the patterns on its wings and compare these to the photo­graphs in a guide such as “Peterson Field Guide to Moths” by Seabrooke Leckie.

4. Keep in mind the time of year. Like butter­flies, the moths you see change with the seasons. Knowing a given moth’s flight period will help to narrow down the species.

5.  Look at the range maps and make sure the species occurs in your area.

6. Check the type of host plant (larval food plant) the moth requires. If, for example, a given moth lays its eggs on plants that don’t grow in the Kawarthas, you can probably discount it.

 

Almost everything that applies to butterfly-watch­ing is also pertinent to the observation of dragonflies and their close cousins, damselflies. Collectively, these two groups of insects are known as the Odonata or simply “odonates.” Like butterflies and moths, there is a great deal of species diversity, and they, too, make wonderful subjects for photography.

On warm, sunny days, dragonflies and damselflies can be found around any wetland, lake or river. Many species are also attracted to meadows, roadsides and backyard gardens. In addition to using binoculars and a camera to help with identification, it can be fun to catch the insect in a butterfly net. It can then be transferred to a transpar­ent jar or plastic bag. Despite what many people think, dragonflies cannot sting you and their “bite” – on the rare occasions when this happens – is usually more startling than anything else. Here are a few simple suggestions to get started as an odonate-watcher.

1. Learn the different dragonfly (e.g., darners, skimmers) and damselfly (e.g., bluets, spreadwings) families. Knowing the family will greatly narrow down the choice of possible species.

Male Ebony Jewelwing, a species of damselfly (D. Gordon Robertson)

Male Ebony Jewelwing, a species of damselfly (D. Gordon Robertson)

2. Pick up a copy of “The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and Surrounding Area”. Written by local naturalist Colin Jones and illustrated by former Peterborough resident Peter Burke, it covers all of the species you are likely to find in the Kawarthas.

3. For dragonflies, take special note of overall size, eye position (e.g., do the two large eyes touch each other?) as well as any patterning on the thorax, abdomen or wings.

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly - Margo Hughes

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

4. Remember that the male and female in many species can be quite different.

5. As with common moths and butterflies, you may want to start collect­ing odonates to have a small reference collection. Doing so will not have any impact on the population. Guidelines for proper collecting (e.g., using glassine envelopes) can be found online.

You will find more ways to develop a stronger connection to the natural world in my new “Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha. The book will be available in June.