Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Secret Life of Ryan Chrouser


I have previously stated that the Zebra Clubtail is probably my very favorite dragonfly.  That being said, like many of you, it is hard to pick a favorite.  Certainly, people (myself included) are drawn to their striking colors and bold patterns.  Beauty is more apt catches our eye, rather than the drab and inconspicuous, and this is true for so many of our beloved outdoor creatures.  Our social media accounts are riddled with photos of brightly colored birds, boldly patterned beetles, and striking butterflies in addition to our Odonate friends.  Am I wrong here?  How many photos do you see of the drab ground beetles on Facebook as compared to their boldly patterned cousins the tiger beetles?  I probably have seen a thousand pictures of brightly colored warblers for every picture of the non-descript, but cute, Song Sparrow.  We all gravitate to beauty, and there is nothing wrong with that.  I am often guilty of ignoring the mundane looking creatures and favoring the bold.  However, I often find that when I learn something peculiar about one of these overlooked creatures, I become enchanted with them.  I would like to think that my science background really draws me to the uniquely behaviored creatures just as much as the uniquely colored or patterned.

Let me give you a peek in my brain.  Beware!  For it is a place full of dangerous distractions; ranging from long-legged flies, genealogy, shiny guitars, and science fiction and fantasy epics.  There are many pitfalls and places to get lost.  With that warning, I am going to take you back to 2018 when my family took a trip to Massachusetts for some family history exploration of my wife’s deep colonial roots.  They go way back in this country; mine are not quite so deep but are still very interesting.  However, that is an entirely different topic.  I did warn you about how dangerous my brain is, right?

Anyway, all of the family history and colonial history was very interesting, but I wasn’t going to go all the way to Massachusetts and not look for Odonates.  I wanted to see some species that I hadn’t seen before, and at the top of that list was the Seaside Dragonlet.  Is it the most spectacularly patterned and colored species in the northeast?  I think you would agree that it is not.  However, its unique ecology and biology had it as the only species I tagged as a “must see”.  I was maybe a bit obsessive about finding it; my wife could probably corroborate this.  I looked a few times in Massachusetts, and completely failed.  I was a bit melancholy that all my efforts yielded no fruit.

On our last full day in the northeast, there was a trip planned (with my wife’s distant cousins) to travel north to Maine where there was some more family history to learn.  I did not expect that the trip would allow me the time to stop and check out any salt marshes along the way, but just in case, I went to Google Earth and followed our route north.  I found what looked like an accessible salt marsh in Maine and memorized its location.  The day was beautiful, the drive was incredible, and we saw many New Hampshire license plates.  New Hampshire has the coolest state motto, so I’m quite certain that my large family group became weary of my “Live Free or Die!” proclamations.  To fully appreciate that image, you have to picture a van that included my sons ages three and ten, my seventeen-year-old daughter, my wife, my mother-in-law, and her soon to be husband.  This eclectic group deserves credit for tolerating my sporadic outbursts of patriotism.

Live Free or Die!

Again, I digress.  This is likely to be the longest blog I have written, as I haven’t even gotten to the main topic yet.  I hope you are still with me.  Back to the story.  We had fifteen minutes extra on our trip.  The wonderfully tolerant people in my van acquiesced to my wish to stop at a salt marsh in the middle of nowhere, and I found my Seaside Dragonlets.  I even netted one to show to the entire crew.  I was ecstatic for certain, but even at the time I was photographing them, I was already lamenting not being able to spend more time studying them.  It is the unique habitat requirements of this species that caused me obsess over them.  I can tell you that I will chase Seaside Dragonlets again, and this time I will make the time to watch them, and maybe even find a nymph!

Male Seaside Dragonlet from Maine

So that was a very long preamble to get to my point.  My point is that unique and interesting species of Odonates exist right here in our own state, and they may not be as photogenic, but they are every bit as captivating.   I have discussed the boghaunters previously, and the two species of boghaunters certainly qualify as unique and interesting despite being on the more inconspicuous and drab side of the Odonate world.  However, this blog is actually about a dragonfly that I haven’t even mentioned yet.  It is a creature that speaks to me on a spiritual level.  It is not boldly patterned, nor is it rare.  It is actually one of our most common large dragonflies. 

The creature that I am referring to is the secretive Fawn Darner.  There is something about this species that holds my attention and fascination.  If you take the time to watch the banks of the streams and rivers of late summer, you may be able to see this heavily camouflaged species hugging the stream bank and exploring the nooks and crannies of almost every log or stick it comes across.  No other dragonfly in our area behaves quite like this species (except maybe its genera cousin, the Ocellated Darner, which is not yet known in Wisconsin).  It behaves differently than every other dragonfly I find, even the Shadow Darner that inhabits the same haunts. The cryptic coloration also sets it apart from the bold colors and patterns of the other darners in Wisconsin. 

I think maybe that this anomalous dragonfly and I are kindred spirits.  I know that as I write down this thought, that I am very unscientifically anthropomorphizing this animal, but I have a whimsical side nearly as strong as my scientific, so indulge me if you will.  The behavior of this creature is not far removed from my own.  Both of us like to be inconspicuous.  We share the same favored habitat.  Its behavior of meticulously exploring the banks of a stream are very much like that of a curious Odonatist.  I don’t believe in the concept of a spirit animal, but if I did, it would be a Fawn Darner.

I often reflect on the Fawn Darner at this time of year, and as the flight season winds down, I mark the end of summer with the last flight of the Fawn Darner.  At this point, I have seen my last of the year and it brings me to recall my last Fawn Darner of a prior year.  I can vividly remember the day in mid- September when I was about to give up and retreat from the creek, when around the big bend I saw a movement in the deep shadows of a fallen tree along the far bank.  I hurried to the bank to get in a position to net.  A moment later, I see the brown form with shaded wings many yards upstream.  I watch it, it spends two minutes working up the bank toward me, and as it gets right in front of me, I pause.  For some reason I don’t swing the net.  I allow it to continue along its journey undisturbed.   In that moment, it just did not seem like the right to deprive this creature of its freedom, even for a moment.  Instead I watched it until after a short time it wound around the next bend, and beyond my sight.  Away it went, free to enjoy the last day of summer same as I.

In the beautiful film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” the character Sean O’Connell , world-renowned photographer (played by Sean Penn), illustrates this feeling.  After finally finding the elusive animal he is searching for, he chooses to not take the picture, and instead just watches it.  Walter (played by Ben Stiller) is astounded that the photographer does not take the picture.  Sean explains that sometimes he just wants to stay in the moment, without the distraction of the camera.  There is a lesson that I think many of us that love nature can understand.  I personally relate very strongly to that sentiment.  There are times you just stay in that moment as long as you can, feeling the magic of the incredible place that we call the Earth.  Had I swung the net that day, I likely would not remember the beauty of that moment so vividly. 

So this blog ultimately is a toast to the beauty of nature and all of its wonder; be it the boldly colored, the strangely behaved, or wonderfully unique.  Nature constantly reminds me to celebrate the differences in all creatures, and in turn helps me to appreciate the same uniqueness in all of the people that share this planet with them.  If I had a spirit animal, it would be a Fawn Darner.  What about you?  What is your spirit animal?  What draws you into a powerful connection with nature and reminds you that you are a part of it?  I encourage you to seek out and enjoy those moments that remind you of who you are at the core, a living part of the living Earth.
Fawn Darner - the last of 2019 from September 17th

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Otter Creek - My Home

We have lived on Otter Creek for several years now.  The first day we looked at the house was in late September, and I remember going down to check out the creek with our son.  He would have been 4 at the time.  When I saw the creek, I was enchanted.  My son found a very worn White-faced Meadowhawk resting on the sand, this seemed like a sign to me.  I didn't think we had the financial means to buy the house, but somehow we worked all that out.  So seven years later I can reflect a little on that time and really appreciate what I have.

Otter Creek is actually not the most diverse of Odonate habitats.  From my experience with other small creeks, this is not altogether that surprising.  Today I was frustrated that I haven't seen a Zebra Clubtail down at the creek in a couple of weeks, but the fact that I have seen them down there at all is something that I take a bit for granted.  That's why I felt the need to write about it.  Perspective is important.

Otter Creek is a magical place for me.  We moved in just before Christmas so I had some time to do some research.  My new creek had several factors working against a high diversity of Odonates.  It was very cold, experienced frequent flooding, and had a good deal of farmland upstream from me.  On the flip side, I was told there were trout in it by local trout fisherman, so I held out hope that the water quality would be good enough to have a healthy Odonate population.  The first summer we lived here was in 2013, and I quickly became disappointed in the apparent lack of Odonate diversity.  I didn't realize at the time that to survey a creek like mine required an entirely different approach than I had previously used.  I was so accustomed to just showing up at a lake or river and seeing stuff flying around.  That wasn't getting me results on my creek, so I assumed that there wasn't much to find.

It was August 25th when I realized I was doing something wrong.  My niece was visiting, and we took her down to the creek so all the kids could splash in the water.  At this point, the only Odonate I was sure was living in the creek were Ebony Jewelwings, and they were everywhere.   As the kids were playing under the watchful eye of my wife, I snuck upstream just a bit to admire the sparkling riffles and the dancing flight of the Jewelwings.  At this serene moment, a dragonfly landed on a branch sticking up from the water.  It took me almost no time at all to realize I was gazing at my first  Zebra Clubtail.  I took a hasty picture and then netted it to get a closer look.  I was so excited.  It was if I was hit by a bolt of lightning.  All at once I realized that I was surveying the creek all wrong. I was surveying from a trail that went along parts of the edge, but I wasn't getting in the water. 

 It seems like such a ridiculous mistake to me now, but the best way to survey this type of place (and it turns out...most others) is to become a part of it.  That fateful day I did exactly that, and found not only the Zebra Clubtail, but also a pair of Shadow Darners in tandem, and a bunch of Fawn Darners stealthily probing the stream edges in and out of the many snags and branches.  I survey it from the ice cold water at every opportunity now, and though I don't find a high number of any one species (except the numerous Ebony Jewelwings), I have found a rather impressive number of species.  

Of the 53 species I have recorded at our property, most are likely not breeding in the creek, but some of them most certainly are.  I have collected exuvia of Shadow Darners, Fawn Darners, and Zebra Clubtails.  I have seen Zebra, Arrow, and Elusive Clubtail females all lay eggs.  I have captured and reared out a Twelve-spotted Spiketail.  I have yet to officially confirm Sioux Snaketails, but I can usually locate males holding territories for a couple weeks in June, and I have had a pair in tandem in the little prairie below our house, so I feel that this is just a matter of time.  

This "new" method of surveying was validated the next year when we had the DSA meeting in Wisconsin.  Almost all of the visiting experts spent their time in the habitats looking for nymphs and exuvia rather than relying on a random encounter with a wayward adult.  This method of surveying led me to an entirely different process and allowed me to discover some things that I would never have discovered by looking around the edges of a habitat rather than immersing myself in the habitat.  It isn't easy to do, and can in fact be very physically exhausting.  In the other hand, mentally it is as refreshing as the ice cold water of my creek.  It allows you to leave the trappings of the human construct, and be as we once were.  A part of nature, rather than apart from nature.  

Otter Creek

Denizen of Otter Creek - Arrow Clubtail from last week

Monday, August 5, 2019

Coon Forks - A Cornucopia of Odonata




I have several sites I try to get out to every few weeks.  The point of these repeated visits is to build up long-term data on the population fluctuations, and how they are potentially changing over time.  Coon Forks County Park is likely the most important site that I get out to regularly.  It has several habitats within the park, which allows for an incredible diversity of Odonata. 

My fascination with Coon Forks started on July 7th, 2013 when I was canoeing with my family.  In one of the backwaters, we noticed a large dark dragonfly darting in and out of the tangle of brush along the shaded shoreline.  We paddled up to it and it landed within arm’s reach in a thick woody shrub.  There was no room to net, so I reached out and by some miracle, picked it up.  It was without a doubt a SomatochIora.  I was still relatively new to dragonfly ID, and as many of you know, the species of the genus Somatochlora (Striped Emeralds) are not easy to find and difficult to ID.  I identified this with my handy Dragonflies of the Northwood’s field guide as an Incurvate Emerald.  I was thrilled as this was not only a county record for Eau Claire, but also on the “most-wanted list” on the Wisconsin Odonata Survey site.  Acutely aware that my experience with Somatochlora was limited, my optimism was a little guarded.  I sent the photos to Bob Dubois and he confirmed that I indeed had found an Incurvate Emerald.
I was terribly excited, but soon my science background took over.  The habitat for Incurvate Emeralds is listed as bog pools and open wet sedge meadows, not backwaters of small lakes.  This led me to Google Earth (this is what the internet is really for people) and careful scanning of satellite images.  I found that there was a very large open area in the southwest corner of the park that could very well be a large marsh.  The next year, I hiked in and found the marsh.  Low and behold, I found more Incurvate Emeralds.  Regular visits to the marsh led to many county records and interesting species.  Brush-tipped Emerald, Kennedy’s Emerald, Delicate Emerald, and Ocellated Emerald all have been located in the area to go along with what appears to be a healthy Incurvate Emerald habitat. 

I had also been really hoping to find a site for Ebony Boghaunters in Eau Claire, and the marsh did not disappoint.  I found a pair in tandem there on June 10th 2015.  This led me to visiting the park early the next year to see if I could locate the breeding site; I found many more.   I also discovered a Ringed Boghaunter, which I never hoped to find in Eau Claire County.  Since then I have monitored the populations of these two glacial relict species.  They could provide a window into how climate change might affect some of these isolated and rare populations of animals. 

I went to the park on Saturday (August 3rd) for two main purposes.  To check out the Incurvate Emerald population, and to see if I could find Fawn Darners and Zebra Clubtails at Black Creek, the main inlet for the lake.  I had not observed these two species in the park but suspected they may occur here.

Incurvates were easy to find at the marsh.  I netted several and found a pair in tandem as well.  Mission one was a success!  Meadowhawks were present in huge numbers, which was a welcome counter to the swarm of mosquitoes that accosted me on my early morning walk in along the shaded ski trails.  I also noted one Delicate Emerald, a Brush-tipped Emerald, and a few Green-striped Darners. 



After my marsh foray was complete, I retreated to the lake and traded my waders for my kayak.  The lake backwaters nearing the creek inlet were alive with Odonata.  Black-shouldered Spinylegs, Prince Baskettails, and Common Green Darners dominated the waterscape, along with a large number of Widow and Twelve-spotted Skimmers.  Damselflies were also abundant, highlighted by Variable Dancers and Stream Bluets.  As I neared the creek, Ebony Jewelwings took over the area.  Common Sanddragons were abundant on the sand flats at the Creek mouth, and I was very surprised to find a couple of very late Lilypad Clubtails on the vegetation right across from the creek mouth.  The variety of species for August was incredible!



It took me all of a minute of walking up the shallow sand-bottomed creek to flush a female Fawn Darner.  She was kind enough to land in a tree near the bank and I was able to get a couple of average documentation photos.  A minute farther upstream a Zebra Clubtail landed right in front of me.  Mission two was accomplished in two minutes.  Better to be lucky than good sometimes.


My species tally for the day was 32, which is a phenomenal number for an August survey.  Adding the Fawn Darner and Zebra Clubtail to the list pushes my unofficial Odonate Coon Forks species list up to 76 species.  It is a tremendous location with a variety of interesting habitats.  In one small area, you have marsh, lake, river, and stream species overlapping and providing for a really incredible day…if you like Odonates anyway.  Just as an FYI, the scenery and other wildlife is not bad either.





Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Summer almost over?!?

Oh no!!! An Autumn Meadowhawk has been spotted in Eau Claire!

It seems to me that once we get to mid-July, that I hear the annual lament.  The early odes are winding down...or completely done flying, and some of us get a little down.  We shouldn't be concerned with the lack of Clubtails on the river, because so many things are really just starting to fly!  We have Somatochlora emeralds just entering the prime of the flight season.  Aeshna darners will start to emerge in good numbers along with the interesting Fawn Darners.   Meadowhawks will swarm the marshes and shorelines.  Halloween Pennants always provide a thrill and a photo op.

My personal highlight as the summer draws on, are the hanging Clubtails (Stylurus sp.).  If you get a chance to take a summer trip in August, I recommend trying to find some of these.  My personal favorite is the Zebra Clubtail, but every species of this genus in Wisconsin is pretty spectacular (Arrow, Russet-Tipped, Elusive, and Riverine Clubtails to go along with the Zebra).

So don't lament this Autumn Meadowhawk that I found, try to look forward to the Zebra Clubtails and their relatives instead.  We might be entering the second phase of summer, but we still have a couple of really good months to go.





Sunday, June 9, 2019

WDS 2019 Meeting Summary



With the slow warm up and excessive rain this spring, I was a little concerned that there would be a dearth of dragonflies at the 2019 annual meeting.  However, we had quite a few things flying around.  Snaketails were emerging as we were exploring the river banks.  We didn’t find many adults other than Rusty Snaketail, but Dan did manage to find this Pygmy Snaketail emerging.  Jeff’s group also found a teneral St. Croix Snaketail.

There were swarms of baskettails (including Beaverpond and Spiny), Cruisers were on the wing, and several other species of Clubtails made appearances.  We saw Skillet, Cobra, Midland, Rapids, Dusky, and some beautiful Green-faced Clubtails. 

We had several good educational moments.  We discussed bluet identification, how to differentiate Rapids from Green-faced (with both in hand), and discussed Whiteface IDs.  We also received a dragonfly history lesson when we were able to visit the site where the St. Croix Snaketail was first discovered.  As a topper we stopped at a site for the Karner Blue Butterfly…we appreciate all our incredible insects!

I really feel that it went well.  Thanks Jeff, Matt, and Dan for helping scout and lead field trips.  Also thank everyone else who participated!  I had to leave before the cookout, so I am a little sad I missed out on the end of the meeting, but I hope all that attended had a good time.  Jeff was the point person for all the organizing, so when you see him please say thank you.
Pygmy Snaketail

Green-faced Clubtail

Good times!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Starting to pop!

The end of this past week has finally brought about some emerging Odonates.  I know that many of you have been frustrated with the cool, slow spring, but we are finally trending in the right direction.  I had four species at Truax pond in Eau Claire Co. on Thursday, seven at Hoffman Hills in Dunn Co.on Saturday, and ten at Coon Forks In Eau Claire Co. today.

I hope that the warmer...and dryer forecast allows for rivers to calm and Snaketails to emerge prior to the St. Croix River area event next weekend.  I am feeling good!  Get out there, I expect things to start popping!

Beaverpond Baskettail at Coon Forks

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Haunting the bog...check! What's next?


In my last blog I indicated that the first phase of Odonate hunting for me was boghaunters.  Well I am happy to say that I found my first locally emerged Odonata yesterday at Coon Forks County Park.  I found a couple of Ebony Boghaunters emerging, and collected some exuvia at the marsh.  I also round a pair of Ringed Boghaunters after an exhaustive search of the sporadic sunny patches near the marsh.  It would have been easier if the persistant clouds would have cooperated.  All's well that ends well I guess!

Now that local emergence is underway, get to your favorite habitats for the coming Forktails, Baskettails, and Whitefaces!  Enjoy the rapid expansion of species diversity over the next few weeks.  By the time June rolls in, I will have Gomphid fever.  Maybe we can scratch the itching together at Interstate Park...see you soon!


Ebony Boghaunter emerging
Done!







Ringed Boghaunters - male and female...she landed a few feet from the male as I was taking photos
The next generation about to begin?


One more of the male because he is pretty.
















Friday, March 15, 2019

First things first...Boghaunters!

 
Hi all! 


I hope that you are well, and finding a way to avoid excessive erosion and water in your homes from all the rain and snowmelt.  Now that we have this website, I am going to strive to use it.  I hope to give you all some things to think about, or at least get you excited to get out and find some Odes.  I will largely be ignoring proper English, so I apologize for any misspellings and local colloquialisms.


I spend a ridiculous amount of time following the weather in the spring.  I keep looking for the first stretch of 60 degree days that may lead to a Common Green Darner returning to the pond.  Despite the mundane name, that first Common Green of the year is one of the most hopeful and beautiful things that I will see all year. 

What happens after I see that Common Green is a little more labor intensive.  I am fortunate to have a site for both of the Williamsonia species (Ebony and Ringed Boghaunter) less than half an hour from my house.  There is such a short window to find the Boghaunters, that I obsess about getting out to see them.  Not only because they are incredibly cool, but that is reason enough for me.  Also because it is very important personally, and scientifically as well, to monitor populations of these rare insects. 

Ebony Boghaunter
















Ebony Boghaunter Range in WI
If you live near a marsh (think Sphagnum), I challenge you to get out to one in early to mid-May (or even a little later if spring is late) to see what you find.  You might be surprised!  Or you could take a trip to a known site just to see them for your own edification.  Even a sighting at a known location is scientifically important and worth reporting to the WOS.  Monitoring populations over time is important!

 


Ringed Boghaunter Range in WI


Ebony Boghaunters are uncommon in scattered sites around central and northern Wisconsin.  Ringed Boghaunters are rare and are found in isolated locations in central Wisconsin.  The flight season is only a few weeks for both of these species so you have to move quickly.  Look for sunlight hitting trees or branches near the ground to see if a Boghaunter is around.  I often see them perched a few feet up on red pine trunks.  Good hunting, and bring on spring!



 

Ringed Boghaunter

Sunday, March 25, 2018