Tag Archives: dragonfly

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

Living the (Prairie) Questions at Horicon Marsh

“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”–Rainer Maria Rilke

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Who is conservation for? I’m turning this question over in my mind as I paddle Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin this weekend, with its 33,000 acres of cattail marsh and prairies. It’s Jeff and my 36th anniversary celebration; spent in one of the ways we love the best—immersed in the natural world.

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As I paddle, I think about an upcoming lunch and discussion this week, scheduled after our prairie workday. My prairie volunteers and I will consider the question: “Conservation: What Does it Mean Today—and In the Future?” It’s a complex question, this dive into nature-centered and people-centered ways of caring for the Earth. We’ve been reading different articles and books in preparations for our conversation (full list at the end). Perhaps getting outside and paddling for the morning is the best place to clear my head and help me think through the questions and prepare. Perhaps getting outside is the only place to “live the questions.”

And what a place Horicon Marsh is to “get outside!” Everywhere I look are unusual birds, familiar dragonflies; a muskrat here, a fish leaping out of the water over there.

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The success of Horicon Marsh is evident in the diversity of its birds. A least bittern flies over our kayaks. Marsh wrens frantically type staccato memos from deep within the cattails. Great white pelicans soar on thermals. Sandhill cranes pick their way through the muck.

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One question for our prairie volunteers’ conservation discussion is this: Is diversity important for its own sake? It’s difficult to believe otherwise when immersed in it at the marsh. I am steeped in Aldo Leopold’s ethics: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” But I’ve learned through my reading that not everyone agrees.

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The wind gusts make paddling a challenge. But there are rewards in the stretch of muscle, the pull of the kayak through the water, the sense of accomplishment you feel as you battle a headwind and make slow progress. More rewards: Overhead, a bald eagle’s nest looms, loosely constructed and precarious—so it seems anyway, to me, paddling underneath it. A young eagle perches nearby.

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A thriving heron rookery is visible in the distance.  Listen! The sounds of blue heron chicks and their parents punctuate the quiet.

On one side of my kayak, a teneral—newly emerged—damselfly is struggling in the water, barely hanging on to a curl of aquatic vegetation. I carefully pluck the damselfly out of the water and place it on my knee.  Insect blood—hemolymph— pumps into its wings, which harden and grow strong.

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The life of a damselfly is one fraught with peril, especially in this vulnerable teneral stage. In my kayak, it’s sheltered from the strong winds which have blown all morning, It rests and dries out in the sunshine.

Tinkering with Mother Nature? Well, yes– I guess I am. The damselfly rides along with me for a few miles, cleaning its face with its bristly legs as its body straightens and some of its coloration comes into focus. After an hour or so, with a flutter of wings, the damselfly lifts off. My kayak feels emptier without it.

I think again about my conservation questions as it disappears into the cattails. Does this damselfly have intrinsic value? Or is its value the moment of beauty it offers people like myself? Can we put a price tag on it as ecosystem services; perhaps as a mosquito-eating machine? What about these grasses, these wildflowers? Is there a dollar value we can put on them?

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Who is conservation for? People are a part of the marsh, just as the cattails and chorus frogs and damselflies are. Today, we’re kayaking as part of a planned paddling event. Along this stretch of the water, there are opportunities to hear from DNR staff stationed in different boats along the cattails about the history of the marsh and its wildlife. It’s a chance to ask questions. A helpful way to understand what conservation means at this place directly from those who love and care for it.

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As we paddle the waterways, others occasionally pass us, canoeing and pleasure boating.  Country music blares from one colorful motorboat painted in full camouflage. A family with a dog and young kids are enjoying the trip so much they’ve pulled their canoe over to extend their time on the river.  This portion of the refuge is also managed for hunting and fishing; the revenue pours dollars into conservation efforts. People and nature. Both are considered here, when decisions are made. Both coexist at the marsh.

Later, we stop by the Visitor Center where I hope to think more deeply about my conservation questions as I continue to learn about the marsh. Outside the Visitor Center front doors, I admire the prairie plantings. Curtains of white wild indigo.

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Spiderwort, with its leaf ribbons and alienesque buds.

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Meadow anemone, cupped toward the sunshine.

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As a prairie steward, I and others like me invest hundreds of hours ensuring these plant species and others like them continue to survive and thrive on Midwestern tallgrass prairie restorations and remnants. We like to tinker; adding a plant here, removing invasive plants in other areas. We ask a lot of questions to try to understand the genius of a place, and how to keep it healthy.

I admire the common milkweed, complete with red milkweed beetle.

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With a bit of luck, the beetle will be joined by monarch caterpillars, munching and growing on milkweed leaves; their increased numbers a reflection of the recent conservation mandate: “Plant milkweed!”

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Monarch butterflies have the best press agents in the insect world. Once, we destroyed milkweed because we saw it as…well…a “weed.” Now we plant acres of it for conservation. We tinker. And perhaps —just perhaps—we’re seeing more monarchs because of it.

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But sometimes we tinker with good intentions that may not actually help the very species we try and save. I’ve hand-raised a few monarch caterpillars to release in the wild to the joy of my grandkids, and so have many of my conservation friends and students. This week, an article in the Atlantic tells me that raising and releasing monarchs may interfere with monarch’s migratory instincts. Perhaps my best intentions are sometimes harmful to the very species—and places–I love.

How do we make decisions about conservation, knowing we’ll make mistakes? Perhaps all we can do is keep asking the questions. Take our best shots at caring for the world we love. Making peace with our errors. Growing through them.

Here at the marsh, tinkering with Mother Nature is part of what keeps it healthy. A trip through the Visitor Center’s “Exploratorium” gives me a chance to see the way water levels are managed at the marsh: increased or lowered during different seasons.

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The success of these water management efforts are reflected in the rich numbers of plants, birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife.

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It’s important work, this “tinkering with nature.” It’s also an ongoing dilemma, and sometimes, problematic. But what would the cost to us be if there were no sandhill cranes in the world, no heron rookery with its young chicks, no eagles nesting along this stretch of the wetlands?  How do we balance the needs of people and the wildlife communities that inhabit these places? When is what we do not enough? When is what we do for conservation too much?

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Who is conservation for? I ask myself again. Something to think about as we read, listen to each other’s ideas, trying to understand. We know the answers are important. For the health of our little corner of the world. For our children, and their children. For wildlife. But the answers aren’t always easy.

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Conservation is for places like Horicon Marsh.  It’s for the eagles nesting, brought back to larger numbers because Rachel Carson asked some questions 50 years ago. It’s for the little damselfly emerging from the water. It’s for the marsh wren singing in the cattails.

It’s also for the families cruising in their canoe with their kids and dog.  For the guy blaring country music; for those who pull a bluegill out of the water and fry it up at home. It’s for the prairies with their vulnerable plants. It’s for the nature in my backyard, and the nature in your yard. For the urban park. For the milkweed and prairie plantings along the interstates; or the birds nesting on skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.

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There’s a lot I don’t know about how to balance people and nature. There’s much I don’t understand about the future of conservation. But this much I do know: Learning how to manage and protect the natural world is an ongoing conversation, with plenty of room for joy and error along the way. Let’s keep talking to each other, even when we disagree about the way to care for this beautiful place we call home. Let’s immerse ourselves in the natural world and listen to what it has to tell us, as well as listening to scientists and decision makers. Let’s make a point to get outside and be there, experiencing what we love, as well as talking about it. To know first-hand why the questions matter. To give voice to a natural community that otherwise has no voice. Keeping the conversation alive.

Because these questions—and how we answer them—will make all the difference. Let’s live the questions.

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet who is probably best known for this quote that kicks off the blogpost. It’s been used on everything from mugs to t-shirts; and as epigrams to blogposts like this one.  The work of conservation is always one part science, one part art, one part mystery. Haven’t read Rilke? Try Letters to a Young Poet.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Horicon Marsh in Horicon, Wisconsin, and the surrounding area unless otherwise noted: view of Horicon Marsh; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); Visitor Center dragonfly and mosquito blocks; bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and nest; unknown damselfly; foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Horicon Marsh region; waterway at Horicon Marsh; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba); spiderwort (Transcendia ohiensis); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Exploratorium at the Horicon Marsh Visitor Center, Taylor Studios; blue dasher dragonfly (‎Pachydiplax longipennis); possibly a pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) on white clover (Trifolium repens); June wildflowers and grasses at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; kayaking at Horicon Marsh. Special thanks to Mary, Jeff, Paul, and Rachel for their hospitality, and for making our Horican paddling adventure a delight.

Conservation articles and book readings for the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie lunch referenced in the article include: Who is Conservation For? —Paul Voosen; The Idea of a Garden–Michael Pollan; Rambunctious Garden–Emma Marris; The New Conservation–Michael Soule; The Trouble with Wilderness–William Cronon; Sand County Almanac–Aldo Leopold.

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Wednesday, June 26 —Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online —offered through The Morton Arboretum. This class can be taken at home or anywhere! 60 days to complete from start date. Details and registeration here.

Thursday, June 27:  2-4 p.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (closed class for staff).

Friday, June 28: 8-11:30 a.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

Special Note: August  19-22–Certified Interpretive Guide training. Earn your CIG certificate as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter through this class! Meet other professionals from around the country. Limit 15. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Registration and Details here.

Discover more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

Under the Prairie Ice

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”–Aldo Leopold

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Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

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The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

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Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Prairie All-Stars

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing’.” — Yogi Berra

***

If there’s one thing you learn on a prairie, it’s that the more you begin to know about the bugs, blooms, and grasses, the less you realize you know. And the more you realize you don’t know, the more you want to know about what you don’t know.

Whew.

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Bees, for instance. They’ve always been flying around, sort buzzing in the background of the prairie. But not on my radar. Until I started paying attention to bees this season. This one turned up as I was wading a stream this week, looking for dragonflies. At least—I think this is a bee. Interesting “raft!”

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I looked up, hip-deep in creek water, hoping to see the former owner of the feather.  The only bird in sight was this kingfisher. Hmmm…doesn’t seem to match.

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Back to the bees. Or is this a bee look-alike? I look at the markings on the head, the tuft of fur behind the, um—neck? Is that the right term?—and the patterns as seen from topside. I still am unsure. So many native bees and non-native bees! So many bee look-alikes! The mind boggles.

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The sunflower this bee is busily investigating is the woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus. At least, I think that’s what the flower is. Does anyone else find the sunflower family confusing? Later, I asked the bee researcher, who was shoulder-deep in the sunflowers, if he knew which species it was. He shrugged.

Made me feel better.

So many All-Star prairie wildflowers.

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And don’t get me started on the skippers. For my birthday this month, my wonderful husband gave me a terrific pair of close-focus binoculars and an out-of-print guide to Illinois skippers—all 59 local species. They’ve both helped. But even the skippers on the prairie seem astonished by their own complexity.

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Silver-spotted skipper? I think so. The field guide says they are pretty common. But it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the skippers and butterflies in my little corner of the world. At least there is no “question” about the identity of this beautiful butterfly.

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This week, I’m teaching “Dragonfly and Damselfly ID.” It’s guaranteed to be an exercise in humility. No matter how many of the dragonfly and damselfly species that I know—and I’ve learned quite a few over the past 13 years as a monitor—it’s a good bet there will be some oddball that shows up and doesn’t fit any description of a damselfly I’ve seen before. The meadowhawks are particularly confusing at this time of year. This one below is likely an autumn meadowhawk because of the yellowish legs.

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Likely. I’m pretty sure—at least, I think that’s what she is. However, there are red meadowhawk dragonflies zipping all over the prairie, and their immature counterparts which are yellow-ish, and the females which are sort of gold, and it all begins to blend together. Their red counterparts are even more confusing. Cherry-faced meadowhawk? Ruby meadowhawk? White-faced?

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I think I see some reflected amber patches on the leaf. So I check the field guide— most of the red meadowhawks have them. My “unknown meadowhawk dragonfly” column on my data sheet is getting bigger each week.

For my class, I’ll hope for the old familiar favorites, like the male calico pennants with their row of luscious red “hearts” in a row down their abdomen.

Unmistakable.

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And back to those wildflowers. Wow! They keep me up at night, flipping through plant ID websites, dipping into Flora of the Chicago Region, trying to understand what it is that I’m seeing and how it fits into the community we call prairie. Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m a dragonfly monitor, has more than 700 plant species! How do you wrap your head around that?

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What a beautiful problem to have, isn’t it? So many “All-Stars” on the prairie. So much to discover. Whenever I get frustrated at all there is to learn about in the tallgrass—and marvel that I’ve learned anything at all—I take a moment to sit on the bridge over Willoway Brook and be quiet.  Clear my head.

As I reflect, I realize what I don’t know doesn’t matter as much as showing up. Listening. Thinking about what I see.

Being there.

*****

Lawrence Peter (Lorenzo Pietro) “Yogi Berra” (1925-2015) was an 18-time All-Star professional baseball catcher, coach, and manager. He was part of teams that won the World Series 10 times—more World Series wins than any other professional baseball player to date. Berra and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years which is another great record. He is known for his paradoxical sayings such as the one that begins this post. Check out more “Yogi Berra-isms” here, and find a smile for your day because, as he says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And, remember, Berra also told us, “I never said most of the things I said.”

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on a feather, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) over Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; July wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; calico pennant dragonfly (male) (Celithemis elisa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of bridge over Willoway Brook in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

*****

I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

*****

Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

********

If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

Prairie Fireworks

“Everything is blooming most recklessly… .” — Rainer Maria Rilke

***

It’s been said that the most beautiful day for prairie wildflowers is the Fourth of July. True? Take a look.

The purple prairie clover blooms are alive with insect scurry and motion.

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Dragonflies are zipping around the ponds! The bullfrogs call, creating a soundtrack to a muggy July morning.

 

These four froggies keep an eye on any dragonfly that gets within tongue-zapping distance.

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Nearby, a tiny eastern amberwing dragonfly is laying her eggs. She taps her abdomen into the pond vegetation, ensuring a future generation.

 

 

 

Close up, you can see how intentional her motions are.

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Deep in the grasses, her mate’s wings glint gold in the sunshine.

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Such an explosion of gold on the prairie in July!

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Interesting insects float and perch on the blooms and in the tallgrass.

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A silver spotted skipper sips nectar from a common milkweed flower.

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An American painted lady, interrupted in her search for nectar, gives me the eye.

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The vervain flowers remind me of a lavender sparkler. The butterfly’s outer wing’s painted “eyes” don’t dispel my feeling of being watched, so I move on and leave her in peace.

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Bursts of pink and purple are part of the prairie palette in early July. But if you’re in the mood for some flag-waving colors on the Fourth, you can find red in the tiny bugs…

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…white in the thimbleweed blossoms…

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…blue? A blue grosbeak is a rare treat. Perfect for the holiday.

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The tallgrass explodes with color; dazzles with motion.

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No doubt about it. Even on the Fourth…

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The prairie has the best fireworks of all.

***

The opening quote is from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a mystical poet and novelist. Letters to a Young Poet is among his best-known works, which includes these famous lines: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

 

All video clips and photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown bee on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video clip of ponds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; four American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly laying eggs, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; wildflower mix with black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) female, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (two images); unknown red insect on false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), International Crane Foundation Prairie, Baraboo, WI; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie wildflowers in July, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The Dragonfly Chasers

If you are old and you wish to be young again, if only for a moment, try and identify a dragonfly. — Simon Barnes

***

In the prairie ponds, streams, and wetlands, they wait. Dragonfly nymphs are about to emerge.

Last summer, I watched the scene below from my kayak. Female dragonflies lay eggs in water or vegetation. The male pondhawk dragonfly (powdery blue) “hover guards” the female (green) so no other males disturb her. Tapping her abdomen into the water, the female ensures another generation of dragonflies, as the male protects her from above. It all happens fast. So fast.

The eggs may hatch in a matter of weeks. In their nymph or larval stage, dragonflies (looking like ferocious beetles) cruise the water, sometimes for years. Then, one morning, these denizens of the deep scramble up a blade of grass and commence the difficult work of change. “Teneral” is the scientific term for the transformation stage. Each dragonfly nymph sheds its ugly husk, and exchanges it for a beautiful winged body.

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No longer a water-breather. The dragonfly is now a creature of the air. She takes flight.

Dragonflies dazzle us with their agile antics as they fly; stun us into silent admiration as they bask in sunlight.

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This April, I’ll join citizen scientists at Nachusa Grasslands and other prairies in hiking the tallgrass, looking for dragonflies and their close kin, damselflies.

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A “citizen scientist” is an amateur who contributes information to a scientific body of knowledge. My academic background is in art, journalism, and natural resource interpretation. I have no background in the hard sciences, or specifically, entomology (the study of insects). Yet, the fieldwork I and others do helps build our collective scientific knowledge of  the dragonfly world.

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Dragonfly monitors hike routes through the prairie and pencil hash marks on species lists, ticking off each dragonfly we discover. Green darner? Check. Halloween pennant? Check. Oohhhh… Jade clubtail! Check.

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As I monitor dragonflies,  I pay attention to anything that lifts off from the tallgrass at my approach. Is it a dragonfly? I watch closely.

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Yes! I log it on my list. Bonus: I observe other critters–such as bees and butterflies– as I walk. I note their presence in my journal, and alert site managers if I see something unusual.

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How does observing dragonflies and damselflies benefit us? The violet skimmer damselfly (below) and other species are complex and colorful. But besides the aesthetics, why should we care?

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Here’s why. Because dragonflies spend the biggest part of their lives in the water, the changes in health and populations of dragonflies and damselflies tell us a lot about how the quality of water changes over time. Clean water is essential to life and our well-being. Clean water is also a non-negotiable resource for future generations.

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And so, this summer, you’ll find me in the tallgrass, wandering along shorelines, or deep in a prairie stream, chasing dragonflies. Netting some for a closer look; photographing others. Carefully checking for identifying field marks.

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Sure, it’s citizen science. But it’s art as well. Those colors! Those wing patterns! Their names are poetry. Ebony jewelwing.

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Calico pennant.

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Springwater dancer.

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Their names help form the vocabulary of the prairie community.

If you love the natural world as I do, dragonfly monitoring is one enjoyable and simple way to make a small contribution to keeping it in good shape. Wherever you live, the dragonflies are waiting for you to notice them. Learn a few of their names. Make time to sit and watch them.

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It will be time well spent.

***

Simon Barnes (1951-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is a British sportswriter and wildlife columnist. Once employed by the London Times, he was fired from the newspaper after more than 30 years, supposedly for angering hunters with his remarks in an opinion column about saving an endangered bird. His 16 books include Birdwatching with Your Eyes Closed and How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video of eastern pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis) at Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; jade clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), Warrenville Grove, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; close up Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on new England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; little dragonfly chaser, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing sculpture (Sculopterayx metallicaea), Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL.