June 4, 2014

Flying Dragons

Recently we have been putting a bit of effort into finding and identifying dragonflies. These huge insects look like relics from a prehistoric world, which, in fact, they are. When I was working as a naturalist at camp for many years I was familiar with a few of these creatures, and especially with their aquatic nymphs because I often led aquatic ecology sessions. This activity is better known as "creeking" which is, by the way, one of the most fun ways to spend some time as a child or as an adult! 

The nymphs were, for me, generally unidentifiable as to species, but the pond on the property hosted several common types of adults and I loved their names; the Halloween Pennant, Blue Dasher, Widow Skimmer, and Twelve-spotted Skimmer were just a few. I really gained an appreciation for their speed, the fierce way they defended their territories, and their ability to change direction in an instant.

Lately I've realized that the dragonfly world is much larger than I thought. Ohio has over 160 species! Many spend most of their time around ponds, but some prefer forests or flowing streams or a variety of other habitats. All have aquatic or semi-aquatic juvenile stages, that breathe with gills and are able to catch and eat small fish and insects. Adult dragonflies will not sting or bite humans, but they are fierce predators which can use their legs to catch large and small insects on the wing. 

Here are some of the Ohio dragonflies that have been new to us in the past year. Many thanks go to friends who have helped us with identification! A good place to start if you are interested in dragonflies is the Ohio Division of Wildlife's guide to dragonflies and damselflies which is online at this link; print copies can be found at many parks and nature centers.

I'll start with a real stunner--the Rusty Snaketail. These large dragonflies generally are found near clean streams; their presence is indicative of a high quality watershed. This one was found near Big Darby Creek.

A bit less flashy is this Brown Spiketail. Spiketails generally have contrasting dark brown or black and yellow patterns. Most are seen in late spring or early summer, and prefer small shallow streams and ditches. This one was found at Gallagher Fen.

Here is another member of the spiketail family, the Arrowhead Spiketail. Note the bold, arrow-like yellow markings on the abdomen. This critter breeds in woodland streams and has stunning blue eyes.

Another blue-eyed large dragonfly is this Lilypad Clubtail. It breeds in weedy ponds and at the edges of lakes, and adults are rarely found far from a pond that has a lot of emergent vegetation. 

Closely related is the Unicorn Clubtail, which looks very similar except that the very last segment of its abdomen is completely yellow. Some of these field marks are subtle and a photo is a real help in identification! Unicorn Clubtails often bask on the shoreline, allowing close photos.

Some of the smaller dragonflies are fun to watch too. Here is a Painted Skimmer--some references say that it is uncommon, but we've seen quite a few of them this spring. Skimmers are a large group, and can be found in most ponds and lakes in the summer. In general, they tend to perch in the open for easy viewing, which is a big help to us dragonfly novices!

This beautiful dragonfly is the Carolina Saddlebags, named for the broad red areas on the hindwings. It breeds in ponds and lakes and also tends to perch in the open at the tip of vegetation. Interestingly, it is highly migratory and tends to arrive in Ohio in mid-April. Other related Ohio species include Black and Red Saddlebags.

This has to be one of my favorites, the aptly named Dot-tailed Whiteface. It is very common right now in many ponds and is great fun to watch defending its territory and zipping around the shoreline. It emerges in early spring and can be seen most of the summer. 

Yesterday we spotted a really interesting dragonfly called the Gray Petaltail. It belongs to a primitive insect family dating back 250 million years. It is usually found in the woods, on tree trunks and fallen logs. The one we spotted was on a hitching rail in Hocking State Forest, along a stream where horseback riders often stop to rest along a bridle trail. 

Underneath the hitching rail are often found a variety of butterflies, including these Tiger Swallowtails, which get nutrients from the--ahem--nitrogen compounds that are deposted by the horses. 

Although not well camouflaged, the petaltail had a good perch on which to hunt for its next meal, because these dragonflies are fierce butterfly predators:

Several times we watched it go after a butterfly. It seemed to ignore them when they were on the ground, but as soon as one started to fly the petaltail went off in pursuit and then came back to its perch. We figured that this one must have just emerged as an adult, because it was pretty slow and we didn't see it catch anything in at least 15 tries. It seemed a bit more adept in the later attempts!

Last year we found a Gray Petaltail in the same area that had been successful in capturing a butterfly; that time it was a Red-spotted Purple:

I hope you've enjoyed learning about a few of Ohio's dragonflies. Keep an eye out when you are outside this summer; they are always fun to watch!

Much of the background information in this post is from Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio by Larry Roche, Judy Semroc and Linda Gilbert, available at this link.


  1. I'll definitely be watching for different kinds of dragonflies this summer. I had no idea how diverse and beautiful they are, nor that some of them hunt butterflies. Fascinating. How large is the average territory? Thanks once more for educating me!

  2. Just discovered your blog (via A. Gibson's), and I love it. Fabulous pictures and good info. I'll be watching for future posts. There so few really good nature blogs, yours looks excellent!