What is the Dragonfly Project? It’s simply a season of pursuing, learning about, and documenting local Mendocino County Odonates. Just pictures…no collecting, netting or wading into aquatic environments.
I first became interested in dragonflies as a photography subject last year when I got this picture of a Paddle-tailed Darner on the Big River Haul Rd.
The striking patterns and color combinations fascinated me. Like anything, once you start looking…you start finding. I started seeing dragonflies at all the locations where I was birding or looking for butterflies. And so began my Dragonfly Project.
I knew little about odonates when I started this project. I didn’t know what a T-spot was. Didn’t know what spreadwings were let alone paraprocts! BTW…Northern Spreadwings are the cutest bug out there! I found odonates interesting. Many have great names…Vivid Dancer, Exclamation Damsel, Grappletail, Mountain Emerald, Beaverpond Baskettail, Flame Skimmer, Black Saddlebags, Wandering Glider….
Odonates have been around for a long time. “Modern-type odonates are known from the Jurassic era (nearly 200 million years ago), and similar forms go back as far as the Carboniferous period (250 to 300 million years ago)” (Manolis). That means that they have survived three extinction events not including our current one. They will likely be around long after us.
There doesn’t seem to be solid numbers for a total species count of odonates on the planet. New species are still being found. Over 5400 is one estimate. Over 435 in Canada and the USA. 113 in California according to a 2008 checklist on the California Odonata website.
The Odonate life cycle…eggs…larvae…molts…adults is just as fascinating and mind-blowing as our butterflies. Most of this happens in a single season (generation) with the larvae overwintering and the adult emerging in the spring to start the cycle over again. There are exceptions…the Pacific Spiketail life cycle can take five years (Karst, Gordon) and some damselflies have multiple broods during the year.
When I started my “project” I didn’t know that some dragonflies migrate. In some cases great distances. Some of these include Black Saddlebags, Common Green Darner, Variegated Meadowhawk, Spot-winged Glider and then…there’s the Wandering Glider. Here’s some snippets from Odonata Central and Wikipedia…
”It is a strong flier that is regularly encountered by ocean freighters…its ability to drift with the wind, feeding on aerial plankton…individual globe skimmers fly more than 6,000 km (3,730 miles)—one of the farthest known migrations of all insect species…It is the highest-flying dragonfly, recorded at 6,200 m in the Himalayas. It was also the first dragonfly species that settled on Bikini Atoll after the nuclear tests there.” Feeding on aerial plankton‼ What’s not interesting about that?
Dragonfly migration is poorly understood. It’s been noted that in the east this migration occurs during hawk migration. Hawk counters with their observation skills have been asked to help better understand this phenomenon.
My methodology during my project was to find and take pictures of odonates, consult the guides and post on iNaturalist. There is a very active group of odonate experts on iNaturalist. They have had to correct me several times especially with the damselflies. Finally got the Swift Forktail correct after the third try:) A big thank you to those experts. My territory included many bike rides up the Big River Haul Rd., walks over to the various ponds at the Little River Airport, one bus trip to Riverside Park in Ukiah, a trip up to Comptche and one walk up to Inglenook Creek along Ten Mile Beach.
Besides having fun what did my season of documenting odonates accomplish? I found 36 species if you count the Northern/Boreal Bluet which can’t be told apart without a hand lens. 32 were within their known range with 4 seemingly outside their ranges. The four are Northern Spreadwing, Mountain Emerald, Four-spotted Skimmer and Pale-faced Clubskimmer. (Manolis, Paulson)
I may have found a previously unknown population of Mountain Emeralds. More research will confirm this next year. As it’s name implies this dragonfly’s normal habitat is at much higher elevations. The sphagnum bogs of our Pygmy Forest might be responsible for this population. In Oregon they have been found near sea level at Gearhart Bog. (Kiersten, Gordon) This Mountain Emerald sighting is also the earliest flight record in California. The Pygmy Forest bogs might also be responsible for my sightings of the Four-spotted Skimmer, another mountain/bog loving species.
Coastal Mendocino County seems to be under surveyed for dragonflies. I was able to add many new coastal records (still adding at press time) to Odonata Central.
I am currently updating Appendix H-Invertebrates of the Big River Project Area, in the Big River Preliminary Plan. I increased the odonate species list from 9 to 25. That report will be forwarded to California State Parks.
Not bad for one season of documenting odonates! Overall I’m extremely pleased and surprised with my year of exploring the dragonfly world and look forward to adding to this list.
A word about picture quality. When you try to photograph a living thing you will not always get the best pictures. Darners are hard because of their constant flight. Damselflies are hard because of their small size. My Black Saddlebags is ego shattering! I spent considerable amounts of time trying to get the picture. I leave it in this report for your amusement. I was surprised that iNaturalist recognized it as their number one choice. You can find good pictures of a Black Saddlebags here.
A PLUG FOR THE BUGS…“They are essential to the reproduction of most flowering plants, including many fruits, vegetables, and nuts; they are food for birds, fish, and other animals; they filter water and keep our rivers and streams pristine; and they clean up waste from plants and animals.”
Pollinators are responsible for one out of three mouthfuls of food we eat, Eighty-eight percent of birds feed on insects at some point in their life cycle;, salmon depend on aquatic invertebrates and Grizzly Bears depend on miller moths to fatten up for hibernation. So says the Xerces Society. There are numerous studies showing insects to be in decline. We should be supporting organizations that support the invertebrates that sustains life on our planet.
Dragonflies and Damselflies of California, Tim Manolis (2003)
Dragonflies and Damselflies of Oregon, Cary Kerst & Steve Gordon (2011)
Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, Dennis Paulson (2009)
This dragonfly came up to me. He was hovering right in front of my face, and I was really examining him, thinking, How does he see me? I became enlightened.