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Costa Rica revisited

I know, this is not Vancouver Island, but I just couldn’t resist. I spent 23 days in Costa Rica back in 2008. At that time my camera was a point-and-shoot Canon Powershot S5 IS. I also had a Canon 430EX flash that was used on many of my shots. My main purpose of the trip was the photography and for this reason I did not go with a group, but rather on my own. I also only visited three lodges, Selva Verde in the lowlands for 6 days, Rancho Naturalista at middle elevation for 9 days and Savegre Mountain Lodge at high elevation for 8 days.

After getting back home I processed the images to the best of my, and the software’s ability and posted them on my site on Pbase. In 2011 I switched to Smugmug and ended up reworking some of the images at that time. Just recently I was looking at my images on Smugmug and I realized that there were some that I knew I could improve. The software (I use Photoshop Elements) has improved greatly, and so has my ability. Ultimately most of the images were reworked at least a little, and some quite dramatically. In fact a few of my favorite images are ones that I had totally rejected at first and this go around I was able to make them look much better.

I had intended to keep the images to 10, but when I had narrowed it down to 14 I was really struggling to eliminate any more, so I decided to keep them all. So here they are with some notes. Hope you enjoy and if you want to see more of my Costa Rica images look at my slideshow gallery here: https://terrythormin.smugmug.com/CostaRica/Costa-Rican-Slideshow/The-Best-of-Costa-Rica/ .

Central Valley 4aThis is a view from the highway between San Jose and Selva Verde, my first stop. It is the Central Highlands looking down into the Sarapiqui River Valley. The orange trees are Mountain Immortelle Trees, Erythrina poeppigiana, and are a favorite of hummingbirds and tanagers.

Emerald Toucanet 7b - ChinThis Emerald Toucanet was photographed at Chinchona, a small town in the Central Highlands about half way between San Jose and Selva Verde. An enterprising local set up a platform and bird feeders that attract a good variety of birds and this has become a regular stop for birders and photographers.

Green Basilisk Lizard baby 5b - SVThis is a young Green Basalisk Lizard, also know as the Jesus Christos Lizard for it’s ability to run across water. Check out the very long toes on the hind feet. This was a very common lizard at Selva Verde, especially along the shores of the Sarapiqui River.

Long-nosed Bats 4c - SVI took a couple of boat trips along the Sarapiqui River and saw a good variety of wildlife. One of the highlights for me though was these little Long-nosed Bats. They roost during the day in vertical rows on tree truncks overhanging the river. Most of the time they are so well camouflaged against the bark of the tree they are almost impossible to see. This was the one time they stuck out like a sore thumb.

Red Potato Beetle - Leptinotarsa rubiginosa 1b - SVThis is a Red Potato Beetle,  Leptinotarsa rubiginosa. I spent a fair bit of time looking for interesting insects at all three lodges. At Selva verde, because many of the trails were elevated, and covered boardwalks. it was easy to go out looking even in the rain or at night.

Mantled Howler Monkey 14b - SVAlthough Mantled Howler Monkeys were quite common at Selva Verde, they managed to hide very well in the tree tops, and I heard them far more often than I saw them. On this one occasion a small troop of them came out to the trees right beside the main road that runs past the lodge and I managed to get a series of photos including this shot.

Snowcap in flight 1e - RNOne of the highlights among the hummingbirds was the Snowcap. This pretty little hummer is endemic to southern Nicaragua, Costa Rica and western Panama. Here it is feeding at Porterweed, a native plant that is commonly used as hedges and is closely related to verbena. The best place for this species is Rancho Naturalista

Crimson-collared Tanager 4c - RNWhen I was planning the trip, the one place I was adamant I was going to visit was Rancho Naturalista. That’s because I had heard of the bird feeder setup there and had seen many photos taken of birds at the feeders. This is a Crimson-collared Tanager, a regular visitor to the feeders.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker 6b

Another frequent visitor to the Rancho Naturalista bird feeders was the Black-cheeked Woodpecker. This photo was originally a total reject until I looked at it recently and realized that I could easily clean up the messy background.

Collared Aracari 7b - RNI love the toucans, with their large colourful bills. This is a Collared Aracari, a smaller member of the toucan family and a regular at the feeders at Rancho Naturalista.

Moth C2b - RNI have never been able to put a name to this beautiful little moth. Another reason Ranch Naturalist appealed to me is their black light setup for attracting insects at night. Not only does it bring in some great insects like this moth, but it also attracts a number of species of birds that feed on the insects and don’t go to the regular feeders.

Green Violetear 4d - SavI really enjoyed trying to photograph the hummingbirds, and in the end I got photos of 23 species. This is the Violet-green Hummingbird, I high elevation species in Costa Rica that I photographed at Savegre Mountain Lodge. This species has wandered as far north as southern Canada.

Walking Stick B1c - SavWhen I first saw this walking stick, I thought “Wow, this is bizarre”, and I still think the same. It really looked like it was covered in moss, and I am not at all convinced that this is natural. I would really love to hear from an expert as to what is going on here. Again photographed at Savegre Mountain Lodge.

Collared Redstart 1c - SavMy last photo is a Collared Redstart, a species of tropical warbler. One of my favorite trip birds, it was oblivious to my presence, and several times I found myself backpeddling because it was too close for the camera to focus. This is another high altitude species found at Savegre Mountain Lodge.

Vancouver Island Dragonflies, 2012 season – Terry Thormin

It has turned cool here, cooler and cloudier than normal, and it feels like fall. Dragonfly populations are noticeably on the decline and many species have disappeared altogether. So I have decided that it is time to wrap up the season with a blog.

This year was a mixture of good and bad when it comes to dragonflies, and I will give you the good first. I managed to see five new species for the island and I managed to photograph four new species and get a few species in flight that I had struggled with before.

Forty-one species of dragonflies have been recorded for Vancouver Island, and my hope is to eventually see and photograph all of them. The main reason that I did so well this year is that I finally found a bog at higher elevation. The bog is part way up the road to Mt. Washington at an elevation of 2620 feet, and is aptly named 9 km Bog. Here, with the help of two good friends who are as crazy as I am about dragonflies, we managed to find Hudsonian Whiteface, Crimson-ringed Whiteface, Sedge Darner and Ringed Emerald and all four were new for us on the island. It was easy for us to photograph the Whitefaces as they regularly perched on the vegetation, but the darner was more of a challenge as we had to get it in flight, but all three of us succeeded. The emerald was the tough one as it rarely hovered for more than a couple of seconds and was very hard to find perched. This one I did not get although I have a perched shot from Alberta.

On one of my trips to Bowser Bog, a bog at low elevations that has recorded 26 species of dragonflies, I finally managed to get photographs of a perched Saffron-winged Meadowhawk. Of course, a few days later I photographed one in flight at Little River Pond. This was the first record for that species at Little River Pond, putting the total for the pond up to 21 species.

My final good dragonfly was a Black Saddlebags at Rascals Pond in Parksville. Black Saddlebags is a dragonfly that is recorded only sporadically for Vancouver Island. I do not have all the records, but I know that it has been a few years since one has been seen on the island. This is a known migrant, and it is probable that our records are all of migrants from the south. Considering how few active dragonfly watchers there are here, this species could be much more common than the records indicate. There were at least three individuals at Rascals Pond, two males and a female that I observed ovipositing. As well there was at least one other individual at another pond in Parksville. I went to Rascals Ponds three times and saw the Black Saddlebags on all three occasions, but because they were always in flight I was unsuccessful in getting any photographs.

As for those in-flight shots, I mentioned two of them, the Blue Dasher and the Four-spotted Skimmer, in an earlier blog, “Photographing Dragonflies In Flight”, but at that time I had not succeeded in getting a good in-flight shot of a Common Green Darner. Well I finally did and, as is so often the case, I have since then managed to get a few more good shots. So here is one of them.

And to top it off, I also managed to get my first in-flight shot of a Striped Meadowhawk, another species I had tried for without success on previous occasions.

I have managed to see 26 species of dragonflies so far this year, and succeeded in getting lots of photographs, so what is the downside? The answer can be summed up in one word, numbers. The darners in general seem to be down in numbers somewhat, although not dramatically. The skimmers and meadowhawks though seem to be drastically down, at least in locations that I am familiar with. Meadowhawks that we were seeing in large numbers at Bowser Bog last year we were only getting ones and twos of this year. The numbers of Common Whitetails, Four-spotted Skimmers and Eight-spotted Skimmers at Little River Pond seemed to be down this year and I saw very few Dot-tailed Whitefaces and not a single Western Pondhawk. The meadowhawks in general were well down in numbers. In fact, the Autumn Meadowhawk, which is our last dragonfly to appear, generally emerging in numbers in mid August, has not put in an appearance this year at all so far. I spent two hours at Little River Pond today where it is usually common by now, and although I did see five other species of dragonflies, there was not a single Autumn Meadowhawk to be seen.Just so you know what this dragonfly looks like, here is a photo of an Autumn Meadowhawk taken last year.

The only dragonfly that I can say has been truly here in good numbers is the Common Green Darner. In fact I don’t recall them being this numerous at Little River Pond before. The interesting thing though is that, like the Black Saddlebags, this is a migratory dragonfly. It would be hard, maybe impossible, to determine what percentage of our population is made up of migratory individuals, as there is a resident population as well, but it is quite likely that the large numbers of this species this year are accounted for mostly by migrants.

I have been concerned about insect populations on the island ever since I moved here three years ago, and other people who have lived here much longer than I have expressed the same concern. But dragonfly populations seemed to be the exception, that is, until this year. Because dragonfly larvae can live for several years before emerging as adults, this might just be the reason why they were not showing a population decline until now. It is interesting that the meadowhawks are showing the biggest decline in numbers, and these are the smaller dragonflies and the ones that generally spend the least amount of time in the larval stage. This decline in dragonfly numbers is very worrisome, and it will be interesting to see if it continues next year. I believe that this island needs a wakeup call, but I am not sure what it will take to do it. Unfortunately most people pay so little attention to insects that they will never notice declines in populations, and if they do I am not sure they will recognize the significance.

When I wrote an earlier blog “A Passion For Dragonflies” I included a poem. When I wrote that poem, in a frenzy of creativity I wrote another, free verse version of the poem, which I did not include with the blog. Somehow that poem seems appropriate now, so here it is.

 

Dragonfly

 

It courses over the pond

on wings flashing in the sun.

Colours of red, blue, green and yellow,

colours of the rainbow,

and black and white for contrast.

It hunts for food,

for a mate,

for the next generation.

Always keeping an eye out for danger,

from above and below.

But the real danger it does not see,

the danger from humans.

draining wetlands,

using pesticides,

herbicides.

A danger that kills all,

indiscriminately.

But its loss is our gain.

Or is it?

For if we lose the dragonflies

do we not lose part of our humanity?

Part of our souls?

Part of the soul of our planet?

Is it not better to protect the dragonflies?

To watch, to really see them?

They can bring joy,

peace,

tranquility.

If only we all could become

“Watchers at the pond”.

 

© Terry Thormin, August 2012.

The Tiny Woodland Skipper Comes… – Annie Pang

The sun has had me convinced that summer was here for at least a few weeks, and so came the arrival of our most common and populous indigenous butterfly, the tiny Woodland Skipper.  On the South Island here, the European Skipper vanished weeks ago, and so I knew that in early August the Woodland Skipper would show itself, shyly at first, but then in greater and greater numbers until here I was, at Esquimalt Gorge Park in the main garden with literally “scads of skippers”.

This little butterfly is our most common indigenous “Grass Skipper”.  Its larvae feed on indigenous grasses and overwinter in the chrysalis stage (known as “pupa”), unlike the European Skipper which overwinters as an egg and seems to be found near its larval food which would appear to be Timothy hay, a non-indigenous grass.  The Woodland Skipper, however, is plentiful all over Victoria right now as there are flowers and grasses everywhere (except parts of downtown Victoria …perhaps).

But I’m getting ahead of myself because as I was taking pictures of them, I ran into a fresh male Pine White which I believe to be the second one I’ve photographed here, as the first one that I found ten days earlier would have been faded with frayed wings by now.  Perhaps this more recently emerged male drove it off.  I have no idea, but I took this picture since it is such a beautiful butterfly.

Back to our Woodland Skipper; it is a curious name indeed for this butterfly as none of the skippers are actually found in the woods or forests as such.  These are sun-loving butterflies that might be found in the grassy meadows by a woodland perhaps, but not in the woods and so I doubt I am alone in having no idea where this name originated.  One is most likely to find it by a roadside on a dandelion, in the grasslands of a nature sanctuary or in the nicest flower gardens…..even mine, nectaring on anything from scarlet runners to lavender!

When I went looking for and found that second Pine White butterfly at Esquimalt Gorge Park the other day, I found so many Woodland Skippers that I just sat in the grass and took shots until I could get a satisfactory picture to give you some idea of their sheer numbers in the garden.  This marks the end of any new butterfly species to emerge here in Victoria as well as the beginning of the end of an oh-too-short summer, and so it is a bittersweet time.

I managed to get five skippers in one frame on several occasions but this was my best shot as they darted around so fast epecially in the heat of the hot afternoon August sun.  You can just make out the light crescent on the closed hindwings.  With it so warm that time of day, they wouldn’t open their wings.

There are other adventures on butterflies to write about, maybe even a third flight of the Margined White if it stays warm, but I wanted to get the immediacy of this out to you while I could.  I wanted you to see this little creature while it was here.

I hope you have enjoyed my butterfly tales this spring and summer, and should I find myself unable to write for a while I hope you have seen, at least in part, what is happening to our planet….through the eyes of butterflies.  I have enjoyed sharing my vision with you.  I shall leave you with one more picture at the end of this poem I was moved to write.

 

The tiny Woodland Skipper comes

 

The tiny Woodland Skipper comes

in copper tidal waves

and lands upon the summer flowers,

whichever blooms it craves.

On favorite flavors, sipping scads

of skippers – watch them feed,

and, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see

couples as they breed.

But just for now, I wonder how

this tiny one survives

encroachment by the human race;

yet I see this one thrives.

A happy August sight you are

my native little fairy.

You seem content with all of life,

no burdens do you carry.

So in this case, no worries face

my restless, troubled heart,

for this one butterfly does well –

a thread in Nature’s art.

Once many others populated

all this land so fair

and in my dreams I wake to find

a vibrant vision in my mind:

all butterflies of every kind

have come to greet me there…

 

© Annie Pang August 21, 2012.

 

An Outdoor Dragonfly Workshop – Terry Thormin

This past Saturday I conducted an outdoor dragonfly workshop for the Comox Valley Naturalists Society. The event was advertised to the general public as well and about 25 people attended, including five children. For the middle of the summer this is a pretty decent attendance. The event took place at Little River Nature Park where there is a pond that supports a good population of dragonflies. In an earlier blog I mentioned that I had recorded a total of 18 species at the pond, but when I recounted recently I came up with 20 species. For such a small pond on Vancouver Island this is a very good diversity.

Of course a number of those species have been seen only rarely and even amongst the more common ones you can’t expect to see all of them on any one day. So when we got a total of 8 species this day I figured that the day was a success. More importantly we observed lots of behavior which gave me lots to talk about. The Common Green Darners were laying eggs in the stems of the water shield, and the Cardinal Meadowhawks were flying in tandem, dropping their eggs one at a time directly in the water. The diminutive Blue Dasher would perch on a blade of grass and then suddenly dart out to give chase to a much larger Blue-eyed Darner. Canada Darners hovered close to shore giving the photographers opportunities to try for in-flight shots and several Striped Meadowhawks were observed hovering and perching in the grass back from shore.




The best show thought was put on by the Merlin later in the afternoon when many of the people had left. The Merlin is one of the smaller falcons and it loves to hunt dragonflies, especially the Common Green Darner. I described this behavior in my earlier blog, but will go over it briefly here for those that did not read that blog. The Merlin perches on a bare branch near the top of a large conifer at the east end of the pond. When an opportunity arises it will launch itself from the tree and come barreling down the pond in pursuit of one of the darners. If it is successful it will fly back to the tree to devour its prey.

On one occasion this day, just after one of the photographers had taken some photos of a pair of Common Green Darners close to shore in the process of laying eggs, the Merlin swooped in and with outreached talons plucked the pair off the lily pad right in front of us. I have observed the Merlin going after darners in flight many times, but this is the first time I saw it take a pair of ovipositing darners. I now suspect that this must be the preferred prey for the Merlin. After all, ovipositing darners are like sitting ducks and you get two for one and I am sure even Merlins appreciate twofers.

I believe that Little River Pond is a good barometer for what is happening to dragonfly populations in this area and perhaps on the whole of Vancouver Island as well. Unfortunately, most dragonflies seem to be down in numbers and some species have been totally absent from the pond. The only species that seems to be doing well is the Common Green Darner, and this is a migratory species, so our resident population may have been augmented by migrants from the south.

As Annie has pointed out many times, butterfly populations on the island are way down, and my observations lead me to believe that other insect populations are suffering as well. It is hard to determine what the cause is, and it is highly unlikely that it is only one cause. I do know that without insects we simply would not survive. They pollinate about 80% of all flowering plants and are the source of food for most birds. What doesn’t eat insects eats those things that eat insects or eats the plants that insects pollinate. Our education system is failing badly when it comes to providing students with a proper insight into the importance of insects in the environment.

A recent report from North American Bird Conservation Initiative states that aerial insectivores in Canada are declining faster than any other group of birds, and the Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift are down to about a quarter of their 1970 population levels. It also states that on the pacific coast, where human settlement, forestry and industry are most intense bird populations overall have declined by 35%. Although this cannot all be attributed to a decline in insect populations, there is no doubt that this is a major factor, and if you consider loss of habitat as one of the factors in bird declines, you have to remember that loss of habitat also means a loss of the insects that inhabit that habitat.

I had not intended this to be anything but a report on the success of a dragonfly workshop, but somehow I managed to get sidetracked into talking about what we are doing to the environment. These conversations seem to occur quite regularly and I am convinced that, amongst my circle of friends at least, most people are becoming more and more concerned. Annie and I are trying through these articles to make people more aware of what is happening on Vancouver Island and elsewhere. It seems like a small thing at times, and we wonder if what we are doing will have any impact at all, after all it is big business and the government that need to change. But almost all big change starts from small beginnings, and we can only hope.

Pining for the Pine White Butterfly – Annie Pang

“Look who has come now, all trimmed in black lace,

riding down on a breeze right up to my face!

A slow drifting snowflake in late summer’s light,

floating down from the firs is the dancing Pine White…”

A.P.

How I wait for and welcome this beautiful and once plentiful butterfly that appears sometime between mid-July to early August, depending on the weather.  This year, it has been a bit later as most other species have been, if seen at all but now has finally come out, along with the Woodland Skipper.  The European Skipper is gone and so are the swallows where these little butterflies were.  It was hard to see the swallows vanish from areas where they were once so abundant.  Something is very, very wrong and even laypeople are seeing it…..well the ones I talk to anyhow.  There aren’t enough insects to support our swallows and other insect-eating migratory and resident birds.

Getting back to the Pine White butterfly, it is easily one of the prettiest butterflies we get locally, and not only to my eye.  Maybe it is because I have to work so hard to find them where shots can be taken at fairly close range with my camera, for they often will not come down from their lofty homes, especially the females, or if/when they do I’m not there when it happens!

The first day this year that I did manage to photograph a Pine White was up on Observatory Hill, but before this I must rewind to July 30th, the day before, when we went to Beaver Lake Ponds as this was where I got my first clues for this year that the Pine Whites were out.   It is also one place I feel well worth mentioning on its own.

Earlier in the spring, I’d been to the Ponds a few times, but the place had been so badly flooded from all the rain we’d had that access to the area where I’d hoped to find the Four-spotted Skimmer was cut off.  This time, however, after months without much rain I was certain I could get through the narrowed path enclosed by a zigzag wooden fence, probably put there to keep out motorcycles and bikes.  I could see the lovely man-made ponds that were running wild with water lilies and were now habitat for a number of indigenous creatures. This place had always been, for me, a place of solace and refuge.

But access to the ponds as I’d known them in previous years was still flooded and I had to walk around the long way, where horses, cyclists, joggers and folks walking their dogs had a proper trail adjacent to private properties.  I was surprised and disappointed until something white came zipping up from the trail suddenly flying out and up, right into my face and then … it disappeared. We looked up and searched the trees and we saw them.  Like bits of floating tissue amongst the firs, there was no comparing them to the skittish flight pattern of the Cabbage Whites. Seeing Pine Whites in flight was, to my eye, more poetic and reflective of the lazy summer days.

The Pine White butterfly spends most of its life cycle high up in the world of hemlock (where hemlock can be found these days?), pines and Douglas firs. Overwintering as an egg the caterpillars feed in spring on the new growth of needles.  The adult emerges from its chrysalis later in the summer to mate and females lay their eggs up in the treetops, with both sexes only coming down to nectar on flowers.   But aside from the one that I startled on some nearby Oceanspray that looked a bit past its “Best Before” date, they would not come down that day where I was as there were no other flowers along the trail in the sun to tempt them.

While we were there however, I decided to check out the ponds from this side.  We turned off the main trail onto a path leading towards the ponds and it was here I spotted a few different dragonflies that posed beautifully for some decent shots which I simply couldn’t pass up.  I managed to get both a male and a female 8-spotted Skimmer, the male being immature, as a mature male develops a powdery white coating (known as “Pruinescence”) that covers the abdomen and this one had not as yet.  But it did have the claspers of a male plus the white patches and black “spots” on its wings.  The female’s wings were typical of the species; clear other than the 8 “spots” of black on the wings.

The next dragonflies we encountered were a few Paddletail Darners but I did not manage any shots of them as I find I’m just not quick enough or patient enough these days with time so constrained and my reflexes a bit too slow.  As well, the area we’d normally spent time trying to get them in flight even on this side was still flooded by….. maybe a beaver, and access to the narrowed pathway with the wooden fenceway was still flooded on this far side as well, although I could see the path itself, mucky and a bit forlorn-looking, being cut off by water.

But I did luck out in finding a Striped Meadowhawk.  I really enjoy the Meadowhawks as they are “perchers” and easy to get decent pictures of but I’ve never managed to get one in flight as Terry managed to do with his Blue Dasher and  Four-spotted Skimmer, all of them being “perchers” rather than “cruisers” like the Darners.

Although the dragonflies were a balm to my growing frustration with this elusive butterfly, I wasn’t ready to give up on the Pine White and this is what found us driving up “Little Saanich Mountain”, also known as “Observatory Hill” (this is where the Observatories are), the next day.  A friend of mine had found and photographed a male Pine White here last year some days after I’d found my first one in a different locale, so I was optimistically reserved.

At first, as we arrived, we found a few drifting from treetop to treetop but nothing to see at ground level.  We had parked in the same area I’d come out and photographed the Pine White the year before after my friend had told me about it, at the base of the top clearing, where the first buildings are.  Discouraged again that there was nothing at ground level, I told John to drive the van slowly up further as I kept walking and searching.  A few minutes later, John pulled up by me and, in an excited voice, told me that one had come down to nectar.  We drove back down and I saw nothing at first, and then – there he was!

I say “he” because the males and females differ quite a bit in appearance.  This male gave me a generous amount of time before leaving.  When I looked at the pictures later, I saw he was damaged but I was happy enough to find one, even if the birds may have gotten to him first.

But I was determined to continue my search.  The following day, we set out to cover three different locations.  The first was Esquimalt Gorge Park where I knew for certain that there was Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) coming into bloom, but despite this I found no sign of Pine Whites in the decreasing number of firs in the park.  Once these lands were filled with old growth forests, but with clearing the land of more and more trees, the Pine Whites had less and less habitat in this area and with less habitat, any woodpeckers and Pine White populations weakened second and third growth firs so that winter and spring windstorms easily brought down yet more treetops or entire trees.

Our next stop was “The Garden Path”, a private garden owned by Carolyn Herriot and Guy Dauncey, both conservationalists.  There we saw a few Pine Whites up in fir treetops again, and again, not coming down.  With a sigh I figured it was time to check out Glendale Gardens before giving up.

We arrived in short time and this time I struck gold…….or Goldenrod in full bloom in the garden entrance.  And there were Pine Whites in Douglas firs across the street!!  One was flying lower and lower and…..it finally alighted on the Goldenrod to feast…..right smack on the fence side where I could not possibly get to it without creeping like some sort of criminal through the neatly mulched flower garden.  But such was my growing frustration that I decided desperate times called for desperate measures.  I told John to watch for anyone looking, and I gingerly stepped in behind and out of sight snapping longshots of the nectaring butterfly as I crept closer and closer.  What madness to be sneaking about like this to get shots of a solitary butterfly where there used to be so many!!  Did I feel guilty?  Not a bit!  It was another male and though he jumped about a bit, he kept returning and I was allowed to get so close at times, I had to pull my zoom lens in.  People walked by but didn’t seem to notice or care, including some staff.  I was not a new sight to them there.  This butterfly was in pristine shape and I wanted as many good shots as I could get!

And so, third time lucky, though hot, sweaty and tired, we checked in with the office so I could make my “confession” while showing the pictures I’d gotten.  All I got were smiles, a few “oo’s and ahh’s”, a very good thing, and then we were off home.  But this year I have seen no females at ground level and although I have photographed males every year since I began photography, I’ve only managed to find a female twice in all this time.

According to butterfly expert, Cris Guppy, whom I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with, I quote from a recent email exchange with his permission regarding this butterfly we both seem to be quite fond of:

“There are records from the early 1900s of huge outbreaks of Pine Whites that resulted in drifts of them washing up along the top of beaches. The last outbreak in BC that I know of was in Cathedral Grove west of Parksville in the early 1960s, which the Forest Service sprayed insecticide on. I was a kid with my family driving through there, with “snowdrifts” of bodies along the side of the highway. I suspect that they require large areas of old growth hemlock and Douglas fir forest to build up huge populations, and logging put an end to both the old forests and the huge populations of Pine Whites.” – Cris Guppy

With the major upheaval that occurred at Esquimalt Gorge Park while putting in the new Japanese Garden, this is the first year I have found no Pine Whites in their main garden area nearby.  I count this now as two butterfly populations eradicated in this park due to habitat disruption or destruction.

Before closing with this sonnet and a file picture of a female Pine White, I’d like to wager that as soon as this blog is posted, I may well find and photograph a female.  If that does happen, I’ll post it with a very brief (I promise) poem and comment!

Song to a Pine White Butterfly

Dear butterfly, so beautiful and fair,

what have we done to make you hard to find?

Cut down so many trees without a care

and poisoned you for living! Oh how blind

and greedy has the human race become.

So now I struggle just to find a few

and if I search enough I may find some.

How lucky I feel now that I found you.

But where is your sweet lady? Does she fly

high up beyond my reach where I can’t see?

High up, too high up for this sorrowed eye,

it makes me ponder how this came to be.

Some day I hope that we will meet again,

beyond this place where greed brings only pain…

© Annie Pang August 7, 2012.

The Second Flight of the Margined White – Annie Pang

“I don’t think we should go”  I muttered over and over, but John was indifferent to the potential waste of time and precious little energy I had as well as the depression that had come with my ongoing disappointments.  He silently kept packing the few supplies we would need and so did I as I paced back and forth putting stuff by the door.  On this day, I felt like a piece of walking bad luck. The butterfly season had been alarming in so many ways.  It wasn’t just the lack of butterfly numbers in Victoria, but my entire world, it seemed, had gone missing and in its place had come only chaos and bewilderment.

If you recall, the last time we had been to Cowichan Station I had spotted a single Margined White butterfly during the last of its spring flight and I couldn’t see, with butterfly numbers so low this year, how I had possibly let myself miss my records of previous years’ dates, when I had done my trips in July for the summer flight of this species.  I was late, but then everything was late this year, so why was I so resistant to going?  The butterfly was calling to me again, but I was only hearing the fear inside.  Time had passed quickly this last month and now John insisted we go even if I was feeling agoraphobic.

Once again I found myself traversing the Island Highway, John driving as I spun wool in my lap almost mechanically until I realized I was missing the beautiful vista of the scenery driving over the Malahat.  I wish I had taken a picture or maybe several, but I don’t think anything could have done it justice.  Gone was my tiny little world of troubles, opened up by the vast expanse of forest, sky, mountainside and waters, far below us, as we climbed higher and higher away from the city.

But the day was hot, too hot for me and I remained overly worried that the butterflies would not be there.  It was a forty minute drive to Cowichan Station, maybe longer, and by the time we arrived there the heat had become suffocating.  No butterfly would be landing to sun in this.  I hadn’t wanted to make this trip just to see them because that was never enough.  My camera was hungry.

Things seemed different from the previous month as we parked by the old building. The angle of the sun had changed a great deal.  Vegetation had grown dense and tall, was bearing fruit or flower.  There were lots of daisies in bloom as well as yellow, dandelion-like flowers.  The hogweed had finished flowering and was going to seed making it seem later than last year, maybe too late.  We walked along the rails anyhow as we had come all this way and had nothing to lose.  There was no sign of life that belonged to any butterfly though plenty of honey bee-laden thistles so we kept trekking along the tracks and I took pictures of one thing or another out of frustration, while the sun pounded down on me.

While I passed a few patches of Herb-Robert I still saw no butterflies.  Time passed – we took solace in the cooling shade of trees and ferny areas and finally came around a curve, into a sunny glen beyond a tunnel of Big-Leaf Maples…..and there they were, like summer snowflakes flying up and down, back and forth – at least 10 or more just in that sun-bathed spot, sometimes landing on Herb-Robert to nectar but not very often and certainly not long enough for me!  I could tell this wasn’t going to be an easy time with the temperatures so warm.

Obsessed with getting any pictures at all, I moved in as one butterfly landed beneath some vegetation and took a number of very poor shots that were out of focus and in poor light.  I gave up and let them have their summery flights of fancy, which were more likely for territory and mating rituals.  We decided to walk further and return later because this was their turf and they weren’t going anywhere else.

Up ahead, in another sunlight clearing we spotted a second horde of Margined Whites, and as we slowly crept up I found one that was hungry and wanted to land, and then another and another!  Engrossed, I got one in the sun, its wings an opaque-white with an almost greenish tinge as it nectared on Herb-Robert.  Then it was off, but I’d gotten my first decent shots and was feeling better, much better.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity in front of me.  A female had landed on a long, wide blade of vegetation and there was a very persistent male butterfly wanting to mate with her. What luck for me!  They might mate or she might choose another but either way, at least for the moment, she didn’t seem to want to budge.  I saw her raise her abdomen, her way of rejecting his advances, yet as he persisted I had the opportunity to get fairly close and take a number of shots of her in the oh-too-bright sun.

Happy me!  But eventually, another male approached and then another and suddenly they were all spiraling in a furious, white flurry …

Up, up, to the brilliant sky.

“Bye, bye, butterfly…”

I was pooped.  We had walked a long way and I was all for heading back.

As we passed the large leaves of Thimbleberry bushes, a flash of swirling orange flew up to the side.  I swear it was the same area as in previous years where I’d seen at least one Satyr Comma and this was no exception except that there were two of them.  Only one landed but in the heat, there were only side shots to be had for the butterflies had no need to sun with opened wings.  I took the best ones I could although the angles were awkward.  And then, I saw a lovely little dragonfly and at first thought it was another female damselfly, but it wasn’t.  It was some sort of spreadwing.  I took the best shots I could, but the lighting for this camera was either too harshly overexposed or too dim and it simply did not want to focus on the spreadwing very well.  This was my very first sighting of one and so, once again I became very frustrated.  But the shots were good enough for a small peek at what I saw; a young female Emerald Spreadwing!  My thanks to Terry and Rob Cannings for helping to identify it.  I have only given you a small glimpse below with the following picture of the Satyr Comma.  When it is older it will look more like Terry’s most excellent picture of a mature female Emerald Spreadwing which he most generously offered to let me use.

I also spotted a number of European Skippers that had not been in evidence only an hour earlier.  I had never seen them in this area before, but as Cowichan Valley was covered in rural farmland and these skippers seemed to travel with the transport or presence of Timothy hay, I’ve since learned, it wasn’t all that surprising to see them here.

The day grew older.

Back at the initial clearing where we’d seen the first cluster of Whites, I spotted one that was flying low as if looking for a place to land, always a promising sign for getting pictures.  It finally did alight in a shady spot by the rails to nectar on yet more Herb-Robert, which seems to be the Margined White’s favorite flavor of flower that I’ve noticed here.  I pretty much had to lie down on the tracks but I got my shots and it was fascinating to me how the light played with the images of this creature, now making it translucent.  I could see its body and spirit through its wings in these shots, both magical and nymph-like.  At the end of my tale I will leave you with a double sonnet and the best image I was able to get lying there in the peace and heat of the abandoned rails.

I can’t explain to you why these butterflies are more beautiful to my eye than the Cabbage White.  Is it because they are less plentiful in general and not found at all down in Victoria?  Is it because I must come this far to find them?  Perhaps so, or perhaps it is because they are a butterfly of this land, because they belong here and they have their territories that I know about.  Perhaps it is because they give me hope by their reliable continuance….at least for now.  This place has not been altered or disturbed recently and there is no development going on.  The tracks have been deserted for years, although when the train came along in previous years, it never bothered these Margined Whites though we’d had to scramble up the side of a slight rising next to the tracks as the train came whistling around the corner to whoosh by, only a few meters from our noses.  I looked over my shoulder at the sad and ghostly image of the overgrown railroad as we went back to the van, and a part of me hoped that the train would someday return so that others might once again travel through this lovely place, this lovely land where snowflakes fly in summer, and once again they could marvel at all this beauty.  Maybe it would help us stop to look at what we all have to lose if we keep disturbing the habitat of our lovely bit of nature that is left.

And I don’t think the butterflies would mind the odd passing of an old friend, be it a train or someone seeking hope…with a camera…

Return of the Margined White

 

I promised you, remember?  They’d return

and bathe their wings in Summer’s golden light,

but you must walk the rails amidst the fern

while watching for my children’s drifting flight.

Like purest snowflakes, floating ‘round the bend,

you’ll see them settle on a bloom to feed

and what a dance amongst them you will spend,

and how much patience you, my dear, will need.

For they care not how far you came to see them,

their lives too short for them to want to waste.

You’d know things wiser if you tried to be them

and then, perhaps, more wisdom would you taste.

You’ll hear their call and, if you’re quiet and still,

they’ll let you and your camera drink your fill…

You see, my dear, behold the summer flight

returning as I told you that we would,

our wings still margined but of lovely white

and I would be there like this if I could.

We butterflies are only here so long

before our time is over and we’re gone

so heed our calling, listen to our song

that you have always so depended on.

Then we will land because we see you here

and we will tease you – lead you here and there

until you’ve lost your worries and your fear,

until you left behind your every care.

And landing on a tiny bloom to feed,

we let you seize this time with us you need…

        © Annie Pang July 2012

A Whitetail Tale – Terry Thormin

Today I want to tell you the story of the Common Whitetail. I am not talking about the Whitetail Deer, but rather the dragonfly. This is a rather attractive dragonfly, with a dark chocolate head and thorax, a chalky white abdomen and large, dark chocolate patches on all four wings. It is a fast flier that seldom hovers, and when it does it is only for the briefest of time, making it very difficult to photograph in flight. Most of the time it perches on the ground or on a lily pad, not making for the best of perches when one is trying to photograph it. And therein lays the first part of my tale.

I spent 3 ½ hours at Little River Pond six days ago with two of my photography buddies, my cousin Mike Wooding and Tim Zurowski, both very fine photographers. As it turned out, Mike did not have photographs of the Common Whitetail, so we spent a fair bit of time trying to get good photos. There was a relatively bare patch of ground right next to the pond where one of the Whitetails was regularly perching, and Mike and I started off taking photos of it that way. Knowing the behavior of this dragonfly, I found a dead twig and pushed it into the ground at about a 45 degree angle to horizontal. I have often see Whitetails perch on vegetation that angles like this as long as they can perch fairly low.

Sure enough our Whitetail soon came in and perched low down on the stick. Mike took several photos, but was not entirely happy with the background as he was shooting down somewhat on the dragonfly and the background was too close to the stick. So he got the piece of carpet I keep in my car just for this purpose and put it on the ground at a suitable distance from the stick, then lay down on it to get a better angle and waited for the Whitetail to return.

And waited, and waited……

Until finally it flew in and landed……on his back……

Now even the world’s best contortionist would not have been able to get that shot, but of course I had my camera and I managed to immortalize the moment, that is, after I was able to stop laughing.

Eventually the whitetail did land on the stick and Mike was able to get his photographs. Just so you know how effective the effort was, here is my photo taken from the same spot later on.

I went out to the pond again the following day and very quickly the Whitetails promised to entertain again. There were two males that were constantly squabbling with one another. One had staked out a territory right in front of me and was using the stick from yesterday as its perch. Whenever the other one would come cruising by too close, the one on the perch would take chase and the two would dash across the pond, one in hot pursuit of the other. Eventually a third and then a fourth male put in an appearance and the dog fights became more frequent. The intensity skyrocketed though, when a female put in an appearance. I first noticed her trying to oviposit in the water close to shore.

Female Whitetails oviposit by flying just above the surface of the water, dipping down to touch the tip of their abdomen in the water and laying the eggs one by one. The eggs then drop to the bottom of the pond where, if nothing eats them, they will eventually hatch. During this time the females are usually fairly easy to photograph.

At the same time the male is often flying above the female, protecting his sperm investment from other males. During this time he will sometimes hover just long enough to make photography possible, so I am always on the lookout for this sort of behavior.

This time though, with four males in the area, the level of activity became so fast and furious that photography became impossible. At times there were three males around the female, and often there would be a tight ball of flying dragonflies, twisting and turning like a tornado. At one time when two males were competing for the female their flight became so intense that they rose from the surface of the pond in a tight ball and flew erratically in my direction. Two of them flew past me with inches to spare and one crashed directly into my chest, recovered and then took up the chase again.

Obviously we humans are not the only creatures who let our hormones get the better of us. The sex drive is a powerful thing, and, when you think of it, essential to the continuation of the species. But I have to wonder how many dragonflies never get a chance to mate because they are blinded by the chase and never see the Merlin in plain view.

I thought I would leave you with this photo of a Common Whitetail and a Cardinal Meadowhawk sharing the same perch, something that I suspect two Whitetails would never do.

And if you are interested in seeing more great dragonfly photographs here are links to three galleries:

Tim Zurowski Photography:

http://www.zuropak.com/dragons.htm

Mike Wooding Nature Photography

http://nahanni.smugmug.com/Dragonflies

Terry Thormin’s Nature Photographs

http://terrythormin.smugmug.com/InsectsandSpiders/Dragonflies-and-Damselflies

The European Skipper, Easier to Swallow – Annie Pang

Well, after the thriller that Terry just wrote I am not quite sure how to follow up!  We will just have to see what comes to me, what thoughts it has inspired.  Clearly he has shown the cycle of life that goes on beneath the water.  Clearly he has demonstrated how Nature works… when not interfered with.

And clearly that is not what I am about to do!

The fact is that Nature has been grotesquely interfered with and by solely one species.  I will not toy with your intelligence about which species this is.  Almost every week I hear some new concern about invasive species and how they will impact man.  I hear about how it is necessary to cull native species like wolves, deer, bears, and cougars that have wandered into “residential neighborhoods”.   As well, we have sprayed toxic chemicals for Gypsy moth and, by doing so, nearly wiped out the local butterfly populations, and all so we could sell lumber that “might otherwise be infested by the Gypsy Moth”

The truth is that it is we who have invaded and continue to invade the neighborhoods of these creatures.  This isn’t news, this is not original thought, but it has to be dealt with and it will be dealt with – and it is already being dealt with by Nature Herself.  Our weather is going hog wild and we are actually wondering why?  The wrath of Nature is turning on us as we continue to allow our leaders to turn a blind eye to what we have done to this planet and continue to do.  In the meantime, oceans are rising as the polar ice melts, eroding coastlines and low lying islands, we are having flash floods, tornado and hurricane “disasters”, extreme weather change; all are killing people. There is drought, famine and disease and these will only increase in severity as we plunder the earth for the sake of our greed and extravagant life styles.

If every human dropped off the face of this planet in an instant, the Earth would survive just fine and within a few hundred years, without us, Nature would completely overgrow and restore Herself and the Earth back to an equilibrium far superior to anything human beings could do or would even be willing to do.  Once again the planet would be graced with old-growth forests, meadows of wildflowers and/or glaciers that would completely cover most, if not all traces of our existence.  And wildlife would probably sort itself out just fine.

So let us remember that every invasive species got here by the hand of man, and that we are the single most destructively invasive species of all.

With that somewhat less than lovely and charming opening, I would like to introduce an “introduced” (polite way of saying “it doesn’t really belong here and some feel it is invasive”) species of butterfly, Thymelicus lineola, or more commonly known as the European Skipper (also called the Essex Skipper), which has now emerged in certain grasslands in Victoria.  To give you a little background on the European Skipper I shall paraphrase what I read from John Acorn’s book “Butterflies of British Columbia”:

This little butterfly was introduced in 1910 in Ontario from Europe accidentally.  It appears to have adapted very well to Canada as it spread all across the country right out to the West Coast.  Although it is not found everywhere on the island, it is found for a few weeks here in Victoria in several areas.  It has not crowded out any of our other indigenous skippers here in Victoria – it emerges several weeks to a month earlier than our native Woodland Skipper and Branded Skipper, and is gone before these two other Skippers do emerge.  This beautiful little butterfly exemplifies the fact that not all introduced species are invasive.

Our other local skippers are rarely, if ever, sighted now and any shortage of them appears to have nothing to do with this little butterfly and a lot more to do with habitat destruction.  I myself do not pretend to be an expert – I am living in a period when our butterflies are disappearing and so I am very glad to see any butterflies at this point.

Getting back to the European Skipper, I have been observing them and photographing them since 2007 witnessing an enormous number of them emerge at Swan Lake in 2009 with back-to-more-normal emergence numbers in subsequent years.  They have in no way affected the large numbers of Woodland Skippers that we see each year that emerge a number of weeks after I have seen the last of the European Skipper.

The first year that I was photographing butterflies, or anything else for that matter, we were walking along the trail circumventing Swan Lake and I saw a number of these tiny little butterflies with their sweet faces through the lens of a camera.  Coppery orange in color with black margins on the upper wings, I saw them “skip” from flowering weed to grass to thistle and to clover.  I took lots of pictures because there were lots of butterflies and I was in Nature for this first time surrounded by little butterflies.  What could be more healing?  Well…I can tell you what could be more healing and that was to find them in a variety of colors as well.  At the time, I just took for granted that somebody had the answer for this variation of color but have recently discovered this is not necessarily the case

The two colors I most often see are the coppery orange as described in all the books I have read, and another color quite different: it is not orange, but more of a pale, creamy color sometimes even lighter, but with the same black  outer margins on the upper wings.  It was during my first year I happened to stumble on a real find which was just plain dumb luck.  It was a pure white European Skipper with the same black margins.  I was told by an amateur “expert” to name it Thymelicus lineola, variation: “pallida” (translation: a pale European Skipper).  This person basically tossed it off as nothing to be overly bothered with, but I disagree.  I think that when a butterfly changes colors, there is a reason.  As our seasons of drought occur earlier and earlier and the grasses dry out, this very adaptable butterfly might very well be adapting.

The lighter variation becomes practically invisible on white clover or dried grass whereas the normal coppery orange color sticks out and attracts the attention of predatory birds like the fast, swooping swallow, who is feeding its young this time of year.  This I can honestly say I have seen, and when at Glendale Gardens last week, I was blessed with the opportunity of seeing and photographing two baby swallows in a bird box being fed by their parent(s).  Swallows are great at catching insects in flight and are so fast that unless they are perched, they are nearly impossible to photograph, especially with my little camera.  So I am very thankful I saw these sweet little darlings (how very unscientific of me) so close.  They were Violet-green Swallows, as it turns out, and the parents are lovely to behold….when they are still enough to behold, that is!

But I digress.  It was only a few days later, after seeing the swallows at Glendale Gardens (Horticultural Centre of the Pacific) that I went to a section of the Swan Lake trail looking for any sign of the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, yet another butterfly I hope to photograph this summer, when John spotted a tiny butterfly or “moth”.  Without even looking I knew it must be the European Skipper and it was.  The timing was about right.  I found what I consider to be the common copper color and the light or “pallida” variation.  I may be imagining this but what I want to point out is that each year there seems to be a higher number of the lighter variation although still not as easily found as the coppery orange shade.  As well, I have seen the copper ones chasing off the paler ones.  Discrimination?  Could be.  One Lepidopterist told me that not a lot of research had been done on “T.  lineola”    (yes, you guessed it; the short form of the scientific name).

It gives me great comfort to know how adaptable butterflies can be. The Western Tiger Swallowtail, although not out in the numbers I used to see, has survived our cool, damp spring and early summer in sufficient numbers to procreate.  At Knockan Hill, we saw no fewer than six of them and that was only in the sections of Knockan Hill Park where we went.  Another day a friend of mine reported seeing 10 Western Tigers at Government House in another area of Victoria.

And after first sighting them, I found the European Skipper on Christmas Hill, otherwise devoid of all butterfly life with the exception of a solitary Western Tiger Swallowtail; and also at Islandview Beach where the only other species we found was the Lorquin’s Admiral, and in good numbers.  I know they have been seen in other areas as well and where I do see them, I usually find Swallows as well, but don’t expect to find the European Skipper in your garden unless you live right near a bog or grasslands, for they are not nearly as widespread as the Woodland Skipper that seems to pop up everywhere in August.

Having perhaps given you a bit of a jolt with my opening, I hope you enjoyed this little story about a little European butterfly that came here long after we invaded North America and who has really done us no harm from what I have heard, read and seen.  I am glad it is here and for the next few weeks it will tide me and the swallows over while I wait for the few other butterflies we get these days to come out.  I am grateful to this little butterfly for being so photogenic. It provides food for the swallows and food for the soul of this particular homo sapient “specimen”.

Having said this, I heard some alarming but not surprising statistics on the news as well: the insect-eating bird population across Canadais down by 15%, but in Southern B.C. alone, it is down by a whopping 35%!!  The Barn Swallow was featured as one species that was showing a decline in numbers but I am sure there are many more.  It seems that this would be consistent with the declining insect population, for at Islandview Beach there was not a single mosquito, and it is usually filled with them by now.  Only a few darners, one of which I’ve enclosed a shot of (a Blue-eyed Darner), were evident and they too prey on insects, even on other dragonflies.  It would seem the entire food chain has been disrupted and we are seeing the results.

If we are to continue and survive we might learn something about adapting to our environment so that we are less apparent, rather than more so. We should follow the example of my little “pallida” and try to blend into the environment rather than exploiting it.

In one of my next blogs I, hopefully, will get around to the subject I have wanted to write about for a while now; how as Canadians, and particularly islanders, we can provide food for ourselves and learn how we can transform our wasteful land resources into places of biodiversity, as Terry blogged about before, and as sources of food both for ourselves and the environment.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with another poem.

Song to the European Skipper

Little creature you must know

why I’ve come to love you so.

From your home you traveled far

by hand of man—now here you are.

Darting here and darting there;

closer look, a face so fair,

tiny wings and body hair.

How can I begrudge you space?

You, I welcome to this place

with your tiny elvish face.

Beauty has each butterfly,

beauty that can teach the eye

that this place we have to save

for the butterfly so brave.

Nature holds us in Her hand

and She makes her own demand

not caring if we understand.

We may cause our own demise

if we callously despise

all the balance that once was

because we could, or just…because.

Little creature you must know

why I’ve come to love you so,

though some claim that you invade

causing other ones to fade.

Man continues to encroach

worse than any wanton roach,

and what’s worse, it’s not from need!

No! It’s fuelled by our greed

for the dollar, for the buck,

for a better car or truck.

What do we care what we harm,

then we cry out in alarm

from the flooding or the quakes

never owning our mistakes!

Listen to the screams She makes;

Nature comes, now it’s her turn!

Will we listen? Will we learn?

Or keep drilling for black gold,

and let the leaders have us sold.

Blame a little butterfly?

“It’s invasive” so they cry.

No! I greet you with a smile,

hoping you will stay awhile;

take a picture while you pose

in the sunshine where you doze,

or darting here and darting there,

little butterfly so fair…

© Annie Pang July 7, 2012.

Hunters in the Pond, Part 1 – Terry Thormin

The young cutthroat trout swam warily through the water. At 8 cm ( just over 3“) long it was still quite small, even by fresh water standards.  Cutthroats that stay in smaller fresh water ponds all their lives rarely get over 40 cm (16”) long and two pounds in weight, whereas saltwater populations can weigh up to twenty pounds. The cutthroat was looking for food, any insects would do. But right now it was not having much success. To avoid being taken by a kingfisher or a great blue heron it had kept to the centre of the pond and was hunting in deeper water, but lack of success had driven it in closer to shore. It was now searching amongst the emergent rushes along the shoreline.

It never even saw what hit it. Suddenly from the leaf litter at the bottom of the pond powerful front legs shot out and grabbed it around the middle and heavy spines punctured through its scales, holding it fast. It jerked violently as needle-like mouthparts pierced through its scales to its very core. The pain of the toxic digestive juices was overwhelming but all its struggles were for naught. As digestive enzymes turned organs and muscles to soup, its struggles became weaker and weaker until finally the life slipped from its body.

Giant Water Bug with Cutthroat Trout

The Giant Water Bug feasted for a full day before it was satiated. It was at its penultimate stage and it now had the body reserves it needed to go through the final molt to adulthood. It released the cutthroat which floated to the surface and became food for scavengers. It searched out a place close to shore in amongst the floating vegetation where it could stick its breathing tube out of the water while its old skin split down the middle of the back and the new adult, complete with wings, emerged. Even as the ponds top insect predator, this was a dangerous time for the giant water bug. Its new exoskeleton was soft and offered no protection, and even much smaller insects could attack and kill it at this stage. It would be several hours before its exoskeleton was hard enough to give it proper protection.

Giant Water Bugs are just one of many types of insect predators that are found in fresh water bodies. They are ambush predators, sitting amongst dead leaves and other debris at the bottom of ponds waiting for something to come close enough to grab. They are superbly camouflaged for this purpose.  As well as taking other insects and small fish, they have been known to kill frogs, turtles and even snakes. Their bite is considered to be one of the most painful of all insects, and has earned them the name toe-bitter.  The largest North American species is Lethocerus americanus, and the biggest of individuals can get up to 65 mm (more than 2 ½”) long. Females of this species, and others in the genus, lay their eggs in a mass on emergent vegetation. Females of other genera lay their eggs on the backs of the males. This affords the eggs better protection from predators while both aerating them and keeping them moist. In the tropics some giant water bugs can get up to 12 cm or more than 4 ½ “ long. There are about 150 species worldwide.

Adult Giant Water Bug

Predaceous diving beetles are another family of ferocious predators found in fresh water bodies. These beetles range in size from about 1 mm to over 44 mm (0.05 to 1.75”) in length. Unlike Giant Water Bugs they are active hunters, often searching the bottoms of ponds for their prey which mostly consists of other insects, tadpoles and small fish for the largest of species. Adult beetles are air breathers and have to regularly come to the surface to get more air. When they dive under the water they carry a reserve layer of air under their wings alowing them to stay submerged longer.

Predaceous Diving Beetle

The larval stage looks quite different from the adults and these are called water tigers. Like the adults the larvae are fearsome predators with needle like jaws. There are about 4,000 species worldwide.

Water Tiger

A third group of aquatic predatory insects is the back-swimmers. This is another family of true bugs, and all species are active hunters. Unlike other aquatic insects they spend their lives swimming upside-down, hence the common name. Like the giant water bugs and predaceous diving beetles they swim with their back legs which are modified for that purpose. In the backswimmers those legs are exceptionally long and look very much like oars. These bugs are primarily insect eaters although the largest of species, which can get up to 2 cm (0.8”), will take small tadpoles and fish. They regularly come to the surface of the water for air, which they carry with them as a silvery sheen on the under surface of the abdomen. They are often seen hanging upside down at a 45 degree angle from the under surface of the water, ready to swim quickly downward if danger threatens or they see potential prey. There are about 400 species worldwide.

Backswimmer

All three of the above families of insects have one thing in common, as adults they have wings and can leave the water and fly. They use this primarily as a dispersal mechanism. Most flights happen at night when the insects use the moon for navigational purposes. If you use the moon for navigational purposes, as long as you keep the moon in the same relative position in the sky and you do not travel for a long period of time, you will travel in essentially a straight line. Unfortunately when insects try do this in the presence of bright lights they end up flying in an ever diminishing spiral around the light until they come in contact with an immoveable object like a wall or the light itself. I am sure that everyone has seen the results on the wall behind their porch light or below a particularly bright street light are at the very bright lights at many gas stations. Inevitably this ends in the premature death of many insects. It has also earned the giant water bug another colloquial name, the electric light bug.

There are three other groups of aquatic “bugs” I would like to write about, actually two insects and a spider, but before this blog gets way to long, I will quit here and save the others for a second blog.

Death Stalks the Pond

Beneath the pond, amidst debris,

the water bug waits patiently.

She hides amongst the leaves so well

her presence is so hard to tell

The fish swims by unknowingly,

until it’s hit most forcefully.

Spined legs dig deep and hold it tight,

and needled mouthparts start to bite

Death stalks the pond

As on its flesh the bug does feed,

the fish provides what the bug needs,

to grow and molt and finally be,

an adult, its true destiny.

She finds a male, mates and with tact

lays rows of eggs upon his back.

And every egg has life within,

another cycle to begin.

And life goes on

©Terry Thormin July 4, 2012

A Passion for Dragonflies – Terry Thormin

I have come to the conclusion that I am passionate about dragonflies, almost as passionate as Annie is about butterflies, and that is very passionate. I spend most of my summer months chasing them, watching them, studying their behavior, finding out where they live and when they fly and most of all photographing them.

Eight-spotted Skimmer

I can spend the better part of a day at my favorite dragonfly habitat, Little River Pond, observing the dragonflies and trying to get some good photographs. I love to watch them course back and forth, hunting their favorite stretch of shoreline and looking for a mate. I love to observe the dog fights when a Blue Dasher decides that another individual, even if it is a species that is much larger than the dasher, is invading its territory. I find it fascinating to watch the different approaches that each species has to mating and laying eggs. I get a thrill when I see the first individual of a particular species for the year, and a new species for the pond will always make my day.

Blue Dasher

And so I sit quietly, patiently, with camera in hand, hoping that I will see something new, something different, but mostly hoping that one of the many dragonflies that are cruising the shoreline will hover for just long enough to allow me to get that great in-flight shot I want. Perhaps it will be a Green Darner this time, one that has eluded me so far. Or perhaps I will get really lucky and get an in-flight shot of an Eight-spotted Skimmer, virtually impossible because they never hover for more than a second or two. But if it turns out to be another shot of a Canada Darner, that’s good too.

Canada Darner

But it is not just about the dragonflies. Most dragonfly habitats are places of beauty, and often there is a certain tranquility to them that transcends the worries of our human existence. A Great Blue Heron stalks the far shore hunting for fish, the resident Belted Kingfisher sits quietly on a branch overhanging the pond before it takes off and flies the length of the pond, rattling as it goes, a Cedar Waxwing flies out from a willow bush, hawking for insects and a Common Garter Snake lifts its head from amongst the water shield as it hunts for an unwary Red-legged Frog. These are just a few of the many creatures that frequent the pond, and to do them justice would require a book, not a blog.

Perhaps the most exciting moments at the pond occur when the local Merlin takes off from a tall conifer at the far end of the pond and barrels down the pond just above the surface hunting for dragonflies. I can always tell when it is taking up the chase as it will suddenly twist and turn as it attempts to catch the dragonfly that is trying to evade it. If the Merlin fails it usually flies up and over the willows that separate the two sections of the pond (in the winter when the water is high the pond is one large body of water, but as the water drops during the summer months it separates into two ponds with a short channel connecting them). I suspect that it then does a low fly-by over the other section of the pond hoping for an unwary dragonfly. If it succeeds in the first section of the pond it will return to its perch and sit there devouring the dragonfly. Its favorite species is the Common Green Darner and although during the summer it will put a good dent in the population of that species, somehow I cannot begrudge it its meals.

Occasionally someone will come along and ask me if I have seen the resident beaver.  Although I do see the beaver once in awhile, I always explain that I am here for the dragonflies and not our national mammal. This often leads to a discussion about dragonflies, and if I have a chance to educate people about these fascinating insects I jump at it. And at the end of the day if I don’t have a single good dragonfly photo somehow it does not matter that much, I still feel fulfilled.

I told Annie that I wished I could write poems as beautiful as hers, and she kindly offered to write one about dragonflies for me. I almost took her up on the offer, but then I realized that this is my passion and any poem had to come from me. And that night as I attempted to get to sleep, it did come. So here it is, my first attempt at writing poetry in decades. I hope you get some pleasure from it, and more importantly I hope the message makes a difference, no matter how small.

Dragonfly

It flies the edges of the pond,

wings flashing in the sun.

Searching for food and for a mate,

but always on the run.

For there is danger in the skies,

and even from below.

From hawks and snakes and even fish,

where lily pads do grow.

But fly it must, so great its need

to find a willing mate,

that back and forth it courses as

It leaves its life to fate.

And from the shore I sit and watch

With heart that’s full of wonder.

Upon its beauty and its grace,

and on its fate I ponder

For other dangers far worse lurk,

dangers that it can’t know.

For humans must drain wetland and

plant crops that they can grow.

And pesticides and herbicides

are used without a thought

to all that’s killed within their wake

and all the damage wrought.

And if I could I’d tell the world

to stop, to cease, don’t do it.

For if we lose the dragonflies

we’ll all be poorer for it.

But if we save their habitat

it’s to ourselves we give.

For clean, fresh water is earth’s life blood,

what we ALL need to live.

So here’s a thought, my readers dear,

something to act upon.

Go find some dragonflies and be

a “Watcher at the pond”.

For only if you really look,

take time to truly see,

then their true beauty will come through

and richer you will be.

©Terry Thormin, June 22, 2012

Cardinal Meadowhawks flying in tandem while laying eggs

And a final word, the reference to the “Watchers at the Pond’ is a reference to an absolutely wonderful book of the same name written by Franklin Russell in 1961. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a totally engrossing read about the life and death of those creatures that live in and around a typical North American pond.