Monday, April 12, 2010


I planned to write about something else in my second blog entry, something other than visits to The Great Dismal Swamp. But I’ve been there twice this week and once last week, and I’ve seen so many exciting things. I can’t help it – The Swamp is where my heart is right now, so The Swamp is my topic again.

The reason I go there so much this time of year is that things literally change day to day and week to week, and I don’t want to miss anything. Migrant birds might only spend one night there before they continue northward. Breeding birds will be absent one day, and the next day the woods will be filled with their song. Many butterfly and dragonfly species spend only a few weeks in their flying, adult stage; what we see flying in April will be gone in May, to be replaced by another species with a later adult cycle. The foliage literally changes every day. Every trip to The Swamp brings something new, not seen on the previous trip.

Let me introduce you to a few of the early spring dragonflies of The Swamp. Dragonflies and damselflies are absolutely fascinating creatures. The typical dragonfly will have a one-year life, but it is a flying, adult insect for only one month of that time. It begins life as an egg, usually under water, and quickly hatches into the larvae or “nymph stage. It spend most of its life as a nymph, living under water, where it is a voracious predator. When it is ready to emerge into an adult, it undergoes a metamorphosis, crawls out of the water onto a reed or stick, waits a while, then splits open its hard exoskeleton and crawls out of it as an adult dragonfly. After it spends a few hours drying, it flies, feeds, and mates. The female usually lays her eggs in water, and the cycle starts again.

I saw my year’s first dragonfly, a Common Baskettail (above), on March 28 at The Swamp. It is typically the first dragonfly to be seen in early spring in this area, and can be quite common. I’ve seen a couple in my garden this week too. They should stick around for a few months but will be gone by mid-summer.

On my April 3 trip to The Swamp, I was surprised to see a few damselflies hovering along the edges of the water in Jericho Ditch. Damselflies are so tiny and fragile in appearance, that it’s hard to believe some emerge this early in the year and endure unpredictable spring temperatures; they’re not much bigger than a straight pin. Pictured above is a male Fragile Forktail that I saw that day. (Notice the bold “exclamation point” marking on the his thorax). I've also seen these in my yard this week; you probably have them in yours too, but you have to look closely to spot one.

On my April 8 visit to Jericho Ditch, three more species of dragonfly had arrived, the Harlequin Darner, the Springtime Darner, and Common Whitetail.

This is a female Common Whitetail; I noticed that the females seemed to emerge earlier than the males, as I saw only one male to about 20 females. This species is very common all summer long; you should even see them in your yard if you keep an eye out. They perch low to the ground.

This guy is a Springtime Darner, appropriately named because it only flies during the early spring. Because I've only been obsessed with dragonflies for less than a year, I missed seeing this species last year; it was done flying by the time I started paying attention. The turquoise blue markings on the reddish-brown body are a gorgeous combination.

Sunday was a clear, sunny, warm day, and I saw literally thousand of dragonflies; of these, probably 90% were Harlequin Darners. In the mid-morning, I saw them warming up by perching vertically on the sunny side of tree trunks; there were at least a dozen sharing the same tree, positioning for the best rays. Above is a picture of a female (see the amber coloring in her wings?), and below is the more boldly marked male, which has no amber coloring.

The photo at the beginning of this posting is also a close-up of a male Harlequin Darner. You can see how it got its name by looking at the intricate and colorful patterns on its thorax and abdomen.

People ask me how I can identify dragonflies and damselflies. If you're new to dragonfly-watching, it's almost impossible to do so while they are flying (which they do most of the time). If I'm lucky enough to see one land, I try to take its photo first, then study it through my binoculars if I have more time. I usually have to wait until I get home, look at the pictures, and then try to find a match in my field guides before I can determine with any certainty what it is.

Unfortunately there are not many regional field guides yet, as there are for birds and butterflies. Hopefully that will change in the future as interest in dragonflies increases. For now, the best book by far to use in this area is "Dragonflies And Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast" by Giff Beaton. The Chesapeake Library has ordered a copy of this and should have it soon. This book includes range maps that include southeastern Virginia, so you can determine whether you can expect to find a particular species here in Tidewater. It also include great photos of the males and females of each species.

The library has some good general books about dragonflies available for you to check out. The first book I checked out from the Chesapeake Library was "Dragonflies" by Cynthia Berger, and I loved it -- lots of good information and photos of many of our common species. Another good book full of general information is "A Dazzle of Dragonflies" by Forrest Lee Mitchell. The library also has "Dragonflies of the World" by Jill Silsby, which might not be of help identifying a local species, but is loaded with information about dragonflies around the world.

I also use the internet to search for photos that other dragonfly enthusiasts have published online. I frequently do searches through Google Images, Flickr, and a great website I found called Odonata Central at (Odonata is the division of insects that includes the dragonflies)

The next time I go to The Swamp there will undoubtedly be new species out flying, challenging me to capture them on camera. I hope I can be quick enough to meet the challenge; I get such pleasure from a good photo, and learning what it is!

I have not been neglecting the birds and the butterflies; they will be in one of my next postings. Until then, enjoy spring to its fullest, whether you're nature watching, walking, gardening, or just sitting in the sun!

Thursday, April 1, 2010


You know the wise saying, “Don’t wish your life away.” Very profound words, and we all should absolutely pay attention to them, and aspire to live by them.

But I admit, it’s been harder lately. I swear, this has been the longest winter ever, and I’ll cop to wishing a little of it away. While this has been a truly fine winter for seeing some rare winter birds in Hampton Roads, I’m chomping at the bit to roll into spring. I have spring fever so bad my teeth ache!

I’ve been to the Great Dismal Swamp for the last three weekends, trying to hurry spring along. The Swamp is a treasure that we are so lucky to have right here in our own backyard. It covers 112,000 acres of forested wetlands, and is home to everything from Black Bears to Bobcats to 200+ species of birds. The Swamp is my favorite place to go in the spring. Mid-to-late April, May and early June are the most productive times to visit. Bird numbers swell as migration begins, and migrants pass through on their way to points farther north. Resident birds are in full song. The warmer temperatures bring out the bears and other mammals, as well large numbers of insects, reptiles and amphibians.

But, it’s only March. My head knows that Mother Nature will not change the schedule that she has honed to perfection over the past few millenniums just for me. But my heart can’t help it; I desperately want to see a butterfly, a dragonfly --- anything! So off I go to the Swamp.

And, there is life!

The first butterfly I saw at The Swamp this year, in mid-March, was an Eastern Comma. The second was its cousin, the Question Mark. This is not a joke; those are their real names, and my pictures will illustrate why. These two are known as “anglewings” because of the sharp angles and ragged edges of their wings. On the upperwing they look very similar, but on the underwing, look closely and you will see a little white “comma” on the Eastern Comma, and a little white “question mark” on the Question mark.

Both of these guys are quite common in The Swamp. I’ve attracted Questions Marks to my Chesapeake garden by planting hops and a Hackberry tree; these are two of the plants that Question Marks lay their eggs on. The larvae feed on these particular kinds of leaves.

Another early-flying butterfly at The Swamp is the stunning Mourning Cloak. You can stumble upon them in all kinds of habitats early in spring. I saw one at Back Bay last year in January, flying on a warm day.

Yesterday’s warm weather brought out two new butterflies that I hadn’t seen the previous week, the American Snout (the photo explains the name), and Henry’s Elfin.

Henry’s Elfin is a tiny brown butterfly about the size of your thumbnail. If you’re not a butterfly enthusiast, you’ve probably never noticed one. They’re not likely to visit your yard, and they fly early in the spring and are gone by mid-May. But beautiful things come in small packages; when you can get close to one of these tiny jewels, you are rewarded with a beautiful little miracle.

And, what is this? Does anyone out there know about beetles? I saw it yesterday, and it’s so colorful and iridescent that looks like it belongs in the tropics. But here it is, moving about in March in Virginia. Tell me if you know what it is!

It takes time and experience to learn what bird is singing what song, what kinds of butterflies occur here in Virginia, and when and where one can expect to see them. There are two essential components to this learning process: lots of experience out in the field, and studying up before you ever go out. A good field guide will teach you what you might expect to see at a certain time and place, so if you get some knowledge ahead of time, you’re far more likely to recognize what you see when you see it.

I’ve spent hours reading, re-reading and memorizing books and field guides. Hands down, my favorite butterfly book is “Butterflies of the East Coast” by Rick Cech. It’s a large book, one that you would not carry in the field, but it has taught me more about what I can expect to find here in Virginia (and when) than any other book. Kenn Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Butterflies of North America” is a popular general field guide that includes all the butterflies likely to be seen in North America. Both books include range maps so that you can tell at a glance whether a particular butterfly occurs in your particular area. These and many other butterfly books, both local and global, are available for you to check out at the Chesapeake Public Library. Test a few out, and then decide which one suits you the best. You might want to purchase it later for yourself. We’ll discuss other kinds of field guides later on.

I’m not wishing my life away, but, April is right around the corner, and every day, more butterflies, dragonflies, and birds will be wakening in The Swamp and in other places. The first hummingbirds always arrive at my feeders around April 12; Chimney Swifts will be twittering in the skies within a week or two. I’ll tell you about what I see in my next entry.