Earl Nottingham | TPWD
An Eye for the Dragonfly
Move over, birds. Another flying creature is capturing the attention of Texas wildlife watchers.
Perched by the side of a pond in an Arlington park, we watch the dragonfly drama unfold before us, an elemental spectacle of mating, dominance and, ultimately, survival.
A male blue dasher, a dragonfly common to many Texas ponds, has found a female to mate with, and he grabs her behind the head to begin mating as they fly along. This is what the male dragonfly has been waiting for his whole life.
But wait! What’s this? Another male dragonfly appears on the scene. After a brief and intense battle, the new dragonfly prevails and begins to mate with the female.
Many male dragonflies have genitalia designed to scoop out another dragonfly’s sperm out of the female before depositing their own — we wonder if that’s happening here — and we watch closely as the new dragonfly couple mate. Copulation achieved? Yes! The game’s not over yet, though. The female needs to lay her eggs, and there are still several males hanging around that might try to mate with her. To ensure success, the male vigilantly stands guard above the female as she deposits her eggs in the water.
“This is a battlefield,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban biologist Sam Kieschnick, who has led us to this pond to watch dragonflies and damselflies. “We may come to places like this to relax, but for dragonflies, this is a battlefield of love and war.”
Kieschnick is one of a growing number of dragonfly enthusiasts in Texas who pursue dragonflies and damselflies with the same passion that bird watchers bring to birds.
Why dragonflies? Why not? They’re beautiful, charismatic and accessible (they’re everywhere), and they exhibit some pretty incredible behaviors.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
Texas has bragging rights when it comes to dragonflies and damselflies. It’s the best place in the U.S. to watch them, with “hands down” more species than any other state, says John Abbott, former entomology curator at the University of Texas and the unofficial dean of Texas dragonflies.
“Texas is really a tremendous place for dragonflies,” he says, noting its 250 known species. “Its geographical positioning allows for a real mix of eastern and western faunas, as well as subtropical and temperate faunas. No other state has that.”
These are exciting times in the Texas dragonfly and damselfly world, with more and more people joining the ranks of “dragonflyers” and new state species still being discovered. In 2019, the Austin area hosted national and international dragonfly conferences, solidifying the state’s place as a worldwide dragonfly hot spot.
And, if you didn’t realize it, dragonflies are pretty special.
“They are visually stunning,” says Abbott, author of 2011’s Damselflies of Texas and 2015’s Dragonflies of Texas and founder of Odonata Central, a national archive of observations. “They’re arguably the strongest fliers in the insect world. And they have the best eyesight in the insect world, with a nearly 360-degree field of view.”
Eric Isley is one of the most active dragonfly watchers in Austin — he goes out several times a week — and he has invited me to chase dragonflies with him on a couple of warm September mornings. I meet him and a handful of other dragonflyers at Barkley Meadows Park and the Hornsby Bend wastewater treatment facility in southeast Austin.
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the same order, Odonata, and are often referred to as odonates, or odes. They both depend on fresh water to lay their eggs and live the early parts of their lives. They are ancient species, flying around our skies for 250 million to 300 million years.
As we walk down a path near a pond at Barkley Meadows, Isley points out dragonflies with names like the red-tailed pennant and the checkered setwing and tells me he started off with an interest in butterflies and birds.
“Then dragonflies caught my eye,” he says as he points out a four-spotted pennant, with distinctive spots on its wings, and an eastern pondhawk.
His digital camera, with a big lens and a tripod, is ever-present as he captures photos of the insects. Photography is a big part of Texas dragonfly culture, helping enthusiasts identify species and appreciate the minute details of a dragonfly or damselfly.
A married couple with us, David Byers and Wei-Li Huang, watch birds for part of the year, then turn their attention to dragonfly watching in the summer, when dragonflies are active and birds less so.
“We’ve birded on and off for 30 years,” Byers says. “Dragonflies are a natural in summer if you want to photograph something beautiful.”
Texas has several dozen people who actively pursue dragonflies and damselflies. They keep up with each other through iNaturalist (an app for recording wildlife observations) and the Texas Dragons and Damsels Facebook group.
“Eric showed me a photo of a dragonfly eating a butterfly,” Byers says of their first meeting. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, we need to learn more about dragonflies.’”
Dragonflies are indeed one of the animal world’s deadliest predators, a quality that Isley appreciates.
“They’re the ultimate predator,” Isley says. “They have a 96 percent kill rate. They’ll eat anything they can catch, including their own species.”
At Barkley Meadows, Byers spends some time trying to get a good photo of a Halloween pennant (distinctively colored with orange and black) while Isley tells me about some of his favorite species.
“The dragonhunter is the most impressive dragonfly we have here. They like to hunt other dragonflies,” he says. “The prettiest one we get here is a blue-eyed darner. When you see it, you’ll know why we photograph it. The blue when the sun hits it …” His voice trails off in admiration.
We tally a few more species — widow skimmer, green darner, red saddlebags and wandering glider — before calling it a day.
Birder gone bad
Besides John Abbott, Greg Lasley has done more to promote and document dragonflies and damselflies in Texas than anyone else. He calls himself a “birder gone bad.”
“You can go looking for birds on the Texas coast in April, and there are more bird watchers than birds,” Lasley says. “One thing that appealed to me about dragonflies is that there weren’t tons of people doing it.”
Lasley’s interest in dragonflies was sparked in 2000 at a South Texas photo contest and when he wanted to ID his odonate photos. He sent them to Abbott, and the two struck up a friendship.
Coincidentally, that year marked a turning point in the dragonfly world when the first U.S. field guide — Sid Dunkle’s Dragonflies Through Binoculars — came out, and when common names were assigned to many dragonflies and damselflies.
“It was the first book I had, the first book a lot of people had,” Lasley says. “It gave us ways to try to figure out what we were seeing or photographing with dragonflies.”
Lasley, a former police officer who became one of Texas’ most accomplished naturalists and photographers, saw an opportunity to engage in an emerging field and even make contributions to scientific knowledge.
“When I started, there were still 44 counties in Texas that had no record of dragonfly species whatsoever,” he says. “I found it fun to travel to the Panhandle of Texas with my wife, and I’d try to photograph species in counties that had no records. Now every county in Texas has dragonfly records.”
His wife, Cheryl Johnson, a former state judge, had a quest to photograph every courthouse in Texas, and she and Lasley traveled the state together pursuing their passions.
One of Lasley’s other discoveries involved a species called the blue-faced ringtail, a dragonfly with a striped tail and, yes, a blue face. It hadn’t been seen in decades, so he searched along the San Marcos River.
“I finally made my way down to Gonzales, and I happened to find the species there,” he says.
Since then, scores of people have traveled to Gonzales to look for the blue-faced ringtail. It’s practically a rite of passage for Texas dragonflyers. Within the U.S., the species occurs only in Texas; seeing the blue-faced ringtail was one of the most popular field trips at the 2019 international odonate convention in Austin.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
Telling the Difference
Dragonfly ‘Big Year’
Gonzales was one of the first places Ben Schwartz traveled just to see a dragonfly, but not the last. The Texas State University karst hydrogeologist completed a Big Year for dragonflies in 2020, attempting to see as many species as he could in a year’s time. Schwartz’s goal was to see 200 of the then-248 dragonfly and damselfly species in 2020 — he tallied 209.
“I’d say the first 150 were relatively very easy,” he says. “The next 25 took some work — going up to the Panhandle, West Texas, South Texas, spending a lot more time looking for them, looking for uncommon species. The last 10, getting up to 200, really took a lot more work and a lot of persistence.”
In some cases, he had to look for dragonflies in unexpected places.
“In the Big Thicket I was looking for a species called the smoky shadowdragon,” he says. “I had spent all morning and early afternoon bashing around in the brush. I came back to the bridge where I had parked and looked up and saw a bunch of cobwebs on the bridge. I realized there were dragonflies hanging all on the underside of this bridge. I got a long stick and pulled a bunch of these cobwebs down, and I got about 15 smoky shadowdragons.”
During the year he tallied two new species not documented in Texas before, bringing the state species count from 248 to 250. One is the taper-tailed darner, a dragonfly he spotted in East Texas; the other is the boreal bluet, a damselfly he saw in West Texas.
Not bad for someone who’s a relative newcomer to dragonflying. Schwartz got interested in odonates around 2015 when he started noticing damselflies along the San Marcos River. He posted damselfly photos on iNaturalist, and Lasley started ID’ing them. The rest is history.
John Abbott has moved on from Texas — he is now chief curator and director of research and collections at the University of Alabama — but his dragonfly work brings him back to the state.
His latest research, funded by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant, is a cutting-edge project that uses environmental DNA to detect rare species.
“We’re taking water samples from prospective habitats of some of these potentially rare species and then looking for the DNA,” he says. “We can extract DNA out of the water and recognize a dragonfly as having been there, without ever collecting it or seeing it. It’s a new field that’s getting a lot of attention.”
Back at our dragonfly habitat in Arlington, Kieschnick nets a desert firetail and puts it in a petri dish for us to view.
“This is a lovely damselfly,” he says, noting the bright red body and eyes. “There’s a vibrancy of color. Spectacular.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of these creatures. The body and eyes of the desert firetail are so bright they almost glow, and in Kieschnick’s way of thinking, the future of dragonfly watching in Texas is as bright as this firetail, with new discoveries still happening, groundbreaking research occurring and enthusiasts increasing.
“I used to be oblivious to the things flying around,” says Kieschnick, an avowed “plant guy.”
“Now my eyes have been opened up through dragonflies. I see charm in them. We can ooh and ahh over them. They have interesting behaviors and there’s great diversity. It’s exciting to see different species, and you don’t have to go too far to see them.”
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