A Unicorn Clubtail (Arigomphus villosipes) keeps watch over its watery world from a maple leaf floating on a beaver pond at Morgan Swamp, a large wetland preserve managed by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy near Rock Creek in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Note the enlarged end of the dragonfly’s abdomen, the “club”, which gives the clubtails their name. There are 30 species of clubtails found in the Buckeye State, and 20 of them can be observed in late spring and early summer along rivers and streams and around lakes and ponds in northeast Ohio.
Snaketails are a group of small clubtails that live along high quality streams and rivers, including the Grand River watershed in northeast Ohio, home to the Rusty Snaketail and the Riffle Snaketail. The Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus), shown in the photo above, is the rarer of the two, and is only found in three counties in northeast Ohio. The male Riffle Snaketail has a more pronounced club than the female. Photographing snaketails is quite challenging. They are only a couple of inches long and like to perch on rocks in the middle of the stream, so you need to wade in the water to approach them. They are often very wary, and appear to vanish just as you get close enough for photography, as they flit from one rock to another. Rubber boots or waders, patience, close-focusing binoculars, and a determination not to dunk expensive digital camera gear in the stream are needed to photograph these beautiful but elusive little gossamer-winged insects.
Spinylegs have large clubs and spines on their back legs. Two of the three North American species, the Black-shouldered Spinyleg and the Flag-tailed Spinyleg, are found in the Buckeye State. The Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus) is found throughout Ohio, while the Flag-tailed Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus) is primarily found in western counties and is very rare in northeast Ohio. My thanks to northwest Ohio dragonfly expert Rick Nirschl for guiding me to a pond in the Oak Openings region near Toledo to photograph the Flag-tailed Spinyleg shown above.
Dragonflies don’t have skin with sweat glands like people, so they have to find other ways of cooling down in the heat of midsummer. The Lancet Clubtail (Gomphus exilis) in the photo above has tilted its body into a near vertical position in order to minimize its exposure to sunlight, a behavior known as obelisking.
The Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus) is the 800-pound gorilla of clubtails. It often feeds on large butterflies and dragonflies, some as big as itself. The individual shown in the photo above was observed along the Grand River snagging a young Swift River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis illinoiensis) in mid-air and carrying it to a nearby twig to feast on its ill-fated prey. If Dragonhunters were as big as people we would be scared to venture outdoors.
Except for a handful of species, including the Dragonhunter and the Black-shouldered Spinyleg, which may be found in northeast Ohio as late as August, clubtails are on the wing for only a few short weeks, from late May through early July. They can be very hard to identify in the field, so I concentrate on taking as many photos from as many different angles as possible, and complete the identification process at home on my PC monitor. An essential reference for identifying clubtails and other Ohio dragonflies is Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio (second edition), by Larry Rosche, Judy Semroc, and Linda Gilbert. This 6×9-inch, 300-page spiral- bound field guide is the finest dragonfly book I have ever seen, complete with several hundred color photos and beautiful illustrations painted by Jennifer Brumfield. The guide is published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH), and the three authors carried out most of the extensive field research needed to complete the guide. I’m honored to have a few of my dragonfly photos included in this fine book, which costs $24.95 and can be purchased from the CMNH website:
Larry Rosche, Judy Semroc, and other northeast Ohio dragonfly experts conduct regular field trips to local dragonfly hotspots in and around Ohio throughout the summer, and there’s no better way to learn about dragonflies. More information is available on the CMNH website.
If you would like to learn how to photograph these fascinating fliers, join me on Saturday, June 25 for a Grand River Photo Tour, sponsored by The Holden Arboretum. We will visit several areas along the Grand River in Lake, Geauga, and Ashtabula Counties during the peak time for northeast Ohio clubtails in early summer. Bring your camera, a packed lunch and beverage, rubber boots, some bug repellent, and a desire to find and photograph these beautiful but ephemeral insects. For more information, visit Holden’s website at: http://www.holdenarb.org/home/