Picture Ohio! – A Medley of Meadowhawks

Male Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum)
Male Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum), Summit County, Ohio

One of my favorite groups of dragonflies are the meadowhawks, genus Sympetrum, which numbers  13 species in the United States. Of these, seven species have been found in Northeast Ohio, where I live. These are small  red dragonflies, found mostly in summer and fall. Most meadowhawks are fairly tame and will allow a close approach for observation and photography. Some will even land on you while you are studying them. In this article I will share some photographs of these beautiful insects and provide tips on how to identify the red males, which can be tricky. Female meadowhawks are brown and  very difficult to identify in the field. If you are unfamiliar with the basic anatomy of dragonflies you’ll want to obtain a copy of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio (Second Edition), by Larry Rosche, Judy Semroc, and Linda Gilbert, published in 2008 by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This book is a superb field guide and an indispensable reference for identifying Ohio dragonflies and damselflies and learning more about their behavior.

The Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum), shown in the photograph above, is found throughout Ohio and is the most common meadowhawk to be seen in summer and early fall. They are found near ponds, lakes, and streams, but can often be observed hunting in fields away from the water’s edge. The adult male Ruby Meadowhawk has a brown face and red eyes, and black legs. The stigmas on the leading edge of the wings are usually black, or deep red, and the base of the wings are bright red. The abdomen is also bright red, with a row of black, triangular markings on the lower sides of segments S4-S9.

Male Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), Lake County, Ohio
Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), Lake County, Ohio
Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), Summit County, Ohio
Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), Summit County, Ohio

The Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) was formerly called the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, and any red meadowhawk with yellow legs, especially from mid-September onwards, is likely to be an Autumn Meadowhawk. These are hardy creatures, able to withstand heavy frost and temperatures into the mid-twenties, and they have been observed locally as late as early December. This is the only Northeast Ohio female meadowhawk that invariably lays eggs with the male in tandem, and the female can be seen tapping the tip of her abdomen against the surface of ponds or plants nearby. The adult male Autumn Meadowhawk has a brown face with red eyes, and the wing stigmas are usually bright red. The bright red abdomen lacks the triangular markings of the male Ruby Meadowhawk, but there is a dark marking on the dorsal surface of segment S9.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Muskingum County, Ohio
Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Muskingum County, Ohio

The Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum) is Ohio’s smallest meadowhawk, and it is uncommon in most of its range. The photograph above was taken at The Wilds in Muskingum County, where for several years I joined fellow dragonfly enthusiasts Larry Rosche, John Pogacnik, Guy Denny, Jim Davidson, Todd Eiben and Nicole Cavender to survey dragonflies and butterflies in various locations at The Wilds, where we called ourselves The Bug Brigade.

The Band-winged Meadowhawk is best identified by its small size, red thorax, and the extensive rusty markings at the base of the wings. This species seems especially fond of ponds with cattails.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Portage County, Ohio
White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Portage County, Ohio

The White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), shown in the photo above, is very similar to the Ruby Meadowhawk, but has a white face. It is uncommon but when found is often locally abundant. Much rarer is the similar Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum internum), which has a cherry-red face locally, though not in other parts of North America. The Cherry-faced, White-faced, and Ruby Meadowhawks are thought to hybridize, adding to the challenge of identifying these very similar dragonflies. The White-faced Meadowhawk in the photograph above is elevating its abdomen to minimize the surface area of its body exposed to the heat of the sun, a cooling down activity known as obelisking. It was 90 degrees when I found this dragonfly along a roadside in Portage County, and I remember wishing that I possessed the athletic ability to join the White-faced Meadowhawk in its elevated position. Alas, my middle-aged body failed to cooperate, and I suspect that obelisking in a public place may be frowned upon in rural Portage County.

Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum), Door County, Wisconsin
Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum), Door County, Wisconsin

The Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) is a western species that occasionally migrates in summer into Northeast Ohio, where it is has been observed on a few occasions along the Lake Erie shoreline in Ashtabula County. I made the photograph above, which shows two Variegated Meadowhawks in tandem, near the Mink River in Door County, Wisconsin, while on a trip to find and photograph the federally endangered Hines Emerald dragonfly at the nearby Ridges Sanctuary. The Variegated is the largest member of the genus Sympetrum, and looks more like a skimmer than a typical meadowhawk. The face, head, and leading edge of the wings are bright pink, and even the legs are a reddish color. The thick abdomen is red with gray and yellow markings. Variegated Meadowhawks are very wary and hard to approach in the field, where they often rest on sandy beaches when not hunting. The mating pair seen above led me on a merry chase around the sand dunes before finally allowing me to approach close enough for photography.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum), Lucas County, Ohio
Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum), Lucas County, Ohio

In mid-September I visited the Toledo area to deliver some prints to the National Center for Nature Photography in Secor Metropark, which is hosting an exhibit of my tree prints from November, 2013 through February, 2014. While I was in the area, I visited Irwin Prairie, Kitty Todd, and Lou Campbell State Nature Preserves in the Oak Openings area. While at Kitty Todd, enjoying some botanizing with plant expert Andrew Lane Gibson, we chanced upon a group of Blue-faced Meadowhawks (Sympetrum ambiguum) in a wetland. These beautiful dragonflies have a turquoise face and blue eyes, together with a bright red abdomen that is marked with black rings.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum), Lucas County, Ohio
Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum), Lucas County, Ohio

An adult male Blue-faced Meadowhawk was photographed at Bradley Woods Reservation in Northeast Ohio in July, 2002 and Cleveland Museum of Natural History field naturalist Judy Semroc photographed one in September, 2013 at Singer Lake Bog in Summit County. This is a very rare dragonfly in Northeast Ohio.

I used a Nikon D7100 camera with a 150mm or 180mm Sigma Macro lens to create most of the photographs used in this article, handheld with a Nikon SB29 ringlight. Although I generally prefer using a tripod for nature/landscape photography, I find a tripod to be too cumbersome when pursuing dragonflies on the wing. And although I usually prefer to use natural light, I use a ringlight when photographing insects to obtain consistent color and soft, diffuse lighting without shadows. I don’t use the D7100’s exposure meter when photographing with a ringlight. Instead, I set the ringlight to its maximum power output, use a fixed ISO of 100 and a fixed shutter speed of 1/250th second, and set the f-stop to f/8, f/11 or f/16 based on the size of the dragonfly and my distance from it. Large dragonflies, such as darners, often need f/8, while smaller dragonflies such as meadowhawks usually require f/11 or even f/16 for a correct exposure. I bracket my exposures and try to photograph the dragonfly from as many angles as possible.

Autumn Meadowhawks will be on the wing for another four to six weeks in Northeast Ohio, depending on when winter decides to put in an appearance. Until then, enjoy these fascinating and beautiful gossamer-winged fliers.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Close Menu