Spiketails in the Forest

Delta-spotted Spiketail, Ashtabula County, Ohio

Last year I spent several days in June and early July observing and photographing clubtails – one of my favorite dragonfly groups – along the Tuscarawas River in Stark County, Ohio. You can read about these dragonfly explorations here. This year I would like to share some images and information about another fascinating and more elusive group of dragonflies – the Spiketails! 

Spiketails are large dragonflies with a dark brown or black body patterned with yellow stripes on the thorax and yellow spots or rings on the abdomen. Spiketails inhabit small streams or seeps in forests or woodlands with adjoining meadows. As many as 24 species of clubtails have been recorded in northeast Ohio, but only 4 species of spiketails, none of which are common. Adult spiketails have green eyes that barely meet at the top of the head. The Delta-spotted Spiketail, Cordulegaster diastatops, shown in the photo above, has yellow laterally on segments S1-S4 of the abdomen, and yellow arrowhead shapes on the lateral and dorsal segments S5-S9 of the abdomen. The thorax is very hairy and has yellow stripes. The Delta-spotted Spiketail flies from late-May through June in northeast Ohio, and is fond of eating bumble bees.        

Woodland Stream, Monroe Falls Metropark, Ohio

Although many species of dragonflies prefer sunny locations in open meadows, ponds, and along the banks of rivers, spiketails tend to prefer more shaded habitats along woodland streams like the one shown in the photo above. Many of the streams are tiny, with minimal flowing water only an inch or so deep.  

Arrowhead Spiketail, Ashtabula County, Ohio

The female Arrowhead Spiketail, Cordulegaster obliqua, shown in the photo above, is a striking dragonfly, with bold, spear-shaped yellow markings along the dorsal surface of the abdomen. Below is a close-up of her ovipositor, which extends well beyond segment S10 in a spike, giving spiketails their name. When the female spiketail is laying her eggs in the sandy substrate, she repeatedly drives her ovipositor into the sand, sometimes hundreds of times, in a rapid-fire sequence like a sewing machine.   

Arrowhead Spiketail Ovipositor

 

Tiger Spiketail, Stebbins Gulch, Holden Arboretum, Ohio

I recall my first encounter with a Tiger Spiketail, Cordulegaster erronea, in early July, 2005 on a steep hemlock-covered hillside at Stebbins Gulch, a rugged ravine in Geauga County and perhaps the most spectacular natural feature of The Holden Arboretum. I was accompanied by Larry Rosche and Judy Semroc, two dragonfly experts and conservation specialists with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It was quite dark in the shade of the hemlocks, and the sandy seeps we were exploring were barely damp, with virtually no running water to be seen. This was certainly not a place that we expected to encounter a 3-inch long black dragonfly, patterned with vivid yellow stripes and spots, cruising a few inches above the ground like a miniature B-25 bomber. Tiger Spiketails, especially the males, are very territorial and patrol their stream domains repeatedly, in search of both prey and female Tiger Spiketails to court. After patiently waiting for a half-hour or so, the Tiger Spiketail shown in the photo above flew in and settled on a tree branch for a few minutes, much to the delight of those of us wielding cameras with long lenses and ringlights, as we hunkered down in the mud for some serious dragonfly portrait photography. The nymphs (larvae) of the Tiger Spiketail may remain in these hillside seeps for several years before metamorphosing into adult dragonflies, and it is amazing how they can survive in what is little more than muddy sand for such an extended period of time. 

As we crouched in the stygian gloom of the hemlock forest, watching this striking insect deposit her eggs in the sand, I was reminded of the first verse of William Blake’s famous poem, “The Tyger”, which with a single word change (apologies to Mr. Blake) becomes a fitting tribute to the Tiger Spiketail:

“Tyger Spiketail, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

So far, I have not observed a Twin-spotted Spiketail, Cordulegaster maculata, the fourth spiketail species found in northeast Ohio, but I hope to encounter one of these elusive dragonflies in the near future. If you would like to see a spiketail, check out the woodland trails at North Kingsville Sand Barrens, a Cleveland Museum of Natural History preserve in Ashtabula County, where both the Delta-spotted and Arrowhead Spiketail photographs included with this article were taken.   

 

                

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