Tuscarawas River Clubtails

Tuscarawas River near Zoar, Tuscarawas County

The Tuscarawas River rises near Hartville and flows 129 miles through the southern tip of Summit County, Stark County, Tuscarawas County, and eastern Coshocton County before joining the Walhonding River at Coshocton to form the Muskingum River. The photo above was taken after a period of heavy rain near Zoar in Tuscarawas County. I was in search of riverine clubtails, an intriguing but often elusive group of dragonflies that live along many of Ohio’s rivers and are on the wing from late spring through midsummer.     

Male Midland Clubtail, Craig Pittman Memorial Park, Navarre, Stark County

To date, 168 species of dragonflies and damselflies have been recorded in Ohio, including 30 species of clubtails, which are dragonflies with widely separated eyes and in which the last three segments of the abdomen (tail) are enlarged to form a “club”. The Midland Clubtail (Gomphurus fraternus) shown in the photo above is a medium-sized clubtail, about 2-inches in length, found in many counties throughout the Buckeye State.

The high water shown in the top photo of the Tuscarawas River would be fine for a kayak or canoe trip along the river, but it would not be ideal for finding clubtails, which favor shallow gravel bars, riffles, and rocky shorelines, as shown in the photo below, taken at the Craig Pittman Memorial Park along the Tuscarawas River just south of Navarre in Stark County. Clubtails like to perch on the rocks when they are not pursuing their insect prey above the surface of the river. To spot them, you’ll need a pair of close-focusing binoculars, capable of focusing on an object 6-8 feet from where you are standing. Ideally, close-focusing binoculars for observing dragonflies and damselflies should allow you to focus on your  feet.     

Gravel Bar & Riffle, Craig Pittman Memorial Park, Navarre, Stark County

Although early morning birding can be fun and productive, dragonflies are late risers and prefer warm, sunny weather for their predatory patrols along the river. The Midland Clubtail shown above was photographed in bright sunshine at 2:30 pm with the temperature in the low eighties. At even hotter temperatures, many clubtails, which do not possess sweat glands, elevate their abdomen into a vertical position to minimize their exposure to the heat of the sun, which is known as obelisking.

Lancet Clubtail Obelisking
Plains Clubtail, 40 Corners Road, near Massillon, Stark County

The Plains Clubtail (Gomphurus externus) shown in the photo above is an endangered species in Ohio, found in a few western counties of the Buckeye State but restricted to the Tuscarawas River in eastern Ohio. The stripes on the thorax and the yellow markings on the black abdomen are unique and different from those on the Midland Clubtail. When photographing a dragonfly, try to get photos of it from as many viewpoints and angles as possible to aid in later identification of the species. This will often involve wading in shallow water, so a lightweight pair of knee-length rubber boots (e.g. Wellington boots) will help to keep your feet dry.

Male Cobra Clubtail, Craig Pittman Memorial Park, Stark County

The Cobra Clubtail (Gomphus vastus) is a fairly large clubtail with an impressive club reminiscent of the head of a cobra. I had photographed Cobra Clubtails in Michigan several years ago, accompanied and guided by Toledo-based Rick Nirschl, one of Ohio’s top dragonfly experts and a great photographer. Recently I was delighted to observe and photograph a Cobra Clubtail much closer to home,  along the upper Tuscarawas River in Stark County. 

I use a Nikon D7200 camera with a Tamron 100-400mm lens for most of my dragonfly photography, and a Sigma 150mm Macro lens, which provides a reproduction ratio of 1:1, for damselflies and other smaller insects. For the clubtail photos shown above, I used an ISO of 400, an f/stop of f/8 or f/11, and a shutter speed of 1/400- or 1/500-second. All photos were taken as raw files, processed in Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, and several Topaz plug-ins to optimize sharpness and reduce noise. In general I prefer to use natural lighting, but a ringlight is useful in bright sunlight to minimize shadows and provide a consistent white balance.  

Google Maps helped me to find promising locations with gravel bars and riffles along the upper Tuscarawas River. The most productive sites were at 40 Corners Road and the nearby Bridgeport Quarry Trailhead near Massillon, Craig Pittman Memorial Park near Navarre, and the extensive gravel bars near the old railroad bridge trestles north of the Zoar-Dover Road Bridge west of  Zoar. My thanks to fellow dragonfly enthusiasts Jon Cefus, Kent Miller, and David Hochadel for their help and suggestions vis-a-vis clubtails and Tuscarawas River locations.                   

Dragonhunter Eating Swift River Cruiser, Grand River, Lake County, Ohio

The Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus) is the largest of all the clubtails, and will often prey on other large dragonflies, like the teneral Swift River Cruiser shown above, being consumed by a Dragonhunter along the Grand River in Lake County, Ohio. The Dragonhunter flies from early June through mid-September, and may occasionally be found along the Tuscarawas River. Many Dragonhunters are fearless, and may often be photographed from a close distance, especially when they are feeding on their prey.

Blue-fronted Dancer, Argia apicalis

In addition to clubtails, look for cruisers (Macromia sp.) and several species of dancers (Argia sp.) on your Tuscarawas River visits. Meadows near the river are a good place to find Widow Skimmers, Eastern Pondhawks, Blue Dashers, Halloween and Calico Pennants, and several kinds of Meadowhawk.

If you enjoy photographs of dragonflies and damselflies, visit our website Dragonfly Gallery:

To help you identify the dragonflies and damselflies you find, you will want to invest in one or more field guides. I especially recommend Dragonflies & Damselflies of Northeast Ohio, by Larry Rosche, Judy Semroc, and Linda Gilbert, published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Another excellent reference is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson, which covers all 366 species likely to be seen in eastern North America. For damselflies, it’s hard to beat Ed Lam’s Damselflies of the Northeast, which has superb illustrations by the author. Visit www.edlam.net to order a copy.   

Finally, be sure to visit the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, which is an excellent resource on Ohio’s dragonflies and damselflies:    https://u.osu.edu/ohioodonatasurvey/

“Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little, and the latter live too long.”

James Thurber


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this information! I’m fairly new to both photography and the amazing would of dragonflies and damselflies, but I’m very keen on finding and photographing Clubtails! I really appreciate the information!

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