“Chasing Dragonflies and Damselflies”

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The Story

“Chasing Dragonflies and Damselflies”
by Jill U. Adams
Audubon, July-August 2012

The Pitch

Some birders travel to new places, perhaps even other countries, to add to their life lists. Others swap their field guides and start a new list. Butterflies perhaps. Or, like Thomas Cullen, dragonflies.

Cullen converted several years ago while bird watching with friends on New York’s Long Island, looking for migrating hawks. He noticed swarms of dragonflies, following the same coastal migration path. Trained as an entomologist, Cullen was accustomed to identifying insects by dissecting them under a microscope, which was fine for work, but not to his liking for a hobby. When he learned that dragonfly field guides were available, he thought, “I could really do this.”

And has he ever. Cullen is one of more than 300 volunteers who spent hundreds of hours slogging through bogs, ponds, and rivers collecting specimens and photos for a statewide survey of dragonflies and damselflies in New York. The survey turned up five new species never before seen in the state, including the Broad-tailed Shadowdragon — a species first described in the 1990s in Canada.

Similar to birding, dragonfly chasers keep life lists and treasure new finds. Stunning colors and daredevil flying are reason enough to give dragonflies a look-see, but the insects also serve as barometers of environmental health. Those who take to the chase will deepen their understanding of the ecology of favorite hikes and haunts.

I propose to write an article “Chasing Dragonflies” for Audubon magazine that will introduce your readers to dragonflying. I’ll report from the field — I accompanied Cullen on an early spring hike in the Adirondack mountains of New York to see some early species and I will visit other Northeastern habitats this summer with other survey volunteers to look for emeralds, darners and the elusive shadowdragons.

I’ll offer tips for the uninitiated to get started, including best times to look and equipment needed — a net, a ruler, and a hand lens at its simplest. I would present a round-up of field guides and dragonfly clubs as a side bar.
Newbies may find identification of dragonflies and damselflies a challenge at first, but it soon becomes addictive. You have to catch your prey — with a net or a zoom lens — to distinguish tiny differences among similar species. To nab a shadowdragon, I’m told, you must wait by a fast-flowing rocky river after sunset and be quick with your net.

On our short outing, Cullen spied a dragonfly perched on a sandy patch of ground. He placed his net over top and reached under to gently grasp the bug’s wings. When one wing slipped out, he let go and started over. “I don’t want to damage its wings,” he said. “If I do, it’s as good as dead.”

He passed the dragonfly to me and we worked through the steps to identify the beast. I measured the body length (42 millimeters) and Cullen opened his field guide to the corporals. “They’re known for perching on the ground,” he said, explaining his shortcut. He read an entry and I checked the tiniest details with Cullen’s hand lens. With its dark spots at the base of the wings and black and white stripes on its shoulders, we pegged it as a female Chalk-fronted Corporal — the first on my list.

I’m a freelance journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Nature, Discover, the Washington Post, and Plenty. You can learn more about me and my work at my website .
I’d be happy to talk more about the best approach to take for your readers.

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