Dragonflies on the Deck

by Carl Strang

I have been part of the regional dragonfly monitoring program since it began in 2003. I started counting dragonflies and damselflies at Willowbrook, Songbird Slough and Waterfall Glen Forest Preserves, in recent years focusing on the last two. Though I continued to find new species from time to time, the past couple of years I have felt the need to try something new. The major gap in my knowledge was in river species, so this year I decided to combine my loves of kayaking and dragonfly monitoring by trying out a river route. Water levels have been high, and cool weather has been suboptimal for monitoring, so I didn’t make my first excursion until last weekend. I launched my sea kayak from the forest preserve boat ramp at Des Plaines Riverway, and headed downstream into Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Des Plaines monitor view b

Experienced kayakers know to tie everything to the boat. I didn’t want to risk wetting my digital voice recorder, so I tied a waterproof notebook to a deck line, tied two pencils to the notebook, wore my waterproof small camera and binoculars, and tucked everything else into my yellow deck bag.

Monitor deck 1b

I used the strongest current in the center of the river to go downstream, taking moments along the way to enjoy sights such as scattered great blue heron nests.

GB heron nest Des Plaines b

The only American rubyspot of the day made it easy by landing on my bow.

American rubyspot kayak b

Dragonflies were tougher, however. The low, seated vantage point made flying dragonflies look different, and it took a while to recognize even familiar species. They were flying fast over the center of the river, making photography impossible, and even tracking them with binoculars was very difficult. My frustration was limited by the low number of insects active in the center of the river that day. I reached a convenient turn around point after an hour, and started back following the sunlit north shore. (Current is slower near the bank, making the upstream paddling easier.) Odonata were much more abundant along the edge. Some damselflies continued to land on the boat. Here a powdered dancer and a blue-fronted dancer chose to land on the deck bag, providing a comparison shot.

Dancers kayak 1b

Other damselflies kept their distance, landing on sticks or debris. The small camera’s telephoto was adequate to get shots of the abundant blue type bluets, which proved to be familiar bluets.

Familiar bluet 5JL 1b

There also were many black type bluets, which I identified as slender bluets.

Slender bluet 5JL 1b

The most abundant dragonflies were jade clubtails, some of which liked my deck.

Jade clubtail kayak b

I was pleased to see a Cyrano darner along the way, though I was unable to get a photo. Toward the end I got a nice view of some Illinois roses.

IL roses Des Plaines b

All in all there was a nice variety of species, most of them familiar but some I missed. I look forward to a continuing learning experience as I return to this route on future weekends.

4 Comments

  1. Scott said,

    July 9, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Hi Carl. I’m pretty sure I saw a Cyrano Darner today! I’ll be posting a photo on Through Handlens and Binoculars soon.

    • natureinquiries said,

      July 10, 2009 at 6:03 am

      Thanks, Scott. I look forward to seeing it. I have yet to see one perched. Here they like slow moving sections of streams, and patrol small sunny areas near the edge, following a regular route with almost military precision. Their flight seems slow for a darner, and they appear to be keeping their wings above the level plane (though this could be an illusion).

  2. August 5, 2009 at 6:07 am

    […] Earlier I described  my first venture into dragonfly and damselfly monitoring by kayak. I have been out on the Des Plaines River twice since then. There has been some variation in the count of species and individuals each time, but most seems unremarkable. I’ll focus on a couple high points. The biggest surprise was a transition in the damselflies. The slender bluet was the common black type bluet my first time around. […]

  3. September 17, 2010 at 6:22 am

    […] my targeted singing insects search. This had been my dragonfly monitoring area until I switched to surveying the nearby Des Plaines River by kayak, and I hadn’t been in the dolomite prairie for two […]


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