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.


by Carl Strang


That is, unidentified flying Odonata. I have been studying dragonflies and damselflies for most of a decade, now, but this year I continued to find species I had not noticed before. One technique that helped was to take ridiculously distant telephotos, blow them up and look for clues that would help in identification. The results reminded me of the fuzzy photos of UFO’s that have circulated for decades. Heck, I remember reading a book on the subject when I was a kid, ogling the grainy pictures that looked suspiciously like pie plates and the like. But I so wanted to believe…


Getting back to today’s subject, I want to share photos of three species from this past season. The first is of a species I had noticed for two successive seasons patrolling a particular sunlit bend of Salt Creek at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve (DuPage County, IL). It clearly was a darner of some sort, and not the common green darner, but I was determined this year to take the time to try to identify it. It never landed, but attempts to track it with binoculars eventually gave me enough details to identify it as a Cyrano darner. Later, I photographed another darner well downstream from that hairpin turn. The result is blurry, but even so you can clearly see the shelf-like schnozz that gives the species its name. That photo confirmed for me that there is a population of these guys at Fullersburg, with a minimum of 5 males eventually recognized.


Cyrano darner

Cyrano darner




The next photo, also from Fullersburg, was a desperate attempt to get any kind of image of a distant dragonfly that, like the Cyrano, appeared to be a darner. This one was foraging over a mudflat near a large pile of drift logs in a pool of Salt Creek. The photos gave impressions, but few details. Nevertheless I am fairly confident of the ID. Notice the unusual brown and tan color scheme of the body. Also, the leading edge of the wing seems to have pale spots that appear in a photo of the fawn darner in James R. Curry’s Dragonflies of Indiana.


Fawn Darner

Fawn Darner




Fawn Darner

Fawn Darner

Finally, I spent a lot of time watching a couple emeralds (emeralds are a group of dragonflies) at Songbird Slough Forest Preserve on August 30. They were dark, and were the size and had the behavior of prince baskettails, but they lacked the dark spots I am accustomed to seeing on the wings of that emerald species. After a lot of tries I eventually got a UFO-type photo of one. I looked at all the descriptions of dark emeralds in my references, but none really fit the physical features, habitat, range and behavior of the insects at Songbird Slough. I was forced to conclude that these were prince baskettails after all. Later, dragonfly monitor program coordinator Craig Stettner confirmed this identification in my mind when he said he has noted that the spots of prince baskettails often are small or even missing in late season individuals.






Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

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