Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Dragon hunting

            With long-handled insect nets raised in anticipation, Matt Schenck and three other dragonfly enthusiasts plunged waist deep into the Chipuxet River where it crosses under Route 138 in Kingston. They were on the hunt for a blackwater bluet, a damselfly most had never seen before. The insect was one of the target species during the group’s annual Dragonfly Safari, and they weren’t disappointed.
Several of the midnight blue insects were observed hidden in overhanging vegetation, darting across the water, and even mating. Schenck repeatedly swung his net in hopes of
Four-spotted skimmer (Matt Schenck)
capturing one, but more often than not he merely drenched himself further. He eventually netted a bluet to get a close-up view of it, then released it unharmed.
“I got interested in dragonflies when I realized how many different kinds there were,” said Schenck, an environmental educator at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. “Their diversity was completely unexpected, and I’ve become obsessed with trying to figure them out.”
Dragonflying has become an increasingly popular pastime, one often initially pursued by birdwatchers looking for other wildlife to observe during the summer months when bird activity slows. But many say that their passion for dragonflies soon surpassed their interest in watching birds, mostly because of the entertaining challenge of catching them.
According to Schenck, dragonflies are sturdy creatures that can be repeatedly captured and handled without harming them, unlike the more delicate butterflies that are often injured in nets. But catching dragonflies is much easier said than done.
Dragonflies have hundreds of eyes, so they can usually see your net coming long before they are ensnared. They can also fly frontwards and backwards and sideways and upside down, quickly change direction, stop on a dime and hover in place. They use those remarkable flight skills to cruise local ponds and streams in search of flying insects to eat – including other dragonflies. The U.S. military has even studied dragonfly flight to improve the design of helicopters.
While it may take dozens of swings with an insect net before beginning dragonfliers actually catch one, experts seldom fare much better. As frustrating as it can be, that’s also what makes it fun.
“I call my capture technique pursuit-until-it’s-in-the-net-or-uncatchable,” said Schenck. “It’s an aggressive style that gets my endorphins going.”
Ginger Brown may be the leading expert on dragonflies in Rhode Island. Beginning in 1998, she coordinated a six-year volunteer effort to census dragonflies in every community in the state. The final tally was 138 species, with 108 species found in South Kingstown alone. She calls dragonflies “the hawks of the insect world” and notes that their sparkling colors and dynamic behaviors are part of the reason for the increasing public interest.
It doesn’t hurt that dragonflies also have colorful names, including calico pennant, harlequin darner, ruby meadowhawk, golden-winged skimmer, clamp-tipped emerald, brook snaketail and frosted whiteface.
Since dragonfly science is a relatively young discipline, there is much still to be learned about most species, and hobbyists can contribute a great deal. For instance, one of the participants in the Dragonfly Safari, Greg Sargeant, helped to document Rhode Island’s first record of an Allegheny River cruiser, a species previously only found in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.
“One of the interesting things I find is the wide variety of dragonflies you can see in the same habitat from one week to the next,” he said. “I go out on my lunch hour to the same places every week, and every week I see a different variety of species.”
After Sargeant and the other participants in the Dragonfly Safari had their fill of blackwater bluets and a dozen other species of dragonflies and damselflies at the Chipuxet River, they drove two miles down the road to the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area, where they walked a powerline corridor and along some ponds in search of additional species. They saw green darners, Eastern pondhawks, cherry-faced meadowhawks and several other species, but the most abundant dragonfly they found was the halloween pennant, a dainty variety dressed in orange and black.
“We seem to be having a Halloween party here,” joked Schenck. “We should have come in costume.”
At one point, Sargeant and Dylan Pedro swung their nets simultaneously at the same dragonfly, smashing their nets together with a thud, and yet the dragonfly easily eluded their efforts.
But then the clouds moved in and dragonfly activity slowed to a trickle.
“Dragonflies are solar powered,” said Sargeant. “So those that are usually the most active are in hiding now.”
Schenck and Sargeant said that South County is an ideal place to look for dragonflies. The Great Swamp, Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, Tri-Town Park, and the Carolina Management Area are all excellent places to visit from May to August.
Dragonflies begin their lives as aquatic larvae and only fly around as adult insects for three or four weeks, they said, and different species prefer different types of aquatic habitat. So they suggest visiting sites with different water features – ponds, lakes, streams and rivers of various sizes – at different times throughout the summer to see the greatest number of species.
“I just look for a spot where you can park and that has public access to the water,” said Schenck. “If you’re not afraid to get your feet wet, you’re going to find a lot of dragons.”

This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

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