Aquatic Habitats in Summer

Late July in Central New York is usually hot and dry and this year is no exception. Water levels in wetlands and surface waters are at a seasonal low, exposing habitats and life processes not visible at other times.

Dragonflies like this male Widow Skimmer are extremely active, foraging on the wing for tiny insects.

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Avian predators – shorebirds, herons and kingfishers – capitalize on the availability of prey in exposed mud flats and shallow waters.

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“Soft Landing”

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Another avian predator can be seen hunting for prey above the water’s surface rather than below it. Clouds of tiny mayflies (“Tricos”, short for the genus Tricorythodes), pulsating over the riffles of cool, alkaline streams, are fair game for small flocks of Cedar Waxwings.

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A “Trico” trapped in a spider web during the morning hatch; the Trico body is 3-4 mm long

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Tricos in a web

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“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond the point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.”   – Sandra Postel

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies and damselflies, insect order Odonata, are a fascinating inhabitant of summer landscapes. Wetlands and surface waters are rich habitats where many species can be observed hunting, breeding and perching. The placid, weed-choked water of a canal or pond are examples of good habitat.

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Twelve-spotted Skimmer, perching

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Common Pondhawks mating (male is blue, female green). This unique position is called the “mating wheel”.

Many species also travel far from water to hunt meadows, trails and forest edges, providing ample opportunities for close encounters just about anywhere. I enjoy watching dragonflies hunt the corridor of my upland trail for mosquitoes and other small insects. Perpetual motion, they zip up and down the trail with blazing speed, unpredictably stopping on a dime to hover or change direction. At times they seem to be following me, picking off insects as I flush them, much like the swallows do when I’m mowing.

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Dragonfly on grass in an upland meadow

I never truly appreciated the unusual morphology and beauty of the Odonata until I started photographing them. Magnification is transformative, revealing an artsy mix of vivid colors, perching behaviors and distinct body parts. Most family and friends will take issue with this, politely suggesting that I stick to butterflies when photographing insects and related wildlife. If you share that view, you must admit that the names  – Ebony Jewelwing, Boreal Bluet, Powdered Dancer, Comet Darner, Dragonhunter, Pondhawk, Meadowhawk, etc. – are very cool!

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Halloween Pennant; typically perch at the top of a meadow plant, face into the wind, and maintain stability with wings arched and moving in different directions

Dragonflies and damselflies are, like butterflies and many other insects, a “canary in the cage” with respect to environmental health. In fact, they might be one of our best indicators because, in addition to diverse, open habitats for adults to forage, the aquatic larval stage is reliant on wetlands and surface waters. It is therefore critical that we appreciate them for their ecological role as well as their unusual behavior and appearance. I’m hoping that my images convey all of these attributes and leave a lasting impression (a good one of course!).

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Dragonflies: the Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer activities is observing and photographing the colorful summer fliers – butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies. The process of obtaining a good photograph of one of these insects is satisfying and educational: much of what I’ve learned about photographing wildlife and nature came from this quest, experimenting with aperture, speed, focal length, shooting angles, etc., in pursuit of dynamic subjects in ever-changing background settings.

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

 

One group of dragonflies is particularly photogenic: the skimmers. Several species are large, colorful, very common and tend to forage in fields, forest edges and clearings, far from their wetland habitats. Consequently, I usually have close encounters with them while hiking and have ample opportunities to photograph.

In this post I’ll feature the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), a species that can be found over much of the U.S.and into southern Canada.

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

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Widow Skimmer

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

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Widow Skimmer, male

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Widow Skimmer, male

The skimmers, like other dragonflies and damselflies, are powerful, highly maneuverable fliers and voracious predators. They consume huge quantities of flying insects such as gnats, flies and mosquitoes, and are therefore more than just a “pretty face”!

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.