Saturday, July 28, 2012

Dragonfly Hunt at Lake Monticello

Calico Pennant
Fresh from attending the Dragonfly Society of the Americas meeting in May, my husband and I were heading on a kayak trip.  We found out after we were all packed up and on the road that due to unforeseen circumstances (the trip leaders had just gotten home from the previous days' trip!) the Sunday trip was cancelled.  I suggested we head to Lake Monticello in Fairfield County.  Lake Monticello is a man-made lake created to support the nuclear power plant at Jenkinsville.  One portion called the "Recreation Lake" is designated for water craft with no motors.  We've had several good days of wildlife viewing there in the past.  But today, I was thinking about dragonflies.  I remembered that Fairfield County was one of the ones in SC with very few documented species.

As we unloaded the boats it was hard not to notice the birds in the area:  a couple of osprey soared over the dam, some northern rough-winged swallows looked like they might be gathering nest material and the red-winged blackbirds were singing among the tall grasses near the water's edge.  We also saw one solitary sandpiper running along the shore before we put in.

Once in the water, we stayed near the shore both because it was windy as well as because that was where I thought the best dragonfly and damselfly viewing would be.  This was true -- we didn't have to go far to begin to see species.  Now photographing them was another matter!

Currently, dragonfly species are documented on a database called Odonata Central.  Unlike eBird, you must submit photos of species you report and those are confirmed by an expert after submission.  So it is really important to get the best photos you can -- from several angles if possible. 

The first dragonfly I found was this teneral Banded Pennant clinging to a blade of grass.

Banded Pennant - teneral

A teneral dragonfly is a very new adult.  Often, their colors are more muted than fully mature specimens. When they have just emerged from their larval state, they are vulnerable until they have taken their first flight.  I was not sure if this specimen already had some damage, but I definitely did not want to inflict more.  However, it was difficult to keep my boat from crashing into the grass or sailing off while I was trying to get the camera ready.  This was probably the 12th photo I took (thank goodness for digital!) where I decided to hold the grass steady to try to keep us all somewhat still.  This specimen might be a female or an immature male based on the yellow spots on the abdomen.  In males the abdomen will become entirely black as they mature.  A Banded Pennant has a fairly distinctive pattern on the wings that when combined with body shape and color make it easy to confirm.  I now know that for this species, you don't have to have a lot of different photos and views. 

Unknown Clubtail

There are species, however, that are much more difficult to confirm.  This clubtail is an example.  This guy cooperatively sat on my boat  for some time and I felt sure I was able to get a photo that would sufficiently ID him.  You can tell that he is a clubtail (Gomphidae) because his eyes do not touch and the last abdominal segments widen before the tip into a sort of club.  I studied Giff Beaton's book, Dragonflies & Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast for quite a while and decided this specimen is likely a Lancet Clubtail.  However, the Ashy Clubtail is very similar but more dull, and the Cypress Clubtail is so similar that only viewing the male appendages under magnification can confirm which is which.  So when I submitted this photo to Odonata Central it was reviewed and left as "Pending" (essentially unable to be confirmed).

The need for such careful identification of some species is the reason most who study dragonflies carry nets in the field.  There are some species that you simply must have in hand to identify.  Many practice a careful kind of "catch and release".  Others store and retain specimens for later study.  I have purchased a net, but have not become proficient with its use yet.  Many more hours of practice are needed.

In addition to dragonflies, I was able to find and document several species of damselflies.  Since I've been telling people I'm studying dragonflies, the most common question I get is: "What's the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly?"  Dragonfly is often used generically for both, but technically these are two separate sub-orders:  Zygoptera and Anisoptera.  Damselflies are in Zygoptera which means equal wings (the front and hind wings are roughly the same size and shape).  Anisopetera means unequal wings.  These are the dragonflies whose forewings and hindwings differ in shape.

Fragile Forktail

The Fragile Forktail is one of the damselflies I spotted at Lake Monticello and it has rapidly become one of my favorites because it does have a characteristic that makes it relatively easy to identify:  a shoulder stripe in the shape of an exclamation point (it is in the lighter shade of green in this photo).  Once you learn how many damselflies are alike and how carefully you have to study them, you really appreciate the ones with a clear difference.  Luckily, these seem to be a common species in South Carolina and easy to find if you scan for movement near the edge of the water.  The length of this species is about 1 inch.

All in all on this day, we were able to get good photos of enough species to almost double the odonata records for Fairfield County.  There had been no damselflies documented at all.  It takes patience to find species and get sufficient photos, but it is also satisfying to know that you are contributing to the body of what is known about these amazing creatures.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dragonfly Society of the Americas - SC Meeting

Yellow-sided Skimmer (Female)

I attended the Dragonfly Society of the Americas meeting in Cheraw, SC May 4-6, 2012.  Chris Hill of the Biology Department at Coastal Carolina University planned this excellent event.  Many international dragonfly experts attended.

There were field trips over about a week beginning in coastal SC areas, then around Cheraw and finally at the Chatooga River. Over 102 species were seen over the course of the week.  I especially enjoyed the field trip to the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.  When I had visited before, I had not focused on the many pools in the refuge.  As we spent time near those pools we noticed many species like:  elfin skimmer, yellow-sided skimmer, calico pennant, lilypad forktails, etc.  It was amazing how many different species you could see in just 100 yards right beside the roadway.

Elfin Skimmer (Male)

There was also a day for a business meeting and scientific presentations.  One of the presentations most pertinent to Master Naturalists was Celeste Mazzacano speaking on the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.  The partnership is focused on using research, citizen science, education and outreach to understand North American dragonfly migration and promote conservation.  Initially, the partnership will focus on tracking the movements of five of the best known migratory species in North America:  the Common Green Darner, Variegated Meadowhawk, Wandering Glider, Spot-winged Glider and Black Saddlebags.  The Partnership will have short courses online later this year.  One of the upcoming citizen science projects is the Dragonfly Pond Watch -- where you can submit observations from your local areas over time.  To learn more about the partnership and other citizen science projects that are a part of it, go to

Lilypad Forktail (Immature Female)

Also, as a part of the meeting I learned about Odonata Central, an online tool where you can document species you find with location information.  You must upload photographic evidence of species seen.  An expert reviews the postings and certifies your records.  I learned that South Carolina has many counties with very few records of odonates.  This would be an easy citizen science project for our annual hours -- to try to improve the records for counties in SC.  Some of the counties with fewer than 20 records are:  Newberry, Saluda, Fairfield, Calhoun, Clarendon and Williamsburg.  Click here to register for Odonata Central:

Calico Pennant (Male)

I highly recommend the organization:  Dragonfly Society of the Americas.  Membership is inexpensive and the resources are excellent.  All of the members were accessible and eager to share what they know about odonates.  The next annual meeting will be in Saskatchewan, Canada July 12-14, 2013, however, there are regional meetings planned each year as well.  Here is a link with information about how to join:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Big Trees: A botanist's quest for connection.

I've often wondered what meaning the word 'tree' holds for people. Having grown up under the limbs (and on the roots) of so many-sarvis berry, he balsam, she balsam, hemlocks, sourwoods, locusts and more...

For linguists, the smallest component of a word that has semantic meaning is a morpheme. These small components are thought to be ancient in the language, since they cannot be broken down further into units with their own meaning. Tree is an example of a morpheme. It cannot be broken into units that have additional meaning in the language.

Before Linnaeus codified rules for scientifically naming plants, people did (and do) categorize ‘things’. Ethnobotanists who have studied how ‘normal’ people name things have used the term, folk taxonomy, to describe a vernacular naming system.  Looking at many different cultures, these scientists have discovered that most (if not all) cultures name natural ‘things’ in certain categories, though of course in different languages.  Some of the categories discovered are analogous to scientific taxonomic categories, and some are not.  “Unique beginner” is an example of one folk category that is analogous to the scientific category of Kingdom. “Life form” doesn’t cleanly fit with a scientific category, but is where “tree” fits and this is repeated across many cultures. Mammal, vine or mushroom would also be examples of life forms. These are important ways in which both scientists and ‘folk’ communicate, even though there are good reasons for why we sometimes need to be as specific as the Linnaean system allows.

One theory of the human origin of bipedalism is that our arboreal food gathering, food provisioning (carrying food to a mate) and climbing, influenced anatomy in ways that led to our ability to walk upright.

My friend and colleague, paleoethnobotanist, Dr. Gail Wagner (USC) convinces me that trees and humans have been interacting ecologically for a long time. Consider the evidence she laid out for me above- ‘tree’ is so ancient in the language it cannot be broken down into smaller parts, it is a life form (widely recognizable by many in many cultures) and potentially our own bipedalism came about as a result of interacting with trees for (shared) food. 

So, for me-having an opportunity to see the biggest trees on our continent was about more than just fulfilling a goal-but a way for me to connect ecologically and evolutionarily with my own roots and those of my ancestors...not to mention the roots, branches, leaves, and unseen molecules of the trees. 

This California-born girl who left the state when she was one, finally made it back this past summer to attend a Master Gardener conference. San Francisco served as the jumping off point for excursions and after way too much time balancing the checkbook, checking field trip options, it seemed to go against some unwritten botanist’s rule to visit without seeing both species of redwoods.

I signed on to two ‘tourist’ expeditions-the first of which led me to Yosemite. I was lucky enough to get a seat next to our tour guide whose well of historical and scientific knowledge was deep and wide. Though we visited several places in the park, the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron  gigantea) was my favorite. Walking down the hill, I kept wondering if I would notice them against a backdrop of some already significantly large trees (Incense cedars, western junipers, western hemlock, douglas firs and more). With the turn of a corner in the road, wonder no more-there they were! Rising tall out of the ground (largest in volume, but not in height), they look like a single trunk to which other large trees (really, the branches) are attached. The trees can be 20-26 feet in diameter and are uniquely suited for life in a fire-dominated environment. The bark is extremely thick (up to three feet!), but incredibly spongy, lovely to touch and the smell is uniquely pleasant. The Douglas Squirrels that are partly responsible for dislodging seeds look quite similar to the boomers (red squirrels) that I grew up with in the Southern Appalachians.

The second expedition took me to Muir Woods to see the coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) just outside of San Francisco. I have visited these redwoods before-one of my first field trips, according to my mom. This species is among the tallest of trees in the world, reaching upwards of 370 feet. The bark is distinctly different from their cousins, the Giant Sequoia. Much more grooved, fibrous and hard to the touch, it can be up to a foot thick.  Though I loved the cathedral feel of this grove, it was hard to connect amidst the heavy foot traffic, cell phones and more. I consoled myself by touching a few of these friends-probably something that is discouraged.

Hopping on a red-eye back to South Carolina, I met my new graduate student at the airport. She drove, while I napped to our meeting in Robbinsville with a Cherokee team of folks. As we were leaving, she said she’d never been to Joyce Kilmer-and so the Big Trees tour continued. If you’ve never been to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in NC, it is well worth a trip. This forest has thankfully and perhaps mysteriously avoided the saw. Some amazingly large yellow poplars (Liriodendron tulipfera), hemlocks (that are dying), basswoods, beeches, yellow birches and sycamores make up this unique place that abounds also in rich cove forest herbaceous species. The poplars are 20+ feet in circumference and over 100 feet tall. The trees are about 400 years old (young by redwood standards) and have distinctly different bark than what we think of as normal for poplars. Two years ago, I scouted this forest to bring a group ethnobotanists from around the world on a field trip. The butterflies were so dense, I could stand with arms outstretched and could have touched one on either side-if they would have allowed it.

Two weeks later while visiting with Extension agent in Charleston, I mentioned that I had never seen ‘Angel Oak’, Quercus virginiana . I don’t think I would have been allowed to leave without a visit! This amazingly large (wide in diameter-5-6’) tree has branches that are certainly large enough to be trees themselves. Like the other trees mentioned here, this one is ancient, too.

If I think back to childhood, a lot of memories are wrapped around trees: as places from which to swing on grapevines; as firewood collected and rings counted; shaken to produce showers while standing on moss playing ‘house’; climbing them to nestle among the branches; and more. I distinctly remember the tears of my grandmother as we cut some of her beloved trees so that our view would be unimpeded. It should be said, though- that all trees for her, were in the beloved category. 

I wrestled writing this article-the scientist in me wanted to let you know the biological statistics, unique ecological parameters. But, to be truthful, this isn’t why I love and seek out trees. It’s because of their continued meaning in my life. Knowing what they have given me-words cannot explain, but I wish the same for you…

See my photos from these outings (cheating with trees added last year from Joyce Kilmer):

 Picasa Big Trees Tour

Interested in finding where more big trees are?  Look here:

Want to measure trees for inclusion in the Champion Tree database?  See here:

Trees (by Joyce Kilmer)
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.

A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.

Upon whose bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

 -Originally written for the Upstate Master Naturalist newsletter, Vol. I, Issue 2, Feb/Mar 2011, modified 4-4-11.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Preparing for the 13-year Cicadas!

The Upstate MN group sent out this Clemson article on an upcoming 2011 emergence of brood XIX periodical cicadas. Here is more information about the connectedness of cicadas to the whole:

It should be noted that Cicadas are an important food for wildlife including birds, snakes, frogs, raccoons, possums, squirrels, other insects, animals and people. The newly emerged cicadas are good fried or boiled-one Indiana newspaper published recipes at an emergence of a periodical brood. While they can cause 'damage' to trees by laying eggs, generally speaking they aren't an issue and in fact, help trees by aerating the soil upon emergence and may help by pruning weak branches. If you're a tree nursery owner, you should consider taking means to protect any young trees you might have planted last year-but there are plenty of non-chemical options for that. Thus, I encourage you NOT to spray to control them. If they are an issue for you, then by all means, consider covering your young trees with netting or cheesecloth.

Sometimes cicadas are commonly called or equated with locusts. They are not locusts (which are grasshoppers) and do not cause the vegetative damage that those insects cause. Many people are turned off by the song of cicadas as it can get to be quite loud. This early emerging group may not get quite as loud as the annual cicadas-and the brood is short-lived, lasting 4-6 weeks. I take heart in the song, personally-in part, because I grew up being lulled to sleep by nature sounds (in the days before air conditioning) and then also knowing that cultures over time have written eloquently about the chorus. This temporal and connected (with other living things) chorus makes my heart sing! For examples of writing, see  Cicadas in Ancient Greece and The Day of Cicadas.

I encourage you to share with each other on this page examples of writing about cicadas. Examples can be found from early literature to contemporary lit-from poetry on...

For naturalists who want to watch something fun-watch a cicada molting. They emerge from the brown skin with little color and tiny wings. In a short time, they develop full color and wings expand as blood is pumped to them. See the Smithsonian image gallery for more info:

For any artists out there-I've seen some interesting art work from the shed exoskeletons and have used wings from dead cicadas in my own artwork.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rio Pixquiac ecotour

Written for the Society for Economic Botany's newsletter on the Rio Pixquiac ecotour taken by several conference participants during the conference in Xalapa, Mexico, 2010:

The water needs of conference goers were supplied in part by ecosystem services provided by the Pixquiac river basin, along the southeast side of the volcano Cofre de Perote. The river basin is home to a few hundred farming families in three ejido communities. The ejido system is a form of communal land holding whose origin stretches back to the conquest. Allotments (ejidos) were given to indigenous communities, in many cases, as a way of keeping them near the missions of the Catholic Church. Later, through many land redistributions over time, the Ejido Act was codified in the Mexican constitution and has had many reforms since its inception. The end result in the Pixquiac river basin is the three ejido communities of San Pedro: Pixquiac Vega, Palo Blanco and El Zapotal.

The general assembly of San Pedro agreed that the common areas associated with cloud forests in the area would be designated reserves for the promotion of ecotourism and ecosystem services. With funding and support of many different initiatives and entities, the ecotourism project, Pixquiac Cañadas was born. The project hopes to provide an alternative to logging which has been the primary option for farmers in the region. Twenty-eight farmers are dedicated to the ecotourism project and continually undergo training so that guests might share their knowledge of the area while at the same time preserving its character physically and culturally.

Over 15 SEB conference goers participated in an all day field trip to the river basin and its associated cloud forests. Arriving at Rancho Viejo, we were greeted by project personnel and several farmers with a few horses to be shared among us. After a short ride, we were treated to a presentation on the project that included a wonderful 3-D model of the watershed with villages, rivers and mountains mapped on its surface. They patiently explained to our multi-lingual crowd the history of the site, purpose of the ecotourism project and plans for our path during the day.

As the interesting talk ended, the ~14km hike was a steady climb on rocky terrain up to the final stop (not the ultimate summit) of ~2400m. We took turns riding horses when our feet got tired of navigating the rocks and the steep incline. Along the way, we stopped at various intervals for discussions of plants led by our farmer guides. After about 1.5 hours we made our first stop at a local home where we were served a wonderful local meal including milk still warm from the cow, small native avocados and much more. After a short bathroom break with a compostable toilet (perfect!), we made our way up to a lovely green meadow, waterfall and small pool where many people swam, waded and warmed themselves in the gentle sunshine. At this point, a few people turned back, while most continued on.

As we climbed higher, we noticed pine trees persisting on mountain ridges from more northerly reaches of the continent. Though it may not have been a surprise to the tropical botanists in the crowd, the steep slopes were covered in butterworts, or Pinguicula species. How amazing to see this small carnivorous plant growing vertically in this, the country of enormous butterwort diversity! Finally, as we made it to the top, we shared a meal with a local family that included trout soup (harvested from the trout farm at the base of the mountain), handmade (of course!) corn tortillas, a deliciously refreshing mango drink and more. After heading back down the steep terrain, we encountered first rain, then thunder and lightning (very intense) and finally, hail the size of malted milk balls! The farmers, ever mindful of the effect of all that rain on the multiple river crossings coming up, moved us forward despite the hail. A small group on foot broke away quickly from those of us in the rear of the pack riding horses (crossing the many creeks, now flowing strongly). After catching up with them, we managed to make it to the van just as dark began to descend.

Though conditions were perhaps too harsh for the average American tourist, I think many would thoroughly enjoy this amazing location. However, beyond the obvious benefits of the lush environment, I doubt many places could match the hospitality, compassion, patience, intelligence and dedication demonstrated by the farmers who were our nature guides in this lovely cloud forested habitat that is their home.

This trip will live in my mind for some time and I am only saddened that I couldn’t provide more detailed information, but alas-the rain destroyed my many notes.

Since visiting, I’ve noticed that they are on Facebook and currently have a blog dedicated to experiences in the watershed. I for one-would love to purchase a guide of some kind-perhaps including the perspectives of the local farmers who were our guides. So, if you make it to Xalapa again, don’t hesitate to visit-this kind of support is exactly how to provide economic and ecologic benefits to local inhabitants and habitats.

In the meantime, don’t forget to visit the Pixquiac Cañadas blog, listed below. Additionally, see my blog below for pictures of the trip compiled from photos of many participants. My apologies to the donors-I do not know everyone who donated, nor whose photo is whose-please feel free to email that to me and I will post it on the page (

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico

I'm sitting on the balcony of my room in a lovely hotel (Posada La Mariquinta) in Xalapa, Mexico.  Xalapa is located in Veracruz state in the lower Atlantic side of the country, right before the country curves up into the Yucatan peninsula. Xalapa, also known as the "City of Flowers" sits at 4500' elevation.  Like most cities, it has an historic center that is surrounded by more contemporary growth including sprawl and big box stores that attempt to force a view of culture as being the same worldwide.  Thankfully, Centro Historico puts that to rest and is filled with rich Xalapan culture that is a mix of several different indigenous peoples and descendants of the spaniards.

Our motel is in Centro Historico and we have walked up and down streets eating in many different restaurants and cafes, looking in art galleries, and just generally observing life.

I'm here for the 51st Annual Society for Economic Botany meeting.  I've been amazed at the effort of the city and state (Veracruz) to welcome us here.  We had tours of the Anthropology museum, visit to an ecological Reserve, to El Tajin (Pre-Columbian Totonec pyramids-World Heritage Site), a food tasting reception with indigenous foods from several different regions in Mexico including a local traditional band whose music reminded me of bluegrass (3 instruments) , a reception at the Anthropology museum which I missed because of a very late field trip (in a cloud forest with thunder, lightning and hail!), and the ending banquet with talk by this year's Distinguished Economic Botanists, Robert Bye and Edelmira Linares.  Their talk was a phenomenal ethnobotanical journey through Mexico.  It was followed by an amazing band and we danced for some time!  There were many things that I did not attend due to time constraints-including a chili sauce preparation, tour of the Jardin Botanico (very sad I missed this one) and visit to the local herbarium (another sad miss).

On a continued stay after the conference, my husband and I visited El Tajin, an important pyramid complex that apparently was made by many peoples (Huastec, Totonec and others). Beautiful place!

Photos available now!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rabun Bald

I 'signed' up for the hike mostly because I just needed to get back in touch with that entity for whom I work (nature).  Too much time in the office or at the computer isn't healthy for anyone even if the emails and work never stops.  So, on Saturday, May 8, I accompanied four friends-3 professional biologists, 1 'amateur' biologist (who, by the way, knows the watershed and its inhabitants like the back of his hand) to Rabun Bald in GA.  RB is the highest peak in the state of Georgia-from the top, you can see three states-GA, NC and SC.

We started our trek to the top and then veered off trail for greater adventures.  These photos record the trek along the way.  Off trail hiking, particularly in the mountains, isn't for the faint of heart/health.  Frankly, though the extremeness of it reminds me that I'm getting older, the hard heartedness of it is returned many times over and temporary  pains fade as the memories.

We climbed along the base of granitic cliff faces, up through boulder fields and through rhodo/laurel hells.  At one point, I was on all fours climbing through-sooo reminiscent of childhood hiding spots, I had to laugh.  Funny how these hells can completely turn you around.  We were less than 500 feet from the trail and managed to parallel it for some time.

Along the way, we didn't see too much wildlife-typical when traveling in groups.  However, we did find a bear's bathroom. :-)  The area had 8 or 10 piles of scat in various  stages of decay and two spots where it was clear some large mammal had been lying down.  A few of the plants had been eaten nearby and we wondered if the bear was ill and perhaps self medicating.  Finally, I think it occurred to one of my friends that we might ought to look up in the trees for said luck.

Well, hope you enjoy the photos.  Rabun Bald is a great hike-even if you stay on trail. I recommend the foot path going up and the jeep trail coming down.  The jeep trail has some amazing wildflower shows-some of which are included here.