A new breed of nature lover

Nature: Odonating, the pursuit of dragonflies and damselflies, is gaining in popularity on such pastimes as bird and butterfly watching.

August 24, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Bob Solem stepped into the tall grass near the lake in Ellicott City's Centennial Park and held his net ready, waiting for the right moment. He whipped the net through the air and scooped up his prey: a small, black-winged dragonfly called a slaty skimmer.

Holding the bug by its long, lacy wings, he showed it to a dozen other odonating nature-lovers who were trekking through the park looking at a black saddlebags, an eastern amberwing and a fragile forktail that was barely the size of a sewing needle.

Bird watching has long been popular, and butterfly watching has caught on in the past decade. But odonating is gaining ground. Dragonflies and damselflies - a group of insects called odonates - are becoming the target of enthusiasts' watchful eyes.

Dragonfly walks and odonate clubs from Massachusetts to California are listed by the dozens on the Internet, and odonators from across the country gather at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, Texas, every year for Dragonfly Days.

Locally, outings like the one that drew Solem, sponsored by the Howard County Bird Club, are also offered by the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, which holds lectures and field trips about odonates. And some nature centers and bird clubs, including the Harford Bird Club, have added dragonfly walks to their schedules.

"When I first started this 20 years ago, nobody could care less," said Richard Orr, a dragonfly enthusiast from Columbia who leads odonate expeditions for the Howard County chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. "One to two people would show up [at his lectures]. But those days are over. In the last three years, it has just exploded."

Odonates have distinctive markings - green heads, striped bodies or spotted wings, for example - that vary depending on the species, sex and maturity of the insect. People can identify them "by using visual clues like birders do," Orr said.

But Orr pointed out an advantage odonating has over birding: Dragonflies and damselflies are active during hot summer afternoons, when birds are less likely to be visible.

Orr, who is an assistant director at the National Invasive Species Council, gives seminars locally and contracts with national organizations to study the insects. He said the main reason for the increasing popularity of dragonfly watching is the publication of the first field guides to odonates.

Before the guides were created, "there was no way for amateurs to identify the insects," Solem said. He and his wife, Jo, became interested in dragonflies nine years ago and used scientific materials to learn their Latin names and descriptions.

Even then, he said, "you were hard pressed to identify what you've got."

Now, people can go into natural areas with enlarged photographs and detailed diagrams of what to look for.

Orr estimates that about 170 odonate species live in Maryland and as many as 50 in Centennial Park.

He says there is not yet a top-notch guide to dragonflies in the Baltimore area. But several books, including Stokes Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies and Dragonflies Through Binoculars, have been helpful in getting people started. One good book, Damselflies of the Northeast, was just published, he said.

At the beginning of the recent walk, Orr explained that the most visible differences between dragonflies and damselflies are that dragonflies are more stout and hold their four wings horizontally when they land; damselflies are more slender and hold their wings together above the body when they are still. Both types have males and females.

And now they are starting to develop a following.

"I think it's probably the most conspicuous, large-sized animal around ponds and streams," Orr said. And, he added, they are easy to spot during the summer, when people are near bodies of water.

For naturalists, adding odonates to the creatures that can be watched and catalogued "provides a more multifaceted experience outside," said Jo Solem.

She also thinks the insects hold a fascination for people. "An awful lot of [people] remember watching and catching bugs as children," she said.

Dragonfly facts

Dragonflies can fly forward and backward, using a darting motion to escape predators.

They beat their wings more than 30 times a second.

They can fly as fast as 60 mph.

They have compound eyes with 10,000 to 30,000 facets.

They consume large numbers of mosquitoes and black flies.

Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources at http://dnr.state.il.us.

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