Autumn slinks into the season by stealth and strategy. Even though it will be summer for another week yet, the signs of autumn abound. Some are obvious – an isolated tree with a red shock at the tips of its branches, the tree gone over to October already and blazing orange in the warm sun. But most signs are more subtle – greens more pale, foliage more thin, a subtle adjustment to the hues of nature as if the world were ripening, reaching the peak, and then preparing to spoil and rot in fall and winter…
And of course the Autumn Meadowhawks are everywhere, joyous harbingers of fall. They dance in the still strong sunlight of early September, as they will dance in the hollow and weak rays of late November or even early December…
Today I saw nothing but Autumn Meadowhawks, and though their arrival stirs a bit of sorrow in my heart – knowing that the summer is fading – they are still beautiful creatures and just as wonderful as the dragons of spring and high summer.
I shot today in the fields north of the river, in the Allegan Forest, of course. After that, I made my way to some fields off 44th street, just south of the river. In most places, the dull thud-thud-thud of hunters shooting off shotguns was a constant backdrop. The seasons turn…
I made my way down a narrow two track to a nice spot, a place where the lupine blooms in the spring and one of the few places where you can reliably find Karner Blue Butterflies. Everywhere I went the Autumn Meadowhawks were there, and I saw no black legged meadowhawks or skimmers or cruisers, though the common green darners were, of course, abundant. In the little clearing at the end of this two track I snapped this photo of an autumn meadowhawk using the infrared camera. I am disappointed to find no secret messages encoded in infrared ink on the wings of these dragons. In fact, the infrared shots are rather banal. Well, other uses for that camera, and here is an infrared shot of an Autumn Meadowhawk:
I haven’t had much time to experiment with the infrared converted Pentax K10D, but did manage to take a few snapshots while in central Indiana earlier this week. Here’s a semi driving by a row of trees, as seen from the far end of a soybean field:
Labor Day weekend – the unofficial end of summer - is greeted with a very autumnal shift in the weather in SW Michigan. In the days just before the holiday the temperatures drop into the mid 40’s in the evening and daytime highs stay well in the 60’s. I decided however to take advantage of the fair weather and experiment a bit with the new IR converted camera.
I drive into the Allegan forest from the south, and pull over at a spot off 44th street. The place seems to be little visited – the vestiges of an old two track are faint, with just two gravel bands snaking out into the field. Tall grasses have gown up before the old road and in the center section. They are indeed tall – in some places cane like grass reaches up 7 or 8 feet into the air.
A few yards in and the air is teeming with dragonflies. It’s about 9:30 in the morning – earlier in terms of sunrise than a few months ago . The night before also had been fairly cool. Perhaps I was rousting a horde of sleeping dragons as I wandered into the tall grasses. At any rate, I switched over to the standard camera and started pursuing the dragonflies.
The day was breezy and the sky was full of small fair weather clouds. This resulted in difficult shooting situations – targets swaying in the breeze under changing light – and I missed many shots that day.
Walking through the tall grasses lots of large darners and many smaller meadowhawks took to the air. There were dozens if not hundreds of the dragonflies, and looking around in the dewy grass it was easy to spot lots of the large darners in the vegetation.
Most of the meadowhawks that surfaced appeared to be Autumn Meadowhawks, with their distinctive yellow legs. Other of the red and brown meadowhawks were harder to identify. In addition to the meadowhawks, I encountered a few brown saddle bags.
I ultimately made my way along the two track and into a large field bordered by trees. The field is beautiful this time of year, with acres of golden rod, dried knapweed, and wild strawberries turning red. Here were more meadowhawks, posing on the dried knapweed blooms. Here also were some monarch butterflies, flitting on the golden rod and other sparse flowers.
A great new tool arrived in the mail yesterday – an infrared converted Pentax K10D! This is a digital SLR which has had the infrared blocking filter removed from the sensor and a 720 nm IR filter (blocking most visible light) installed in its place.
I did a lot of work with my standard K10D (and still have it as a backup for the K7). It’s a competent camera with excellent anti-shake and great ergonomics. It is not as full featured as the K7, but it is fast and the missing features are not essential.
So… home in the early evening I fired up the new camera with a standard zoom and stepped outside to take a snap shot of the tulip poplar in my side yard. I set the white balance manually off the green grass. I didn’t expect much in terms of the photo since it was cloudy, rainy, and overcast. But it was late in the day and IR light is a bit more pronounced at twilight. So here’s the first snapshot – I swapped the red and blue channels in Photoshop to enhance the colors:
Today remained cloudy, though a little bit of sun poked through the clouds now and then. With temps only reaching in to the low 60’s, fall certainly is in the air. I ran off to the McLinden trails to see if I could snag a dragonfly or two with the IR camera. With the clouds, gusty winds, and cool temps the dragons tended to keep low to the ground, but there were plenty of autumn meadowhawks out and about. Here’s one IR shot I managed – the bright red dragon takes on a slightly different hue here:
I’m really impressed by how sensitive this camera is to light, which means how great the shutter speeds can be. Just an initial observation – but my impression is that the altered camera is two to three stops more sensitive than a standard camera. I will do some comparisons when we have a sunny day and stable lighting.
Shooting the dragonfly reminds me of a shot that has been languishing on my hard drive for some years now. Here is a Twelve Spotted Skimmer, shot with my old *ist-D and a Hoya RM90 filter for IR work. At ISO 1600 it was a three second shot. Getting the shot was a challenge – I had to set up a tripod close to it, manually focus without the IR filter, put the filter on and shoot. Well, it came out, more of a curiosity than anything else. But it will no longer languish as the sole infrared dragonfly image in the vault.
Summer moves along at its appointed pace. A couple weeks without rain the fields begin to ripen and are tinged with brown. The tall grass quickly turns from green to yellow to brown. Wild strawberry goes red and brown, prickly leaves wilting close to the soil. Looking through the finder of my camera I see red dragonflies with brown backgrounds, where just a few short weeks ago I saw gold or blue dragons with a green backdrop.
I drove into the Allegan Forest with every intent of visiting the logged fields, but on this morning I decide to take an alternative route, and instead of travelling through Otsego and Allegan, I instead headed through Alamo, Gobles, and d Bloomington, to come upon the game area from the south. This route takes you along the back roads (in an area where all of the roads are more or less back roads). Going north on 48th Street I see a little field that I have visited a few times in the past, and realize that it has more or less escaped being logged.
I pulled into the little parking area. Lots of new tree stumps, branches, and piles of wood chips block the parking are off from the rest of the field – new evidence of some logging activity. As I walk into the field I see some deep ruts in the sandy soil, a few bare patches and piles of wood chips, and one rather small pile of branches – maybe about the size of a typical two car garage – that is on top of much older pile of branches left years ago. Overall, the area is still relatively undisturbed.
And so, let’s see what dragonflies are here…
The autumn meadowhawks are making themselves known, but the red meadowhawks of high summer are still the most abundant. Here’s a red Meadowhawk sitting on a dried knapweed bloom, which seems to be lit up before him:
And here is another red Meadowhawk, on another knapweed bloom, with the olive green / brownish fields making a backdrop:
Of course, dragonflies aren’t the only insects of in the late summer field. As always, the American Copper Butterflies – tiny things about the size of a dime – are especially abundant. Here’s one perched on a dried leaf, guarding its tiny kingdom.
Butterflies are not rare in the game area, but I honestly see few monarchs or giant swallowtails in any one place. From time to time, I’ll see spicebush swallowtails in a few numbers, but here in this field this morning I saw many monarchs and quite a few giant swallowtails. The giants managed to elude me, but here are a few shots of the monarchs:
It was a nice Saturday morning in the fields. I never got out of that first field I visited, and never made it to the logged field. I used up my allotted time in this one small field – something I have no complaint about – and drove back south in the early afternoon to retrace my route back home. I thought I had some nice shots of the monarchs and dragons but, meh, a few images that are at best competent is all I found when I downloaded the memory cards. Oh well – it was a nice morning in the wilds.
Here is a parting shot of an autumn Meadowhawk sitting on a pale plant whose name I either do not know or cannot remember, though it is quite popular with the butterflies.
Here we are, in late August. Summer is ripening and beginning to turn. Can the Autumn Meadowhawks be far off?
Not at all – and they greeted me in the forest today, announcing the turn of the seasons as the days march along. Here is the first one I saw, posed elegantly on a thorny branch, showing off it’s yellow legs:
I think the old name for these dragonflies – Yellow Legged Meadowhawks – was more accurate than the new common name – Autumn Meadowhawk. I mean, autumn is over a month away and here they are. And their legs are yellow.
Here’s the second one I saw today – on a dried seed head, quite appropriate:
It is taken five months, but I finally returned to the fields off 48th street today. When I last visited them in March, logging activity had torn them up. (You can see that post here.) Trees were felled in the nearby forest, dragged across the field, and then cut up in a processing station. The entire field was just one huge scar of torn up earth, plants ripped out by the roots, topsoil blown away in the wind.
I’ve driven by regularly since then. One thing about this particular field – you can’t seem much of it from the road. There is a small parking area and one or two breaks in the trees where you can catch a glimpse, but otherwise it is obscured. But I’ve watched the neighboring forest get thinned, the semi’s coming and going with their loads of lumber – sometime waiting on the dirt road for the next chance to load up.
The little parking area where I used to regularly stop is long gone. It became the entranceway for the trucks, and they tore open the road, creating a huge mud puddle at the entranceway. Since no one has been using it, the parking area is now overgrown, and even if you could get through the mud puddle you’d have to plow into dense, four-foot high weeds to park there. So instead, I pulled over on the side of the road and took a little trail into the north west corner of the field. The trail has been there as long as I have visited, but it is now widened and the prairie grasses leading up to have been mown. I guess it is seeing more use as an entranceway to the field these days.
After last spring’s visit, I was expecting the worst – and was happily surprised to see that things were not nearly as bad as I had expected. Here’s a photo of what greeted me as I reached the top of the small hill at the north end of the field:
Huge surprise – things are green! The bare earth has been healed – at least to a degree. What really surprised me is that most of the prairie grasses and plants have returned. If you look at the photos from last march of the turned up soil – now those same places are – mostly – rich with tall grass, scrubby oak, and wild strawberry. Even ironweed and bee baum are in bloom. A wild grape vine that never failed to produce a few nice bunches of grapes was in one hte hardest hit areas - and i was heartening to see it sprawled over the top of the ragweed. Its roots must be deep…
There are still signs of the disruption. There is a pathway along the west side of the field where the soil was most heavily dislocated. The sandy soil was opened up and laid bare time and time again. That area is now brilliant green and full of lush vegetation – ragweed. In years gone by, I’ve noticed very little of this plant in these fields, but those areas that were most heavily churned are choking with it. Remarkably, there is a very clear demarcation between the areas that were repeatedly disrupted, and which are full of ragweed, and the areas that were not, and where the grasses have returned. You can stand with one foot in a mass of ragweed and another on the grass that used to be there. Here’s a shot that show this – taken at the very end of the run, where the trees were dumped to be processed:
Some areas – particularly the crests of small rises in the land – took a bigger hit than others. There are some bare patches of sandy soil , where nothing is taking hold. Lots of small branches twigs form trees also litter the landscape, as do hundreds of pinecones that fell off the trees that were dragged across the earth. These already are crunching away into dust underfoot – most of the brush seems to have been rounded up and dumped into a huge pile at the northeast end of the field.
One victim of the logging activity is the eastern prickly pear cactus. The large patches of cactus are gone – they were right in the path of the greatest activity, and the ragweed is now growing where they were. An isolated sprig or patch of cactus can still be spotted here and there, but it is hard to imagine it ever regaining its hold.
But, overall, the field has endured. There is still a large processing area in the northeast corner, and all the vegetation there is torn up and gone, replaced with muddy roads and piles of logs and brush. But I’d estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the field is more or less intact. I even spotted a few toads hopping around underfoot – I chalked them up as goners where this whole thing started – but they seem to be around still.
So – what is happening at the pond? I can’t call it the seasonal pond any more; it has been a few years since it last dried up in the summer. I trudge down to it and find that it is doing very well. The logging activity has kept people like me away, and that combined with the very wet summer has resulted in the vegetation around the pond really taking off.
The pond itself is doing quite well. The water level is higher than I have ever seen – as I stand at the water’s edge, I see trees 30 or 40 feet away that used to be on dry land. Many of the trees are dead or dying, as the rising water inundates their roots, and they sit in several feet of water year after year.
The frog population also seems to be doing quite well. Dozens of frogs hurled themselves into the water as I walked along the edge of the pond – often crying out “eeeee!” as they jumped ahead. I even saw a splash in the water – way out, beyond any jumping frog – that makes me wonder if fish have arrived in the pond.
And of course, there were dragonflies. Here is a white-faced Meadowhawk, one of the only red meadowhawks easy to identify:
And here is a twelve-spotted skimmer, sitting on a branch near a partially logged area of woods:
I saw other Odonates as well - a few mature male blue dashers - old ones who’s abdomen had turned form blue to pale bluish white. THere were lots of green darners, many unidentified blue darners, and a saddlebags - possibly a Carolina Saddlebags - that buzzed around forever as I waited for him to perch.
Overall, it was a good day in the Allegan forest. After leaving the field off 48th street I visited a few other locations. Off 44th street I managed to get this snap shot of a Monarch Butterfly – the best photo of the day, IMO:
It is Sunday and I’m in the Allegan forest, looking for dragonflies. It’s a calm day, little wind, temperatures mild in the mid 80’s. But there is hardly a dragon to be found. I visit many locales, looking, but only a handful of subjects present themselves.
That is just the way it goes, I guess. Above is an unidentified Meadowhawk, the last photos of the day, presented first here.
Earlier in the week, I was worried that the massive oil spill upstream on the Kalamazoo River – probably the worst in Michigan’s history - would have cascaded down to the Allegan forest by now. But the only signs I see of the spill are yellow vested EPA workers taking water samples off the M89 overpass. Thankfully, the oil has been contained upstream so far, and let’s hope the cleanup efforts keep it from spreading.
But oil or no, I find few dragonflies. I visit fields off 115th Ave, 44th Street, 46th Street, north of the river on 126th Ave, and then back to 48th street. Not much is happening. My goal was to get a shot of a mature male blue dasher before they fade for the season, but I may already be too late. I saw one uncooperative mature female (sorry – no good photos of her) and that was it. Actually, I think I have only seen one mature male Blue Dasher this season – and that while walking across a parking lot. Well – hopefully they will be around for a while.
Otherwise – I was happy to see a few more Band Winged Meadowhawks out and about. Here’s a shot with way too much negative space, but I like it –
And here is a male and a female Band Winged Meadowhawk, in that order:
Despite the dearth of dragonflies, I had a very nice morning and early afternoon out in the game area. I only ran into one person out there, and that was some guy deep in the woods who was cooking up something in a small pot over a little fire – probably just tinkering around with his Sunday brunch.
The one insect I didn’t photograph but that was out aplenty was the European Honey Bee – Apis Mellifera. The Russian Knapweed is in peak bloom (maybe a little past peak) and some of the fields were full of it. In some locations I felt like I was standing in an Apiary – the buzz of the bees was intense and they were everywhere, thousands of them. Not only bees, but lots of butterflies – Monarch, Spice Bush, Tiger Swallow Tails, and several Giant Swallowtails – were feeding on the knapweed.
Knapweed is a nasty invasive – not good food for deer and other herbivores - but apparently the flowers are good enough for pollinators and nectar drinkers. Anyhow – was great to see so many bees around. They really were everywhere and the only time I have heard buzzing like that is when I’ve been near human managed hives, which were nowhere near here. Given the stress that bees have been undergoing, let’s hope this is a positive indicator for them, at least locally here in Michigan.
After shooting Amber Meadowhawks in the Allegan Forest on Saturday, I ventured back to the same area last Sunday. The weather was changing – it was hot, cloudy, and rain threatened. This weather pattern would persist all week, with some near record high days and extremes of humidity.
Sunday, in the dull light under an overcast sky, was not a great day for shooting. I wound up pushing the ISO setting to 800 and dimming the fill flash as much as possible to keep the shots form taking on a flashed look. I did manage to get a few shots of truly red Meadowhawks, and they are shown below:
The area I was working in also had a nice patch of milkweed, and it was teeming with lots of Monarch Butterflies. Here is one, sipping on a Knapweed flower:
I finally ventured back into the forest today, a week later. Last week’s wild weather, with frequent intense thunderstorms and downpours, had left its mark on the forest and several roads were washed out or flooded. My goals were to get a shot of a mature male blue dasher (before they disappear for the season) and also to get a few more Meadowhawks. I really miss the loss of the fields off 46th steet, which used to be the most lucrative hunting grounds for all sorts of meadowhawks.
At any rate – I had not luck with the Blue Dasher – didn’t see a single one, male, female, mature or juvenile. I did see a couple of brilliant red Meadowhawks, but only managed these two photos of a female (or immature) specimen and a one male on his way to getting truly red.
I was fortunate, however, to see and photograph an Eastern Amberwing, a species I seldom encounter. These are quite small – smaller than even the Band Winged Meadowhawks – and can be a challenge to photograph as you have to get very close to fill the frame. Here are a few shots:
There is a great post on Urban Dragon Hunters about identifying odonates from photos. Long story short – it can be very difficult if not impossible to come up with an accurate ID based on a photo. The article also touches on the internet effect off misidentifications – where one misidentified photo leads to the misidentification of another, and so on, until everything is jumbled up. This article echos a little insert called “Identifying Meadowhawks” in Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies that makes the same points. But, alas, I feel foolish if I can’t offer some ID to accompany the photos… and so foolishly try to ID my photos when it really is impossible. So in the future you may find more identifications that only penetrate to the genus or even family level.
Except… that is… when a nice, unequivocal specimen presents itself. Here are a some shots of a band-Winged Meadowhawk, Sympetrum semicinctum. Between its diminutive size and distinctive wing coloration, there’s no mistaking this one. In Dragonflies of the North Woods, Kurt Mead notes this under the heading Similar Species: “None.”
Ok – I’m on firm ground.
These photos were taken on Saturday, July 17, in a nice field in the Allegan Forest, off 44th Street between 115th and 112th Avenues. It was a hot day and the little dragonfly was in the obelisk position – minimizing his body’s exposure to the sun.
The shot above was taken at f16 to maximize depth of field. That made the dragon’s abdomen and winds a little sharper, but also made the background a bit less creamy and a little curdled looking. However, I like the nice separation between the wings.
And lastly, one more shot of another Band Winged Meadowhawk form the same day and field (it was full of them), this one is a less dramatic pose:
A couple more tourist snapshots from my U.P. vacation, several weeks distant now…
Here’s the East Channel Light, a lighthouse located on the east side of Grand Isle, a large island off Munising, Michigan. Obviously, this light is no longer in service. When you take the boat tour of the pictured rocks the tour boat schleps you around the rocks for a few hours and on the way back they pull up to this lighthouse and turn the boat both ways, so you can get nice photos. Everyone on the boat got essentially the same shot – it’s a fun tour and highly recommended.
Here’s the little light station located just outside of the cabin we rented on Grand Marais Harbor. This was snapped on the first night we were there – a cold, damp, and foggy evening. The light is in service – I didn’t even think of getting a shot of it as it lit up at twilight, not till just now. Well, something for the next trip.
I have a few snapshots of the Pictured Rocks for a future post, and that will be it for the U.P. for now.
Here are a few photos of dragonflies, shot this past weekend in the Allegan Forest.
You know it’s summer when the Red Meadowhawks arrived. I was working the fields off 125th Avenue, north of the river, without much luck Sunday morning. I wandered along the edge of the forest, and spotted this specimen sitting on a twig, with the sun dappled woods in the background. It clearly is a Meadowhawk of some sort, on its way to vibrant red colors:
After that, I wandered around the forest’s edge a little more. I saw several Meadowhawks, none bright red yet but a few starting to change. Here is another immature individual:
After that I hit some back fields off 46th Street. The little shanty that was there is now gone. I wandered around a bit and found a lone Blue Dasher – possibly a mature female, maybe an immature specimen. Regardless – it liked posing! All of these shots are the same individual:
Lastly, on Saturday morning I drove by a field off 115th Ave, between 44th and 42nd streets. It’s one of those places where I don’t expect to see dragonflies, but sometimes am pleasantly surprised. On both Saturday and again on Sunday the field had a good number of Calico Pennants and Halloween Pennants, with the Calico’s being the more numerous.
Calico Pennants are a smaller dragonfly, so you have to get closer to get a nice shot. They also seem to be more skittish than other species – like Halloween Pennants or Blue Dashers – but maybe they just seem to be that way because I’m trying to get so close. The Calico’s do seem to try to perch on flimsy blades of grass and other plant stems that bob and weave in the wind – making the dragonflies flit from one unsuitable perch to another. Other species seem more adept at picking studier perches – assuming, of course, that is what they intend.
Another female Calico Pennant - the few males who were present managed to elude me, despite more time than I should admit spent chasing them.
lastly - a mating pair of Robber Flies. It looks like they are stuck in a spider web - they catually were hanging in it. But when they decided to leave they just flew off, ripping the web apart: