Friday, July 23, 2010

Citizen science: Flutterbys and the Devil's darning needle

In addition to writing again, I thought I'd open the case file on my interest in the natural world around me - not just the critters I can catch, kill and eat.

With that in mind, I called on an old friend yesterday to see if he could use some help making an inventory of the flora and fauna inhabiting Lake James State Park.
I first met Sean when he was a ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park and I was a reporter at the Tideland News in Swansboro, NC. It was during a severe cold spell during January or February and even the sound had started to freeze over. There was a call in to the news room that someone had found an alligator out on the ice. The White Oak River Basin is right around the northernmost limit for American alligator. Typically they hibernate to escape the winter, but for some reason, this one had decided to venture out on one of the coldest days of the year.
I grabbed a camera and a notepad and drove down to the creek - this was big news for a small town like Swansboro. By the time I got there, a couple of locals had thrown a lasso around the gator and drug it to shore. Sean was there too, and had taken custody of the four foot lizard (which was frozen solid) in the name of the State of North Carolina. I took his picture for the front page, holding the alligator that had died in the shape of a donut, and we've been friends ever since.
Sean has moved up the ranks in the state parks and recreation service, and now he's the man who decides who does what and what goes where at Lake James. He and his wife, Sarah, and their three young children live 40 minutes away and we are all happily reunited after five years of living on opposite ends of the state.
The Southeast region has been going through a bit of a heat wave of late, but I learned on my short drive east that heat is a relative term. From the Town of Black Mountain (elev. 2,400 feet above sea level) down to Lake James (1,200) the temperature rose from the mid-80s to the mid-90s in less than 20 minutes.
Sean was delayed with important park business, but he sent me on my way to a forested creek that emptied into a secluded pond to look for dragonflies and butterflies, to beef up the park's known biodiversity.
Admittedly, I'm a bird guy, but like many birders in the last decade, I've tried to become familiar with other flying things. Butterflies and dragonflies are big, colorful targets for this interest and the excellent Oxford University Press field guides; "Butterflies Through Binoculars" by Jeffrey Glassberg and "Dragonflies Through Binoculars" by Sidney Dunkle made it much more palatable for bird geeks to take up. I mean, not many people can stomach taking the plunge from binocular-wearing nerd to butterfly net-swinging maniac.
I hiked down to the small pond and set to work. It's been a long time since I've sat down in the woods and tried to take notice of all the life around me. The hunter in me smiled when an unseen whitetail blew nervously from across the water. Bullfrogs shattered the solitude as they fled my presence like skipping stones. A watersnake (I'm not sure what kind) swam around the bend before I could get a good look.
Oh and the dragonflies. A few photographs and a quick scan through my field guide proved out the most common were slaty skimmers, with a few blue dashers, common whitetails and a beautiful eastern amberwing mixed in. There was an ongoing battle amongst the dragonflies; as individuals jockeyed for the best perches, defended tiny territories, hunted passing insects and generally made a show of themselves all over the edges of the pond.
I looked for butterflies too, but the pickings were slim - an eastern tailed blue, and azure of some sort (summer I think) and a few Carolina satyrs flitted back in the shadows of the forest. Perhaps the lack of diversity had something to do with the paucity of flowers on which to feed. Maybe it will change as the season progresses.
Having looked through the obvious insects at the pond, I decided to follow the creek up into the forest. It was blessedly cooler in there, but the dragons and butters all but disappeared as I headed upstream. I kept going, knowing from my earlier interest in bugs that the inner forest holds few, but interesting treasures.
Out of the corner of my eye, movement in a shaft of sunlight. There, perched on a tree trunk that had fallen across the creek, was a large gray dragonfly I had never seen before. It sat calmly as I approached for a better look and a more impressive beast with four wings I haven't laid eyes upon. From its head to the tip of its tail, the dragonfly was three inches long, with sinister, separated eyes (most dragonflies' eyes meet) and cloaked in mottled gray camouflage. This was one seriously bad bug. After a little "getting to know you" time, I was able to take some decent photographs and opened my book. Unquestionably, it was a gray petaltail (tachopteryx thoreyi) which, according to Dunkle, belongs to an ancient family of dragonflies, of which there is only one representative in eastern North America. Considering dragonfly fossil records go back some 300 million years, the gray petaltail must be pretty old - and it looks and acts the part too. Unlike the raucous, pinwheeling dragonflies out at the pond, the gray petaltail was concerned with one thing and one thing only - hunting down large prey. I watched it pursue a large moth that barely escaped by dropping into a hollow stump when it felt the sharp claws of death scratching at its wings. If the skimmers and others that live in the sunlight are the puffed up street punks, petty thieves and pushers of the dragonfly world, then the gray petaltail is Keyser Soze - uninterested in fame or reputation, it lives in the shadows, where the really bad stuff goes down.
Finally, the stifling heat of the late afternoon - Sean was able to join me for a short time - drove us back to the road and I turned my truck west towards the relief of the mountains.
The insects we positively identified will go into a database that keeps track of all species found at Lake James. To say we barely scratched the surface would be an understatement, but we'll keep at it; chipping away as we learn more and more about the creatures great and small here in McDowell County, NC.
Some helpful Web sites are: Butterflies of North Carolina and the NC Odonate Website.


  1. A dragonfly is my second favorite flying creature. Keep the great posts coming, as I'll have to vicariously live through you for the next couple of months.

  2. What Jamie did not mention is that everyone at the park called me Gator Grabber for many years, thanks to his clever headline.

  3. Brian: Right after hummingbirds. I've got ya covered.
    Sean: I didn't want to open old wounds, but now that you mention it ... Gator.