The Most Elusive of them All

Elusive Clubtail

Elusive Clubtail

When I awoke on Sunday, August 3rd, I was happy to see the gorgeous sunshine outside. I couldn’t wait to get out and see what was happening at the river, so I headed out to Andrew Haydon Park around 8:30 to look for waterbirds. There are some mudflats developing along the edge of the river, and I started my outing scanning the mucky areas of the western marsh for shorebirds. A few migrants had trickled in and were feeding among the vegetation there, including two Spotted Sandpipers, three Solitary Sandpipers and one Lesser Yellowlegs. One Wood Duck, three Hooded Mergansers, and a Great Egret were also present in the bay. I spotted a Halloween Pennant flying around the marsh, which I think is a first for me at this park.

I tallied 30 bird species at AHP altogether; other good finds included a Green Heron; four Common Terns which flapped constantly above the river only to plunge down into the water upon catching sight of a fish; a Belted Kingfisher; three Eastern Kingbirds; two Purple Martins visiting from Dick Bell Park; a Yellow Warbler; a Baltimore Oriole; and a House Finch. I walked the entire shoreline of the river, then circled the ponds to check for anything interesting. I found some dragonfly exuviae (singular: exuvia) clinging to the reeds along shore of the eastern pond and stopped to take some photos.

Dragonfly Exuvium

Dragonfly Exuvia

A little further along I came across this colourful Painted Turtle basking in the sun. I love the claws on these creatures; it makes them look quite dangerous, although the worst I’ve had a turtle do was pee on me when I moved one from the middle of the road last summer.

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

After walking along the river I decided to check the eastern creek for birds; this is where I found the Green Heron hunting. As I was walking along the sandy shore, I happened to look down and see a large, brownish dragonfly clinging to a stalk of vegetation close to the water’s edge. It had the shiny wings of a teneral, so I checked the reeds to see if its exuvia was close by. I was unable to locate it. I then tried to identify the dragonfly, and when I saw the widely separated eyes of a clubtail I began to feel a stirring of excitement and anticipation. It’s not often I come across freshly emerged clubtails along the river, and this one was only medium-sized, so I suspected it was something really good. I tried to walk around the plant it was clinging to in order to get a better look, and that was when it flew off and landed in a shrub close by. Fortunately I was able to relocate it; unfortunately it landed in the middle of a dense shrub, where its position was not any better.

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Elusive Clubtail

From this angle, however, I began to feel certain it wasn’t a common species. I didn’t recognize it, and it occurred to me that it might be an Elusive Clubtail, a species I had only seen twice before. At that point I began to think about going back to my car to get my net so I could catch the dragonfly. I had reservations about catching and handling it, as it was a teneral – these newly emerged dragonflies are delicate, as their bodies are still soft and their wings have not yet hardened. They can be easily damaged if handled too roughly. Still, I had seen Chris Lewis handle a teneral, and knew it could be done. I was also encouraged by the fact that it could fly, and had attained quite a bit of colour – it was not as colourless as a dragonfly that only just emerged an hour ago. I checked the creek bed while I mulled it over, and then took my time getting the net from my car. When I returned the dragonfly was still there, so I gently brought the net down over top of the shrub, trapping it, then scooped the net toward me. I reached inside and gently grasped the dragonfly’s wings to pull it out, took a few pictures, then transferred it to a stalk of vegetation close to where I had originally found it.

Elusive Clubtail

Elusive Clubtail

I watched it for a bit to make sure it was fine, but it didn’t seem inclined to fly, and it was holding its wings together over its back instead of out to the side. I took the time to confirm its identity as an Elusive Clubtail from my photos, and there was no question that it was – the marks on the abdomen and thorax confirmed it! When I checked the dragonfly again, it was crawling up the reed. By the time it got to the top the reed started bending over, so I placed my finger beneath the clubtail to see if it would climb onto me. It did, and I was able to take some better photos.  Here you can see the widely spaced eyes and the thin stripes on the thorax that made me realize this wasn’t a species I was familiar with.

Elusive Clubtail

In this image you can see the row of tiny triangles running down to the eighth segment, and the terminal appendages that indicate that this is a female.

Elusive Clubtail

Elusive Clubtail

I carried the clubtail to a fallen tree, and placed her on a thick, horizontal branch where she would be somewhat sheltered by the vegetation. About ten minutes later she flew up into the canopy of the trees and disappeared from view.

Elusive Clubtail

Elusive Clubtail

Elusive Clubtails are one of the most difficult dragonflies to find in our area as they rarely seen in the adult stage. They prefer spending their time in the treetops, only occasionally returning to the large rivers and lakes in which they breed. When they do return to the water, they often fly out in the middle, well away from the shore. The only other two Elusive Clubtails that I have seen were an adult on the sandy beach at Constance Bay that had two damaged wings and couldn’t fly, and another teneral caught by Chris and placed in a jar until its colours had deepened enough to identify it. If it weren’t for her example, and the text of my field guides which merely says handling tenerals “isn’t recommended” rather than outright banning their capture, I probably would not have tried to catch the one I had seen today. Still, I felt at the time that it was worth it, as I confirmed it was indeed this most elusive of dragonflies, a really terrific find that was the highlight of my day.

However, when I later posted details about my find online, I received a private message from someone who told me it is never okay to capture a teneral odonate, and that while I might have been justified if I had been collecting odes for scientific study, my curiosity wasn’t worth the risk of causing damage to the dragonfly. I felt pretty badly after that, even though I had stated in my post that I was aware it was risky handling a newly emerged dragonfly, and that I did examine it gently. That is, I didn’t capture it without being aware of the consequences, and accordingly, limited my time handling it as I only intended to take a couple of record photographs.

I think there is some merit in trying to satisfy personal curiosity, for curiosity motivates us to explore, to learn, and to engage, and attempting to satisfy that curiosity enriches us and allows us to develop passion for our subjects. If scientists were the only people allowed to research and study nature, how much poorer our lives would be!

Still, when it comes to wildlife, the welfare of the animal must always be taken into consideration. After receiving the response to my post, I doubt I will ever (knowingly) catch a teneral again….best only to capture the adults, and leave the rest to nature.


2 thoughts on “The Most Elusive of them All

  1. I am glad that you did what you did. We are all the wiser for your careful handling of that one teneral Elusive Clubtail.

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