Damselflies in New Places

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

Damselflies are small odonates related to dragonflies, but belong to Order Zygoptera instead of Order Anisoptera. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies have very slender abdomens, and the forewing and hindwing are similar size and shape. Two of the three families found in eastern North America – the broad-winged damsels and pond damsels – hold their wings above the body, parallel to the abdomen, while perching. The third family – the spreadwings – do not perch horizontally with their wings parallel to the body, but typically “hang” from a perch, with the wings slightly spread at an angle. Adult damselflies are not strong fliers, and generally do not travel far from water. They are most often found in vegetation or on the ground near ponds, streams, and other bodies of water. Because of their small size they can be difficult to see, but the dark wings of the jewelwings and brightly coloured abdomens of some of the pond damsels help aid in observation.

One of the first damselflies to emerge each spring is the Eastern Forktail. This species is worth getting to know because it flies all season long, is found in a variety of habitats near water, and can be abundant when present. Males and females differ in appearance, and immature females also look nothing like mature females. Males are dark, with a green and black striped thorax, as well as a black abdomen tipped with blue. While flying low against the grass or reeds they can be hard to see, and look like a green dot followed by a blue dot. They also have green spots on the eyes. Immature females, on the other hand, have a dark orange and black thorax with a mostly black abdomen. Their eyespots are orange. These colours make them stand out in all the greenery and, in my opinion, make them one of our loveliest damselflies. In time their bodies become a dark purplish-gray with green eyes. All three forms of the Eastern Forktail can be seen in this blog post. This immature female was photographed on May 25th at the Eagleson ponds.

Eastern Forktail - immature female

Eastern Forktail – immature female

Another small black and green damselfly that commonly flies early in the season is the Sedge Sprite. It is smaller than the Eastern Forktail, which makes it difficult to spot unless you see it moving slowly among the wet sedges and grasses it prefers. Unlike the forktail, its thorax is a brilliant metallic green, with no shoulder stripes. It also lacks the eyespots of a forktail. They are also quite common; this one was seen on June 14th at Ravine Park in Kanata South.

Sedge Sprite

Sedge Sprite

June is when the spreadwings emerge, and some of them also have metallic green bodies. Emerald Spreadwings used to be fairly common in Stony Swamp when I first started ode hunting about ten years ago; I used to see at least one a year at different trails. In recent years, however, they have not been as common, and there have been years when I haven’t seen any. I was happy to come across a group of Emerald Spreadwings in an area off of Steeple Chase Drive on June 25th: there were at least six of them in the area, giving me the impression that they had emerged from the same area a short while ago.

Emerald Spreadwing

Emerald Spreadwing

Emerald Spreadwings are not the only spreadwings with metallic green bodies – Swamp and Elegant Spreadwings are green too, but have thinner abdomens, more prominent shoulder stripes, and are less likely to be found so far from water. The adult Emerald Spreadwings are known for hunting along grassy roadsides, and indeed I recall seeing one in a roadside ditch near Marlborough Forest a long time ago. I’ve also seen them in the woods in Stony Swamp, not particularly close to any of the ponds there.

Emerald Spreadwing

Emerald Spreadwing

Two good spots to find spreadwings are the Richmond Conservation Area and Bruce Pit, where multiple species can be found (though I’ve never found any Emerald Spreadwings at either place). I visited Richmond on July 3rd hoping to find some damselflies near the lagoons and uncommon odes along the Jock River at the back, as I’d had great luck at Terry Carisse Park (also on the Jock River) earlier that day. Unfortunately the river was inaccessible except for one spot due to the thick vegetation and Wild Parsnip growing along its edges, so I didn’t see anything at all along the shore. However, I was happy to see several spreadwings flying in the vegetation between the lagoons. The first one I photographed turned out to be a Sweetflag Spreadwing.

Sweetflag Spreadwing

Sweetflag Spreadwing

Mature Sweetflag Spreadwings look just like mature Northern Spreadwings – blue eyes, black thorax with blue on the underside, black abdomen with a blue-gray tip. Males can only be told apart by the shape of the upper claspers. This one was caught and identified in the hand with a magnifier before being placed on the stem for a more natural-looking photo. Both species can become covered with a grayish waxy substance called pruinosity as they age, leaving them rather dull in appearance.

I didn’t catch any Northern Spreadwings, though I did see several Lyre-tipped Spreadwings. This is another black spreadwing with a blue-tipped abdomen, although the blue usually has black triangle at the base of segment 8 (not seen in the individual below). However, the S-shaped lower claspers are diagnostic. This species is found here in good numbers in early July.

Lyre-tipped Spreadwing

Lyre-tipped Spreadwing

A second spreadwing was in the same area, and its long body and proportionately shorter wings identified it as a Slender Spreadwing. Other field marks to look for include white edges to the wingtips, blue shoulder stripes that contrast with the brown body, and a lack of pruinosity at the tip of the abdomen. Many males have a blue triangle on the second-last segment, although this field mark is not mentioned in many field guides.

Slender Spreadwing

Slender Spreadwing

I continued heading toward the river, and in the field beyond the lagoons I found a mating pair of bluets. When I took a closer look I realized they were mostly black in colour; their size and the two blue segments on the male identified them as Skimming Bluets! I had never seen this species here before, and was happy to add them to the list of damselflies found in new places!

Skimming Bluets

Skimming Bluets in mating wheel

Seeing the Skimming Bluets made me even more curious about what might be on the Jock River. Before I got there, I was distracted by a small damselfly resting on the gravel path. It flew up as I approached, and I followed it to where it landed further ahead on the ground. Not many damselflies prefer to perch on the hard, gravelly earth when there are perfectly good plants and shrubs growing nearby, and I was not surprised when it turned out to be a dancer. Powdered Dancers are quite common on the trails near the water at Mud Lake and Hurdman, but this was a vivid purple, not gray or brown or blue…a Violet Dancer!

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

Until I saw one at the Eagleson Ponds in 2020, the only place I’d seen them in Ottawa was near the Mississippi Snye and Pakenham five arch bridge. I’d been told that they could also be found at Shirley’s Bay, though I had never seen any there. It was great to see one here, so close to home, and I eventually discovered a few more along the trail near the Jock River. This is likely where the one at the Eagleson ponds may came from…it’s not too far from the Jock River, especially if they are breeding at other places along the river.

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

I also found a couple of male Skimming Bluets close to the water. They prefer large, slow-moving rivers and the quiet bays of lakes to marshes and ponds with a lot of emergent vegetation, which explains why I’ve never seen one in the vegetation by the former sewage lagoon cells with all the spreadwings.

Skimming Bluet

Skimming Bluet

I also found a couple of Stream Bluets between the path and the river. Note that it differs from the Skimming Bluet by the blue occipital bar connecting the two eye-spots and the incomplete blue ring on segment 8, and (difficult to see in the photos) by its larger size.

Stream Bluet

Stream Bluet

Finding these two species really made me wonder what other species might be present on the water, particularly Orange Bluets. Unfortunately the vegetation was too thick to get down to the water’s edge, and I realized I would have to plan a trip earlier in the season next year if I wanted to get right on the Jock River.

I finished my walk along the river and headed back along the northern edge of the former sewage lagoons, encountering a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, a few White-faced Meadowhawks, and a female Eastern Pondhawk as well. I caught and photographed one more Sweetflag Spreadwing before heading out, hoping for a Northern Spreadwing to make it a four-spreadwing day.

In August I added two different species to the list of odes seen at Eagleson Ponds. The first was Orange Bluet: while watching the Eastern Amberwings in the southwest corner of the central pond I spotted two males perching on lilypads close to the shore.

Orange Bluet

Orange Bluet

This was not entirely unexpected as I thought I saw an orange and black damselfly with a pale orange tip flying low over the water near the bridge last year. However, I never did manage to see it perched and confirm its identity; the only similar-looking species is the immature female Eastern Forktail shown above, and its final segments are black. The pair that I found on August 1st were so close to shore that I could easily identify them with binoculars. Fortunately, they were both mature males. Mature females are yellowish-green instead of orange, while immature individuals of both sexes are blue. Immature females resemble female Stream Bluets with the triangular black spot on top of the ninth segment and the blue occipital bar joining the eyespots, so particular attention should be given to females in areas where both species occur (for instance, Terry Carisse Park). I have yet to see an immature blue Orange Bluet, but now that I know where to find them I will be paying attention to all bluets that I see!

The second species that I discovered at Eagleson Ponds was even more expected for the area: Spotted Spreadwing. I found one next to the southern-most pond on August 12th and saw another five days later. These are common at Bruce Pit and found near many near wetlands in Ottawa, so I wasn’t surprised when one turned up here.

Spotted Spreadwing

Spotted Spreadwing

This brings the number of ode species I’ve seen in this pond system to 32; I still need a photo of a Prince Baskettail to add to my iNaturalist project!

I’ve had a lot of fun this summer exploring areas close by and seeing new species in those areas. Still, my discoveries have left me with questions. Are Emerald Spreadwings usually abundant in that particular part of Stony Swamp, or were the numbers this year an anomaly? Have the Violet Dancers and Skimming Bluets been at the Richmond Conservation Area all along? Or was I unaware of them because I usually don’t go all the way to the river in the summer? How long have the Spotted Spreadwings been at the Eagleson Ponds? I am there frequently throughout the dragonfly season, but the edges of the ponds have become so overgrown that it is possible that a very small number have been there for a couple of years without my being aware of them.

I’ll definitely be checking these areas next summer to see if these same species are still present, hopefully in good numbers!

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