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DRAGONFLIES (and the odd butterfly) IN THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY

Texas, USA

November 2007

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
This page describes the dragonflies (and the odd butterfly) seen while on a 5 day trip in the lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV), Texas, in November 2007. This trip was primarily for birding and bird photography, and for a full trip report on the birding side, click here.

During these five days, I became increasingly aware of insects as well as birds, with colourful butterflies particularly obvious in places like Santa Ana NWR. However, dragonflies are my main interest in the insect world, so I sometimes turned my attention and the camera lens onto them, instead of birds.

Maybe because of the warm conditions, some dragonflies were on the wing almost all the time, even early morning and in cloudy as well as sunny conditions. I was certainly surprised by the numbers and variety of species so late in the year.

During the trip, I bought "Dragonflies through Binoculars" by Sidney Dunkle, from the Sabal Palm visitor centre. This covers all dragonflies seen in the USA, but none of the damselflies. The illustrations are all rather small photos - not nearly as good as the meticulous drawings by Richard Lewington in his recent UK & European guides, but they were adequate enough to identify most the species I managed to photo. For the ID of the others, I have benefited from help from various Internet correspondents - see acknowledgments section at the end of this page.

There was a larger and more expensive tomb on just the dragonflies (and presumably damselflies) of Texas, but I didn't get it - too heavy for the flight back!

Looking through "Dragonflies through Binoculars", I was surprised how few of the USA species occur in Texas! Of these, I reckon I must have found, and photographed, a good fraction of them.

There are various good websites for USA dragonflies, most notably the excellent Odonta Central run by John Abbott.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 350D with EF400mm/f5.6 lens, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the flight shots. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website. Although I took my extension tubes (which allow higher magnification on small, close-up subjects like dragonflies), I never had them to hand at the right times. Hence all the pics below were taken without them, some with substantial cropping afterwards.

Unlike virtually all the pictures in "Dragonflies through Binoculars", none of those given below were artificially 'posed'!

Santa Ana 11 November
This was one of the first sites where I began to notice both very colourful butterflies and dragonflies. I quickly found that taking pics of butterflies is probably more difficult than both birds and dragonflies! However, there was an unusual stationary butterfly on a tree by the feeders at the visitor centre which was creating some interest amongst other visitors. Comparing my pic below with those on the North American Butterfly Association's
website, I am reasonably confident that this is a Guatemalan Cracker! This is given as an accidental for Santa Ana!

So this is probably by far the rarest wildlife species I saw on this trip!

Guatemalan Cracker Gaint Swallowtail
Guatemalan Cracker seen at Santa Ana (rare, accidental species) Gaint Swallowtail seen at Santa Ana

At Santa Ana, there were also several dragonfly species, mainly seen along the trails. These included the widespread Common Green Darner (rather like a Lesser Emperor), the localised Band-winged Dragonlet and more widespread Eastern Pondhawks:

Band-winged Dragonlet Female Eastern Pondhawk
The localised Band-winged Dragonlet Female Eastern Pondhawk

Laguna Atascosta 13 November
The alligator pond at Laguna Atascosta was an excellent dragonfly site - probably the best I found in the RGV. There were several individuals of various different species, and with the sun out the whole place was buzzing with activity. Even with the sun in, activity was high, due to the warm conditions. The viewing platform allowed reasonably close approach to the species illustrated below, although only a few shots would have benefited from the extension tubes, unfortunately back in the car. Species on the pond included Red and Black Saddlebags, Common Green Darner, Eastern Pondhawk, and the tiny Thornbush Dasher (a localised species). There were also various damselfly species present, including a Rainpool Spreadwing, Familiar Bluet and Rambur's Forktail. I guess that wading around this alligator pool to get closer would not have been advisable, even if I had had wellies on!

Unfortunately, the weather during my visit here was somewhat mixed, with much cloud and even a few spots of rain to start with. I spent some time on the viewing platform waiting for conditions to improve for photography, which they eventually did, to an extent. However, when warmer, flight shots were impossible as the dragonflies just belted around much faster!

The track back from the pond to the car was also good with settled Marl Pennant, and Variegated Meadowhawk.

Black Saddlebags Variegated Meadowhawk
Black Saddlebags in flight Variegated Meadowhawk obelisking
Red Saddlebags Common Green Darner
Red Saddlebags Common Green Darner
Male & Female Eastern Pondhawks Male Eastern Pondhawk
Male & female Eastern Pondhawks Male Eastern Pondhawk
Thornbush Dasher Thornbush Dasher in flight
Thornbush Dasher.
This is a very small dragonfly which has a localised distribution in the USA
Thornbush Dasher in flight
Rainpool Spreadwing Marl Pennant
Rainpool Spreadwing* - a tropical species of damselfly Marl Pennant*

Sabal Palm 14 November
Even early in the morning there was plenty of dragonfly activity along the boardwalk of the Reseca trail at Sabal Palm, and also along the drier sections of this trail as well. Most of the species were those seen elsewhere already, although a female Pin-tailed Pondhawk was new.

I also took several pics of a small dragonfly, which has turned out to be a notable find - the scarce and very localised (in the USA) Three-striped Dasher. Many thanks to John Abbott for his help with identifying this. Although the pic below isn't brilliant, it is definitely worth showing - certainly the rarest dragonfly species of the trip.

I took following pics, which included some females which were more difficult to identify.

Common Green Darner in flight Three-striped Dasher at Sabal Palm
Common Green Darner in flight - a longish exposure in the early morning light has unfortunately led to blurred wings Three-striped Dasher* - a scarce & localised species in the USA
Male Roseate Skimmer Female Roseate Skimmer
Male Roseate Skimmer Female Roseate Skimmer*
Female Pin-tailed Pondhawk Female Band-winged Dragonlet
Female Pin-tailed Pondhawk* Female Band-winged Dragonlet*

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the following Internet correspondents for their assistance with the identifications of the dragonflies marked with asterisks (*):

  • John Abbott (the guru!)
  • Bob Barber
  • Steve Covey
  • Robert Larsen
  • Forrest Mitchell
  • Dennis Paulson

Note that there was not 100% agreement amongst the above in all cases! Nevertheless, I am now reasonably confident that the IDs on this web page are correct! I would of course be happy to hear from anyone who disagrees...


All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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