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Chaseburg naturalist helps catalog dragonflies

  • Article by: BETSY BLOOM
  • Associated Press
  • August 23, 2014 - 12:05 AM

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Here, there are dragons.

The place is the west edge of French Island, along the spillway that juts out into Lake Onalaska. One side of the barrier has jumbled boulders at the waterline; the other is tall stands of flowering weeds that give way along the river to sand and mud, marked by animal tracks and scattered bleached bones and piles of empty mussel shells.

Dan Jackson scans the grasses for glittering shapes skimming along the foliage. His quarry is quick and elusive, taking refuge in the marsh trees with a flip of the wings if it detects being stalked.

Their names can sound like Santa's reindeer. Dashers and gliders and cruisers and darners.

Others evoke an image more predatory, more intimidating than any mere insect: pondhawks, meadowhawks, spinylegs, dragonhunters, shadowdragons, snaketails. Boghaunter is an especially great name, like some dark wraith arisen from the shrouded, dank recesses of ancient Ireland or England.

They might be only inches in length, but dragonflies demand being treated with respect. Though a relative heavyweight among insects, they still punch well above their weight class with the rest of the world, a Jack Russell terrier willing to take on the big dogs. Jackson points to a prince baskettail patrolling a section of the spillway, ready to fend off passing birds from its territory.

The common green darner he captures and holds demonstrates its pugnacity by clamping minuscule bulldog jaws on his finger, drawing a yelp from Jackson. Yet when released, it lingers on his palm, as if to prove no real fear of humans, as if it remembers its prehistoric roots when dragonflies once were the biggest and baddest creatures in the skies.

Given its aerodynamic shape, its ferocious hunting skills, its kaleidoscope mix of colors and patterns that rival butterflies, its mastery of the air, can there be a species more aptly named than a dragonfly?

Jackson, who also heads the Coulee Region Audubon Society, confesses while he obviously likes birds, the order Odonata -- which includes dragonflies and damselflies -- becomes his favorite quarry come summer. His family might say an obsession, considering the hours he devotes to dragon hunting each summer, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1qk1Vto ) reported.

Not for sport, but to help catalog how many of them make their home in Wisconsin. And what he and other "citizen scientists" have found has helped expand the number of Odonata species known to dwell in the state.

For those who bother to look here, there are dragons aplenty.

The fascination with dragonflies and the equally well-named damselflies, their more delicate and demure kin, is relatively recent for Jackson.

The Central High School class of 1979 graduate long had an interest in birds, even starting college at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the state's cradle of natural resources study. But he decided midway that natural sciences might not be a good career choice at that time and so switched his focus to computers.

He doesn't regret the move. Being IT manager at L.B. White Co. in Onalaska has, over the years, allowed plenty of time for birding and developing his photography skills.

Many of his favorite birding sites proved to be hot spots for dragonflies as well. Jackson began turning the camera on them, searching the Internet to identify what he was seeing. That led him to the Wisconsin Odonata Survey, coordinated by Department of Natural Resources researcher Bob DuBois.

Like Jackson, DuBois' interest in dragonflies had its roots studying a different topic -- in his case, trout habitat. He was trying to catalog invertebrate food species in the Boi Brule River in 1993 when he came across a "very beautiful" road-kill dragonfly but could find no field guides to identify it. He switched his focus the next year after learning an Odonata survey hadn't been done in Wisconsin since 1907.

Dragonflies may be large, showy, charismatic insects -- they appear in poetry, art, jewelry -- yet they drew surprisingly little serious study until about the 1980s, DuBois says.

"And if you don't know what you have and you don't know where they are," DuBois says, "then you're operating out of ignorance."

They launched the survey website in 2002. More than 40 people took part last year; this year already has seen two additions, raising the state records to 163 species, 117 dragonflies and about 46 damselflies.

One of the new finds this summer -- the mocha emerald, so named for the dark brown body and vivid green eyes -- had been on the survey's "most wanted" list as potentially in the state. A couple discovered it in a woodland stream in northern Brown County, farther north than anticipated.

The striped saddlebags Jackson found in 2012 was more unexpected, as it normally ranges no closer than south Texas. His was the first record in Wisconsin and Minnesota -- "That was cool," he said -- and so far appears to be a fluke, as it hasn't been seen since, Jackson says.

But he's raising nymphs right now he hopes will prove the Carolina saddlebags, another southern stray, actually are reproducing here.

Only about 25 species had been confirmed in this region before Jackson began making these regular forays out with net and camera five years ago. Now, the tally is in the low 80s. He's personally logged more than 6,000 sightings.

Most of the recent additions likely have been here for some time, Jackson says, but no one was paying attention.

"This is a case where citizen science has been working," he says. "It's neat to see that we as a group are having an effect."

This day on the French Island spillway proves less productive, as emerging mayflies make spotting other flying insects more difficult and even seems to discourage the dragonflies from trying to compete for airspace.

Those that do appear are masters at dodging capture. A boldly marked widow skimmer keeps its distance. Hesitation on a flashy Halloween pennant lets it slip away.

Dragonflies, Jackson warns, can make you look silly.

Still, by evening's end he has counted 14 Odonata species.

A small blue butterfly catches his attention as well. He is multi-tasking, you see, by also tracking butterflies and bees for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ask how many lunches, evenings, weekends Jackson devotes to these surveys and he just laughs.

His family tolerates his work. In fact, though now all in their 20s, the six children who called the Jackson household home have in the past joined him in pursuit of some of the more hard-to-catch dragonflies, such as the elusive clubtail, so named because it rarely perches for observation. It has to be tracked down, usually in mid-river.

"They like extreme dragonfly chasing," Jackson says.

Next year, Jackson will take over as president of the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society.

"I can't say enough great things about Dan," DuBois says. "He's just a very good naturalist, really fine. We're just fortunate to have him interested in odonates."

The burgeoning interest in dragonflies and damselflies could yield information that indicates how healthy the waters of Wisconsin are, DuBois says. While some dragonfly species can be surprisingly adaptable to pollution, more varieties tend to indicate better water quality. Certain types require very specific habitats as well, such as swift-running, well-oxygenated streams or sphagnum moss bogs.

The advent of digital photography and the Internet has helped the dragon hunters, allowing surveyors to more easily record what they see. DuBois used to have to sort through shoeboxes of specimens mailed in from the field; now, a high-resolution photo can be enough to confirm a sighting.

The society's Facebook page now allows people to post their more recent photos for identification or simply to share what they've seen in the field.

"A certain segment of the population has always been interested in nature," DuBois notes, "but didn't know how to get involved. It's great to see how much fun folks are having."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the La Crosse Tribune

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