Of Dragons and Damsels


The Minnesota Odonata Survey, represented by its founder and most endearing expert, visited the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (PWLC) this past Saturday. Kurt Mead, a master naturalist and author of the most comprehensive guides to Minnesota Dragonflies and Damselflies (Order Odonata) was holding a workshop on the refuge.

There are thousands of known species of dragonflies and damselflies, over one hundred in Minnesota alone. These insects are an ancient breed, as the earliest known ancestors of today’s dragonflies fluttered across prehistoric swamps 325 million years ago. This long history has allowed for a great variation in size, flight patterns, coloration, and diets, as was plainly visible during our survey of the populations of the refuge. Eighteen or so volunteers for the survey project, including the PWLC’s very own Molly Stoddard and, Teresa Jaskiewicz, Anna Weyers and Michelle Vedder, interns at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge.

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Above: Photos from my dragonfly and damselfly expedition.

After learning about the insect’s peculiar hunting and mating practices, each volunteer – ages ranging from five to sixty plus – took hold of a net and took to the wetlands to search and survey our local invertebrates. Brushing the grasses and cattails of our nets, we were soon able to capture some hapless Northern Bluets, a damselfly species. Carefully holding one of our captives by its wingtips, Kurt began to explain the insects’ integral role in the ecosystem, controlling their prey insect populations by using their powerful jaws and mandibles to gnash smaller bugs to a tasty, tasty pulp.

As we continued towards the larger wetlands, I pondered aloud why the massive Blue Darner dragonflies, which I had observed with students in July, seemed to have disappeared. Kurt explained that this is a migratory insect that flies in clouds from northern states to as far south as Texas and into Mexico.

The survey was an unqualified success, as we were able to capture and record 15 species of damselfly and dragonfly, including three that had never been recorded in Otter Tail County before! Kurt, the expert, bid us farewell. He will continue to travel Minnesota surveying the insects. It’s the season for such work, and the season doesn’t last long.

The following day, after taking care of some long-ignored chores, I cleared out the Refuge camera’s memory card and went out on a photo expedition on the refuge. I’d been out of town at the Regional Intern Conference for the last week of July, and hadn’t been exploring – exceot for the dragonflies and damselflies – in what felt like ages. So much had changed in the week of my absence; plants and grasses I hadn’t even noticed before had burst into glorious bloom, and their flowers were crowded by beetles, bees wasps and even spiders I’d not come across before.

As I came around a corner on one of the trails, looking off to the side into tall grasses, I failed to see a motionless erect ground squirrel just ahead of me. I literally jumped backward when I did see the critter, afraid I’d scared it away before I could snap a shot. Luckily, the little guy just peered quizzically at me as I took photos before nosing into the grasses. Often mistaken for a gopher, this rodent is the, “Golden Gopher,” mascot of University of Minnesota, and its habit of burrowing into prairie sod for shelter incidentally provides habitat for snakes, salamanders, beetles, and toads, all while aerating the dense, deep soil.

The level of activity: colorful buzzing, fluttering, flowering biodiversity of this little – 14,000 acres – prairie continues to amaze me especially when I think back into the winter when the silent, lifeless layers of snow mute the landscape. More so, remembering that it wasn’t more than 13 years ago when all of this earth was a bland, monoculture farmland truly sets me in awe of the miraculous restoration project that the Fish & Wildlife performed here. This is the kind of work that I can feel proud supporting and sharing with the kids that visit.