Katrina Loewy, Conservation Coordinator at Butterfly Pavilion
As we step into the pond clearing, we are greeted by an aerial opera. Although insect life in the high-altitude pond is stunningly diverse, the dominant predators are present in multitudes and impossible to ignore. Mid-sized dragonflies called whitefaces rest briefly on our white tools, data sheets, and meter stick before re-entering the arena to eat, fight, and most importantly, to mate. They are joined by dragonflies called skimmers, emeralds, and darners in late June’s community of winged adversaries. July will bring even more species, but right now those nymphs (larvae) are staging their own life-or-death battles underwater, waiting for the right time to be called skyward.
We visit three ponds, arrayed around 9,500 ft. above sea level, hoping to fill gaps in understanding for one species: the Hudsonian Emerald dragonfly. This uncommon dragonfly has the dubious honor of being listed as a USDA Forest Service species of conservation concern. The southernmost peninsula of its range places it right in our back yard. Our goal is to uncover the species’ habitat needs, providing that valuable information to land managers who want to protect the Hudsonian Emerald and the delicate ecosystem that supports it.
This is my second year chasing Hudsonian Emeralds, as it is for Dr. Kris Voss of Regis University. In 2017, we launched separate but complimentary studies, both funded by Boulder County Parks and Open Space. After narrowing down the location and overarching habitat of the Hudsonian Emerald, the Butterfly Pavilion and Regis teams decided to collaborate. This year we submitted a joint proposal, funded by Boulder County Parks and Open Space and the Boulder County Nature Association. We would start our site visits earlier this year, and add additional factors to our habitat surveys. Dr. Voss and I co-mentor an intern, Chris Scott, who has joined me at every site visit this year since we started the first week of June.
On June 2nd, I drove to pick up a gate key for the Boulder County properties, confident that this year’s field season would result in more needed information about the Hudsonian Emerald. I met up with Mac Kobza, the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Wildlife Biologist who has championed our cause. “I really hope you find them,” he said, as I turned to leave with the key. His voice was sincere, I read a tinge of concern. I paused and replied simply, “I hope so, too.” I had considered the possibility that we wouldn’t find Hudsonian Emerald molts this year. Last year I identified only two, and, after all, the dragonfly was rare. But what if we didn’t see any adults? Insects are highly sensitive to their environments, and commonly go through boom and bust years. What if our choice of focal ponds was misguided, based on an abnormal year?
When I reached the first pond days later and a full two weeks before our start date in 2017, my concern deepened. There was no crust of snow ringing the pond. The water level was noticeably lower than the previous year, nowhere near where it had been lapping at the trunks of the surrounding aspens. I knew it would only get lower as the season wore on. The dragonfly community was different, too, and more active. There were no Hudsonian Emeralds. There was another kind of Emerald, called an American Emerald, which is in the same family but a different genus than the Hudsonian.
The American Emerald was (and is) having a great year. Mature males share the Hudonian Emerald’s mesmerizing, green, gem-like eyes. In one month, I locked eyes with so many dragonflies, moving my hopeful gaze back over their long bodies, looking for the characteristic white rings that adorn Hudsonian abdomens, one between each segment. A couple weeks ago, I was rewarded. As we packed to leave for the day, a dragonfly with emerald eyes floated straight up from the tall aquatic vegetation. He came closer to examine me, casually, fearlessly, and I saw his white rings. “They’re here!” I called to Chris, “They exist!”
To fall in love with someone, you usually have to get to know them. Close observation took me from a nodding respect to a visceral delight in dragonflies. And, to their credit, they make loving easy with those enormous eyes and flashy colors. There is no better month than July to get acquainted with the dragonflies of our region. You’ve probably seen them nabbing mosquitos in a neighbor’s yard, at a stoplight over the road, or zipping across a parking lot, even if you weren’t particularly looking. I hope you look. I hope you take the time to go to a nearby pond when the sun is shining to sit, watch, and learn to love a bug.
If you want to go the extra mile, consider supporting Butterfly Pavilion’s burgeoning Conservation Research program. Conserving the spineless majority doesn’t make it onto many organizations’ lists of priorities, but at Butterfly Pavilion it forms the basis of our Mission. During the last few years, Butterfly Pavilion has greatly expanded our investment in the applied science aspect of invertebrate conservation, and we could use your help to continue to grow the program. Donate here, if you are so inclined: www.butterflies.org/contribute.