Sunday, 22 January 2012

Exploring the New World

My only other trip abroad with dragonflies in mind was even before that Tenerife holiday. In October 2000 I had a family holiday with the (then) in-laws in Florida. I was still obsessed with birds (feathered) at the time and ticking as many species as possible while doing the tourist (ie Disney) thing was my main preoccupation, so I regret that dragons were of secondary importance in those days.
I first of all had to overcome my increasing fear of flying in a two stage journey across the pond totalling some nine and a half hours in the air but boy was it worth it. A landscape so flat and totally alien to what I was used to in Europe, just about every creature and piece of vegetation I saw was something different, I was in my element, and birding was sooooo easy.
Raptors were abundant, it seemed every time I looked up there were either masses of black or turkey vultures, or a passing bald eagle or osprey, or a soaring red-tailed hawk which I quickly became familiar with.
I cleaned up on herons and egrets just by visiting the Disney parks, I really can’t stand those crowded theme parks so spent my time scouring the abundant waterways or oases of greenery for birds, blue jays and loggerhead shrikes in abundance, and the omnipresent grackles, beautifully iridescent but what a noise! But best of all was a late night sighting of a common nighthawk after the firework display at the Epcot centre, made the whole (very long) day worthwhile.
And while the others in my party went shopping I would leave them to it and wander off to the nearest piece of unspoilt countryside I could find, I have a brilliant memory of finding a fenced off pond behind a Wal-Mart and watching two pied-billed grebes through my bins when an alligator floated by between them! A great thrill that.
On another day I explored a patch of woodland and got close-up to an armadillo (nine-banded?) which was scratching around at an old fallen tree, it was totally at ease with my presence and I squatted down right by its side and watched it forage from just a couple of feet away, fantastic.
Strange episode though in the same place when I heard a loud rustling just along the path from where I was watching the armadillo, and whatever it was was getting closer. Nervously I hid behind a bush and couldn’t believe my eyes as seven massive wild turkeys came into view, they were huge! I didn’t know what to do, they were blocking my only route of escape, and remembering that large game bird of the highlands, the capercaillie, could be really viscous if encountered in this sort of situation I didn’t rate my chances if these buggers took offence to my presence. I was honestly getting a bit panicky as they were coming along the path running right by the bush I was standing mortified behind. I could see them through the light foliage, the first of them (they were in single file along the narrow path) was no more than ten feet away as I attempted to shuffle a bit deeper into cover, but snapped a twig underfoot, and the giant birds, as one, stopped in their tracks, their quiet gobbly chattering ceased into momentary silence. They all seemed to stretch their necks and look in my direction as I was still shuffling sideways, they saw me and then a horrendous din as the entire platoon of turkeys squawked loudly and took off, wings beating furiously, rising vertically like seven balloon shaped rockets, as if being hoisted up into the high tree canopy above, well I certainly didn’t expect that! Still bricking it I hastily beat a retreat out of there, and lived to tell the tale.
Other memories of that fortnight in the US include a couple of roosting sandhill cranes in the car park of our local store each evening, swarms of black vultures coming to feed from tourists eating outdoors, (rather like sparrows and chaffinches do in this country but on a slightly grander scale), encountering a living bush which I eventually made out as being packed full of red-winged blackbirds, and a trip to St.Petersburg to see the Dali museum which resulted in close encounters with brown pelicans, then finally getting a Northern Flicker (one of my main target species) almost by accident on the last morning of the trip while some of my party used the public toilets in a park we just happened to drive by.
I could go on, but as we’re mainly concerned with dragonflies here, like I said at the beginning they weren’t my main concern then, unlike the birds I had no prior knowledge of what I might find, no decent camera and my binoculars at that time weren’t particularly close-focussing, so as you can imagine I was a bit under prepared.
My one stroke of luck (or genius) was buying an Audubon guide to the flora and fauna of Florida on my first morning there. This contained about forty photographs of the commonest dragonfly species likely to be encountered, and aided by this volume I was able to identify no less than seven species.
In truth I did not have that many close encounters with dragonflies, especially not in any great numbers, and they had to be really good sightings before I had a chance of identifying them. Luckily even the common species are quite spectacular, and the large and Emperor-like Common Green Darner were not called common for nothing, possibly the easiest to both encounter and identify.

Like I say just seven species identified, and no camera so I have lifted some photographs from the internet to illustrate those I managed to tick. Acknowledgements given where possible so I hope no-one minds.
Common Green Darner
large, abundant and usually encountered well away from water
even in town centres

Carolina Saddlebags
I only remember seeing one of these but got good views
of it perched up.

Scarlet Skimmer
the male unmistakeably bright red all over

Eastern Amberwing
the amber wings speak for themselves in identifying
this tiny dragonfly

Roseate Skimmer
a paler version of the scarlet but just as impressive
in the Florida sunshine

Halloween Pennant
another tiny dragon, I remember getting
exceptionally close to the only one I saw
at SeaWorld, a little beauty

Ebony Jewelwing
The only identifiable damsel I can remember seeing
but what a cracker with those jet black wings. Superb!

So that was that, some beautiful creatures, loved the Saddlebags and the Jewelwing. The sad thing is, before I became interested in dragonflies I had foreign holidays nigh on every year, but since starting a family six years ago, and now three kids later, the furthest I've been is the Isle of Skye. I really don't see me getting away in the foreseeable future either but with plenty of unticked British species to go for, I'm not short of challenges. But if I ever do get another chance to go to The States I’ll do better. I promise.

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