Deep Creek Dragonflies

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

When summer hits and the doldrums set in for a few weeks after the migrants have left to breed up north, many of us turn to chasing butterflies and odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, or “odes”). Odes are particularly fun because they make such great photography subjects with their wild colors, spiky appendages and weird shapes. Even the names are awesome! The only bird names that can even compete are mostly hummingbirds… Anyway, recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek, a unit in the San Bernardino National Forest, administered to by the United States Forest Service. Tom Benson recently discovered a population of Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this beautiful and relatively pristine creek near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains. The previous southern-most records for Bison Snaketail were from Tulare County, so this find significantly extends the known range of that species. Likewise, the southern-most known range of Western River Cruiser was up in Kern and Inyo counties. These two species belong to the clubtail family, which, with their oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, includes some of the most colorful, large dragonflies in California.

Sooty Dancer female blue 9096

Blue phase female Sooty Dancer

The habitat at Deep Creek is spectacular, with a rushing stream descending through rocky canyons and deep pools past some vertiginous cliff faces. The creek starts at about 6200 feet and falls some 3000 feet over its 22-mile course before emptying into the East Fork of the Mojave River. There are rushing rapids and deep slow-moving pools, providing ample habitat for a variety of specialists. It is worth noting how the numbers play out in a pursuit like this. There are roughly 108 species of odonata in the state of California, but typically, it’s unusual to see more than about 7 or 8 in any given location. In just a few hours, we recorded 13 species of dragonflies and damselflies, and our search was not comprehensive.

Sooty Dancer male

Male Sooty Dancer

We arrived early, a good strategy because this is a popular location and parking is limited. The descent from the parking lot was short and quick, and suddenly we were in another world. Canyon Wrens, Stellar’s Jays and Northern Flickers called from overhead, while clouds of Marine Blues and Northern White Skippers landed on sandy creek verges to water. The butterflies were spectacular on the whole; we saw about a dozen species there, including some large showy ones like California Sister, Western Tiger Swallowtail and one of the bright Dogfaces among others. The first ode we encountered turned out to be the only one we couldn’t identify to species – it was a “NoBo”, the nickname for Northern/Boreal Bluets, a species distinction that can only be safely made with the damsel in hand under a magnifying lens. The next damsel to show up was spectacular: a dark male Sooty Dancer, (Argia lugens). Sooty Dancers are named for the charcoal gray pruinose appearance of the males.  Sooty Dancer is one of the largest North American damsels, being about 2 inches long. The females come in two forms: a dark tan coloration, and a beautiful bluish phase; we saw both forms at Deep Creek as there were dozens of these handsome damsels all along the creek.

Male Bison Snaketail

Male Bison Snaketail

Our attention was soon diverted from the Sooty Dancers by the appearance of the first Bison Snaketail (Ophiogomphus bison). What a marvelous dragonfly! The colors are brilliant, from the bright green thorax stripes to the black and yellow abdomen, the grayish-blue eyes, the pale green and cream face plates and the fantastic bulging segments 7-10 of the abdomen, supposedly resembling a cobra’s hood… Okay, maybe! But still, what a beast! We saw only males during our visit; the females are not as bright a green on the thorax but have a more striking pattern of yellow and black on the abdomen while lacking the bulging terminal segments. Apparently, females may spend a lot of time away from the water that the males patrol, choosing to hunt from perches over the nearby woods.

Bison Snaketail

Male Bison Snaketail on the red rocks of Deep Creek

The next two species to appear were both spectacular and frustrating. First was a Walker’s Darner (Rhionaeschna walkeri), a large member of the Mosaic Darner family. This large dragonfly features the usual blue, yellow and black abdomen and grayish eyes, rather than the bright blue of the more common and widespread Blue-eyed Darner. Walker’s Darner shows white thoracic stripes and a bright white face plate, so it’s easy to identify in flight. Sadly, they are nearly always in flight, making them virtually impossible to get decent shots of. We had to settle for just seeing one. Likewise, the next dragonfly to appear was the equally showy Western River Cruiser, (Macromia magnifica). Like the darner, this is a restless dragonfly, nearly always in flight over a repeating circuit. The Cruiser is a large dragon, over 3 inches long with over a 4-inch wingspan. The base colors are gray, black, brown and yellow, with the thorax being gray and brown with slashing yellow diagonals, the eyes pale gray, the faceplate in horizontal black and yellow stripes, and the abdomen a glossy black with yellow accents on the upper surface. The Western River Cruiser holds its abdomen in a graceful arch, which is one of the ways to distinguish it from Pacific Spiketail (Cordulegaster dorsalis), which is frequently found in the same habitats, like it was at Deep Creek. We saw multiple spiketails at Deep Creek. Like the Cruiser, the Pacific Spiketail has a glossy black abdomen with yellow on the upper side, but it differs in having a darker thorax (also with diagonal yellow stripes) and bluish eyes. The spiketail is named for the prominent sharp ovipositor that projects from the underside of the terminal abdominal segments like a medieval pike.

Serpent Ringtail male

Side view of a male Serpent Ringtail

The next showy dragon to appear was a Serpent Ringtail (Erpetogomphus lampropeltis), yet another member of the large clubtail family (with Bison Snaketail and Western River Cruiser). This one was a delightful surprise to us; we hadn’t heard this one was present at Deep Creek, but in the end, we saw three or four of these beautiful dragons, all male again. A fairly large dragonfly, it has a pale gray and cream face plate, bluish eyes, and a pale greenish-blue thorax with black stripes. The abdominal segments are bright white with black accents until the bulging segments which are burnt orange in color with brownish markings. Unlike the previous group of dragonflies, the ringtail often perched obligingly for photos, which certainly adds to its abundant charm!

Lavender Dancer, male

Lavender Dancer, male

At the same time the ringtail was buzzing us, we found several smaller damselflies. First was a male Lavender Dancer (Argia hinei) perched on a shaded rock. This delicate little damsel is named for its overall pale purplish color to the abdomen and thorax with black accents on the abdomen and gray or cream color beneath the thorax. Like most dancers (the Sooty being a notable exception) the terminal abdominal segments of Lavender Dancer are bright sky blue. Also common to many dancers, the eyes are bicolored with a dark black and blue upper half and a pale off-white lower half. More common along Deep Creek was the ubiquitous Vivid Dancer, (Argia vivida), characterized by its dark blue eyes and thorax and an abdomen marked with little black arrowheads or darts pointing backwards on the middle segments.

Male Red Rock Skimmer

Male Red Rock Skimmer

Another more common ode we found here was the showy male Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturate) with their bright reddish orange bodies and eyes, and an orange wash extending beyond the nodes in the forewings. One of the most numerous odes on Deep Creek was the Red Rock Skimmer (Paltothemis lineatipes). Males of this species also show an orange wash to the fore and hind wings closer to the body, and brick red coloration to the eyes and abdomen, which is also marked with a delicate chain pattern in black. We saw both male and female Red Rock Skimmers, though the females were either in wheel conformation with males or were actively ovipositing; none were unattended by males.

Gray Sanddragon

Gray Sanddragon

One of the last dragonflies we found on Deep Creek was the Gray Sanddragon (Progomphus borealis), yet another member of the clubtail family. True to their name, these large showy dragonflies were typically found perched on wet sandbanks beside the stream, or on rocks in the immediate vicinity of sandbanks. Gray Sanddragons are intricately colored with pale grayish blue eyes, off-white to yellow face plates, a gray thorax with stripes in brown and pale yellow, and an abdomen of brighter white or yellow markings on black. The terminal abdominal segments bulge slightly, and are mainly black or brown with yellow accents. Even the legs are showy, being shiny black with pale gray markings. Gray Sanddragons will often perch obligingly, though they don’t allow particularly close approach as they are fairly wary. It’s best to use a longer lens and not approach too closely, or to approach slowly and gradually.

Pacific Forktail male

Male Pacific Forktail

Some of the less common damsels also at Deep Creek included a single male Pacific Forktail (Ischnura cervula), small and delicate with a shiny black thorax marked by pale bluish green below and a quartet of pale blue dots on top. The abdominal segments are mostly dull black above and tannish below, with the typical sky blue segments 8 and 9 at the end. Pacific Forktails show bicolored eyes as well, the top third being shiny black, and the lower two thirds emerald green. Forktails are named for the bifurcated clasping apparatus of the males, a feature not obvious in photos unless under a microscope.

American Rubyspot male

A perched male American Rubyspot damselfly

The last damselfly species we saw was another showy one, the American Rubyspot (Hetaerina americana). We saw a handful of males of this species, usually perched on foliage or rocks, and apparently preferring sunny spots. The American Rubyspot is named for the bright scarlet wash to the inner third of its wings, but the red is not confined to the wings. Our rubyspots showed metallic reddish eyes and thorax, and even a dull reddish wash to the abdominal segments, which were also marked with thin pale tan rings at the joints between segments. Overall, this is a very photogenic damselfly!

Other members of our party also observed a Grappletail, another large and showy black and yellow dragonfly, but sadly we were at the tail end of the party and it had departed before we arrived. In the end though, this was a spectacularly beautiful spot with an amazing diversity of odonata. We certainly plan on going back in the future!

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