Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dragonfly Book Review

For me, 2011 has been The Year of the Odonata. Everyone sees dragonflies and damselflies, but only since fall 2010 have I tried my hand at identification. I have been fortunate to have a patient and willing expert to take me by the hand. Recently I discovered Dennis Paulson's Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, published in 2009. This guide will aide anyone interested in pursuing these fascinating, gorgeous, and often overlooked creatures.

What is it about these insects that has so caught my imagination? Unlike summer birds, dragon- and damselflies come in a parade, some emerging from their ponds early, others late, still others in between. They come in a myriad of patterns and colors. Their reproductive cycles are intriguing. To date, I have photographed over 40 species, and each has been a thrill to discover. Chasing Odonata has been like birdwatching on a new continent.  What a thrill to discover different species, even if they prove to be common! Moreover, much less is known about ondonate distribution than is known in ornithology. One of my first damselflies, a Great Spreadwing, was a new record for Minnesota. Perhaps less possible for us neophytes is the remote possibility of discovering undescribed species!

This book, described as "verging on definitive" by my dragonfly expert, covers all 348 species found in western North America. Minnesota lies just east of this area--the text's eastern limit being the Dakotas. Nevertheless, Minnesota is included in many of the range maps and most of the species I have seen are included in this book. All of North America sports 453 dragon and damselflies--only about a quarter of this number are not covered in western guide. I eagerly await the publication of an Eastern volume, due out this fall (see my recommendations on the right side of this blog to place a prepublication order). Minnesotans will want both volumes. I suspect they may be the only books on Odonata that most of us will need.

This volume's contents are lavishly illustrated with color photographs and include "information on size, distribution, flight season, similar species, habitat, and natural history..." The "introduction provides an essential primer on the biology, natural history, and conservation of [dragonflies]...along with helpful tips on how to observe and photograph them." (The quotes are from an Amazon.com review, viewable from the link at the top of this post.) At under $20, the price is exceptionally reasonable.

All books can be criticized. The photographs are a tad small and lack the handy arrows present in Peterson field guides for birds and in Dragonflies of the North Woods. Paulson's book does not help the reader begin the identification process by keying out the various groups of dragonflies--a key to genera and families would be most useful. (Keys can be found on the Internet, some even written by Paulson.) Finally, dragon- and damselflies are very difficult to identify.  Paulson cautions, "anyone who needs positive identification should strongly consider capturing the individuals in question." Dragonflies are variable and often require structural study. Despite these caveats, I can't wait for next season's Odonata and for future road-trips across the country!

This damselfly is an Ebony Jewelwing taken near Northfield on 21 July 2011. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West includes this eastern species because this jewelwing ranges into Nebraska and Oklahoma. If you are interested in becoming a odonate enthusiast, click on the button at the top of this review.

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