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Two wishes, two misses.
25 July 2009: Nestled between wooded hillsides, there is a lake in Rockland Co. NY where mountain laurel blooms in profusion along its banks in early summer. The water's surface is covered with lilypads while cattails and sedges line the shore. The lake can be found on maps but there are no signs along the road marking it. The pull-off is inconspicuous so there rarely are any visitors.
I used to visit it with friends back when I was just starting to look at dragonflies and damselflies. It was a great place to learn, there were four species of spreadwing, Lestes to figure out. Both Unicorn and Lilypad Clubtail, Arigomphus villosipes and furcifer were present to compare. I caught my first emerald along its banks with a ridiculously small toy of a net (someone had challenged me to it). It was an American Emerald, Cordulia shurtleffii, and I was awed by its incredible green eyes. My friends and I would spend the whole day there until the sun dropped below the hills. We would head home tired but before leaving we would scan the lake for tiny points of yellow and blue, waiting and hoping for the Vesper Bluets, Enallagma vesperum, to magically appear on the lilypads.
During one of these late afternoons a couple of mosaic darners flew in and began laying eggs amid the cattails. We caught one, a female Black-tipped Darner, Aeshna tuberculifera. She was beautifully adorned in blues and greens and was one of the loveliest creatures I've ever seen. We perched her on the cattails and took a couple of pictures in the warm glow of the setting sun. Then off she flew.
The lake still looks about same these days but the surprises are fewer now that the species have grown familiar. I aimed to find Black-tipped Darners ovipositing in the late afternoon and hoped to catch one. The cattails are still there but there weren't as much of it as I remembered. Just a single small stand so there I watched and waited for the sun to fall again. Frosted Whiteface. Slaty Skimmer. Blue Dasher. A darner flies by, just a Common Green Darner. An Eastern Kingbird swoops low catching what? Can't tell. Only two species of spreadwing today. An old female Lilypad Forktail blue with pruinosity. Darker now. Orange Bluet. The sun drifts below the trees, then finally a single Vesper, golden with a touch of blue ends the day.
27 July 2009: I really want to see Coppery Emerald, Somatochlora georgiana. It is unlike any other Somatochlora, it's body is warm brown and its eyes stay modestly reddish, never jewel-like green like the others. The species is rarely seen throughout its wide range and is apparently scarce. There are not many photographs of it. I've looked for it a few times over the years. In southern New Jersey I've stood at a couple of the locations where they have been recorded and seen nothing. Further south near Tallahassee, Jerrell Daigle always talks about the one he caught but mostly about the one that got away. On one occasion he pointed up at a couple of high-flying, fast-moving dragonflies and said that those were probably georgiana. I squinted up but couldn't be sure as they were gone before he finished his gesture.
This year I hoped would be different. I contacted Charlie and Ginger Brown about looking for Coppery Emerald in Rhode Island. Ginger's Rhode Island survey had found the species in 4 out of the State's 5 counties. Charlie invited me to visit Great Swamp Management Area where he works. The reserve was their most reliable location making it perhaps the most reliable place in the world for Coppery Emerald.
But 2009 has been no ordinary year. The weather has been poor and with it the dragonflies. Charlie warned me that he had yet to see any georgiana despite checking his best locations during recent fair weather. Still I had to try so I made the trip from New York.
Charlie drove a circuit around the grounds, pointing out the spots were he had seen the species in other years. There were some emeralds flying here and there but they were the pedestrian green-eyed type. Almost all of them were Mocha Emeralds, Somatochlora linearis. A strong breeze blew throughout the day. Around noon Charlie had to get back to the office but I kept walking the trails and peering up at the sky, still hoping.
In the afternoon Charlie found me and we drove out to where he had just seen a couple of Coppery Emeralds. Excitedly I jumped out of the truck when we got to the spot but the emeralds seemed to have gone. A few minutes later an emerald appeared and began flying back and forth along a line of trees. It was small, certainly smaller than all the Mochas that I had been seeing. It flew high, 30, 40 feet in the air. So this was georgiana. I tried to see some color through the binoculars but it appeared only as a dark silhouette against the bright sky. I stood on the bed of the pickup truck to gain a little height but the dragonfly was still beyond reach. I extended my net handle as long as I could, trying to follow the dragonfly as it cruised high above us. Then the emerald drifted lower and it was difficult to see such a small flying thing against the wind blown trees, the light and shadow of the leaves fluttering. Finally I swung. A weak hopeless swing and I saw it easily dodge the net.
Returning to the spot later in the afternoon I had another glimpse of a small emerald, thin waisted and elegant, treetop height. It was soon gone leaving me with a long, empty-handed drive home.
Many thanks to Charlie and Ginger Brown and the staff at Great Swamp Management Area.