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Dragonflies in December

January 2, 2016

One of the great things about participating in citizen science projects is the opportunity it gives you to see unusual things in nature. If you went outside at all in December, you probably noticed that it was unseasonably warm. That meant that a lot of strange things happened throughout North Carolina! At Prairie Ridge, we noted that the Eastern Redbud on our Nature’s Notebook Tree Trail put out a few flowers, even though it shouldn’t flower until spring. There were turtles out on the pond right up until the end of December when they would normally be hidden away out of the cold. And there were many insects out in a month where there is normally very little activity. Dragonflies in December are especially unusual, but we saw them this year – and it was quite exciting to our citizen scientists.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

We collect dragonfly data at Prairie Ridge for a variety of citizen science projects. Dragonfly Pond Watch is a project that studies the migration of five focal dragonfly species in North America. We collect data for this project year round because the dates where we report no dragonflies are just as important as those with dozens of dragonflies. However, we rarely see any of the migratory species beyond September. This year, we submitted a sighting for a Common Green Darner on December 11! December is well outside of this species’ normal season in our state, so it was very exciting – but strange – to see one flying at the pond so late in the year.

Other projects we report dragonfly data to aren’t specifically focused on dragonflies. We report a few select species, including the Common Green Darner, to Nature’s Notebook. This project is a phenology project, so it looks at the timing of recurring biological events. For the dragonfly species listed in the project, we count the number of individuals that are flying, feeding, migrating, etc. We submitted our December 11 Common Green Darner sighting to their database and reported that it was flying, but not feeding or mating. Active Green Darners in December are not a common occurrence in North Carolina, so our sighting could be important.

Autumn meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

We also photograph dragonflies and report them on our own Natural North Carolina project. We’re trying to document all the plants, animals, and fungi in the state with this project and dragonflies are an important species for many aquatic systems. We photographed Autumn Meadowhawks throughout a good part of December and will get our sightings uploaded to Natural North Carolina soon. Unlike the Common Green Darners, you might expect to see Autumn Meadowhawks out and about in December on occasion as they are active in the late fall. However, the sheer number of them this year made them conspicuous – it was very obvious that they were on the wing later and in much larger numbers than usual. And while we might expect to see a few Autumn Meadowhawks in December in North Carolina, you wouldn’t expect to see the same in, say, Maryland or Washington D.C. However, they were reported throughout New England well into December this year, a highly unlikely scenario!

We’re about to enter a period of relative cold, so the dragonflies will probably disappear for the rest of the winter. However, we’ll keep a sharp eye out for the fluttering of large, shiny wings in the coming months to see how many more out-of-season dragonfly sightings we can contribute to science.  While such sightings could indicate environmental problems, it’s still a lot of fun to see strange things and report them as citizen scientists.

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