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Rare dragonfly observed near Paul Bunyan Forest

Dragonflies are frequently identified by the shape, color and width of their thorax stripes. The two greenish-blue, boomerang-shaped stripes on Aeshna subarctica are distinctive because they bend forward. A black T-bar spans its face. An adult lives for 70 days. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)

Strolling through property in Akeley Township last month, partially surrounded by the Paul Bunyan State Forest, John Weber noticed a dragonfly aloft.  It landed about 10 feet away on a humongous oak.  A butterfly and dragonfly enthusiast for three decades, he investigated.  For an unprecedented six minutes, while the dragonfly warmed himself in the sun, Weber took photos.  He snapped 14 images.  Thanks to his expertise, reaped from a long history of observation, Weber knew he was seeing something special.  It was the first sighting of a mature male Subarctic Darner in Hubbard County. Ever.  The Subarctic Darner, or Aeshna subarctica, is considered rare throughout most of its Far North range.  

According to “Dragonflies of the North Woods,” written by Kurt Mead, “there are very few records of Subarctic Darner in the North Woods.”   “Its main range extends from Canada to northern and central Europe, across Siberia to Japan,” writes Mead. “It’s a true circumpolar species.”  Mead’s award-winning field guide was exclusively written for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and northwestern Ontario.  The Minnesotan author was one of two experts to confirm Weber’s finding.  With the help of a fellow enthusiast, Weber posted his photos on the Minnesota Dragonfly Society’s website.  

Bob DuBois, a research scientist and environmental educator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, also confirmed Weber’s discovery. DuBois has written a comprehensive guide to all 44 species of damselflies in the North Woods.  Both authors complimented Weber on the quality of his photographs.  Since 1997, Weber has been meticulously recording every dragonfly sighting.  He’s counted butterflies since 1995, detecting 205,000 on foot in north-central Minnesota to date.  Armed with his close-focusing binoculars and Canon camera, he takes about 3,000 to 4,000 digital photos per year.  His Oct. 1 encounter with the Subarctic Darner is now officially logged with Odonata Central, a database designed to gather and disseminate information about dragonflies and damselflies across the Western Hemisphere.  Odonata is the order of insects encompassing both dragonflies and damselflies. Derived from the Greek word for “tooth,” odonates have the strongest mandibles of any insect, Weber said.  Dragonflies don’t sting, however. Their slender abdomens are strictly used for digestion and reproduction.  

The darner species’ long, needle-like abdomens resemble darning needles; hence, the name.  A fierce hunter, dragonflies rely on the 30,000 lenses in each eye to track down prey.   Usually, they detect a human before we see them, Weber said.  If he hadn’t seen it fly, then land, Weber suspects the Subarctic Darner’s visit to lake-and-pine country would’ve gone unnoticed.   The blue, green spots on its abdomen blend perfectly with lichen and moss.  “This kind of pattern in nature serves as brilliant camouflage,” Weber said.  With 86,939 square miles, Minnesota is the twelfth largest state in the union, so it’s possible a Subarctic Darner could skitter about without being seen, he said.  It’s unclear what attracted this lone traveler to Akeley Township.  

Climate change is shifting hardiness zones, birds, tree species and other life north, so “who knows if it’ll ever be seen in Hubbard County again?” said Weber.  Property owners adjacent to a water body can assist dragonflies by leaving a buffer strip of grass along the shoreline. This allows larvae to climb onto the vegetation when they emerge from the lake, stream, river, pond or bog around Memorial Day.

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