Archive for January, 2022

What is it?

January 28, 2022

You like it, you love it, you can’t get enough of it. That’s right, it’s time for another exciting episode of “What is it?”

If you think you know what is shown in the preceding video (0:28), then please leave a comment. The answer will be revealed in a post update.

Tech Tip: Click on the icon for Full screen (f), located in the lower-right corner of the video frame.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Twin-spotted Spiketail (terminal appendages)

January 25, 2022


All male dragonflies have three terminal appendages, collectively called “claspers,” that are used to grab and hold female dragonflies during mating: an upper pair of cerci (“superior appendages”) and a lower unpaired epiproct (“inferior appendage”).

Male members of the Family Cordulegastridae (Spiketails), including male Twin-spotted Spiketail dragonflies (Cordulegaster maculata), have relatively small cerci (terminal appendages) that can be mistaken for female cerci.

07 MAY 2018 | Fairfax County, VA | Twin-spotted Spiketail (male)

Male dragonfly secondary genitalia, called hamules, are located below abdominal segments two and three (S2 and S3), as shown in the following annotated image. Hamules come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but their function is identical for all species of odonates.

07 MAY 2018 | Fairfax County, VA | Twin-spotted Spiketail (male)


As far as I know I have never seen a female Twin-Spotted Spiketail. (I have seen several individuals that I was unable to photograph.) No problem. Mike Boatwright kindly allowed me to annotate a couple of his photographs.

Photo used with written permission from Mike Boatwright.

These individuals are female, as indicated by their rounded hind wings, terminal appendages, and prominent subgenital plate (ovipositor) at the tip of their abdomen.

Photo used with written permission from Mike Boatwright.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Arrowhead Spiketail (terminal appendages)

January 21, 2022

Arrowhead Spiketail dragonflies (Cordulegaster obliqua) were spotted along small streams at undisclosed locations in Fairfax County and Prince William County, Virginia USA.

Male and female Arrowhead Spiketails are similar in appearance. They can be differentiated based upon several field marks.


This individual is a male, as indicated by his “indented” hind wings and terminal appendages.

07 JUL 2014 | Fairfax County | Arrowhead Spiketail (male)

Arrowhead male and female cerci are similar in appearance, and it can be challenging to see the epiproct clearly from some viewpoints. When in doubt whether an individual is male or female, look for indentations at the base of the hind wings of males.

07 JUL 2014 | Fairfax County | Arrowhead Spiketail (male)


This individual is a female, as indicated by her rounded hind wings, terminal appendages, and prominent subgenital plate (ovipositor) at the tip of her abdomen.

21 MAY 2019 | PNC. Wm. County | Arrowhead Spiketail (female)

Although Arrowhead male and female cerci are similar in appearance, there is no mistaking the subgenital plate of female spiketails! It’s easy to see why “Spiketails” is the common name for Family Cordulegastridae.

21 MAY 2019 | PNC. Wm. County | Arrowhead Spiketail (female)

So the take-away is simple: If you see a subgenital plate then the individual is definitely female; if not, then it’s probably a male.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Post update: What is it?

January 18, 2022

The mystery item featured in my last blog post is a Beetle Spin® 1/8 oz fishing lure.

Beetle Spin® 1/8 oz fishing lure.

Perhaps the bigger mystery is how the fishing lure ended up where I found it, stuck in the bark of a tree (about head height) quite a distance from a small stream that might be fish-less. There was no fishing line attached to the lure. Anyway, there it was.

Beetle Spin® is one of the classic all-purpose fishing lures that is a nice addition to my tackle box.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

What is it?

January 14, 2022

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. It’s time for another exciting episode of “What is it?”

If you think you know what is shown in the preceding photo, then please leave a comment. The answer will be revealed in a post update.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Hunting spiketail dragonflies in Virginia

January 11, 2022

There are three genera in Family Cordulegastridae (Spiketails) worldwide: Anotogaster; Cordulegaster; and Neallogaster. Only Genus Cordulegaster is found in the United States of America.

Four species of Cordulegaster are found in the Commonwealth of Virginia: Brown Spiketail (C. bilineata); Tiger Spiketail (C. erronea); Twin-spotted Spiketail (C. maculata); and Arrowhead Spiketail (C. obliqua).

It’s all about habitat, habitat, habitat.

In the world of odonates, there are habitat generalists and habitat specialists. Spiketail dragonflies are habitat specialists.

Dennis Paulson’s description of the habitat for each species of spiketail found in Virginia is shown in the following list. Notice the list is generic, meaning, specific names are not given. As you read the descriptions, look for commonalities among the habitats.

1. Cordulegaster sp.

Habitat: Small to midsized rocky streams with good current and muddy pools, typically in forest. Occasionally seen patrolling on larger rivers. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 7058-7059). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

2. Cordulegaster sp.

Habitat: Small woodland streams. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Location 7145). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

3. Cordulegaster sp.

Habitat: Small swift streams and soft-bottomed muddy seeps in forest, also streams reduced to series of small pools during drier weather. As in some other spiketails, skunk cabbage often present. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 7081-7082). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

4. Cordulegaster sp.

Habitat: Small forest streams and seeps, often with skunk cabbage and interrupted fern. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 7028-7029). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


Did you notice the habitats for all four species of spiketails found in Virginia have two characteristics in common?

  • small streams, sometimes seep-fed
  • located in the forest/woodlands

When we say small streams, we mean smallmuch smaller than you might think! Although Twin-spotted Spiketail can be found along mid-size streams (often near the confluence of a smaller stream with a mid-size stream) we think Twin-spotted are more common on small streams.

Answer Key

The following list shows the species of spiketail that matches each of Dennis Paulson’s habitat descriptions.

  1. Twin-spotted Spiketail (Cordulegaster maculata)
  2. Brown Spiketail (Cordulegaster bilineata)
  3. Arrowhead Spiketail (Cordulegaster obliqua)
  4. Tiger Spiketail (Cordulegaster erronea)

The common name for each species is hyperlinked to a page in Walter Sanford’s Photoblog featuring many photographs of that species. The scientific name for each species is linked to Mike Boatwright’s “Spiketails” gallery of photographs on Facebook; click on each photo to see the identity of the spiketail species.

The spiketail species in the preceding lists are shown in chronological order of emergence in Virginia, with Twin-spotted being the earliest and Tiger being the latest. There is some overlap of adult flight periods for some species. Online, interactive Odonate Calendars help you know when to be on the lookout for each species.

I found a small woodland stream. Where should I look for spiketails?

If you’re planning to hunt for spiketails during the 2022 odonate season, the time is now to start scouting small streams in the forest such as the one shown in the following photo.

Photo used with written permission from Mike Boatwright.

Our advice: Focus on finding the right habitat first, rather than finding a particular species of spiketail. Revisit the same small stream(s) periodically throughout the entire odonate season to see which species prefer the stream(s). Be peristent — persistence pays when hunting spiketails!

Twin-spotted Spiketail and Brown Spiketail can be found perching either in fields or along trails located near the small streams from which they emerge. In our experience, Brown Spiketail spends the most time perching of all species of spiketails found in Virginia.

Arrowhead Spiketail and Tiger Spiketail fly long patrols back-and-forth along the stream channel itself, approximately six inches (6″) above the water level. Arrowhead Spiketail stops to perch at the end points of its patrol, often in a sunny clearing or field. On the other hand, we think it’s safe to say Tiger Spiketail perches infrequently.

Do other types of odonates live in the same habitat?

Seeps and small seep-fed streams in the forest are perfect places to look for Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi), another habitat specialist found in Virginia, as well as spiketails such as Arrowhead and Tiger.

Photo used with written permission from Mike Boatwright.

Related Resources

Editor’s Note: My good friend and odonate hunting buddy Mike Boatwright and I collaborated to share some of the wisdom gleaned from our experiences hunting spiketail dragonflies in Virginia. Thanks, Mike — couldn’t have done it without you!

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Collecting odonate exuviae

January 7, 2022

Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) are aquatic insects that spend most of their life as larvae (nymphs) that live in water; this stage of their life cycle can last from a few months to a few years. Finally, they emerge from the water and metamorphose into adults in order to reproduce; their offspring return to the water and the cycle begins again.

I think it’s safe to say less is known about odonates during the aquatic phase of their lives than during the terrestrial phase. In my opinion, there is a real opportunity to make a significant contribution to the body of scientific knowledge about odonates by collecting and identifying exuviae.

What can be learned from collecting odonate exuviae?

Here are two examples that illustrate why I think it’s important to collect and identify odonate exuviae.

I’ve never seen an adult Arrow Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus spiniceps). That’s not surprising, since many experienced odonate hunters classify them as uncommon to rare.

But I know a place along the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia USA where I am certain Arrow Clubtail dragonflies live. How do I know? Because I collected a Stylurus spiniceps exuvia from that location on 04 August 2016.

An Arrow Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus spiniceps) exuvia collected at Riverbend Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

04 AUG 2016 | Fairfax County, VA | Stylurus spiniceps exuvia (ventral)

More recently, my good friend and odonate hunting buddy Mike Boatwright discovered a small breeding population of Zebra Clubtail dragonflies (Stylurus scudderi) at an undisclosed location in Amherst County, Virginia USA. For several years, Mike found exuviae but no adults. On 22 July 2021, years of searching the site finally came to fruition when Mike discovered a teneral female Zebra Clubtail.

13 JUL 2018 | Amherst County, VA | Stylurus scudderi exuvia (dorsal)

Do you need a permit in order to collect odonate exuviae?

A strict interpretation of the Code of Virginia might lead one to think a permit is required.

It is unlawful to collect animal parts, such as feathers, claws, and bones without a permit (4 VAC 15-30-10 and §§ 29.1-521 and 29.1-553). Source Credit: Overview: Collecting, Exhibiting, and Releasing Wildlife, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

That being said, it appears there is an exception for Phylum Arthropoda.

At this time no DWR permit is required for the following: Phylum Arthropoda EXCEPT for the Superfamilies Astacoidea & Parastacoidea (Crayfish) – Arthropoda includes: Insects, arachnids, millipedes, centipedes and other crustaceans (EXCEPT Crayfish) such as: isopods, amphipods etc. … Source Credit: Overview: Collecting, Exhibiting, and Releasing Wildlife, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

I interpret the Code of Virginia to mean a permit IS NOT required to collect odonate exuviae.

How to collect odonate exuviae

Before you collect an exuvia, please photograph the specimen in situ. Record the date, location, and species (if known). A photograph is especially valuable when both the adult and exuvia are shown in the same photograph.

17 JUN 2021 | PNC. Wm. County | Anax junius exuvia (lateral)

Here are my tips for collecting exuviae. Bear in mind, I’m a perfectionist. It’s a fault, but hey, I am what I am and that’s all that I am.

I carry several items in my camera bag: a small plastic spoon; narrow strips of heavy card stock (maybe 3/8″ wide and two inches long); a small pair of scissors (one of three tools in a simple Swiss Army knife); and small plastic containers.

“Go kit” for collecting odonate exuviae.

I’m guessing most people just grab an exuvia with their fingers, but whenever I do that I hear a crunching sound that makes me cringe and parts tend to break off, e.g., legs.

If the exuvia is on a sandy stream bank, then I scoop the specimen with a spoon. If the specimen is clinging to something like a rock or wooden dock, then I slide the handle of the spoon under the body and gently pry it off the surface. Those little grabbers on the end of their legs are very “grippy,” so “gently” is the operative word. If the handle of the spoon won’t fit under the body, that’s when I use the card stock.

If the exuvia is clinging to vegetation, e.g., a cattail, then make the “peace sign” with one hand and insert the stem up to the notch between your pointer- and middle fingers and then close those fingers. Put your hand BELOW the exuvia, palm up, like a cup (in case the specimen falls off the stem). Use scissors to cut the stem below your fingers/hand and a little above the exuvia. Put the specimen in a collecting container, including the stem.

I use large plastic pill bottles. (I take eye vitamins that come in a wide-mouth bottle, perfect for big specimens with long legs such as cruisers and Dragonhunter.) I also use the smallish plastic containers for Philadelphia cream cheese — they can be “nested,” allowing you to carry several containers without taking up much space.

There, now you know more about how to collect odonate exuviae than you ever wanted to know!

What are the take-aways?

Hey, I get it — building a collection of odonate exuviae and learning to identify them might not interest you. But I can assure you there are many people like me who are interested in odonate exuviae who would love to have specimens that you find and collect.

I’m not necessarily saying you should go out hunting specifically for exuviae, but I am saying when you go hunting adult dragonflies and damselflies please be on the lookout for exuviae and collect them when you find them (and I predict you will).

In this way, there is a multiplier effect that will result in the collection of more specimens than a single individual is likely to find. In turn, this should help to advance our understanding of the odonates of Virginia.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

The time is now!

January 4, 2022

Happy New Year! Let the yearning begin. Wait, what? Yep, I’m fighting feeling like I can’t wait for the start of the new odonate hunting season.

Realistically it will be a few months before adult dragonflies and damselflies are flying again, but that’s a good thing. Wait, did I just say that? Yes, and here’s why.

The odonate hunting “off season” provides a good opportunity to plan for the next campaign by making a list of target species and laying out when and where to look for them.

Why is it important to make a plan? Because the season starts slowly but explodes quickly. To illustrate my point, take a look at my Odonate Calendar for adult flight dates of dragonfly species for the month of February (shown below). Not much happening until the end of the month, right?

Dragonflies (VA Flight Dates) | February 2022

Now look at March (shown below). There’s an explosion of species beginning around the second week in March. The boom continues into July before slowing down noticeably in August.

Dragonflies (VA Flight Dates) | March 2022

Also notice many of the spring species of dragonflies are habitat specialists that require extra time and effort to find. So my advice is start planning now for a more productive and satisfying season of odonate hunting.

Related Resources

Both of the following resources feature online, interactive calendars for dragonflies and damselflies based upon Dr. Steve Roble’s excellent datasets for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Copyright © 2022 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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