On Catching Dragonflies and Softballs

I never had a job when I was in high school, but I didn’t fritter away my summers in a sea of laziness either.  One summer I worked as a volunteer for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and I think that experience started me down the road toward a life of working with children and teaching about the natural world.  After that I spent three summers volunteering 30 hours a week for the Red Cross.  I also played softball each summer and prepped my 4-H projects for the fair.  A typical day for me involved 6 hours of volunteering, a couple of hours of softball practice or a game, and then a whole evening of pinning and identifying insects or making cakes or sewing something for 4-H.  I was so busy I barely ate and barely slept, but I absolutely loved it!  I was doing something good for the world, playing a sport I loved with teammates I adored, and spending hours playing with insects or frosting.  It was fantastic!

On weekends, my dad would drive me to insect collecting sites.  One of my favorite places to collect was Palmer Lake in Palmer Lake, Colorado and the two of us went often.  The lake was the perfect place for collecting dragonflies and I fell absolutely in love with them there.  The banks were lined with a thin layer of cattails, but little sections were left bare so that fishermen could cast their lines from shore.  I would stand in one of those gaps, my little homemade bug net propped up on my shoulder, and watch the dragonflies flying back and forth several times.  Once I had the flight pattern down, I would swing the net out at the precise moment that the dragonfly flew by.  With this technique I was able to capture about 95% of the dragonflies I sought, and I was often the only person in 4-H that had dragonflies in my collection.

There was one problem though.  I played softball at the same time I was collecting insects.  I spent several days a week at softball practice or playing games.  I was the catcher, so I developed some pretty hefty upper arm muscles.  I batted a lot.  Then I spent my weekends at the lake with a net in my hand that just happened to be about the same length as my softball bat…  Because I was developing my insect collecting skills at the same time that I was playing softball, I found myself holding nets like a softball bat, two-handed with my hands choked up on the handle for control.  When I swung my net, I swung it HARD, just like my softball bat.

My technique was great for getting fast flying insects into my net and I credit my capture success to the power behind that net.  However, that power wasn’t always a good thing.  If I accidentally hit the bug with the net’s wire frame…   Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Body parts would go flying off.  I ended up with several headless dragonflies and I felt absolutely terrible every time because I hate taking an insect’s life for nothing.  The worst part was I could feel it when I hit the bug with the frame.  I had a very high capture rate, but it came at a cost: not all of my specimens were worthy of adding to my collection by the time I got them into the jar and it always made me a little sad to have to throw a dragonfly away.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I started collecting insects, but I still swing my net hard.  I have to pay very close attention to my surroundings when I have a net in my hand because I’m pretty sure I could really injure someone if I hit them.  When I’m around other people I often switch to a one-handed netting technique.  It lacks the precise control of the two-handed method and my capture rate of flying insects is much lower, but the power behind the swing is strongly diminished and a lot less hazardous to my companions.  It’s worth it to come home with fewer bugs if it means I’m not giving my friends black eyes or deep bruises.  I hit many fewer insects with the net frame too.  I consider that a good thing.  Still, if I am going after something important, I revert right back to that softball swing.  I haven’t even played softball since college (my knees can’t take it anymore), but I trained myself to use my net that way and old habits are really hard to break.

These days I spend more time collecting insects with my camera than I do with my net, but I don’t think I’m ever going to rid myself of that net technique I developed as a kid.  Honestly, I’m not sure I want to.  Dragonflies are very hard to catch, especially the ones that don’t perch often, so a fast swing is really useful for collecting them.  I might have to be extra careful when other people are around when I collect and every now and then someone will tease me for how hard I swing, but it works.  Sometimes the people who give me a hard time for swinging my net so hard are the very same people who ask how I catch so many dragonflies.  It’s all because of that softball swing.  And now, every time I collect, I think back to those great summers in high school, all those days of spending doing nothing but the things I love, and enjoying every minute of it.  That was a great time in my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Feeling uninspired

If you haven’t noticed, I have a rather rigid blogging schedule.  My Science Sunday plan fell by the wayside a while back as I underestimated the amount of time I would have to spend grading this semester, but I otherwise stick quite firmly to my Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.  Having this schedule helps keep me motivated to blog and it has really worked for me.  But recently I’ve been incredibly busy and there are some big changes happening in my life (which I’ll tell you all about soon!) and it’s become a bit of a chore to keep up with my regular blogging schedule.  I still love blogging and I still get an enormous rush every time I publish a new post, but now and then I run into a wall where I feel like I have absolutely nothing to say.  Today is definitely one of those days.  I’ve stared at this screen trying to come up with something to blog about and I’ll be honest – I got nothin’.

So, today I’m doing something I don’t normally do: I’m just letting it go.  I’m not going to force it.  I’m just going to post a few photos of lovely places I’ve collected/working/bug photographing in the past year or so and call it a day.  I’ve already got the month’s Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesdays uploaded and I’ve got a fun Friday 5 planned for this week, so I’ll be right back on schedule after today.  But for today you just get some photos.  Enjoy!

Cienegas

My favorite place to collect giant water bugs. It’s got an incredibly thick mud layer at the bottom so more than one field assistant has gotten stuck and/or fallen in (I’ve done it several times!), but this place is always cool and beautiful. Mint lines the spring-fed creek and it’s full of watercress, which turns the surface of the water bright, vivid green. A perfect place to spend half a day!

Greasewood Park

This is the local park where the students in the class I’m teaching this semester go to do their field trip. It’s a lovely bit of native desert land, but there are some interesting people there – and a lot of the kinds of trash you’d really prefer not to see in a park where people bring their kids. Still, I saw some nice bugs and my students loved the trip, so it was a good couple of days!

Near Flagstaff

My wonderful brother-in-law passed away last summer after a long battle with cancer, and I spent quite a lot of time in the Flagstaff area as he neared the end of his life. During any downtime during visits, or when I just needed to get outside for a bit, I headed outside to photograph insects or run errands for my sister. I got this shot during a lovely storm during one of those errand trips.  It sort of sums up the emotions I was feeling at the time, so I’m glad I got the shot.

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon has always been one of my favorite places to go in southern Arizona, ever since I was a little kid. The water is beautifully clear and cool and there are always friendly people around. There are some special birds there (vermillion flycatcher and elegant trogon, among others) that attract birders and they are generally quite happy to stop by and ask what I’m doing sloshing around in the stream with a soup strainer.  :)

Catalinas

If I drive down to the end of my street, this is the view I get. I’m in love with these mountains, the Santa Catalina Mountains. This is also where I found the mantid egg case that hatched recently. There’s a “river” between where I’m standing and the houses. It has water in it approximately two weeks every year, so there are full-blown trees growing in the riverbed. Someday a big flood will rip them all out, but for now they seem to be quite happy living in the river.  I don’t blame them!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Brrr…

My advisor and I take our Aquatic Entomology students on two 3-day camping trips, one in southern Arizona and one in northern Arizona.  The latter often involves snow or freezing rains, miserably cold nights, and roaring campfires.  Sometimes it’s warm during the day, but other times it’s more like this:

Cold students

Brrr...

Granted, a lot of Arizonans break out the parkas when it gets below 55 degrees, but it was genuinely cold on this particular trip!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Sunset

One of my favorite extracurricular activities of all time was participating in a biological survey on a Mexican nature preserve/ranch that is co-managed by US and Mexican conservation organizations.  A big group of 15-20 people traveled to Mexico on four separate occasions and collected, processed, and identified as many biological specimens as we could over a 3-day period.  I’d spend my days collecting aquatic insects and helping with other surveys, then we’d have a great dinner before everyone got down to sorting and IDing in the fabulous ranch house.  It was a stunningly beautiful place, especially at sunset:

Sunset at Los Fresnos

Sunset at Los Fresnos

Heaven!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Sampling Sabino Canyon Post-Fire

You probably all know that there have been several very large fires in Arizona this summer.  Ever wonder what a mountain stream looks like after a forest fire?  Here’s an example from Sabino Canyon in Tucson, AZ after the Aspen Fire a few years back:

Sabino storm

Sabino Canyon after the Aspen Fire. Photo by Dave Walker.

Notice how the water is black?  It was full of ash from the fire that had been washed downstream during the monsoons.  The water even smelled like a campfire!  And what I’m doing in this photo, sampling in the stream downstream of a major burn area as a monsoon storm rolls in – that’s dangerous and you shouldn’t do it.  Made for an awfully pretty photo though!

(Just so there’s no confusion, I’m collecting bugs in that photo, NOT spearing fish.  Everyone seems to think I’m spearing fish when they see this…)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Beetle Aggregation

We stopped alongside a road to collect insects from a small stream during one of my aquatic entomology classes and came across hundreds, maybe thousands, of these beetles:

aggregation of beetles

Lots of beetles!

Aren’t they beautiful?!  According to the lovely, fabulous, wonderful people at bugguide.net (did I’m mention that they’re fantastic?), the stripey beetles are Paranaemia vittigera, a member of the family Coccinellidae.  Striped ladybugs!  Super cool beetles, especially in such huge numbers.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Aquatic Insect Sorting

I spent hundreds of hours in this work area while I was employed at my second job:

my workspace

Aquatic insect ID station!

This is what it looks like when someone identifies aquatic insects (little vials of alcohol, identification keys, microscopes, forceps, and data sheets are all essential) and it was quite possible for me to spend 6 hours at a time sitting at that microscope.  Still, this was one of my top two favorite things to do at that job.  A little music, some delicious hot tea, and a quiet room to shuffle through my bugs and I’m set for days!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com