AN EYE FOR THE DRAGONFLY
Move over, birds. Another flying creature is capturing the attention of Texas wildlife watchers.
by Russell Roe, Managing Editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine
Perched by the side of a pond in an Arlington park, we watch the dragonfly drama unfold before us, an elemental spectacle of mating, dominance and, ultimately, survival.
A male blue dasher, a dragonfly common to many Texas ponds, has found a female to mate with, and he grabs her behind the head to begin mating as they fly along. This is what the male dragonfly has been waiting for his whole life.
But wait! What’s this? Another male dragonfly appears on the scene. After a brief and intense battle, the new dragonfly prevails and begins to mate with the female.
Many male dragonflies have genitalia designed to scoop out another dragonfly’s sperm out of the female before depositing their own — we wonder if that’s happening here — and we watch closely as the new dragonfly couple mate. Copulation achieved? Yes! The game’s not over yet, though. The female needs to lay her eggs, and there are still several males hanging around that might try to mate with her. To ensure success, the male vigilantly stands guard above the female as she deposits her eggs in the water.
“This is a battlefield,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban biologist Sam Kieschnick, who has led us to this pond to watch dragonflies and damselflies. “We may come to places like this to relax, but for dragonflies, this is a battlefield of love and war.”
Kieschnick is one of a growing number of dragonfly enthusiasts in Texas who pursue dragonflies and damselflies with the same passion that bird watchers bring to birds.
Why dragonflies? Why not? They’re beautiful, charismatic and accessible (they’re everywhere), and they exhibit some pretty incredible behaviors.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
From left, Robert Salinas, Eric Isley, Wei-Li Huang and David Byers search for dragonflies and damselflies at Hornsby Bend in Austin. Photo by Earl Nottingham, TPWD
Texas has bragging rights when it comes to dragonflies and damselflies. It’s the best place in the U.S. to watch them, with “hands down” more species than any other state, says John Abbott, former entomology curator at the University of Texas and the unofficial dean of Texas dragonflies.
“Texas is really a tremendous place for dragonflies,” he says, noting its 250 known species. “Its geographical positioning allows for a real mix of eastern and western faunas, as well as subtropical and temperate faunas. No other state has that.”
These are exciting times in the Texas dragonfly and damselfly world, with more and more people joining the ranks of “dragonflyers” and new state species still being discovered. In 2019, the Austin area hosted national and international dragonfly conferences, solidifying the state’s place as a worldwide dragonfly hot spot.
And, if you didn’t realize it, dragonflies are pretty special.
“They are visually stunning,” says Abbott, author of 2011’s Damselflies of Texas and 2015’s Dragonflies of Texas and founder of Odonata Central, a national archive of observations. “They’re arguably the strongest fliers in the insect world. And they have the best eyesight in the insect world, with a nearly 360-degree field of view.”
Eric Isley is one of the most active dragonfly watchers in Austin — he goes out several times a week — and he has invited me to chase dragonflies with him on a couple of warm September mornings. I meet him and a handful of other dragonflyers at Barkley Meadows Park and the Hornsby Bend wastewater treatment facility in southeast Austin.
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the same order, Odonata, and are often referred to as odonates, or odes. They both depend on fresh water to lay their eggs and live the early parts of their lives. They are ancient species, flying around our skies for 250 million to 300 million years.
As we walk down a path near a pond at Barkley Meadows, Isley points out dragonflies with names like the red-tailed pennant and the checkered setwing and tells me he started off with an interest in butterflies and birds.
“Then dragonflies caught my eye,” he says as he points out a four-spotted pennant, with distinctive spots on its wings, and an eastern pondhawk.
His digital camera, with a big lens and a tripod, is ever-present as he captures photos of the insects. Photography is a big part of Texas dragonfly culture, helping enthusiasts identify species and appreciate the minute details of a dragonfly or damselfly.
A married couple with us, David Byers and Wei-Li Huang, watch birds for part of the year, then turn their attention to dragonfly watching in the summer, when dragonflies are active and birds less so.
“We’ve birded on and off for 30 years,” Byers says. “Dragonflies are a natural in summer if you want to photograph something beautiful.”
Texas has several dozen people who actively pursue dragonflies and damselflies. They keep up with each other through iNaturalist (an app for recording wildlife observations) and the Texas Dragons and Damsels Facebook group.
“Eric showed me a photo of a dragonfly eating a butterfly,” Byers says of their first meeting. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, we need to learn more about dragonflies.’”
Dragonflies are indeed one of the animal world’s deadliest predators, a quality that Isley appreciates.
“They’re the ultimate predator,” Isley says. “They have a 96 percent kill rate. They’ll eat anything they can catch, including their own species.”
At Barkley Meadows, Byers spends some time trying to get a good photo of a Halloween pennant (distinctively colored with orange and black) while Isley tells me about some of his favorite species.
“The dragonhunter is the most impressive dragonfly we have here. They like to hunt other dragonflies,” he says. “The prettiest one we get here is a blue-eyed darner. When you see it, you’ll know why we photograph it. The blue when the sun hits it …” His voice trails off in admiration.
We tally a few more species — widow skimmer, green darner, red saddlebags and wandering glider — before calling it a day.
BIRDER GONE BAD
Besides John Abbott, Greg Lasley has done more to promote and document dragonflies and damselflies in Texas than anyone else. He calls himself a “birder gone bad.”
“You can go looking for birds on the Texas coast in April, and there are more bird watchers than birds,” Lasley says. “One thing that appealed to me about dragonflies is that there weren’t tons of people doing it.”
Lasley’s interest in dragonflies was sparked in 2000 at a South Texas photo contest and when he wanted to ID his odonate photos. He sent them to Abbott, and the two struck up a friendship.
Coincidentally, that year marked a turning point in the dragonfly world when the first U.S. field guide — Sid Dunkle’s Dragonflies Through Binoculars — came out, and when common names were assigned to many dragonflies and damselflies.
“It was the first book I had, the first book a lot of people had,” Lasley says. “It gave us ways to try to figure out what we were seeing or photographing with dragonflies.”
Lasley, a former police officer who became one of Texas’ most accomplished naturalists and photographers, saw an opportunity to engage in an emerging field and even make contributions to scientific knowledge.
“When I started, there were still 44 counties in Texas that had no record of dragonfly species whatsoever,” he says. “I found it fun to travel to the Panhandle of Texas with my wife, and I’d try to photograph species in counties that had no records. Now every county in Texas has dragonfly records.”
His wife, Cheryl Johnson, a former state judge, had a quest to photograph every courthouse in Texas, and she and Lasley traveled the state together pursuing their passions.
One of Lasley’s other discoveries involved a species called the blue-faced ringtail, a dragonfly with a striped tail and, yes, a blue face. It hadn’t been seen in decades, so he searched along the San Marcos River.
“I finally made my way down to Gonzales, and I happened to find the species there,” he says.
Since then, scores of people have traveled to Gonzales to look for the blue-faced ringtail. It’s practically a rite of passage for Texas dragonflyers. Within the U.S., the species occurs only in Texas; seeing the blue-faced ringtail was one of the most popular field trips at the 2019 international odonate convention in Austin.
DRAGONFLY ‘BIG YEAR’
Gonzales was one of the first places Ben Schwartz traveled just to see a dragonfly, but not the last. The Texas State University karst hydrogeologist completed a Big Year for dragonflies in 2020, attempting to see as many species as he could in a year’s time. Schwartz’s goal was to see 200 of the then-248 dragonfly and damselfly species in 2020 — he tallied 209.
“I’d say the first 150 were relatively very easy,” he says. “The next 25 took some work — going up to the Panhandle, West Texas, South Texas, spending a lot more time looking for them, looking for uncommon species. The last 10, getting up to 200, really took a lot more work and a lot of persistence.”
In some cases, he had to look for dragonflies in unexpected places.
“In the Big Thicket I was looking for a species called the smoky shadowdragon,” he says. “I had spent all morning and early afternoon bashing around in the brush. I came back to the bridge where I had parked and looked up and saw a bunch of cobwebs on the bridge. I realized there were dragonflies hanging all on the underside of this bridge. I got a long stick and pulled a bunch of these cobwebs down, and I got about 15 smoky shadowdragons.”
During the year he tallied two new species not documented in Texas before, bringing the state species count from 248 to 250. One is the taper-tailed darner, a dragonfly he spotted in East Texas; the other is the boreal bluet, a damselfly he saw in West Texas.
Not bad for someone who’s a relative newcomer to dragonflying. Schwartz got interested in odonates around 2015 when he started noticing damselflies along the San Marcos River. He posted damselfly photos on iNaturalist, and Lasley started ID’ing them. The rest is history.
John Abbott has moved on from Texas — he is now chief curator and director of research and collections at the University of Alabama — but his dragonfly work brings him back to the state.
His latest research, funded by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant, is a cutting-edge project that uses environmental DNA to detect rare species.
“We’re taking water samples from prospective habitats of some of these potentially rare species and then looking for the DNA,” he says. “We can extract DNA out of the water and recognize a dragonfly as having been there, without ever collecting it or seeing it. It’s a new field that’s getting a lot of attention.”
Back at our dragonfly habitat in Arlington, Kieschnick nets a desert firetail and puts it in a petri dish for us to view.
“This is a lovely damselfly,” he says, noting the bright red body and eyes. “There’s a vibrancy of color. Spectacular.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of these creatures. The body and eyes of the desert firetail are so bright they almost glow, and in Kieschnick’s way of thinking, the future of dragonfly watching in Texas is as bright as this firetail, with new discoveries still happening, groundbreaking research occurring and enthusiasts increasing.
“I used to be oblivious to the things flying around,” says Kieschnick, an avowed “plant guy.”
“Now my eyes have been opened up through dragonflies. I see charm in them. We can ooh and ahh over them. They have interesting behaviors and there’s great diversity. It’s exciting to see different species, and you don’t have to go too far to see them.”
The Tale of One Tiny Songbird Is Amplifying an Ancient Mayan Language
How a children's book about the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler became part of a movement to embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico.
Maria de los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.”
The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes.
Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. When Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.”
Pronatura's Claudia Macías Caballero (left) and Maria de los Angeles Azuara, holding a plushy Golden-cheeked Warbler, reading Chipilo's story in Moxviquil Ecological Reserve in Chiapas, where some of the songbirds overwinter.
Photo: Jorge Silva Rivera
RiveraChipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations.
In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.”
The Tsotsil version of Chipilo has been distributed, via CDs and USB flash drives to teachers; now Pronatura wants to do the same with the audiobook.
The story of Chipilo starts in 2003, the same year native languages were officially recognized in Mexico thanks to the decades-long efforts of Indigenous communities like Chiapas’ Zapatistas Movement. That year, Pronatura hired two young biologists, José Arturo García Domínguez and José Raúl Vázquez, to monitor the arrival of Golden-cheeked Warblers travelling from central Texas to the pine-oak forests in the Chiapas Highlands that support more than 300 bird species, of which 55 are migratory.
Back then, the warbler’s winter range distribution was still being mapped out, explains Claudia Macías Caballero, Pronatura’s deputy director of conservation. Observations of the bird were spotty, and no one really knew their wintering behavior that well. García and Vázquez were tasked with searching for the bird throughout 10 municipalities and following the mixed flocks in which the warblers traveled. For five months the duo woke up at 4 a.m. and set out before the firsts sun rays bathed the treetops. “It was so cold that you didn’t want to take your hands out of your jacket to hold the binoculars,” recalls Vázquez.
They started in central Chiapas and struggled to find their tiny targets. The scarcity was easily explained: The dense forests that the warblers require for foraging and roosting had been transformed into sparse stands, heavily logged for commercial lumber and for cooking and construction by the impoverished Indigenous communities. Across the species’ range, habitat degradation due to unregulated fires, logging and clearing land for agricultural development has fueled the bird’s decline. At the current deforestation rate, the remaining forests could disappear in 45 years.
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed in central Texas and migrate to southern forests such as this one, near San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Jorge Silva Rivera
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed in central Texas and migrate to southern forests such as this one, near San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Jorge Silva RiveraTheir luck changed when they headed north. As they neared a small town called Coapilla, they noticed the thick expanse of deep green covering the surrounding hills. Speaking with locals, a mix of mestizo and Zoque peoples, they learned that the community prioritized managing the forest sustainably, and restricted agriculture to the ejido—community-owned land managed according to Indigenous people. As a result, the landscape supported abundant wildlife. In just one week they made 10 of the approximately 40 sightings they recorded in all, García recalls.
Near Coapilla the forest was filled with birdsong, and García saw his first mythical quetzal. He found the healthy state of the landscape remarkable, and one afternoon, after following songbirds all morning, he started writing the migration story of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. He called the bird Chipilo Crisopario, a nod to the species’ common name in Spanish (chipe) and scientific name (Setophaga chrysoparia), and asked Vázquez, who liked drawing and carving birds out of wood, to illustrate the book. The tale follows the young bird as he journeys south and encounters a human-started fire, is saved by an old Turkey Vulture, and eventually arrives in Coapilla’s forests, where he reconnects with old friends and makes new ones, including a Resplendent Quetzal.
The Tsotsil version of Chipilo has been distributed, via CDs and USB flash drives to teachers; now Pronatura wants to do the same with the audiobook.
Photos: Jorge Silva Rivera
A few months later, in March 2004, the biologists presented the first draft of the text and 12 acrylic-paint illustrations to Pronatura’s Macías. Two years later, after securing financial support from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the State of Chiapas, Pronatura printed 5,000 copies of Chipilo. Most ended up in school libraries and at environmental education nonprofits in the five countries where the Golden-cheeked Warbler winters.
José Raúl Vázquez painting at his home in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Photo: Jorge Silva Rivera
The book was out there, but there was no guarantee that kids would pick it up. Chipilo had been translated into English in 2011, and Texan teachers were using that version in their classrooms. Inspired by their approach, in 2012 and 2013 the Pronatura team created lessons to accompany the book, including Nature and Living Beings, Birds’ Homes, and Birds and Climate. Then they trained eight teachers from three Mexican states (Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero) to include the book in their curriculum. A year later, Pronatura trained 28 more teachers. By 2017, they had trained 66 teachers from 40 schools, half of which were located in Chiapas’ Indigenous communities.
Bringing Chipilo into the classroom has sometimes been challenging, says teacher Mario Alberto Pérez Ruiz, native Tsotsil speaker. Chiapas remains one the poorest states in Mexico—76 percent of its population lives in poverty—and some of his colleagues worked in schools that lacked basic supplies like paper, scissors, and colored pencils. Pérez has worked hard to incorporate the lessons into his curriculum at a school near San Cristóbal de las Casas. He first started teaching about Chipilo in 2015, when he was one of two teachers in Pueblo de Israel, a Tsotsil village of 200 people. There his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students built a nest and learned geography following the bird’s migration path. In other schools, students created radio programs recounting the dangers that birds like Chipilo face, wrote and performed plays and songs like the one that made Azuara cry, and installed native-plant gardens on their school grounds.
Despite their success, Macías and her colleagues at Pronatura felt they could do more. The book was mostly being taught at bicultural and bilingual schools, but it was written in Spanish. These schools exist to strengthen Indigenous languages, but they fall short on that promise. “They are a big joke,” says Martínez, the linguistic anthropologist. When the Secretary of Education assigns teachers to schools, there’s seemingly no effort to place them in areas where they speak the native language, she explains. While the hundreds of Indigenous languages and variations spoken in Mexico all come from ancient Mayan, they’re as different from each other as Spanish is from Italian or French. So a teacher who speaks Tsotsil, for example, can end up in a school where children speak Tojolabal. As a result, in the classroom they default to their common language: Spanish.
Juan Benito de la Torre López at his house in Chiapas. Photo: Jorge Silva Rivera
So they contacted writer Juan Benito de la Torre López, a native Tsotsil speaker. De la Torre and his daughter Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez translated the children’s book to Tsotsil over four months. Some of the work was straightforward—the Tsotsil already have a name for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, for instance: K’anal ton sat Chipe. But in many instances they were starting from scratch. “It was very fun, but also very hard,” he says. “We had to come up with new terms quite often.” The Tsotsil people, for example, have only two seasons: vo’tik, the time of rain (April to October), and korixmatik, the time of lent (October to March). So they had to create names for the four seasons mentioned in the book: spring is Chk’ exp’uj yanal te’, the time when all the hills start to turn green; summer is Ch-och vo’tik, when the rainy season arrives; fall is Chlok’ vo’tik, end of the rainy season; and winter is Yora siktik, the coldest of times.
Once the translation,Slo’il xch’iel Chipilo Crisopario, was finished, in 2018, it immediately hit a hurdle. “Teachers didn’t want to read the book in front of the children,” Azuara says. “They were ashamed they would make a mistake.” This insecurity is directly related to the racist policies that relegated Tsotsil and other Mayan languages to non-public places. The more than 500,000 Tsotsil speakers have kept the language alive by speaking it with family and friends, but there is no written tradition, says Martínez. It was only in the late 1990s when Tsotsil-speaking professionals and writers first established the writing rules for Tsotsil using the Latin alphabet. Today even if people can speak it, many don’t know how to read it or read it confidently. Bilingual education specialists suggested recording the text as an audiobook. “That way, teachers wouldn’t feel insecure in the classroom,” Azuara says.
Creating a Tsotsil version of Chipilo was a family affair, with two of Juan Benito de la Torre's daughters playing critical roles. Ana Guadalupe (left) helped with the translation, and Floriana recorded herself reading the story for the audiobook.
Photo: Jorge Silva Rivera
She convinced Floriana de la Torre, the translator’s oldest daughter, to record herself reading the Tsotsil version. De la Torre recorded herself over and over again from May to August. Now the recording is ready, but COVID-19 has stalled its dispersal: Schools are closed, and for most students attending virtual classrooms isn’t an option. Only 61 percent of Tzotzil localities have internet access, and of those only 22 percent have access to a 4G network (the technology needed to have effective group calls or video meetings, for example), according to government data.
Azuara and Macías are exploring other routes to deliver Chipilo to Indigenous students in Chiapas—and beyond. They’re considering distributing the audiobook to teachers via USBs, and have shared the recording on social media. They’ve discussed having a Tsotsil radio station broadcast the audiobook. One day, they would potentially translate the text into other Mayan languages spoken by communities throughout the rest of the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s range. In the coming years the story of one tiny warbler could spread across its 10,319-square-mile forest habitat, teaching children about the importance of saving its habitat while simultaneously helping to lift up their native languages. “This little bird is incredible,” says Azuara.
“It has made us fly.”