Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
A person holding a butterfly net on the side of the lake at sunset.

Sonje Bols is an interpreter and naturalist for Ontario Parks and coordinates the Discovery Drop-in program at several parks in northeastern Ontario. He loves dragonflies: watching them, capturing and identifying their species, and pretty much everything else about them.

As soon as it’s warm enough to be outside in a t-shirt and shorts, you’ll probably find me “hating.”

Hating? Is that a typo?

The root of the word – ode – is the short form that many naturalists use to Odonate, the scientific surname of a group of insects made up of dragonflies and damselflies.

Going “haunting” is venturing outside to catch and identify these insects.

Obsessed with ode

In recent years it has become something of an obsession for me. You may think it’s a strange hobby, but hear me out.

A hand holding a dragonfly.The correct way to hold an odonate is to gently grasp its wings, as shown.

I was first introduced to the world of odes while working on the Discovery Program in Algonquin Provincial Park during the summer of 2009.

Specifically, I remember a casual conversation one afternoon between two other park naturalists and me outside the staff house, where one stopped mid-sentence when he saw a dragonfly flying across the grass.

He immediately grabbed his net, ran after the insect, and after some wild swings, finally managed to catch it. Pulling the wriggling insect out of his net, she sighed, “Ah, a Canada Darner. I thought maybe it was a Somatochlora.“(somatochlora being a rarely found genus of dragonflies, as I later learned).

I was amused and a little intrigued by the intensity of this person.

Two people swinging butterfly nets on a boardwalk.Some obsessed naturalists chasing dragonflies

My first thoughts were, “Wait, there is more than one type of dragonfly?” and “Catching dragonflies is a stuff?

Four hands holding dragonflies.The Darner family is a particularly colorful and charismatic group of large odonates. Here we see how much variation can be found in a single species: Lake Darner.

I soon learned that there are over 100 different species of odonate in Algonquin alone (almost 200 in Ontario). And yes, it is indeed a stuff to capture them (there are over 64,000 observations of Ontario odonates on the nature app iNaturalist and counting).

Learning from the best

That summer I was lucky enough to accompany my co-workers on many expeditions through the vast park. These were some of Ontario Parks’ talented naturalists and they were always eager to share their knowledge with others.

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People catching dragonflies in the water with one hand holding a dragonfly close up.A typical post-work odeing expedition, in search of Zebra Clubtails

Under his mentorship, I gained a lasting appreciation for these insects and a passion for trapping and identifying them.

Unlike many other insects (butterflies and moths, for example), dragonflies are relatively easy to handle without damaging their wings, as long as you’re gentle.

They can be carefully removed from the net and held with their wings together above the back. This provides the opportunity to take that important close look, for relatively quick identification and release.

Unique habits

Each species tends to have its own personality: the habitats they visit, their flight patterns, and the season in which they fly. And it is a pleasure to learn about each of them.

I learned that the Fawn Darner can usually be found flying low over slow-moving streams, and that the Stygian Shadowdragons and Vesper Bluets usually only come out at dusk.

Dragon hunters will hunt and kill other dragonflies, and most dragonflies will easily devour a deer fly if you dangle it in front of their jaws.

A dragon-hunting dragonfly and its prey.The aptly named dragon-hunting dragonfly with its prey: a Baskettail Prince. If this were a nature documentary, the narrator would say, “At the end of this fairy tale, it is the dragon who kills the prince.”

While I may have laughed at that quirky naturalist chasing dragonflies on the lawn of the staff house, by the end of the summer, I was just as crazy about the odes.

So what’s the problem with trapping odonates?

Simply put, it’s just fun. There’s nothing like the thrill of a successful net hit announced by the sweet sound of a humming ode caught in the fabric. It seems to me similar to catching a fish or scoring a goal.

People on a boardwalk looking for dragonflies.Let the adventures of Odeing begin.

Add some equally enthusiastic friends, plus some friendly competition (“let’s see who can catch the most species today!”) and the fun increases.

You can find dragonflies almost anywhere and I find it particularly rewarding to explore new habitats to see what species I can find. No matter where I go, I can look forward to the chance to catch a new one.

Equally rewarding is identifying them on your hand.

Birds and mammals sometimes offer only a quick glimpse and can be difficult to identify (juvenile warblers, anyone?), but odes often have striking patterns with distinctive features, making identification easy.

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Two dragonflies held with two hands.Identifying dragonflies is fun! Color patterns and markings are key to identifying species. The broken stripes on the dragonfly’s thorax on the left identify it as a Variable Darner, while the “staff” shape on the other makes it a Shadow Darner.
Comparing a dragonfly to a guide.For more complicated species, there are excellent field guides.

It’s also about memories.

My best hunting experiences (and some of my best memories) have always involved a good group of friends, an eventful foray into the wild, and the goal of capturing an especially rare species.

Two landscape photos.

I stood in the middle of a dense swarm of Blacktip Darners, catching six of them with a single swing of the net.

I have walked through countless swamps while attacked by black flies to catch a Delicate Emerald or Ebony Boghaunter.

I spent the day canoeing and portaging in the August heat to a secluded shoreline to find a boreal snaketail.

And it’s ALWAYS worth it: exploring a new landscape, getting another ode on your life list, and living a great story to remember. Challenges make victory that much sweeter.

No wonder you find them here.

All this net swinging isn’t just for fun: it also contributes to our knowledge of the park’s wildlife and species distribution across the province. Ode-ers act as field scientists, monitoring population fluctuations and even finding previously unreported species.

A few years ago, a group of former Algonquin Park naturalists even published a field guide to the odonates in and around Algonquin Provincial Park. This is the field guide that fueled my understanding of ode identification and is considered by many to be the best for Eastern Canada.

I started making odes in Ontario parks, and it makes sense: parks are havens for odonates. The parks protect vast expanses of wetlands, which are crucial habitat for their aquatic life stage.

A person holding a butterfly net on the side of the lake at sunset.Dragonfly watching in the boreal forest on the shores of Lake Achilles, Lake Fushimi Provincial Park

Many parks also offer Discovery programs geared toward capturing and identifying insects, as well as checklists of species you may encounter.

However, if your curiosity about odonates is piqued, you don’t necessarily have to visit a park to start swinging a net!

I’ve caught good dragonflies everywhere, including city centers, cornfields, and suburbs.

There are numerous ways to enjoy the outdoors, make memories, and feel a sense of accomplishment, and ode is just one of mine. I encourage you to grab a net and try it – you might just get the “bug!”