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A Rainbow of Color at the Lucius Burch Natural Area

Entomology 101The Lucius E. Burch, Jr. State Natural Area is probably best-known to Memphians as “that place with all the sunflowers.”  Every summer, people driving down Germantown Parkway rubberneck for weeks at the masses of enormous sunflowers just off the road.  The parking lot is always full of photographers and families with kids running alongside the field; it’s a special respite from one of the busiest thoroughfares in the suburbs.  For a while, that was the sum total of my own experience with this 728-acre corner of Shelby Farms Park.  But when I started serious dragonfly-watching last summer, I spent a lot of time looking for new spots to explore, and I remembered seeing a shallow pond a little ways back from the road.  So I decided to investigate, and returned several times over the next few months.  Each time I was rewarded with something colorful and interesting.

Here’s a view from the pond to show just how close this little nature haven is to the busy street.

Lucius Burch Natural Area

I have the same trouble with female forktail damselflies as I do with sulphur butterflies–they all kinda look the same to me.  But I’m pretty sure both of the below are female citrine forktails (Ischnura hastata).  I’m also going to hazard a guess that the first dragons/damsels I see in 2013 will be these.  They have a pretty long season, and they stuck around long after everyone else had fled.  The top photo is one of my favorites because the way the light was glinting off the surface of the pond was just gorgeous.  It’s probably the most glamorous photo I have of something eating a spider.Lucius Burch Natural Area forktails

Clockwise from top, some of the rainbow assortment available any given day at this pond:
1. More gorgeous glinting in this photo of a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).
2. How I first knew this place was special: this is the only calico pennant (Celithemis elisa) I’ve seen so far.  (It has a large range, but it’s vibrant enough that it wouldn’t have escaped my notice had I spotted it elsewhere.)  Check out how its abdomen is made up of black and red triangles.
3. A male twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), lookin’ all chalky.
4. A female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis).
5. A male slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta).  My photo of his female companion was a little blurry, but I don’t want you to think he was alone in the world.Lucius Burch Natural Area dragonflies

The yellow part of the rainbow is covered by this sulphur butterfly.  I’m making a wild guess and calling this one a male little yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) because of its black spots and the prominent banding on the outer margin of the wing.  I’m much more certain that the yellow flowers in the right and bottom images are sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale).  Don’t let the name fool you–you’re probably not allergic to it.  Its dried leaves were once used to make a snuff that was meant to be inhaled, so that the subsequent sneezing would rid the body of evil spirits.  These are good fall-flowering garden plants, too, and you can see how gorgeous it looks when planted in abundance.

Lucius Burch Natural Area sneezeweed

In early October, most of the dragonflies and damselflies had disappeared, but I stopped by the pond one afternoon just to see if it would live up to its reputation for hosting a unique population.  Check and check: within ten minutes, I’d spotted two new-to-me species.  Here are the only two shots I managed to get of the Southern spreadwing damselfly (Lestes australis).  I think these are the first spreadwings I’ve shown on this blog, because I used to see them frequently in Pittsburgh but this is the first Memphis pair.  They’re very distinctive, because they have the slender bodies of damselflies, but they hold their wings outward like dragonflies.  These two also had the shyness of some dragonflies–they fled to the middle of the pond every time I’d catch up with them.Lucius Burch Natural Area spreadwings

No shyness with the dragonfly I spotted that afternoon, though: the blue-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum).  I think it’s funny that its scientific name suggests ambiguity when it’s one of the only meadowhawks that’s immediately identifiable due to the color of its face.  It’s also the only meadowhawk with brownish stripes on its abdomen.  (Oh, scientific names…the humor you bring us all!  *cough* nerd *cough*)  Anyway, there were two males of this species I saw roaming around, and neither of them was particularly bothered by me.  These guys are rainbows unto themselves.Lucius Burch Natural Area blue-faced meadowhawk

In autumn, there’s a lot of glowing tans and browns at the pond, including a pearl crescent butterfly, a skipper (not sure which kind), and those crane flies that fly sorta like damselflies but are in fact something else entirely.Lucius Burch Natural Area

A wandering glider was one of the last dragonflies sticking around in the fall.Lucius Burch Natural Area

Even in the dead of winter, there’s something to see here.  On a warm January day, I decided to go for a walk along the trails and watch the Wolf River for a while.  (The woods are beautiful, but absolutely infested with invasive privet.  Shelby Farms Park has done a ton of volunteer privet pulls this winter, which I’m sure will continue for years to come.)  As I was pulling into the parking lot, I noticed a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) right by the side of the road.  It was the closest I’d ever been to one.  I had just enough time to get out of my car, set my exposure, and fire off a distant test shot before someone’s car alarm went off.  So while I probably would have had a much longer series of photos without that interruption, I did get some beautiful shots of the bird in flight.  No matter how many times I see this bird, it always stops me in my tracks.  It’s so majestic, and its coloring is unlike anything else.

Lucius Burch Natural Area Great Blue Heron

I’m looking forward to heading back to the LBNA for plenty more adventures in 2013!

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