Dragonfly hunter

Longtime local collector discovers a new green gem

Posted: Sunday, August 02, 2009

John Hudson walks up the Auke Lake boat ramp, holding a dragonfly by its wings in one hand and a white net in the other. He introduces himself briefly and launches straight into a description of dragonfly sex.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"It's a paddle-tail," he said, pointing out the organs of interest. The male mosaic darner has two little paddles on the end of his tail, which he uses to tow the female around until she sees things his way and bends her abdomen toward his. As he does that, he'll try to remove any other fellows' sperm, so they can't fertilize the eggs she carries.

That's just by way of introduction, though. On this day, Hudson is on the hunt for a rarer treasure.

It's one he found up north in Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge while helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service look for dragonflies. He was lucky enough to net a Somatochlora minor, or ocellated emerald dragonfly - named for two ocelot-like spots on its side - that had never been seen in Alaska before.

Then Hudson came back to Juneau, where he's been collecting dragonflies for a decade, and found one just like it at Auke Lake.

"I thought I knew everything that occurred here," he said, then thought a moment. "Most people just totally underestimate dragonfly diversity in their hometowns."

With the new emerald, Alaska now has 35 known species and Juneau has 24. Hudson will have to add a new page in the next edition of "Dragonflies of Alaska," which he cowrote in 2005 with Juneau naturalist and photographer Bob Armstrong.

Alaska is a frontier for dragonfly research. Few people study them here. They're far from being able to answer why some species live here and not there, or how well they're doing, or a million other research questions.

They're still in the hunt-and-catalog stage.

"You chase it down for an hour," he said, "and then you pull something out of your net that you've never seen."

For now, his dead bug collection could use some new ocellated emerald specimens, and that's a tall order. Dragonflies are out on this first day of sun in quite a while, but most of them are blue darner males. They're patrolling every inch of their territory, looking for males to fight and females to mate with. The females are hiding in the grass, trying to lay eggs in peace.

They're not easy to catch. Dragonflies can see in every direction except directly behind them, and "they have pretty good peripheral vision, as you'd imagine, with 60,000 eyes," Hudson notes.

But he is practiced and nimble. He swipes at one - a darner, darn it. He stalks the bugs, watching them buzz in a ray of sunshine, somehow staying dry as he darts about the Auke Lake marsh. And as he waits, he's releasing a flood of tidbits about these creatures that fascinate him.

A sampling:

• Some species roost only at night and are so fast they can only be caught by shooting them down with water guns.

• Dragonflies are cold-blooded, but sometimes raise their body temperature by vibrating their wings, like doing jumping jacks to get warm but a thousand times faster.

• While most female dragonflies flick their eggs into the water, female darners deposit them into plant stems they cut with the serrated ends of their tails.

Something swoops by Hudson, and he's all action. Two emeralds, fighting!

"How do you catch something like that?" he says.

He spots another and makes his move - up to his chest in water, and the little emerald taunts him from afar. Another swing and he gets the bug. There it is: an ocellated emerald.

Hudson shows off its spots, its shimmering eyes, and the male's tail-end tweezers for mating - until it slips away and flies off into the sun.

"What a day! The elusive ocellated emerald," he says.

That's the sort of find you get, Hudson says, "if you're in the right time and place - and you're willing to go over your boots."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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