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I am really out of practice at these hiking posts, but this is better than nothing.

Yesterday looked like the best hiking day of the week, given various other constraints, so Raphael and I somewhat reluctantly pulled ourselves together and went to Wright County. There's a park in Monticello called Montissippi that is often rich in dragonflies and always rich in birds. Sometimes it's quiet and everything is hiding, but yesterday we were lucky. We went in hopes of seeing some clubtails that had been observed in that location by, as Raphael said, people other than us. We were lucky in a different way.

American Rubyspots are one of three species of damselfly often referred to as jewelwings that we see in Minnesota. I don't know if they are any less abundant than river and ebony jewelwings or just a little harder to spot because they're less dramatic and have a strong preference for sunny riverbanks and logs and rocks out in flowing water for their perches. But for some years I had only ever seen a single one, way up north at St. Croix State Park, perched on a rock in the abnormally low river during a drought year. Then Raphael found a city park that served as a convenient stopping-off place on the longish drive to Lake Itasca, and there were jewelwings in great abundance on the Mississippi River there; we got to see them doing their mating dances, and they were thick on all the emergent vegetation. This also happened during a drought year. We returned to the same spot several times and always did find some rubyspots, but when the river was higher we couldn't get right next to the vegetation they liked, and there was no exposed sand to walk on between the steep bank of the river and the strips of vegetation. The rubyspots were probably there, but we couldn't get to them as readily.

At Montissippi we've seen rubyspots on logs and rocks; on one memorable occasion, we saw exactly one, through binoculars, from the top of a bluff where the park has kindly placed a bench for better viewing of the river. The rubyspot was on a rock that, while nearer the shore than the middle of the river, was not particularly close; in any case, the bank was far too steep to consider climbing down.

There are plenty of images of rubyspots on the web. The first picture on this page is a male rubyspot:

And here's a female:

But none of them really conveys the quality of the insect in flight or even just perched on a dead stick or a broad leaf of river grape.

Yesterday the Mississippi River at Montissippi was high; we've had a lot of rain recently. I felt this would mean there would be no evident rubyspots, but I was wrong. The river was so high that there were no logs or rocks left unsubmerged, and the rubyspots had to come up to the top of the banks and hang out in the wildflowers and shrubbery there. There weren't any in the areas where we looked at first. We still had a grand time, because it was a lovely day for late August, though sticky, and the goldenrod and Old Man's Beard were blooming. The goldenrod was hosting an exuberant variety of tiny pollinators, including some tiny, extremely fancy moths we'd seen there before. The little mown area next to the parking lot for the boat ramp always hosts catbirds, and they were soon yelling at me while Raphael went back to the car to get a better lens for photographing tiny moths. Goldfinches swooped through or called gently, "Potato chip, potato chip, tato tato tato chip chip chip." Chickadees explained the dangers of everything in cascading buzzes, occasionally shouting, "Cheeseburger!" in the most melodious manner imaginable as a change of pace. Bluejays shrieked outrage, probably at hawks but maybe at us. Later on we heard redstarts and saw a female one dart from one impenetrable mass of vine-covered shrubbery to another. I heard several wrens burring and buzzing like tiny angry teletypes, and eventually one perched on a low dead branch and dropped several times to the ground as if it were catching insects. I think it was a winter wren, but I'm not at all sure; it was not cooperative about letting all of itself be seen. Its body shape and tail position were definitely wren-like, however.

At some point as we worked our way closer to the boat ramp, we started to see rubyspots. By the time we struck out through the picnic area to walk a little on the bluff top, we had found a border of wildflowers so dense with them that you could see three or four perched ones without having to turn your head.

There were also numerous powdered dancers and blue-fronted dancers; these are also largeish damselfies, but with a more standard wing shape than the jewelwings. They were prancing around the parking lot and perching on the railings of the fishing dock and on the boat ramp. We also saw a very fancy shield bug that decided to climb up my leg and walk around on my binoculars. I was worried about injuring it, so we tried putting it on a leaf, but it wasn't having any of that. Since it had liked the tie of my hat and also the strap of the binoculars, I offered it a grass blade, and it climbed off my shirt at once.

There's a bench in the picnic grounds with a view of the river, and for the first time I noticed that the oak trees lining the top of the bank were swamp white oak. A lot of the oak trees up on the top of the bluff were also swamp white oak. A few blue asters were blooming up there, and a great deal of both stiff goldenrod as well as other kinds of goldenrod. In time the sky clouded over to the point where mosquitoes started to come out and bite us. So we didn't sit on the bench overlooking the rock where we'd seen our sole rubyspot once, but noted that the rock was covered by water, though you could tell where it was by the way the surface of the river broke and moved around it.

Given the clouds and the mosquitoes, we went on to our next destination, which was in Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park. We've poked around the lakes a bit, but if I recall correctly we avoided the large swimming beach, and the others had access for canoes or other boats but no general way to get around on foot. So we've confined our visits to the Oak Savanna Reclamation Project Area, which at the moment is a really lovely rolling prairie full of native grasses and plants. The sky had cleared quite a bit while we were driving from one park to the other and the light was gorgeous. Yellow coneflower and goldenrod were the main things in bloom here. From a distance the grasses were red and brown and reddish brown. A few clumps of purple coneflower were still going, and the intriguing seedheads of many earlier plants stood everywhere among the big and little bluestem and switch grass. Raphael also successfully identified some side oats grama, which, like the other grasses, is lovely but looked especially ethereal in the evening light.

There are a couple of dead trees just at the start of the trail, and on the way back we saw a hawk sitting in the one closer to the prairie. It was not impressed with us, and we were able to get some good looks at it through our binoculars, though the light was a little difficult. We thought it would fly off when we passed under the tree, but it stuck to its post. Raphael got out the Sibley guide, and we decided that it was probably a juvenile red-tailed hawk. We went back to its tree again, treading quietly, but Raphael was carrying the open guidebook, and either the hawk saw something tasty out on the prairie or carrying a book was just one thing too many, because it flew off, gracefully, and disappeared over the grasses.


Edited to fix the first rubyspot link.


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