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Anita’s Blog – Dusky Dancers, Fragile Forktails

The Hairy Wedelia was looking a bit rough. I checked to see if it was time to drastically cut it back and let it start over. When I got close, I saw it was busy hosting a tryst for two bluets. I uploaded a photo with my Smartphone’s iNaturalist app, which is how I discovered they were bluets.

The iNaturalist app is the easiest way to take part in the City Nature Challenge April 28 through May 1, 2023.

The City Nature Challenge is a big deal – not just for Texas Master Naturalists. All residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley are encouraged to participate. Later in this post you’ll find the link to learn about the City Nature Challenge 2023, but first, here are some reasons to consider the iNaturalist app.

Bluets. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Once they were identified from the iNaturalist app, I could begin learning about them via the Internet. Bluets are short and slim; hardly noticeable. They're damselflies. So are dusky dancers and fragile forktails. Bluets’ wings hang down on either side of the body, vivid dancers hold their wings above their body.

Dusky Dancer on sunflower leaf. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)
Here's the actual scene, can you spot the Dusky Dancer? (Photo by Anita Westervelt)
Fragile Forktail on Mexican Caesalpinia. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I thought it was a bit early in the year for damselflies to be out and about, although I’d already had dragonflies join me on rounds with the lawn mower.

Damselflies and dragonflies are related. Both belong to the Odonata order, damselflies are in the suborder Zygoptera; dragonflies are in the Arisoptera suborder. Both are almost exclusively carnivorous, eating a wide variety of pesky insects like midges, gnats and mosquitoes.

Damselflies fold their wings in over their bodies. Dragonflies leave their wings outspread and hang out atop the tips of anything that will offer them the seemliest silhouette and are very keen to jet off before one can focus. However, they do have a peculiarity, which is to quickly return to the exact spot -- so here’s a tip: Focus on the branch tip, wait a few seconds and then capture the image when the dragonfly returns to where you have focused. Not always, of course, but frequently this works. Damselflies don’t generally come back when you startle them away from their perch – just so you know.

But this isn’t about damsels and dragons. It's about looking out for the tiny stuff during the upcoming City Nature Challenge, a friendly warning to be careful where you step – literally, like roly-poly bugs might be on the ground. They count, too, for the City Nature Challenge.

Common Pill Woodlouse (AKA roly-poly). (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Here are some other ideas to help make it a more fun experience to document what we live amongst. Carefully forage through the bushes, creep up on sunflowers and other bug-loving plants, round the corner of your house with trepidation – ok, perhaps not that cloak-and-dagger-ish, but check the sides of buildings for a lone robber fly or assassin bug, like the cool dude in the photo below.

Possibly a Triorla interrupta, an assassin fly. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Quietly stand and search tree leaves for a possible sharpshooter – that’s a bug, by the way, not a – well, you get the picture -- or hopefully, many pictures of critters, insects, worms and other things you normally don’t think about.

If you grow herbs or vegetables, check them closely. If you find a Phthiacnemia picta on a tomato, you'll soon see its larvae.

Phthiacnemia picta, a leaf-footed bug. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Those colorful little buggers are sap-suckers – photograph them for the BioBlitz, then knock them off into a bag, a cup or other container and dispose of them (squash them).

The colorful larvae of Phthiacnemia picta. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Something was eating on a basil leaf; more were taking chuncks out of the leaves on a kale plant. Had I not photographed the odd looking critters and identified them via the iNaturalist phone app, I would have wiped out what would eventually mature into adult seven-spotted Lady beetles. What's one sacrificed plant for a colony of Lady bugs, right?

A baby Lady bug -- larval stage of seven-spotted Lady beetle. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I can’t be exuberant enough about how fun (and incredibly easy) setting up a blacklight and white sheet is to see what’s visiting the yard after the sun goes down. Our Webmaster, Joseph Connors, has an excellent tutorial about mothing:

But expect more than moths –

Lochmaeodes cornuticeps, a long-horn beetle. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Cool looking critters like Lochmaeodes cornuticeps might hang around for four nights. I was going to begin monitoring its daytime activity, but it left the fifth morning. Toads, frogs, house lizards, mantises and other predators will show up, too.

Here is my best advice during the four days of the BioBlitz: As soon as the sun comes up, walk slowly, carry a small phone camera and search the universe for all it has to offer, then toss on a headlamp and visit your moth sheet periodically from dusk to dawn.

Check out my article from Saturday’s McAllen Monitor for other hints on finding the small stuff and suggestions for successfully photographing observations at this link:

Don’t overlook things coming up between the cracks of the sidewalk and all the other native plants around you.

Berlandier's Trumpets. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Back to the state of affairs of the Hairy Wedelia (Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida, also called Zexmenia and Texas creeping-oxeye. The plant was actually just living up to its historical claim of being hardy, long-lived, drought-tolerant, long-blooming, non-aggressive, easy to grow and popular as a low, shrubby flower for massing in full sun. Several sources recommend that it be cut back periodically – but not this year for this shrub.

Check out to read about the annual City Nature Challenge and how to join. It's free.

Also, see what other Texas Master Naturalists have to say about joining the challenge:

Once you’ve photographed everything in your yard, think about going somewhere you’ve never been before in our four-county area: Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy. Check out the great list our South Texas Border Chapter Webmaster, Joseph Connors, quickly drafted up for this blog post. Also, check individual city parks and recreation directories for possible city nature parks and trails.

Suggested locations to visit and photograph nature during the City Nature Challenge:

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park - Mission

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands World Birding Center - Edinburg

Estero Llano Grande State Park - Weslaco

Falcon State Park - Falcon Heights

Frontera Audubon - Weslaco

Hugh Ramsey Nature Park - Harlingen

La Feria Nature Center and Birding Center - La Feria

La Sal del Rey - Edinburg

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge - Los Fresnos

McAllen Nature Center - McAllen

National Butterfly Center - Mission

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park - Brownsville

Pharr/Vanguard Academy Nature & Birding Center - Pharr

Quinta Mazatlán World Birding Center - McAllen

Resaca de la Palma State Park - Brownsville

Roma Bluffs World Birding Center - Roma

Sabal Palm Sanctuary - Brownsville

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - Alamo

South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center - South Padre Island

South Texas Ecotourism Center - Laguna Vista

The Butterfly Garden at Oleander Acres RV Resort - Mission

Valley Nature Center - Weslaco



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