Dragonflies and Damselflies are the most popular group of insects among non-specialist nature watchers after the Lepidoptera. They have long been of interest to many people because of their large size, diurnal habits and great beauty, in Japan many nature reserve have been made primarily to protect Odonates and in many countries they have their own societies. It is no surprise then to see more identification literature being published on them.
While I was a little wary of reviewing a book on American species, being a European entomologist myself, however the magazine publishers believed my knowledge of the Odonata would be sufficient for the job and so I have attempted it. The book is a field guide, designed to be taken out into the countryside and used in situ for the identification of living species. It covers 124 species from the 9 counties of North-eastern Ohio and each species is illustrated in colour, often with additional illustrations of the important abdominal segments. The book is ringbound which gives it the advantage of staying open at whatever page you lay it down open at, something that is quite useful in the field. Some tips on catching Odonates in a net might have been a useful addition for people new to entomology.
Each species is described textually and information is supplied on rarity, habitat preferences and flight times as well as on physical structure. The book is prefaced with a small introduction to Odonate biology and is suffixed with a number of addenda giving visual additional identification charts for Spiketails, Bluets and Dancers along with a chart delineating flight times and rarity of all species included in the book. The chart of Bluet AS 2 and AS 8-10 segments for males should be particularly useful.
The book is factually accurate as far as I can tell and should prove a great boon to naturalists working in the designated area, and in nearby areas where the books broad scope will make it equally useful. If used in the manner I have suggested below I suspect it will be very successful as an identification guide. However I was struck by several fundamental differences between this guide and the European ones I am used to using myself. The first obvious difference is in the illustrations. It is very noticeable that no wing venation is included in the illustrations, this was somewhat of a shock to someone who is used to, not only having the wing venation drawn for every species, but in using the venation to clarify identification in some cases, while this is not possible when viewing through binoculars, it is when dealing with hand held specimens as explained above. Secondly the illustrations all looked a little fuzzy, not properly focused to me, this image was reinforced when I compared the images in this book with those in some of my European texts. While I have great appreciation of the work of any artist, and I am not suggesting that the images in this work are inadequate I think all concerned would be surprised if the saw the quality of the illustrations in "Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland." by Steve Brooks illustrated by Richard Lewington to name but one book.
I was a little disappointed in the textual descriptions of the animals, they are all clear and follow the standard Lepidopteran county list type format. However in an identification guide, especially one hoping to be used for distance identification I would have thought the descriptions could have been better worded so as to focus the observers attention on those characteristics needed to distinguish similar species. For example the statement "This species is almost identical to the Ruby Meadowhawk." page 49, should be followed by a sentence starting "The best means of separating the two are .......".
The authors repeat several times that this book will allow for field identification with close focusing binoculars, personally I have my doubts about utility this. While field identification of uncaught specimens is entirely possible, and even easy in some cases once you know the species, it is often difficult to near impossible for very similar species or for people unfamiliar with the animals they are studying. While it is true that killed and set specimens lose their colours quickly, this does not mean that we should all through our nets away, indeed part of the joy of studying Odonates is the skill of hunting and catching them alive. Personally I have found the best approach, when dealing with new or unfamiliar species, is to catch the specimen and then to identify it while it is held in the hand. One soon learns to avoid the attempts at biting and to prevent the animals damaging themselves while held. This method has the advantage that characteristics can be examined minutely and at leisure. It also allows salient points to be brought into close focus when leading guided walks or teaching others species identification.
To sum up, this is a rather lovely and neatly produced little book that will undoubtedly bring an increase of joy in the natural world to many people but I think that if the publishers are going to reissue it sometime in the future a few changes could be positively made.