Elizabethton man captures beauty of dragonflies, damselflies in photographs

9:45 am | August 4, 2013

For various cultures, dragonflies symbolize good fortune. These winged insects and their kin, the damselflies, have certainly worked their magic on one Elizabethton resident and photographer.

Lewis Tester has been a dedicated “ode hunter” for the past four years.
Ode, short for Odonata, is a term used by dragonfly and damselfly enthusiasts to lump together the 5,900 species that comprise this order of the insect world.

When hunting odes, Elizabethton resident Lewis Tester approaches his quarry with great admiration and respect.

“They’re amazing,” he said. “They have such agility.”

Lewis took up photography about four years ago, and soon latched on to dragonflies and damselflies as his favorite photography subjects.

“They’re excellent photography subjects,” he said.

Photo by Lewis TesterThe Calico Pennant, pictured here, is a colorful species of dragonfly.

Photo by Lewis Tester
The Calico Pennant, pictured here, is a colorful species of dragonfly.

A few years ago, Tester read a newspaper article about Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport offering an annual Dragonfly Day.

He attended and got an excellent introduction to dragonflies. He also got to take part in some hands-on photography opportunities.

Lewis liked the event so much he has been back each summer for the past four years.

This year’s Dragonfly Day was held June 15.

As always, Tennessee dragonfly expert Richard Connor was the featured speaker.

Through their mutual interest in “odes,” the two men have struck up an acquaintance.

“We communicate through email a lot,” Lewis said.

Connor, who lives in Nashville, makes many visits to Northeast Tennessee to search out and photograph “odes.”

Tester said one of Connor’s favorite destinations is a series of privately owned ponds on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton.

“He really knows where to find them,” Tester said of Connor’s knack for recognizing locations attractive to odes.

Getting to know odes is not always easy.

“A few people are interested, but some don’t know the time and patience that it can take,” Lewis said.

Dragonflies and damselflies have taught him some important life lessons.

“If you just sit quietly and be patient, they will come to you,” he said. “They get really curious.”

Lewis has also learned that appearances can be deceiving.

The wings of these insects look delicate and fragile, but they’re not.

“Their wings are incredibly tough,” he said, which is a good thing considering their aerial lifestyle as top-notch predators on other insects.

Although they prey on a variety of other insects, Lewis points out that dragonflies and damselflies are harmless to humans.

“I’m still learning a lot about them,” Lewis said. “There’s not been a lot of research done on them.”

He learns a lot about dragonflies and damselflies at the website Odonata_Central.org, which he described as a valuable online resource.

“It has pictures, forums, records and research destinations,” Lewis said. “It also has printable checklists.”

Checklists simplify the process of keeping track of his observations.

Lewis said he has 30 confirmed observations in the region and one uncomfirmed record.

In addition, he owns two field guides that he highly recommends: Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson and the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, Donald Stokes and Lillian Stokes.

The passion he holds for these insects has also been a form of therapy for Lewis.

“I’m 47, and I’ve been around the block,” he said. “The odes have brought me out of my shell and helped connect me with nature and God.”

For Lewis, there’s nothing quite like sitting by a river or pond and observing his favorite insects.

“I watch them catch other bugs,” he said. “I can sit there long enough, and it’s like they try to communicate with me.”

Lewis has also used the website Shutterfly to turn his photographs of dragonflies and damselflies into refrigerator magnets, wall calendars and even books.

“I would love to do a children’s book on dragonflies and damselflies,” he said.

He thinks such a book would be popular based on the reactions of his niece and nephew to the books he has had printed on Shutterfly.

“They love to look at the photos in the books,” he said.

His primary goal is to photograph as many different Odes as he can.

“It would really be nice to get paid for what you love to do,” he added.

Lewis has even worked ode quests into his travels.

In his quest for odes, he visits various locations in Tennessee, as well as Virginia.

“I want to start looking at areas in North Carolina,” he added. “Of course, when on vacation, I am looking for photo opportunities.”

He has pinpointed five species — Gray Petaltail, Halloween Pennant, Banded Pennant, Smoky Rubyspot and Painted Skimmer — that he would like to photograph in northeast Tennessee.

“I know the Halloween Pennant is around here,” he said. He also knows of two records of Gray Petaltail from Simerly Creek Road in Hampton.

In the Southern United States, he would like to observe and photograph a Roseate Skimmer.

If he gets an opportunity to travel in the western United States, he will keep alert for a Taiga Bluet.

Lewis said he has enjoyed looking for odes in Charleston, S.C., as well as at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Va.

“It’s a beautiful park,” he said. “It’s a wonderland of boardwalks and bridges over a large bog.”

The son of Harvey and Belva Tester, Lewis moved to Carter County from Bethesda, Md., when he was a fourth-grade student.

Lewis said he would love to share his knowledge of and enthusiasm for odonates.

“It’s a growing field,” he said. “The odes are finally being recognized.”

He noted that birders often turn to insects, including dragonflies and damselflies, as well as butterflies, during the hottest months of summer when birds are less active.

Lewis said he would love to speak on the topic of odes to any interested groups.
Dragonflies and damselflies remain active from spring through fall.

Odonates spend the first part of their lives as aquatic nymphs that are every bit the voracious predator that adults are.

“The larvae stay under water,” Lewis said. “In some cases, they may stay for years before transforming.”

When they do emerge, they take their place as superb aerialists.

Both dragonflies and damselflies remain active until the first frosts.

Photo by Brandon Hicks

Photo by Brandon Hicks

Lewis said that the Common Whitetail is usually one of the first dragonflies to emerge every spring, usually in middle to late April.

The Variable Dancer is one of the first damselflies to make an appearance.
“Some odes — Common Green Darner, Red Saddlebags and Black Saddlebags — even migrate,” Lewis said. “They have their seasons.”
Of course, he also knows that those seasons can be fleeting.

As summer wanes, so will the dragonflies and damselflies. That’s all part of the magic. After a long winter, a new generation of odes will emerge.
Lewis, camera in tow, will be waiting for them.

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