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The University Magazine

Capturing damsels & dragons

Alumni Steve and Vici Diehl help document species with vivid photographs

Four-spotted skimmer dragonfly­

southern spreadwing­

tule bluet­

unicorn clubtail­

Steve and Vici Diehl­

Capturing and photographing large, flying insects is challenging work. For Steve and Vici Diehl, it’s also a fun and rewarding experience that has become an obsession.

The Diehls, who reside in Antwerp, in northern New York, have become Odonata (dragonfly and damselfly) researchers. Over the past two years, they have put in hundreds of hours wading through bogs, swamps and rivers and hiking fields and forests to net, identify and photograph damselflies and dragonflies.

Vici and Steve are alumni of RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences where Steve Diehl ’76, ’85 (professional photography, instructional technology) is currently an associate professor in the Imaging and Photographic Technology Department. Vici Zaremba Diehl ’75 (photo illustration) runs the couple’s photography business, Indian River Photography. She also consults on environmental issues and serves as a board member of the Indian River Lakes Conservancy.

“I have loved dragonflies since I was about 8 years old,” Vici says. “I remember hiking near the Adirondack Park with my Girl Scout troop to a small lake where thousands of dragonflies had just emerged.

“The granite rocks were covered with them; their wings were sparkling in the sun. This is a vivid, great memory.”

Damselflies and dragonflies, which range in size from one to four inches in length, are suborders of the insect order Odonata. Damselflies are generally smaller and more delicate than dragonflies and can be distinguished by their resting wings, which are held together or partially open over their abdomens. Dragonflies’ wings, at rest, are always straight out at their sides like an airplane.

The Diehl’s dragonfly and damselfly research began when Vici read that the New York Natural Heritage Program (a partnership between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and The Nature Conservancy) was seeking volunteers to assist with their survey. Vici quickly enlisted herself and Steve as volunteers. They headed to Jamestown, N.Y., for training on identification and field survey protocols.

Armed with sweep nets, field guides from other states and their photography equipment, the Diehls have been able to capture, identify and photograph approximately 95 of the 190-plus species known in New York state during two seasons of survey work. Steve excels with the net, using 15 to 20 feet of handle to snag high flyers. Vici is considered one of the best survey participants at identification, with an accuracy rate over 90 percent.

The equipment and techniques they use in the field allow the Diehls to create images that exceed the survey requirements. One of the goals is to use these images to produce, with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York Natural Heritage Program, a state field guide.

“While most people like dragonflies and damselflies, it is only recently that thorough surveying and research efforts have begun,” says Vici. “Many birders and other naturalists have turned their attention to damsels and dragons as so little is known about them.”

The Diehls are grateful for the generous support of major imaging companies aiding their efforts. Pentax of America Inc. has donated camera systems to photograph live specimens. F.J. Westcott Co. provided additional lighting equipment. Epson’s V700 flatbed scanner enables them to make images of adult specimens and exuviae (skins shed during emergence) with greater resolution than camera-generated images. HP donated printing supplies.

Their survey work in Monroe County last summer yielded 18 Odonata species of which four were new to the county. Of those four, three were discovered on the RIT campus during several brief outings: the unicorn clubtail dragonfly (Ariogomphus villosipes), the tule bluet damselfly (Enallagma carunculatum), and the southern spreadwing damselfly (Lestes disjunctus australis).

The images they have made range from dragonflies and damselflies in their natural environment to close-up, detail shots exhibiting species-specific characteristics. They have plans to collaborate with RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science to create Odonata wing pattern recognition software. This would enable Odonata researchers to input an image and get an identification, much like facial recognition software. Steve assisted in arranging for a graduate student from RIT’s Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences to begin his capstone work rebuilding the database for the entire New York Natural Heritage Program.

“We began this project as volunteers for the Natural Heritage Program,” Steve says, “but have since brought RIT talent and resources to bear on the survey with the possibility of more RIT involvement in the future.

“This is all in the early stages, but we see some great possibilities for future Odonata imaging and research.”

Patricia Beggs ’09

For more information on the New York Natural Heritage Program, visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/29338.html.

Additional information on Odonata can be found at www.odonatacentral.org.