Biologist stumbles upon 2 winged 'beasts' new to Manitoba

A Winnipeg biologist has had not one, but two chance encounters with winged insect critters this summer that aren't supposed to be in Manitoba.

1st sightings of calico pennant dragonfly, blue-fronted dancer damselfly documented in Manitoba

An adult calico pennant dragonfly in Sandilands Provincial Forest. Mature calico pennants have distinctive red splotches on their wings and triangular shapes dotting their abdomen. (Jim Reist)

A Winnipeg biologist has had not one, but two chance encounters with winged insect critters this summer that aren't supposed to be in Manitoba.

Jim Reist has been interested in the natural world for the past 50 years. It's one of the reasons he became a biologist.

But he never expected to be the first in Manitoba to come across the calico pennant dragonfly and the blue-fronted dancer damselfly, and certainly not in the span of a few weeks.

While out bug hunting near the end of August, Reist happened upon the blue-fronted dancer resting on the gravel of a walking path in Winnipeg. That species has never been recorded in the province but is found about 220 kilometres to the south along the Red River in North Dakota.

This blue-fronted dancer damselfly was spotted on a gravel path in Winnipeg this summer. (Jim Reist)

Despite subsequent trips back to that path, Reist never saw another dancer in the city, leading him to believe it was just one "errant individual" swept north in a summer storm that he saw that day.

'Bouncing around the bush'

His big find came seven weeks earlier.

Reist visited Sandilands Provincial Forest early one July morning this summer when he made his first serendipitous find. He arrived at Reynolds Ponds, about 65 kilometres east of Winnipeg, and went "bouncing around the bush" with his camera.

Jim Reist found the blue-fronted dancer on this Churchill Drive parkway path. (Jim Reist)

"Had my lunch, geared up, figured I'd do a bit of wandering up and down the trails and see what was around in terms of bugs," he said.

It was in an upland meadow near one of the ponds where the ornate designs of a dragonfly caught his eye. Perched on top of a few dry grass stems, it was smaller in length than the average pinky finger and had small triangular marks dotting the length of its tiny abdomen.

It was, 'OK, we've got a new beast for the province.'- Jim Reist

"I didn't know what it was at the time," Reist says, adding he snapped some photos and went on his way.

When he arrived home and hauled out one of his dragonfly field guides, he realized he had photographed a calico pennant dragonfly. That didn't make a whole lot of sense, though.

The species is usually found throughout eastern North America, and the next closest sighting on record was in Minnesota, about 300 kilometres south of Reist's find.
Calico pennants were found in this pond. (Jim Reist)

Feeling slightly unsure, he posted the photos in an online group of like-minded dragonfly lovers looking for advice. Within a couple minutes, the author of the very field guide he was using responded and confirmed he had photographed a female calico pennant.

"He came back and said, 'There is no record, it's never been seen before in Manitoba. Congratulations on the range extension,'" Reist said.

But that initial sighting could've just been a one-off anomaly, he thought. Maybe that lone female got caught up in a storm that blew her into Manitoba. It wouldn't be an uncommon occurrence; light as air, dragonflies often get swept up in strong winds and deposited far from their homes.

An adult female calico pennant dragonfly spotted in Sandilands Provincial Forest this summer. Females and young calico pennants contain yellow markings. As males mature, that yellow turns red. (Jim Reist)

Reist and fellow bug-lovers Larry de March and Deanna Dodgson were curious enough to head back out to Sandilands to see if they could find more, and that they did.

They found them scattered across six separate ponds within a couple kilometres of each other. They found males. They found more females. They even found newly emerged young calico pennants, which meant the little mosquito-eaters were likely breeding in Manitoba this summer.

'New beast'

"It was, 'OK, we've got a new beast for the province,'" Reist said.

It all started to suggest that the species might not be as "new" to the province as initially suspected.

In Reist's mind, there are three possible explanations for how or when the calico pennant made its way to Manitoba. It's possible, if not less likely, that the entire group was blown north in a storm. Or it could be they've recently come into Manitoba through natural colonization processes, and Reist "just happened to walk into them."

"And 'recent' in this instance isn't necessarily within the last year or even decade — it could be even longer than that," he said.

The third — and most likely possibility in Reist's mind — is that the calico pennant has been a Manitoba-resident for a long time and simply went unnoticed.

"That they are part of the native, normal fauna for the province, but just hadn't been documented as yet, is actually pretty likely, given that there's not a heck of a lot of really in depth, adequate surveys of biodiversity for small things like insects and dragonflies," Reist said, adding it's hard to say for certain how long calico pennants have been buzzing around Sandilands forest, or how long they may remain in Manitoba.

Reist says he still can't believe his luck dragonfly hunting this summer.

"It was a little surreal ... and pretty cool."

He plans to publish his findings in a scientific paper.

Reist plans to publish his findings in a scientific journal. (Jim Reist)


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email