Dragons revisited—with different eyes

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Blue Dasher female on a clothesline

It’s been hot. Too hot for a lot of things. Paid a visit to the Town Forest Loop and the slime molds had gone to spore, the mushrooms were dried and shriveled, and I was covered in sweat. There was little inspiration for a nature-bumming column on that trail that day. More perspiring than inspiring. Not too hot for mosquitoes, though, which was a shame. Good day to be a cold-blooded predator, tough day to be prey.

When talking predatory insects, most “normal” minds jump to the insect order of Odonata—and specifically the dragonflies (sub-order Anisoptera). Not only are they fast, cool looking, and amazing fliers, but dragonflies are a major predator of mosquitoes, both in the aerial and sub-aquatic arenas. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single thing not to like about dragonflies.

Twelve Spotted Skimmer

When referring to dragonflies as predators, we are largely talking about times they are away from ponds, lakes or streams. At those habitats eating is not a priority. Instead, it’s all about the mating games. Dragonfly shoreline scenes here are often frenetic in an amped up, breeding sort of way. Male dragonflies aggressively patrolling, defending and chasing anything that enters their eternally morphing patch of habitat. It’s a mating game that makes you appreciate that you are not a female dragonfly. Not an uncommon thought when observing nature.
Go any distance away from water, however, and you are bound to cross paths with dragonflies “on the hunt.” Some will hunt on the wing, flying in a grid-like pattern that would probably make Fibonacci proud.

Painted Skimmer

In between hunts, and sometimes while performing the classic “hunting while resting” maneuver, dragonflies will perch on shrubs, posts, and the random dead twig or branch. It’s a relatively chill scene, where males and females of the same species can perch peacefully near each other. At certain times—maybe when they are digesting—even dragonflies become impressively docile and slow to flush. As someone who likes to document observations through photography, these times are greatly appreciated.

Widow Skimmer

With the heat, ventures have stayed close to “the clubhouse” work area and, more specifically, the fan that’s always spinning. To observe hunting and resting dragonflies, however, there was little reason to go much further. A male Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) spent a morning hunting from highbush blueberry twigs, and both Spangled (L. cyanea) and Slaty Skimmers (L. incesta) have been perching daily on the butterfly bush. Twelve-spotted Skimmers (L. pulchella) have been using posts and the few dead trees in the backyard to rest, hunt and pose. Painted Skimmers (L. semifasciata) have even taken to landing on wooden clothespins! Have I mentioned how much I like the genus Libellula?

Female Blue Dasher

Recently I’ve developed an appreciation for female Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis). Sounds a little creepy, I know, especially with that species name, but I’ve been observing male Blue Dashers “playing the game” at ponds for years. They are a very common and wonderful sight. Glimpses of female Blue Dashers at ponds are quite the opposite experience—quick and fleeting (while still being wonderful). This year, however, a couple of female Blue Dashers have decided the clothesline just outside the clubhouse is the perfect perch. It might be a good year for them or maybe my eyes are finally seeing what has perched all along, but they are always there!

Blue Dasher female

One afternoon, the female Blue Dashers allowed me to use my “newest tool” to closely pick up physical characteristics, as well as their intrinsic beauty. In other words, two of them let me get close with my macro lens. Closer than I would have ever imagined and haven’t come anywhere close since. The resulting photos did not disappoint.

The spikey dragonfly legs are funky for sure, but it’s the compact eyes in the photos that slay me. A complex form, dragonfly eyes are made up of thousands of elements known as facets or ommatidia. Within each ommatidia, light-sensitive proteins known as opsin can be found. Color vision in human eyes depends on the use of three different opsin in our retinas. Dragonflies benefit from four or five of the proteins in each of the ommatidia. This allows for vision on a spectrum well beyond the scope of human eyes, including tapping into the world of ultra-violet. It undoubtedly helps when hunting.

In a way this feels a little like coming “full-circle”, as the first column I submitted to the Dragon two years ago focused on dragonflies close to home. Feels like that, except that the learning never ends, and the morphing of perspectives never lets up. It’s inevitable for eyes to differ over time, and thus a re-visitation feels new, as if with “different eyes.” The changes in perspectives and understanding can be on a daily to yearly basis, with the only constant being change. Heck, if the heat can slow a dragonfly enough for an incredible view or two then maybe I could even change my perspective about summer days. Ha! Now I’m talking hogwash!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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