Everybody loves dragonflies

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—

American Emerald

I took an informal poll recently and the results were unanimous—everybody loves dragonflies. It should be noted that I only asked three people and one of them was me, but still the final tally is impossible to deny. And who can blame “everybody?” Dragonflies are amazing fliers, top predators both in and out of the water, all the while being a link to an historic past. Surely they are the pride of the Odonata (take that Damselflies!).

Summer is the time to observe adult dragonflies and whether you have a field, a yard or live by fresh water there are opportunities to watch a variety of dragonfly behavior just about everywhere.

When close to water, dragonflies have one thing on their minds—mating—and the action can be fast and furious. Male dragonflies patrol pond edges, zipping and chasing away males of their own species (and at times just about any other dragonfly species) to secure access to any female that might show up. Battles between males escalate when a female does make an appearance and then the race to mate is on. A “successful” male will grab a female in flight by her head and thorax (don’t try this at home) and then he curves his body so the tip of his abdomen (the long body part) grasps the back of the female’s head. Females will then curve their body until the tip of their abdomen makes contact with the male, forming a circle or “wheel position” and reproductive exchanges are made. Dragonfly mating can last from three seconds (impressive in a way) to up to an hour (impressive in the traditional sense).

From there egg laying ensues and dragonfly females can lay hundreds of eggs at a time.  In some dragonfly species females have blades to slice into plants such as cattails so they can insert the fertilized eggs there for protection. Other species may use ovipositors to poke eggs into mud or floating mats of vegetation.

Blue Dasher

On a recent paddle in the Tenants Harbor marsh my son Leif and I watched female Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) lay eggs a different way—by slapping their abdominal tip into the water over and over again while in flight! With each dip of the tip eggs are released to sink to the bottom. The male associated with the eggs (the dad?) hovered above her as she deposited their eggs, guarding her from any other males who might try to grab her, scoop out the first male’s “reproductive exchange” and then have his own exchange with the female.

Once in the water, eggs will hatch in as little as 10 days and a brand spanking new dragonfly larva—called a “nymph”—hatches. Dragonfly nymphs are major predators in ponds and come equipped with an enlarged, spiked lower jaw that they can shoot out a third of their body length. This enables the nymphs to catch large prey such as fish and salamanders as well as just about any aquatic insect.

Dragonflies may stay in this nymph stage for as little as a month, but often they remain in the water for years, eating and   growing by molting their exoskeletons anywhere from six to 18 times. Funny how dragonflies are in a sense aquatic insects, since they spend most of their lives in the water, but they are largely appreciated for the few weeks to a month that they are adults.

That day paddling on the marsh we also watched adult males of several different species patrol lily pads and shorelines. But the action on the water is often too frenetic to photograph (a side hobby of mine) and that is where my yard comes into play.

Common Whitetail

My yard (located conveniently near the Tenants Harbor marsh) has been buzzing/humming with lots of dragonfly activity. When away from water, dragonflies focus on food and basking which makes for a much calmer dragonfly experience. Adult dragonflies of both genders cruise over the yard picking off flying insects, turning the blood I just donated to a mosquito into energy to catch more mosquitoes. Here dragonflies will land for extended periods of time to warm up or rest. Such times are great for photographing.

One day I counted 10 species of dragonflies in my yard—Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctosa), Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia), Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), Blue Corporal (Libellula deplanata), American Emerald (Cordulia shurtleffi), Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Green Darner, Blue Dasher and Johnny Whiteface. Needless to say, it was an awesome day.

(Tenants Harbor resident Kirk Gentalen is a regional steward for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.)

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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