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Dragons and damsels

Dragons and damsels
Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Rapid flight with exceptional maneuverability allows dragonflies to challenge the flight skills of other insects and take them as food. They challenge our identification skills. We can identify them into major groups and even recognize some species easily. On the wing identification can be difficult. Along lake and stream edges, they land long enough for us to get a good viewing. Their eyesight is among the best in the insect world and they will take flight when approached too closely. 

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly. Photo by Marilyn Kiegley.

Practice stalking skills when exploring outdoors. Move slowly when you approach a standing dragonfly and be careful not to allow your shadow to fall upon it. First distinguish between damselflies and dragonflies. Marilyn Keigley’s photographs show Ebony Jewelwing damselflies hold their wings together over their back and White-faced Meadowhawks hold wings to the side like other dragonflies. 

We were taught as kids to fear dragonflies because “darners” would sew our mouths shut. We ran for the safety of homes when we saw a Green Darner. Many of us were raised with misconceptions. Hopefully we do better helping our children appreciate the wonder and beauty that thrives in yards and do not instill fear. 

The Ebony Jewelwing male has all black wings and the female has white spots near the wing tips. Which sex is pictured? Damselfly eyes do not touch each other. Dragonfly eyes touch on top of the head in most cases. The large compound eyes are composed of tiny individual eye facets that allow them to view their entire surroundings at once. Movement attracts their attention and focuses attention to a confined area.

Movement will alert a standing dragonfly of your presence. By moving very slowly you can approach closely before it takes flight. When the agile insect flies, it maneuvers quickly in pursuit of mosquitos or other prey.

Colors of the rainbow are encased on their exoskeletons. Our skeleton is uniform in color and hidden inside our body. The Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) wear their skeleton on the outside with muscles attached inside. To move wings, their muscles pull in different directions on the inside to make the wings go up or down by reshaping the thorax. The thorax where wings are attached is between the head in front and the long thin abdomen that contains digestive and reproductive organs behind.  

White-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly. Photo by Marilyn Kiegley.

Different species have iridescent color patterns. Many of the larger dragonflies like darners (the ones we were taught would sew our mouths shut) have yellow, blue, or green stripes angled on the side of the thorax. They are among the largest and have beautiful checker colored abdomens. August and September is migration season for some of the large dragonflies. The three-inch insects will travel south to a warm climate and reproduce. Their offspring will munch their way north as rapidly as spring allows small insect availability.

A group of dragonflies known as clubtails has a swollen tip at the end of the thin abdomen giving them their name. The skimmers like the meadowhawks, twelve-spotted skimmer, common whitetail, Halloween pennant, and widow skimmer have wider abdomens of various colors. Skimmers are smaller than darners and clubtails. Start dragonfly enjoyment by observing differences among groups like darners, clubtails, and skimmers. 

When comfortable notice more subtle differences. The white-faced Meadowhawk clearly shows a white face. There are cherry-faced, ruby-faced, and others. The scarlet abdomen with black checks along the sides adds brilliance among wildflowers. Wander fields for Meadowhawks but do not expect them only in meadows. Their ecological nature niche is broader. Dragonflies and damselflies require water for egg laying. Young develop and spend the winter as predators feeding on aquatic organisms in healthy flowing or still waters.

Close focusing binoculars that focus to six feet are best. Those focusing to 10 to 15 feet work. Those focusing at 30 to 35 feet prevent easy identification. You might choose to improve your stalking skill rather than buy close focusing binocs. Check prices to find a pair that is affordable and good for dragonflies, butterflies and birds.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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