Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dragonflies and Damselflies - oh my!

I had originally planned to work in my studio yesterday and experiment more with the sanded watercolor paper sheets I'd done.  However, there was finally a break in the humidity for the next few days, which meant it was too nice to stay inside.  So, I decided to head out with the camera for a while, and that ended up being how I spent much of the afternoon.

It started out as a simple walk across the street to shoot photos of the neighbor's garden; her yard blooms from mid-spring through late summer as wave after wave of colorful blooms from bulbs, shrubs and annuals hit their peak.  The flowers attract lots of insects - mostly a variety of bees and other pollinators - but today, a dragonfly was also flitting around, which was exciting to me.

Why?  Because they are hands-down my favorite insects, and amazing on so many levels.  The dragonfly order, Odonata, - consisting of dragonflies and damselflies - is old:  300 million years they have been on earth, making them truly living fossils.   Their freakishly cool, colorful and delicate appearance belies the fact that they are voracious eating machines...of mosquitos!  Both the adults and naiads eat mosquitos and larvae.  Seriously - does it get any better than that?  During the late Carboniferous period characterized by an oxygen-rich atmosphere and abundant wet forests, they were in sizes fitting for a Steven King horror novel.  Now, they're seldom more than a few inches in length.

They are also notoriously difficult to photograph, as they seldom sit still for long and are shy.  I managed some photos last year, but nothing that great, since I just wasn't able to get very close to them.  The telephoto lens changes that.  All these are shot at 200mm.  

Common Baskettail (Epithea cynosura)
Landing atop a spent flower head, he sat long enough for me to get three shots, hand-held.

One thing I've noticed about dragonflies and damselflies is that they frequently fly off and return to the same spot.  So, patience and luck allowed me to get these photos.  For identification, I'm relying on an Audubon Field Guide, and since there are more than 170 species in New England alone, a couple could be mis-identified.   After getting photos of the first one, above, I took a stroll down to a creek that runs near our house.  What I really wanted was to get some reflection photos and more floral shots.  

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)

What I discovered is that the sunny, open side of the creek was buzzing with activity; there were several of my favorite species - the Ebony Jewelwing damselfly - as well as some dragonflies.  I sat and watched and waited, and was rewarded with many amazing photos and fascinating observations.  The blue dasher sat resting on this stem of grass for most of my stay.  When he flew off, he returned to the same spot.  He would periodically change the position of his wings while resting.  Why?  I'm sure an entomologist would know.   In this photo, his wings are a bit blurry, as this photo was taken a fraction of a second before he flew off; in fact, his feet are actually not touching the grass.  

Ebony Jewelwing female (Calopteryx maculata)
Hand-held.  I sat and waited until she spread her wings briefly; normally, damselflies normally hold their wings closed and upright.

Ebony jewelwings used to inhabit our garden, and 2 years ago, I got a handful of photos of a male who seemed to be as interested in me as I was in him.  They are so beautiful.  The few times I've seen females (noted by the white spots on their wings and duller color), they always fluttered off before I could get anywhere near them.  In the pond setting, they were preoccupied with other things.  I watched as these delicate little insects would sit on a leaf, and for no apparent reason, would fly off in a loop and return.  However, when I took a closer look, I saw that they often had secured something to eat - a mayfly.  I saw a male and female do this.  Nothing delicate about the way they eat - it's rapid and to the point with some clearly efficient mouthparts.  

The legs of both dragon- and damselflies are positioned at the upper end of their thorax right behind their necks, so they really aren't capable of walking.  But, they are good at snagging and eating prey, and gripping minute sections of foliage.

Ebony Jewelwing male - showing his shimmering iridescent green color and teardrop-shaped wings.  Hand-held.

After getting over two dozen photos at the creek, I was inspired to head down to Haley Farms State Park.  Back when I was more motivated, I used to go running there.  It's a network of trails that go through meadows and forested areas and is bordered by Palmer Cove which leads to Esker Pt. (location of last set of sunset photos).  I generally stay away in the summer because the deerflies, black flies and mosquitos are unbearable.  Last summer, though, the area was awash in dragonflies, so I took my chances and went out.

Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia)
Hand-held shot

Along the path that leads to the cove, there is a small pond, and a little boardwalk covering the muddy area.  This was, as expected, a good location to at least see more dragonflies.  Unfortunately, most stayed over the water, skimming it for insects to eat.  I did manage to get a few photos of this Common Whitetail, although even with a telephoto lens, he wasn't going to let me get that close.  This photo was taken as he landed on a large granite boulder by the path.   A moment later, something small and white flew by and he was off.  Next thing I saw, he was sitting on the boardwalk, eating whatever it was.  Amazing.  

The Haley Park trip ended up providing a wealth of photos, including some of an osprey pair and some great reflection shots.  No deerflies and only a few mosquitos - amazing!

Last stop of the day was to Beebe Pond.  This is a small pond within walking distance of our house and surrounded by a wooded area (and of course, homes).  There is a trail that circumnavigates the pond and we used to walk/run it during favorable weather.  

Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis)
New England's most common damselfly.   Tripod mount.

Along the edge of the pond where the creek is, I saw many damselflies and some dragonflies.  Most were in a shaded area and not in positions to be photographed, but after walking around, I discovered another area where they congregated.  The dragonflies never came close enough or stopped long enough for a good photo, but these Eastern Forktails were happy to oblige.  I sat for probably 20 min. watching them.  Occasionally, one would fly too close to another, and they would take off, flying over the water, with one appearing to knock the other to the water surface, the victor returning to his chosen location.  Unless disturbed [by me moving], they usually stayed put.  I took a ridiculous number of photos of them, and it was hard to pick one to post here.  

"What are you looking at?"  
This individual, at Beebe Pond, would repeatedly take off and land, each time facing right towards me.  His body is facing down, but he's looking up at me.  I think he's wondering what my intentions are.   I love his shiny, bulging black eyes.  Does anyone else but me laugh when they look at this photo?

Anthropomorphizing insects' thoughts...if people think I've gone batty, there is probably an element of truth to that.  The good news is that I certainly won't be leaving the Odonata order behind when we are in CO; the lakes there are also teeming with them.  And I will be happy to sit at the side of a lake, with my camera and tripod,  and patiently wait for the opportunity to capture more of these delightful and entertaining creatures.  


  1. Oh, I haaaaaaaaaate insects. Like, am seriously horrified by them all. For me, one of the good things about living in CO is it's the least buggy place I've known.
    Having said that, these are great pics and that last one IS funny.

    I find the Ludwigs to have a weird texture and they seem to fall off the paper for me. I just don't get them. That's one reason I recommend the Unisons, which are soooo gorgeous and smooth.
    Just in case you put off the decision for quite a while, you could always try out mine at some point when we meet.

  2. Jala - you just cracked me up! I'm with you re the insects; most I'm not fond of. This part of the country is FILLED with blood-sucking, disease-carrying insects and ticks. I stopped going out hiking because of them.

    But the dragonflies - they're the good guys, as I always say :). Anything that doesn't bite, sting, crawl on me or try to get into my house or food, *and* eats some of the latter: that is an insect WIN!

    My other favorite insect: lightning bugs! Another totally benevolent insect.

    I remember you saying the Ludwigs were funky; that's the reason I haven't bought them yet. I have select pastels that slide off the paper like you describe and I hate that. I think they might be Senneliers, but I'm not sure, since I take wrappers off of everything.

    Just over two weeks and counting until we're CO-bound!

  3. Forgot to say how glad I am that the giant-sized version of the dragonfly is no longer in existence.

    Nice "god rays" above. Very cool.
    We just had a rare colorful sunset sky and I ran out and took a photo of it, thinking, Sonya would know what to do with this sky and her camera. Since I don't really understand these complicated cameras, it looks all washed-out instead of vibrant. I know I can fix some of that in Photoshop, but it must be nice to know how to make it come out right in the first place, with diff. settings and such. Life is too short to figure ALL this stuff out, though.


Your thoughtful comments add value to this blog - thank you so much for taking the time to leave them!

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