Dozens of hummers have been jockeying for position at our hummingbird feeders these last few days. Most of these have been Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their way south for the winter. They are tanking up for the long flight to the tropics. It seems to me they are lingering a little later than usual this year. But it won’t be long until they all leave. Enjoy their jostling, squeaking and buzzing while you can.
Indian summer is also a good time to observe dragons and dancers. The last blush of warmth brings out a number of these spectacular flying creatures.
What are these things?
These are just two names for dragonflies and damselflies. There are more than 400 species of these insects found in North America alone. And they have been given a wide variety of fanciful names: sundragons, darners, jewelwings, skimmers, pondhawks, clubtails and cruisers. On Dancer, on Dasher! On Spreadwing, on Sprite!
They come in such beautiful colors and amazing body shapes, we are fascinated by them. Their speed and agility attract our attention. On any walk on a warm day, especially near a pond or wetland, we can observe them zipping by at 20 miles an hour! Rival males defend their territories aggressively. They catch and eat other insects while on the wing. Males and females fly in tandem during mating. Females lay eggs over (and even under) water! Their antics can be as captivating as those of hummingbirds.
The official name for the dragonfly and damselfly family is the Odonata. (How boring is that after hearing “sundragons and skimmers?”) Many birders, butterfly watchers and naturalists develop into odonate-watchers over time. It is a natural sequence of interest from bird to butterfly to dragonfly. I hear the next step is to become a grasshopper-watcher.
The Odonata are considered one of the most primitive of the living insect groups. Fossil odonates date from over 250 million years ago. And some earlier fossils reveal dragonfly-like creatures with 2-foot wingspans. Now that was really a “dragon” of an insect!
One of the characteristics that make the odonates “primitive” is their inability to fold their wings flat against their abdomens. Damselflies can fold them together above their backs (when perched), but dragonflies have wings fixed in the open position. They are movable but not foldable. So even when a dragonfly is perched, its four outspread wings make it distinctive in appearance.
Have you ever seen a pair of dragonflies clasping each other to form a circle? This is the “copulation wheel” position that mating pairs adopt. (Some odonate-watchers call it the “heart shape.”) This position is unique to odonates. Some species can even mate in flight.
A mated pair often remains together during egg-laying. The end of the male’s abdomen holds the female by the head or neck, while the female’s abdomen is ovipositing eggs into plant stems, or pond sediments.
Those eggs hatch into strange aquatic insects called nymphs. Nymphs look so little like adult dragonflies, you’d think they were different species. But even in this larval form, dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators. They prey on mosquito and fly larvae in the water, as well as crustaceans, worms, tadpoles and even small fish.
After growing to a length of an inch or so, the nymph crawls up a support such as a plant stem and proceeds to undergo metamorphosis. Its back splits open and the winged adult emerges. The cast-off exoskeleton remains attached to the support.
The newly emerged adult requires a few days for its body and wings to dry and harden. Then it begins a life of opportunistic predation. Odonates will eat anything they can catch. This means almost any insect from mosquito to moth is on the menu. One species of dragonfly has been known to capture hummingbirds!
Dragonflies are part of the food chain. Nymphs are food for fish and wading birds. Adults fall prey to birds (such as flycatchers and small falcons), frogs, fish, spiders and even some carnivorous plants! It is all part of that “circle of life.”
I am not yet a full-fledged odonate-watcher. But give me time. Meet me at the pond on a warm, Indian summer afternoon, and we will see what odd odonates we can see!