Vol. 19 Issue 1, Spring 2014
By Larry Meade
I had been a birder for several years before I began to take an interest in dragonflies. After spring migration ends and birds stop singing and settle down to the business of raising their young, birding can get a bit slow. For someone interested in birds, a natural solution to this problem is to start focusing on other flying creatures around us. I noticed there were butterflies and dragonflies in most of the locations I visited, so I began to learn about these creatures. Butterflies are familiar to most people and have been getting a fair amount of well-deserved publicity recently. I think dragonflies deserve some attention, too.
One of the first things I noticed about dragonflies is many of them have intriguing names. Widow Skimmer, Halloween Pennant, Cobra Clubtail, and Dragonhunter are just a few of the species that can be found in Loudoun County. Dragonflies have an ancient heritage with fossils dating back as many as 225 million years. Dragonflies and their relatives, damselflies, are flying insects in the order Odonata. Sometimes dragonflies and damselflies are referred to collectively as “odes”. Damselflies generally are smaller and more delicate than dragonflies. They have names like Powdered Dancer, Ebony Jewelwing and Fragile Forktail. The best way to tell the two insects apart is to observe how they hold their wings. Dragonflies hold their wings straight out like little airplanes. Most species of damselflies hold their wings folded up straight on their backs.
In order to lay eggs, dragonflies need water. Once an egg hatches, the dragonfly larva, called a nymph, lives underwater for up to five years in some species. In this stage, the dragonflies are voracious hunters as they hunt mosquito larvae and other aquatic prey. When they are ready to transition into adulthood, nymphs will climb out of the water and perch on a stem or stick. Their skin will split open and their wings will unfurl and begin to dry in the sun. At this stage, they are called “teneral.” As adults, dragonflies will live only about four or five months longer.
Dragonflies have wings that flap independently, which makes them extremely adept at snatching prey from mid-air. Interestingly, adult dragonflies are not able to walk, but they can fly at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. Mosquitos and flies make up a large part of their diet, but they will also sometimes eat other dragonflies or even butterflies. Once, I saw a large dragonfly called a Dragonhunter carrying around a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. The large dragonfly carrying a large butterfly created a highly unusual silhouette.
Males are generally much more colorful than females and will often patrol territories near water. The females are more drab and will usually only go to the water if they are ready to mate and lay eggs. When dragonflies do mate, they form a wheel shape. In some cases, this wheel looks somewhat like a heart, which I suppose is more romantic. If you see dragonflies mating, keep watching and you might see the female start to skim along the water as she lays up to thirty eggs.
It is not too difficult to find dragonflies in Loudoun County. Last summer on a Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy dragonfly and damselfly trip led by Andy Rabin and Kevin Munroe, we found twenty species of dragonflies and ten species of damselflies in one day. Good places to go to look for these insects include Bles Park, Banshee Reeks, Algonkian Park and Claude Moore Park.
Dragonfly identification can be challenging at times, especially if you are looking at an unfamiliar species. When I am unsure of an ID, I try to take a photo of the insect. Later, I can look it up in a field guide like Dragonflies through Binoculars by Sidney Dunkle or Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast by Giff Beaton. The Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies is also a good resource.
Last year I was touring Willowsford Farm in Loudoun County when I happened upon a huge dragonfly which I could not identify. I sent the photos I took to Andy Rabin, and he identified the dragonfly as an Arrowhead Spiketail. Andy also said it was a new species for Loudoun County. Fortunately, Andy was able to find several more of these dragonflies at Willowsford Farm, and we enjoyed seeing them during the Loudoun Wildlife dragonfly field trip. There are probably more new dragonfly species for Loudoun out there just waiting to be discovered. I hope you will be on the lookout and enjoy watching these fascinating aerial acrobats.