Standing beside quiet water in so many places this past week offered rewards for those of us who took the time to look.
The first order of business was to watch for large aquatic insects moving quickly toward the shore or vegetation. Hormones send the signal that any give day is THE day to begin the quest. In Kurt Mead’s Dragonflies of the North Woods, he explains that just prior to THE day, the aquatic insect rests (goes into a state of diapause), “while the final changes are made inside the larval exoskeleton.”
Once out of the water, it can be quite a journey to cross land and find the right plant or tree. I’ve seen some travel more than ten feet for just the right spot upon which next to pose.
Should a boardwalk get in the way, scampering across it is of utmost importance. When one is on a mission, road blocks must be overcome.
I do have to say I had to relocate a few who thought my boot, green as it is, offered the right opportunity. Certainly I would have protected it from any predators at the period of time when a dragonfly switches from aquatic predator to teneral land prey before becoming a terrestrial flying predator. For hungry nesting birds, these could become quick snacks.
Once the perfect substrate is chosen, it takes a while before the insect begins to undergo metamorphosis into an adult. Then the magic begins. The skin at the back of the head cracks open, and ever sooooo slowly the head, thorax with wings that had been stuffed into little packages on its back, legs, and abdomen begin to emerge. This process of emerging from the larval skin is called eclosing.
With all the effort it can muster, it briefly pumps its body as it arches backward away from the vegetation. The pumping is followed by periods of rest because this process takes so much energy.
Over time, as in at least an hour, more and more of the body pulls free and its aquatic breathing tubes are no longer needed.
Colors are drab throughout the process making it difficult to ID to species, but that will come.
Ever so slowly, the legs harden and the dragonfly begins to extend them. If you look closely at this photo you might notice one emerging and another climbing up the vegetation to find its own spot for emergence.
Just before fully pulling its abdomen free, the dragonfly reaches up and grabs its shed skin or exuviae. And then it begins to unfurl its wings while pumping hemolymph, aka bug blood, into them. Once elongated, the wings are cloudy. It’s actually one of the easiest times to spot the process, for the cloudy grayish brownish wings become obvious among the foliage.
It’s rather like a “Where’s Waldo” moment when you do start to look. One here, another there. And, and look, yet another.
The next step, while still clasping the shed skin, is to extend the wings out, pumping the bug blood back into the body so the abdomen can extend and colors begin to emerge. At this point, the spread wings take on a shiny sheen as they dry.
This is the second most obvious way to spot a newly emerged dragonfly, for the shiny wings glisten with hints of rainbow colors.
Remember the naiads making a quick exit from life spent below water? Many of them stalk their prey among the underwater vegetation, and it seems sometimes the vegetation stalks them. Can you see a stem sticking through the body of this larval form?
I have to wonder if it’s the reason some wings are folded and never quite open all the way, thus leaving the insect unable to fly. Well, maybe it’s one reason.
Those who do fly off find that first flight to be a bit tenuous, lift off happening suddenly and the insects act like balloons floating toward the heavens. Within a day, however, the sheen begins to dry and true colors, like those of this Belted Whiteface form.
The same was true for this Stream Cruiser, the only cruiser species in our neck of the woods (at least to date). But, the right hind wing was stuck to the front wing and flight was difficult. That said, this particular species was found at least a quarter mile from water and it got there somehow.
All this being said, I highly encourage you to head to the water’s edge and take a look. I wasn’t rewarded each day this week, but more often than not, and I suspect you will be too. If nothing else, you might discover the papery remains of a discarded exuviae and once you locate one, you’ll surely see a bunch of others.
Go ahead. Take a peek.
The best part of this week for me was that not only did I don my own set for another year, but I had the pleasure of sharing the opportunity with so many people, young and more mature (nice way to say old), who developed their own set of dragonfly eyes.
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