Odonata Chronicles: First Edition

Somehow the words my high school Spanish and Latin teacher, Mr. Cretella, wrote in my yearbook have always stayed with me: “Never lose your desire to learn.” Indeed. That said, in Latin 1 during my senior year, if I couldn’t remember the answer, I substituted a Spanish term. I don’t remember how he reacted to that–probably with a groan on the outside and a smile within.

And so, my friends, please join me as I continue to learn about Odonatas, aka dragonflies and damselflies , those winged insects we all love to celebrate because they eat those that bug us the most, including blackflies and mosquitoes. Hmmmm, what about ticks?

Periodically, over the course of the summer my intention is to share some information and/or story with you about these predatory fliers. I may not always be correct, but hey, that’s how I learn, and I hope you’ll wondermyway for the journey.

One distinction I want to make is that mature dragonflies always have their wings spread out whether in flight or perching, while damselfly wings are together over their backs when perching (except for the Spreadwing family of damsels).

With 468 North American Species of Odonates at this time (new discoveries are always being made), Maine is home to 160 species.

One thing I want to point out about dragonflies is that the abdomen consists of ten segments. That will become important for identification purposes.

I thought we’d begin with the dragonflies known as Skimmers.

Skimmers, like the Four-Spotted Skimmer above, are the most ubiquitous dragonflies and range in size from small to large. They tend to have stocky bodies and spend much of their time perching on the ground and other flat substrates near muddy ponds and stream.

Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers are active May through July.

This chunky northern male skimmer has dark markings at the base of his otherwise clear wings. His hind wing patches are triangular, and the forewing patches are smaller or non-existent.

He has dark brown eyes and a black face. Notice the whitish/grayish/bluish stripes on his thorax–those are his “corporal” stripes.

The first half of abdomen is the same color and the rest of it is black.

Chalk-fronted Corporals tend to be in dense populations. Often, as I walk along a woodland path or beside a pond, these dragonflies lead the way, flying a few feet ahead, stopping on a rock or something else ahead of me and then as I approach, moving ahead again.

This baker’s dozen I spotted on a rock beside a small mountain pond.

The Female Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmer’s eyes are brown and face tan. But where his thorax was whitish gray, her’s is brown. 

Her abdomen, however, is like his.

Would you have guess that this was an immature form of the same? Just when you thought you nailed the Chalk-fronted Corporals. The immature features a lovely orangey brown with a black strip down the middle. The immature stage last for about two weeks in any species.

Active June through August, Slaty Blue Skimmers are about two in length.

The mature male is entirely blue except for black face and brown eyes. I typically find them flying and perching beside lakes and ponds.

Notice how he doesn’t have the patches at the base of his wings like the Corporals did.

Like most species, the female Slaty Blue has a look all her own with a brown thorax highlighted with yellowish-tan stripes. Her abdomen has a dark brown to black stripe down the top with a yellowish-tan stripe along the sides. 

She’ll darken with age to a uniform brown or gray color and her eyes will become red-brown. Immature of both sexes resemble a young female, just to confuse you more.

Much smaller in size at about 1.2 inches as compared to a two-inch Slaty Blue are the Calico Pennants, active May through August.

The male has red heart-shaped spots on abdomen segments 4 to 7 (remember, all dragonflies have 10 abdominal segments so you need to start at the base below the thorax and begin counting from there.)

All four wings have a small dark patch at the wing tips. And the hindwings have a large, mottled dark patch at the base which reminds me of stained glass.

The stigma, on the leading edge of each wing toward the wingtip, and the face are red. 

His claspers at the end of the abdomen are also reddish.

The female is the same as her male counterpart, but her spots and stigma are yellow. Again, it’s that stained glass effect that captures my attention.

From May through September you might spot an Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer near a lake or pond.

The entire thorax and abdomen of a Male Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer are powder blue; and his claspers at the tip of the abdomen are white.

Often found perching on lily pads, his face is green and eyes blue.

The female Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer is bright green with black markings. Her green thorax is unstriped.

In flight from May through August, the Dot-tailed Whiteface male is an easy one to identify in the field. First, there’s that white face. But wait. Some other dragonflies also have white faces, so don’t stop there. While his eyes are brown, his body is black overall, but he has a conspicuous yellow spot on segment 7.

You might not recognize his mate as being a Dot-tailed because, well, she has lots of dots. Her abdomen is yellow at the base and then large dots on segments 3 through 6, with a smaller one on segment 7. She also has along the sides of her abdomen.

There are more to share just in the Skimmer family, but for the first edition of Odonata Chronicles, we’ll leave it at that. Five species with so much variation is a lot to digest.

Hunting the Common

I knew when I headed out this morning that there was one member of the Odonata family that I wanted to meet. But . . . where oh where to find her.

Her habitat includes muddy-bottomed ponds, lakes, and streams, as well as disturbed areas. Hmmm. That should make the quest easy.

With that in mind, I first stopped beside a muddy-bottomed pond that flows into a brook, which at its start more resembles a stream. It is there that Slaty Blue Skimmer and I got reacquainted after so many months have passed since our last encounter.

He reminds me that dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which means “different wings” since their hindwing differ in size and shape from the forewings. Those differences may be subtle, but they are there.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I watched Slaty Blue come and go, defending his piece of the shoreline from his family members, I suddenly spied something under the Winterberry leaves: a newly emerged skimmer resting while its wings dried.

And then one shrub over a Racket-tailed Emerald, with neon green eyes paused longer than I expected. (This one is for you, Kate Mansfield Griffith–it doesn’t have the full green body of the Eastern Pondhawk that walked down your Connecticut driveway today, but the eyes were a good match of color, don’t you think?)

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Upon a Pickerel Weed in the water I notice a favorite of mine, this one also recently emerged and drying its wings before taking flight: a female Calico Pennant Skimmer. For some who have been watching, you’ll be happy to know that there were males about, but they were busy and didn’t wish to pose for a photo shoot.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Old friends, like Kate who was one of my first playmates and even if we can’t spend time together we can still share moments of wonder like we did as kids, make themselves known such as this male Chalk-fronted Corporal. I’ve described it before as being kid-like in behavior because its kind love to play leap frog and land three feet ahead of me with each step I take.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I soon leave the pond behind and find myself walking with intention along a woodland pathway and into an old log landing located near another brook. Guess who greets me? Yes, another Chalk-fronted Corporal, this one a female.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I continue to look, one with whom I struck up a conversation last summer flew in and snatched a moth before settleing on leaves to partake of the meal. Meet my friend: Black Shouldered Spinyleg, a clubtail so named for its black shoulders and spiny hind legs.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Next, a Spangled Skimmer with black and white stigma on its wings took me by surprise and I vowed to remember it for no other has the dual-colored stigmas.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

In the shadows I spotted another I’m getting to know this year, the Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly was stunning, but I found it amusing that its common name refers to tiny spots when so much more could have been honed in upon for a descriptor.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I was about ready to head for the hills when another dragonfly caught my attention. Okay, so that’s a bit of an understatement as so many more than I’ve shared made themselves known to me and I stood still and watched how they moved, where they rested, and how big their territory was.

How common are you? Very, and I AM the one you seek.

I wanted to find this female Common Whitetail Skimmer because she hardly seemed like an every-day dragonfly to me. Those zigzag stripes on her abdomen. The way each segment stood out more 3-D than most. And those three black patches upon each wing. Words fail to describe her beauty.

How common are you? Very and yet . . . not at all.

I set out to hunt for the common and along the way I met others equally common, but in the end the one I sought was hardly common at all . . . despite her common name.

Honoring My Guy

Maybe it was because I intended to read “Emergence,” a poem I wrote in honor of dragonflies at a local poetry reading, or maybe it was just because, but for the first time this summer, a Slaty Blue Skimmer landed on my shirt as I stood waiting for others to arrive at a trailhead on Tuesday. I placed my pointer finger in front of the insect and it slowly climbed aboard.

That’s not so unusual, but what struck me was that I was able to walk to my truck and grab my camera, use my left hand to take a photo as he remained on my right hand, and show him off to my friends–for at least fifteen minutes.

Of course, then I was hooked and so after returning to camp and taking a dip, I felt a familiar tickling on my toes as I sat on a lounge chair. The minute I moved, my friend moved, but only as far as the dock ladder. And so, I ran inside, grabbed my camera, and sure enough . . . he was either still there or had returned from a brief flight during my absence. Dragonflies do that–return over an over again to favorite perches in their territories.

I figured I might as well try again, but this time smartened up and used my left pointer, the easier to manage the camera with my right hand.

Ever so gently, he climbed onto it. Notice how you can see him using all three pairs of legs, well on one side anyway? They offered me a lesson.

For you see, I became aware that once he was settled on me or a leaf or twig, he pulled first one and then the other front leg up, rather like the draw-back position in karate, where you make a fist and pull your arm into your body. (I only know this because years ago our youngest took karate lessons until he was just shy of a black belt.)

What Slaty Blue (SBD) taught me was that he could stand on two pairs of legs and pull the front pair up, only using it when necessary to climb upon something or capture a meal.

My dragonfly and I . . . we spent a lot of time together. Even if he needed to fly off and twirl about in the air with a rival, or catch a delectable snack, he kept returning to my finger.

And if not my finger, then the top of a dock post. Those eyes–so brown. That face–so black.

And then there were the wings. Translucent and delicate with thin black veins. By spending so much time with SBD, I also noticed that a bit of the slaty blue coloration radiated from his body outward, as if that was his basal wing patch.

If you look at a Calico Pennant dragonfly, you’ll really understand the basal wing patch, that section of stained glass on the wing closest to its body.

I loved noticing that bit of coloration, but it’s the mechanics of it all that always astonishes me. How can an insect with such a chunky body fly with such thin wings?

The other thing about the wings is that they helped me with identification. Oh, not to say that this was a Slaty Blue for his coloring gave that away. But which SBD was I holding? My friend had a tatter on both hind wings. The one on the left was about a vein cell wide and the one on the right looked like a small chunk had been taken out of it. What happened? Prey or a run in with a plant or twig? I’ll never know, but I will know by those injuries that he was the one that liked to land on me.

Another, who was actually a rival, and perhaps a sibling, or at least a cousin, had a tattered forewing that looked a wee bit worse.

And then there was one I spied while kayaking yesterday and he had a pine needle stuck through his abdomen. What? But there it was and each time he moved, I could easily locate him.

On the same kayak adventure, an SBD landed upon a Pickerel Weed and as I watched . . .

he arched his back in a pose that reminded me of two things: 1. a move I’d learned yesterday morning during a Yoga in the Woods walk offered by Deb Nelson of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and 2. His mating position. Was he in practice?

Would he find a she? She is so different. Her wings astound me the most.

My experience has been that there are more hes than shes so the guys better make their moves.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m in love with all dragonflies, but the male SBD is one of my favorites because his eyes remind me of my guy’s. And today, August 4, we are celebrating our 29th anniversary. So this post is in honor of my guy (even though he never reads these because he feels like he’s already lived them). May our journey together continued to be wonder-filled.