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.