Dances with Dragonflies

By Terry Morse

October 1997

While walking along Cooper Ridge Trail at South Beach State Park on October 16, I stopped to watch a small, bright red Striped Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum pallipes) sunning on a brightly lit stretch of the trail.

As I stood there, the dragonfly flew up and landed on my shoulder, giving me a close look at it. Twice, it flew off to catch a small insect or chase another dragonfly, then returned to my shoulder. After a third foray, it landed on the knuckle of my right index finger, which was poised above my field notebook as I wrote. By holding very still, I was able to watch the dragonfly at close range as it tracked passing dragonflies with its huge round eyes and flew after them in brief pursuit. I watched for almost 30 minutes before it took off after another dragonfly and didn't come back.

If you want to try this, go out in early to mid afternoon on a sunny day. Walk along a brightly lit dirt road or trail not very far from standing water, such as Cooper Ridge Trail or the road along Big Creek Reservoir in Newport. Wear light clothing (white or tan) because this seems to attract the dragonflies. Walk slowly, scanning for a touch of bright red ahead of you. When you spot a dragonfly, hold still. If you spook it and it flies up, freeze and it may settle a short distance away from you. Then you can move slowly closer. Observe it with your eyes, binoculars, or a camera with a telephoto lens while you wait for it to settle down. Hold reasonably still and give it some time to fly up and land on you. If after awhile it doesn't, move on and look for another.

While you are trying this, be sure to watch for dragonflies which are in tandem (the male grasping the female's head with his "tail") or in copulatory wheel (the male grasps the female as above, and the female brings the tip of her abdomen up underneath to connect with his midsection, forming a circle). You may see dragonflies flying like this, or perched in vegetation. Also, look for females laying eggs. The females of some species hover above the water and repeatedly touch the tip of the abdomen to the water, depositing one or more eggs each time. Females of other species land on a log or rock in the water and deposit eggs on the log or rock below the water's surface.

In some species, the male guards the female as she lays eggs, either clasping her in tandem as she lays, or perched or hovering nearby, chasing other males away as she lays. This is to prevent a rival male from fertilizing her eggs.

If a dragonfly does land on you, try to notice the color of the face and eyes, whether there is any orange or red coloring on the wings and how extensive it is, what color the thorax (chest) and abdomen are, and whether there are any pale or dark markings on any body segments. Write these down soon after, and you might be able to figure out what species it is.

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