The reason I go there so much this time of year is that things literally change day to day and week to week, and I don’t want to miss anything. Migrant birds might only spend one night there before they continue northward. Breeding birds will be absent one day, and the next day the woods will be filled with their song. Many butterfly and dragonfly species spend only a few weeks in their flying, adult stage; what we see flying in April will be gone in May, to be replaced by another species with a later adult cycle. The foliage literally changes every day. Every trip to The Swamp brings something new, not seen on the previous trip.
Let me introduce you to a few of the early spring dragonflies of The Swamp. Dragonflies and damselflies are absolutely fascinating creatures. The typical dragonfly will have a one-year life, but it is a flying, adult insect for only one month of that time. It begins life as an egg, usually under water, and quickly hatches into the larvae or “nymph stage. It spend most of its life as a nymph, living under water, where it is a voracious predator. When it is ready to emerge into an adult, it undergoes a metamorphosis, crawls out of the water onto a reed or stick, waits a while, then splits open its hard exoskeleton and crawls out of it as an adult dragonfly. After it spends a few hours drying, it flies, feeds, and mates. The female usually lays her eggs in water, and the cycle starts again.
I saw my year’s first dragonfly, a Common Baskettail (above), on March 28 at The Swamp. It is typically the first dragonfly to be seen in early spring in this area, and can be quite common. I’ve seen a couple in my garden this week too. They should stick around for a few months but will be gone by mid-summer.
On my April 3 trip to The Swamp, I was surprised to see a few damselflies hovering along the edges of the water in Jericho Ditch. Damselflies are so tiny and fragile in appearance, that it’s hard to believe some emerge this early in the year and endure unpredictable spring temperatures; they’re not much bigger than a straight pin. Pictured above is a male Fragile Forktail that I saw that day. (Notice the bold “exclamation point” marking on the his thorax). I've also seen these in my yard this week; you probably have them in yours too, but you have to look closely to spot one.
On my April 8 visit to Jericho Ditch, three more species of dragonfly had arrived, the Harlequin Darner, the Springtime Darner, and Common Whitetail.
This is a female Common Whitetail; I noticed that the females seemed to emerge earlier than the males, as I saw only one male to about 20 females. This species is very common all summer long; you should even see them in your yard if you keep an eye out. They perch low to the ground.
This guy is a Springtime Darner, appropriately named because it only flies during the early spring. Because I've only been obsessed with dragonflies for less than a year, I missed seeing this species last year; it was done flying by the time I started paying attention. The turquoise blue markings on the reddish-brown body are a gorgeous combination.
Sunday was a clear, sunny, warm day, and I saw literally thousand of dragonflies; of these, probably 90% were Harlequin Darners. In the mid-morning, I saw them warming up by perching vertically on the sunny side of tree trunks; there were at least a dozen sharing the same tree, positioning for the best rays. Above is a picture of a female (see the amber coloring in her wings?), and below is the more boldly marked male, which has no amber coloring.
The photo at the beginning of this posting is also a close-up of a male Harlequin Darner. You can see how it got its name by looking at the intricate and colorful patterns on its thorax and abdomen.
People ask me how I can identify dragonflies and damselflies. If you're new to dragonfly-watching, it's almost impossible to do so while they are flying (which they do most of the time). If I'm lucky enough to see one land, I try to take its photo first, then study it through my binoculars if I have more time. I usually have to wait until I get home, look at the pictures, and then try to find a match in my field guides before I can determine with any certainty what it is.
Unfortunately there are not many regional field guides yet, as there are for birds and butterflies. Hopefully that will change in the future as interest in dragonflies increases. For now, the best book by far to use in this area is "Dragonflies And Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast" by Giff Beaton. The Chesapeake Library has ordered a copy of this and should have it soon. This book includes range maps that include southeastern Virginia, so you can determine whether you can expect to find a particular species here in Tidewater. It also include great photos of the males and females of each species.
The library has some good general books about dragonflies available for you to check out. The first book I checked out from the Chesapeake Library was "Dragonflies" by Cynthia Berger, and I loved it -- lots of good information and photos of many of our common species. Another good book full of general information is "A Dazzle of Dragonflies" by Forrest Lee Mitchell. The library also has "Dragonflies of the World" by Jill Silsby, which might not be of help identifying a local species, but is loaded with information about dragonflies around the world.
I also use the internet to search for photos that other dragonfly enthusiasts have published online. I frequently do searches through Google Images, Flickr, and a great website I found called Odonata Central at http://www.odonatacentral.org/. (Odonata is the division of insects that includes the dragonflies)
The next time I go to The Swamp there will undoubtedly be new species out flying, challenging me to capture them on camera. I hope I can be quick enough to meet the challenge; I get such pleasure from a good photo, and learning what it is!
I have not been neglecting the birds and the butterflies; they will be in one of my next postings. Until then, enjoy spring to its fullest, whether you're nature watching, walking, gardening, or just sitting in the sun!