Speaking of Nature: Eastern amberwing dragonfly is small, but sumptuous

  • This male eastern amberwing cannot be confused with any other dragonfly in our area. Though only about an inch in length, this tiny species makes up for its diminutive size with a huge personality. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Look closely at the head of this dragonfly nymph shell and you will see the retractable jaws of the nymph folded neatly beneath the head. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 7/23/2018 6:00:11 AM

I have decided that July is dragonfly month. Those of you who have not yet taken your vacation will certainly be well aware of this by now, but for those who have recently returned from some well-deserved time off, there may be a little catching up that needs to be done. This is quite serendipitous for me because while digging deep into the archives I came across some gorgeous dragonfly photos that have never seen the light of day.

First, let me exploit a peculiarity in both my records and (rather predictably, I suppose) my own behavior. July is a month for insects. There are still plenty of birds to pursue, but for the most part, the majority of species have finished their breeding efforts and things are starting to quiet down a bit. In dry weather, such as we have had this year, the birdbath on my deck becomes the center of activity and all I need to do is sit quietly and let the birds come to me.

If, however, I decide to be more active in my pursuits, I will take my camera to a meadow, stream, quiet pond or busy lake and hunt for insects. On such expeditions, there are really only a few insect groups that help the hunter by being large, flashy and prominent in the landscape: bees and wasps, butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Thus, it is in the month of July that my photo collection begins to swell with pictures of that latter group.

On July 25, 2011, while on an expedition to an extremely quiet pond tucked away in an area of mixed field and forest, I came upon a truly remarkable scene. Emerging from the deeper water next to a cement retaining wall was a rush plant, and as I admired the graceful leaves of this plant, I suddenly realized that I was staring at the skin of a dragonfly nymph. The skin was hanging upside-down where the nymph had climbed up out of the water and decided to emerge as an adult.

I have already provided an image of an empty skin in an earlier column, but this one was as surprising and beautiful when I stumbled upon it this morning as it was when I stumbled upon it back in 2011. The reason this particular photo is so outstanding is because I was able to get very close to the specimen and also get a ventral view of the nymph’s mouthparts.

You can see a paddle-shaped appendage with two pincers folded neatly under the head of the nymph. At the leftmost end of this appendage is a hinged joint that has folded back on itself. This is the “cocked” position of the nymph’s spring-loaded jaws, which can be “fired” out in front of the nymph to seize prey. The jaws can effectively be deployed about the full length of that paddle-shaped portion that can be seen in the photo, and those strong, sharp pincers will clamp down and pierce any prey unfortunate enough to be caught.

Oddly enough, today’s second photo was also taken on July 25. This time, it was in 2013, and I was wandering along the trails in the meadow in my own backyard. I was looking for anything interesting and it turned out that there were dragonflies of all sorts that were zipping around me on a sunny, breezy day. At one point, I managed to approach a gorgeous little specimen who had apparently tired of flying away from me and I was able to snap a photo before he moved on to better things.

This photo remained in the “unknown” pile until last week when I finally sat down and did the work to identify it properly. Finally, I came to a picture that looked familiar and was happy to see the notation, “Nothing else in the region like either sex of this species...” printed right beside the photo. This was a male eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera).

This gorgeous insect is another member of the skimmer family (Libellulidae), but this one is extremely small and of uncommon coloration among its group. The wings are a sumptuous, translucent amber accented with ruby red in special wing panels called “pterostigma.” Then there is the abdomen with its yellow stripes and paired yellow triangles that repeat over and over again. Females, as is the norm with dragonflies, are quite different in appearance with large patches of black in the wings.

Though they are small, male eastern amberwings are quite aggressive toward other males and any other insect of similar coloration. They patrol small patches of pond (10 to 15 feet in diameter) and will closely examine their territories for good places for females to lay eggs. They will find observation perches where they can monitor the comings and goings of anyone across “their” pond and will launch themselves into conflict at the slightest provocation. It is interesting to note that this species will feed far from water, which is why I stumbled upon this male in my meadow. What, I wonder, happens to the male’s territory when he is away in search of food?

I have decided that (weather permitting) I am going to dedicate Wednesday to the search for more insects of the odonata order. However, this time I will focus on a group that I have yet to discuss in any detail: the damselflies. They are out there in huge numbers and I guess I must accept the notion that I have to go out and spend time near a pond in the summertime. While I suffer this terrible fate, just realize what horrors I endure on your behalf.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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