Friday, July 7, 2017

The Odes of Summer

I putter in the backyard a fair bit these days--watering the vegetables, staking the tomatoes, or doing projects of one sort or another--while all around me buzzes a confusion of life.  Dragonflies from who-knows-where (there is no pond nearby) rest on the tomato stakes or sidewalk, honey bees and bumblebees and wasps visit the milkweed flowers, and butterflies flit about. 

Lately I've been struck by their pairing.  Two dragonflies did aerobatics around each other a couple of days ago; when they landed I could see that they didn't look alike, but dragonflies (like birds) sometimes show differences between male and female.  Today, I kept my camera in my pocket, and was amply rewarded.

Turns out these are both Common Whitetails female (top) and male.  Over the following days the yard was visited by other species of dragonflies, so I finally dug out my copy of Dragonflies Through Binoculars, by Sidney W. Dunkle, which claims to discuss every species of dragonfly in the US--with photos of most of them.  

Dragonflies are very cool insects.  They live most of their lives as larvae that are fierce underwater predators in freshwater ponds, streams and the like.  They emerge as winged adults for the shorter reproductive phase of their lives as fierce aerial predators, catching flying insects (including mosquitoes!) on the wing using basketlike legs.  Many even mate in the air, flying together linked in a sort of wheel shape.  

From an amateur naturalist's point of view, they are also cool in being an easy-to-distinguish group, with their long bodies and wings extending out to the sides like airplanes.  And they can also be identified to species in most cases with a little patience and Dunkle's book.  

Those in the know refer to dragonflies and their near relatives the damselflies (similar in shape but at rest folding their wings along their back) as Odonates or simply "Odes," since they belong to the taxonomic order Odonata.  

The book divides dragonfly species into seven groups, and lays out their photos on forty-seven plates with eight photos on each plate.  The page facing each plate has a range map and brief remarks to aid in identification.  Each is further linked to descriptive text elsewhere in the book, detailing identification, similar species, habitat, season and comments.  I further simplified using the book by marking with a colored dot every species that occurs in our area--reducing the number of photos to look at by quite a bit.  

If you are interested in becoming better-acquainted with the most diverse and important group of animals on the planet--the insects--this is a good way to begin.  All you need is time outdoors (an important value all by itself), a camera, and a copy of Dunkle.  

Happy naturalizing!

Here are some other visitors in the last week.

 Immature male Common Whitetail.  (Abdomen turns bluish-white at maturity.)

Immature male Eastern Pondhawk.  (When mature, the entire body will be blue-gray.)

 Female Common Whitetail.

 A Blue Dasher, maybe, but these have metallic green eyes.

 Eastern Pondhawk.

A Mystery--for now.

 Eastern Pondhawks.

 Plate 39 includes the Eastern Pondhawk, with separate photos of immature and mature male, and mature female.  The map (left) shows them occurring over the entire eastern two-thirds of the US.

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