Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tuleyome Tales: Hang around water to spot dragonflies

Damselflies are smaller than dragonflies, and when they land they fold their wings neatly against their backs. Mary Hanson/Courtesy photo

By Mary K. Hanson

You see them all over the region this time of year, wherever there’s a slow-moving or still body of water nearby, flitting around on specialized wings sometimes in excess of 30 miles per hour. They’re sometimes called “water witches” or “fairies spinning needles,” but most of us just call them dragonflies and damselflies.

One of the most common dragonflies you’ll see this time of year is the flame skimmer. Their bodies are up to 3 inches long and are fiery red-orange in color (including their eyes and the veins in their wings). Males are generally brighter in color than the females.

Kathy Biggs, an expert in California odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), says you’ll most likely find the males nearer the water, and the females farther inland. To catch a photo of a male flame, Biggs suggests, just hold a stick down near the water’s edge. Perching-sticks attract males, who may come and sit for a while to survey their territory.

“Even if he flits away immediately, be patient; there’s a 50 percent chance he’ll come back,” Biggs says.

Some species of odonates can live up to sox years, but the majority of their lifetime is spent underwater as voracious nymphs called naiads. The alien-looking wingless naiads will eat just about anything, including fish and tadpoles that are bigger than they are.

When mature, the naiad will climb up onto the stem of a nearby plant, shed its skin (called exuvia) and emerge as a pale dragonfly or damselfly. Their color intensifies as they grown older.

Adult dragonflies are generally much larger in size than damselflies, and when they land they hold their wings out away from their bodies. Damselflies fold their wings neatly against their backs.

You may also see pairs of dragonflies or pairs of damselflies in a tied-together formation called “in wheel”; this is the configuration they use when mating. After mating, the females generally will head toward water to lay their eggs, and the males patrol in a “hover-glide” fashion to keep other marauding males away from them.

The female flame skimmer actually “splashes” her eggs into the water so they bounce up and adhere to nearby water plants. This keeps hungry fish from gobbling up her eggs before they have a chance to develop.

One of the most prominent features of the dragonfly is its set of huge multi-faceted eyes. The eyes, which can vary in color, have as many as 30,000 separate lenses. Most dragonflies have broad-spectrum color vision and can even see into the ultraviolet range. Damselflies, like the vivid dancer, one of the species most regularly seen in our area, likewise have excellent color vision.

The male vivids are a glorious neon-blue with black bands and stripes on their bodies. The females are usually dusky tan or even chalk-white.

To snap some photos of the vivids, Biggs suggests looking for them as they bask on sunlit trails near the water and on wooden bridges.

“For some reason, they just seem to love places like that,” Biggs says.

When you first approach a vivid, it may clap its wings together as a warning for you to get away from its territory, but don’t worry. Damselflies and dragonflies don’t have stingers.

In California, there are 113 different species of odonates, and what’s extra-special for those of us who live in the counties encompassing the Berryessa Snow Mountain region is the fact that almost half of those species live right here. According to Biggs, they are easiest to find on sunny days when there is little wind, and it’s best to approach them slowly and directly (rather than quickly and at an angle).

So get out there and photograph some of these “water witches” while the summer months last.

— Mary K. Hanson is a local amateur naturalist and photographer. Tuleyome, a conservation organization with offices in Woodland and Napa, thanks the Xerces Society ( and odonate expert Kathy Biggs for their assistance with this article. Tuleyome Tales are published monthly. For more information, visit

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