Chasing Dragons at Snook’s Bottom

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This post was originally published at a very cool new local website called “Fruita Pulp,” edited by Kyle Harvey.  Check it out here:  http://www.fruitapulp.com/

American Rubyspot. Striped Meadowhawk. Boreal Bluet. I think I became infatuated with their names before I even met them.  Then a Flame Skimmer caught my eye, cruising over the tops of the juniper on the Kodels Canyon trail.  The bold orange hunter was flying slowly, looking for prey.  The seed was planted.  When the July/August issue of Audubon Magazine arrived, featuring a suggestive article titled Chasing Dragons I made the first move, requesting Dennis Paulson’s field guide Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West from the Mesa County Library.

My love affair with dragonflies and damselflies, also known as odonates, has had an awkward and fumbling start.  Not surprising when the object of your (unrequited) affection has an almost 360o visual field, can fly in any direction and may reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.  This makes pursuit difficult when you are a middle-aged, out-of-shape mom of two, who on her best day has slow reflexes and poor hand-eye coordination.  Nevertheless, I set out to Snook’s Bottom armed with Paulson’s field guide, some jars and my husband’s butterfly net.

The tools of the trade for pursuing “odes” (as their fans like to call them) are a field guide for identification, an insect net, binoculars (for getting a close look at the ones you don’t catch), and a hand lens for examining details on the ones you do catch.  Most dragonflies and damselflies are easiest to identify when you have them in hand, but not to worry- only the really big ones can bite hard enough to hurt.  Some people like to collect (kill and preserve) odonates, for personal education or research purposes.It seems heartless, but according to Paulson, “No North American odonate is rare enough that collecting a few specimens for these reasons in any way endangers populations.”Collections are essential for understanding odonate biology- and there is a lot yet to learn.  Personally I am not keen on the idea of killing odonates, but I think it is fine if you make sure to share the information with the scientific community.  If you want to document a species but can’t stand to kill it, one compromise is to chill it in a fridge or cooler.  This will slow the insect down so that it will stay still enough for you to take detailed macro photographs. Once the ode warms up, it will take off unharmed.

Dragonflies and damselflies are aquatic.  Most people picture odonates in the air or perhaps perched briefly on a plant, but all of these animals begin life in freshwater as a larva.  If you are a fly-fisherman you probably have a couple of dragonfly “nymph” flies in your stash- fish love to eat them.   The term nymph is technically incorrect because a nymph is a juvenile insect that looks like a miniature version of its adult form.  Dragonfly and damselfly larva look nothing like adults- they look more like something out of the movie Alien.  It’s apt comparison because the larva are predators that capture their prey using what is referred to as a “killer lip” that shoots out, grabs the hapless morsel and drags it back to be sliced and diced in the mandibles.

After a month to several years of the life aquatic (depending on the species and climate), larva climb from the water, and literally bust out of their skins.  The flying adult insect familiar to most of us emerges and takes to the air.  But if you think of dragonflies and damselflies as just familiar, banal “bugs” that make unfortunate large smears on your windshield, you probably haven’t looked at them very carefully.  These guys are flashy.  Outfitted with four independently moving wings, dragonflies and damselflies can fly forward, backward, straight up and straight down.  They can cruise slowly, almost at stalling speed or shoot forward like a rocket.    Like gymnasts in spangled leotards, some species of odonates show off their moves with glitzy markings.  Electric blues, metallic reds, racing stripes and spots cannot be appreciated when they are zooming by your head.  You have to see them in hand (or at least zoomed in with your binoculars.)  Who could fail to be impressed by the Fiery-eyed Dancer’s lavender body, metallic copper back and bright red eyes?

Adult dragonflies live fast and dangerously- life is all about hunting and mating. But it is a brief and beautiful existence – most adult odonates survive only a couple of weeks or months.  They hunt other insects by catching them in the air or snatching them from among the leaves.  And then they mate.  You know how you sometimes see dragonflies or damselflies flying around hooked together?  Well, they are mating… while flying.  How cool is that?

Perhaps the “killer lips,” flashy colors and aerial sex have not piqued your interest.  Or maybe you would never take a second look at an odonate, let alone attempt to catch one in a net attached to a not quite ten foot pole.  That’s fine.  I am pretty confident I will never learn to appreciate Nascar.  But at the very least take away this:  dragonflies and damselflies eat annoying insects like mosquitos.  Mosquitos bad, odonates good- that is all you need to know.

Back to Snook’s Bottom.  I continue to wander with my net, cursing the mosquitos and increasingly frustrated with my inability to catch these flying aces.  I have become pretty good at catching the damselflies, which are smaller and slower, but the larger dragons seem too speedy and smart for me.  Soon the winter will come and the adult odonates will have died off or migrated away.   I wonder if my infatuation will cool with the temperatures.  Perhaps I will take up some other hobby next spring.  Then I spot a pair of Flame Skimmers chasing each other down the shoreline.  They are distracted and not watching me.  I make a lucky swoop with my net and they are mine.  “Yes!” I hiss triumphantly to the amusement of the kids jumping off the pier.  I pop one of the Skimmers into a jar so I can show it off to my family at home and I head back to the parking lot, wondering how much my very own copy of “Dragonflies and Dameselflies of the West” would cost and if I should upgrade my insect net.

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Chasing Dragons at Snook’s Bottom

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