Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Swarming Meadowhawks

The Autumn Meadowhawks are the last dragonflies flying in our area. I thought I would re-post a description of a swarm of Autumn Meadowhawks that I encountered at Cranberry Lake 6 years ago. Here it is:

Recent reports of mass gatherings of dragonflies make it seem there is “something in the air” when it comes to events like these.  Large numbers of baskettails have been observed in Canada, and a large gathering of Striped Meadowhawks was recently seen in Oregon.

In my case, the dragonflies involved were Autumn Meadowhawks.  These friendly dragonflies, which like to land on people, are a common sight at Cranberry Lake in Anacortes, Washington late in the season.

Betsy experiences a red dragonfly on the shoulder, and a second one on her hat.  Both dragonflies are male Autumn Meadowhawks, the friendliest dragonfly we know.

Autumn Meadowhawks are well described by a famous haiku:

Red dragonfly on my shoulder,
Calls me his friend.
Autumn has arrived.

I’ve often had them “on my shoulder,” but last autumn I had them covering my entire body – literally from head to toe.  Here’s what happened.

I went to Cranberry Lake on November 9, 2011 to observe the dragonfly activity.  The weather was sunny and calm, with an air temperature of 57 ˚F.  On other similar days I would observe about a dozen Autumn Meadowhawks and half a dozen Shadow Darners.  On this day, however, I immediately realized something was different – there were so many Autumn Meadowhawks on the gravel walking path that I had to choose my steps carefully to keep from stepping on them.

I walked to some bushes near the shore to see if any darners were perched there, but as soon as I stood still for a moment the meadowhawks began to gather on me.  It felt like a scene from Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds.  They were landing all over me in a frenzy.  I took some pictures showing the ones perched from my waist down, but as I took those pictures I could feel them perched on my arms, my upper body, my head, even on my face.  The pictures show over 30 on my lower body, and I would estimate there were 50 or more on my body as a whole.  I’ve had several Autumn Meadowhawks land on me before, but never anything like this.  

A gathering of Autumn Meadowhawks at Cranberry Lake in Anacortes, Washington on November 9, 2011.

The ones pictured on my lower body are only half the story – they covered me from head to toe.  It felt like a scene out of The Birds.

After taking a few pictures I looked up and saw that the air was just “full” of meadowhawks flying in all directions, hooking up in tandem or attempting to hook up.  It was similar to a mass flight of winged ants or termites.  A few darners were flying too, picking off individual meadowhawks, and also pairs in tandem, and heading for the bushes or trees to enjoy their catch.  It was quite a scene.  It’s hard to estimate the number of meadowhawks, but it must have been in the several hundreds.

I decided to go home and bring Betsy to see this phenomenon.  As I walked back to the car the meadowhawks went along for the ride on my body.  The car was a considerable distance away, and in the shade, but there were still a dozen or more dragonflies on me when I got there.  I had to “shoo” them away to keep them from getting in the car with me – though one managed to do so anyway.

When Betsy and I returned a few minutes later, the activity level was a bit lower, though still intense.  We marveled at the meadowhawks that seemed to be everywhere we looked, including all over us.  Along the shore we observed an egg-laying frenzy, with intense competition for prime sites.  As a result of the competition, many meadowhawks were being knocked into the water where they became stuck.  We ended up rescuing a dozen or more.

As we watched the egg-laying activity, the shadows of the afternoon (it was about 2:00 pm at this point) began to lengthen.  We expected to see the meadowhawks moving along the shore to stay in the sunlit areas, but at one point – quite suddenly – we noticed that the egg laying had ceased, and the air was now clear of meadowhawks.  It was almost as if someone had flipped a switch.  We’re not sure what the signal for stopping was – it wasn’t evident to us – but the meadowhawks seemed to respond en masse.

We returned the next several days, but each time the activity was completely normal again, with just a dozen or so meadowhawks along the shore.  The mass behavior seen on November 9 was a short-lived phenomenon, but one we’re happy to have experienced.

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