Thursday, July 12, 2018

Species Spotlight: Eastern Amberwing

In Arizona we have a small, orangish red dragonfly known as the Mexican Amberwing. Its small size and color make it a bit of a wasp mimic—presumably it is left alone by birds who have had unpleasant experiences with wasps in the past. Here's the Mexican Amberwing:

This is a male, as you can see by the hamules projecting downward below segment 2 of the abdomen. Also notice the amber-colored wings, from which the species derives its name.

Now, on the east coast there is also an amberwing dragonfly, but a different species—the Eastern Amberwing. Its color and size are similar to the Mexican Amberwing, though it's a bit darker red. Here's an Eastern Amberwing at the retention pond mentioned in the previous post on the Slaty Skimmer:

In amberwings, males select an appropriate egg-laying site, guard it from intrusions by other males, and escort females to their chosen spot for her approval. The males make dipping motions—touching the water with the tip of their abdomen—in an effort to entice the female to accept the location and begin laying eggs herself. It's an interesting bit of behavior to observe.

When the female isn't going about the business of laying eggs, she's generally perched in nearby vegetation. Here's a female Eastern Amberwing resting in bushes along the shore of the retention pond:

Notice the wing patches, as opposed to the amber wings of the male, and the broad abdomen. Quite a striking dragonfly.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Species Spotlight: Slaty Skimmer

We just returned from a trip to New England, where we saw a lot of dragonflies and damselflies that we don't see here on the west coast. We saw a lot of them right across the street from our hotel, in a little retention pond:

Even the most inconspicuous habitat can be a great place to do some dragonflying. One of the many species we saw there was the Slaty Skimmer, a large dark blue dragonfly with clear wings and black eyes:

Here are a couple more photos of this species:

These dragonflies were just a few miles from historic Lexington, MA, where I lived while I was a post-doc at MIT. Here are a couple views from around the village green in Lexington:

We then traveled just a few miles farther to Cambridge, and the campus of MIT:

A great trip for history, memories, and dragonflies!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Species Spotlight: Red-veined Meadowhawk

We've been seeing the Red-veined Meadowhawk recently at Smiley's Bottom here in Anacortes. In fact, Smiley's Bottom is the only place we've ever seen the Red-veined Meadowhawk. It's an interesting species, but not widespread.

The Red-veined Meadowhawk can be mistaken for the Cardinal Meadowhawk. After all, it has white spots on the sides of the thorax like the Cardinal Meadowhawk, as well as some red in the wings. Here's a look at a male Red-veined Meadowhawk:

You can just see a white spot on the thorax under the wings—there are two white spots on either side of the thorax, but it's hard to get a good look at them through the wings. In addition, notice the black markings along the sides of the abdomen. These features are pointed out below:

For comparison, let's take a look at the Cardinal Meadowhawk. Here's a male, showing the pure red abdomen and a white spot on the thorax:

Perhaps the best distinguishing feature is the dark red parch on the wings near the base in the Cardinal Meadowhaw. This is shown below:

This dark red, opaque patch is unique to the Cardinal Meadowhawk.

It's not surprising that humans sometimes mix up these two species—they seem to do that themselves. In the following photo we see a male Red-veined Meadowhawk in tandem with a female Cardinal Meadowhawk:

The following photo shows the more typical situation—a male Red-veined Meadowhawk attached to a female of the same species:

This species lays eggs as the pair hovers in tandem, with the female flicking out one or two eggs at a time. The eggs, which look like small grains of rice, tumble down into the vegetation and onto the ground. It's interesting to note that the ground is dry when the eggs are deposited, but is underwater when the Fall rains return.

You can find out more about this species and others in Common Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Pacific Coast.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My Best Compliment Ever!

Last weekend we attended a birthday party, with lots of young nieces and nephews in attendance. At the party, I was told that my niece's favorite book—at the moment anyway—is my field guide, Common Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Pacific Coast. She really surprised me when she started talking about darners, and the happy-face dragonfly. She knows that the happy-face is a darner, but that there are other darners who aren't the happy-face dragonfly.

My niece loves looking at all the pretty pictures in the book. She and Betsy spent some time counting the spots on the Eight-spotted and Twelve-spotted Skimmers. And she especially likes the picture of all the Autumn Meadowhawks perched on my legs, and the pictures of dragonflies on my fingers. She wants me to show her some dragonflies in real life, so we'll have to do that soon.

Here's a link to the field guide on Amazon:

Field Guide

You'll find some nice compliments there as well, but none that to compare with the one from my niece.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Heart Lake

I went to Heart Lake in Anacortes a couple days ago, and the dragonfly activity was at a high level—dragonflies everywhere, with lots of egg-laying behavior on display. There were also some newcomers for the year, including the Cardinal Meadowhawk and the Eight-spotted Skimmer.

Here's a Cardinal Meadowhawk perched near the egg-laying area:

This guy's is looking up, checking out his surroundings. Notice that his abdomen is broad and flat, as is typical of this species. Here's another individual on his favorite leaf:

You can just barely see one of the white spots on the side of the thorax, one of the field marks for this species. Also, notice that the abdomen is fringed with yellow, indicating this is a young male. The abdomen starts off yellow, and turns bright red with age. This individual is just at the end of this transition.

Most of the egg laying was being done by the Cardinal Meadowhawks. Here is a couple dipping into the water to deposit a small mass of eggs:

This is a frame capture from a video, and in the video itself you can see the egg mass dropped off by the female, which then slowly sinks to the bottom.  Sometimes there were a couple pairs laying eggs at the same time:

Another common species along the shore was the Dot-tailed Whiteface. A number of pairs were seen in the wheel position, though I didn't see any egg laying. Here's a male perched on the ground:

This was also the first day I've seen the Eight-spotted Skimmer in Anacortes. Here's a young male on his favorite perch in the bushes:

It's clear this is a male from the white spots in the wings. Notice, however, that it's a young male because the abdomen still looks like the abdomen of a female, with straight yellow side stripes. As it matures, the abdomen will turn a lovely pruinose blue.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Species Spotlight: Spiny Baskettail—New for Anacortes!

A couple days ago, Betsy and I went to Cranberry Lake to see how dragonfly season was progressing. The activity was high, especially among Pacific Forktails and Four-spotted Skimmers. This was discussed in a previous post:

We also saw some American Emeralds, which are always fun to see because they are fairly uncommon and have a short flight season. We saw one land in a tree, and another in the grass. The one in the tree was indeed an American Emerald. See the following post for more information on this species:

It turns out that the one in the grass was actually something completely different. Here's a look at it:

This is clearly a baskettail—and a female at that, judging from how stocky the abdomen is near the base, where it joins onto the thorax. Notice a projection extending downward near the tip of the abdomen, which is enlarged in the next shot:

This projection, or "genital plate" as it is called, is used to hold an egg mass produced by the female. Here's a female we saw in Oregon a couple years ago in the process of making a large egg mass at the tip of her abdomen:

Once she has a good-sized egg mass she flies over the water, diligently looking for a fish-free place to drop it off. The egg mass in this picture was dropped off in this way, but even with all the precautions taken by the female the eggs were gobbled up immediately by a waiting fish. We saw dragonflies at Cranberry Lake with prominent egg masses, but had never seen one close up before to determine the species.

Here's a better look at our new species:

The identification is a little tricky because we're dealing with a female, but there are basically two possibilities—a Spiny Baskettail or a Beaverpond Baskettail. If we had a male the call is easy, because the Spiny male has simple appendages, whereas the Beaverpond male has pistol-shaped appendages. The females of both species have simple appendages, however, so this nice field mark can't be used. Instead, we note the color along the back border of the head. In this individual it is black, as is pointed out in the following photo:

This border area would be yellow in a Beaverpond Baskettail female.

All in all, we were pleasantly surprised to find this new species at our familiar lake:

You never know what you're going to find when you go out into the field!

For more information on basketballs, emeralds, and many other west coast species, check out my field guide at the following link:

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Species Spotlight: The Great Blue Skimmer

We've all heard of the Great Blue Heron. Well, there's a "great blue" in the dragonfly world as well—the Great Blue Skimmer.

As it's name suggests, it's a skimmer that is large, and conspicuously blue. We saw one for the first time on our recent trip to the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge near Virginia Beach, VA. Here's a look at it from above:

Notice the large black stigmas that merge into a black fringe at the tip of the wings.

From the front, the brilliant white face of this species is on full display:

All in all, a lovely dragonfly to add to our life list. Too bad we won't be seeing any of them on the west coast.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Flurry of Forktails

Betsy and I went to Cranberry Lake here in Anacortes for our first visit of the 2018 dragonfly season. The activity was intense, with lots of Four-spotted Skimmers zipping around, landing on the path, mating, and laying eggs. Here's an example of a Four-spotted Skimmer:

Notice the four dark spots on the center of the leading edges of the wings—these are the four spots in the name. The dark spots near the tip of the wing are the stigma, which all dragonflies possess, and hence are not distinguishing features. Finally, note the dark wings patches near the base of the hindwings with the white veins, a distinctive feature of this species.

Four-spotted Skimmers are also quite friendly and approachable dragonflies; they can be whispered for a closer look:

We also saw California Darners, American Emeralds and Spiny Baskettails—more about the baskettails in another post to follow.

There were lots of Pacific Forktails out and about today as well. In fact, there was one rock where they liked to congregate—forktail flats. Here's a look at seven of them enjoying the sunny day.

Here's a little closer look:

Notice the mix of males and females in this photo.

All in all, a lovely day at the lake.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Cherry Springs Revisted

Note: Over the years, this post from September 4, 2013 has been one of the most popular on the blog. I thought I would re-post it so more people will have a chance to see what it's all about. I still hope to get to Cherry Springs Nature Area one of these days.

Not long ago, I was contacted by naturalist Sheri Covert at the Cherry Springs nature area near Pocatello, Idaho. She was putting together an interpretive sign to inform visitors about some of the interesting insect life to be found there, and asked if she could use a couple of my dragonfly pictures. I was happy to help with a project like that, and supplied her with pictures of the species she was looking for. Here's a rough draft of the sign, which looks very nice.

Here's an enlargement of the dragonfly section:

I look forward to visiting Cherry Springs one of these days. If any of my intrepid readers gets there first, please take a picture of the sign in place and we'll include it in the blog.

You can learn more about the species featured on the Cherry Springs Interpretive Sign in my new field guide, Common Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Pacific Coast. You can see more about it at the following link to Amazon:

Look for the River Jewelwing on page 132, the Northern/Boreal Bluet on page 150, the Eight-spotted Skimmer on page 88, the Blue Dasher on page 120, and the Blue-eyed Darner on page 56.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


I recently had a request from a da Vinci/dragonfly enthusiast to use the Vitruvian Dragonfly, shown below, for a tattoo.

Here's the final result, on her forearm just below the elbow so she can see it all the time:

She's very happy with her tattoo, and also glad that her friends immediately saw the connection with Leonardo. I'm sure he would be happy about it too!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Refresher on Roseate Bay

Here's the post where I introduced Roseate Bay.

Another place we like at the Gilbert Water Ranch is what we call Roseate Bay, so named because Roseate Skimmers are so abundant there.  It's located at the northern end of Pond #5 in an area that stays wet all the time, while most of the pond dries up.  Its location is indicated on the map below:

There's also a nice shaded viewing blind at Roseate Bay.  It's a great place to see 3 or 4 Roseate Skimmers perched at a time, while in the background all sorts of ducks and shorebirds are feeding.

Here are a couple shots of a Roseate Skimmer at Roseate Bay.  They're very active right now, and often just perch for a few seconds before taking off again, but every now and then one rests for long enough to get some good shots, as with the individual below:

Roseate Skimmer, at Roseate Bay, Gilbert Water Ranch.

Notice how the front two legs are tucked up nicely behind its head—as can be seen more clearly in the photo of the same individual below.  This is where they hold the front legs during flight as well.  Once the rear four legs capture an insect, the front two legs come into play as they manipulate the prey item for processing.

Also observed at Roseate Bay were a couple Variegated Meadowhawks.  Here's one on a stem, watching for something to take off so it can give chase.

Variegated Meadowhawk, Roseate Bay, Gilbert Water Ranch.

The same individual as above from a different angle.  Notice the two yellow spots on the side of the thorax.  When it was younger, there would have been two white stripes on the thorax, with yellow spots at the bottom.  With age, the white fades away, leaving just the yellow spots.  Notice also the intricate pattern on the abdomen, the reason for its name.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Roseate Skimmer at Roseate Bay

There's one spot at the Gilbert Water Ranch that we refer to as "Roseate Bay" because we often see Roseate Skimmers there. Today we saw our first of the year, a young male. Here it is:

The roseate colors haven't developed yet, but they will soon.

Why is this a male? Well, first, the hamules are visible under segment 2 of the abdomen; second, the appendages are fairly large; third, the tip of the abdomen lacks the flanges associated with the egg scoop of the female of this species. Here's a look at two females from last season—the top two in the photo below—showing the flanges near the tip of the abdomen:

It's also clear from the above photo why this area is called Roseate Bay.

Here's another view of today's male:

You can just see a hint of the roseate color to come. Dragonfly season is getting started!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Species Spotlight: Desert Firetail

The Desert Firetail is a small delicate damselfly that likes to lay eggs on floating vegetation, like lily pads or algae. The male's abdomen is a fire red color—hence the common name.

Here are a couple males resting near a pond:

The red abdomen and short wings make this an easy damselfly to identify. Here's a photo that shows just how short the wings are in this species:

This is a male—as can be seen from the protrusion under segment 2 of the abdomen (the hamules) and the lack of an ovipositor at the tip of the abdomen. It is a young male, as evidenced by the light red color on the abdomen.

Pairs lay eggs with the male attached to the female. Males stand upright when attached, and if a group is laying eggs together the males can look like red blades of grass. Here's a pair in which the female is laying eggs on the underside of a lily pad:

A closer look at the female shows how the male is attached to the front of the female's thorax—not to the back of her head, as in dragonflies:

You may observe adults emerging from their larval (naiad) skins in the same general area where the eggs are being laid. Here's a larva that was swimming a few moments before the photo was taken, but who is now drying out on a lily pad, getting ready for the adult to emerge.

In a matter of minutes, the adult makes its appearance:

Soon thereafter the adult is fully emerged from its larval skin, and it now begins to pump up its abdomen and wings to their final size.

Ah, such is the life of an odonate!