Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… today will be diverse wetland habitats, which consist of ponds, streams, creeks, rivers, bogs, swamps, and a lake. True spring takes its time coming to the North Country. I have been enjoying photographs on Facebook of spring flora and migratory birds for several months. Our time has finally arrived. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird males have returned, and so have the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The wildflowers are blooming in the woodland gardens, and almost all of the perennials in the gardens are flourishing and even made it through the thirty degrees temperatures we had last week. I have been diligently checking all the aforementioned wetlands in hopes of seeing local dragonflies and damselflies. With many different sources of wetland habitats within a short drive, I have the opportunity to see many species of both these amazing insects.
There are at least one hundred different species of dragonflies in our area. The males and females don’t resemble each other in coloring or markings, and that means an opportunity to see and photograph as many as two hundred dissimilar insects. And there are about thirty different species of damselflies, and the males and females are also dissimilar in coloring and markings. The use of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens is necessary to assist with identification. Finding and identifying both of these remarkable insects has become a pastime that is as popular as Birding.
Dragonflies and damselflies are members of the Order Odonata. There are two suborders; Anisoptera (meaning unlike wings) are the dragonflies, and the suborder, Zygoptera (meaning paired wings) are the damselflies. A few tips that I use when trying to identify each suborder are that damselflies have long slender abdomens, and dragonflies have shorter, stouter abdomens. A damselfly in flight appears fluttery or flighty, while the dragonfly is quick and strong. The eyes of a damselfly have a wide space between them, and the eyes of a dragonfly are close together. While both are perching, it is easier to make a correct identification as the damselfly perches with its wings closed together, and they are held over its back, and the dragonfly perches with its wings held flat on either side of its body.
Numerous field guides available today are extremely helpful, especially if you wish to identify or locate different species. For example, two of our earliest emerging damselflies are Jewelwings. The River Jewelwing (Calopteryx aequabilis) appears in late May and can be found through early September near clean streams with an open canopy and also small to medium-sized rivers. While another stunning damselfly, the Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), which is also found in late May to early September, is found near small to medium-sized shaded forest streams. In addition to both Jewelwings, many other damselflies such as the Rubyspots, Spreadwings, Dancers, Bluets, and Sprites may be found in our areas, and each prefers a different habitat. Many prefer still water, while others may be observed in marshes, bogs, or fens. Still, others desire gently flowing spring-fed streams, lakes, and even irrigation ditches.
Damselflies evolve differently than most insects as their metamorphosis is three stages instead of four stages, eliminating the pupal stage. They begin life as an egg, then larva (nymph or naiad), and adult. All damselflies have a lengthy aquatic stage. After hatching from the egg, it may remain a larva for a year or more. As a larva, it is a khaki green or brownish color, and it will breathe through its gills. It feeds and molts (sheds its skin) as many as ten to fifteen times before finally reaching maturity. As a larva, it will reside in ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps, fens, bogs, or marshes, depending on its genus and species. It will eat smaller aquatic insects and even tiny fish. During the larva stage, it also may become food for predators such as fish, insects, and birds.
The body of a damselfly consists of its head, thorax, abdomen, wings, six legs, and two antennae. The head is wide and long, with its eyes on both ends. The large eyes are compound, containing five to ten thousand light-sensitive units, which are excellent for finding and locating prey. Their mouth consists of two “lip-like” parts; the upper labrum and lower labium hold their prey. The sideway mandibles cross back and forth to chew and consume the prey. The thorax is different than most insects in that it is divided into two parts; the front section, called the prothorax, controls its head motion, and the front pair of legs. The prothorax is fused to the rear pterothorax which controls the wings and two pairs of rear legs. The long slender abdomen contains ten segments. The patterns and coloring of the abdomen are the most helpful when trying to identify the different species of damselflies.
Dragonflies normally emerge at night and complete their metamorphosis into adults. Damselflies generally emerge later in the morning or early afternoon. The damselfly will surface from the water onto aquatic vegetation (lily pads, flowers, or cattails). They require time to dry, and then the thorax (body part between the head and abdomen) will begin to split; next, the head will split. When the splitting of the head meets the thorax split, the adult damselfly pushes its thorax out of the larval exoskeleton (body encasement) and pulls its head out too. It is very vulnerable at this point and must wait for the legs to dry and harden. After the legs have hardened the adult can pull its abdomen from the exoskeleton. Now the abdomen can expel air from its gut which allows its limp wings to unfurl. It will then begin to pump hemolymph (insect blood) through the veins in its wings. The process of freeing itself from the larval case and unfurling its wings may take as long as an hour. Unfortunately for the teneral (newly emerged adult damselfly), what we may witness as a miracle, is actually a very vulnerable time for the damselfly. It is the time when they become prey for spiders, frogs, birds, and other insects.
Over the years, I have found that kayaking is a really great time to photograph both damselflies and dragonflies. They will often use your kayak as a perch, giving you a longer time for observation and identification.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com.