Dragons of the Sky

August 10, 2022

It has grown quieter out in Little Lake Valley. The territorial singing of the adult birds has mostly stopped and made way for the interesting sounds emanating from the bills of juvenile birds. Some are learning their mother’s songs while others are communicating hunger, fear, and many other emotions. The pollinators are out in abundance flying all around. Butterflies, moths, bees, and other kinds of insects are landing on all the late blooming flowers like milkweed and aster. The dragonflies catch my attention because they are so beautiful and diverse. Whether I am walking out in the grasslands or along the riparian corridors, the dragonflies are buzzing over me on their way to water or just hunting as raptors do.

There are at least 60 species of dragonflies in California which represents all 9 North American dragonfly families. They begin their life as a tiny egg about the size of a period. These eggs are laid scattered over still waterways, inserted onto floating or overhanging water vegetation, or buried into mud below shallow water. Development into an adult dragonfly takes a few months to four years. The young developmental stage is called a nymph or naiad, and they are varied in form. Naiads live in the water, look like fierce dragons, and are predatory. In her book, Common Dragonflies of California, Kathy Biggs writes that they have a unique feature in their mouth called a labium, a lower lip that they project out to hook prey. Besides crawling along the bottom of ponds, streams, and rivers, they can also jet forward suddenly by forcibly ejecting water out of their rectum. This allows them to escape from predators and to catch their own prey. Kathy distinguishes damselfly naiads that have three feather-like gills at the end of their abdomen from dragonfly naiads that do not. These gilled naiads spend about one year under water before crawling out onto a rock or plant stem to emerge as air-breathing dragonflies. They molt out of their naiad form and leave the shell of their body for us to find and be fascinated by. This empty shell is called the exuvia.

Adult dragonflies live several weeks to six months and during that time they feed on other flying insects like mosquitoes and gnats, as they are voracious eaters. They defend their territories, chasing away other dragonflies or pursuing females then returning to a prominent lookout spot on the end of a stick or a post of some sort, which makes them entertaining to watch. Flying adult dragonflies mature, mate, and lay eggs in the span of a few weeks. Some species like the common green darner are migratory and can fly up 900 miles south when the weather gets cold. In the fall months here in the valley before we have a few hard frosts, many green darners fly over the valley going south. They are big, noisy, beautiful, and are always a joy to see. These bigger dragonflies become food for migrating birds like swallows which I have seen catching them on the wing. Dragonflies also make up part of the diet of resident birds like the American Kestrel and Great Egret.

One more interesting fact is that there are two common categories of dragonflies, called dragonflies and damselflies. They are all members of the same family in the order Odonata. Dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which have larger wings that are held extended from the body and the eyes usually touch. Damselflies are in the suborder Zygoptera, and their wings are held together over or alongside the body and their eyes are separated. Looking at the photos you can see this difference easily. I have also found that damselflies tend to be slower and more likely to land on my hand. Damselflies seem less aggressive. It is such a pleasure watching these cool multi-colored insects flying all around the valley.