Spreadwings and Pond Damsels

May 13, 2024

In the spring, many things happen on the Willits Bypass Mitigation lands: an influx of bird migrants, trees and grasses leafing out and producing flowers, and flying insects everywhere. Today, I want to focus on a couple of damselfly species. Walking through the tall grasses along the riparian corridors of Outlet Creek, I observed many small brownish damselflies flying in front of me. They are not colorful, and so when they land they disappear. Looking through my camera lens, I notice they have a peculiar way of holding their wings. The damselflies that I have seen before keep their wings close to their bodies, but these have their wings open halfway. Occasionally, I see one of the blue and black pond damsels flying with them.

In Kathy Biggs’s book Common Dragonflies of California, an excellent resource for our local dragonflies, I discovered that these interesting damselflies are called spreadwings and are in a separate family than the other damselflies. Spreadwings are in the family Lestidae. The spreadwings are divided into two genera: the pond spreadwings (Lestes) and the streamspreadwings (Archilestes).

One of the most captivating aspects of the spreadwing damselfly is its feeding behavior. I observed them catching flying insects and landing on the grass to consume their prey. It’s a mesmerizing sight, almost like a dance, as they gracefully fly up and down, landing with their wings open halfway, a unique characteristic that sets them apart from other damselflies. Another interesting thing about them is that most dragonflies drop their eggs directly into the water, but spreadwings have a modified ovipositor that allows them to slit a plant stem and place the eggs inside. In the early spring, the larvae climb out and drop into the water if the level is below the stem or crawl onto the bottom of the stream or pond if the plant is under the water.

Spreadwings generally rest with their wings open, unlike other damselflies such as the pond damsels, which rest with their wings closed along their back. Pond damsels are slender and usually more colorful than the spreadwings. Pond damsels are regularly seen along Outlet and Davis Creek. Today, I did find a couple mixed in with the spreadwings. The adult male spreadwings generally have bright blue eyes, though I did not find any to photograph. That is something I hope to do in the future.