Readers’ wildlife photos

Mark Sturtevant has graced us again with some lovely insect photos—and odonates (dragonflies) are one of his favorite groups.  His notes are indented:

Going out to photograph nature, one of course hopes to come across something unusual or special. But the truth is the outcome is a matter of randomly choosing this park or that park; and turning left versus right on a trail. So the reward of a special find has a lot to do with luck. Here are two examples, taken just days apart, that for me were very special. I might not ever have this much luck again.

The Magic Field backs up to a forest, and farther into the forest is the Flint river. As a result, there are a number of different dragonfly species that patrol the Magic Field.

There was a late summer species of mystery dragonfly that would patrol the forest margin, and I had no idea what it could be. They were large and black with neon green eyes, and they were especially nimble fliers even by dragonfly standards. Very discouraging to me. But the Magic Field is sometimes very generous in her gifts.

One day I was walking along the forest margin when one of the mystery dragons zipped past me from behind and continued along the trail ahead. But this one was behaving differently as it was regularly pausing to probe the forest edge.  Far ahead, the dragonfly suddenly ducked into the trees and clearly settled onto a twig!

Hurrying toward it, I got to where I could inspect it through the zoom lens. What I saw was a wondrous sight shown in the first picture.

Two of the mystery dragons! I later learned that these were a species called royal river cruisers (Macromia taeniolata). They were both females.

I hustled to get in front of them, and what followed was an extraordinary time as they proved so tolerant to my presence that even taking pictures with the macro lens was permitted. One of the cruisers would periodically take off to land on a different twig, but after a few moments it would fly back to settle next to its partner. Were they seeking each other out, or did they simply like the same twig?

As a post-script to this story, I have since found that cruisers will land, but one must be willing to follow and be very patient. Once perched, the species is easy to photograph. So now I have many more pictures of both females and males, although no one I know has seen them perching together.

Dragonflies are often given impressive names. There are cruisers, pondhawks, skimmers, and so on. But the coolest name is granted to one of most coveted dragonflies called the “dragonhunter” (Hagenius brevistylus). This is only barely not the largest of our dragonflies in the mainland U.S., but it is easily the largest my area. I don’t see how anyone could not be impressed if one flew by, especially since they are not considered common over most of their range. The dragonhunter is so-named because they prefer to take large prey, including other dragonflies, as shown in the linked picture (two photos down). In this case, a dragonhunter is eating a river cruiser!

At one of my favorite parks I came across a male dragonhunter that was patrolling its river territory. It took the better part of an entire day staking out one particular twig that it favored, but it did eventually land, and here it is. I could barely breathe taking this first picture.

The river that it was patrolling was navigable, so I took the chance to wade out alongside this very special insect. The last picture was taken while I was sitting in the water; expensive camera rig balanced on one knee. I know that was not smart, but — dragonhunter!! He was completely indifferent about my rapt attention.

What an awesome insect! Paulson’s field guide Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East describes how this “monster dragonfly” characteristically sits with their over-sized thorax and long legs in the manner that is shown. Paulson says of this: “seeming awkward, too large for perch.” Yep, that how they are!

Mark also sent a link to a site showing a dragonhunter that captured a ruby-throated hummingbird.

21 Comments

  1. Keith
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    These are amazing photos! I’m inspired to go out and try my luck with my camera–I’ve never photographed an odonate. I assume the oversized thorax is due to the flight muscles, but perhaps there’s another reason?

    • Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      I expect they have some extra power in the thorax. Other factors in their distinct proportions could be for flight control – giving a delicate balance to their pitch and yaw.
      Dragonhunters fly rather slow most of the time. But I’ve seen them react to other dragonflies in their field of view and suddenly they are full-on dragonflies.

  2. Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Great to see the wings in such detail.

    Maybe someone can answer this — do the wings grow back if they’re damaged?

    • Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Not in an adult. Adult insect wings are mostly just non-living cuticle, except for the veins. In any case, most insects don’t regenerate anything as adults. I don’t know if wing pads in the aquatic juveniles can regenerate.

  3. Paul Matthews
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Awesome photos and awesome commentary. The excitement of these great finds really comes through in the writing.

    Last year, after decades of concentrating solely on birds, I got into butterflies and really enjoyed it. (Of course, over the winter I forgot a lot of what I’d learned
    ☹️.) Now I feel I need to get into dragonflies. And other insects. And frogs. And … So many creatures, so little time.

  4. Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing the thrill of getting these photos. And great photos at that! Especially the river cruiser. Congratulations.

  5. Debra Coplan
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this wonderful post! Your fantastic photos and posts on insects have made me pay more attention to insects around me I used to ignore.

  6. Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Lovely photos! Absolutely love the eyes on those River Cruisers.

  7. GBJames
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Just wow.

  8. Dominic
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Really nice! Thanks for those pictures. I see the genus Hagenius was named by a Belgian contemporary of Darwin, de Selys-Longchamps the father of odonatology https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_de_Sélys_Longchamps

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I know it has its faults, but what would we do without Wikipedia?

  9. JezGrove
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    “I could barely breath taking this first photo” – well, it is breathtakingly beautiful (as are they all)!

  10. Steven Adams
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Those are wonderful photos! Well done!

    I’ve become obsessed with dragonflies and can’t wait for warmer, drier weather to take the camera back into the field.

    I’ve spent many wonderful days over the last few summers meandering around our local parks searching for dragonflies, jewelwings, moths, and butterflies.

    It has been quite the pleasure to discover the variety of these insects, to watch their behavior, and to marvel at their beauty.

    Thanks for the wonderful photos!

    • Posted May 11, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I know the thrill! The cares of the world fairly disappears before just watching a butterfly briskly probe each floret of a flower, before moving on to the next one.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Top notch photos…two very special insects. I bet the dragon hunter has an impressive larvae as well.

  12. tjeales
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful as ever Mark. Thanks for sharing, always love dragonflies

  13. Leo Glenn
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Magnificent photos. No matter how busy I am, whenever I see your name at the start of a wildlife photo contribution, I always take the time to look at them, and I am always glad I did. Dragonflies are such magical creatures. What I wouldn’t give to see one of the giant ones from the Carboniferous Period.

  14. Posted May 12, 2020 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    The dragonflies are fantastic.. BUT.. as often in the otherwise excellent wildlife photo section we don’t know where they are!
    Which city/state, etc.? Sometimes we aren’t even told which country the subjects are in.
    I’d like to know that information.
    Keep up the good work though,
    D.A., NYC


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