Readers’ wildlife photos

February 18, 2022 • 9:00 am

Today we have a batch of lovely insect photos from reader Mark Sturtevant. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Regarding any noteworthy group of insects, one may well ask “what is the largest?”, or “what is the smallest?” Since I am fairly obsessed with dragonflies, I have wondered these things about them.

In the continental U.S, there is no question about what is our smallest dragonfly. That would be the elfin skimmer (Nannothemis bella). According to Paulsen’s field guide, the larger females are at most 20mm long: probably shorter than the length of the last joint on your little finger. Paulsen describes them as being “barely big enough to be called dragon”. A single mosquito would be a full meal for them! Elfin skimmers are a species of concern over much of their range, since they have very particular environmental requirements and they do not fly more than a few feet from where they emerge. In my area, most of the recorded locations have turned up nothing since the species is easily driven to local extinction. But I did find a small population along a very isolated lake shore several hours from home. For me, finding them was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had in my years of macrophotography.

I knew they would be small, but Wow! They are tiny! A macro lens was definitely required, but they proved easy to photograph since they really want to stay right where they are. Here is a female. Their bold markings are suspected to make them a wasp mimic. Bear in mind that she is perching on a blade of grass.

And here are some males, which are smaller than the females. Males get more pruinose with age.

Here is a picture of one perched on someone’s little finger (!)

The elfin skimmer is considered to be the second smallest dragonfly in the world. The smallest is a related species found in China, and here it is

What about the largest dragonfly? For the entire world, that would be another U.S. species called the giant green darner, (Anax walsinghami) which tops out at a ginormous 116mm or so in length. It flies in the southwestern U.S., and I would sure like to see one. Here it is (or you can try this one.)

What I consider to be the largest dragonfly in my area is considerably larger than most dragonflies anywhere, since it gets up to 90 mm long. That would be the powerfully built dragonhunter dragonfly (Hagenius brevistylus), so named because they habitually prey on large insects—including other dragonflies. I try to see dragonhunters every summer, although they are not common around here, so each encounter defines a new spot of hallowed ground. Here is a female who was slowly patrolling a lake. The encounter with her was amazing as it began with her landing on top of my monopod – right under my nose. I was all like :😮.

Shortly after the second picture, she suddenly took off like a shot. All business. I heard a distinct impact sound above me, and she then flew by carrying another dragonfly! I could not get a good picture, unfortunately, but it looks like the prey was a blue dasher dragonfly.

Next is a male dragonhunter who was patrolling my favorite spot for photographing these awesome insects. This is one of my favorite insect pictures.

I will here throw down another very large dragonfly, described as being nearly as large as the dragonhunter. I had returned to the above location with a friend so that he might get his first photograph of a dragonhunter (we were successful), and there were several royal river cruisers (Macromia taeniolata) patrolling across the river. At one point a male r.r.c. flew across and landed next to me, and here he is. I swear—that is how their eyes look.

Finally, here is a picture of me that was taken by my friend as I was taking the above picture.

Thank you for looking!

20 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Wow, I loved these photos and this post. They are gorgeous insects. I didn’t completely understand how small the elfin ones are until I saw the photo of the one perched on the finger. It’s incredible to see them in such detail. They are all over my yard in summer, but I can’t ever get very close before they zip off. Thank you!

  2. What an awesome encounter with the female Dragonhunter! Amazing photos and fascinating anecdotes. I have a greater appreciation for these insects after reading your post. Dragonflies are welcome predators in my garden. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you so much for these great photos and interesting commentary. I always look forward to your batches of insect pictures.

  4. Congratulations on photographing the Elfin Skimmer. I had no idea such a thing existed, though I see one of the photos you linked was taken in Vilas Co Wisconsin where I had spent lots of time as a child. I had never seen one.

    On the other end of the size scale,we have the huge helicopter damselflies here in Ecuador. These are the largest damselflies.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLwSKCTl9HM
    They are impressive creatures!

    1. Thank you. Elfins require high quality fens, and if conditions change even a little, they are gone. I have searched many such habitats that seem perfect, but have not found them. Their highly limited travel must make it difficult for them to colonize new habitats.
      The friend I mentioned above has seen the giant helicopter damsels. Its been over 20 year and he still talks about them.

    2. That damselfly video is beautiful. The damselflies are gorgeous. Their wings are so elegant. I also really enjoyed the background sounds from birds and other animals in that video. It sounds and looks like there is some interesting thing going on there in every single direction.

  5. I too am prone to think of many insect species as “what’s the biggest and smallest”. Thanks for answering these questions about the dragonfly. And great photos, as expected. 🙂

  6. The one under “This is one of my favorite insect pictures” rally shows how the body can blend in with a twig.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, but I love talking gear. Nothing special, really. The camera I am holding is the Canon 5dmiii, with the newer 100-400mm f/2.8 mii lens (and a Tamron 1.4x telextender). The macro I am carrying in front is the Canon t5i and the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L macro lens, and a dual head flash + diffusers made from instant noodle soup bowls.
      But any camera with similar pixel count and a good zoom lens could do the same here.

  7. Thank you Mark, those are some damn nice dragonflies. The insect wildlife sections here are usually my favorites (no disrespect to the ducks, of course).
    Great photography also. ALL the contributors’ photographic skills are so far above my paygrade you’d need a very long lens to see me down here! Cheers!

    D.A.
    NYC

  8. Belated thanks for the terrific photos and commentary.

    I got into dragonflies a couple of summers ago. After being a birder for close to fifty years it felt exciting but also frustrating to be a complete beginner in another kind of “watching”and to have to be consulting guides constantly. Of course I couldn’t always come up with an identification. It was also disconcerting to have such a long “off season” in which to forget everything I’d learned.

    I was lucky enough to find one dragonhunter but it was a long way away and the terrain didn’t allow for a closer approach. I believe elfin skimmers are a relatively recent addition to the Ottawa (my home) fauna, causing great excitement among dragonfly enthusiasts. I’ve never seen one.

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