DRAGONFLIES, DAMSELFLIES ARE FASCINATING CREATURES

by Whit Gibbons

May 14, 2017

I went oding for the first time last week. If you have never gone looking for odes (other than in a poetry book), you should give it a try. If you learn something about them first or go with a knowledgeable guide, you will not be disappointed. It may be one of the most thrilling nature walks you take.

Odes is the colloquial name given for species in the taxonomic order Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies. All are carnivorous, specializing on insect prey, so they are beneficial to have around. Peter Stangel asked if he and two other odonate experts, John Demko and Hilda Flamholtz, could visit our land to go oding. All three are remarkable ode trackers, plus John and Hilda add photographic skills that are humbling.

We met at my cabin in the woods alongside a stream and sphagnum swamp that border a sandhill habitat with young longleaf pine. The thrill of the hunt soon surfaced and remained with me all day. As with most groups of animals with high species diversity, once you focus on their ecological and behavioral traits, different biopersonalities emerge.

Dragonflies are familiar as the four-winged, fast-moving aerial predators that patrol fields and ponds in search of flying insects. When I was a kid, we called them mosquito hawks. Damselflies, aka snake doctors, are more common in swamps and shaded stream margins. We saw numerous ebony jewelwings, with their solid black wings, flitting around in shaded spots like fairies.

When these dainty damselflies perch in sunlight, the abdomen (the long body extension that looks like a tail) appears metallic green or blue. These are beautiful creatures whose gentle nature should make anyone appreciate the edge of a swamp. With a little coaching, even I learned to tell the ebony jewelwing males from the females, which have a white spot on the wing tips.

Odonates cover the color spectrum with bodies ranging from bright red and orange to yellow, green, blue and even violet. The common whitetail dragonfly, which also has a white abdomen, was abundant. Eye color often reveals the species of an odonate. We saw dragonflies called eastern pondhawks with huge bright green eyes, whereas a damselfly known as the variable dancer has purple eyes. A damselfly called the attenuated bluet has solid blue eyes and a recognizable light blue tip on its long, thin abdomen.

Collectively we were able to locate, identify and even photograph more than 30 different species of dragonflies and damselflies. Some were rare, such as the duckweed firetail, a reddish damselfly that rests on mats of tiny duckweed plants that cover some aquatic habitats.

Another, the sphagnum sprite, was restricted to an area of sphagnum moss growing deep in the swamp. Some were new records for the county. Some were ones that Peter, John and Hilda had never seen. As an untrained initiate in the ode club, all but a few were new to me, although I have walked through those fields, woods and swamps many times.

I was astonished to realize that so many kinds of dragonflies and damselflies have been around me unnoticed in these habitats for years. This is true for much of the vibrant array of biodiversity that surrounds us anytime we venture into a natural habitat. Two excellent sources for teaching oneself about these remarkable predators are the book “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast” (University of Georgia Press) by Giff Beaton and a free app called “Dragonfly and Damselfly Field Guide and ID.”

For me the day of oding was both educational and exciting, a fabulous exercise in environmental search and discovery. The same can be true of any nature walk, whether the quest is for odonates, birds or flowers; mushrooms, snakes or lichens. Whatever you search for, once you tune in to the diversity of life around us, you become more aware of – and therefore more appreciative of – the natural world.

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