For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

Dragonflies are small, fast and can move in any direction. It’s not easy to get a good shot of a dragonfly when it’s perched, let alone zipping around in unpredictable patterns.

I tried to follow an individual dragonfly through the camera lens. That was a lesson in futility. Even if I could follow one (which I couldn’t) it would have been impossible for the autofocus mechanism to keep up. Manual focusing by panning the subject wouldn’t have worked either. Not even close.

So I tried a trick I used sometimes when I was a sports photographer. I focused on a spot and waited for something to enter the frame. Actually, in this case, there were so many dragonflies that they were constantly in the frame so I just held down the shutter. Just because they were in the frame doesn’t mean the shots came out OK. On the contrary, 99 percent of the photos were instantly deleted because they were out of focus, usually by a long shot.

But I kept trying and made adjustments to the camera as I went along and the sun continued to set. I have no idea how many photos I took, but it didn’t really matter. Digital cameras can hold lots of photos these days.

This would have been impossible to do with the “old” film camera. Imagine blowing through several rolls of expensive oil and paying the cost of having them developed only to see a bunch of blurry dots. That was our reality not too long ago.

Clearly, the dragonflies didn’t eat all of the mosquitoes as I donated a few pints of blood trying to get the shots. What is it about my ankles that mosquitoes like so much?

As I mentioned earlier, dragonflies are a perfect predator for their prey and a single dragonfly can catch and eat dozens or even hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. Their four wings allow them to fly in any direction, or even hover, and their vision is outstanding. They catch prey with their legs and eat the catch immediately.

Despite their awesome flying ability, they can sometimes become the prey as well. I remember watching a green heron at a small pond years ago snapping dragonflies out of the air.

I see dragonflies on nearly every walk I take in the spring, summer and fall. But I don’t remember ever seeing such a scene with so many of them concentrated in one yard. Neither of the neighbors had this spectacle going on. It was ours to watch exclusively. It was one of those moments in nature you stumble upon from time to time.

For the Birds: Dragonfly fun facts

Photo by Chris Bosak Meadowhawk dragonflies mate in Selleck's/Dunlap Wood in summer 2014.

I’m a big “fun facts” guy. Thankfully, the internet is filled with these interesting tidbits of information. 

You could find amusing information on just about anything you can think of: politics, art, sports, human biology, libraries, history. You name it, it’s out there on the web.

The animal world, of course, is no exception. Fun facts abound on the internet about earthworms, cicadas, robins, moose, musk ox, and countless other fascinating members of the animal kingdom.

I wrote recently about a few hot-weather walks I took through New England meadows. I focused that column primarily on butterflies, but I want to turn the attention to another common sighting I had on those walks: dragonflies.

These large insects have fascinated people for as long as people have been fascinated by things. Dragonflies can arouse amazement, fear or curiosity in humans. For me, it’s a combination of amazement and curiosity. I used to fear them when I was a kid due to a lack of understanding about them. They may be intimidating-looking, but they are as harmless as they come in the insect world — at least the ones we have in New England. (See, I snuck in a fun fact without even setting it up.)

OK, now for the set up: Dragonflies arouse curiosity in people for many reasons, such as their menacing appearance, aerial acrobatics, and ability to eat copious amounts of mosquitoes. Here are some other facts about dragonflies that you may or may not have known previously.

Dragonflies have two eyes, but each compound eye is made up of up to 30,000 ommatidium, or facets. The eyes make up most of a dragonfly’s head.

Dragonflies can fly in any direction and can hover for long periods of time. They can also fly upwards of 30 miles per hour.

That flying ability makes dragonflies excellent hunters, eating large amounts of small flying insects, but they can also be the hunted. I’ve seen birds such as green herons and purple martins snatch dragonflies out of the air.

Dragonflies are insects and therefore have six legs, a head, thorax and abdomen. They also have four wings, and the fore wings and hind wings are controlled separately, hence their awesome aerial abilities.

Dragonflies can be monomorphic (male and female look alike), dimorphic (male and female look different) or polymorphic (much variety even among males and females.) The most common colors for dragonflies in New England are blue and green, but there are also red, amber and white dragonflies here.

There are only a handful of dragonfly families that occur in New England (such as skimmers and darners), but there are about 200 species among those families in our region. The largest dragonfly in New England is the green darner, which is more than three inches long.

Dragonflies live all over the world, although most live in warm climates.

Eggs are laid in or near water and larva live for about a year in the water. After emerging, dragonflies live for only a few months as adults, if they are not eaten by something else sooner than that.

A group of dragonflies is called a swarm. They are multi-generational migrants, meaning the ones that fly south are not the same ones that return north.

Dragonflies make for interesting photo subjects. They often return to the same perch over and over, making it easier on photographers. 

What’s your story about dragonflies? Let me know at the email address below.

Stranger things: Dragonflies

Photo by Chris Bosak
Blue dasher in Danbury, Connecticut, summer 2019.

Many people wouldn’t consider dragonflies strange because they are so common and part of our daily summer lives. I am including them in the Birds of New England ‘stranger things’ series because of their awesomely menacing appearance and otherworldly flying ability.

Dragonflies have only two eyes, but they make up most of the insect’s head and have up to 30,000 ommatidium, or facets (see close-up photos). I’ll post more information about dragonflies in next week’s For the Birds column.

Photo by Chris Bosak A dragonfly in Danbury, Connecticut, summer 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Eastern pondhawk in Brookfield, Ct., summer 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Eastern pondhawk, Brookfield, CT, summer 2019.

A closer look at those damselflies

Photo by Chris Bosak An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

The other day I posted a few photos of an Azure Damselfly. Well, here are those photos cropped a little tighter.

Photo by Chris Bosak An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

A few neat damselfly photos

Photo by Chris Bosak An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Go to a pond on a summer day and there’s always something interesting to see. Maybe it’s not a bird, or mammal, but something is always around to catch your attention. On this day it was Azure Damselflies, and lots of them.  Here are a photos of these interesting creatures.

Photo by Chris Bosak An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Azure Damselfly rests on a twig near a pond at Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., summer 2016.

Clearing out my 2014 photos: Meadowhawk dragonflies mating

Photo by Chris Bosak Meadowhawk dragonflies mate in Selleck's/Dunlap Wood in summer 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Meadowhawk dragonflies mate in Selleck’s/Dunlap Wood in summer 2014.

Here’s my next photo in the series of 2014 photos that I never got around to looking at and posting. This will be the final one. It’s time to move forward and let go.

I got this shot in the summer 2014 when trying to add to my meadow close-up collection. I liked the shots based on the quick look I took on the camera’s tiny screen at day’s end, but never took them further than that. In fact, I had forgotten about them until I found the photo folder buried inside another folder the other day.

This shot shows a pair of meadowhawk dragonflies mating in a “wheel” position. The male is the red one.

For a fascinating article on how dragonflies mate, click here.

I like photographing dragonflies in the summer. The birding gets slow in July/August and bird photography even slower. So my attention often turns to the smaller creatures of the meadows, which are around and active on even the hottest days. For many more of my meadow close up photos, click here.

 

Blue Dasher dragonfly, another meadow close-up

Photo by Chris Bosak Blue Dasher dragonfly at a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust, summer 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Blue Dasher dragonfly at a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust, summer 2013.

Here is the latest in a series of close-up (macro) photographs I took last summer while tromping through the meadow properties of the Darien Land Trust. From July 24 to Aug. 31, I’ll post a different close-up meadow photograph on this site.

Here’s more background on the project.