Dragons and damsels of our garden
We've seen lots of dragonflies and damselflies in our garden through the
years. These fascinating creatures are in the insect order Odonata, whose
ancestors flew (in much larger sizes) among the dinosaurs. Some
of them seem to never sit still, forever zigzagging the outline of their
territory. Others are more accommodating to my camera - their pictures can
be found on this page.
Dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera) are the larger of the two, grand
flyers with robust bodies and large eyes that together span most of the
width of their heads. When at rest, their wings are spread apart.
This twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella)
shows off its white and black wingspots, perched on a fading cattail. The
white spots only appear on mature males of the species.
Another twelve-spotted skimmer. This one kept returning
to perch atop the little bean teepee we built in Max's garden.
I've been told this is an immature male widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). He
stuck around for a while, long enough for a photo op.
Blue dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) are common
throughout the US, so we've encountered them both in our Pennsylvania garden
(photo at right) and in our Texas garden (below). Both photos are of male
specimens, which develop the characteristic blue color of their abdomen. They
like perching on spikey vegetation that gives a good view of the pond –
a spent iris stalk at right, and a horsetail below.
A marvel of biological engineering: the minutely faceted
eyes of insects. Especially when the insect in question has big googly eyes,
like this newly hatched blue dasher. I never expected the close-up photograph
to come out this clear, but I must admit I'm proud of it.
Thornbush dashers (Micrathyria hagenii) are smaller
dragonflies, whose range includes Texas and Mexico. Their distinguishing
features include bright blue-green eyes and black abdomens with white markings.
They often hold their wings angled downward when at rest.
Texas, October 2017
The two photos below are of the same individual (he wouldn't sit still,
hence the different perches). It's a dragon hunter (Hagenius brevistylus),
one of the largest dragonflies I've seen in the garden. I spotted him on one
of the big rocks adjacent to our big pond one sunny late-summer afternoon; when
I kept trying to take his picture he eventually buzzed off to the neighbors'
Pennsylvania, September 2009
This female Eastern pond hawk (Erythemis
simplicicollis) stopped by one morning to warm herself on our flat-rock
pathway. She didn't stay long, and I haven't seen her or her kin near our
pond. That first sighting was in Pennsylvania, I've since seen this species in
our Texas garden as well.
Pennsylvania, August 2004
When I first spotted this female Eastern amberwing
(Perithemis tenera) flitting about our cutting garden, I thought it
was a spreadwing damselfly – it was smaller than other common
dragonflies in our garden. But closer up, it was clearly a dragon. The way
the light hits the wings in this photo, you can't discern the patterning
– if I see her again, I'll try to get a top view shot.
This male autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) was sunning
himself on the edge of a pot one late-October day. My only other siting of this
species was also on a sunny day in late October, so the autumn part of their
name is appropriate.
Pennsylvania, October 2014
Staying with the meadowhawks for a moment, I found this
eastern band-winged meadowhawk female (Sympetrum semicinctum) one early
Sunday morning on my car. Not at all inclined to fly at such an hour, she
allowed me to take some good photos, even though the background isn't nearly
as nice as a pond full of lilypads.
Pennsylvania, July 2014
Now that we have a large pond with fairly clear water, we get
to enjoy the whole life cycle of dragonflies. My boys found this advanced-stage
larva halfway submerged on a rock one day (I'm proud - they were swimming, yet
they didn't freak out; instead, they caught the bug for papa!). It's most
likely a common green darner (Anax junius). See the little wing
stublets on its back?
Pennsylvania, August 2009
The first new-to-me dragonfly sighting in Texas didn't happen
until a few years after we moved here. I see some species familiar from
Pennsylvania regularly, and am aware of some others that never sit down when
I'm looking so that I haven't had a chance to identify them. But this one, it
turns out, is a russet-tipped clubtail (Stylurus plagiatus). According to
Bugguide, its season runs frm June through October, but this photo was actually
taken in mid-May, so it starts earlier in the more southern reaches of its range,
which spans from the eastern US through the southwest and perhaps into Mexico.
Texas, May 2020
A new dragonfly sighting is always exciting, and this one
was particularly satisfying: large and with striking coloration, this is a
male roseate skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea), majestically holding court over
our pond, occasionally chasing away some common blue dashers but mostly just
ignoring them. He clearly had our pond as its base, making excursions into the
wider backyard but always returning to a few perches around our small water
feature. A bit skittish, so I had to wait quite a while for a good opportunity
to take his picture – but he finally sat still for me. Apparently quite
common through North and Central America, but I hadn't noticed this species
Texas, May 2022
Damselflies belong to the other suborder, the Zygoptera. Compared to
their dragon cousins, they are more slightly built, and have their eyes well
separated on their heads. Most damselflies hold their wings together when at
rest (but not all, as you can see from the spreadwing further down the page).
While wading chest-deep in our pond one day, busily
scooping out algae, all of a sudden I saw them – a pair of
bright blue damsels. I rushed back inside, leaving a drippy trail
across the kitchen floor, to get my camera. I'd never ventured into the pond
with my pricey digital SLR before, but I really wanted to capture their
mating dance, flitting from lilypad to lilypad, the lady depositing her eggs
under water in each spot. Watching them was more fun than fishing for algae!
This orange-bodied side-eyed beauty was hovering ever so delicately through
the flowers alongside our bog filter in early August. I first thought it was
an orange bluet (Enallagma signatum), but that one has an orange
tailpiece. Which means this is an immature female Eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis).
Another bluet pond damsel, this is a female, either a marsh bluet (Enallagma ebrium)
or Hagen's bluet (Enallagma hageni). She was hovering all around our
fading tomato plants in early September.
I had this trio of different damselflies dancing near our pond one day in
early June - a gray one, a black one with bright blue tip, and an orange
one. Turns out, they're all the same species: Ischnura verticalis.
The dull one is the female, the blue-tip the male, and the orange a
youngster. They wouldn't pose for a family photo...
This damsels above are fragile forktails (Ischnura
posita); like the ones before, they enjoy the pond environment, gently
moving around the foliage surrounding our various pond areas. They can be
recognized by the interrupted stripe on the shoulder (which Cresswell
likens to an exclamation point). Males and females are different in coloration
of body and eyes: males (above left) are green, while females (above right) are blue
This damsel took me by surprise – it was a good bit bigger
than most of the ones shown above, so at first I thought it was a dragonfly.
Turns out this is a slender spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis):
it holds its wings spread out when it rests, instead of together like most of
Taking the prize as the first damselfly I found in our new
Texas garden, this Kiowa dancer (Argia immunda) is an immature male
that hasn't yet developed the rich blue color that it will sport later in life.
The species occurs mostly in the southwestern US. Compared to other damselflies,
it holds its wings upward, above its abdomen. I'm looking forward to seeing him and his kin develop, as our garden should
start attracting damsels and dragons now that it features a pond and a good
number of plantings. I'll be on the lookout!
Texas, June 2017
Since that first sighting, I've seen plenty more Kiowa dancers. This one
is an older male, which has developed its purple and blue coloration.
Texas, June 2017
And a few days later, I spotted this mating pair flying around our pond,
alighting on rocks and vegetation between their graceful stints of joint
Texas, June 2017
Their cousin, the blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis) visited us in
September a few years after that Kiowa dancer sighting. Despite its common
name, this species is variable in color, with the ability to change its
abdomen tip from blue to dark grey, the rest of the segments being dark brown.
It is widely distributed across North America, where its habitat is usually
areas around fresh-water bodies surrounded by woodland.
Texas, September 2021
I was so used to seeing only Kiowa dancers in our
backyard, I figured this whispy thing that hovered near my Job's tears was
just another color variation of that species. But it turns out it was a
citrine forktail (Ischnura hastata), the smallest of the U.S.
damselflies, readily identified by its yellow tail. Even though its range
is large and includes all of the eastern U.S., I had never spotted this one
Texas, July 2017
Visitors to this page have left the following comments
|Yolanda||Aug 02, 2005||Beautiful webpage, beautiful photos of such beautiful creatures|
|Jessica Kuhn||Sep 29, 2010||Thank you! Found out the name of a dragonfly I'd seen in a county park where I volunteer - Scotland Run Park in Gloucester County, New Jersey. A blue dasher? All I know is that it was the most amazing and beautiful dragonfly I'd ever seen and could not figure out where to go to identify it! Thank you very much. |
|Sheryl Myers||Jun 14, 2011||Definitely some gorgeous photos - thanks for sharing. I am a naturalist at Mounds State Park in Indiana, and will be using one of your pictures in my powerpoint about flying predators (strictly for educational purposes!)|
|rj.kohles||Mar 24, 2012||Whenever I mention getting a little pond in my back yard my wife basically says not no but hell no. If you can make a good argument that they would be good for our vegetable garden then maybe I could talk her into it. What do you think?, and thanks for your input.|
A pond is good for many things – mostly for beauty and a restful presence of water in the garden. If it manages to attract dragonflies, these beautiful creatures will do their part in catching mosquitoes and some other garden pests. In how far that will benefit the vegetable garden... well, you'll have to be creative in your arguments.
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