Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, February 8, 2003, © 2004
On the edge of the bog you watch through the mists for a promise of sun, and feel the chill in the air losing its hold on the dawn. Suddenly your eyes pick up a winged blur coming toward you, whirring rapidly through the fog. Certain doom to some living things, it is the ominous EBONY BOGHAUNTER!
No, this is not the mystical world of "The Lord of the Rings" or one of Harry Potter's monsters. Surprisingly, you are not in the least worried. It's only a dragonfly, and you are actually seeking this little treasure.
Remember when you were told as a child that these fearsome fliers would sew your lips together? And when they were given names like Devil's Darning Needle? Until you realized that these were old wives' tales made to tease and tantalize the young, you may have been somewhat alarmed when they were skimming around you. They are a tad scary. It is a different matter today. Now you look for them and check off their names in field guides just as birders and butterfyers do with their targets. And they have even more magical, poetic and amusing names! Jewelry in their image sparkles on the dresses of fashionable ladies. Harmless to humans, they do not even sting or bite, and they hunt for smaller prey. Basically friendly, they will often light on fishing poles or your hat.
If you want to know more about them, try a recent field guide by Sidney Dunkle titled "Dragonflies Through Binoculars," Oxford University Press, 2000. Good general guides for this family have been rare until now, but the sport of dragonfly watching is becoming popular. In this book, the subjects are displayed in photographs in their natural habitat. It is similar in its format to Jeffrey Glassberg's butterfly guide. Looking through the pages, you will learn their ranges, characteristics...and for me, a real pleasure, their creative and even lyrical names.
For example, wouldn't you have fun chasing the Zigzag Darner? Or be charmed by the Wandering Glider, named for its sustained flight. Perhaps the connotation of the Sinuous Snaketail might still cause you some apprehension about dragonflies. Then too, you have to appreciate the drama in the name Dragonhunter or Swarming Sundragon. There are also dragonlets and sanddragons. Regard these from the point of view of a small marsh bug! Just from the appellation, I would love to see a Ski-tailed Emerald. The pleasant aspect of the Cherry-faced Meadowhunter could make your day. Did the Frosted Whiteface run into some cold weather? And what happened to the Chalk-fronted Corporal? Did he pale at a reprimand for shirking his duty? Ah, why not anthropomorphize? (That's our human privilege, though unscientific.) The thorax and abdomen are white, of course. There is a Halloween Pennant, so named for its orange-splashed wings. Not so poetic is the Sooty Saddlebags, but you might like the humor in that one. Its dark bands give the impression of saddlebags.
The Rio Grande Valley has a huge and diverse population of the family. Rare species have been found here by experts, and we are pleased to have one of the most beautiful common ones, the Roseate Skimmer, a spectacular, large rosy specimen. I'm not so sure about the name of the Widow Skimmer but prefer the sound of Spangled Skimmer. The former gets its name from the drab colors, I would suppose.
These insects are hard to identify with binoculars unless they alight, and fortunately, they do that frequently, at times lingering on a twig or other perch. Close range binoculars with 6 or 7 power would be recommended. Dragonflies and their delighful, metallic cousins, the damselflies, are sure signs of the ecological health of a wetland. Their appetite for mosquitoes is another virtue we should appreciate. When the dragonflies disappear from an area, it is because something is terribly wrong. Habitat is diminishing at least; water is contaminated; or pesticides have been used without regard to harmless insect life. These creatures serve as an early warning system that we are mistreating the wetland environment. They are just another part of the world of wildlife for us to enjoy. In addition, their naming stretches our poetic talents. Wait until you hear the names of hummingbirds.