“Spring comes–the dragonfly is back–on its path.”—Ken Tennessen
June is halfway over, and what a spectacular show she’s giving us on the prairie! Everywhere you look, pale purple coneflowers bloom in profusion.
Spiderwort pairs with northern bedstraw.
Purple milkweed opens, attracting a little green pollinator.
And sundrops! This year, there is a plethora (or should I say “oenothera?”) of these bright wildflowers splashed across the prairie like spilled sunlight.
Butterflies are everywhere among the prairie wildflowers.
So many wildflowers! And yet. Where do I find myself on today’s hike? Down in the sluggish, slow-moving prairie stream.
Today, I’m chasing dragonflies.
The stream is a hotbed of dragonfly and damselfly activity. As I don my hip waders and slosh in, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter up around me like black velvet confetti.
It’s understandable if you mistake the ebony jewelwings for black butterflies, as I used to do. Those wings!
Certainly the American rubyspot damselfly might be mistaken for some otherworldly exotic insect. It’s difficult to believe they are so common here in Illinois streams. They are gorgeous from the front, with their coppery thoraxes and cherry Koolaid-colored wing patch…
…or from the back, with the clear focus on their shimmery abdomen and wings, shot with metallic gold.
Even though both species are territorial, in today’s crowded stream conditions they seem to have struck a truce.
I count almost 50 of each species. Even in these numbers, the rubyspots and the jewelwings aren’t as prolific as the stream bluets, which are floating by the dozens like tiny slender blimps across the surface of the stream.
This tandem pair above pauses on a floating leaf mat. “Tandem” means the male uses his claspers to grip the female behind her eyes, part of their mating ritual. From this position, if she’s willing, they will move to the “wheel,” and he will fertilize her eggs. Looks like a heart, doesn’t it?
I count, and count, and count, and quit at around 80 stream bluets. Everywhere, more damselflies appear in the tallgrass along the shoreline at eye level.
Over here, a variable dancer—sometimes called “violet dancer” —another abundant member of this prairie stream community.
Ordinary? Maybe. But that purple coloration never fails to delight.
From a nearby rock, a powdered dancer gives me the eye.
So many! Powdered dancers alone; powdered dancer damselflies in tandem. An ancient ritual, ensuring that more damselflies will arrive to fly this stream for years to come.
As I’m counting the powdered dancers and stream bluets, I look up to see a solitary dragonfly, perched on a twig in the middle of the stream.
It’s a four-spotted skimmer! Although I’ve seen them up north, I’ve never seen them here in my 16 years of Illinois dragonfly monitoring. The four-spotted skimmer is a circumpolar dragonfly species, also found in Africa, Japan, and Europe as well as North America. I love the gold threaded through the leading edge of the wings.
I admire it for a while, then continue counting. On one side of the stream, discovery and delight! On the other, disaster. The much-awaited thunderstorm and downpour Sunday here that helped alleviate severe drought is likely responsible for some of the casualties I see in the water. An ebony jewelwing —one of several damsels—floats in the stream debris.
Danger lurks everywhere for odonates. Other creatures wait in the shallows, hoping to snag an unwary dragon or damsel for a morsel of lunch.
Nature is a tough gig.
I fish a few waterlogged damselflies out of the stream to dry, but they are too far gone to survive. Dragonflies and damselflies in my part of the world, no matter how skilled they are at survival, may only fly for a few weeks — or a few minutes, if they are eaten by fish or frogs or drowned like these were. Their lives are short. As ours may be.
There are no guarantees. It makes sense, then, to appreciate every minute we have. And to take time to pay attention…
…even to insects in a June prairie stream.
Why not go for a hike and see the prairie this week?
Who knows what you’ll discover.
The opening quote is from Kenn Tennessen’s haiku “Spring Comes” from his book with co-author Scott King, Dragonfly Haiku, from Red Dragonfly Press (2016).
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.