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Cori Brown: Observing dragonflies in the summer heat | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

The three “h” days of summer are here: hazy, hot and humid.

The hotter it gets, the more my “battery” drains and I find that the rocker on the deck is calling my name more frequently. The fan overhead and the small pond and waterfall in front of me have just enough of a cooling effect to make life tolerable outside.

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Our only fish makes languid loops around and through the floating plants, while numerous green frogs vie for the perfect sunny spot on the pond’s edge. They keep a wary eye on me, ready to dive into the water like mini-subs in case I attempt to get a closer look at them.

No need to worry, though, as I nestle into my comfy chair. I’m almost asleep and then it happens. Out of the corner of my eye, something big and bright whizzes past me. What was that?

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Suddenly like some character from a pop-up book, I’m sitting up straight, wide-awake and on high alert. The frogs are, too. The mysterious creature that just flew past me was the biggest dragonfly I’ve ever seen.

It’s careening back and forth over the pond and soon it is joined by a smaller dragonfly. They look completely different. The large one is brownish-black with green bands on its abdomen and blue eyes, while the smaller one is similar but more mellow green and brown.

When I look them up, the larger one is a swamp darner. It is a common aquatic insect in Maryland and also the largest dragonfly we have in the state. It appears that the smaller one might be a swamp darner, too, even though its color scheme is different. Not being an expert on dragonflies, I find this a bit confusing.

It is mesmerizing to watch them. There is seemingly no pattern to their flight, just back and forth again and again over the pond. They are probably scooping up insects I can’t even see. Then they start to do something strange. The larger one lands on a rock, curls up its abdomen, relaxes it, and repeatedly scrapes it on the rock. The smaller one does the same thing on a nearby piece of wet wood.

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Having never seen this before, I do a little research and conclude that both dragonflies may be laying eggs (if a dragonfly expert out there says otherwise, please let me know).

Meanwhile, the green frogs are very interested in what is going on right in front of their little bulging eyes. The large dragonfly is considerably longer in length (3.5 inches) than the frogs. No matter. All the frogs see is one tasty lunch. I’m waiting to see whether one of them takes the bait, and sure enough it does. It launches across the pond to the other side to grab it like a ballerina doing a leap. Too bad there is only the sound of swooshing as the dragonfly makes his air ball move. It wasn’t even close.

That’s because dragonflies have four wings that act independently of one another to perform their acrobatic moves. They can travel over 30 mph. They have excellent vision (their multifaceted eyes are huge!) and can see ultraviolet light and colors we can’t see. It’s no wonder that the frog didn’t catch this one.

All these abilities make dragonflies apex hunters of insects such as mosquitoes. Even though I find them a bit intimidating (the name alone conjures up visions of fire-breathing monsters), they are more than welcome at our house, where the mosquito population is out of control this year. The more dragonflies the better.

A swamp darner, the largest dragonfly species in Maryland, checks out a rock in a pond.
A swamp darner, the largest dragonfly species in Maryland, checks out a rock in a pond. (photo courtesy of Cori Brown)

It’s easy to find dragonflies in our area. Hashawa and Charlotte’s Quest are loaded with them. Anywhere you find freshwater streams and ponds, even roadside ditches with water, you are likely to find dragonflies.

Maryland is host to seven different families of dragonflies. Maryland DNR has a great site online along with the Maryland Biodiversity Project website that tells you everything you want to know about dragonflies.

Though dragonflies may be common now, climate change is having an impact on them similar to so many other insects. A recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that the darker wing patterns typically found on male dragonflies (and recognized by females for mating purposes) are changing to lighter patterns to combat rising temperatures.

Because dark colors absorb heat, the body temperature of the males is increasing by as much as 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit). The impacts are significant, from damage to their wings to their inability to reproduce because they can’t attract mates.

Let’s hope we pay attention to findings like this and find solutions that will keep the dragonflies flying. We can’t afford to lose them.

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