Everywhere I go birding lately, there seem to be more dragonflies than birds. You can’t miss these large, colorful flying insects, darting and swooping over land and water as they use their powerful eyesight to hunt for tiny prey.
It is not one or two of these winged predators I am seeing, but hundreds or more. Are they always here in these numbers or is this year special?
Dragonflies and damselflies are flying insects that belong to the order odonata, which in Latin means toothed. And indeed, adults have formidable serrated mandibles that they use to catch and eat their prey. Odonates were here long before the dinosaurs, and while they are now smaller in size than some of their giant ancestors, their life history is relatively unchanged.
Since I am fortunate to know
Rhode Island’s odonata expert,
Ginger Brown, I asked her: Are there more dragonflies this season or am I just more aware of their presence? It turns out that 2021 has been a very good year to be a dragon or a damsel. SundayBrownBrunchsaid Buffetthat just10:after20amthe-
2pmnon-hurricane(Indoor &HenriTerracewentOnly)through, there were reports from Block Island and Narragansett of people seeing large groups of the insects, numbering in the thousands. Both these communities have fairly good habitats for these insects, but not enough to account for the huge numbers buzzing about.
She explained that, like birds and monarch butterflies, many of the dragonflies in these large groups are migrating south, and the storm front may have “bottled up” these travelers along the coast before they had the right wind to continue their journey.
Furthermore, all that rain we had this summer was not only good for fungus, but kept the wetlands that odonates need to breed filled with water. Most of us only see dragon and damselflies in their adult stage when they have long, slim colorful abdomens, four veined wings, large compound eyes and short antennae. Most of their life is actually spent under water.
Odonates have three stages to their life cycle: egg, larva and adult. The mating strategies of these insects is a fascinating study unto itself, but it results in the production of many tiny eggs that are deposited directly into the water, or in the leaves and stems of wetland plants.
The larvae or nymphs live under water, and while they are very different looking from the adults, they are still ravenous predators.
As they grow, they molt their exoskeleton eight or more times until they are ready to emerge from the water and molt into their adult form.
Since more wetlands had water all summer, there was more chance of the eggs hatching, as well as the eggs of other aquatic insects that the odonates feed on as nymphs. While this is just a theory, it may be one reason people are seeing more of the beautiful adults around.
Recently, the Rhode Island Division of Fish & Wildlife published Brown’s book, “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rhode Island,” which is the result of years of work on a statewide odonata atlas conducted with more than 70 volunteers. The book is full of information on the natural history of dragons and damsels, as well as maps and descriptions of each of the species found in our state. It is easy to read and the illustrations by Nina Briggs capture the remarkable colors and patterns found within the odonate world.
The dazzling array of beauty within this insect order lends itself to creative common names for the different families and species. The names make me want to know more about these amazing creatures. Emeralds, spreadwings, clubtails, darners, cruisers and skimmers are some of the families found in Rhode Island. Who wouldn’t want to see a dusky dancer, an autumn meadowhawk, a seaside dragonlet or a wandering glider?
Looking at the map in Brown’s book that shows “species richness” by town (the number of species found within a community), I immediately noticed that Newport and Jamestown are coded in red, which indicates that less than 30 species were found. Middletown and Portsmouth are coded light yellow, which indicates that 31 to 50 species were found within those borders, and Tiverton and Little Compton are bright yellow, with more than 51 species.
Why are fewer species in Newport (26 total)? Odonata atlas volunteers, like local naturalist Rey Larsen, spent significant time surveying our communities. On Aquidneck Island, Brown has records from the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Third Beach marsh, Bailey Brook Pond, Gooseneck Cove marsh, the pond in Ballard Park and the reservoirs. The low number of species wasn’t from lack of looking.
The answer, according to Brown, is that Newport lacks the habitat that certain species need for the nymph stage of their life cycle. For example, many species adapt to lay their eggs in running water, like creeks, streams and rivers, and there is little of this riparian habitat in Newport. The moat around Easton’s Pond certainly doesn’t count as a flowing stream.
Species that are able to live in the relatively still waters of salt marshes, reservoirs and ponds, such as big bluets, northern spreadwings and 12-spotted skimmers, are present in our area. From May through September, you will find a few around the islands. Finding and identifying the more than 137 species of dragonflies and damselflies seen in Rhode Island might have to become a personal passion or a life’s work.
The positive spin is that if you are interested in learning to identify dragons and damsels, Newport only has 26 species. If you are like my sister and not interested in knowing the name of everything, I still encourage you to stalk a wild dragon or two, or try to catch a damsel glowing in the sunlight while it eats prey.