Of Dragonflies and Flycatchers 6/8/2008

My husband and I and my folks spent the past weekend at our cottage on Kelly Lakeand conditions were right for us to witness the emergence of dozens of fireflies. My fisherman dad sat at the end of the pier, pole in hand while my mom sat on the steps to the pier catching some sun. Being my normal photographer self I of course was taking a few pictures. My Mom seemed to be captivated by something on the rocks beside the steps so I walked down to see what was going on. “Dragonflies”, she said.

Memories of summers in Maine were filled with these insects that seem to be a cross between a helicopter and a bi-winged airplane. We called them darning needles in Maine when I was young and I remember hearing the story that if you misbehaved they would sew your mouth shut which evidently I never took seriously. I know for a fact that I misbehaved frequently enough to warrant such punishment but I don’t recall being particularly worried when dragonflies occasionally lit on my arm. They were frequent companions when we were hiking through the fields around our small town and I loved their shimmering colors but I can’t say I ever gave them much thought or wondered how they appeared each summer.

My family had a cottage on the lake in our small town in Central Maine and I remember seeing empty bug casings clinging to the side of our pier or on nearby rocks. These papery ghosts could be scary looking when you were little. The cigar shaped bodies with spider-like legs would float away on the wind if you were brave enough to touch them. I never was interested enough to ask what had happened to what was inside these shells. I must have assumed they were what were left of an ugly dead bug.

Dragonfly Nymph


This morning as I looked at the four or five dragonflies resting on blades of grass and dead leaves I noticed several empty casings nearby and I finally realized that the ghost shells had been dragonfly nymphs. I looked around the area and found several more shells clinging to the sides of the pier and the rocks lining the shoreline. Not far away from them I saw dragonflies resting in the sun waiting for their wings to harden so they could fly away. In the beginning when testing their wings they would only fly a short distance and seemed to land on my mom and I with great frequency. I either moved to the sun until they flew away again or gently moved them onto my finger and set them back on a sunny rock.

There were no iridescent body colors that I remembered from my youth but when the wings caught the sunlight they seemed like glass mosaics.

I know now that dragonflies don’t develop their color until several days after molting. There are over 450 types of dragon flies inNorth America and I am not sure what species these were. I would love to believe they were a Saffron-Winged Meadowhawk or perhaps a Red-Waisted Whiteface simply because I love the sound of the names but they were probably Lake Darners.

Dragonfly nymphs can live in the water for up to three years molting several times before they crawl onto land and molt one last time into a dragonfly. While underwater they are veracious predators eating mosquito larvae and even feeding on small fish. As flying adults they feed on mosquitoes and other insects before they die at the end of summer. They are pretty handy to have around.

After the excitement of the dragonflies we retired to the deck where we were happy to see our resident Great Crested Flycatcher couple back this year. They appeared to be building nests in two of our birdhouses. They work very closely together and are vigilant scouts for the houses. They take turns perching on a nearby branch and keeping a lookout while the other one flies in with a mouthful of twigs to add to the nest. They were not happy with us being there, chirping angrily at the inconvenience of us but we kept our distance, sitting on the deck quietly reading a book and they got on with their work. I’m not sure why they are building two nests. Perhaps the male is doing it for insurance. “Hon, I built you two nests this year. Pick the one you like the best.” How could he lose?

Later in the summer when the young have hatched we love watching their little heads bob into view as the parents arrive with food. And much of the food that these dilligent parents will feed to their young will include the dragonlies that are just beginning their short lives. The circle of nature never ceases to amaze me. Then in a few months in late summer we will arrive for a weekend to sadly discover all of the activity done and will know that the young ones have left the nest.

My husband's dream for a few years has been to see a pileated woodpecker up at our cottage. It seems everyone else in the family has seen one and recorded it in our bird book. For Buz it has been very elusive. One will fly by our deck just as he has turned to say something to me so he misses it. Driving on a back road one flies in front of the car when he is looking down to adjust the volume of the music. Only a lapse of a second but enough to make him believe I think that we have all been making up our sightings.

Well late in the afternoon on Saturday he called me outside and said, "Listen to this woodpecker!" It was such a loud sound I said, "That HAS to be a pileated!" We tracked down the tree and there the large prehistoric looking creature was, the proverbial 'Woody the Woodpecker' attacking a dead beech tree. Maybe I will be able to capture one with my camera sometime! This image is NOT mine but I included it so you would know what we were looking at!

Hmmmm... now that Buz has crossed this off his wish list I wonder what he will dream for next!

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