Chasing Dragonflies and Damselflies
“Once you start watching dragonflies, you can’t help but notice how amazing they are,” he says. They fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, zip forward and backward, pivot in a flash, and hover with ease. They prey on live insects in midair, snapping up small bugs with their mouths or grabbing larger ones with their legs, then perching to devour them. Says Federman, “ ‘Dragonflies are your friends,’ I tell the kids. ‘They don’t sting or bite—they’re flying around trying to eat the bugs that will bite you.’ And catching them is half sport and half science. They are a most ideal critter for Audubon’s mission of connecting people with nature.”
And while the variety is great, the number of species isn’t overwhelming. “There are more than 450 bird species in New York, versus 50 to 60 species of dragonflies in any one area” depending on the county, Federman says. He learned all the common species in one season, although he admits some IDs still elude him.
Even experienced enthusiasts and trained entomologists say there’s still plenty to learn because so many questions remain. For instance, no one knows where migrating green darners winter. And it’s not clear why different species select specific habitats when they aren’t choosy about what they eat. “I reckon today the state of knowledge is about where birds were in the Civil War,” says Nick Donnelly, a renowned expert and cofounder of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, who lives in Binghamton, New York. “We’re still finding new species in the Lower 48. And not limited to remote canyons but in the Delaware River, Wisconsin, and Arkansas.”
Donnelly became interested in both birds and dragonflies as a teenager in Washington, D.C. “But there was no easily understood literature, no guides, no nothing,” he says of odes. Donnelly was often stumped by the dragonflies he collected, finding them neither in insect books nor in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection, which he studied extensively. (“They were very kind to me, gave me the run of the place,” he recalls.)
That was his lightbulb moment. “I realized no one knew much about dragonflies,” he says, especially compared to birds. “That’s what really hooked me.”
His contribution to the field has been indispensable. In 2003–2004 he published a three-part volume on the distribution of odes across North America, with dot maps, after compiling data from museum records and individuals. He’s added several new species to the global list of known odonates, including a dozen or so from Panama and, in 2012, several from Vietnam.
Another pioneer, lifelong Cape Codder Blair Nikula, became fascinated with dragonflies through photography. “I started taking pictures of these things without having any idea what they were,” he says. “There was nothing in the way of a resource for someone like me. Just thick, dense, technical tomes with descriptions based on dead specimens.”
Nikula set out to photograph every species in New England and started publishing a newsletter. In the late 1990s Donald and Lillian Stokes approached him to coauthor an introductory field guide, part of the Stokes Beginner’s Guide series. The guide, published in 2002, “was limited to around 100 species, which made it manageable,” says Nikula. It emphasizes general field marks and behaviors for novice chasers. “One thing we tried to emphasize was to look at behavior,” he says. “Perchers versus flyers, for instance. Perchers spend most of their time perched and just fly to get to the next spot, catch food, or defend territory. Also the way they perch—horizontally or vertically.”
Today there are field guides for many regions, some specializing in damselflies, some focusing on identifying odes through binoculars. Enthusiasts also visit websites to see photographs and join listservs to chat about sightings and opine about ode behavior.