Attracting The Attention Of Strangers In A Public Park

October 8, 2013

Autumn Meadowhawk

Credit: Cynthia Nichols

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I wonder if modern times have made us more tolerant of one another’s eccentricities.

In the old days, any man in a public park who threw his arms about while having an impassioned argument with himself was certainly a mad scientist hard at work. You could depend on it.

No longer. Now the man may be simply a well-balanced multi-tasker with a telephone the size of a thimble implanted in one ear, carrying on high-level negotiations with his business interests, and simultaneously performing his daily t’ai chi exercises.

Once upon a time, women walking their Chihuahuas through that park would have given such a man a wide berth. Now they walk right past him without a second glance.

The only way to ensure that you’ll draw the attention of passersby is to become the maddest of mad scientists: the dragonfly netter.

There he is, rushing side to side, head on a swivel, waving around a long-handled pole with a long white net streaming out from it like a flag of no-surrender. What he chases is invisible at this distance, but given all his tiptoeing, zigzagging, lunging, and crawling on hands and knees, the quarry must be as elusive as the bats in his own belfry.


Capturing the Elusive...Spotted Spreadwing
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols

If you were out for a stroll 300 million years ago, you would have been well aware of dragonflies: some of the Meganeura, their ancient relatives, had wingspans of more than two feet. (The atmosphere’s higher oxygen content at that time allowed flying insects to grow exceptionally large.)

Today, though, dragonflies are easy to miss unless you keep a watchful eye out for them. Brightly colored, in metallic blues and greens and golds, sending out flares of iridescence, and fast as rockets, with their two sets of paper-thin wings propelling them forward at 100 body-lengths per second, these are true masters of flight and glorious to behold.


Variable Darner
Photograph by Henry Walters

Like the birds with whom they share airspace, dragonflies’ vision is as incredible as their speed. Imagine having eyes that take up most of your head; that can see in all directions, above and below, 360 degrees around; that consist of 28,000 distinct lenses, each one sending its own world-view to the brain, 80 percent of which is busy making sense of all this visual information. You would be…a different sort of creature. If only Franz Kafka had turned the protagonist of his story The Metamorphosis into a dragonfly, the character might have been quite pleased with his new state of being.  

On the other hand, a dragonfly’s life seems impossibly short, rarely longer than a year. Like other insects, it begins as an egg, then hatches into a flightless larval form, called the “nymph.” Only in the last four weeks of its existence does it metamorphose into the predatory, migratory, cheetah-fast adult that can be found soaring over our marshes, orchards, or open fields. Briefly, intensely, with eyes that see the whole world, it rises only to “fall / With the other husks of summer” (Louise Bogan).


Green Darner
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols

Over 5,600 species of dragonfly occur world-wide, about 450 of them in the United States. A few can be identified in flight, but many differ from each other in subtle ways, and require close inspection. Get yourself a net, a field guide, and a camera, and see what you come up with. While spring is a great season to search for dragonflies, the hardiest of them are still out and about in October, even at northern latitudes.

As with many natural phenomena, once you begin looking, you’ll spot them everywhere. You’ll start running after them. And out of the corner of one of your 28,000 lenses you’ll catch sight of the businessman on the sidewalk, stopping short to watch you, a little nervously, wondering whether you could be a mad scientist, and what in the world you’ve seen. 

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Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. 

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Comments

I live in the western OK

By Debbie Crews

I live in the western OK panhandle, and we always have tons of dragonflies. In the cool evenings and early mornings, there are so many it's like a fairy land.

I live in Somerville in North

By Sandy Charest Owens

I live in Somerville in North Alabama. This year I noticed that there were a large number of Dragonflies hovering around my hard. I counted more than a hundred one day. I have always had some, just not that many. We also had a large crop of Mosquitos from the exceptionally wet summer. Do they feed on the Mosquitos?

One of the thousand reasons

By Henry Walters

One of the thousand reasons to love dragonflies is that they do a number on the mosquito population. In the nymph stage, they gorge on mosquito larvae, and as adults, they catch mosquitoes out of the air by the hundreds. Wonderful that you've seen a dragonfly swarm--that's not a common sight!

We have a large koi pond

By Julianna Faucher

We have a large koi pond which attracts three or four different kinds of dragonflies. Each year we have a pair the jumbo bright orange ones; they are first to appear in early summer and last to go at summer's end. I often wondered if they are the off-spring of the previous year's pair and where did they lay their eggs. Was it around the edge of our pond somewhere? They are delightful to watch and very meditative for us humans to observe. I would love to have seen one with a two foot wingspan.

If you live in the West,

By Henry Walters

If you live in the West, Julianna, you may well have Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturata), also called Firecracker Skimmers. The males are bright orange and the females duller brown, so you may have two pairs, in fact. They are likely laying eggs in the koi pond--the youngsters burrow down in the mud eat all sorts of aquatic insects. Your pond has probably hosted many many generations of these dragonflies!

I see several people asked

By BarbMc

I see several people asked why you would want to catch them and I had an opposite reaction. I thought, 'oh my goodness, that would be amazing to see them up close and hopefully know them in a new way.' I wouldn't want to traumatize them though, so maybe I'll try to attract them like Don M. does, to see if they will light on me. I've had a butterfly sit on me for hours, fly away and return again and again. It was pure magic and I too wondered about the butterfly's ability to think, whether it had the ability to be aware of the connection I was so thrilled to make.

I find the dragonfly a most

By Don Mccullough

I find the dragonfly a most interesting, smart creature.
I live in Canada, in Ontario, and see many dragonflies near my dock on the lake, their wings match the sound of my voice, and after about a half hour of coaxing the dragonfly being very inquisitive of me will eventually land somewhere on my body, even my head, it sits and seems to listen to my every word.
What a wonderful, inquisitive, beautiful bit of nature, love them.

I wish we could see you

By Henry Walters

I wish we could see you talking this dragonfly language--it sounds like you've tapped in to a frequency that Orpheus himself would be envious of, gathering the animals around his feet. What a pleasure it must be to live among them that way.

Dragonfly language is any

By Don McCullough

Dragonfly language is any language, it's the tone that does the trick, lower the decibel for best results, if only I was a "quiet baratone".

You, Sir, are a sensational

By Camille Strate

You, Sir, are a sensational writer! I just LOVE this little piece (almost as much as the critters themselves!). Thank you for sharing this...and for reminding me of my own love for these creatures. Here in Southern California (inland), I have seen red ones...so bright that I thought perhaps they'd been exposed to some sort of weird radiation! They truly are splendid little critters and your piece does them justice.
Thank you!

Camille S.
Valley Center, CA

Hello Camille, I was pleased

By Don McCullough

Hello Camille, I was pleased that you obtained some plesantries from my posting on dragonflies.
Here in Canada we only get to enjoy them from about late May until early October, they surely do participate in my low baritone comments to them while I sit quietly on my dock on the lake, they entertain me no end and after much coaxing they trust me and eventually sit in the palm of my gentle hand, nature in all its unique splendour, I am most sympatico with this wonderous creature.
Don.

Interested in Meganeura since

By BryanH

Interested in Meganeura since I saw "Monster on the Campus" about 1959. Their much smaller descendants are of great interest and beauty too.

Interesting! I hope that

By potsonna2

Interesting! I hope that everyone's weekend was both great and safe,had a happy Columbus Day,having a good week and has another good weekend.

I agree, why catch such a

By Joe S

I agree, why catch such a wonderful creature? Let it roam and enjoy its short life.
A few months ago I saved one after being caught in an old spider web and strangely it then clung to my leg for about 10 minutes almost seeming to be thankful for it's second chance to survive. It then flew off and kept nearby for another few minutes. I wondered about its ability to think, if capable of thoughts.

Catching any living thing, no

By Henry Walters

Catching any living thing, no matter how noble the supposed purpose, goes against many people's nature, and understandably so. What's so beautiful and moving about the Wild is precisely that we don't have our fingerprints all over it. On the other hand, our fingerprints are so heavy upon the earth as a whole--destroying habitats, changing migration routes, wiping out species (hundreds a day, worldwide)--that human disruption is taking place every second, long before a person takes a net in his hand. In order to stand up for Nature, we first have to see it well, I think. At least for me, it's hard to defend creatures whose names I don't know. As with the banding of birds, dragonflies are rarely injured at all in the netting process, and are released in just a few minutes. Even our intrusions into other lives can be done with care and empathy.

Love dragonflies! Why would

By ZoeA

Love dragonflies! Why would you want to catch them though?

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