Dragonfly Watching: Chasing Dragonflies and Damselflies


Join an intrepid dragonfly chaser

The Editors

Ready to engage in some dragonfly watching—or, should we say "dragonfly chasing"? Join an intrepid dragonfly chaser and admire some close-up shots of these colorful insect helicopters.

In the old days, any person in a public park throwing their arms and running back and forth might have been seen as a mad scientist hard at work. No longer. Now that same person 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.

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

Watching for Dragonflies

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.) These insects have been around long before the dinosaurs appeared.

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

Amazing Dragonfly Facts

Both dragonflies and damselflies are members of the insect order Odonata—which fans usually call “odes." The difference between a dragon and a damsel is the wing position when perched: Dragonflies hold their wings straight out to the side, while damselflies partly spread their wings or fold them together behind them.

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 worldview 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).

Common Green Darner 
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols

How to Become a Dragonfly Catcher

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 through October, even at northern latitudes. Head out once the temperatures have warmed up. As water lovers, they are often around ponds, streams, bogs and rivers. Interestingly, dragonflies are a becoming a good barometer of environmental health and water purity. Some species such as clubtails need pristine, fast-flowing water. 

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.

Learn all about Dragonfly Facts, Symbolism, and Meaning.

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Beth Wright (not verified)

2 months 1 week ago

You seem to know little or nothing about the larval, aka nymph, stage in the life cycle of dragonflies. Dragonfly nymphs are among the most badass predators in ponds, creeks, marshes, or anywhere with relatively slow-moving freshwater. They hang out in the shallows and any other small organism in the area had better watch out because a dragonfly nymph will grab them and eat them! They look totally creepy and I remember when I worked in environmental education, how the kids and even adults with whom we were doing surveys of aquatic invertebrate communities as indicators of water quality, almost always kind of freaked out the first time they saw a dragonfly nymph. e.g. What is that creepy looking creature? It's like a monster. Looks like a transformer. Ouch, it pinched my finger.

And you indeed had better watch out if you're handling them because they will pinch you hard, in particular the large darners. It's shocking how much force their tiny mouthparts can apply, relatively speaking!

And it's the larval stages, not the adults of various dragonfly and damselfly species which provide the best read about water quality. But nymphs aren't usually around if adults aren't in the area so people may misread the presence of adults as indicative of water quality when it's really more about the total community of aquatic invertebrates actually living in the water. Mayflies and stoneflies, for example, are far more sensitive than dragonflies to degradation of water quality and their larvae will not be found at all in the least polluted streams. streams. The habitat has to be pretty pristine to find them present.

I kind of hate the fact that you're encouraging people to capture winged insects with no instruction because it's so easy to damage a wing if you don't know what you're doing. And if that happens, and they can't fly, they're doomed because they won't be able to forage or escape a predator like a bird. I know from experience that it is not that hard to sneak up on a dragonfly or damselfly if you want to take a photo. If you move slowly and don't make any sudden movements, you can almost always creep up to where you're less than five feet away from them or even closer. And if they're flying around flitting from spot to spot, you need to be patient and wait for them to land. I know because I've done that hundreds of times myself, even though I decided decades ago that I wanted to be fully present when I'm in the field for whatever reason, rather than trying to get the best photo. So I rarely take photographs of anything out in the field nowadays unless it's important for identification, to document the presence of a rare native species or an invasive exotic species not known to be present in the area, to document the presence of a threat or injury, or for some actual purpose. I'm not saying you're wrong to take photos, I just don't do it much any more without a specific reason.

I'd love for you to encourage readers to participate instead one of the citizen science-based stream quality monitoring programs sponsored by chapters of the Isaak Walton League, regional Audubons, and nature centers. Some states even have citizen science programs like to which people can contribute real data important to conservation by capturing aquatic invertebrates when they're living in the water and are far less delicate than winged animals, by using simple keys to identify them to order. That's the lowest level of taxonomic detail necessary to assess stream water quality under these protocols which are pretty much the same no matter who's sponsoring the project, and largely based on the one originally developed by the Isaak Walton League. And if you really get into it you can learn to identify some of these animals to genus and a few even to species with a little study. Those data aren't necessary but they're welcome if you have them and certain about your identification.

In my experience, children of all ages — I've had healthy adults in their 80s participate — love participating in these programs. They can makes a real contribution to conservation rather than participating in what's pretty much strictly a sport. And it's a lot harder to injure what they're studying.

I'm glad you wrote this article but I do hope you'll consider what I'm saying. Thanks for listening.

p.s. I also meant to mention earlier that since you didn't talk about migratory dragonflies, I'm wondering whether you're aware of the species that migrate — some of them being quite long-distance migrants. I tried to share a link to an article about that but I keep being unable to send this because I get a message saying embedded links are not allowed for anonymous users. If you do want to check out this article, you should be able to find it by Googling "Migratory Dragonfly Partnership." I actually just discovered this and have not even read the article yet. I found it while looking to see which dragonflies species migrate because I was pretty sure there were more than just the one I talk about below! They appear to have citizen science projects going on per the brief summary shown on the Google results page.

I'll never forget being in South Mississippi in 2003 doing fall migration bird surveys at sites up in the woods 45 minutes or an hour from the coast, but being in Pass Christian right on the coast, and in fact right across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, for an arts festival one afternoon into evening after I got done with work, which started well before sunrise and typically ended by early afternoon. Shortly before sunset, maybe an hour in advance of it, all these green darners started showing up and flying around over a big concrete pad in a park where they set up bands and such that needed a solid surface. More and more dragonflies showed up until there were hundreds of them circling over this rectangle of concrete probably 15 x 20 meters in area at most. They were clearly taking advantage of the heat rising up from the concrete, which had been in full sun all afternoon on what was still a pretty hot day down there in the Deep South, and attracting smaller insects as the temperature started to cool off as sunset approached. I couldn't figure out why there'd be so many of them there, and I started wondering whether they migrated because it was like birds foraging madly right before they set off on their long flight across the Gulf. I learned later that was most likely exactly what they were doing! I don't know if you knew that some species of dragonflies migrate, but most people aren't aware of this phenomenon although many are familiar with the migratory behavior of monarch butterflies. They're always so astonished when I tell them that some dragonflies migrate, too!

Mike (not verified)

5 months ago

While we have dragonflies here in western NY, as they are everywhere, when I lived in Florida there wasn't a moment when dragonflies weren't around. Many were dull and grey, though still beautiful up close, but there was no shortage of every color of the rainbow, too. They perch and hold still for the camera. I have tons of great pics and it was a lot of fun capturing the images.

Debbie Crews (not verified)

8 years 1 month ago

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.

Sandy Charest Owens (not verified)

8 years 1 month ago

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 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!