Five steps to the next level of dragonfly spotting

Step 1. Be aware the same species of dragonfly may appear differently depending upon gender, age, and natural variation. Some species display sexual dimorphism; in contrast, both genders look virtually identical for some species. Finally, females of some species display polymorphism (also known as polychromatism).

The following slideshows/photo galleries show several species of dragonflies that may be spotted at Huntley Meadows Park easily, near the beginning of “dragonfly season.” Remember that every photo in each set shows a single species; notice the appearance of individual specimens varies considerably. All photos were taken at Huntley Meadows Park unless labeled otherwise (see information in brackets to the right of some hyperlinks to photo sources).

A. Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia)

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Photo Sources:

B. Great Blue Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula vibrans)

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C. Spangled Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula cyanea)

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Beware of look-alikes!

Some dragonflies look very similar to other dragonflies of a different species/gender. Here are a couple of look-alikes you’re likely to see at Huntley Meadows Park.

A. Common Whitetail versus Twelve-spotted Skimmer

B. Great Blue Skimmer versus Slaty Skimmer

Photo Sources:

Step 2. Learn to identify male-versus-female terminal appendages.

All male dragonflies have three terminal appendages, collectively called “claspers,” that are used to grab and hold female dragonflies during mating: an upper pair of cerci (“superior appendages”) and a lower unpaired epiproct (“inferior appendage”). Female dragonflies have a pair of cerci (superior appendages) that have little or no function.

Photo sources:

Related Resource: Odonate Terminal Appendages

Step 3. Spend time in the field, literally. Take time to look carefully. Search fields near water (sometimes far from water) where you may find immature- and female dragonflies. BEWARE of chiggers and ticks!

Step 4. Useful references

Use the following resources to know the species of odonates you’re likely to see at a specific location and when to look for a specific species.

A. Species lists

B. Identification Guides

Step 5. Dragonhunter’s Credo: Shoot first (photos, that is); ask questions later. (Repeat it like a mantra.)

  • Get a shot, any shot; refine the shot gradually. Good shots for easier identification: top view (including pterostigmata near wing tips); side view; face; terminal appendages.
  • Post known- and unknown specimens on Project Noah: Dragonflies and Damselflies of Huntley Meadows Park.
  • Follow a few well-known dragonhunters (virtually, that is) in order to see what they’re seeing.

Related Resources:

Editor’s Note: On Saturday, 25 January 2014, I had the honor of co-presenting a program called “Flying Dragons” with Kevin Munroe, Park Manager, Huntley Meadows Park. Kevin invited me to talk about how to make the transition from a beginner- to intermediate/advanced-intermediate dragon hunter. I prepared this photoblog post related to my part of the program, called “Five steps to the next level of dragonfly spotting.”

Copyright © 2013-2014 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to “Five steps to the next level of dragonfly spotting”

  1. Mike Powell Says:

    Wow. Your posting is incredibly full of great photos and useful tips. I’m especially a big fan of step 5–my field identification skills are not good enough for me to identify with confidence more than a few of the dragonflies.

  2. Christy Turner Says:

    This is a really excellent post Walter.
    I am determined to learn my dragonflies this year.

  3. Terminal appendages (male, female) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] you’re ready to move to the next level of dragonfly spotting (see “Step 2″ of 5), from say the beginner level to the intermediate/advanced […]

  4. Miraculous metamorphosis | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] the wing spots are beginning to darken. A pattern of dark spots on all four wings, characteristic of female Common Whitetail dragonflies, will develop within a few days to a week-or-so after […]

  5. Common Whitetail dragonfly (teneral female) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] pattern of dark spots on all four wings, characteristic of female Common Whitetail dragonflies, will develop within a few days to a week-or-so after […]

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