Eat or be eaten

Consider the simple life of a female Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum): One day she’s basking in warm afternoon sunlight, eating a smaller winged insect while waiting to mate with a passing male. Life is good.

Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly (female, eating unknown prey)

20 October 2014 | Huntley Meadows Park

A few days later, the tables were turned and the female Autumn Meadowhawk was eaten by a larger male Shadow Darner dragonfly (Aeshna umbrosa), as shown in the following time-series of photos.

Shadow Darner dragonfly (male, eating an Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly)

24 October 2014 | Huntley Meadows Park

The Shadow Darner’s prey is a female Autumn Meadowhawk, as indicated by several field markers including its coloration and red pterostigmata; also, the abdomen of female Autumn Meadowhawks is thicker near the thorax than for males.

Although it is improbable the two female Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies shown in these photographs are the same individual, they were spotted near the same vernal pool in the forest at Huntley Meadows Park.

Shadow Darner dragonfly (male, eating an Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly)

24 October 2014 | Huntley Meadows Park

The Shadow Darner ate the Autumn Meadowhawk quickly. Game over, man!

Shadow Darner dragonfly (male)

24 October 2014 | Huntley Meadows Park

The Backstory: In a recent post in the Northeast Odonata Facebook group I said, “The [Shadow Darner] dragonfly flew several laps around a meadow near a vernal pool, perching in three places for no more than a second each time.” Since then, I have observed Shadow Darners at the same location several times. They fly close to the ground most of the time, dipping in-and-out of the ground cover repeatedly. Initially, I thought they were looking for a place to rest; now I think they are searching for food. [Some odonate experts speculate male Shadow Darners behave like this when they are looking for a female.]

On Friday, 24 October 2014, I saw a Shadow Darner dip toward the grass: it emerged with a relatively large insect in its grasp; after a lap or two above the field, the Shadow Darner landed on a nearby tree. Turns out the darner had captured a female Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly!

Has anyone observed Shadow Darners hawking like the ones at Huntley Meadows Park?

Copyright © 2014 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Eat or be eaten”

  1. Mike Powell Says:

    Amazing shots, Walter. Given the speed with which the colorful Shadow Darner consumed its much smaller prey, you were obviously really quick on the draw to capture the action. The more I look at the patterns and colors of the Shadow Darner, the easier it becomes for me to see why this species is your new favorite.

    • waltersanford Says:

      Thanks, Mike! I’m not sure I’m ready to declare a new favorite species of dragonfly, but I will say this: In my opinion, a favorite odonate should be both beautiful and uncommon. Given the relative abundance of Blue-faced Meadowhawks at our new-found hot-spot, I can’t say it was as challenging to find our little blue-faced friends this year as it was last year!

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