Back to Nature (Published on - Sept. 20, 2007)
Dragonfly watching
Photo by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
A bright green great pondhawk is camouflaged against the moist ground.
Since I was a child, dragonflies have fascinated me.

As I’ve canoed rivers, traversed swamps and bogs and hiked along streams and lakes, I’ve been astonished at the many different colors and sizes of dragonflies.

Since dragonflies are easily observed as we’re birdying, fishing, hiking, canoeing and pleasure boating, dragonfly watching is fast becoming an ever-growing popular hobby and industry.

With a decent pair of close-focus binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, to assist you in getting a closer look at your subject, you will be well on your way to becoming a dragonfly watcher. And oh what colors!

Dragonflies or “Odonata” are an order of aquatic palaeopterous insects. Dragonflies and damselflies are brightly colored in shades of blue, brown, black, green, amber and red on their long slender bodies and have two pairs of transparent, veined wings.

There are 307 North American dragonfly species found from the tip of Florida to the Alaskan Arctic and everywhere in between. Cornell University reports there are 108 species that live in Florida and more than 150 species that breed in Florida.

Dragonflies can be found in diverse habitats from lakes, ponds or rivers to the driest habitats, such as scrub and sandhill, to our very own backyard gardens and ponds. All dragonflies need water to complete their life cycle from egg to larva to adult. Certain species require specific flowing water habitat like seeps, trickles, rivulets and streams.

If you’ve been near any body of water these past few weeks you will have noticed a great deal of dragonflies flying about. This is because dragonflies are seasonal insects. Each family emerges and follows its life cycle during a specific time of the year. Time of day and weather conditions can be critical in trying to find certain species.

Both dragonflies and damselflies mate in flight. The females deposit their eggs in water near floating plant masses like the water lilies. Damselflies and dragonflies feed on other insect larvae such as, mosquito larvae in great numbers, while they mature in their aquatic nurseries.

Dragonflies are grouped into seven families, each with particular habitat preferences. They are sometimes difficult to identify. Although some species are very distinct, some variable species can be confusing.

A good book for Florida dragonfly watchers that may help with identification is, “Florida’s Fabulous Insects” by entomologist Mark Deyrup and contributing author and entomologist Thomas C. Emmel. Although this book covers insects of all types in Florida, it contains a lengthy bit of information specific to dragonflies – darners, skimmers and damselflies.

There are other guides available, but unless you’re an expert in the field, you may find it difficult to ascertain which species is from Florida and which is not.

Dragonflies have fascinating life histories and behaviors. Dragonflies have been discovered as far back as 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. The fossil record, for most modern families, dates back to the Jurassic or the Cretaceous period.

Adult odonates are medium to large in size, often conspicuous and/or brightly colored insects and are aerial predators hunting by sight. They generally are found at or near fresh water although some species roam widely and may be found far from their breeding sites.

The larvae are predatory, aquatic and occur in all manner of inland waters. You can identify the difference between these two relatives by the angle of their wings. When stationary the dragonfly holds its wings in a horizontal position. The damselfly, which is slightly smaller, holds its wings in an upward and backward position.

Marvels of flight dragonfly’s hover, dive, wheel and land in an instant. The flight of the dragonfly also differs from the damselfly. The dragonfly is swift and powerful. Some accounts estimate the dragonflies at speeds between 35 and 60 mph. Dragonflies are capable of flying backwards and forwards.

I have seen dragonflies as high as a third story window. Curiously they may land and stay motionless in one place for a long time. Their excellent eyesight, strong jaws and skilled hunting abilities have given them the reputation of being known as the tigers of the insect world. Dragonflies are predatory in all their stages.

Dragonfly watching has become almost as popular as butterfly or bird watching. Cornell University provides a great deal of documentation on dragonfly behavior specifically, mating behavior. (Dragonflies: Behavior and Ecology of Odonata. Phillip S. Corbet. 1999. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.)

Photography tips from well-known dragonfly photographer Bill Morgenstern: “The next time you’re out with your camera; focus on these insects (dragonflies). Learn their habits and challenges. Be patient in your approach. Match your equipment to the subject. Use a macro focusing zoom or medium length macro lens with your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Select medium to fast speed film like Fuji Provia 100 and 400 or Kodak Royal Gold 400. Shoot with a shallow to medium depth of field parallel to your subject. Look for and shoot different poses. Be persistent and you will come away with some stunning images of ‘dragons.’

“Remember, dragonfly watching can happen in your backyard, on a mountain stream in North America or a jungle pool in the Amazon River Basin. Found worldwide, dragonflies are challenging and satisfying subjects to test the skills of any wildlife watcher or nature photographer.”

Karen can be reached at

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