Thu, 27 Jun 2013 16:46:42 EDT
Nature’s True “Dragon”
By Tom Lounsbury
The bull moose was belly-deep in the water and was fully occupied with feeding on what appeared to be lily pads as I stalked in closer through the underbrush. The bull’s entire head, including broad, velvet covered antlers would disappear under the water’s surface for several seconds at a time, which allowed me a chance to make my move for setting up for just the right shooting angle.
I had reached this small inland lake on Isle Royal by canoeing down a nearby river, and my “hunting” armament was a 35 mm camera equipped with a long telephoto lens. A large boulder protruded into the lake forming a small peninsula, and I belly-crawled out to the end of it, adjusted my camera, and patiently waited for the right moment. My goal was to catch the bull with his head up and a mouthful of water dripping green, and including the panoramic reflection on the water as well.
That is when my peripheral vision picked up movement in the water not far from my face, automatically drawing my focus away from the feeding moose. I soon discerned that several large water bugs were actively swimming just on top of the water’s surface, and suddenly one of them crawled out of the water onto the boulder and stopped just a few inches from my face.
I have seen plenty of water bugs in my day and must admit that I knew very little about them, nor had I ever endeavored to learn more, but that was about to all change. On close examination this big brown bug was one nasty-looking affair that no doubt could have an attitude and I wasn’t all that comfortable with it resting a tad too close to my face. My first thought was to give it a good thump or simply brush it back into the water and go back to moose-picture-taking, but something stayed my hand, and I became mesmerized with watching the water bug as an unusual movement inside it began right away as if it possessed a “creature within”.
For a fact, it actually did.
Time seemed to stand still as I watched the metamorphosis that was taking place right before my eyes. The creature within wiggled all over while the water bug remained still as a statue. After awhile the water bug started to come apart near the back of its head and I could pick up flashes of scarlet red as the creature within worked at wiggling through the newly made opening.
I don’t know how long the process took, I wasn’t timing it, but I know when I glanced up once, the bull moose had long departed without my ever realizing it. I also knew I had a great photo opportunity right in front of my nose, but I had the wrong cameral lens, and the right one was 200 yards away through the brush behind me, in my waterproof pack in the canoe. I decided to just hold tight and play witness to one of the many marvels of nature.
What eventually emerged from the ugly water bug hull (called an “exuviae”) was a brilliant, scarlet red dragonfly. Its wings at first were limp, pale affairs but I was amazed at how they soon began to unfurl and stiffen, and in the bright sunlight I could see visible lines forming in the nearly transparent structure as hemolymph (insect blood) was being pumped through the wing veins.
Now at that point, I’d seen plenty of dragonflies during every summer that I could remember. Most were flying about, usually near a water source, and some were even resting on something, but other then noticing their various brilliant colors and admiring their ability to hover about like helicopters (they even look something like a helicopter), I had no idea about their lifecycle or even what they ate (in nature, everything eats something). From a distance they had always looked rather harmless.
Close up observation however, gave me another insight and I was so close in fact all I had to do was pucker up and I could have smooched this one. There was something still rather ominous about this now adult dragonfly, the way its eyes seem to join together and actually become one big eye that could visually cover a whole lot of territory without much effort. What stood out were the jaws that were clearly designed like miniature meat hooks, and I knew at this point that dragonflies are predators, whether in the aquatic larvae (water bug) stage, or as a flying adult.
The scarlet red dragonfly rested for about an hour or so (I can only guess, as I was still fixated) after it emerged from its larvae hull, and it suddenly flew off along the water’s surface and eventually became a part of other colorful dragonflies hovering about. This incident occurred a little over a decade ago, and needless to say I’ve been studying up on dragonflies ever since. The field part is quite a bit like bird watching, only with some extras thrown in when you try determining what water bug belongs to what dragonfly specie.
In the insect world, the dragonfly is for a fact a premier predator during all stages of its life. As aquatic larvae they will devour anything they can catch including minnows, tadpoles, mosquito larvae, and even other dragonfly larvae. The fact is that they go after anything that moves and they can handle, so we are lucky they aren’t a whole lot bigger than they are because otherwise our swimming in local waters might be a bit testy and interesting (fortunately such is not the case in reality).
Belonging to the order “Odonata” (meaning “toothed ones”) adult dragonflies are fearsome predators that catch other insects while on the wing using either their mouths or their spiky legs that can form a net, and the prey is devoured while the dragonfly is still on the wing or resting on a perch. Humming birds have even been known to fall prey to nature’s true “dragon”.
There are 102 different species of dragonflies found in our northern hemisphere, and I haven’t come close to identifying them all, although I’m trying. The scarlet one I witnessed emerging from the “water bug” was a red Meadowhawk. I will never forget the large Common Green Darner that landed on a leaf near my face while I was on a bear-stand in Ontario a couple years ago, and allowed me nearly an hour of very close observation while it rested in the sunlight and displayed the coppery sheen of the intricate veins in its transparent wings.
A great book for learning about dragonflies is “Dragonflies of the North Woods” by Kurt Mead. Published by Kollath-Stensaas Publishing (www.kollathstensaas.com
One thing is certain about dragonflies. They add a whole lot of animated color to the summer scene.
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