Dragonflies & Damselflies
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 4/5/98

No one can deny the graceful beauty of maneuvering dragonflies and damselflies as they quickly dart about with quietly whirring wings. At other times they are gently blown about in harmony with the most delicate of river breezes. During the warm seasons on the Eno River, these insects can be easily spotted moving just above the surface of the water or perched on a protruding twig.

I have even observed them riding on a fallen leaf as it was wafted across the surface of the river. They prefer stiller sections of the river, so the millpond is the most likely place to encounter them. There are many species in our area sporting blue, red and gold outfits, adding a flare of color to the river's green backdrop.

Dragonflies and damselflies are a related group of insects that are classified together in the order Odonata. One way to differentiate between them is to note their resting posture. When perched, the dragonfly extends its wings to the side while the damselfly folds them parallel to its body.

Damselflies usually have thinner bodies and appear more delicate than dragonflies, hence their name damselflies. When seen over the water as as adults, Odonata usually have only one thing on their miniscule minds - mating. Otherwise, when feeding, they are away from the river, usually back in the fields hunting smaller insects.

A male will set up territory over water and wait for a female. When chasing off other male intruders from his territory, he will dart out quickly at the trespasser. When just patrolling the territory on wing, a more casual movement is employed. But if a female enters his domain, he quickly grasps her and mating occurs in midair over water. Extended abdomens connect in looping fashion transferring the sperm of the male to the female in a matter of seconds.

They demonstrate their need for water as an arena for mating when the female then quickly lays her fertilized eggs just at the surface of the river, usually attached to submerged vegetation like the ubiquitous willow grass of the Eno River or to a rock.

Once hatched, the nymph begins its feeding as an aquatic creature about three quarters of an inch long. Dragonfly nymphs breathe by sucking water in through the tips of their abdomens, extracting oxygen, and then expelling it, creating a jet propulsion for underwater locomotion.

Damselflies breathe through three feathery, anterior, projecting gills. These gills also provide propulsion as they are fanned as a fish does with its fins. As nymphs, both groups of Odonata become voracious predators of other aquatic insects. They will over winter in this stage of development and emerge from the water as adults in late spring or early summer.

Fossils resembling dragonflies and damselflies date back over 300 million years. Today there are around five thousand species including 450 in North America. With their diverse colors and gentle, non-threatening style of aviation, emitting no terrifying or irritating buzzes, stings or bites, they appear to us as "friendly'' insects with a reputation of destroying unfriendly mosquitoes.

I have found that if I become very still on the water, occasionally a dragonfly or damselfly will rest on my boat, paddle, hat or arm. Such a hitchhiker is quite welcome as far as I am concerned. There really is no other form of handsome wildlife that will so amicably rest and ride with me on the Eno.

My own richest moment with a dragonfly recently occurred on the Amazon River in Brazil. I was on a banana boat heading downstream to the delta city of Belem and was standing on the lower deck waiting in line to be served dinner. I was leaning on a waist high railing on the side of the boat    with other passengers, admiring the sunset over the river. Suddenly, a dragonfly zoomed in from off of the river and alighted on the ring finger of my left hand.

This was especially surprising because we were quite a distance from shore and I could not ever recall seeing dragonflies in the middle of that great river which is often several miles wide. It was a gorgeous creature, clear winged, with a gold spot on the front of each extended wing. The body was three inches long and was a dull gold in color.

It rested on my finger for fifteen minutes, in which time I amused several small children who were in a state of total fascination, including one baby in his mother's arms who blinked and smiled in wonderment at nature's surprise.

As dinner called, I gently nudged the insect off my finger, returning it to the river breezes. But then we all gasped, as the insect directly plunged into the wake of our boat. There were a couple of seconds of distress, but then the small brave insect picked itself up and flew off to distant tropical shores.

That was my favorite wildlife encounter of that entire trip to South America and I have been pondering its meaning for me ever since.  Was this spontaneous adornment of my ring finger a sign of my weddedness to that great river?  What a powerful omen for a river guide like me!

I have since decided that the alightment of a dragonfly or damselfly should be the first test of a wafter for someone new to this activity. One becomes a "Class I Wafter" if he or she can paddle a boat gently enough to attract one of these resting insects. It is not a difficult task. It can be accomplished on your first outing on the river.

Colorful birds will probably not be perching on the bow of your boat. Snakes, most likely, will not be dropping into your lap from branches overhanging the water. Frogs, only on the rarest of occasions, will be hopping into your lap. But dragonflies and damselflies of many dazzling colors may quickly pay their respects to your river interests by alighting on your paddling arm, or if you are so chosen - your ring finger ...
Photo by Riverdave: damselfly