Nature Nearby: Dragons and damsels in Magruder Park

July 18, 2015

Our resident damselfly is the ebony jewelwing. Photo courtesy Greg5030.
FRED SEITZ —

FRED SEITZ —

In late spring and early summer, Magruder Park goes into medieval mode as the air fills with dragonflies and damselflies. These moderately large insects emerge from their multi-year development in the streams and swamp to swarm the park to dazzle viewers with their colorful appearances and flying skills.

While both names include the word “flies,” neither damsels nor dragons belong to that species. They are both members of the odonate “toothed ones” order of insects. Toothed ones indeed, for their pincer jaws make them effective predators both in their aquatic larval stage and their adult flying stage. In their larval stage, both dragonflies and damselflies will eat mosquito larvae. Larger dragonfly larvae may eat small fish and tadpoles. As adults, they prey on mosquitoes, smaller dragonflies, and sometimes butterflies or moths. Some hunt on the wing, whereas others ambush flying insects from a  perch on a tree limb near the streams.

Dragonflies are perhaps the more familiar of the two. Many people see them perching or standing in the grass or on sidewalks with their wide wings spread. By contrast, damselflies have slighter builds than dragonflies and when perched on a plant or on the sidewalk, they usually have their wings folded upright behind their backs. Both are strong fliers and very colorful.

The most commonly seen dragonfly in our park and in our area is the white tailed skimmer.  Their thick bodies fly close to the surface of the small streams in the park, but they also venture elsewhere, like the drainage pond on the west side. They are seen throughout Maryland near slow moving bodies of water and ponds. Their blue body becomes white towards the end of the tail, giving the dragonfly his common name.

Another common dragonfly in our park is the saddlebag skimmer. A little smaller than the whitetail, it is dark colored and has dark black “saddlebag” spots (stigma) on its wings. It commonly perches on the sidewalks through the park and also hunts over the soccer field.

Our resident damselfly, the ebony jewelwing, is the darling of our park a stunning, slender bodied metallic green body with black wings (the males have a white spot near the end of the wings). This damselfly is often present flying over the swamp and along the boardwalk, though it is also seen in the more open parts of the park, as well as along the bike path.

All three of our “toothed ones” begin their lives in water and some remain in their aquatic larval stages for up to three years. All engage in their mating activity in late summer or early fall and are often seen in airborne courtship at that time.

A curious observance may be noted by humans at the time when females are ovipositing their eggs. The female dragonfly (or possibly damselfly) may be touching her tail (where the ovipositor is located) on the hoods of cars. The female often mistakes the shiny hoods of cars for water and sadly may place her eggs in an inappropriate place.

These beautiful and amazing animals have been around since before the dinosaurs.   They were even more impressive in their earlier forms with wingspans up to 36 inches. While our current generation of dragonflies and damselflies are still impressive predators and help dispose of our less desirable fliers like mosquitoes, we can also be thankful that their size is reduced and we need not fear them as they grace our skies in summer and early fall.