The dragonfly that changed me – David McCulloch’s dragonflies

Flanders Moss NNR

Two years ago, I didn’t know anything about dragonflies. I didn’t even know the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly, and I couldn’t have identified any species. It’s therefore surprising that I was asked to give a short talk at the Scottish dragonfly conference this spring.

So, what changed in the intervening two years? I was going to explain that as the introduction to my talk, but the conference was cancelled due to COVID-19 so I’m turning my presentation into this blog post instead!

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I bought my first digital SLR camera in late 2017, and I thought I’d have a go at photographing wildlife. Birds seemed to be the most obvious subject. However, in June 2018 I found this dragonfly in a remote part of Flanders Moss.

Four-spotted chaser
Four-spotted chaser

It was all on its own, and kept flying off and returning to the same twig sticking out of the ground. I became transfixed by it, and I spent 20 minutes photographing it from various angles. This was the dragonfly that changed me, and fired my interest in all things odonata (the order of insects that includes dragonflies and damselflies). I quickly realised that:

  • (some) dragonflies can stay still long enough, and close enough, to photograph
  • they are colourful and fascinating creatures, and
  • there are a limited number of species to identify in Scotland, mostly not too difficult to distinguish from each other.

Although ‘odonata’ is the correct term, the word ‘dragonfly’ can sometimes be used in a general sense to refer to both dragonflies and damselflies. So, what’s the difference between them?

One obvious difference is that damselflies are generally smaller than dragonflies, and their abdomen is fairly similar in size and shape to a matchstick. The other main difference is that, when at rest, damselflies mostly hold their wings parallel to their body whereas dragonfly wings always stick out at right angles to the body.

These photos clearly show how damselflies fold their wings back when at rest.

Female emerald damselfly
Azure damselfly (at RSPB Loch Lomond)

This can also be seen in this photo of a pair of mating emerald damselflies. The male is grasping the female behind her neck, as she bends her abdomen forwards to touch the male’s accessory genitalia, to form this ‘love heart’.

Emerald damselflies

After mating, the female lays her eggs under water. Large red damselflies stay together during this process.

Large red damselflies (at RSPB Loch Lomond)

Large reds are the first damselflies to emerge in Scotland, in late April or early May. This pair has already mated, but the male (in front) keeps hold of the female while she dips her abdomen in the water to lay her eggs. The male just perches in mid-air, wings folded back, waiting for the female to finish the job.

In contrast, the female common hawker dragonfly lays her eggs on her own.

Common hawker (female)

Notice how the common hawker dragonfly holds its wings out at 90˚ to its body, in contrast to damselflies. Another example of this characteristic wing position is this common darter dragonfly.

Common darter

Dragonflies (and damselflies) spend most of their life living as larvae under water. Unlike butterflies, dragonflies do not go through an intermediate stage as a pupa or chrysalis. When dragonfly larvae are ready to emerge from the water, they climb up onto a stalk of vegetation and the adult dragonfly breaks out of the larval case. In one of the most astonishing spectacles, over the course of a few hours their new body slowly expands by redistributing fluids, and the colour intensifies. These ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos show a common hawker dragonfly. Even though it’s a dragonfly, not a damselfly, notice how the wings are still folded back at this pre-flight stage.

Newly emerged common hawker (at Lon Mor ponds in the Trossachs)
Common hawker (perched on Welcome sign at Flanders Moss!)

Although dragonflies aren’t too challenging to photograph at rest, they are absolute murder to photograph in flight. As their name suggests, common hawkers hunt up and down waterways and rarely hover for long enough to allow the camera to lock its focus. However, this one was just a fraction of a second slower than its mates.

Common hawker (at RSPB Loch Lomond)

Another thing to look out for is dragonflies with very reflective shiny wings. These are ‘tenerals’, which are dragonflies that have emerged and flown only in the last few hours. Their wings are still quite soft, so if you see one please avoid disturbing it as it could easily damage its wings before they harden.

Black darter (teneral)

One damselfly that I have yet to see at Flanders Moss is the northern emerald. It’s here only in small numbers, and is mainly found over towards the west side of the bog. I’m really keen to find one this year, and hopefully we’ll be out of ‘lockdown’ in time for me to witness this elusive dragonfly.

If you’d like to know more about dragonflies, please look at the British Dragonfly Society’s website. Membership is a very reasonable £20 per year!

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3 Responses to The dragonfly that changed me – David McCulloch’s dragonflies

  1. Fabulous photos!
    The hope of seeing dragonflies is one of the reasons Flanders Moss is on my list of places to visit someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great photos. I think dragonflies are very difficult to photography.
    I called my photo story “The Dragonfly Rests”–because they don’t rest that often!
    A lot of my photographs were blurs. Took me a long time to get one clear photo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved your post! 💙 I have recently become enamored with dragonflies! We discovered a water reclamation wetlands nearby this spring, and with the covid thing, we’ve visited often. I’m also improving my photography skills, so all in all it’s an amazing adventure. Dragonflies are awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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