May 19, 2009

Devil's Darning Needles

"They used to have four-foot wingspans? Why don't they anymore? Why wasn't I around back then? How do we get those back again?"

That was my reaction back in grade school, when I found out that prehistoric dragonflies were a few steps bigger back then. I guess it's true, tho--size really did matter back then, too.

Me, I grew up with dragonflies. Not in the "I was raised by bugs" sort of way, but somewhat like that. I can easily recall many summers spent chasing dragonflies. If there was utterly nothing I could think of to do (and that took some doing) I could always fall back on Plan B: Chase Dragonflies. It was easy, once you got the hang of it--those marvelous compound eyes gave them practically an entire hemisphere of vision up front, so there was no way you were going to walk up on one if you were anywhere near facing it, but they're effectively blind from behind, so all you had to do was sneak up quietly behind one, reach your fingers out and gently clamp one set of wings in your fingers. After that you could look at them, set them on your fingertip, and then let them go so you could go catch another.

It's what I did today. Chased dragonflies. Oh trust me, I had plenty to do, still do; my vacation has been one long work-fest, and I actually never physically caught one in my fingers, but I took time during the warmth of the afternoon to stop flinging huge bits of pecan tree onto the burn pile to sling my camera around my neck and go bug hunting.

Back when I was a kid my brother and I measured dragonflies by two variables: size and colour. Yeah, more and more this is sounding like it's about to turn pornographic but trust me, for once it's not. You see, around here there is a bewildering variety of dragonflies, in different sizes and colours. The most common are the two smallest, each perhaps the length of my thumb. They all came in brown (a sort of golden bronze colour, really, with black patterning,) and blue. Vis:

Blue Boy

Depth of Field

Those you could find anywhere. They'd perch with that weird tail-in-the-air manner on the rosebushes, the clothes line, fences, plants, anywhere really and all you had to do was have sharp eyes and the ability to move quietly. I probably caught and released more of those kinds than I've had hot meals.

Then there was the step up. The golden ones, with their heavy bodies and solid colours. I was frankly astounded to find this one stationary.

Golden Dragonfly

Those were the ones that never landed, that forever stayed circling and whirling overhead in clouds of hundreds. I remember the first year my brother and I finally got smart and started using a net. No mere butterfly net was good enough for us, though, and we couldn't have afforded one if we wanted to. No, a deep-sea fishing net that my father had in his shop was the answer--a ten foot long aluminum pole with an opening a full yard across and a net almost four feet deep. Even then it was a tough call--those jokers were quick, but still we managed at times to catch one or two, gentle it out of the tangles of the net, examine it in wide-eyed wonder and then let it free to rejoin the swarm.

You see, even then we knew that they were eating mosquitoes at an astonishing rate, and if there was one thing we all hated more than school it was mosquitoes, so the dragonflies were safe to fly, and their only expense was to occasionally be caught, held for a moment, admired and then released.

Then there was the rare bird--the medium-sized green and black ones. Those were the very devil hisself to catch. They'd alight all right, but only for mere moments before flickering back into flight, and even then, if you were lucky enough to be right by one when it landed you had to be FAST to get up in its blind spot and get your fingers close. They simply never stayed put long enough.

Green And Black

(You can see that even this one was about to fly again--her wings are held low and forward, about to flicker eye-blink fast and launch her back into the air.)

There were others, no question. There were the truly huge ones, the ones that came closest to my prehistoric ideal. They were a beautiful mix of greens and blues, and their square, armoured abdomens wore plates of pale green and blue so large you could spot them easily even if you didn't hear the rough flutter of their huge wings. They seemed to only come out at dusk, and there was never a chance of you putting fingers on one of those, because they simply moved too quickly and erratically.

As the years went on and we were exposed to more and more of the world we discovered other colours and sizes, too. The ice-blue ones with the black-patterned wings that lived in the forests, which you'd only see around the house a few times a season. Then there are the gorgeous deep ruby red ones that seem to only live in the woods near creeks and still lakes and pools, with their thick bodies and glistening wings. I always dreamed of putting my fingers around one of those, but it was never to be. They still flit through my summer memories, though, larger than life, gleaming like precious stones, wings afire with the summer light. They're not the prehistoric giants that I thought for certain could carry you off if you'd skipped a meal, but they and their kin certainly fit my summer bill.

But then again, what if they WERE four feet long again? Can you imagine the size of the mosquitoes they'd eat? They'd be even bigger than the foot-across ones that are already down here in the swamp...

* The complete Dragonflies set on Flickr


Jean said...

In the second photo, the body of the dragonfly looks like a stained-glass window.
They are fascinating and beautiful creatures.

Rayne said...

There are few dragonflies here. I miss them. We had many where I grew up. We had the ones you mentioned but also a bright pink variation, too. I always wanted to catch one to see it close up but was afraid they would bite.
I loved the imagery of you and your brother and the net. Such a big net for such a little bug. I'm surprised they didn't scoot through the spaces in the netting.

Rudi said...

You bug me. Two nights ago I carried a spider outside. :-)

No dragon flies here (Bahston) yet. It was in the 40's yesterday early morning. There were frost warnings for the inland burbs.

I have decided YOU are MY doppler radar. The sights, the sounds, the smells of Summer all packed up in a Boston bound freight train from the Bayou. The joys packed tighter together at a higher pitch because of your descriptions. And, when Summer has long since past here I know you'll still provide warm, low, sonorous echoes of a fading Summer sunset.

meno said...

Nice dragonfly pictures. I never realized that you had to sneak up on them from the back. Maybe that will help me snap a few pictures of them.

Clowncar said...

Satan's splinters.

Nice pictures. And you paint nicer pictures still with your words.

I didn't know about that sneak up from behind em thing either. You know the oddest things.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Here in Florida, when a mosquito dies we wait for rigor mortis to set in, and then use them for footstools.

Anonymous said...

Dragonflies are wonderful creatures. We get clouds of thousands at the cottage around late June. Then, the swallows find them and you have those aerial acrobats mowing through the dragons with abandon.

Scott from Oregon said...

I found the best dragonfly pictures are ones you can get from beneath them.

I also noticed you can wait at a spot, as they tend to do circles and return to the same resting place time after time...

Irrelephant said...

Jean, is it any wonder they always drew me as a kid? And why I wished they were still four feet across? *lol*

Pink, Rayne? How fun! I noticed yesterday that I forgot completely about the tiny golden ones whose wings are bronze-tinted too, and whose bodies are only the size of my thumbnail.

The net worked out about half the time--the squares were about two inches across so a lucky captive could often slip his way out. *G* Added to the challenge.

Rudi, that's EXCELLENT! I'm so proud of you!

...and you don't write. With language like that you need to be here too, telling ME about what it's like to live in the marvelous cool of the Nor'east, with its ivy-covered colleges and history reaching back to our first footsteps on this continent.

meno, that's the easiest way to do it. Then when you get there you just move slowly around them and they don't seem to get too upset.

Thank you, old bean! I credit observational learning with that trick--as a kid in the sticks with no real toys to distract you tend to learn a lot of stuff that you never realise has to be taught to kids in school, if at all.

Aaaah Joan, local humour. *lol* I need to try that with the next one I come across here. I wonder would it match my dark cherry office furniture?

Gordo, that was my next step! *grin* Swallows seem to have just moved into our area in the last six to ten years or so, and now they're everywhere--darts of that beautiful deep blue and pale orange, moving so terribly fast that I always think I'm going to go to my grave with one, less quick at turning than his brothers, stabbed straight into my eyesocket.

Scott, I'd not thought about THAT! Oh I've got to get my work done so I can go try it!

And yes, you're right on that count too--that green one and I danced around and around in an area no wider than five feet and no longer than ten. Every time I'd bother her she'd circle back through this narrow channel. Helped a lot in getting a few photos.

Scott from Oregon said...

Just a few of my dragonfly pictures...

Getting the background nuetral is a super bonus ...

Rudi said...

I saw dragon flies on Memorial Day. Darting in the hazy sunshine of a cemetery. I smiled.