Clad in red armor, a lone sentry guards his tiny realm. The dragonfly’s kingdom is one most would be hard-pressed to notice. A dwindling pool of water in the middle of a patch of mud. But, he is devoted. Perched on the limb of a fallen snag he watches. Every few moments, he his called out to intercept a challenger, before darting back to his post. He is undaunted by these interlopers, or the barrage of other species of pestering flies. They too have moved into this flat of exposed ground.
Red dragonfly on branch
It is the first true day of summer, and while recent rains have slaked some of the area’s thirst, they have not refilled this seasonal pond. During the winter and spring, it is fed by a stream and fills to a few feet. Migrating waterfowl, mainly ducks, use it as a temporary home. A sudden thrashing in the brush and the thin whistle of a bird tells me wood ducks are still using the remaining pockets of deep water. Females, with their gangly growing ducklings in tow, are common in the area now.
The dragonfly won’t have young to rear, but that is the reason for his dedication. Female dragonflies are attracted to these soupy puddles of algae and old plant matter. This is where they will lay their eggs. Depending on the species, they may do so in the surrounding plant matter or in the water itself. The larvae, however, develop in the water. They will grow there, molting several times, before making their way out of the water for their final transition to the adult form.
The larvae are called nymphs, a general term given to immature insects. One pictures an elven forest or water deity from ancient Greece. But, dragonfly larvae are not beautiful to behold. It is hard to tell the larval and adult forms are even of the same species. This is like the transformation of a butterfly. The dragonfly nymph is generally dull brown, wingless and fat-bodied. All traits that serve it well underwater. It isn’t until its final molt, that it becomes the sleek, brightly colored, whirring dynamo we know.
Dragonfly with nymph
The casual visitor wouldn’t think much of this stretch of mud. Compressed by the weight of winter’s rains; trees and shrubs stripped of foliage below the water line. It smells a bit, like decay. Oily in patches, sticky in others. But it is still thriving. You can follow raccoon and deer tracks to the water’s edge. The birds in the forest canopy are trilling the loudest here. Not only is this their source of water, but they come for the insects that feed on the detritus in the mud. There are amphibians, too. Newts and frogs. Shyer, but here for the same meal. Spiders.
Let us hope this lone, red sentry does not fall prey to these greedy invaders. And, next year, there is a new guardian of the mud flat.
Tip: Stick with it. I always tell myself: Don’t put the lens cap on until you’re back in the car. This excursion initially wasn’t proving very successful. The early morning light was tricky, too stark in some places, too dim in others. I was ready to call it a day, but urged myself onto a side trail to this little area. While looking at the animal tracks in the mud, a red dragonfly alighted on branch not 4′ from me. Then, came back again and again to the same position, completely unconcerned about my intrusion. I’d never noticed that kind of behavior before. It also made for some easy close-up shots.