Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mother Nature's Magic

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: July 24, 2011
Typical summer weather has finally hit …. Warm. Western Oregon usually has warm, dry summers with a little bit of miserably hot. Some would say summer has been a long time coming, but frankly I enjoyed the cooler and wetter spring. Today were on the fence as to whether we should head to the coast and cool off, or up into the Cascades and donate our pint of blood to the mosquitoes. Heading into the mountains won out. This weather is just what dragonflies love.

We ate lunch with the mosquitoes in the shade near a little pond. I had great plans of skirting this pond and hiking in to the next while Dale worked the nearby edge of this one. I walked down into the sunshine and started along the edge of the water – much higher than last year and hardly any emergent vegetation breaking the water’s surface yet.

What’s this? I’d only walked about forty feet along the shoreline when I spot a dragonfly nymph walking on land. Most dragonfly eggs hatch in water, then develop as aquatic nymphs until they are ready to emerge as adults. This nymph is still damp and heading towards the water. As I look about I realize it probably has been looking for some sort of a stalk to climb up on, but found none. The land near shore lacks suitable sites. Usually we find exuvia (the empty nymph casing left behind after a dragonfly emerges) on cattail, sedges, strong grasses, even rocks or wood – something sturdy enough so that they can crawl out of the water above ground. With the high water this pond isn’t offering many opportunities.

I call to Dale and then watch the little fella trudge back down the slope and into the water. The nymph soon finds some wispy grass growing in the shallow water, but as soon as he tries climbing up, the grass bends and plops him back into the pond. He needs a dry site to climb onto so he can let Mother Nature’s magic take over.

After watching the nymph make three unsuccessful attempts to climb out of the water, I decide to intervene. I pick up a nearby twig and settle it upright into the mud near him. In no time at all, the nymph is climbing up my little ladder out of the water. He must have thought my twig was mana from heaven!

What an opportunity! We’ve spotted dragonflies in various stages of emerging from their nymph form, but here is an opportunity to watch the whole process from start to finish. I run back to the car to get my ‘walk in the mud’ shoes on so I can wade out into the water and photograph from a slightly different angle than Dale. The cool water feels wonderful in the hot sun.
By the time I return the nymph is about an inch above the water’s surface and already his exoskeleton is breaking open along its back. Just a little of the dragonfly’s head and back is emerging.
Our photos show us more than we can see with our eyes as we watch. I’m fascinated to see that what was its ‘nymph eyes’, i.e. the little lumps on the outside of his head, are now just lumps on the outside of his new eyes. This adult dragonfly’s eyes will be bigger and fused together in the middle. Right now the eyes look lumpy; not the big, smooth globes they will become. The nymph's head is bend upside down so his greenish eyes are now beneath the head of the exuvia.
It’s a rather slow process. He struggles and rests and struggles some more. Finally head and thorax pop free of the exuvia. Its wings look more like warts than the beautiful panels they will become. Its body is still stumpy like the nymph it wiggled out of.
It’s a boy! Gradually the dragonfly’s body and wings have been lengthening. His appendages on the end of his abdomen tell us it is a male, but we still don’t know what species. When a dragonfly first emerges it has very little coloration. As we watch some yellows have been developing on his thorax and his eyes have been taking on a rich reddish brown color.

We’ve been watching for an hour and eighteen minutes. For awhile I was amazed at quickly changes happened. Now that he looks like a dragonfly, the process is a little slower. I dare to get out my sketchbook and draw while Dale continues to photograph. Gradually his wings lengthen, his abdomen becomes a slender tube and yellows become richer.
Pop! One moment he hung with wings still folded back and then, as if a spring had released them, he spread his wings into the fixed wing position. He folds them back briefly, but then back to spread wings. I suspect he’ll hold them there for the rest of his life. Dragonflies are easily told apart from damselflies by the position of their wings.

As his colors deepen we can finally tell he is a Crimson-ringed Whiteface ( Leucorrhinia glacialis ), a fairly small dragonfly found at higher elevations in the West and parts of Canada. Right now he is yellow and brown, but when fully mature his yellow parts will be fire engine red and the rest of his body will be jet black. While we’ve been watching this one several others have landed near us.

A gust of wind blows our dragonfly off the stick and he lands on the ground near me. Even in his yellow and brown stage, he is beautiful. His wings look like lace made in a fairy glass-works. His eyes are huge …. Better to see you with! Another puff of breeze and off he flies. We’ve been watching for just over two hours. Hard to believe he transformed from a stubby brown nymph into a slender flying machine in such a short time.


  1. WOW OH WOW!! This is an absolutely fascinating look at a nature that i have never seen. Thank you so much for sharing this Elva.

  2. Oh, Elva,
    Very nice sketch and wonderful post. I always wanted to have a look of that magic, but I could not. Oh, wonderful!! I see many cicades & empty cells in my accomodation's bakcyard. Elva, could you do me a great favour? Try a cicade, please. I was a big fan for incects and admire Fabre, "Souvenirs entomologiques." When I read a cicade, it took so many hours in the book. Then, Little Sadami gave up looking at it. But if time allows, you, lady Fabre, please try it. This blog will be a second "Souvenirs entomologiques."
    Kind regards, Sadami

  3. That was fascinating! Loved reading about it and seeing the photos. Your watercolor painting is - as always - lovely!

    Thanks for this very enjoyable (and educational) post.

  4. This was better than watching National Geographic. What a find.

  5. Phenominal gift! To recognize what you are seeing, capitalize on it with a twig, and then spend the time to record and share it so beautifully! Wonderful! What a lucky fellow he was. Both you and Dale must have been adrenalin-charged.

  6. This was fabulous and I loved your sketch also. Thanks so much for sticking with it and capturing the whole affair. I was lucky enough to watch a cicada emerge once.... like the dragonfly, it was just incredible!

  7. Thank you all for your kind comments. It was a very special event.

  8. How fun. I like your sketch. I have been noticing them more now since I've read about them here. I am enjoying our nice warm weather tho. I have been having problems commenting here.. a few blogs are very hard to get past the Select profile bit. I hope this goes thru now.