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and Botany by Jess Morton
It wasn't much of a motion. Something slender, like seed of
needle grass, that went oddly sideways as my feet passed by. Just
enough to draw my attention.
The sky above and the
hillsides around me sparkled in the March-early light. The sea beyond
was silver and the sun delicious in the cool air. Birds sang, among
them the high notes of gnatcatchers filtered through thelimbs and
leaves of sagebrush and sunflower.
How easy it would have
been to ignore that movement! A trick of the eye,perhaps. A stepped
on twig snapping away.
Still, I stopped. If nothing
else, birding has trained me to pay attention to what my eyes tell
me I have seen. Motionless, I searched the ground nearby. And there
the damselfly was.
A Vivid Dancer!
I had not expected to see one so early in the year. Nor here,
high in the scrabble hills, far from water. Yet, there my dancer
was, a slim tan creature perched on a stone, with its trim wings
raked back over its abdomen. Scarcely an inch and a half long, but
now, as one says, big as life!
The paleness of its color
suggested that it was newly emerged. The females remain tan, though
the color becomes richer with age. But it is the male that is spectacular--a
brilliant blue that all by itself justifies every minute I have
ever spent looking at wildlife.
Damselflies and their
larger cousins, the dragonflies, are hunters. Each species has its
own preference in food, hunting space, and time. Vivid dancers hunt
small insects, making their forays from low perches--a stone, a
bit of twig or leaf. In that, they are rather like flycatchers.
And like flycatchers, telling one species from another can be very
difficult. Fortunately for me, Vivid Dancers have dark dagger-shaped
marks along their abdominal segments, even when not fully mature.
The adults capture their
prey either by trapping it in the basket formed by their spiny legs
or by plucking it from vegetation, ground or water. They may return
to their perch to consume their food, or they make eat on the fly,
as it were. Either way, a close-up look at their faces will easily
convince you that this is serious eating machinery.
But the adults are not nearly as
ferocious as the young. These larvae really are dragons, flying
jet-propelled through their watery habitats, or lurking on some
mucky pond bottom. Their lower lip is hinged and prehensile. When
prey comes in range, the lip shoots far forward, hooking and grabbing
it back to the larva's mouth. In waters where there are no fish,
dragonfly young are often the top-level predators. If they were
bigger, Jaws would not have been about sharks.
Although odonates (damsel
and dragonflies) are often gorgeous, most are cryptically marked.
Even very colorful ones can disappear the instant they stop moving.
Young adults, like the one I was looking at, are invariably hard
to spot. Mine danced away as soon as I moved in for a photograph.
I didn't think it had gone far. But it was enough. I never saw it