Thursday, July 19, 2007

Odonata, et Progne Subis

My post title is, respectively, the Latin classifications of the dragonfly, pictured on my hand here, and the purple martin, farther down. [Click to enlarge]

My vacation spot at this lake in central Saskatchewan hosts millions of dragonflies. You can't walk in a shady spot without disturbing dozens of them from their perches. They are so unafraid of humans that when I went out with my camera to take this shot, it took me less than 2 minutes to convince one to land on my hand.

I can recall coming here as a teenager and being accosted by mosquitoes each summer, but the local ecosystem seems to have caught up with those annoying bloodsuckers by introducing this amazing predator who can capitalize on the abundance of prey.

The purple martin, a large migratory swallow, has also made a home here. They too prey upon mosquitoes but I've seen more than a few catch a dragonfly in mid-flight. My parents have put up a purple martin birdhouse on a tall post on the beach, with ten compartments.

The birds are constantly swooping around, gathering food and feeding their young. The other night I sat on the beach to watch the sun set and engage in some Scriptural contemplation, but one of the purple martins took offense to my location. I didn't notice his ire until I heard a SCREECH-EECH and a rush of air inches above my head, which somewhat startled me. I watched him as he incredulously came around for another pass and did the same thing, again causing me to duck. But I was ready for his third pass: as he approached I flung out my arm and roared at him. He was sufficiently frightened and veered away and did not approach again. I could just imagine the rest of the birds in the birdhouse watching him and laughing as he realized he had bitten off more than he could chew.

Last night, also watching the sun set but farther north up the beach, a dragonfly alighted on my hand much as pictured above. It was facing away from me, so I turned my hand to try to get a better look at its head, but as I turned my hand the dragonfly turned as well (by walking), so it was still facing the setting sun. I turned my hand back and again the dragonfly turned to continue facing the same direction. Then another one landed on my other hand and as I turned both hands towards me, both dragonflies adjusted their orientation to maintain a westerly view.

This puzzled me; at first I wondered if they merely were enjoying the sunset with me, but then I spotted a small bug fly past, silhouetted by the light off the bright lake water, and instantly both dragonflies launched off hand and raced for the bug. One got it, the other didn't, but they both came back and landed on my hands again. They were using me as a duck blind! Over the next few minutes more dragonflies landed on my head and my shoulders, and I am fairly certain that if I hadn't gotten up to go inside I would have soon been covered from head to toe.

Some people might squirm at the thought of dozens of dragonflies flitting about you as you walk under a tree, or at the thought of these tiny insect legs gripping your flesh, waiting for prey. But they are such a docile creature - it will only bite if you try to grab its abdomen (wouldn't you?) that it's actually quite safe and fascinating to observe them close up.

My six-year-old daughter has caught more than a few and has unwittingly induced the end of their lives via captivity in a water bottle, and so we got out my dad's microscope and examined their various parts, from multi-faceted eyes to spiky legs to pterostigma (the heavier, coloured cell near the wingtip which is thought to decrease energy consumption during flight via a mass-spring effect). Having the microscope out opened up a whole afternoon of activity with her as well (did you know there are tiny bugs which inhabit the seed spores of the cottonwood tree?). This was a thrill for both myself and her, as we both delight in the created world around us.

Ah, what a grand vacation it's been.


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  2. I'll pass, for two reasons:

    1 - I don't care how popular my site is rated; I'm not out for self-promotion or wide readership. If people know about and like my site, fine, if not, fine. I don't need to prove anything to anybody by having a devoted following. I post about my life experiences, especially the ones which contribute to my Catholicism (which is pretty much everything, even the "non-religious" posts).

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Comments are welcome, but must be on topic. Spam, hateful/obscene remarks, and shameless self-promotion will be unceremoniously deleted. Well, OK, I might put on a little ceremony when I delete them.