Last week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.
Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.
This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion. But when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.
As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?