Dragonflies are ancient raptors of the insect world that many of us recall from our earliest childhood memories. Nearly every perennial water body hosts a few species, with some larger wetlands and water bodies hosting diverse communities of dragonflies, as well as many other invertebrates. Below we discuss five common and easy to identify species that you will be likely to see on your next riparian outing.
The Common, or Eastern, Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) is a common dragonfly across the eastern United States. As the name implies, this species frequents smaller stillwaters, including ponds, marshes, and small lakes, but may be found in the general vicinity of many different waterbodies. The Pondhawk is one of the earliest dragonflies to emerge in the spring and can be quite prolific by mid-summer, when hundreds may be seen buzzing around overhead of over the water. Like most, if not all dragonflies, the pondhawk often feeds on smaller insects such as caddis, mayflies, and true flies. Outdoor enthusiasts are often curious as to whether or not dragonflies bite, and while generally the easy answer is no as we do not make a good meal, the author personally had the displeasure of being bitten on the tip of my finger by one of these while held by the legs when younger. A good yelp was let out in that moment, and needless to say, the bug never met the observatory (i.e. “the bug box”). To avoid this situation for yourself, the safest way to handle dragonflies for everyone involved (including the specimen) is to gently pinch their wings together behind their back. Once done examining, a toss in the air will free it to fly off back to its business.
The Common Pondhawk is large, even for a dragonfly, and uses this to its advantage to attack other species of dragonflies, often eating from the head down. The females are a lime green, as pictured above, while males display a chalky blue body. Either can often be seen hovering just over the edges of lily pads on sunny, summer days.
The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) gets its name, unironically enough, from the twelve black spots across all four of its wings, as clearly shown in this female. The males host an additional eight white spots stationed between each of the black spots in a display of sexual dimorphism. Both adults display a smooth, yellow lateral line along each side of the abdomen, a clearly defining feature from the jagged, yellow line found on equally abundant female Common Whitetail. This species has a curious habit of claiming a perch, which it will return to after snagging a snack or after a disturbance, if you happen to get to close. This makes the Twelve-spotted Skimmer a great beginning dragonfly for photography because if you spook it, you can hold steady, frame your shot at the perch, and wait for it to return.
Common dragonflies are often found near common waterbody features, and this species is no exception. Look for the Twelve-spotted Skimmer near ponds, lakes, and marshes.
This male Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) is pulling out all the stops for us here, displaying the characteristic black saddles that all forms show, as well as the white outer wing bands and the chalky blue body, both unique to the males. The females and juveniles show a dull abdomen with orange lateral lines; however the large black saddles are unique to this species.
Look familiar? If you’ve paid any attention to dragonflies while hiking around the water’s edge or out on the boat, you have likely seen this ubiquitous species, as it can be found on almost any permanent body of water across the continental United States.
The Chalk-fronted Corporal (Ladona julia) can be thought of as man’s best friend of the dragonfly world. This unabashed species will readily pick off mosquitoes, deer flies, and other nuisance insects buzzing around your end as you trek in the marsh or down the back country gravel roads. In fact, this pleasant follower will sometimes finish its meal on your hat or shoulder, given the opportunity. And if that wasn’t enough personality for you, the Chalk-fronted Corporal is also a colonial species, often congregating on sand flats, rock outcrops, and among boulders where they can sun themselves and enjoy the day.
The adults of this species are readily identified by the parallel blueish-white “corporal” bands on the shoulders, hence the name. The chalky appearance continues part way down the abdomen, as well. We won’t get into the weeds with the juveniles here other than to say they lack these characteristics are more of an orange color throughout; however this still exhibit the two corporal plates, but without the white.
The Chalk-fronted Corporal has slightly more restrictive habitat preferences than we’ve seen with the previous species mentioned above. The underlying theme of their preferences is acidic. No, not vinegar and orange juice, but rather mildly acidic water chemistry. Didn’t bring out the pH kit? No worry! There are a few indicators we can look for, without getting into the the chemistry or geomorphology, that can indicate acidic conditions. Those are sand bottom water features, peat moss along the shores, pine trees along the surrounding forests, and accumulated organic matter in the shallows. With exceptions to the rule, these conditions often tend towards acid surface water conditions nearby.
The Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) is one of the smallest dragonflies in the continental United States, measuring in at approximately 0.9 inches in length. Go ahead and hold your index finger and thumb out and eyeball just how small that is. Chances are, if you’ve seen one, you may have even disregarded it as a wasp or other familiar insect. The smallest dragonfly in North America, in case you were wondering, is the Elfin Skimmer, which we’ve observed in bog systems from northern Minnesota to the coast of Mississippi. The Eastern Amberwing can look somewhat similar to the female Elfin Skimmer, but can be distinguished by the latter having wider, wasp-like abdominal lines.
This species can be found in still or flowing water systems, but prefers slow waters. So, don’t expect to find it hovering over the tailwaters of a trout stream. It seems somewhat adaptable, as we’ve seen it hovering near man-made cattle ponds in West Virginia with no other potential habitat nearby.
For more information on these dragonflies and others of the Upper Midwest, our favorite field guide is Dragonflies of the North Woods. This resource is incredibly light and very affordable for all the content and beautiful photos packed into it. It includes every known species of dragonfly in the forested ecosystems from Minnesota to Ohio, with range maps, identifying characteristics, habitat preferences, and more.