Big Red visited us for four consecutive days.
The red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, zigged and zagged into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. and perched on a bamboo stake for five hours at a time.
Occasionally, he'd hunt--lift off and grab a bee or other insect--and return to the stake to eat it.
Meanwhile California scrub jays nesting in our cherry laurel hedge eyed him. Hmm, there's lunch! And there's lunch having lunch!
Big Red knew they were there but paid no attention to them. He was more interested in the pollinators in the catmint.
He didn't seem to mind us. We eased toward him, about five inches from him. He seemed to know we weren't predators, but photographers.
According to Nature's Notebook (Connecting People with Nature to Benefit Our Changing Planet):
"This species occurs in most states in the western half of the United States from Montana to Oregon, south to southern California, east to Texas, and north through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. There are outlying records in Missouri and South Dakota and a disjunct population in Houston, Texas. The species also occurs in northern Mexico (Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, and Sonora)."
"This species is typically found near warm water ponds, warm, slow streams, lakes, ditches, and hot springs- particularly in the northern part of its range. In Idaho, it occurs in high elevation deserts."
We provided the fish pond and the pollinator garden. And the bamboo stakes...
Who doesn't love the red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata?
If the Fourth of July had its own insect, it would be the firecracker red flameskimmer. It's so showy and eye-popping red that it almost looks patriotic. Or at least it should be flying over an Independence Day parade while a band plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
On a breezy day in the late spring, we can usually count on a flameskimmer or two entering our yard. Of course it helps if you have a pond and a pollinator garden and some bamboo stakes. They hover over our pond, turn the pollinator garden into their dining room, and perch on the stakes to eat their prey.
We managed to capture a few images of this one last weekend as it helicoptered from bamboo stake to bamboo stake. It "posed" against a shade-cloth fence, a pink background of Jupiter's beard, and with a little aperture changing, against a black background.
It stayed for a couple of hours.
More than enough to strike up a band to play "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Sometimes the red flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) will let you approach it.
Sometimes it's having a bad hair day or a bad predator/prey day or a just-leave-me-alone day and won't let you near it.
This one (below) let me approach it. "Hey," I told my new flame, "I'm not going to hurt you. I promise not to poke you, prod you or pin you. I just want to photograph you."
Of course it helps if you have:
- a fish pond or another body of water in your yard (check!)
- bamboo stakes to perch on (check!)
- a supermarket (aka pollinator garden) filled with bees, flies and other delicious insects (check!)
It also helps if you don't act like a predator. Don't go barging toward it as if you're going to take a selfie or charge toward it carrying a big stick (or tripod).
"When I was a kid, I used to call that dragonfly the 'Radio Antenna dragonfly' because when I was a kid, all cars had radio antenna and this dragonfly like to land on it," said Bohart Museum of Entomology associate and naturalist Greg Kareofelas, who takes incredible images of dragonflies, butterflies and other insects. (See his work on posters at the Bohart Museum, available for purchase.) "I now have a couple of sticks, in the back yard here (in Davis) and they function the same way and the dragonfly likes to perch on them."
Agreed! Every garden should have a few bamboo stakes drilled into the ground--perfect for perching.
You never know what you'll see in your pollinator garden.
That's why it's always a good idea to carry a camera with you, or you might miss a bit of drama. Not in drama queens, but in drama kings.
Take the case of the male flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) perched on a bamboo stake in our yard on Memorial Day. The dragonfly is sunning himself, warming his flight muscles. Periodically he loops to grab an insect and return to his perch to eat it.
Whoa! What's this? A Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae)--probably a male searching for a female or a territorial male protecting his turf--is rapidly approaching. The flameskimmer isn't about to move. After all, there's a "dragon" in his name and hunting is his game. He holds his ground. Er, his perch.
The Gulf Frit moves closer and closer. Soon it's a red blur against stationary red.
Oops! Right color. Wrong species.
It was windy enough to trigger a small craft advisory.
Yet here comes a flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) around noon on Monday, Memorial Day, circling our little bee garden.
He chases a few flying insects around and then perches on a bamboo stake to eat them.
Hmm, I thought, maybe I can capture an image of Big Red in flight? Will he cooperate? I've always wanted to photograph a flameskimmer in flight, but they're usually (1) too fast (2) too far away or (3) they zig when I think they'll zag and they zag when I think they'll zig.
Plus, they are leery of big dark objects (cameras) with long metal protrusions (lenses).
For the past decade, we've prepared well for our dragonfly visitors. They like our fish pond, our bee garden and the assorted bamboo stakes we've placed around the garden. They especially like the all-you-can-eat insect smorgasbord.
Big Red kept returning to Bamboo Stake No. 2 (bamboo stakes are sort of like pot holes—you can name them if you want).
Using my Nikon D800 camera with a 200mm macro lens, I focused on where I thought Big Red would land.
Bamboo Stake No. 1: Probably not. Too high.
Bamboo Stake No. 3: No, a little short.
Bamboo Stake No. 2: Just right.
Big Red obliged. By now he was not afraid of me—he figured, and rightfully so--that I had no culinary interest in him. And neither would I poke 'em, prod 'em or pin 'em. With the wind tousling his wings, he aimed straight for Bamboo Stake No. 2.
Got 'em. In flight.
Said dragonfly aficionado Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus: “What this photo really shows is that insects do not fly simply by ‘flapping' their wings. This guy's right wings are vertical to the body, but in the same plane, while the left wings actually are down-swept and a bit out of synchrony. The ability of insects to rotate their wings in their sockets allows them to change roll, pitch and yaw as do the moveable parts of airplanes. But, dragonflies can do it instantaneously.”
Commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis: "I like how clearly you can see how tightly the one is holding its legs against its body."
The dragonfly vanished right before our residential scrub jays returned. The jays are rearing their young in nearby trees, and the young, as you know, get the munchies. In fact, they're always hungry. Ravenous. Famished.
Have you ever seen a bird nail a dragonfly? Butterflies, yes. Dragonflies, no.
“Birds can change direction in flight pretty quickly, but usually not quickly enough to catch a dragonfly in flight,” Mussen commented. “If it stays stuck to the post, it may be in real trouble.”