Those of you who read my blog with any regularity know that I’m all about birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and any living creatures that I stumble upon when I’m out exploring nature. A big part of the experience for me is getting a decent photo of as many different species as I can; it’s gotten to the point where I almost feel like I haven’t seen a critter if I haven’t taken its photo! And in the case of smaller critters, a photograph sometimes becomes essential for the identification process. Damselflies, for instance…
In the last couple of years I have taken a keener interest in damselflies, and have learned so much about them; their life cycles, their field marks, and the surprising number of species that we have in Virginia. I’m constantly trying to learn where to go to find the different species, but this is an ongoing process and I’m still pretty much a beginner. Some damselflies are large enough that they can be seen and identified with the naked eye, but many are so small or so similar to other damselfly species that a photograph is needed to figure out what kind they are.
There are three very general families of damselflies: Broad-winged, Spread-winged, and Pond Damselflies. Broad-winged damselfly species are the largest and most conspicuous of the three families. Almost everyone who has been outdoors has at one time noticed the gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing flying lazily around vegetated edges of shallow waters; it is probably the most common of the Broad-winged Damselflies in our area (photo below). It’s easy to see at the Chesapeake Arboretum at the trailhead in summer.The male has a bright green, iridescent body that reflects different hues in different lights, and opaque black wings. Another fairly common Broad-winged damselfly in Virginia is the American Rubyspot, one of my favorites. The photo at the top of this blog entry is the male of that species.
The second family of damselflies is the Spreadwings. True to their name, they spread their wings when at rest, rather than holding them over their bodies like the other damselfly families do. I haven’t seen as many Spreadwings as I have the other kinds, but here are photos of two of the species I have seen:
Pond Damselflies are by far the largest family of damselflies, and they can be further broken down into subfamilies; the “Dancers” are the largest, the “Bluets” are of average damselfly size and are the most numerous (and usually have blue and black field marks), and the “Forktails” are the tiniest of the damselflies.
Here are some of the “Dancers” you can find in the Hampton Roads area:
Damselflies come in many bright colors, and this male Variable Dancer is one of the most stunning.
The Blue-fronted Dancer is one of the most common in our region.
It’s easy to spot a Blue-tipped Dancer when it is flying, because that
bright blue tip on its abdomen is conspicuous as it moves around.
The “Bluets” might be my favorite of the damselflies because there are so many kinds, and identifying them is such a challenge, which I like! Most of them (but not all) have various combinations of black and blues, with minor differences that distinguish them from each other. Here are some examples:
This is not a very good photo, but it illustrates my point. Both of these damselflies are Bluets, but you can easily tell that they are different species if you look closely at their field marks. The one on top is a
Double-striped Bluet, and the bottom one is a Skimming Bluet.
This one is called an Aurora Damsel. Most bluets have black stripes somewhere along the sides of their thorax, but the Aurora shows solid blue, which helps to identify it.
The Familiar Bluet (above) is probably the most common and widespread damselfly in North America. If you compare this individual to the other bluets, above, you can see differences in the spacing of the blue and black markings on the abdomen, which is a good field mark to use to start the identification process.
This Turquoise Bluet has no blue markings at all on its abdomen.
The Azure Bluet, above, also has no blue stripes on most of its abdomen, but you can use other small field marks to distinguish it from the Turquoise Bluet and other species; damselfly enthusiasts look at the size and shape of the eyespots, the width of the black stripe on the side of the thorax, the pattern on the abdomen, and the amount of blue at the end of the abdomen, among other things. I know, we’re nuts….
Let’s look at a few Forktails. These are the smallest of the damselflies and can be very hard to find even when they’re out in the open. The Citrine Forktail (photo below) is smaller than a straight pin! To take this photo, I had to sit down in the grass with my macro lens and go through all kinds of contortions that my body wasn’t used to — and I got chigger bites to boot.
The male Rambur’s Forktail, below, is one of the more common and widespread Forktails. It’s larger than the Citrine, but it’s still easy to miss. What usually gets my attention is seeing the two brightly colored parts (the thorax and blue at the end of the abdomen) moving in tandem; the darker parts of the abdomen are harder to see at first, so the bright parts look disconnected.
The tiny Fragile Forktail is also very common here. Below are pictures of the adult male, an adult female, and an immature female. As if damselfly identification isn’t hard enough, the sexes and ages of each species are often completely different, as illustrated here:
Adult male Fragile Forktail. The easiest field mark to look for in the male is the green
“exclamation point” on the thorax.
Adult female Fragile Forktail
Immature female Fragile Forktail. Note that she has the same bright “exclamation point”
on her thorax as the male. Soon her colors will change and she’ll look like the adult female
in the previous photo. If you look very carefully at the adult, you do see a very faded exclamation point on her thorax.
Last, I want to show you one of my favorites, the Duckweed Firetail. This species is found only in ponds where there is Duckweed, and I found a nice little pond at the Dismal Swamp that had several. The Firetail is surprisingly difficult to find despite its outrageous, bright coloration, because of its small size:
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about damselfly identification; I have become thoroughly hooked on these colorful little gems. Next time I’ll introduce you to a few Virginia dragonflies. As always, please feel free to contact me at 757-410-7147 if you have any questions, observations, or insights!