PJ Dunn, a naturalist at Huntley Meadows, powers up his presentation on Dragonflies and Damselflies, but "mostly dragonflies." He explains that 36 different species of Dragonflies have been identified at Huntley Meadows Park. A new dragonfly, the Common Sanddragon, was just discovered in the back of the park two weeks ago. "I haven't seen it yet," he said.
Dragonflies are insects that spend most of their life under water and then emerge into a completely different world for a few weeks. Dragonfly-like insects first appeared about 300 million years ago and some had wingspans over two feet. Dunn said dragonflies have great engineering, "Hollywood couldn't have made it up. The Air Force studied them because they can fly frontwards and backwards, up and down and can hover while each wing is doing something different." He explained that the wings are made of vessels carrying blood and you can identify each species by the exact pattern of the cells. "It's like a fingerprint." Their eyes have thousands of lenses so they see almost 360 degrees.
"I'm really interested in the behavior or lifestyle more than just identification," Dunn said. For instance, he explains that each male has a territory and guards it from other males. "When a female enters his territory, he scoops down in the wink of an eye and grabs her before anyone else can get her. It's not romantic, dinner and a movie. It's violent but it works." And you can tell a mature male because his wings are usually tattered, and dragonflies don't have the ability to regenerate parts.
Dunn heads down the path to the wetlands trail with his group of 10 who have come for the program. Most of them are repeat visitors who have attended one of Dunn’s other programs on owls, beginning birding, or the evening stroll. Dunn has a day job so he mostly works at Huntley Meadows on weekends where he currently runs the visitor's center and offers programs.
He became interested in dragonflies because he started as a birder; but when it gets hot in the summer birding gets slow but dragonflies abound.
“You can usually find the Blue Dasher with its white face and metallic green eyes at the beginning of the boardwalk,” he said. Dragonflies need habitat, space, food and territory; some need clean water and others like the Shadow Darner prefer late afternoon shade. So you will find dragonflies at different places along the boardwalk. "See there is an Amberwing flitting through the lizard tail plants. It is the smallest dragonfly we have here. It flies low to the water and mostly returns to the same perch."
Further along he points to a Great Blue Skimmer and, with a quick scoop of the net, has captured the insect for close viewing by the crowd. It is a large dragonfly with a white face, blue eyes and blue thorax. He balanced the dragonfly carefully on the hand of one of his visitors. Its six legs grabbed hold — "watch it sometimes they try to bite." As the group rounded the corner, someone spotted the Swamp Darner perched on a branch over the water. At over three inches long, It is the largest dragonfly in the park. "My favorite is probably the Mocha Emerald, real cool looking metallic brown and what a nice name."
The study of dragonflies is in its infancy with little research money available. In 1998 Dunn, Kathi McNeil and Kevin Munroe published "Dragonflies of Huntley Meadows," the first region-specific guide ever. "When I started volunteering here 23 ago, there were no official common names for dragonflies." He said it took at least five years for him to get a good level of knowledge about dragonflies because "there was nothing to go on; we did all of the research ourselves. We still don't know ranges very well." He added, “We do know there is one dragonfly, the Wandering Glider, that has been seen on every continent and has the longest migration currently known. Dragonflies are tagged with a spot like Monarch butterflies so we can begin to learn where they go. But we’re just at the beginning with so much more to know.”