Rest Stop

Not far from the spot where I discovered salt marsh morning glories abloom, this dragonfly paused at the edge of a water-filled ditch while dozens more of its species continued to buzz over the water.

I’ve tentatively identified it as a black setwing (Dythemis nigrescens), a dragonfly native to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Mexico. Sometimes confused with the slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta), the black setwing is smaller, with a more slender abdomen.

According to Odonata Central, these setwings enjoy perching atop twigs near the water, generally in open areas. That fits the behavior of this dragonfly, except that it hadn’t chosen a twig for its perch. This expanded view shows its resting spot for what it is: the four-inch long seed pod of a slim milkweed plant (Asclepias linearis).

Though obscured in the photo above, the delicate flowers of this milkweed are eye-catching: perhaps to the eyes of a dragonfly, the pods are equally attractive, and even more useful.

Slim milkweed (Asclepias linearis) in bloom


Comments always are welcome.

40 thoughts on “Rest Stop

    1. When I looked at its range, I thought it might be found farther south, in areas where you travel, but apparently not. It certainly is striking: with its basic black, it could be the Coco Chanel of the insect world.

    1. It’s always intrigued me that damselflies will hang around the boats, but dragonflies don’t. The damselflies stay lower, too: on docksteps, dock lines, and railings. It might be due to their smaller size, or different feeding patterns. I just don’t know. But you’re right about the dragonflies liking a high perch, with good visibility. Because they feed on flying insects, it makes sense.

    1. Actually, the shutter speed was 1/250 second. That’s not slow, but it’s not exceptionally fast. Instead of trying to chase down a flying dragonfly, I found one that was perching, and sat down to wait until it settled. Dragonflies will return again and again to the same perch, so it’s pretty easy to set your exposure and shutter speed, and then let them come back to you.

      I like all of our milkweeds, but I think these flowers are especially pretty. They’re smaller than most; this little group of flowers was about two inches across.

  1. I think you’re right that dragonflies, being fiercely carnivorous, don’t appreciate the esthetics of flowers. They may, however, hang around flowers as likely places to find prey.

    1. This Smithsonian article reminded me that a dragonfly that can’t fly will starve, because they only eat prey they catch while flying. Knowing that, it seems likely that they do perch to rest, but also to scan for prey: not on their perch, but around it.

      I didn’t know until I read that article that they catch their prey with their feet. This detail’s amazing: “They’re so efficient in their hunting that, in one Harvard University study, the dragonflies caught 90 to 95 percent of the prey released into their enclosure.”

  2. In my youth, we were absolutely terrified of dragonflies. We used to call then “Neuntoeter” [“nin-killers”], and we firmly believed that nine stings/bites from them would kill a human being. I still remember us running away like mad and shouting whenever we saw one.

    1. That’s really interesting. Were there stories in German folklore that might have set up that kind of association? When I was a kid, we heard stories about the “Devil’s Darning Needles” — the dragonflies that would sew your lips shut if you lied. I never believed that one, although my Swedish grandmother told some troll stories that made me a little nervous about bridges for two or three years; you never knew what might be lurking under one.

      Dragonflies neither bite nor sting, thank goodness. They just whirr around and make noise — and eat mosquitos!

      For me it was grasshoppers. Iowa grasshoppers could be big, and noisy, and they didn’t just hop — they flew. I hated them. Even today, I don’t like being startled by one. I’m not scared, precisely, but I’d be happier if they would go somewhere else.

      1. On Long Island (NY) it was also darning needles, presumably because people believed dragonflies would sting. While that turns out not to be true, the dragon in the official name conveys even more menace.

    1. I’ve been astonished by the variety I’ve seen. I’ve always lumped them together into one large group, but little by little I’m coming to make some distinctions: clubtails, pondhawks, skimmers. It’s great fun. The British Dragonfly Society page is well put together and informative.

    1. Can you believe there are around thirty or so species of milkweed just in Texas? There are twenty-one in Florida. We share one species that I found in east Texas and will post about later; it’s bright orange!

    1. Am I laughing? Why, of course I am! I just looked up the white tail dragonfly, and it’s a nice one. It wouldn’t be that hard to identify, either — at least in the stage where its abdomen really is white. I saw some photos that showed kind of a dusky blue-white, or even very light blue. I assume some of those are juveniles, or perhaps female. I’ll look at them more closely later.

  3. Nice catch, Linda. Here’s a pre-Linda post of a Slaty Skimmer from around here. All of our milkweed pods are pretty wide but one relative, dogbane, where I find their namesake beetles, have slim pods like these. I’ve thought of picking a few from the patch where I find them to plant in the yard.

    Sometimes when they are atop a perch like that they will do the obelisk posture.
    That’s a nice image of the milkweed flowers too. Inquiring minds, Steve and mine, want to know if these have a strong scent.

    1. I’ve never detected any scent from any milkweed. When I was thinking about it, I wondered if the fact that I always see milkweed ‘in the wild,’ where plants are more scattered, might be the reason. In a botanical garden, or in any place where larger numbers have been grouped together, the scent might be more noticeable. I went for several years without smelling the fragrance of rain lilies or bluebonnets, but when I finally was in the midst of a whole field packed with the flowers, the scent was obvious.

      I didn’t know that was called the obelisk posture, but I have a half-dozen photos that show it, taken at different times in different places. I think one is the full obelisk, and the others are the modified obelisk. Sounds like yoga class.

      1. Maybe dragonfly yoga will be a thing. That’s too bad that you haven’t smelled milkweed at its full fragrance. Wish I could include it in a photograph. Ours are fading now, but the scent along our driveway was strong and lovely.

  4. This is a neat shot. I like dragonflies, but this all-black one seems to be turning its head, and maybe calculating if that photographer would be tasty. Good thing we don’t have those prehistoric 17″ ones anymore.

    1. You’ve got a sharp eye. He had just turned his head a bit toward me, because I was talking to him. I was suggesting that if he’d stop already with the helicoptering, the photo session could end a lot sooner. If he’d had those 17″ wings, I might not have been so chatty.

    1. You widow skimmer is a pretty one: especially those wings. I’ve seen some slaty blue ones, but they had plain wings. Sometimes we’ll have a hatch of one species, and the air will be thick with them, but most of the time there’s a variety. I wish all of them were as accomodating as this one was!

  5. Odd looking flowers on the milkweed. Not as gaudy as some of its bretheren, perhaps, but seeing as how they prey on mosquitoes, I welcome dragonflies of every stripe.

    1. One of the nice things about milkweeds is that, whatever the flowers’ color or slight variations in shape, they all have the same structure. The upper part of each flower, called the corona, consists of five hoods, where nectar is stored. Five petals — the corolla — form the lower part of the flower and are bent backwards, or reflexed, in most species. It’s easy to see in the photo above.

      There are figures all over the place, but the Smithsonian says a single dragonfly can eat from 30 to several hundred mosquitoes each day. Hooray for them, says me! They’re welcome in my neighborhood any time.

  6. Beautiful images, that take me back to a time I lived by a river, and would perch for hours photographing these creatures.
    I was amused to read others who had similar ‘danger’ stories about dragonflies, as I grew up with those also, only to realise later in life it was nonsense :-)

    1. They’re wonderful subjects, aren’t they? I didn’t know until reading for this post that they only eat prey that they catch while flying. No wonder they’re such industrious buzzers. As for those folk tales, I’ve found evidence of them in English, Welsh, and Scottish culture. There no doubt are more. I think I’ve found “bad” dragonflies in German folk tales, but I can’t find one now. In any event, they’re harmless to us — but death to the mosquito!

    1. The dragonflies have been thick this year — and so many species. It all makes sense: given the amount of rain we’ve had this year, the mosquitoes are abundant, and more mosquitoes mean lots of food for the dragonflies, as well as a better environment for their larvae. I suppose it’s more complicated than that, but whatever the cause(s), the effect has been just great.

  7. It’s amazing how out of that spike you got so many stories! That’s just how busy nature gets sometimes. I like the sequence!

    1. One thing is connected to another. I wanted to show the dragonfly, but once I’d done that, I thought I should explain that it wasn’t perched on an ordinary twig. Then, as soon as I’d shown the pod, of course I had to show the flower! It’s appropriate to show both, because all of our milkweeds continue to bloom even while they’re setting seed. That’s part of what makes them such an important nectar source for butterflies. I found blooming milkweeds last November, with butterflies flitting all around.

    1. We have at least thirty milkweed species, and they do vary. I found two that are new to me in east Texas: the red milkweed, and the ringed. There’s another I’d love to see someday: the pine needle milkweed, or A. lineria. It looks for all the world like a milkweed cluster tucked into a pine branch — it’s native to Arizona and California, as well as parts of Mexico.

    1. Thanks for your comment about the milkweed, especially. It triggered something in my mind (which I’ve already forgotten) and in the process of looking it up, I found this wonderful website. While it’s Texas based, it might be a good one for you to have in your bookmarks, as it seems to have unbelievable amounts of information on butterflies, milkweeds, and so on.

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