It's Dragonfly Season

Posted 8/8/06
by Mark S. Garland

The Swamp Darners are back. One morning last week at least twenty of these big dragonflies were zipping around our back yard. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Each year in late July there comes a day when a breath of northerly wind brings the season’s first Swamp Darners. It’s a sign that the autumn movement of insects, which corresponds to the fall migration of birds, has begun.

Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with insects. Some people are quick to say, “I don’t like any of ‘em, I hate ‘em all,” yet when pressed most will admit to liking butterflies, ladybugs, and perhaps a few other bugs. I’m not thrilled to encounter our biting flies and mosquitoes, nor am I very happy about the ants and yellow jackets that keep finding ways into our house.

But for every kind of insect pest there are hundreds, perhaps thousand of species whose interactions with humans are benign or even beneficial.

Many of these insects are strikingly beautiful - like dragonflies and butterflies.

And chances are you'll find them here at some time or another, because of the rich diversity of habitat.

Whether they like pine or swamp forests, fresh water or salt marshes, ponds or oceans, dunes or meadows, many dragonflies and butterflies find a place to call home near Cape May.

During a butterfly count in late July I found two rare species by visiting the right habitat: a group of Dion Skippers were at a boggy fresh marsh along the Tuckahoe River, and Dotted Skippers were at the open pine forest of the Manumuskin River corridor.

In addition to the variety of habitats, Cape May’s prime location at the end of a south pointing penninsula attracts thousands of migrating dragonflies and butterflies, as well as birds. Both use Cape May as a convenient fall stop over. We know about the migration of monarch butterflies; in fall they’re heading to the mountains of Mexico.

(Have you noticed how many monarchs have been around Cape May lately? They seem to be having a good year, and the migration this fall could be spectacular.)

We know almost nothing about the movement of other insects. There is some debate about how much insect movement is a true purposeful migration and how much is just random dispersal.

Simple observations can’t tell where these creatures are headed, but we know that lots of them come to Cape May in late summer and early fall every year, and it always looks like most of them are heading south. Where to? Perhaps we’ll figure this out some day.

Butterflies and dragonflies are among the largest and most colorful insects, and therefore the ones we are most likely to notice. Look around Cape May in late summer and you’re sure to see a great variety of both.

Good field guides are available to help you identify what you’re seeing, though it’s okay to ignore the names and just enjoy their beauty. I’m especially fond of the Focus Guide to Butterflies, by Brock and Kaufmann, and the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies, by Nikula, Sones, and Stokes. Many local naturalists have learned the most common species; an easy way to learn is to just ask the locals.

The number of Swamp Darners in the back yard has dropped. From experience I know, however, that any time we get a bit of north wind in August they’ll be back. In the meantime I’ll watch the Seaside Dragonlets, Needham’s Skimmers, Gray Hairstreaks, Broad-winged Skippers, and other colorful insects that find their way into our garden.

Naturalist Mark Garland is based in Cape May, NJ and leads nature tours and field trips, near and far.

See his website.

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Photos by Mark Garland

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