Wild St. Albert - Meet the top gun of dragonflies
Cherry-faced meadowhawk built for gobbling bugs
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 01, 2012 06:00 am
Name: Sympetrum internum.
Appearance: Red-faced, red-black striped bodied bug that zips through the air.
Commonly seen: Zipping over grass or sunning on rocks (especially pavement), hunting bugs.
Often confused with: The white-faced, variegated, or saffron-winged meadowhawks.
Fun fact: They have jet propulsion underwater as nymphs.
The bike path near Big Lake might seem like a strange place to find dragons, but it’s full of them.
Every time I ride there, I always have my eyes glued to the ground so I can avoid the chitinous beasts lounging on the hot pavement. Each one leaps into the air as I pass, darts about on its gossamer wings, then settles back into almost the same spot, waiting for smaller prey to pass.
Almost invariably, these creatures turn out to be cherry-faced meadowhawks – the racing-striped, fire-engine red attack helicopters of the insect world. With their brilliant colours and multifaceted eyes, they’re easily one of the coolest bugs you can find in St. Albert.
The cherry-faced meadowhawk is likely the most common dragonfly in the Edmonton region, says John “the Nature Nut” Acorn, an entomologist at the University of Alberta.
Visible all summer and into the fall, they’re about five centimetres long and can be easily recognized by their red faces and red-and-black striped tails, he says.
“The wings [of which there are four] are entirely transparent,” he adds, except for a tiny black spot near the tip.
Note that it’s just the males that are red; the ladies are yellow.
Not all red dragonflies are cherry-faces, Acorn says. Two in a picture I show him turn out to be variegated meadowhawks – they have yellow stripes, not black.
Saffron-winged meadowhawks are dead-ringers for cherries except for the orange veins on their wings. And you can probably guess what sets the white-faced meadowhawks apart from the cherries.
And don’t mix them up with damselflies either, which are way smaller (toothpick-sized).
Samantha Morris of the Big Lake Environment Support Society’s Summer Nature Centre offers this simple tip: “A dragonfly will rest with its wings spread open, whereas a damselfly will rest with its wings behind its back.”
Why they’re cool
Like most dragonflies, the cherry-faced meadowhawk is a natural-born killer. Place a baby meadowhawk in a tank full of other pond creatures, and you’ll soon have an empty tank and a fat, smug meadowhawk.
Dragonfly larvae look like armoured torpedoes with big bug eyes, roaming the depths and eating anything that moves. They can stab their food with their ballistic lower jaws and squirt water out their rears for a jet-powered escape.
“The gills of dragonfly larvae are located in the anus,” Acorn notes, which makes waste disposal tricky. To protect their gills, larvae will actually surround their waste with a membrane.
“They bag their poop and they fire it out,” Acorn says.
The larvae eventually emerge as adults, complete with wings, compound eyes and an appetite for mosquitoes. It’s here where they earn their names as “meadow hawks.”
Unlike the much larger darner dragonflies, which are almost always in motion, meadowhawks spend most of their time perched on objects like rocks, Acorn says. When they spot a target zip by, they leap into the air and attack it, much like a hawk dive-bombing a squirrel.
“They’re little interceptor jets,” Acorn says.
Even though they breed in water, you’ll often find meadowhawks near lawns. That’s because the bugs prefer temporary ponds, Acorn says, and lay their eggs where they think there will be water next spring. Lawns look like perfect spots (even though they’re not), so you’ll often see meadowhawks laying eggs in them.
Successful mates will fly in tandem towards a nearby pond or puddle, with the male gripping the female’s head with his tail to make sure no one steals his girlfriend. Both will then hover over the water’s surface as the female lobs her eggs into the water – you might see her poking the water with her tail as this happens.
People can best support cherry-faced meadowhawks by preserving the shallow marshes in which they breed, Acorn says.
“It’s good for the ducks, but also very good for the dragonflies.”
You can also watch your step when you’re in dragon country.