One morning last week I saw dragonflies on our street for the first time. Two large hawkers – probably southern hawkers – were flying sorties along the edge of some mid-sized trees that fringe the end of the road. At the end of each pass they would make an impossibly tight U-turn with a few deft wing flicks and bustle back in the other direction, holding steady at approximately the height of the second floor windows opposite. I can scarcely imagine a creature more at home in the air, one that exudes such complete confidence. The dragonfly looks ahead to see the space it wishes to occupy and in the blink of a compound eye fills it with the looming presence of a merciless, deadly hunter. Little wonder that around 95% of their attempts to catch prey end in success, a percentage beyond the wildest dreams of all vertebrate predators.
How they pull off such an exquisite combination of precision and speed is hard to fathom. Slowed down, dragonfly flight is only moderately more comprehensible, but the images – as featured in this article from the New York Times – are a revelation (see also the video below). Each of four wings is minutely adjusted with every passing millisecond, allowing the insect to turn and land on the vegetative equivalent of a pinhead, baffling a hapless, hungry frog in rather amusing fashion along the way.
It’s often pointed out that the dragons have had plenty of time to learn a trick or two, having been here approximately 1500 times as long as us modern humans. As though this somehow renders their agility less impressive. But since basic dragonfly design has hardly changed in 300 million years, it’s likely that the carboniferous-era ancestors of the southern hawker were equally skilled aviators. The ones I watched looked as though they might well have materialised from some prehistoric swamp just moments before. For whilst they are much reduced in size from their two-foot-wide prime, dragonflies still carry themselves in a way that commands respect.
When I reached the university campus, a third dragon raced past, decelerated suddenly and came to rest on a low stem by the path. Almost as remarkable as a dragonfly in motion is one at rest, when they can appear impressively motionless, allowing the full beauty of their neon exoskeletons and intricate wing veins to be admired. Alas, they’re not usually so obliging when I reach for my camera; the picture below was an unusually successful attempt to capture a dragonfly at rest.
The next morning broke cooler, and misty too, lacking the solar energy you might expect is required to power a dragonfly’s complex flight machinery. Not so. The moment I entered The Wilderness I found a Southern Hawker had beaten me out once again. This time it was levitating effortlessly, just a few inches above the path ahead, out for a slow morning cruise. I had watched it for a few seconds when, as if aware it was being observed, it broke from straight and level flight, flicked right and then left and accelerated purposefully out of sight, leaving me, a grounded, lumbering ape, trailing in its wake.
In Reading, as in history, dragonflies have precedence. The maps of ‘our’ domain ought still to carry the legend:
Here be dragons.
For more dragons, see ‘D is for Dragonfly’, part of my A to Z series on British insects at Conservation Jobs.