Those damn dragonflies!

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Female wandering glider dragonfly

It was a typical temperate day in Southern California, with the sun tucking her head into the clouds for minutes-long intervals and then re-emerging, as if from a nap, ready to warm the cool air again. Outside the gates to the Ventura settling ponds, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of what lay ahead. In my many years as a Ventura resident, I had never visited this particular spot. Why would I? It was adjoining the wastewater treatment plant – and manmade ponds created from treatment plant effluent (albeit “clean” effluent) just didn’t sound enticing. My interest was only slightly piqued when I heard there were many species of birds that frequented the ponds throughout the year.

So, I drove a couple miles, parked my car, shoved open the gates, and with camera and ginormous zoom lens weighing down my shoulders, started down the unremarkable gravel path. Already unimpressed and pondering how any kind of bird estuary could exist back here, I suddenly felt the climate transition. A surge of humidity wafted up around me, replacing the cool temperate breeze with a thickness and heaviness reminiscent of my childhood years in Florida. After a few more steps, a large pond surrounded by lush native vegetation came into view ahead. As if on cue, the cacophony of birds honking, squeaking, chirping, and otherwise vocalizing, filled the air. I was, to put it simply, dumbfounded.

Ventura settling ponds at Santa Clara River Estuary

Truthfully, I had no clue what I was looking at, or looking for. So, I just started photographing whatever moved, and later that night, I’d perform the painstaking process of googling and reverse image-searching to identify species. I saw white pelicans, great egrets, and even a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron perched on lanky legs hidden literally “in the sticks”. Though none of these would be considered exotic for the location, they were all fascinating to an unseasoned birdwatcher such as myself.

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron camouflaged in dense underbrush
Great egret resting on a rock
American white pelican soaring across settling pond

As rewarding as it was to see different bird species, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I was most enthralled by the glittering dragonflies that danced, hovered, and zoomed by as I trekked around the ponds. I had never witnessed so many dragonflies in one place anywhere in California. I found these little helicopter insects so curious that I completely forgot I was there to photograph birds, and instead found myself chasing these sparkly “upstagers” all around the pond. But those damn dragonflies – they would not sit still! Weighed down by 5 pounds of camera gear, I was no match for these agile winged creatures – and I suspect I’d be no better off without the gear. After twenty minutes in hot pursuit, my patience was wearing thin, my arms could barely lift the camera another inch, and I was a sweaty mess from head to toe. So, I decided to call off my dragonfly “hunt” and, with the limited energy I had left, return my attention to the birds.

Pouting like a child, I trudged forward, comatose and dehydrated, ready to pack it in and go home. And, of course, that’s when it happened. Just a stone’s throw away, a dragonfly landed on a dried flower stalk, teasing me to lift my lens one more time. And so I did. And she allowed me to take just two perfect shots – one with her wings up (as seen earlier in the post) and one with her wings down – before she darted away with the grace of a ballerina and the speed of a fighter jet.

Female globe skimmer dragonfly (Pantala flavescens)

It wasn’t until that evening that I learned dragonflies are so much more interesting than I ever imagined. Not only are they stunning to look at, but they’re master aerial artists with the ability to fly in every direction, including backwards and sideways. My almost fruitless pursuit of them around the pond was living proof. Their incredible maneuverability is possible because each of their four wings are attached to their body by a separate muscle, allowing them to power their wings independently from each other. Some species can reach speeds up to 30 mph, and those like the globe skimmer (pictured) have been known to travel thousands of miles across oceans. Their aerial talents are so esteemed that they’ve even been studied by scientists modeling aircraft.

A dragonfly’s two compound eyes, each consisting of 30,000 facets, provide them a near 360-degree view, except for one blind spot directly behind them. This keen eyesight along with their flying agility make them formidable hunters who methodically track and attack by coming up from behind and below to ensnare their unsuspecting prey. They’re voracious hunters with bottomless appetites who successfully snatch insects out of midair 95% of the time, and often chomp them down while still in flight. Research indicates they might be the most effective hunters in the animal kingdom.

And they get their start in life as brutal water hunters, too. For up to the first two years of life they live as nymphs underwater, quietly stalking mosquito larvae, tadpoles, and even small fish, while molting up to 16 times as they grow. When the nymph is ready to metamorphose into an adult, it emerges from the water and sheds its larval skin to reveal the shimmery diamond beneath. Sadly, the adult form of the dragonfly only lives a few months – hopefully long enough to find a territory, protect that territory, mate, and deposit eggs. Reproduction between dragonflies is evidently a spectacle to behold, with the engaged male and female forming a heart shape while flying or perched. Not to be crude, but suffice it to say I’ll be returning to those ponds again in hopes of getting a rare peek and a photo. And of course, I’ll gaze upon the birds, too.