Author Discusses the Joys of Dragonflies and Damselflies

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

I love dragonflies. They’re beautiful, colorful, and diverse—and great for our area’s ecosystems. Did you know that there are nearly 310 species of dragonflies in North America alone? Dragonflies are master aviators despite spending most of their lives as larvae in the water. Seeing a dragonfly flying through the air or skimming over water with abandon—searching for food and a mate or just exploring the world—makes me happy. In Chicagoland, they are a sign of summer—the best time of the year in my opinion. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 great memories of dragonflies in my ramblings around Chicagoland.

Flame Skimmer (Copyright Cyndi Souza, USFWS)

Dragonflies and the Great American Eclipse

On August 21, 2017, I visited Visitation Prairie at Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve to watch the Great American Eclipse. Chicagoland was not in the path of totality, but there was a partial eclipse of 87 percent. As I hiked to the prairie, the sun and the clouds battled for dominance in the sky, and I was worried that I’d miss the eclipse. But by the time I reached the prairie, the sun was winning, and a crisp bright crescent emerged through the clouds. It grew darker on the prairie as the minutes passed. The crickets began to sing louder, and strange, twilight-like shadows appeared. The colorful prairie had a washed out look that reminded me of sepia-toned photos from the 1800s. It became oddly still—except for dozens of dragonflies that danced above my head almost as if in celebration as I stood alone on the prairie admiring them and the eclipse. It was a wonderful, unplanned moment in Chicagoland nature.    

The Natural Bounty of Indiana Dunes State Park

In July 2019, I hiked Trail 9 on a sunny, humid day in the 90s. The path travels 3.75 miles through dense forests, wildflower-filled meadows, marshes, and tall sand dunes—and provides excellent views of Lake Michigan. I eventually reached the Beach House Blowout, an area of stunning beauty. Six-lined racerunner lizards scampered away from me as I hiked along the trail. I looked to the left of the trail and saw the lush treetops of a dense forest. To my right was the blowout, with a mix of towering dunes, trees, and vegetation. And then I saw 4 different kinds of dragonflies in a stretch of 20 feet of dunes—Blue Dashers, Common Sanddragons, and two types I could not identify. They seemed as curious about me as I did about them. It was the perfect time to take a rest break, and I savored the dragonflies and the vast diversity of the park. How lucky we are to have Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park just an hour’s drive from Chicago.  

Backyard Meetings in the Southland

We moved from the city to Chicago’s Southland for some time during the pandemic. On one of my first days relaxing in my new backyard, a Common Whitetail dragonfly whizzed by me, and then another, and another. It was as if they were checking out their new neighbor—via repeated flybys—until they determined I was not a threat. Soon after, I’d see them in the skies above the yard, but also resting on the wood fence and the side of the house. I realized they were all over if I just took the time to look—and I had plenty of time to do so as I stayed close to home during the pandemic. I took their presence as a good omen amidst the pandemic. They were my backyard friends amidst visits from squirrels, opposums, raccoons, rabbits, a cat, spiders, a praying mantis, and tons of migrating birds in the fall.

Getting a Little Too Close to a Dragonfly at Kankakee Sands

This past summer, I hiked the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail at Kankakee Sands, a property of The Nature Conservancy. This moderately strenuous loop trail takes you through a sand prairie ecosystem. Its wide open spaces were a wonderful break from the stress of living packed together in the city with severely reduced relaxation/entertainment options during the pandemic. As I hiked on this muggy day, small formations of dragonflies engaged in aerial gymnastics amidst the backdrop of bright sun and blue sky. But one dragonfly stood out because it flew into the back of my head at high speed, temporarily stunning me. Who would have thought that a dragonfly could temporarily stun someone, but…. (Okay, I didn’t fall to the ground or anything, but it did feel like someone had slapped me in the back of my head.) Later, I learned that the average cruising speed of a dragonfly is about 10 miles per hour, with top speeds reaching 22 to 34 miles per hour. I’ve never been stunned by an insect collision until my visit to Kankakee Sands, but now I have that story to add to once being impaled by a jumping cholla cactus in Arizona and nearly run over by a bison in North Dakota. (Click here to learn about my adventures and misadventures in nature.)

These stories attest to the wide variety and ubiquity of dragonflies in Chicagoland if you just look. But I’m just a dragonfly lover, not an expert, so the best thing that I can do to help you learn about dragonflies and damselflies and some excellent places to see them in Chicagoland is to share my interview with Cindy Crosby, the author of a new book titled, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She is also the author of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Crosby teaches natural history subjects, regularly speaks to conservation groups and other organizations, and is a steward at the 3,500-acre-plus Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Illinois, and steward supervisor at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

Q. What is one thing about dragonflies and damselflies that may amaze people?

A. Some dragonflies migrate! Before I was a “dragonfly chaser,” I had no idea this happened. In the Chicago region, look for the Common Green Darner, the Black Saddlebags, the Variegated Meadowhawk, and the Wandering Glider to begin moving south in large groups, usually around the end of August or early September. We believe they are headed as far as the Gulf Coast—and even Central America! Other species in the Chicago region may migrate as well—we are still learning about this incredible phenomenon.

I know you said one thing! But I’ll try and sneak another in here. The mating and reproductive habits of dragonflies and damselflies are just….crazy! When I give programs on Odonates, it’s the part of the program that really rivets the audience. Just for starters, they are attached in two places in order for reproduction to occur! So bizarre! And yet, it’s something that once you know what to look for, you’ll see it all around you during the warmer months. And don’t get me started on ovipositing.

Green Darners at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
(Copyright J.N. Stuart, USFWS, per Creative Commons)
Variegated Meadowhawk
(Copyright, Matthew Zmuda, USFWS)

Q. What are some good places to see dragonflies and damselflies in the Chicagoland area?

A. They are everywhere! Your backyard, baseball stadiums, stoplights, parking lots, lakes, streams, sidewalks, garage doors…. the trick is to develop “dragonfly eyes” to notice them. Once you train yourself to see them, you’ll find them everywhere. They are all around us—but we have to pay attention or we miss them. If you live downtown, the lakefront is a great place to see migrating dragonflies at the end of August—they often follow the shoreline south. If you want a sure sighting, try staking out a pond on a sunny day, between the months of May and September, and you’ll find them hanging out, mating, feeding, and generally making the world more beautiful. 

Q. Can you tell me about your book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History?

A. Over the years, I’ve given lots of programs on dragonflies and damselflies—and now, during COVID, virtual “Zoom” programs—and people always asked after a program if I had a book about them. I have a passion for sharing the natural world through words, images, and experiences, so I thought, that’s a great idea! Northwestern University Press was kind enough to publish The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) so I took this book to Jane Bunker there. She loves dragonflies—and she took on the book! I wanted this book to be a book with a storytelling sort of flavor, rather than a technical book—a book that assumed no prior knowledge of dragonflies and damselflies, which is how I began about 20 years ago to get to know them. The “Natural History” chapters talk about the lives of Odonates spent under and over the water, their mating and reproductive habits, and their migration. The “Cultural History” chapters explore the role of dragonflies in art, music, literature, and yes—cuisine! There are many stories about the myths and superstitions attached to dragonflies around the world. The “Personal History” chapters include looking at the motivations of people who spend years chasing dragonflies and accumulating data on them, and some of their interesting stories about “the chase.” There are also chapters on gardening for dragonflies, sharing dragonflies with children, and learning to chase dragonflies for yourself.

In the middle of writing and editing the book, I was diagnosed with cancer. This was originally not part of the “Personal History” but became an important part of the book as I went through surgery and post-cancer recovery while working on the final version. Being forced to slow down after surgery, and confined to my backyard for part of my normal “chasing season,” turned out to be a gift. Patience and sitting quietly are two of the ways you see dragons and damsels. I had a lot of time to sit, and learned to cultivate more patience. I saw more dragons and damsels in my backyard that summer than ever before! As it turned out, COVID also hit during the last edits, and we were able to talk about that a little bit in the book—many “chasers” like myself were sidelined back in March and April, and unable to get out in the field. My hope is that people who read the book will come away with a sense of wonder about dragonflies and damselflies, a desire to pay closer attention to the natural world, and then, begin to “see” dragons and damsels everywhere they go.

Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly
(Copyright Grayson Smith, USFWS)

Q. Is there anything new that you learned about yourself, as well as dragonflies and damselflies, after writing the book?

A. My biggest take-away from writing the book was this: I learned that people are kind, and generous—and that dragonfly chasers are the most generous, kind, and delightful people I’ve come across. What a wonderful spirit-lifter in a time when it’s easy to become jaded and cynical! Experts Dennis Paulson (Dragonflies and Damselflies: A Natural History), Marla Garrison (Damselflies of Chicagoland), and Kurt Mead (Dragonflies of the North Woods) all gave important input that made the book much stronger than I could have made it on my own. Dennis and Marla were gracious enough to read the book in rough form and give valuable feedback to me—all for someone they had (at that time) not met. They also saved me from error at several points—and helped me nuance some difficult passages so they were clearer. Both shared stories, references, and wisdom (and even a poem!) that made the book much richer. I’m so grateful! Talking to “dragonfly chasers” across the Midwest reminded me that there are so many people out there who care about the natural world, and are willing to volunteer hundreds of hours of their time to care for it. This community science data they are gathering is increasingly important at a time when insects are vanishing at an alarming rate. After writing the book, I have a renewed sense of the kindness and generosity of people! It’s made me want to be a better person.

Green Darner
(Copyright Tina Shaw, USFWS)

Q. Can you tell me a little about the illustrations in the book? 

A. Aren’t they gorgeous? I am so fortunate to partner with the amazing and talented artist Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at the Field Museum, for the illustrations in this book. Peggy created most of the images from scratch for us, and used some of my photos as references to ensure the images reflected the content of the chapters. I have never met a more generous, delightful artist. Check out her books! They are wonderful. My favorite is the image for the chapter “Children and Dragonflies.” She used a photo of my grandson Tony, then three years old, catching an Eastern Forktail damselfly for the first time. The look of awe and wonder on his face—and the way she captured that emotion—just blows me away. The book would not have been the same without Peggy. Meeting her was one of the unexpected bonuses of writing this book.

*************************************************************

Final Thoughts

I want to thank Cindy Crosby for telling me about her book and educating me about dragonflies and damselflies. Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History can be purchased for $24.95 from Northwestern University Press. Print and digital versions are available. I highly recommend this beautiful, moving, and educational book.

Copyright (my text and photos as marked)

Cindy Crosby holds copyright to her interview and book cover photo.

The copyright to the main blog photo of the Twelve-spotted Skimmer is held by Mara Koenig, USFWS.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT

Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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