Dragonflies, Please Sit Still!

Earlier this spring I told someone that now that I’ve sort of got a handle on butterflies, the next thing I’d like to work on learning is dragonflies. The problem is, dragonflies are a lot more challenging. If I see a butterfly I don’t know, my usual approach is to follow it around with my camera until it lands somewhere and holds still long enough for me to snap a photo, which I can then compare to my field guide and various butterfly ID sites online. Dragonflies, on the other hand, almost never let me get close enough to take a usable photo.

There are some exceptions – I found this guy on a cool evening recently, too sluggish to take off when I approached. Of course, it’s one of maybe three species of dragonfly I can already identify on sight, the Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella.

One of the students I worked with last fall was interested in dragonflies as a hobby, but he collected them (as in, caught them and popped them in the freezer to kill them, then mounted them – he had permits, he was doing this for a nature center). I completely respect collecting, as long as it’s done responsibly, because it contributes a lot to our knowledge of wildlife, but I don’t think I personally could ever purposely kill a dragonfly or anything else.

So, any suggestions for enjoying dragonflies in their natural environment?

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17 thoughts on “Dragonflies, Please Sit Still!”

      1. Rebecca,

        As they said to me three years ago, “Welcome to the Dark Side”. Odonates are SO much funner than butterflies. If you want tips on getting started, from an old rookie, e-mail me. I only fool with Leps before the Dragons arrive. What’s your location? Aren’t you in Canada now?

        1. Might as well be in Canada – I’m at the extreme north end of Wisconsin (literally, my apartment is like a quarter mile from the border with the UP). Maybe I will shoot you an email. It would be really helpful if I could find a description of, say, general characteristics of the different dragonfly families so I know where to start – like with butterflies, even if I don’t know the exact species I’m looking at, I can usually say “well, it’s some kind of crescent” or whatever and go from there.

        2. Yes. Send me an e-mail (georgesims@hotmail.com). If you could have only ONE odonate book, get Dennis Paulson’s recently released Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. I got mine from Amazon. It’s the BEST comprehensive guide out there. We just formed an INFORMAL (free) group, “Dragonfly Enthusiasts of the Midwest United States”, which is hoped to encourage ALL odonate enthusiasts to get together and have some fun. Wisconsin is included, and we might just make you the Queen of Wisconsin. See the post about the group on my blog, http://www.bugsofboogercounty.wordpress.com.

          You should also go to Odonata Central (www.odonatacentral.org). It’s a WONDERFUL repository of odonate information, run by John Abbott at University of Texas. Play around on the site, and you’ll see the 250+ entries I’ve submitted. ALL the “Big Boys” of the dragonfly world are most gracious, and ready and willing to help us rookies.

  1. Dr. Sid Dunkle, professor at Collin College in Plano Texas, wrote “Dragonflies through Binoculars: A Field Guide to Dragonflies of North America.” It is an excellent resource.

  2. Find a place with dragonflies (obvious :-))
    Stand around quietly watching them. They tend to have favorite places to alight. If disturbed they’ll frequently and repeatedly return to the same spot.
    Depending on the dragon, you can move up slowly, very slowly, to them.
    When I get within about 10 feet, I’ll start taking pics with a zoom lens – and continue taking them as I creep in slowly.
    When I get too close for the zoom, I switch to the macro setting and hold the camera at arms length. I’ve been able to get in quite close to get close-up pics. Now these are the lazy Georgia dragons. Not sure how the northern Minnesota dragons will behave.
    Good luck!

  3. Yes…welcome to the dark side :)

    First, great shot on the 12-Spotted Skimmer. It is by far one of my favorite dragonflies to make images of because they are colorful (though the black/white contrast can be difficult to work exposure on) and because they are patient. I did an HDR image of one in Ohio a couple years back that is in my top 5 favorite shots ever.

    Dr. Dunkle and Dr. Paulson’s books are the standard bearers when it comes to dragonfly books and I own and highly recommend both. Odonata Central is a treasure if only because if you know what county you’re in you can have at least a starting point of what might be out there. This is a Great Lakes Odonata group on Yahoo! groups that has infrequent posts but may be of some help.

    As to technique… If you’re shooting SLR then longish glass is a start. I shoot 300mm + 1.4x teleconverter but sometimes the 1.4x on top is too much glass. A tripod or monopod will help get the longer exposures that will in turn help you with closing down the aperture a bit to get more of the wings in focus. And then patience. As Joan said, many species, especially if they are feeding, will return to the same perch over and over again. As George said, a slow approach will pay big dividends. As with any photography, recognize where the light is, what direction it is shining in, and what quality it has.

    And always…go back out and shoot more images! I’ve been Ode-hunting (with the camera, not the net) for a few years and I find it some of my most rewarding and accessible photography I do. Happy Shooting!

  4. Ann, Joan, and Jim – thanks to all of you! I’ve sworn off buying natural history books for the moment because I already have more than I know what to do with, but a dragonfly book is definitely in my future at some point. I’ll have to try some of what’s been suggested to see if I can get some better odonate photos in the future (I think in the two-plus years I’ve been blogging, I’ve taken maybe three that were really worth posting). Jim, at the moment I’m still using a point-and-shoot but I hope to upgrade to a DSLR eventually!

  5. I’ve had great fun on sunny afternoons watching the young dragonflies, and damselflies especially, emerging from their nymphal exoskeleta. It’s really fantastic to watch them crawl out on a piece of emergent vegetation then sloooowly back out of their shell. Then to watch them rest, dry off, and take that first flight…it’s lovely. :) Great picture!

  6. Telephoto lenses (or zooming out as far as you can and still get a decent shot) really help with photographing dragonflies! They’re so skittish that the further away you can be from them the better your photos often end up. Binoculars are great if you just want to watch. Otherwise, I second everything George says – and recommend him as an excellent resource if you do send him that e mail. I also love both Dragonflies Through Binoculars and Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, but the latter has the damselflies in addition to the dragonflies, so I find it a slightly more valuable resource overall. And Odonata Central is great! As far as learning the general characteristics go… Well, that just takes practice. For example, the gliders have very distinctively shaped wings and the saddlebags have particularly shaped red or black spots at the base of their hindwings. I learned the characteristics by identifying as many dragonflies as I could and you start to see the patterns in body shapes, sizes, and other characteristics over time. Good luck!

    1. I just returned this afternoon (Sunday) from a couple of days in Columbia, Tennessee, where I attended the SE gathering of DSA (Dragonfly Society of the Americas). Got to spend two GREAT days chasing cool bugs with some of the top Dragonfly Guys (and Gals) in the country. These are the folks who wrote the books, and they were MOST gracious to this rookie. By the way, Rebecca, I have appointed you Wisconsin State Captain for the Dragonfly Enthusiasts of the Midwest US (DEMUS). From time to time, just let me know what’s going on in your neck of the woods.

        1. Your job is basically to let me know what folks are doing in Wisconsin and boss other people around. I started to call you the “Wisconsin Czar”, but decided “State Captain” sounded less threatening.

  7. Think dragonflies are a challenge? How about those damselflies? Ed Lam has a fine guide to them, at least in the Northeast, but frankly many are impossible to ID without having them in hand. Lam’s also working on a dragonfly guide. (There’s always room for one more field guide.)

    1. Damselflies are indeed a challenge; however, they are MUCH easier to catch than dragonflies (at least for ME!). Although I live in the Missouri Ozarks, Ed’s northeastern guide covers almost everything I’ll find in my area. John Abbott’s new “Damselflies of Texas” is also great, no matter where you live.

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