Meadowhawks are the only small red dragonflies seen in New England (most males are red, most females are brown).The latest species of dragonfly flying in the fall in this area is the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), which doesn’t emerge until mid-summer. It seems a bit incongruous to observe these dragonflies not only flying, but mating and laying eggs in late October, but that is exactly when you can expect to see them. Until there have been several hard frosts, these winged masters of the air are able to keep active by basking in the sun and warming their flight muscles. The two pictured Autumn Meadowhawks are copulating in the typical “mating wheel” fashion, with the male grasping the female behind her head while the female places the tip of her abdomen at the spot on his abdomen (the seminal vesicle) where he stores his sperm. The female Autumn Meadowhawk lays her eggs in tandem with the male (his presence prevents other male meadowhawks from replacing his sperm with their own).
Twelve-spotted Skimmers are classified as “King Skimmers,” all members of which are large and conspicuous, often with distinctive wing patterns. Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers (pictured) have a grayish bloom on their abdomens and each wing has three dark spots with white spots in between them. Females have brown abdomens and no white spots on their wings. All summer you can see males flying back and forth short distances along the shores of ponds and over water, hovering as well as perching. They are territorial and patrol over water, loop-de-looping with competing males. A small number of Twelve-spotted Skimmers occasionally take part in Atlantic Coast migrations.
Beaverpond Baskettail dragonflies have an early flight season, first appearing in May in the Northeast. The males (pictured) cruise over the water (often beaver ponds, hence their name) as well as the shore in sexual patrol flight, flying back and forth over the same area repeatedly. After mating, the female accumulates a large egg cluster at the tip of her abdomen, and as she drags it along the surface of the water, a long string of eggs is draped over plants. Once these strings expand, they can be several feet in length and an inch or more in diameter.
Different species of damselflies and dragonflies emerge throughout the warmer months of the year. Entomologists lump them all into three categories – “spring,” “summer” and “fall” fliers. Fall fliers generally emerge in mid-summer and fly through early to mid-October. Recently, at a nearby pond, it appeared that damselflies were taking advantage of the lingering warm days by mating and laying eggs before cold weather set in. Nearly every cattail leaf was loaded with several pairs of damselflies, most of which were still attached to one another (the males continue to grasp the females after mating with them to prevent the removal of their sperm by other males). When I returned the next day, there wasn’t a damselfly in sight.
Dragonflies (and damselflies) form what is called a “mating wheel” when they mate. The male (top) grasps the female at the back of her head with the appendages at the tip of his abdomen. The female then curls her abdomen forward so that its tip reaches his sex organs and receives his sperm. After mating, the male may continue to grasp the female and accompany her while she lays her eggs, to prevent another male from removing his sperm from the female and then mating with her.