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Dragonfly heaven at Cabragh Wetlands

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KILDARE WILDLIFE WATCH: Dragonflies — from water to wing

The four-spotted chaser dragonfly

It is sometimes difficult to think of dragonflies as the fierce predators they are throughout their lives and they are regarded as being among the most primitive of winged insects.

As the punchline from a popular sitcom of a few years ago went: “I don’t believe it.”


I certainly find it difficult to believe that the glorious month of May is almost over. As one newspaper headline put it: “Spring went by in a flash and nature says it’s June.”


The seasons raced by at a frantic pace, particularly as Covid -19 occupied all our waking hours’ hopes, dreams and worries. We were well into early summer by mid-May.


The sequence of flowers and blossoms passed in the blink of an eye, dandelions, daisies, blackthorn, cherry, hawthorn and now buttercup.


Everywhere in Cabragh nettle leaves are curled up awaiting the writhing of peacock caterpillars. Anyone returning to Cabragh, even though as emphasised last week, the prolific flower show has not yet arrived, are rapturous to be out in the sunshine as nature emerges once more. They were reclaiming nature by returning to their personal heartlands –the only constant northern star in a quickly revolving world.


There is certainly a greater appreciation of the human need for open space , clean air, natural beauty, quiet, sunshine and greenery. In this week for biodiversity, it was the place to be.


My own moment of resurrection came as I walked by the pond on the Cosmic Walk wheelchair friendly path and one of the insects of greatest natural beauty, a flit of blue, alighted on a mares tail stem. The damsel flies and dragonflies, the hawkers and darters are back- back in their dragonfly heaven.


It is sometimes difficult to think of them as the fierce predators they are throughout their lives and they are regarded as being among the most primitive of winged insects. At a time when our coal was formed, about 300 million years ago, their evolutionary ancestors were already flying in the swampy jungles where some species had a wing span of nearly 70 cm.
Dragonflies can be divided into two types based on their flying behaviour. Most of the largest and most handsome species are called hawkers because they patrol up and down areas of water in search of prey. They have long bodies and large wings.
The other major group are called darters because they perch motionless on vantage points by the waterside and dart out to pounce on passing insects. Dragonflies of both groups have a very rapid and powerful flight and rest with their wings held out flat.


By contrast, damselflies have a much weaker fluttering flight and rest with their wings held together above the body like butterflies.


Dragonflies and damselflies are supreme hunters usually catching and eating their prey on the wing. The large paired wings powered by muscles in the stout body ensure that it can outfly and out manoeuvre most other flying insects.
A dragonfly’s head is largely taken up with two enormous compound eyes that give almost 360 degrees vision. The head is also armed for biting and cutting up its prey and most types of insects including other dragonflies are regarded as food. However its antennae are tiny and almost useless.


The early stages of all dragonflies and damselflies are aquatic. Eggs are laid on plants or in the mud below the water surface and the larvae or nymphs hatch fully equipped to live in water. They are all hunters feeding on a wide range of water insects, worms and snails.


Dragonfly nymphs are capable of catching and eating creatures as large as tadpoles and small fish.
However, the nymphs themselves are also hunted and may fall prey to fish, newts, water spiders or even birds hunting in the shallows by the water’s edge.


It’s all a far cry from the elaborate courtship and mating procedures as the paired insects fly in tandem even when the female dips into the water to lay its eggs. This will happen in the weeks ahead and is a good opportunity to have a really close look at dragonflies and observe their behaviour. They require unpolluted water so it is important that it is not contaminated with insecticides and sprays. Emergence from pond nymph to dragonfly usually takes place at dusk as it sheds its skin and takes some time to expand and dry its wings.


At a time when the death of loved ones cannot be fittingly remembered and their journey to a new life remains unexplained, the transformation from the grey and buff of a dragonfly nymph in the mud of a stagnant pond to the azure blue and amazing acrobatic flight of true beauty may help those left to grieve.


Stay safe.
Slán go fóill.