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Sonoran Desert Dragonflies - Arizona

Updated on August 20, 2014

Dragonflies Are Fascinating Creatures

Damselflies, too. Also known scientifically as "Odonata" or "Odes" for short.

Dragonflies have some very interesting and unique abilities. The most obvious ability is how they can fly. They are even more agile than hummingbirds. They hover and zig-zag in the air, and can fly backwards. Helicopter designers could learn some lessons from them.

Another ability, which I have not noticed among any other insects, is the way they are able to mate in the air. Whatever configuration they are in, both are faced in the same direction, and can fly forward together. This is especially important in the species that can mate in tandem, where the tail of the male is fastened behind the head of the female and they both form a straight line. Such dragonflies will fly along the surface of water, and while they are mating, they dip down together and the female deposits an egg in the water. They fly up, and then repeat the process. This can go on for a very long time.

The dragonfly in the photo is a Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata. I found this one at Patagonia Lake a number of years ago. Patagonia Lake is not far from the border with Mexico, between Sonoita and Nogales.

All photos are mine.

Mexican Amberwing

Perithemis intensa. Female.

Found at Roger Lake, across from Sweetwater Wetlands in southern Arizona.

Mexican Amberwing

Perithemis intensa. Male.

Found at Sweetwater Wetlands, southern Arizona, USA.

Blue Dasher

Pachydiplax longipennis. Male.

Blue Dashers are very common at Sweetwater Wetlands, probably the most common dragonfly there. The males often have a white powderlike substance over their abdomen, which fades an intense light blue into a must more pastel color. This is called "pruinosity." These dragonflies are sufficiently placid that getting a good photo is not that hard.

The posture, with the abdomen sticking up at an angle, is called "obelisking". No one is really sure why they do it, but there are different theories. I wouldn't begin to guess why they do it, either.

Blue Dasher

Another male.

Lighting can have a striking effect on the photo you take. This one is against a dark background, as you can observe. The wings seem almost to light up. If you catch the angle just right, you will be able to get rainbow-like highlights in the wings.

Blue Dasher

I found this one just yesterday at Sweetwater (the last day of September, 2012.) Dragonfly season usually lasts from early summer into the fall as long as the weather stays warm.

No matter how many pictures I have of this species (and others), I never get tired of grabbing another one.

Taking a picture against the sky can be difficult, especially if you are facing the sun. In this case, the sun was behind me.

Flame Skimmer

Libellula saturata. Sweetwater Wetlands.

Flame Skimmers are probably the second-most common dragonfly at Sweetwater. The second picture was taken yesterday (last day of September, 2012).

Altogether I think I have seen about a dozen species at Sweetwater, with other possibilities as well.

One of the tricks of taking photographs of dragonflies is not to worry too much about whether they fly off while you are focusing your camera. The chance is really great that they will return to the exact same spot as soon as they catch whatever little mite of an insect they are after. The second one probably returned ten times to the same spot, and each time I got a photograph.

And some warblers (birds) will do the same thing.


Ischnura sp. Probably a Plains Forktail, Ischnura damula. Male.

Patagonia Lake

These aren't always easy to identify specifically. You about have to be able to look at the details of the appendage on the tip of the tail to tell, and I didn't get that level of detail.

Dragonflies have their four wings mounted on the side of their thorax, while damselflies have them mounted on the back. Thus, dragonflies will hold their wings out to the side when at rest, while damselflies will fold them back. Most damselflies are smaller than most dragonflies and are therefore more difficult to photograph.

Notice the black spot close to the end of each wing. It has been determined that these aid in flight, helping the insect to maintain stability. Most dragonflies and damselflies have them (they can be different colors) but not all.

Familiar Bluet

Enallagma civile. Another damselfly, found at Sweetwater Wetlands.

There are a few damselflies that hold their wings partly out to the side. They are called Spreadwings. I haven't photographed one yet.

Red Saddlebags

Tramea onusta. Sweetwater Wetlands.

In copula. They actually flew together to this location, fastened in this manner. This mating formation often resembles a heart, which is why I find it fascinating. :) Notice how the female is using her legs to hold the male.

Red Saddlebags are usually difficult to photograph because their favorite perch is very high on a dead tree, against the sky. I had not been able to get a decent picture, until one day this wonderful gift was handed to me. My favorite ode picture.

They're called Saddlebags because of the red area on the hind wings, which reminds people of saddlebags. You can see these plainly above the abdomen of the male, who is on top.

On this occasion, I took a camping chair and a tripod, with the specific intent of getting dragonfly pictures. Taken with my 650-1300mm lens, from about 20 feet away.

Blue Dasher

Macro shooting at a distance.

Female, Sweetwater Wetlands.

This was one of the first pictures I took with my brand new 650-1300mm lens. In this case, I used a tripod, although I don't usually carry one. I was quite a few feet away. You cannot get up close to anything with that lens. But this is an excellent example of how you can use just about any lens for a macro photo. A macro photo is really characterized by an extreme closeup with shallow depth of field. I use my telephoto lenses and my wide angle lens for macro photography all the time. It means I don't have to carry as many lenses.

Wide angle lenses don't work well for wild insects, but they're great for flowers.

The Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert, where these photos were taken, is a large desert area that occupies southern Arizona, Sonora, Mexico, part of Baja California, and a small part of southern California. The characteristic plant that indicates location in the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). This is the tall cactus that was featured in TV episodes of High Chaparral, many years ago. I will be making a Lens about the Sonoran Desert plants as soon as I can.

Naturally, dragonflies don't care much for desert. They only hang out near water. I see a few species on my property when there has been water going through the wash behind the property, after a rain. Some pools are formed temporarily. The best place to find dragonflies is near permanent ponds or lakes. My favorite places include Sweetwater Wetlands, near Tucson, and the ponds across the street, as well as Patagonia Lake. I have found a few dragonflies near the lake at Rose Canyon in the Catalina Mountains, and occasionally, I will just happen across a new species someplace else.

Blue-eyed Darner

Rhionaeschna multicolor. Sweetwater Wetlands.

These dragonflies prefer to hover and dart about all day long.

Unless you have really expensive equipment, catching a dragonfly in flight is rather difficult, and doesn't usually yield very satisfactory results, as you can see here. But if you go out often enough, and hang around and be patient, you can sometimes catch them perched, as I did in the next two photos.

The first photo was taken at Sweetwater Wetlands, the second one at the Roger Road ponds across the street a few days later.


I don't have any idea what they are, nor do I know if they were attempting to mate. I hung around for awhile to see, but they just kept on as they were. If you happen to know who these are, please let me know. The one on top is blue, and the one underneath is green.

Books on Dragonflies

This first one is probably THE best guide for identifying dragonflies and damselflies in the western part of the United States, and extends partway into the east. It has range maps and all sorts of useful information, along with clear photographs of most species. I haven't seen the other one, but I have no doubt it is also very good.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West (Princeton Field Guides)

by Dennis Paulson

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides)

by Dennis Paulson

Available on Amazon.


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