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LEPS & ODES: Meet the variegated meadowhawks

A close-up of a male variegated meadowhawk.1 / 3
A female variegated meadowhawk was present on five consecutive visits spanning from July 15 to Aug. 26, 2016 at Badoura State Forest. (Photos by John Weber/For the Enterprise)2 / 3
This is a 1/800th-of-a-second portrait of an optimistic tandem pair of variegated meadowhawks laying eggs in a large rain puddle on a minimum maintenance road.3 / 3

Usually the meadowhawk family (Sympetrum genus) is the "final act" of the dragonfly year. (See my Leps & Odes column for Oct. 6, 2018.)

Seven species have flight seasons I've recorded that occur sometime in the timeframe from June 14 through Nov. 13.

Then there is the "oddball" variegated meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). I've seen it on the wing from April 12 (yes!) through Sept. 14. How can it be so "early" and not be "lake season"?

Simply-stated, the variegated meadowhawk is a migrant, not a local. As such, it flies around here early, then also leaves early.

Dragonfly expert Dennis Paulson writes, "Presumably mostly a migrant in the East, with mature males appearing in early spring in northwestern part of region (Minnesota, Iowa) before any sign of emergence."

In both 2015 and 2016, variegated were the first dragonflies of the season (April 12 and 14, respectively).

Striking appearance

Dragonfly field guide author Kurt Mead terms the adults as "stunning." Paulson describes the adult male's "abdomen overall reddish but complexly patterned." That pattern is reflected in the "variegated" portion of the common name.

Immature male and adult females are quite different: butterscotch/rusty, silver and white striped abdomens.

At a distance, it gives a grayish impression. However, the full effect of the striking appearance is only revealed at close hand, especially with the aid of close-focusing binoculars or telephoto lenses.

Due to the sporadic nature of this migrant, I usually have fewer than five sightings for a full season, if any. Major exceptions were 62 in 2012 (a very warm, early spring) and 28 in 2016.

2019 so far

In one week from June 7-14, I've already had 14 sightings — a very impressive start given our delayed spring.

That's part of the impetus for my featuring the variegated meadowhawk in today's column.

The other factor was my seeing and photographing (successfully!) a tandem-mated pair egg laying on June 7.

Egg laying

At a 1/800th of a second, I digitally captured the pair as the female tapped the water surface laying eggs (also called "ovipositors"). That's the technique used by this lake and pond breeder.

Species that breed in rivers and streams use a different strategy: covering eggs with a thin, sticky jelly. That keeps the eggs from washing downstream.

Other species, such as darners, insert eggs into aquatic plant stems. The baskettails unreel eggs in strings on the surface of water. Spiked tails have strong enough abdomens to physically jab eggs in to stream bottoms.

The egg laying I witnessed on June 7 occurred in a big rain puddle in the middle of a minimum maintenance road. That is exactly what Paulson describes: "Oviposition seen in temporary ponds in many areas, even rain puddles on the roads; not known if larvae develop to emergence."

To his last point, I can add a resounding "No!" When I returned to that road on June 14, a grader was filling all puddles.

However, I was encouraged that day to see a separate male and female. I hope any mated pairs will find more suitable sites from which adult variegated meadowhawks can successfully emerge and migrate south.

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