First Day on the Job

Damselflies are a particular Suborder in the Order Odonata, the same Order as the more familiar dragonflies.  They look similar, except that their eyes are on the sides of their head and when they land, they tend to fold their wings back parallel to their body.  They also tend to be smaller, and have recognizably different nymph stages.  The immature nymphs are aquatic, but both stages are strictly predatory.

That was about all I knew coming into this job.  That, along with the news that we would be catching them and tagging them so we could study the males’ territorial behavior.  Each one would get four bands of paint on its abdomen so we could tell individuals apart, and then one would be introduced into another’s territory by a small tether so we could observe their reaction.

Damselflies:  Now with 400% more color.

The first day began with them giving me a net and telling me to capture any unmarked males.  Memories of butterfly catching last summer flooded back.  Familiar muscles tensed around my old weapon that was the scourge of many a butterfly on the wing.  Surely, the Odonates would prove no challenge.

However, catching an insect that can flap its wings faster than you can see, hover in place, and reverse direction without turning was a lesson in frustration and my own inadequacy.  The little flies seemed to pass right through the net as I swung, returning right to their perch while I floundered about in the creek and my own sweat.  Some even had the nerve to land on the handle of my net, just to spite me.  One, I swear, learned the exact length of my net and perched just above it, out of reach.

After almost an hour I finally caught my first one, a young Hetaerina cruentata.  After a modest victory dance, I then moved on to the next step: marking and photographing.  Whereupon the trials continued.

Imagine trying to use a felt tip pen to make precise rings on a toothpick.  Now imagine that the toothpick has little fluttery wings and wriggling legs.  Now imagine that you can’t hold the toothpick too hard, or too soft, or in the sun, or in too much shade, and would you please hurry up because other people are trying to use the paint and camera too?

And of course the pros make it look easy.

After a short struggle and several minutes trying to get the little bugger to pose properly for a picture, I returned him to his capture site.  I opened the small mesh bag we use for transport, but instead of taking off he crawled onto my thumb and turned to face me.  We shared a moment.  This, I realized, would be my life for the next five to sixth months.  Daylight hours spent clambering over rocks and pools, swinging fruitlessly at tiny insects, hunched over them in prep, then scrutinizing the drama of macho aggression in minute scale.  It would be hard, but it wasn’t so bad.  At least it was outdoors.  In a gorgeous area.  It wasn’t my first choice taxonomically, but it would serve.  In this line of work, you take what you can get.  And this was pretty good, all things considered.

My damselfly turned, fluttered its wings.  Then it took off and flew directly into my face.

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