Summer at last arrived in Seattle on Tuesday, and with it, dragonflies, the essence of a summer day, dipping and swooping through warm breezes, devouring tiny bugs.

Share story

Summer at last arrived in Seattle on Tuesday, and with it, dragonflies, the essence of a summer day, dipping and swooping through warm breezes, devouring tiny bugs.

Carnivorous predators, there’s not a vegan or vegetarian among them, noted Dennis Paulson, of Seattle, a world expert on dragonflies. Spectacular flying machines, they can move all four wings independently, hover effortlessly or zip around at speeds approaching 30 mph, as fast as a song bird.

On a field survey Tuesday at the new ponds installed in a man-made wetlands at Magnuson Park, Paulson noted it is here he often finds Seattle’s greatest diversity of dragonflies — some 18 species in all.

“Exciting, exciting,” said Paulson, slowing his pace along the banks of a pond to look closely at a glimmering blue bug. “Western forktail. That’s a new species to this pond.” Make that count 19.

In the drowsy heat of a fine summer afternoon — 77 degrees — the untutored could think this a peaceful spot. Not so. Untold dramas were playing out to Paulson’s trained eye.

That pair of dragonflies just now dipping delicately into the glassy smooth surface of the pond? She is laying an egg, and he is clasping her close, keeping watch until her work is done. This because, if he doesn’t, another male will swoop in, scoop out the sperm deposited by the first male and mate with her anew. “It’s rough out there,” Paulson said.

He explained the males are only here for the females, in fact, as many as 100 of them to every female. They stalk the rushes and sedges, recon the ponds, work the tips of the grasses. “In the field literature, we call it cruising for chicks,” Paulson said.

Dramatic in appearance, even otherworldly, a cardinal meadowhawk perched on a branch, its brilliant abdomen lit by the sun, and its gauzy wings glimmering.

Its buggy, compound eyes — dragonflies have the finest vision and largest eye of any insect — give it a helmet-headed mien. Their big eyes actually are made of thousands of individual eyes, which make its vision spectacularly acute to motion. Paulson has seen dragonflies shoot straight up to check out another dragonfly — 125 feet up.

They are brilliance on the wing, zipping, swooping, matching even the swallows’ aerial ballet for grace.

Paulson and a colleague gave the dragonflies their common names, sending in a list of more than 450 names to the Dragonfly Society of the Americas in an effort to build amateurs’ interest. Nearly each one stuck, including the cardinal meadowhawk. Filigree skimmers; tule bluet; coral-fronted threadtail; and dancers by the score. Apache dancer, Aztec dancer and more.

An ancient species, predating the dinosaurs, dragonfly populations are abundant.

Paulson published the definitive guide to dragonflies, “Dragonflies and Damselfies of the West,” in 2009 (Princeton University Press) and is putting the finishing touches on a similar field guide for dragonflies of the East. He has studied dragonflies on every continent on which they exist and has discovered many new to science. All this for a guy who lives in a state with the fewest dragonfly species in the lower 48: about 80.

To see a pond through his eyes is to see a different place, seething with dragonflies in every life stage. That mat of aquatic vegetation? It’s alive with dragonfly larvae. Those sedges along the shore — look closely, and the jewelrylike split casing of the larva’s skin is still attached, every detail of the insect intact. The just-emerged dragonfly, translucent and soft, clings to a green shoot nearby, still new to the world.

Everywhere, the quick-darting dragonflies are stoked by the warm sun. A cool, cloudy day won’t cut it for them; they need warmth to move and sun to see. Like butterflies, they are creatures of a warm summer afternoon.

With the sun at its peak in the Northern Hemisphere on the summer solstice Tuesday, there were nearly 16 hours of daylight to enjoy, the longest day of the year.

It’s all downhill from here, true. But the dragonflies? They are around to enjoy until at least October.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736