You first catch a glimpse of black wings that flit and flutter in the vegetation on the banks of a tranquil woodland stream. You go for a closer look and see a creature alight softly on a leaf, black wings poised sail-like above a long, slender, iridescent green or blue body. There, it remains mostly motionless except for its head, with two enormous black eyes, that follows you as you move about. You’ve just found a male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), a common damselfly of eastern North America.
Damselflies versus dragonflies
Damselflies, along with dragonflies, belong to the insect order Odonata. Damselflies are in the suborder Zygoptera and have two pairs of similar-shaped wings. When perched, they hold their wings, either closed or slightly spread, above their abdomens. Dragonflies are in the suborder Anisoptera—their forewings and hindwings are of different shapes and, when perched, they hold their wings out flat or somewhat downward. Dragonflies are generally larger and are strong, fast fliers. Damselflies are dainty looking and are weak fliers.
Ebony Jewelwing identification
Ebony Jewelwings are the only damselflies in my area that have entirely dark wings, nearly opaque black in males and translucent brown in females. This makes them easy to spot from a distance. Closer observation reveals the iridescent bodies—vivid green or blue in males and a dull greenish bronze in females. You also can tell females by a white spot, called a pseudostigma, on their wing tips—the males lack white wing spots.
Field guides tell us that Ebony Jewelwings are most often found along shallow forested streams or occasionally near small ponds. My wooded property, with its small garden pond, attracts Ebony Jewelwings every spring, giving me an opportunity to observe them closely. The males stay in leafy vegetation near the pond, usually perched 2 to 5 feet above the ground. They tend to avoid the pond itself, possibly because it’s patrolled by dragonflies that might view a diminutive Jewelwing as a tasty meal. The female Ebony Jewelwings stay deeper in the woods until it’s time to mate.
Most of the time, Ebony Jewelwings remain still while perched but, occasionally, they “clap” their wings—opening them slowly and then snapping them shut. Clapping may be a form of communication or it may help improve oxygen intake.
A male Ebony Jewelwing usually defends a small territory near water. If a female approaches, he puts on a courtship display of fluttering wings and flaunting abdomen. If she’s receptive, the male first lands on the white pseudostigma area of her wings. He then walks down her wings to get into the tandem position, where he holds her head with claspers on the tip of his abdomen. She then swings up her abdomen to get into the mating wheel position. The tandem and mating wheel positions are sequences followed by all species of dragonflies and damselflies when mating. The couple remains in the mating wheel for several minutes, and then the female flies off to lay her eggs on vegetation in the water while the male stands guard nearby.
Dragonfly and Damselfly Resources
Dragonflies by Cynthia Berger. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8117-2971-0. This 124-page book has excellent information on the life cycles and behaviors of both dragonflies and damselflies and includes detailed descriptions and color illustrations for 26 common species. The illustrations are large and are on the same page as the descriptions. I think this is a great book for a novice to learn about dragonflies and damselflies. The book is no longer in print but used copies are usually available on Amazon for a reasonable price.
A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts by Blair Nikula, Jennifer L. Loose, and Matthew R. Burne. Westborough, MA: Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program, 2003. This is a 197-page field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Massachusetts, but it is useful for all of northeastern North America. It has an easy to use key and includes descriptions and photographs for 166 species. The photographs are large and are on the same page as the descriptions. The book is spiral bound making it exceptionally easy to use. I highly recommend this book. It’s available for $20 postage paid from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program.
Dragonflies through Binoculars by Sidney W. Dunkle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-511268-7. This 266-page field guide includes descriptions of all 307 species of dragonflies that are native to North America, but has no coverage of damselflies. Annoyingly, species descriptions are at the front of the book and photographs, which are small, are at the back—so you’re constantly flipping back and forth. I don’t recommend this book for novices.
Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-691-12283-0. This 538-page field guide covers all 336 dragonfly and damselfly species of eastern North America. Unfortunately, to cram all that information into one volume required the use of very small text that is difficult to read. The photographs are a good size, though, and appear alongside the text. The book is heavy to carry in the field.
Dragonflies and Damselflies by Stephen Cresswell on the American Insects website. This is a well-researched, informative site with excellent photos.