Larry Weber: Flight of the dragonflies
September is many things in the Northland. Later sunrises and earlier sunsets bring us closer to the Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 23). Shorter days usher in cooler temperatures. And, with these feelings of fall, our lives change. School starts along w...
September is many things in the Northland. Later sunrises and earlier sunsets bring us closer to the Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 23). Shorter days usher in cooler temperatures. And, with these feelings of fall, our lives change. School starts along with a new group of sports and we settle down to a different lifestyle.
Critters respond as well. Throughout these beautiful days of a colorful cooling month, we see squirrels gathering the newly-fallen acorns. Snakes and frogs are on their way to find a place to spend winter. Birds are migrating. Anyone with an eye on the sky at this time will note their movements. Flocks of Canada geese may be the loudest, but other flyers abound as well. Shorebirds line up along our lakes. (The current drought has given more space for these birds to pause on their southing trek.) Warblers along with vireos, thrushes and sparrows move through our yards and woods as they, too, head to warmer climes.
For many of us, seeing the migration of September means a trip to Hawk Ridge. Here in the comfort of the viewing site, we're able to marvel at the kettles of broad-winged hawks or the unending passage of sharp-shinned hawks.
But those of us watching this avian display are likely to see some non-avians here, too. During a mild day, hundreds of dragonflies will be seen over the hills on a trip of their own. At times the dragonflies outnumber the birds. Dragonflies are abundant and varied in our region, but, by this time of year, basically only two kinds are still around: the small, often red, meadowhawks and the large darners, especially green darners.
When it comes to insect migration, most of us think of and are familiar with the flight of the monarch.
Certainly one of the best known and loved of all insects, the monarchs do perform an amazing annual flight of more than 2,000 miles over two generations; but they are not alone among the butterflies. The lesser known painted ladies travel a yearly route too, though theirs is shorter and not as consistent. And the green darners show us that insect migration extends beyond butterflies.
Each fall, starting in August, the young of the year head down the shore by the thousands. On a recent late August trip, I happened to be at Split Rock when I was surrounded by such a flight. South winds slowed the flight and sent the travelers by the hundreds into the bay where I was. Such huge numbers continue their movement into September. These juvenile dragonflies winter in the southern states where they mature, lay eggs and die. Their offspring emerge in early spring and return to the Northland where they are typically the first dragonflies of spring, appearing in mid- to late-April.
Most fly high over us and, in true dragonfly fashion, never seem to stop. They snack on a variety of insects along the way. We usually don't see them too closely.
If, however, we come across resting ones (usually in early morning), a better look reveals big eyes, a green thorax with four clear wings extending sideways and a long reddish-brown abdomen. We'd be impressed by their three-inch length.
But mostly we'll see them moving overhead during this September flight of the Green Dragons.
Larry Weber is the author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.