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Swift River Cruisers (Macromia illinoiensis) - female and male / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Swift River Cruisers (Macromia illinoiensis) – female and male / © Bryan Pfeiffer

PICK ANY SCENE FROM THE DRAMA OF LIFE ON EARTH: birth, growth, courtship, sex, subterfuge, betrayal, murder. Find them all expressed in the lives of dragonflies. Shakespeare could write the script on these beasts.

But before I get to our murder scene, you must know a few things about nature photography and the dragonfly formerly known as Illinois River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis).

I don’t know the quickest thing ever from Illinois. Maybe Walter Payton. Or the Gettysburg Address. Or maybe the jets flying in and out of O’Hare. (Oh, wait, those aren’t on time.) But few things beat an Illinois River Cruiser, which we now call Swift River Cruiser. Swift doesn’t even describe it. Maybe cruiser does. Like a cruise missile.

We’ve got eight species of Macromia in North America. These shock-and-awe dragonflies – marked in fast green, black and yellow – run big rivers like rockets. Catch one in your net and you’re swinging in the big leagues. They make fools of us. We swing like pitchers, batting about 100.

But not now. Not here in Wisconsin.

On the dark and deep Chippewa River, in the tiny town of Bruce (home to a cheese powder plant), it’s “Macromia Mania” – swarms of them. They drift around us us like gnats and feed on, well, gnats and other insects of lesser order. We see scores of Macromia in the skies at once and dozens dead along Route 8. And we see many resting on twigs, each a sleek, sharp, slender figure of repose. And I cannot stop shooting them.

Now here’s what you need to know about nature photography. It’s sloppy, ruthless carnage. Dragonflies, whose acuity comes from 300 million years of evolution by means of natural selection, whose evasive skills render our bipedalism, big brains and big insect nets feeble by comparison, are often reluctant subjects. As we approach, even with big lenses, they fly off. We get lots of lousy photos. We delete many. It’s a killing field of file deletion. For every hundred or so shots we take, maybe five survive.

But the Macromia are posing. They’re fairly fresh out of the Chippewa. Their eyes aren’t yet emeralds. So they’re somewhat docile. And docile is a word rarely used in the company of Macromia. So if one particular Macromia isn’t posed just right, if it’s abdomen isn’t aligned in accordance with any self-respecting Macromia, I gently nudge it into position. Yeah, we’re petting and tickling perched Macromia here in Wisconsin.

Same goes for another dramatic dragonfly, the giant now in abundance: Gomphus lineatifrons (Splendid Clubtail) – the murderer. Here’s a David and Goliath story with Goliath triumphant.

Pygmy Snaketail (Ophiogomphus howei) is small, elusive and a member of a group of river dragonflies, Snaketails, some of which are among the rarest on the continent. We’ve seen two rare species here: O. smithi (Sioux Snaketail), named for Bill Smith of the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Program, who’s with us on this trip and is immeasurably great in the field, and O. susbehcha (St. Croix Snaketail). Many of us dream of photos of Pygmy Snaketail. So, naturally, when one landed at my knee on Sunday afternoon at the Chippewa, I began to fire shots like a 1920s gangster. And just as I was positioning myself for that one killer shot – the good one – Goliath comes by and snatches David.

Never would I have thought to curse a dragonfly as splendid as Splendid Clubtail (which could easily be renamed Friggin’ Awesome Clubtail). But, hey, a dragonfly’s gotta eat, right? So it goes. It’s a dragonfly-eat-dragonfly world out there. As I said, it’s Shakespearean. See it in the photos below.

Onward north today for the DSA post meeting.


Ophiogomphus howei (Pygmy Snaketail) minding its own business / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Ophiogomphus howei (Pygmy Snaketail) minding its own business / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Gomphus lineatifrons (Splendid Clubtail) - The Killer / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Gomphus lineatifrons (Splendid Clubtail) – The Killer / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Gomphicide - The Killing. By the time I got there, the Ophio's head was gone / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Gomphicide – The Killing. By the time I got there, the Ophio’s head was gone / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Alas, poor Pygmy Snaketail. We hardly knew ya'.

Alas, poor Pygmy Snaketail. We hardly knew ya’.

  1. Ruth Stewart says:

    Bryan, Thank you, thank you, thank you for your tales (and tails) of adventures in WI… and a badger too!!

    ruth stewart

  2. Judy Brook says:

    Hi Bryan, I’d rather read your posts than a juicy murder mystery to which I am addicted. You are a master of setting the scene, describing the crime, and tying up the solution…all in one page. Your writing and photos of your winged beasties leave me breathless. Thank you.

  3. raharlow2013 says:

    AWESOME Brian!! Very, very envious of your shots. Just think about what your saving by shooting digital rather than with film!!
    Dick Harlow

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