Bug o’the Week – Variegated Meadowhawk Redux by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Variegated Meadowhawk Redux

Salutations, BugFans,

Variegated Meadowhawks started appearing in the state from the south and southwest in mid-April this year.  Their appearances were brief – they have places to go – but they leave eggs behind in our ponds.  Their offspring will emerge in late summer to decorate our landscapes briefly before they leave, too.

BugFan Freda contributed in-flight shots of Variegated Meadowhawks that she took recently at a local pond.  Note that one of Freda’s pictures shows a pair flying in tandem, with a third dragonfly, another male, that’s investigating/trying to break up the pair.  That’s the reason why, in many (but not all) species of dragonfly, the male continues to clasp the female as she oviposits (contact guarding).

The BugLady massaged this episode from 2012 – some new words and new pictures.  As you may recall, spring arrived in February that year, though we bounced back to normal in May, just in time to freeze the apple and cherry blossoms.  It was a long, hot, dry summer – water levels dropped, and plants bloomed early and only briefly before getting fried – and butterfly and dragonfly populations took a hit.  The BugLady, who thinks 73 degrees is hot, was not a happy camper.

2012 – The BugLady found this handsome dragonfly at a local Nature Preserve a few days ago.  Her photographic philosophy (necessitated by her hyperopia) is “Snap First and Identify Later;” so she appreciated the beauty of this spiffy individual in the moment (with a few soft “Wows!”).  She kept thinking, as she stalked the dragonfly on that fine, April day, that it sure looked like a meadowhawk, and it flew like a meadowhawk (and Wisconsin just doesn’t have that many red dragonflies), but that meadowhawks were not due on the landscape for months.  She appreciated it even more when she discovered later that she was looking at a new (for her) species – a Variegated Meadowhawk. 

When the BugLady wrote her BOTW about Meadowhawk Dragonflies in the summer of 2009 https://uwm.edu/field-station/meadowhawks/, she hadn’t seen a Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum).  Sympetrum means “with rock” and may refer to the rocks and other substrates that meadowhawks perch on to gather heat early in the day.  Generically, adult meadowhawks (in the Skimmer family Libellulidae) may be found hunting away from water or hanging around the shores of the lakes and ponds where they will deposit their eggs in late summer.  Instead of hatching right away, eggs of resident meadowhawk species spend the winter in a state of suspended animation called diapause and put off hatching until spring. 

Meadowhawk naiads (young) are hooked and spiny, though Variegated Meadowhawk naiads have very few hooks or spines on their exoskeletons.  They feed underwater for a few months on aquatic invertebrates, and maybe on a few tiny tadpoles and fish, until one fine evening when they crawl out of the water to complete their transformation into adults.  Some meadowhawk species in cold northern waters are naiads for a few years.   

Adult meadowhawks may chase their insect prey while in flight, but they’re more likely to spot it from a perch and take off after it, flycatcher-style.  The naiads sprawl on their underwater substrate and wait for prey to present itself.

VARIEGATED MEADOWHAWKS have tweaked the meadowhawk model a bit. 

The first word Paulson uses to describe Variegated Meadowhawks in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is “Robust” – their abdomens are much chunkier than those of other meadowhawks.  The medium-size body (about 1 ½”), patterned abdomen (possibly the reason for “corruptum,” which comes from a Latin root meaning “to break”), tinted veins on the leading edge of all four wings, stigmas (pigment dots at the wing tips) that shade from pale to dark to pale, and yellow spots on the sides of the thorax are all marks of a Variegated Meadowhawk.  Where the male has red markings that become more solidly red with age, the female and the newly-emerged juveniles are golden.   

Compared to other meadowhawks, they spend more time perched horizontally on and near the ground, and males are more territorial. 

They are early meadowhawks.  While most of their meadowhawk cousins appear in July and fly through the first frosts, Variegated Meadowhawks arrive, as this one did, as early as mid-April.  Legler, in Dragonflies of Wisconsin, says that “hot days in spring with southerly winds bring them into the state.”  In some parts of their range, they are the first dragonflies on the scene; here, they arrive at about the same time as the first, migratory Common Green Darners. 

These are migratory meadowhawks that migrate close to the ground and navigate visually, using the position of the sun.  They repopulate the North Country from the south and southwest in spring – they are far more common on the other side of the Mississippi and are considered vagrants or migrants east of the Big River.  Variegated Meadowhawks have been recorded in 43 states plus the southern tier of Canada https://bugguide.net/node/view/6538/data and in about half of Wisconsin’s counties, but much of the time, they’re just passing through.  Sightings peak around their spring arrivals and their mid-summer departures.   

Do they go back where they came from at the end of their season here? 

They do not.  Joined by other Variegated Meadowhawks that have drifted into the state from the west, the offspring of the Variegated Meadowhawks that stopped to breed here in April will head toward the Atlantic when they depart in late August.  They leave no young overwintering in Wisconsin ponds.  They migrate, often in the company of darners and saddlebags, south along the East coast as far south as Honduras and Belize (they also occur, inexplicably, in Southeast Asia) https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/12-036_01_MDP_Field_Guide_4-4-2013Websec.pdf.  

The next generation heads north in spring immediately after becoming adults.  Most Variegated Meadowhawks seen here in spring are adults, and most fall migrants are juveniles.  It has been suggested that this migratory habit could give Variegated Meadowhawks an edge during a period of climate change. 

Mead, in Dragonflies of the North Woods, warns us against attempting to show off our netting skills by capturing a Variegated Meadowhawk, “as they may make a fool of you. This is one of the most difficult dragonflies to net; it is very shy and wary (and seems to possess a level of telepathic ability).”

Nota Bene: The most common butterfly on the BugLady’s landscape these days, the Red Admiral, is also a migrant to these parts.  Red Admiral, Painted Lady, and American Lady butterflies, all in the wandering genus Vanessa, are cold-intolerant.  They return to our area in spring, and some years see huge population booms and mass migrations.  You can report spring migration sightings at: http://vanessa.ent.iastate.edu, where you can also find out some neat stuff about Red Admiral behavior. 

There are a lot of Red Admirals around in 2023, too.

2012 Go outside – it may be early; it may be eerie; but spring’s happening.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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