Who says cool critters don’t live in Northern VA?

greatblueskimmer_6783With mile after mile of strip shopping centers, offices and residential developments that dominate the landscape, Northern Virginia might seem like a poor choice for wildlife watching.

While there’s no denying that development has fragmented natural areas and degraded wildlife habitats, causing declines in the populations of many species, there’s still an amazing assortment of cool critters to discover close to home.

Good things come in small packages and dragonflies are no exception. Look for them in every type of habitat near fresh water, where their antics will quickly capture your attention. They’re easy to observe and never fail to delight.

Some look like jewels on the wing, others are more earthy and subtle. They all have huge compound eyes compared to the size of their head. If I was a dragonfly, my eyes would be about the size of a basketball and I’d have 30,000 lenses instead of just one.

Dragonfly eyes point in nearly all directions and provide a 3600 visual field. This allows dragonflies to see as they fly forward, backwards and then turn on a dime. These amazing acrobats of the air can also hover and mate in flight. They can accelerate to full speed in the blink of an eye.

Often called mosquito hawks, dragonflies are carnivorous insects that can capture flies and other insects on the wing. Some species eat about 20% of their body weight every day just to power their flight.

Dragonflies also depend on their keen sight and extraordinary flying skills to escape predators.

Unlike moths, beetles and other insects, they cannot fold their wings to hide in small nooks and crannies. Instead, dragonflies rely on their ability to out-maneuver their predators.

These cool insects are survivors that have been flying though the skies since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fossils dating back 270 million years show wing-spans that reached more than two feet.

They are considerably smaller today and found worldwide, except in frozen polar areas.

Many species of dragonflies live in Northern Virginia. Some spots I’ve found that are especially good for dragonfly enthusiasts include the Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area in Nokesville, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge and Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge at Ft. Belvoir.

You can also invite dragonflies to your backyard with a garden pond. A sunny location, emergent vegetation and water that’s at least two feet deep provides a welcome invitation to dragonflies, who will return the favor by providing hours of entertainment and eating lots of pesky mosquitoes.

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