Morning on Malabar Hills

I nursed my morning’s cup of chai and looked out across Backbay at the high-rises on Malabar hills, just when the rising sun caught them. A kite soared across the bay, and nearer at hand there was a fog of high-flying dragonflies. The monsoon winds have stilled, and the light breeze created a tiny bit of surf at the governor’s beach. Right now mosquitoes are breeding across that posh area. I hope they learn to breed more dragonflies there, to eat the larvae of mosquitos and control them. The ones around our buildings are the mostly the yellow and blue variety known as the ground skimmer (Diplacodes trivialis). Another morning in Mumbai in late monsoon, pleasant, but with the promise of heat and humidity later in the day. Again at this time you welcome a heavy shower.

Dragons at rest

Some of the most visible insects in wet forests are dragonflies. These champions of flight can keep pace with jeeps as they rumble along forest tracks, or show off their acrobatic skills when you stop. I love the sight of a speeding dragonfly suddenly change direction effortlessly.

I haven’t blogged about them before because I don’t know anything about them, and none of the people I travel with have told me anything about them either. But when I saw the golden girl in the featured photo, I thought this had to end. A search led me instantly to the field guide by Subramanian. Although this grand-daddy of the field talks mainly about the dragonflies of peninsular India, it is a good introduction to the subject.

My heart sank when I read about the methods of dragonfly identification. I’d been doing it all wrong! I’d concentrated on the bodies and wings, but the key to identification seems to be to see how the compound eyes are placed around the head. By looking at the photos all I could tell was that the forewings and hindwings are somewhat different in size, and that when these two insects rest, as they do in the photos, they hold the wings out laterally. This makes them dragonflies and not damselflies. Oof! Such a relief, I wasn’t mistaken in that.

But which kind of dragonflies? I couldn’t really tell, because I’d missed the key observation. By plodding through the book I could tell that the black and white striped dragonfly in the photo above is a variety of Clubtail (family Gomphidae). There; that narrows it down to about 900 species. The golden girl is a Skimmer (family Libellulidae), one of the commonest of the 6000-odd species of dragonflies found in India.

I have a new mission in life: identification of dragonflies in the field. Now all I have to do is to lay my hands on Hermione’s time-turner.