Skimmers

Sat Tal is a wonderful place for birds, if you are up early or stay till sunset. Since we reached in the late morning, the best we could see were tourists at tea stalls. The air full of smoke from forest fires were not the best for any climbing, and the smoke-filtered yellow light was not great for photos.

We walked out over the narrow causeway separating the Ram Tal from Sita Tal, hoping to get in a bit of a walk before trying to find lunch. A shaded path looped partway around the lakes. Under it I found a couple of butterflies and two of the dragonflies (Anisoptera) called skimmers (Libellulidae). The red one you see in the featured photo was so common that I’d seen it before, and could identify as a Ditch Jewel (Brachythemis contaminata). Sat Tal is almost on the plains, as this sighting confirmed. I would not have seen it at higher altitudes.

The systematic identification of dragonflies involves looking at the way its eyes are placed, the colours of the wings, and the colours and patterns on its thorax. For a casual watcher like me, the first priority is to get a good photo. If it so happens that these photos allow me to identify it later, I’m happy. This small black dragonfly was not so easy to identify. After some bit of going back and forth, I think this is a Black Ground Skimmer (Diplacodes lefebvrii, also called a Black Percher). I wish I’d seen it in better light.

Resting red

Dragonflies could be seen in large numbers at the beginning of October, just after the rains. I’ve been meaning to start identifying them, so when I spotted this in Bhandup pumping station, I took photos from two different angles. It was good that I did that, because I found that the colours of the body, wing, and eyes are needed to complete an identification.

Scarlet skimmers (Crocothemis servilia, aka ruddy marsh skimmers) are common across Asia and are found, as its name suggests, in wet lands. Dredging many websites I found the perfect tool: Subramaniam’s field guide published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. This was a perfect fit: blood red face and eyes, shading to purple at the sides, blood red thorax, reddish hue on the legs. The colour of the thorax told me this was a male; females are paler, and shade towards an yellow. In confirmation of the ID, the wings were transparent, with an amber-red base, and the wing-spot was brown.

I’m glad I made a start; reading descriptions in a field guide also tell you what to look for in future. I should have taken a shot from above, to see more clearly the dark stripe which ran along its back. That identifies it as belonging to the subspecies C. servilia servilia. Its lack would have told me that the dragonfly belonged to a different subspecies, identified only forty years ago.

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.