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Autumn Meadowhawk (What Time is it in Nature)

November 21, 2015

The recent cool weather has driven many of the insects away from Prairie Ridge, but there are still a few cool weather insects visible on the grounds.  One showy example is the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a dragonfly you may find lurking around the pond.

Autumn Meadowhawk.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Autumn Meadowhawk. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Autumn Meadowhawks are fairly small as dragonflies go, reaching a little over an inch in length.  Their long, slender bodies start off pale yellow and brown and turn more and more red as they age.  At this time of year and late in their season, most male Autumn Meadowhawks sport bright red abdomens with brown thoraxes tinged with red.  Females, such as the one in the photo above, are also reddish, but are generally duller red and they have brown markings along the sides of the abdomen.  Both sexes, however, have pale legs, a characteristic that distinguishes them from other similar dragonflies.  In fact, this species used to be known as the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk due to its pale yellow legs.

Autumn Meadowhawks are active from the summer through the late fall or early winter, making them one of the last species of dragonflies you’re likely to see before they disappear entirely for the winter.  They’re common across most of the US apart from the southwestern states, though the northwestern and eastern populations may eventually be recognized as two separate, distinct populations.  Within their native distribution, you’ll find Autumn Meadowhawks near marshes, permanent ponds, and occasionally very slow-moving streams, though look for them away from water.  They’re most likely to be spotted at the tops of vegetation or high in bushes a little further from the water’s edge than you might expect.  On warm fall and winter days, you might also find them basking in sunny spots close to the ground.

This species is behaviorally different from most of the dragonflies.   They tend to rest higher off the ground, and you’ll usually find them away from water.  Unlike most dragonflies, this species completes most of their courtship away from water, only visiting a pond or marsh after mating has already taken place and the female is ready to lay eggs.  Males and females will fly around in tandem (i.e., with the male grasping the female behind her head with clasping appendages at the end of his abdomen) and lay eggs together, the female dipping her abdomen in the water repeatedly as they fly.  Autumn Meadowhawks are relatively tolerant of other individuals of their own species, perhaps because males are not competing for territories near the water.  Sometimes you’ll find large groups of Autumn Meadowhawks in an area, a very unusual behavior among dragonflies.

We’ve seen a lot of Autumn Meadowhawks near the Prairie Ridge pond lately!  Look for them sitting in sunny patches of bare dirt between the bird blind and the pond or you may spot one sitting on one of the wooden platforms near the water.  In spite of the cooler daytime temperatures and frosty nights, the Autumn Meadowhawks have put on a good show recently.  We hope you’ll stop by soon to see them!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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