Off to my land on the low mountain here in central Arkansas to see where the dragons stand in this third week of April. I am mindful of the fact that it is a month until ice-out in some Alaskan townships. The oaks are greened up enough here to hide the singing birds. The storms last night dropped both rain and Kentucky Warblers. The Swamp Darners are looping through the swamp pool, the females stealthily egg-laying. I watch one carefully choose her site and then “finger” beneath the water to place her dragon caviar. She flutters all four wings lightly while she touches her children down.
The whitetails are building. A few males have appeared. The baskettails are still bouncing. Oddly, there are no corporals here. They swarm elsewhere. On the road: dog tracks. And soon after: fresh dog stool with copper dung beetles struggling at their work. Some are half buried in grime. It looks like they carve it with their flanged heads. In the leaves nearby another dung beetle and another and another marching off backwards with their round yellow balls of wild spaniel or shepherd dung.
I step into the clearing where my old work piles of fallen woodrot still sit from the last winter and the winter before. There is rainpuddle and gravel and broomsedge, the flutter of duskywings. Also the ubiquitous geometer moth that rises and crashes here and there. It lives, I believe, entirely on buckeye leaf. Inside all this: the flash of a larger dragon. It comes from east and swampward and wings across, looking at first like a Halloween Pennant before it makes a banked curve like a Great Blue Skimmer. It sweeps and I follow with my eye and watch it cut over and land atop a low stem. Instantly, in the binoculars, it is an oh-my-God dragonfly—the never seen but immediately recognizable kind. The kind that makes me give up a noise like a gutpunch, a catch in the throat, a hiccup of recognition. And indeed it does look like a large skimmer that has been painted like a pennant—Celithemis meets Libellula in the language of the necromancer. It is Libellula semifasciata, the Painted Skimmer. The yellows tell me it is a female—goldens on the tailpipe left and right. She turns on her stick spire in full rotation: a windvane that has its own thoughts about how the wind should blow. A diagonal racing stripe on the thorax, it is a paintstroke that ran too thick on one end.
Dunkle says “wary.” Terse as Dunkle is. Needham, Westfall and May have no comment. Paulson did not find them in south Florida. Abbott, more loquacious, says “somewhat inconspicuous, flying casually around the forest ponds it patrols.” But Dunkle does paint the range map over the whole state of Arkansas, over the whole eastern United States in fact. Like neither skimmer nor pennant, they say, it travels mostly in singles, apparently, and in wooded swamp ponds. I am standing next to one. Only six counties of the 75 in Arkansas have records for this excellent beast. Louisiana is lightly peppered.
I watch her flap irritatedly at some small fly that tries to land on her. I don’t approach. I can tell this is not a creature to attempt close photo-ops upon. I have no net. It is, of course, back in the truck. So I just watch. And then an Oklahoma Clubtail, Gomphus oklahomensis, falls out of nowhere like an afterthought of last night’s storm. It strikes the ground in clubtail pose and my eye goes to it for just a moment. When I look back at the skimmer she is gone. I stomp around in the grasses flushing up more whitetails and moths. I can’t be bothered with them. I stare at the swamp pond; a Red-eyed Vireo calls. An uncommon dragonfly is sometimes like a visitation.
It is April. It is early. There will be more.