de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Of Dragonflies and Damselflies. Living. September-October 2005. Pages 88-89. Volume 01, Issue 01, ISSN 1800-0746.
A little-known lake with easy access of the city turns out to be a treasure trove of ‘winged jewels’.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes to Talangama with Dragon Watcher Karen Coniff for a closer look at some winged jewels

The day after May Day, quiet, no rain, a good day to visit Talangama Lake on the outskirts of Colombo. I had a plan. From dawn, till around nine in the morning, I would photograph birds, followed by dragonflies thereafter. Dragonflies and Damselflies become active after the sun is up. This fits in very well for birdwatchers as one can start with the birds and them move onto the dragonflies. A key part of my plan was to join Karen Conniff, who together with Slovenian Matjaz Bedjanic know more about Sri Lanka’s dragonflies and damselflies (known scientifically as the Odonata) than anyone else. Both have been collaborating with me to popularise dragonflies. I do the easy part of photographing them and they do the hard part of combing through the scientific literature and learning to tell one species apart from another. In time to come, we hope to develop a photographic field guide to enable the les technically minded (like me) to at least identify many of the commoner species. A first step in this direction is an eight page booklet we have published with photographs illustrating sixty three species.

Karen arrived with her husband David and one of her daughters, Olivia.  I joined them at a long sliver of verdant green paddy fields which has a fast flowing canal running through, bisecting them in the middle. An Asian Tiger clashed in flight regularly with a Purple Skimmer The Asian Tiger is a common, widespread  species and one of our largest. It is fairly easy to identify with a black abdomen with yellow markings. The Purple Skimmer (a dull red, in fact) was very combative and also clashed with a Sombre Skimer and an Indigo Dropwing (Trithemis festiva). This was the first time we had seen an Indigo Dropwing in Talangama.

One Asian Tiger we were observing was very tolerant and allowed me to approach it within a few feet to photograph it. It was also perched most of the time and not patrolling furiously as they sometimes do. A female came by and the male was up in a flash. He intercepted the female and in a few seconds it was all over. We were just about able to make them out getting into the ‘wheel position’, in mid air. Descriptions of acts of pro-creation by dragonflies seems to have drawn inspiration from the Kama Sutra, but in fact are quite descriptive in a prosaic way. The female then perched on a leaf and the male hovered above engaging in an act of ‘mate guarding’ to ensure a rival male did not render its mating void.  Male dragonflies have uniquely modified penises which allow them to remove sperm out of a female from a previous mating. This is why males guard the females after a mating. A few seconds may have been enough for her eggs to have been fertilized as the female then flew over the water and began to lay her eggs (known as ovipositing). The male returned to his perch, satisfied that at least one female had passed on its genes.

A few pairs of Red-headed Sprites were observed flying gaily about in tandem. These are a species of damselfly. Their mating is a more long drawn out and leisurely affair, taking up to half an hour. None of the wham bam thank you m’am of the Asian Tiger. The male is in effect ‘contact guarding’ the female by literally holding on to her. His anal appendage has a special pair of claspers with which he holds the female. Karen suspects that there are more males than females intensifying competition. This could be one reason why a male holds onto a female. Another reason could be the extended time it takes for the female to be fertilized and lay eggs. We walked along the canal, in places choked with aquatic vegetation, providing perches and hide-aways for all kinds of small animals. Several male and females of Adam’s Asian Jewel are seen on the aquatic plants. A beautiful animals, with the male in a striking emerald and black. They seem to be confined to canals with fast flowing water and good stands of aquatic vegetation. They are always found perched on a plant in the water. The wings are laid back along their abdomen and extends over it, giving them an unusual short bodied look. Karen has never observed them mating despite several visits to the canal. Their sex life in Sri Lanka remains a mystery.

Other species we observed were Pgymy Midget, Yellow, Malabar Sprite, Stripe-headed Pinfly, Orange-winged Groundling, Little Blue Darter, Black Velvet-wing, Dancing Dropwing and The Twister. The Twister is more active around dusk. The one we saw, sought refuge in the shade or the vegetation lining the canal.

Karen has asked several of the farmers not to spray the canal as it is very good for wildlife, especially the smaller animals which are often overlooked. Her husband David Molden who works for IWMI took several pictures of us dragonfly watching besides the vegetation lined canal. Although canals have to be regularly dredged and kept clean for irrigation, it makes sense to leave vegetation beside them intact. This conserves soil and reduces siltation of the canal. It also provides a refuge for animals such as dragonflies and birds which prey on insects which are detrimental to the farmer. The canals also act as mini jungle corridors for the dispersal of animals. In fact they make a strong case for jungle corridors to link national parks. Elephants may not know where the jungle corridors are, but those animals whose random, dispersal path by good fortune crosses a corridor, find themselves with a useful path for dispersal which provides food and cover. Wildlife friendly farming will be encouraged by agencies such as IWMI to leave vegetation thickets on the edges of fields and besides irrigation canals.

Our dragonfly watching was confined to this patch on this morning. Like with birds, different habitats hold different species of dragonflies. Had we moved onto the main lake, we would have found several other species. Amongst the reeds we would have found Little Cloudy Darter  a dark dragonfly with dark tips to its forewings. Perching amongst the broad leaved aquatic vegetation would have been the brilliantly red, Spine-legged Reedlings a  species with a habit of perching at a steep angle along the the aix of a twig or more likely a leaf blade. The Variable Gliders are found perched several feet above the water atop bushes. The female distinguished by having more black on the wings. The gold and black make this a very distinctive species, looking like something out of a box of Christmas tree decorations.

Two other beautiful red species are the similar looking Eastern Scarlet Darter and the Dawn Dropwing. The Easter Scarler Darter has a more attenuated abdomen. The species we observed on that public holiday on Monday were simply dazzling. Some in iridescent blues, some in oranges, some in reds, some in menacing black and yellows. Many Sri Lankans, even wildlife enthusiasts are unaware of this treasure trove of beautiful bio-diversity within easy access of the city. I have many pleasant memories of dragonfly watching in the UK with the London Wildlife Trust and the London Natural History Society. With the help of Karen Coniff and Matjaz Bedjanic, hopefully it may not be long before we have a useable photographic field guide, to create the first generation of Dragonfly Watchers in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka already has many passionate bird watchers. It seems likely that as in Europe and North America, the bird watchers will also take up dragonfly watching. A woman may lead the way.
Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is emerging as a wildlife and tourism  celebrity. E-mail him atgehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.