The Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer CL

Who Doesn’t Love a Quiet, Jazzy-colored Helicopter?

Zip-hover-zip-grab-zip-perch-eat-repeat! You can see this pattern all day in the spring to fall flying season for dragonflies at Clark County Wetlands Park. Many dragonflies in the skimmer family (Libellulidae) feed by flying up and outward from a perch to grab a flying insect, then returning to their perch to dine. Of these, the widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) is an all-time favorite. 

This skimmer has been described by Dennis Paulson in his field guide Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West as a “big, showy skimmer with dark wing bases”.  I think this description fits these robust, nearly two-inch long dragonflies to perfection. Just check out the male perched in the photograph!

Because widow skimmers of both sexes hunt from favorite perches, they are easy dragonflies to see sitting still along the pond margins and streams in the Park Nature Preserve. They usually perch near the top of a twig, reed, or bulrush, holding onto the side rather than the tip of the perch with their mid-and-hind leg pairs, head facing up.  Interestingly, they will often hold their front leg pair folded behind their heads when perched. One female was filmed using her first pair of legs for grooming her eyes (see YouTube videos for a look)!

Even better, both males and females are easily identifiable if you can sneak in close to a perched skimmer or have close-focus binoculars to view them (hint: the dark wing bases are the give-away).

Like the model in the photo, mature males have dark brown faces and thoraxes, set off by light powdery white (prunose) abdomens and horizontal stripes across the thorax. Their wings feature dark brown bases (nearest the dragonfly’s body), and broad prunose-white stripes at mid-wing, with dark “stigma” dots near the tip of each wing.

Mature female widow skimmers have brown eyes and light brown faces. Their thoraxes are brown with tan spots low on the sides. Their abdomens feature a black central stripe that widens toward the tail with wide yellow stripes on either side. Like the males, females have dark wing bases, but lack the prunose stripes at mid-wing. They have dark stigma dots and may have dark spots on their wingtips.

The latin species name for the Widow Skimmer, luctuosa, means “sorrowful or mournful,” perhaps because the wings of both the males and females appear—at least to those doing the naming—to be draped in mourning crepe (veils used by women in the 19th century to protect their propriety after the loss of a family member or friend). The dragonflies themselves never seem at all mournful to me, zipping around patrolling their territories at ankle to waist height, and feasting on captured prey. The flying insects (including mosquitoes, sweat bees, hover flies, and flying ants) that make up the skimmer feast may, however, feel a bit mournful at their approach!

This spring and summer, look for colorful widow skimmers among the dragonflies darting like aerial jewels near Wetlands Park ponds. Just think: the air show you see today is almost unimaginably old.  The dragonfly tribe has been on the wing since Cretaceous times, over 300 million years ago. That is older by 100 million years than the dinosaurs, and older than the first bird by 150 million years!

– By Chris Leavitt, President; photo courtesy Clark County Wetlands Park Archives

Please enjoy these YouTube videos!

Dragonfly, Male Libellula Luctuosa, 08/03/2014

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellulidae: Libellula luctuosa Female on Stick

Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) Female-Built-in Wiper Arms