The White-faced Meadowhawk

Before I had children, you might have caught me with a pair of binoculars glued to my eyes with my face turned toward the tree tops. After having children, that drastically changed because it’s practically impossible to find and focus on your object of observation before needing to look down to be sure your child has not wandered off into the poison ivy or creek. Not one to be discouraged, I have taken this time in my life as an opportunity to shift my focus from the sky to the wonders closer to the ground. In doing so, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amazing things that abound.

One jewel of nature I have found is both common and extraordinary, ferocious and small. This is the white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtusum). Meadowhawks are a group of dragonflies characterized by being less than 1.5 inches long. As the name implies, the white-faced meadowhawk has a pearly-colored face. Males are bright red while females and juveniles are yellow-orange in color. Female coloring fades to brown with age, which can be an impressive five to six years old.

I admit I was puzzled when I encountered my first meadowhawk in the grassy field that edged my garden as dragonflies are generally thought of as insects found near water. It turns out that meadowhawks are species often found well away from water even though it is a necessary part of the insects’ life cycle. They do require water for egg laying and embryo development, as well as the larval stage of life. When a dragonfly larvae, called a naiad, is ready to change into its adult form, it climbs up the stem of a plant partially submurged in water and rests above the surface while it transforms into the adult dragonfly. Once ready, it breaks out of its old skin and waits for its wings to dry before flying away.

Like all dragonflies, meadowhawks are voracious eaters, catching prey on the wing with a reportedly 95% accuracy rate. This little dragonfly in particular fills an ecological niche by hunting in fields where other, larger dragonfly competators are absent, thus its presence at my pond-less garden. White-faced meadowhawks are found in the northern US and southern Canada, and are active from July through October.

Unfortunately for the amateur naturalist there are a number of other species of meadowhawks in the same geographic range that are practically indistinguishable from the white-faced meadowhawk, including the ruby meadowhawk, the saffron-winged meadowhawk, and the cherry-faced meadowhawk. I’m not too worried about proper identification though. The greatest part is getting outside with my kids, because whether we look high or low, there is lots to observe.


gabriellewheeler_profileStory and photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler