This fellow dropped by the last week of May, probably checking out our yard for mosquitoes or some other soft insects. It was kind enough to sit quietly on a bindweed leaf while I took a few pictures.
It reminded me of a motorcycle racer in brightly colored leathers, its dome-shaped eyes almost like a helmet. The bright yellow jacket with black trim (racing stripes?) was particularly eye-catching, and the clever A on its thorax seemed to advertise affiliation with some sports team. The effect was made even stronger by the transparent wings that seemed not to be there at all. I don’t remember ever seeing a dragonfly like it before.
I spent some time searching unsuccessfully through insect guides, both on paper and online, without finding a picture that looked like it. Lisa joined in and found a picture that looked somewhat like it, but it lacked the black patterns. Eventually I came upon a decision-chart style guide that walked me, step by step, through a series of binary choices, finally leading to a picture and description of the Plains clubtail (Gomphus externus). “Aha!” I thought.
Unfortunately as I looked at the description page I realized this couldn’t be it. First, the guide, from the Idaho Museum of Natural History, was obviously designed to help people learn about the natural world of Idaho, and the description made it clear that this dragonfly’s range did not extend anywhere near West Virginia. Second, the description reported an “Adult Flight Season” of “Mid-July to mid-August”, and this insect was clearly an adult at the end of May. I thought the picture looked just like it, but it was in the wrong place at the wrong time of the year, so it could not be the right dragonfly. Anyway, something with “plains” in its name seemed a bit unlikely here, so near the edge of the mountains.
This discovery did give me some clues, though. This insect had to be a clubtail, so both Lisa and I searched for clubtail dragonflies in West Virginia. Lisa found a Mustached clubtail (Gomphus adelphus) in a Pennsylvania factsheet, but I thought it looked a bit too green. In due course I came upon the Final Report for the West Virginia Dragonfly and Damselfly Atlas (13 April 2011, revised 1 November 2011), which contains a lovely list of all dragonflies and damselflies that have been identified in West Virginia. The section on “Suborder Anisoptera” (i.e., dragonflies), “Family Gomphidae” (i.e, clubtails), includes 27 species that have been observed in West Virginia. After reviewing the descriptions and pictures, I think “my” dragonfly is either a Midland clubtail (Gomphus fraternus) or a Lancet clubtail (Gomphus exilis), or it could be a Moustached clubtail (Gomphus adelphus) as Lisa suggested. Maybe I should just say “Gomphus sp.” and let some expert decide. Well, maybe that’s not a perfect identification, but it’s close enough for me.