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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mystical Rock Creek

Instructions for Living a Life:

Pay Attention.
Be Astonished.
Tell About It.

~Mary Oliver


I sweltered in the 97 degree heat of that August afternoon, my bike ride abandoned in favor of sitting along Rock Creek with my feet dangling in the water. I'll often do that, just find a quiet place to sit, allowing the world to unfold around me. Sometimes amazing things happen if you are patient and wait for them.

Rock Creek was quiet in that afternoon heat. Few birds braved the dry, oven-like air. A handful of American Goldfinches flitted in the shrubs along the creek and feasted on the abundant native sunflowers growing there.

Male American Goldfinch on native sunflower, Lafayette, CO

Overhead, a Swainson's Hawk circled, its wings catching an updraft that carried it further and further from my view.

Swainson's Hawk, Lafayette, CO


In the distance I heard the keee-keee-keee screeching of a small falcon - probably a Kestrel -  and the long whistle of one of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks. Occasionally, a crow or raven or magpie flew over, perhaps looking for a meal or a cool place to perch in the shade.

One of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks


Small dragonflies and damselflies zipped up and down the creekbed in their last-ditch efforts to look for mates. The dragonflies topped out at about 2.5 inches long, but their fiery orange and yellow colors lit up the reeds along the creek. They flew, hovered for a few seconds, then perched, then flew on again up and down the little valley. They reminded me of college kids trying to be seen on Pearl Street Mall.

Small dragonfly along Rock Creek, Lafayette CO

Every so often, a petite, graceful damselfly perched nearby. Damselflies are similar to dragonflies in overall size and shape, but have more delicate bodies and wings. They also hold their wings in parallel with their bodies when they rest, whereas dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched. Damselflies have a certain grace about them when compared to their beefier cousins. Dragonflies are relatively bulky and just look tough, like a Mastiff or Bulldog. Everything about damselflies is thin and delicate though - much like an Italian Greyhound or Saluki.

Small, blue damselfly


Damselflies are barely there - even with their bright colors, they blend in so well with the reeds that they are often difficult to spot.

After communing with the insects and birds for an hour or so, it was time to head home. Packing up my camera gear, I waded up the creek back toward the main trail and my mountain bike. Then something magical happened...

A very large, very blue dragonfly flew up to me and stopped, hovering in midair just a few feet in front of me. Judging by its size (about 5 inches long), color, and overall appearance, I believe it was a Giant Darner, Anax walsinghami. After 20 seconds or so, it flew off upstream toward a marshy area that I knew was about 75 feet from where I stood. The Giant Darner is not terribly common here in the Denver area so I felt blessed to have seen it.

I stayed in place, standing in the creek for a few minutes hoping against hope the large insect would be back. I really wanted a picture but in order for that to happen, the dragonfly would have to perch on a reed or branch for me. Even hovering, it constantly moved back and forth so getting a photo of it in flight would be next to impossible.

After maybe 3 minutes of waiting, the giant blue dragonfly came back. It did the same thing: flew up to me and hovered about 2 feet away, then flew back the way it had come.

I wasn't able to snap off a picture.

Again I stayed in place, and again came the giant dragonfly. It hovered, then flew back toward the marsh. This time I decided to follow it to see if it would perch somewhere along the way.

I slowly walked up the creek, stopping every now and then to try to locate the dragonfly. Each time I stopped and paused, it would come back down the creek and hover in front of me, seemingly wanting me to follow it, then would fly back upstream toward the marsh. If it had been a dog, I wouldn't hesitate to say that "it wanted me to follow it" because I have seen my own dogs do just this (usually to let them out to chase that pesky squirrel invading "their" yard). 

But this was a dragonfly! Everything I learned about animals taught me that insects didn't have the kind of thought processes a dog would have. Part of me felt a little silly for thinking it "wanted" me to do anything, let alone follow it. So I decided to experiment. I stood my ground.

The dragonfly kept returning, doing the same hovering act, then flying back upstream toward the marsh. Never did it fly past me or over me and go downstream. It somehow seemed to be keying in on me. Why? I have no idea.

I finally gave in and followed the blue ghost back, all the way to the marsh. Again, it never flew past me to go downstream, always going back and forth between me and the marsh. When I reached the marshy area I stood off to the side, but still in the water, and waited.

The dragonfly hovered in a constantly-moving arc around me for several minutes. I gave up trying to capture a picture of this blue jewel in constant motion and just enjoyed the experience of being touched by this little slice of Nature. Finally, after what seemed like a magical eternity but was really about 3 minutes, the blue dragonfly flew up high into the air, then disappeared from view.

I still don't know what the Giant Darner was doing or why it seemed to key in on my presence, but the experience touched on something almost-mystical for me. Sometimes these quiet times of communion with other people or other species can be more precious to me than the biggest, brightest jewel in the store.

I did pay attention, I was astonished, and now I am telling about it.



Sept 14, 2013, Post-disaster update: As you probably know by now, this area was hit very hard with severe flooding this past week, just after the photos above were taken. I will post a full update on Rock Creek soon, but just know that the dragonflies survived! I made a quick trip out there today and the Giant Darner came back and hovered around me for the entire time I was there. Several other, smaller dragonflies made their presence known so all is not lost :-)



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