Meet the Neighbors: 

Re-discovering "Common" Odonates in Urban Habitats 



One of the pleasures of "dragonflying" is traveling to new places and seeing species that are uncommon or simply not present in your home range. As rewarding as it is to see a "lifer", though, it's important not to lose sight of the "common" dragonflies and damselflies flying in your own neighborhood. Most people live in urban environments and the animals we see daily, including odonates, are those adapted to living with humans or exploiting remaining patches of suitable habitat. Dragonflies and damselflies are a diverse group; some prefer wetlands while others require rivers, and some are more tolerant of waters that are warmer or contain more sediment. But even the most tolerant organisms can reach a point where the habitat is too altered or degraded for them to persist, or so fragmented that connectivity between habitat patches is lost. This lowers species richness at remaining sites and reduces individuals' ability to find and colonize new sites.

But even in our urban world, created and restored habitat can provide the elements needed by dragonflies and damselflies and help increase their diversity and abundance. In Japan, habitat generated by creating ponds on the properties of major local industries enabled an endangered damselfly previously known from only one site to colonize and breed at six of the created sites. Protecting livestock watering ponds in an arid mountainous region of Italy helped increase local odonate diversity. Tanner Springs Park in downtown Portland, Oregon--the only visible remnant of now-buried Tanner Creek--provides less than an acre of vegetated wetland surrounded by buildings and sidewalks, but in summer it is bustling with dragonflies, and one of the northernmost state records of Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata) was noted here.


Restoration created my own Pond Watch site in a heavily-used urban park that until two years ago was lacking in odonates. The small creek that runs through the park had been straightened and paved at the edges, and the water was additionally slowed, warmed, and polluted by an in-stream pond full of geese and ducks. In 2013, the channel was returned to a more natural meandering path and re-connected with its floodplain, the pond was removed, and the banks were re-planted with native vegetation. This created a more functional creek and increased wetland area, and odonates were quick to find the restored habitat. I see more species of dragonflies at the park now in two hours than I saw through six years prior to restoration--including three of our five main migratory species--and in such abundance that the air is filled with the rattling clash of wings as males battle for territory.

Many dragonflies and damselflies are equally quick to use created habitat, and whether you live in a rural, suburban, or urban environment, a backyard pond can make a difference in the landscape. A dragonfly pond doesn't have to be large; the minimum viable area is ~ 43 sq ft (4 sq m), but people with smaller ponds often have odonate visitors. A range of water depths, a diversity of submerged, emergent, floating, and marginal vegetation, and rocks at the edge for basking can provide everything a dragonfly needs for feeding, taking refuge from the elements, mating, and laying eggs. And you will have created a small oasis for yourself as well, to be used for relaxation, study, photography, education--or just to watch these beautiful insects go about their daily business. For detailed information on how to install a backyard dragonfly pond, check out the MDP publication "Backyard Ponds: Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for Dragonflies and Damselflies".