Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Widow skimmer dragonfly on poverty weed

with 52 comments

When I’d almost finished wandering the grounds of Hyde Park High School on the morning of July 30th I spotted a dragonfly. Slowly moving in on it, I managed to get close enough for this portrait with a 100mm macro lens. The subject is a widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa. Latin luctus* meant ‘sorrow, mourning, grief, affliction, distress, lamentation, especially over the loss of something dear to one,’ and it seems the large dark patches on this dragonfly’s wings fancifully reminded people of a widow in mourning. (Never mind that this widow appears to be a male.) And speaking of grief over what has been lost, look at how Tennyson ended his poem “Ulysses” with triumphant resignation:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

* English used to have the borrowed adjective luctual, meaning ‘related to or producing grief,’ but the word has fallen out of use. We mourn its disappearance and the chance to play off intelluctual against intellectual.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 15, 2020 at 4:27 AM

52 Responses

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  1. Wow that’s beautiful!

    Ms. Liz

    August 15, 2020 at 4:37 AM

  2. Dragonflies have an eons long track record. Demonstrable patience in that photograph, Steve.


    August 15, 2020 at 5:38 AM

    • Speaking of eons, there used to be giant dragonflies with wingspans of a couple of feet. I wonder if they’d have been harder or easier to photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 7:07 AM

      • I think there would have been some risk of having become carried away with trying to get close-ups of the monsters. What a marvelous portrait!


        August 15, 2020 at 4:46 PM

        • I take some risks to get pictures but getting in a time machine and trying to photograph a giant dragonfly while dinosaurs lurked about isn’t a risk I’d take.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 15, 2020 at 4:58 PM

      • You wouldn’t need to be as close, that’s for sure…and better off for it as well.

        Steve Gingold

        August 15, 2020 at 6:41 PM

        • I do like to get in close, if I can pull it off. Sometimes the subject bolts, other times not, as you know so well.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 15, 2020 at 7:04 PM

  3. I think in the mornings they are still warming up in the sun and not as active. They don’t sit still in the evenings.

    Jason Frels

    August 15, 2020 at 8:10 AM

    • That could well have been the reason. I was out taking pictures that morning not long after sunrise.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 8:20 AM

      • I enjoy my sunrise hikes. Sometimes I get some good photos along the way.

        Jason Frels

        August 15, 2020 at 8:52 AM

        • Happy morning hikes to you. I’ve seen some of the pictures that came from them. And 80° is a lot more comfortable than the 107° that Camp Mabry in Austin recorded yesterday.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 15, 2020 at 9:00 AM

  4. Wonderful photo, Steve. Your quote sums up how I’m feeling this morning. I wonder, is lacrimal somehow related? It would be fitting it if were.


    August 15, 2020 at 8:29 AM

    • In the next comment, Peter pointed out that lugubrious is related to luctual, with both coming from the root of the Latin verb lugere that meant ‘to mourn, lament, bewail, deplore.’ Lacrimal is from a different source. It’s the adjective corresponding to lacrima, which meant ‘tear[drop].’ In archaic Latin the word had been dacruma, which looks a littke closer to its native English relative tear.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 8:54 AM

  5. In spite of its lugubrious name, it is quite a pretty dragonfly. Lugubrious and luctual are derived from the same Latin verb lugere: lugeo, luxi, luctus. Great macro, Steve!

    Peter Klopp

    August 15, 2020 at 8:30 AM

    • That’s a welcome dose of etymology this morning. But then I welcome etymology at any time of day.

      I wouldn’t have chosen such a lugubrious name for this dragonfly, which as you point out is attractive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 9:03 AM

      • Playing with words is fun, even though some may find it boring. As my teacher at the German high school used to say: For boring people everything is boring.

        Peter Klopp

        August 15, 2020 at 10:14 PM

  6. Quite an interesting explanation of the name: thanks for the info!


    August 15, 2020 at 12:33 PM

  7. Perfect form! Looks like something took a bite out of its wing.

    Eliza Waters

    August 15, 2020 at 1:18 PM

    • Yes, I noticed that, too. Apparently that wasn’t a large enough gap to cause problems for the dragonfly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 2:27 PM

  8. Very nice. I’ve always had a soft spot for widow skimmers. Not entirely sure why. It has an interesting little notch taken out of one wing, as Eliza also mentioned. I always wonder at how things like that happen and wish I could be there at the time to observe it.

    Todd Henson

    August 15, 2020 at 1:39 PM

    • I’ve seen a dragonfly swoop out and catch a flying insect but I’ve never seen anything take a chomp out of a dragonfly, even though this picture implies that it happens. I guess another possibility is that something like a branch or a rock fell on the dragonfly’s wing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 4:50 PM

  9. I’ve shot a few of this species and they don’t get any better than this one. Nice.

    Steve Gingold

    August 15, 2020 at 6:41 PM

    • Thanks. One commenter suggested the early hour might have accounted for the dragonfly being complacent and staying put.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 7:06 PM

      • If you can find them in the open at that time then it is indeed a benefit. Often they spend the night under cover of tall grasses and are hard to find and harder to compose a clean shot.

        Steve Gingold

        August 15, 2020 at 7:11 PM

  10. To be an intellectual these days, it would seem one would also be intelluctual. I like your coinage, though am saddened by its circumstances. “.. that which we are, we are; … Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will … and not to yield.” (to abbreviate Tennyson)


    August 16, 2020 at 7:37 AM

    • I’m glad you took me up on the possibility of wordplay with intelluctual and intellectual, however sad the circumstances may make you feel.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 16, 2020 at 8:33 AM

      • And then there’s intellectchy’all, which is a Southern thing, I ‘spose. I have had the opportunity to photograph this species several times in the past while on field trips with NPSOT-Wilco, most likely below the Georgetown Lake dam and at Berry Springs Park and Preserve. BSPP has a lot of damselfies, too.


        August 18, 2020 at 7:30 AM

        • That definitely sounds like a Southern thing. You beat me to it in photographing this species of dragonfly, which was new to me (unless I’m forgetting some ancient pictures).

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 18, 2020 at 1:49 PM

  11. The wing detail is excellent. Such a beautiful species, but uncooperative. Worse, they like to perch low in the weeds, so it’s hard to get a unobstructed shot, as yours is.


    August 16, 2020 at 7:20 PM

    • If this species is generally uncooperative and perches low, as you’ve observed, then I was even luckier to get this picture than I thought.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 16, 2020 at 8:25 PM

  12. Gorgeous dragonfly!!


    August 16, 2020 at 8:30 PM

  13. This is an especially beautiful portrait of one of my favorite species. I’ve read that the damaged wings of some dragonflies are evidence of birds trying to capture them in flight; apparently flycatchers, swallows, and kingfishers are particularly adept at catching them.

    Tennyson’s poem is one of my favorites. It’s always nice to be reminded of it.


    August 17, 2020 at 7:32 AM

    • And I’m always happy to remind people of that Tennyson poem, or present it to them for the first time if they don’t know it. What you’ve read about birds makes one of them a likely actor in the loss of a piece of wing. As for the portrait, f/8 struck a balance between getting the dragonfly in focus and keeping the background at least somewhat unfocused.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 17, 2020 at 9:03 AM

  14. I like the straight-on symmetry (perfectly marred by that little bite out of the forewing) and the unexpected background. When I look carefully I can see it’s perched but at first, it seems to be floating in space, like a specimen.


    August 17, 2020 at 12:09 PM

    • Your comment that the dragonfly seems to be floating in space led my mind to read the word that closely follows, “specimen,” as “space man.” In addition, your phrase “perfectly marred” raises an interesting question about self-contradiction.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 17, 2020 at 1:47 PM

      • Perfectly marred was very intentional – I like to try to keep opposing concepts closer together. 😉


        September 4, 2020 at 8:05 PM

        • Physicists haven’t succeeded with nuclear fusion but you’ve succeeded with conceptual fusion.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 4, 2020 at 11:38 PM

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