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Dragonflies and damselflies, oh my! Bitter Lake to host annual Dragonfly Festival on Sept. 9

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A Flame Skimmer. (Bill Flynt Photo)

As you first get a glance of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge driving east over the crest on Pine Lodge Road, the refuge make look like a vast, barren wasteland with only a few shallow ponds to break up the monotony.

For those of us who grew up “back east,” the term “wildlife refuge” is nearly synonymous with “dense forest.”

But that mindset will quickly change once you get out of your car and start walking around. The refuge is teaming with wildlife of all kinds, from small deer to migratory birds to tiny fish no bigger than the nail on your pinky; and lots of flies and mosquitos.

Two of the refuge’s most colorful and fascinating creatures are dragonflies and their smaller cousins, damselflies.

Every year, the refuge celebrates the beauty and wonder of these marvelous creatures with its annual Dragonfly Festival.

This year, the festival will be held on Sept. 9 and will feature many free family activities hosted by the Friends of Bitter Lake, a nonprofit group that supports the refuge.

Activities will include early bird tours, wildlife tours and dragonfly tours in which families will have an opportunity to explore parts of the refuge that are not always accessible to the public.

So what’s so special about dragonflies?

They are one of the oldest forms of animal life on the planet, dating back millions and millions of years.

Although they are ancient, they are by no means a crude lifeform like the amoeba.

There are few species in the animal kingdom that can match the dragonfly for spectacular flying ability, according to the Mother Nature Network website. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with muscles in the thorax that can work each wing independently. This allows them to change the angle of each wing and practice superior agility in the air.

Dragonflies can fly in any direction, including sideways and backward, and can hover in a single spot for a minute or more. This amazing ability is one factor in their success as aerial ambush predators — they can move in on unsuspecting prey from any direction.

“They are great models for aviation, but are so complicated,” said Jimmy Masters, one of the event’s organizers.

Masters said dragonflies can catch their prey while perched in the air. “They have an amazing anatomy.”

He estimates there are about 100 varieties of dragonflies and damselflies living at the refuge.

Since their heads are basically a cluster of 30,000 eyes, they possess 360 vision. But despite this bombardment of visual information, dragonflies are not easily distracted. They have a human like ability to focus all of their attention on one object and shut out everything else.

Though dragonflies are voracious predators, they are harmless to humans.

Dragonflies can judge the speed and trajectory of a prey target and adjust their flight to intercept prey. They’re so skilled that they have up to a 95 percent success rate when hunting, according to the Mother Nature Network website.

Along with their difference in size, Masters said damselflies can be distinguished from their bigger cousins by how they position their wings when they perch.

“When dragonflies land or perch, they extend their wings out to the side. Damselflies hold their wings above their bodies,” Masters said.

Masters said dragonflies are an important component of the food chain, consuming smaller, peskier insects like mosquitos.

Early September is a good time for the festival, Masters said, because the weather is neither too hot nor too cool.

As in past years, an art contest was held and all elementary students in the Roswell area — whether they attend a public or private school or are homeschooled — were invited to participate.

This year’s winner was Joshua Dodson, a homeschooled third grader.

His dragonfly painting appears on the Friends of Bitter Lake website and will be used for fliers and posters.

A special attraction this year is an old-fashioned chuckwagon provided by Sharon and John Drusdum. The couple will be serving free coffee and biscuits from 9 to 11 a.m.

“We got it about three years ago,” Sharon Drusdum said. “We bought it from a man from Las Cruces who restored it.”

The Drusdum’s chuckwagon originated from the Oliver Lee Ranch where it was used to serve cowboys as they were putting up fencing.

Oliver Lee was a colorful Old West character who lived in Mexico. He was a part-time U.S. Marshal, a rancher and a gunfighter. He died in Alamogordo, where the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is named for him.

But the festival is not all about dragonflies, damselflies and western-style vittles.

Other activities during the festival will include kids’ arts and crafts, a fishing pool and archery.

The day will be filled with speakers, arts and crafts vendors, exhibitors from around New Mexico and much more. Speakers for the day will Laura McCann with Birds of Prey at 11 a.m. and Scott Bulgrin with “Rattlesnakes of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona” at 1 p.m.

Festivities kick off on Friday, Sept. 8, with the first presentation of “Rattlesnakes of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona” at 6:30 p.m., followed by stargazing from the Roswell Astronomy Club at 7:30 p.m.

For more information or to make tour reservations, call 575-625-4011.

Be sure to check out the Friends of Bitter Lake website at friendsofbitterlake.org/ and also the Friends Facebook page.

Community news editor Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or editor@rdrnews.com.

Editor’s note: This page is dedicated to Bill Flynt, who passed away about a year ago. Bill worked at the Daily Record for 19 years and his passion was photographing the dragonflies and damselflies at Bitter Lake.