Airborne

by Rex Burress

Witnessing once again the thousands of Pastel Skimmer dragonflies rising off the river reminded me of the miraculous flying ability that insects and birds exhibit. The mere fact that numerous species of dragonflies are able to rise from the muck as a watery bug and be transformed into an exquisite flying creature is startling enough "to stagger multitudes of infidels."

When I consider the exhilaration a bird must feel in opening its wings and lifting-off from earth - if they even think about what may be a taken-for-granted maneuver - there is little wonder that wingless man has long sought those lofty realms from which to view the earth. "Oh, but I had the wings of a dove! For then I could fly away and be at rest," so it was written in the scripture of Psalm 4:6, and expresses that longing mankind has long felt. That he has achieved flight mechanically is tribute to ingenious minds, a trait perhaps separating him from the rest of the animal kingdom. That angels are depicted with wings is another debatable issue, but the yearn for flying is there.

I think a bird watcher, especially, notes the flying phase of bird life, even though, generally, like the bird, it may simply be expected. But when you think about that lift-off ability as the kingfisher goes fleeing away from unpredictable man down by the riverside, you have to wonder about the processes that produced that flying stage and changed the life style of a living creature.

What ingenious designer created flight? Was it a cell-by-cell transformation from the unknowable first cell? I am told that flight may have developed in birds from reptiles that found favorable salvation in the sky, but how many eons had to pass before that condition developed? There are more questions than answers in the haunting history of all life. Those fossils of "reptiles with feathers" are seemingly undeniable facts of ancient transformations completely apart from the structured knowledge of man. Indeed, if those accidental clues had not been laid down in stone, we would have no knowledge that things like dinosaurs ever existed.

Even more baffling are the fossils of giant dragonflies etched in solidified mud 400 million years ago, long before flying lizards made flight. How did the lowly insect rise from the earth to fill the skyways with shimmering wings? Almost all insects have a flying stage, even though they begin existence in a non-flying mode, usually as some sort of larvae quite different than the adult version. I have never seen a cockroach fly as they scamper successfully to survival, although reference data indicates that most do have wings, apparently unchanging in structure for millions of years. I learned, upon capturing an ant lion from its conical pit in the ground and placing it in a sand box, that they, too, undergo a remarkable transformation from a round cocoon into a delicate winged creature resembling a damsel fly. You just donít connect the ant lion larvae with flight.

Earwigs are garden wrigglers that cling to underworld things, but they, too, have wings, but crickets are wingless, even though their noisy counterpart, katydids, can unfold some complex sails, as does the praying mantis. Ants and termites have an episode with flight when the winged females erupt from the colony to drift away to new anchorages. The worker ants are yoked with the earth forever. When you get down into lice and fleas you will find flightless demons endowed with the ability to suck a living from life. It is one of the less grand moments of life when a flea establishes residency in your clothes, as members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805 could attest to. Their winter in the dampness of the Oregon Coast was plagued with fleas they had contacted from the Indians, and they are extremely difficult to eliminate.

Not all birds have the ability to fly, either. The ostrich gave up flight when over-weight went above 300 pounds, and penguins are forever attached to the sea, using stub-wings for swimming rather than flying. If ever a bird needs to fly, it is the penguin, which seems apparent once you study those photographs of them hunched over one egg trying to keep it from freezing in the Antarctic perils. But the Flight-giver giveth, and the Flight-giver taketh away.

The wonder of flight is marvelous, even though I see it over and over again as I walk along the river. The slow flapping flight of an egret is a joy to behold, drifting more like a butterfly than a bird, right down to the delicate landing, feet daintily dimpling the surface as it eases into wading position. The radiance of the white feathers illuminates the riverside for this graceful flyer that asks no more than to be able to pursue fish as a living. There are, in fact, five kinds of heron-like wading birds along the river. The smallest is the Green Heron, not much larger than a Western Scrub-Jay if you disregard the ungainly, squawking take-off when it seems all ruffled neck and clumsy legs it hardly knows what to do with, but once airborne it gathers itself for a buoyant flight.

The amazing thing is that all of the nearly 9,000 species of birds on earth have distinctive flight patterns quite apparent to an established bird watcher. You can identify the half-speed flight of the kingbird at a great distance, just as the headlong blundering flight of the cormorant defines its style. The soaring of the swallows, rippled with the wing beats they seem reluctant to use, is a study in symmetry and the love of flight.

There is no mistaking the fanning flight of the butterfly, designed more for drifting among the blossoms than attaining the speed such as a bumblebee exhibits. Most flying styles are slanted for efficiency in achieving a food-gathering goal rather than for pure display.

Whether it is bird, bee, or dragonfly, they all represent the wonder of being airborne and gaining the freedom of the skies.

© 2004 Rex Burress
June 26, 2004