Nososticta flavipennis. Creek near Doluduo.
It didn't take long to learn that the local guides, who often lapsed into a dialect peculiar to their far-flung corner of the archipelago, refer to damselflies as 'helikopter'. And once they realised we had little interest in feathered f(r)iends, unlike the vast majority of troopers who brave the highlands that overlook a lava strip of coconuts and paddy fields, the men readily indulged our pursuit of flightier quarry by pointing out choice specimens by the paths.
By some quirk of prehistoric biogeography, there are no featherlegs in Sulawesi, an amoeba of an island where the creatures of a northern supercontinent dwell alongside the survivors of Gondwana. In many a seep and sundrenched brook, I sought in vain these dainty beasts, which haunt the darker portions of swampy woods in Sundaland, clinging to the tips of low shrubs with their wings half ajar and oft betrayed from above by a beacon of blue at the tip of their tails. But here, in forests soiled by the blood of earthly veins, Coeliccia and Copera were nowhere to be found. Instead, the dimmer reaches of the trails, where tiny rivulets converge in ephemeral pools and exuberant mosses drape ledges that drip with precipitation, stir with the bodies of shadows and flatwings. These two families, one bearing hooked wingtips and cloaks of near invisibility against the dappled undergrowth, and the other clad in muted tones with discrete splashes of brilliance, have divided and conquered the stiller reaches of island's inland waters, where they bask in the spray of minute streams and exact a modest toll on the dipteran clouds that occupy the air between the trees.
Two other zygopteran families that enjoy wide distribution and high speciosity in Sundaland and New Guinea, the demoiselles and threadtails, have but a foothold in Sulawesi. Vestalis, which lines the tracks of Borneo in infuriating densities, was conspiciously absent in the jungles of a volatile peninsula. The island's sole calopterygid is a metalwing little different in form and habit from its cousins elsewhere in the region, sailing as it does over rocky creeks and revealing, at rest on boulders just beyond the reach of riffles, electric flashes of colour with nervous flicks of its hindwings. But here, Neurobasis kaupi has drifted in sheen from the emeralds of its typical congenerics to a royal hue that compels distraction and rivals the blues of the chlorocyphids within its territory.
The protoneurids, elusive damselflies with abdomens little thicker than a pin and partial to swift waters with quiet banks, are just slightly less depauperate in presence. But the only tangible member of the family encountered on this venture into the island's shallow interior was a wisp of an insect, likely from a genus widespread in Australasia, that not infrequently rose from vague perches to eyeball simian visitors to its domain. The male, which bears one and a half stripes of azure on his thorax and wings with a light wash of brown, often had in tow a paler mate in waiting. Some pairs, placing no premium on privacy, sank deep to deposit their passion in untidy eddies. But not a few deigned to pay tribute to their mechanical namesakes, hovering in tandem in the shafts that lit their dappled home and floating at length on strokes timed to slip past the wind and resist the rules that bind higher life to the lowest lays of a denuded land.