Among The Blooming Heather

There are several environments where I feel at home and lowland heath is one where I prefer to spend the height of summer. Long considered to be of poor agricultural use, this hasn’t stopped our lowland heaths from disappearing under the bulldozer to make way for housing.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - immature male

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – immature male

The once-bountiful swards which straddled the Avon, Moors and Stour Valleys have mostly been consumed by the conglomerations of Poole and Bournemouth, with only the margins and a few lonely pockets remaining.

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) - immature male

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) – immature male

Thankfully the New Forest to the east and Studland to the west have escaped the onslaught and are for the most part protected, being a vital ecosystem for many of our heathland invertebrates, reptiles and birds.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - male

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – male

Town Common near Christchurch is a prime example and has been a real favourite of mine over the past few years; the myriad of ponds making this a mecca for dragonflies. Ironically the majority of these ponds are man-made with the help of those usually-destructive bulldozers.

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) - immature male

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) – immature male

The management of Town Common and the adjacent Ramsdown Forest is undertaken by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) for the benefit of our native reptile fauna, to which they provide a sterling service to our dragonfly fauna as odonata are a major menu item for the Sand and Common Lizard.

Azure (Coenagrion puella) - pair in cop

Azure (Coenagrion puella) – pair in cop

A perfect example of sympathetic conservation working to preserve a mutually beneficial environment. On a sunny day the ponds are alive with odonata, including our summer heathland triumvirate of Black Darter, Common Emerald and Small Red along with the more common Azure, Common Blue, Chasers, Darters, Skimmers and Emperors.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) - immature male

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) – immature male

It is also one of the environments where you can find the locally-rare Moorland (Common) Hawker while the surrounding heath provide refuge for the Scarce Chaser, Golden-ringed and Brown Hawker which breed along the adjacent rivers.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - immature female

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – immature female

It is truly one of my great favourites, not least for the relative isolation, associated quietness and the ability to get lost enjoying uninterrupted solitude indulging in the fauna.

Four-spotted Chaser  (Libellula quadrimaculata) - immature male (praenubila)

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) – immature male (praenubila)

So here’s to Town Common and Ramsdown for providing an optimum environment for our heathland dragonflies. Other conservation organisations can learn a lot from their sympathetic management.

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A Latchmore Love Affair

There is obviously a bucket list for Odonata; usually the rarest, most local or migrant speciality like the Lesser or Vagrant Emperor, the Red-veined Darter, the various Emeralds etc. Yes, it’s a ‘tick’ to get these species, but in the case of migrants or rarities I find it far more enjoyable to encounter them by being at the right place at the right time.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - imm female aurantiaca phase

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – imm female aurantiaca phase

One of these rare species is the Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly, which is a native of our Isle. What makes them rare is their exacting habitat requirements, although with stories of colonising shallow tractor/bulldozer/motocross tracks they are opportunistic.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - male

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – male

There is no doubt that the best environment to experience this jewel of the damselfly species is in their preferred natural habitat; usually boggy flushes with healthy water quality and vibrant emergent vegetation, especially Water St. John’s Wort.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - imm female aurantiaca phase

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – imm female aurantiaca phase

In the New Forest we are fortunate to have a few perennial breeding populations. There is a small colony along the Ober Water where you may be lucky to spot up to half-a-dozen on a good day, but by far the best location is the boggy flushes straddling Latchmore Brook. A Scientific survey a few years ago counted thousands.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - male

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – male

It took me a few years to pinpoint the key area ,despite several clues, and perhaps quite-rightly the exact grid reference was left vague. This is a good thing, because the last thing this species needs is a herd of bucket-listers congregating on-mass and destroying their habitat.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - freshly-emerged female

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – freshly-emerged female

Naturally I always look forward to my first Latchmore foray, full of hope and often disappointed, but the good times out-weigh the bad, with several successful excursions over the past few years.

It’s a tranquil place when the sun isn’t guaranteed; and although a sunny day can offer the best dragonfly action, the hoards of picnickers and dog walkers can distract on a hot day during the high season.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - imm female aurantiaca phase

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – imm female aurantiaca phase

Thankfully the tourists stay reasonably close to the car park. Sometimes too close. Never understood why someone should travel miles to picnic a few metres from their car? However this is to our advantage, and provided you are willing to walk that extra mile you can be in a natural paradise with plenty of birdsong guiding you to peace.

The ‘aurantiaca’ phase of the female Scarce Blue-tailed is quite-rightly considered a prize among dragonfly aficionados; the vibrant immature orange tones being entirely unlike any other damselfly colour form. A beautiful sight in stunning prom dress before maturity turns her into a quite drab matt green fully-formed adult.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - mature female

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – mature female

However it is important to appreciate this special little damselfly in all its stages. The mature males out-shine their mates in glorious technicolour yet themselves are a little drab to begin with.

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) - immature male

Scarce Blue-tailed (Ischnura pumilio) – immature male

Drab or not, encountering an immature male is a first for me, likewise the freshly-emerged female. During an enjoyable two days the only stage I didn’t encounter was the quite beautiful transitional phase from orange to green, but their season has only just begun.

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From Heath to Meadow

After five days stuck under a period of low pressure I took a gamble on Wednesday, and was glad that I did so. Despite threatening cloud and strong gusts I had an agenda; to find me some Common Emerald and, if lucky, a Black Darter.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - male

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – male

The Emeralds were easy to find; exactly where they should be, although staying low out of the breeze and not as many as I expected.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - immature female

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – immature female

Even harder to pin down were the Small Red. Once they rose they disappeared, seemingly into another dimension. The welcome sight of a few Scarce Chasers kept me on my toes, and, despite their citrus appearance,  they were also hard to follow once they caught the breeze.

Small Red (Ceriagrion tenellum) - male

Small Red (Ceriagrion tenellum) – male

A false alarm as the unmistakeable shape of a Darter rose, the size alone determining it as a Common. Still, that’s four species in a short while under challenging conditions.

Naturally the ponds were devoid of any activity, so I took a stroll along the tracks hoping I might find a roosting Hawker, but not today. No worries, the discovery of yet another pond I’d somehow managed to miss before kept my spirits high.

A cracking little pond it is too, for it was here I finally caught up with the Black Darter.

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) - immature female

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) – immature female

I almost missed it. The unmistakeable shape of an abdomen made me look twice. So well was she hidden down low in the heather that It made me question how many more I’d missed.

This find had given me a little boost of energy so I carried on under some brief sunshine before heading over to Ramsdown. Nothing of note here so should I dare attempt Troublefield? After all it is mid-June and the cattle are bound to be present.

Present they were, but thankfully in the top meadow where they should be. The key meadow was devoid of bovine presence and the gate was still unlocked, although there were some flattened areas which looked distinctly mammalian.

On the whole though it was pristine, tall grasses and reeds, beautiful wild flowers and the skies were alive with insects in this little sheltered paradise. The winds couldn’t penetrate here, and those brief moments of sunshine kept the temperature warm & humid.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

Banded and Beautiful Demoiselles were present in large numbers but it was the Scarce Chasers which impressed. At least twenty-five individuals added welcome colour and contrast in this sea of green.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

This is the most I’ve ever seen here, and is no doubt due to the meadow being allowed to develop. The sheer number of feeder insects and unrivalled shelter makes for a fabulous refuge, although I could do without the horseflies which certainly made a feast of me.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

Horseflies aside, a very pleasant hour to round off the day nicely. In my opinion if you’re not prepared to experience the discomforts of nature you certainly don’t deserve the benefits.

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A Short Stroll along Ober Water

Continuing the need for solitude a visit to the New Forest was long overdue, so on Thursday I took a stroll along Ober Water to add a few species to the season’s count. I was hoping for Small Red, Southern and White-legged damselflies, some Keeled Skimmer and if lucky a Common Darter or two. At Puttles Bridge the first of these was in the bag with a good selection of Small Red among the Bog Myrtle.

Small Red Damsefly (Ceriagrion tenellum) - male

Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) – male

Shortly afterwards the first of the Keeled Skimmers made an appearance.

Keeled Skimmer  (Orthetrum coerulescens) - immature male

Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) – immature male

Every season I forget where the first stream crossing is, so I spent a few unnecessary moments tangled deep in the undergrowth or navigating bog. I found it in the end though, and made a metal note to take the easier option next time.

Across the stream the open clearing had a Broad-bodied Chaser joining the Beautiful Demoiselles, but no sign of any patrolling Golden-ringed. Likewise at the next crossing, but at least the first White-legged and Southern damselflies made an appearance.

Southern Damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale) - male

Southern Damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale) – male

It is still a little too early for Ober Water to reveal its magical charms with activity over water very sparse and punctuated. The usual hot spots contained no more than a couple of each damsel species; mostly males determining territories.

Likewise the heath didn’t produce the spectacle of hundreds of teneral Keeled Skimmers and the grasses were host to only a few immature damsels, mostly females avoiding ttoo early attentions from the males.

As such photo opportunities were limited and I completely failed to get a worthwhile shot of any of the White-legged, but there’s plenty of time. Likewise the Common Darter, of which three teneral individuals were disturbed while walking he paths across the heath.

I was more than happy with adding five to the species count and a walk along my favourite New Forest stream. I do have a few commitments and requirements throughout the remainder of June given the next spell of good weather, but I’m looking forward to coming back to Ober in full bloom.

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Solitude

After the excitement and associated pressure of Whixall Moss I needed to reconnect with odonata without the distractions of being part of a group, no matter how enjoyable the company. Maybe it’s peer pressure or a higher threshold of satisfaction, but I didn’t feel I performed at my best and came home with a shot of the day.

Or maybe I’m being too self critical! No matter, there will always be another chance.

I took a couple of days rest to reflect and calm down before needing to get out on my own on Wednesday, and as I haven’t been for over a week I naturally chose Bramshill. I’m determined to visit at least once a week to get a feel for this magnificent site and compare it to last season, and so far it continues to impress.

I wasn’t blessed with the best conditions on arrival, and checking out the small ponds might have been a tad premature considering the lack of sun, although it was hot and humid. Nothing but a few damsels testing the waters, but I did find a roosting Emperor.

Emperor (Anax Imperator) - male

Emperor (Anax Imperator) – male

Not the most comfortable conditions to embark on a walk, but as over-water activity is minimal in such conditions it made sense to do a little foraging. Hawker Alley didn’t throw up the wished-for perched Downy and the main rides were mostly lacking.

Once I’d reached the other pond things improved with some Blue-tailed and Common Blue decorating the grass fringes, and it was here I encountered a beautifully-fresh and not long emerged male Emperor, resplendent in his immature colours.

Emperor  (Anax imperator) - immature male

Emperor (Anax imperator) – immature male

A little further on is a triangular clearing with a small stream running through, a couple of displaying  male Banded Demoiselles flew above while down in the scrub were a selection of damsels and another Emperor. I find the surrounding grasses are usually better for photo opportunities.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

The walk back to Long Pond was mostly uneventful and the sun was trying to break through The waterside had come alive with Four-spotted Chasers, a few Downy and a couple of Emperor joining the hundreds of Common Blue, Red-eyed, Large Red and Azure. The tenerals were still rising with most following the updraft into the canopy, but occasionally one would take the nearest option.

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) - teneral male

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – teneral male

There were a few more Emperors patrolling with the arrival of a sunny spell, and naturally I had to engage a little.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male

Emperor (Anax imperator) – male

A final check of the small ponds produced mainly Four-spotted Chasers and a selection of damselflies. No Hairy today, which means that they’ve passed their peak but no doubt there will still be a few stragglers around until the end of the month when the Emperor reins supreme and the Brown Hawker will provide more than a welcome challenge.

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Whixall Moss

Towards the end of the season last year Marc Heath and I arranged a trip this June to visit Whixall Moss in Shropshire, a site with a healthy population of one of the UK’s rarest species, the White-faced Darter.

The advantage of Whixall Moss is you are more or less free to enjoy them at your leisure without the time and other restrictions offered by the organized trip to Chartley. However sourcing reliable information can be tricky, with a few individuals prepared to send you on a wild goose chase.

Not this time though; we’d done our research. Armed with this knowledge we didn’t waste any time sourcing the key pond with maximum enjoyment. It was certainly a sight to behold, and once the sun had finally broken through the low cloud the pool came to life spectacularly.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – male

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – male

At least two dozen males, half-a-dozen females and several pairings  they certainly offered us a choice of opportunities, even if most of them were frustratingly at ground level or facing in the wrong direction.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – teneral male

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – teneral male

We couldn’t have wished for better weather with temperatures easily in the mid-twenties, which made me question the climate-change excuse for their rarity. If they can survive – indeed thoroughly enjoy – such hot and dry conditions I see no reason why they cannot be reintroduced to the south. The New Forest and surrounds in particular have more than enough ideal conditions for them to thrive.

White-faced Darter  (Leucorrhinia dubia) - male

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – male

After the White-faced Darters the most prevalent species was the Four-spotted Chaser, who the former had no trouble standing up to. A lone Emperor was seen patrolling the paths briefly, but otherwise the only other species present were Azure and Large Red, although we did have a lone Blue-tailed on the way out.

White-faced Darter  (Leucorrhinia dubia) - female

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – female

It’s difficult to believe that six hours can pass so swiftly, and by 4.00pm we were all feeling a little flagged and with a long drive home we reluctantly called it a day. We witnessed about as much as you could possibly expect for a single species with fabulous over-water activity, battles and pairings.

White-faced Darter  (Leucorrhinia dubia) - pair in-cop

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – pair in-cop

Emergences were still going on late in the afternoon and, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t unusual in Darters, Skimmers and Chasers.

White-faced Darter  (Leucorrhinia dubia) - teneral male

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – teneral male

I finished a tiring yet fulfilling day with a classic ‘stick’ shot, albeit against the sun.

White-faced Darter  (Leucorrhinia dubia) - male

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) – male

There are several projects underway to reintroduce this charming species to other sites. They have already been successfully introduced to South Cumbria and the Delamere Forest and as I write I hear about the possibility of Crowle Moor in N. Lincs.

Thursley Common will probably be in line as this previously held a population, and I for one hope the New Forest and West Dorset are considered. A long drive to be sure, but with good company and plenty of action it was well worth it.

I just might return next season to get some better shots.

 

 

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Bank Holiday at Bramshill and Bentley Wood

On Saturday we decided to introduce Doug to the delights of Bramshill Common. We were barely at the pond when he immediately busied himself with a patrolling Downy. The southern shore was alive with tenerals, including Four-spotted Chasers, Black-tailed Skimmers and swarms of Red-eyed and Common Blue.

Common Blue Damselfly  (Enallagma cyathigerum) - immature female

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) – immature female

Once I’d managed to coax Doug away from being rooted to his spot, we took a stroll along hawker alley, stopping frequently to check along the shoreline. Plenty of Downy and Four-spotted Chaser battling for supremacy close to shore and every footfall would see another teneral rise to the canopy.

Black-tailed Skimmer  (Orthetrum cancellatum) - immature male

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – immature male

We took stroll along the main track to the crossroads and had our first glimpse of a male Emperor circling the clearing, shortly followed by another. We watched while we lunched hoping either would perch, but fresh wings and hunger kept them airborne, so I attempted to coax a young Black-tailed Skimmer off of the ground, but he wasn’t having it.

Black-tailed Skimmer  (Orthetrum cancellatum) - immature female

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – immature male

Back at Long Pond Doug continued with the Downy while I attempting to tackle one of the dowens of male Red-eyed along the fringes. They have to be one of the more frustrating damsels; just when you think you have them in your sights, off they go again.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) - male

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) – male

Concluding the day with another walk along hawker alley we found a mating pair of Downy perched several meters up a tree.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - pair in-cop

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – pair in-cop

We couldn’t have wished for a better finale, but the weekend wasn’t over yet.

Sue & I returned to Bentley Wood on Sunday, and what a difference a week makes! Barely into the woods and we were greeted by a beautifully-fresh female Emperor who rose at our passing. She circled and took refuge deep in the scrub,  so I decided to concentrate on those beautiful fresh eyes.

Emperor (Anax imerator) - immature female

Emperor (Anax imperator) – immature female

At the pond we were treated to a Downy motherlode. What a sight! Up to seven males patrolling with five at any one time, females ovipositing and no less than six pairings. Four of these naturally headed high to the canopy, but the other two chose to perch low in the scrub not far from water. A nightmare to approach and as nervous as paired Emperors, so I couldn’t improve on yesterdays.

The patrolling males were extremely difficult  to photograph, wizzing by at great speed without the slightest pause and occasionally engaging in fisticuffs with rivals All very non-aggressive compared to most species.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - male in-flight

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – male in-flight

A little later we had a young male Emperor come in to test his flight muscles.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male in-flight

Emperor (Anax imperator) – male in-flight

That should keep me going until summer returns.

 

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A Time of Plenty

The delayed spring has resulted in a flurry of May delights with several summer species joining the fray, although there still appears to be a subdued feel to most places as these young adults disappear to feed, mature and grow.

Thankfully one of my favourite spring sites always give me moments of pleasure. Troublefield was positively brimming with fresh Beautiful and Banded Demoiselles, and so long as you are up for the chase and patient they can provide some stunning photography opportunities.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

This pristine water meadow is rife with feeder insects and provides the perfect crèche for maturing adults. A pristine but flighty female Broad-bodied Chaser gave me the run around twice, helped by a Scarce Chaser drawing my attention away from her.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

Every spring there’s always a pleasant surprise to be found at Troublefield; whether it be an early maturing Emperor, a visiting Hairy or a fresh and early Golden-ringed. This year it was the latter which made my morning.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) - immature male

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) – immature male

Visiting Cadnam Common on the way back the pond activity isn’t yet as furious as you would expect in late May with only a few Chasers battling for supremacy and just the one male Downy patrolling. Still, at least it’s looking healthy and given a week or so should provide the splendid spectacle which first fired my interest.

On Friday afternoon Sue & I took a walk around Swanwick Nature Reserve in the hope we would find a willing Blue-tailed or two. We did find a small selection this time, although they were warm & flighty and seemed determined to make me work for it.

Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) - immature female violacea form

Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) – immature female violacea form

At the entrance to the meadows we were faced with signs and painted markers ordering visitors to remain on the paths and stay out of the meadows. There seems to be a misguided culture of turning our threatened wild flower meadows into museum artifacts by placing them behind fences and screens and preventing our enjoyment instead of educating us through interaction. Such rules and regulations will further prevent our love and enjoyment and eventually refer them to history.

Common Blue Damselfly  (Enallagma cyathigerum) - immature female

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) – immature female

This being an urban Nature Reserve means it is used by dog walkers and these utilitarian methods are probably a result of irresponsible owners not keeping there charges on leads. They’re certainly to blame for the state of ‘dog pond’ at the far end of the reserve, although the Large Red and Broad-bodied Chasers seem to thrive in the filth.

On our visit there were a couple of males patrolling, a female ovipositing and two just-emerged females which flew into the canopy with our passing. So a little to see and a chance to take a local couple of hours exercise, but I do wish I would come away wanting to visit more frequently.

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Bentley Broods while Bramshill Blossoms

The satisfaction I received from such a bountiful day in the Somerset Levels satisfied my cravings for a whole week. Certainly the weather didn’t inspire me enough to venture out knowing that the majority of us still have to reach our Spring bounty.

Usually by this time you can be guaranteed a day of splendor at most ponds given a warm, sunny day. We didn’t have one of those days on Sunday in Bentley Wood, but it was by no means bad to begin with. I was certainly expecting a lot more to keep me occupied, even if it was just some fun with the damsels, but even here the pickings were less than slim.

Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella) - male

Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella) – male

Just a dozen or so Azures and even less Large Red. Just the two Blue-tailed and no sign of any Four-spotted or Broad-bodied Chasers although did have a passing visit from a Downy Emerald before the clouds rolled in, and we received a grand soaking on the way back to the car.

The weather looked promising on Monday, but looked better on Tuesday, and a day to warm up should kick-start some action. An early start at Bramshill to make the most of it found tenerals rising from the water, a fabulous sight which continued all day and made a change from the showers of seeds and pollen filling the rides.

Most of these tenerals rose high and made for the trees, while those without such self-assurance alighted on the nearest refuge, me included. I could’ve made a day of teneral chasing but I did have a purpose today; to chase down a Downy or two.

There were certainly a few rising with my passing down hawker alley, and one or two even provided a moments hope as they circled but they decided to fly beyond my reach. I saw a few more along the rides but the rides belonged to the Beautiful Demoiselles today. Hundreds of them dancing in the sheltered, sunny clearings.

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) - male

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) – male

When I returned to Long Lake I bumped into Mike Barnett at the shoreline and decided to join him grabbing more than a moments enjoyment perched in the shallows determined to capture one of these elusive Downy Emeralds while they were on the wing.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - male in-flight

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – male in-flight

Satisfied I’d got my prize I decided to continue by transect around the other shoreline and through the jungle. Still plenty of tenerals rising but with the clouds drawing in all water action had more or less ceased. I spent a little time with one of the Four-spotted Chasers before deciding to call it a day.

Four-spotted Chaser  (Libellula quadrimaculata) - teneral female)

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) – teneral female)

On the way out I bumped into Aaron Cook (and Molly of course) rounding off the day with a good chat and some plans for the near future. Watch this space.

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The Vale of Avalon

Every year around this time Doug & I like to make the pilgrimage to the wonderful Vale of Avalon for the bounty of Spring species, especially the Hairy Dragonfly and Variable Damselflies, the latter of which is absent from South Hampshire. The Hairy is present, albeit very local and in small numbers. We were barely through the gate when we observed enough activity to keep us amused with both of the above, Azure, Large Red, Red-eyed and Blue-tailed along with Four-spotted and – most welcome – an emergence of fresh Scarce Chasers.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

Among the many delights of the Somerset Levels is the chance to engage with the Red-eyed at close quarters, instead of their preferred perch out on inaccessible lily pads.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) - immature male

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) – immature male

I wanted to engage more with the Variable this time, taking time to observe their behavior with the intention of picking them out among the Azure from a distance. Once you get your eye in the bulkier appearance and more determined flight are good indicators when you can’t get a close view of their subtle differences in markings. One of the great delights with unfamiliar species is coming across an immature colour form which is as beautiful as it is unexpected.

Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) - immature female

Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) – immature female

With the gentle rise in air temperature we had our first sightings of Hairy rising from their shelter in the bank to feed along the tree-line. An obliging female gave us our first opportunity.

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) - female

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) – female

Down in the microclimate of the grassy banks it’s very much dog-eat-dog. The damselflies were right to be cautious, although the danger didn’t lie with us.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) - female feeding on an unfortunate Azure

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) – female feeding on an unfortunate Azure

Watching the damsels was both entertaining and informative. The Red-eyed certainly appeared to be the bulldog of the bunch; stocky, fast and powerful. At the other end of the spectrum was the diminutive Blue-tailed appearing to casually drift with the breeze, although they too had a purpose. Another benefit of keeping your eye close allows you to come across delights you might’ve missed.

Hairy Dragonflies (Brachytron pratense) - pair in cop

Hairy Dragonflies (Brachytron pratense) – pair in cop

-We did have a smattering of Four-spotted and the odd Broad-bodied, but the day really belonged to the Scarce Chaser with numbers increasing during the afternoon.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva)_- Immature male

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva)_- Immature male

A walk along the Sweet Track brings you to a permissive path crossing a glorious spring meadow where several female Hairy were resting down low in the grass while the reeded margins provided the perfect backdrop for incoming males.

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) - male

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) – male

An enjoyable, educational and productive day can satisfy the cravings for a good few days and if the sun had made an appearance outside my window this week I probably ignored it. I need more days like these!

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