Higher Ground

Surprisingly Monday 9th was dry, albeit overcast. The temperature was comfortable and I even had a glimpse of sun just after 1.00pm.

Anxious to avoid any flooding, I settled for the higher ground of Ramsdown. With a little luck I might be able to flush out a Brown Hawker or two. Maybe even a Golden-ringed or Emperor? I didn’t. But I did manage to find my first Black Darters of the year.

I circumnavigated the small hill a few times, covering as much ground as I could, but the only other dragon I found a Scarce Chaser.

I decided to explore the heath below and, cheered on by more Black Darters, I decided to walk on to Christchurch Common. On the way I took a little detour and spied a pond I’d previously missed.

This great little pond, if restricted by access, provided a few more Black Darters, some Small Red and several Emerald Damselflies.

I crossed the busy dual carriageway and made my way deeper into the heath to a couple of my favourite small ponds and was not disappointed.

More Small Red & Emerald Damsels, and hundreds, if not thousands, of Black Darters.

Black Darter
Black Darter
Emerald Damselfly
Emerald Damselfly
Black Darter
Black Darter
Emerald Damselfly - male
Emerald Damselfly - male

The heath was alive with them, and even a few Common Darters showed themselves.

Common Darter
Common Darter

A lone Black-tailed Skimmer flew in, almost as if to let me know there was more diversity. However by now the day was darkening and the wind increased, making photography even more difficult. It had also gotten noticeably cooler.

Satisfied with a good day despite no larger prey, I called it a day and headed back to the car park. Almost out of the gate my eyes were drawn to a telling flight pattern within the shadows.

Circling the gateway was a female Southern Hawker, another first this year.

She was almost impossible to track completely given the light, and after watching her for about five minutes I lost her. No matter. To see one more species this day was more than enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Thursday 12th I popped in to ‘the pond’ for a brief visit, knowing that the morning had started out with a wondrous sunrise, but would turn sour soon after noon.

Still too cool to warrant a late morning pond display, at least there were a couple of Azures braving the weather and patrolling the waterline.

I concentrated on the gorse & fern area to the south, kicking up a few Common Darters.

Common Darter
Common Darter

There were also a couple of Broad-bodied Chasers, the latter looking past their sell-by date, but still a joy to see.

Broad-bodied Chaser - female
Broad-bodied Chaser - female
Broad-bodied Chaser - Male
Broad-bodied Chaser - Male

A quick fix then, but not enough to really get a high. Perhaps it’s time I enrolled on a twelve-step program to cure me of my addiction. Except I don’t want to be cured.

During last week I received an e-mail from John Ward-Smith, a conservation volunteer for Berkshire and an experienced Dragonfly enthusiast, in response to my report on Swinley Forest a couple of weeks ago, .

The group were conducting a walk on Friday 13th July and I was welcome to join them, to show me how to navigate this vast area without getting lost, and hopefully find a few dragonflies.

The forecast showed overcast with (possible) sunny spells and showers, and, realising I wasn’t going to get better elsewhere, I gladly accepted the offer.

The day started well with patches of blue sky, and after making acquaintances we headed towards Rapley Lake.

At the bridge pool we had Common Blues and a couple of Red-eyed. As my back was turned there was a fleeting glimpse of something larger which John was almost sure was a Brilliant Emerald.

We continued along the banks of the main lake and saw more of the same, then back-tracked to the cleared area to the south of the lake.

Here we had Blue-tailed, Large Red, Small Red and Emerald Damselflies to add to our count, along with a female Downy Emerald ovipositing and disturbed by a feisty Four-spotted Chaser.

John & I delved further along the shoreline to the western edge, a precarious pigeon-step to a significant reed bed which was sheltered and surrounded by trees, populated by feeder insects and bright enough to warrant good activity.

We braved the sodden ground, supported only by submerged vegetation, for a good half-an-hour and observed another possible Brilliant Emerald patrolling for a few moments until disappearing into the trees.

We also had sightings of Four-Spotted Chasers, Black-tailed Skimmers and a female Emperor.

The remainder of the party had already moved on to Cobbler’s Hole, a valley mire which had been stripped of encroaching Birch to allow the Bog Myrtle to break through. While the rest of the party were having lunch, I was advised to check out the small ponds created by my hosts.

A passing walker, or indeed an inquisitive enthusiast like me, would never know this pond existed without insider knowledge. All their work is carried out during winter; damming culverts and draining ditches, and repairing the damage done by recent forestry works.

I felt truly humbled. I spent last winter hibernating.

An insignificant bridge dissecting a gravel path was our next stop. Jumping a ditch, I was guided to a series of ponds created by my guides which, in better weather, would be alive with dragonflies.

After a pause at one of the ponds watching a few damsels, we were greeted by the last sunny spell we were going to experience that afternoon. A male Four-spotted Chaser rose to patrol for a few seconds at a time before settling on his favourite perch.

A rattle on a dead tree stem disturbed a Golden-ringed from the shelter of the bank which found refuge beyond our sight.

Shortly afterwards a male Brown Hawker appeared from nowhere, circled the clearing several times before disappearing beyond our reach.

We had another sighting – perhaps the same one – before the clouds drew in for the afternoon.

This was the highlight of the day – a display of two of my favourite dragonflies in one brief moment of sunshine. A moment you would miss had you decided the day wasn’t worth the weather gamble.

I must thank John for giving me the opportunity to erase that bad experience I had of Swinley Forest a few weeks ago, and the rest of the crew who all made me feel very welcome.

Most of all I thank them for giving me an insight into their home ground and the treasures it can provide, all of which probably wouldn’t exist without their sterling efforts to keep this urban forest a refuge for wildlife.

I might well join then this winter.

Sue & I had a dedicated butterfly day on Sunday, and were nicely surprised by this beautiful Golden-ringed taking refuge along the forest ride.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly - male
Golden-ringed Dragonfly - male

That’ll make up for the lack of photo opportunities on Friday!