Two Days in a Fortnight

Did you really expect a repeat of last season’s perfect weather? Me neither. This is Britain, so prepare to get wet.

A miserable June for sure. Since Latchmore I’ve only managed to get out a few times; a couple of disappointing days at Bramshill and a trip further afield, of which more later.

Now the problem with Bramshill can be attributed to the weather, but that’s not the whole story. The combination of unsatisfactory meteorological conditions and, frankly, a lack of management have both contributed to low levels of key species.

A perfect species to highlight the downfall is the Black-tailed Skimmer. I’m used to seeing hundreds lining the paths and shores. Tenerals rising across your path and adults skipping ahead of your footfall.

The problem with Bramshill is the encroachment of scrub. Gorse, Willow, Bramble and ‘introduced’ skin-tearing spiky saplings forbidding access to the shores. The north-western ponds are now totally inaccessible.

A few years ago they bulldozed the clearing, flattening it completely, which had it’s own effect. Hammer & tongs is never a good solution. Since then it has been allowed to grow unheeded.

Hairy Dragonfly (male) Hairy Dragonfly (Female)
Emperor (Female) Emperor (Female)
Hairy Dragonfly (male) Hairy Dragonfly (Female)
Emperor (Female) Emperor (Female)

Now they have managed other large sections of the reserve by once again flattening the over-encroaching gorse and stripping away the shoreline of bordering trees. With the latter they’ve used the branches to create hedge-type fences totally restricting previous access points to the shore.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - immature female
Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – immature female

Recent signs warning of ground-nesting birds give an idea of their priorities, a single genre practice which I’ve always rallied against. We need diversity to benefit all species. Dragonflies are unfortunately low on the totem pole of importance.

Beautiful Demoiselle ( Calopteryx virgo) - male
Beautiful Demoiselle ( Calopteryx virgo) – male

The fencing off of shorelines is no doubt due to the problem they have with bathing dogs. Fair enough, although designated areas like the bench at Long Pond where dogs can swim free hasn’t had a detrimental effect to the overall health of the pond; it still remains the most prolific of ponds on the reserve.

Beautiful Demoiselle ( Calopteryx virgo) - male
Beautiful Demoiselle ( Calopteryx virgo) – male

It’s a shame as Bramshill has up until now been a fabulous site for dragonflies. To be fair it still is, but as the years go by the disappointments outweigh the satisfactions.

Bramshill isn’t the only site suffering lack of , or misguided management. After nearly a fortnight of low pressure bringing winds and rain we decided enough was enough and we took a trip to East Kent in search of some sunshine and their local population of Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker.

Now it’s been four years since we’ve made this trip and were looking forward to seeing these magnificent beasts again.

On arrival our first observation was the neglect of the path beside the railway leading to the the lakes. The walk in is long enough without having to battle through bramble & nettle.

Once through this jungle we were greeted by yet more habitat vandalism. The ditch where you were guaranteed patrolling GEH was barren of emerging reeds, and the shore opposite had been stripped of bank-side vegetation.

Needless to say we didn’t see much. Just the one patrolling male and one to the overgrown ditch to the right.

We decided to head towards the Stour and make our way to the clearing where we hoped we’d find the same activity as before. Thankfully we did so. There were at least a dozen males patrolling out on the water, frequently dropping low to perch of the reeds.

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) - male
Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) – male

This was more like it. Green-eyed, Scarce and even Hairy making the most of this wonderful warm bay. Although in-flights were out of the question due to distance it wasn’t long before we had our first male fly in to the bank and perch perfectly.

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) - male
Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) – male

This fellow stayed around long enough to grab a macro shot

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) - male
Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) – male

We stayed put and watched the show over water, wishing we or our subjects could approach a little nearer. We had one more male fly in and perch low.

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) - male
Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker (Aeshna isosceles) – male

Several Kingfishers flew frantically by while day trippers and locals passed by in kayaks or small rowing boats. Now there’s a plan for next year!

Tribute

It is with great sadness to learn of the passing of one of dragonflies and nature’s true heroes, Steve Covey.

CDR for Wiltshire for 20 years, I first met Steve at Bentley Wood while we were both searching for Purple Emperors. Since then we’ve enjoyed many days out in the field indulging in our passion for dragonflies.

It pains me to think we’ll never share another day in the sunshine taking photos, sharing jokes and making memories which will stay with me forever.

Here’s to a fabulous, funny and knowledgeable much-loved gentleman who taught me and countless others so much over the years.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends who’s love were shared in his final days.

May you rest in peace buddy.You will be sorely missed.

Steve Covey and the author in the field at Latchmore
Steve Covey and the author in the field at Latchmore

Little By Little

Tuesday 28th May

Staying on home turf I revisited Troublefield hoping for a better showing a week on from my last visit. I wasn’t disappointed. Both Demoiselles were present in satisfactory numbers.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

Despite a thorough search of the upper meadows I didn’t see any sign of Broad-bodied Chaser or White-legged Damselfly. There were however plenty of Scarce Chaser to occupy my time.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female
Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

While walking alongside the nettles I disturbed a fresh female Emperor from her resting place and watched as she flew towards the tree canopy.

The lower meadows had a DWT work party busy with strimmers and chainsaws, so I decided to pop over to Crockford where I at least had my first Southern Damselflies of the season despite the increasingly overcast conditions.

Saturday 1st June

A new month and some excellent conditions meant a revisit to Latchmore, this time in the company of Sue and our good friends Steve & Debbie Birt.

Arriving just before 10.00am we didn’t have to wait too long before we had our first Keeled Skimmer of the season; one of many tenerals to be seen today.

Orthetrum coerulescens (Orthetrum coerulescens) - teneral male
Orthetrum coerulescens (Orthetrum coerulescens) – teneral male

A search through the heather didn’t produce the usual numbers however we did find a few Small Red damselflies – another first for the season.

Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) - immature male
Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) – immature male

The heather here had yet to bloom so feeder insects were scarce. Also the stiff breeze at this elevation meant they were probably hiding out elsewhere today.

Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) - immature female
Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) – immature female

At the flushes we spotted our first Scarce Blue-tailed of the day, which completed Steve’s hoped-for list, but neither provided a photo opportunity.

Along the stream I did spot a very fresh ‘pre-aurantiaca’ teneral in the sedge but a clumsily misplaced step sent her across the stream and out of sight!

The stream had a decent showing of Southern Damselflies with several pairs either in tandem or in-cop, the latter producing some of the most challenging opportunities with being hidden among scrub or, as these two, swaying in the breeze.

Southern Damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale) - pair in-cop
Southern Damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale) – pair in-cop

After a disappointing search uphill we returned to the flushes where we saw our first Scarce Blue-tailed earlier. No more sightings over water but in the scrub Steve spotted a beautiful aurantiaca phase female.

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

Even after all these years I still get excited by these, and Steve & I agreed this rounded the day off nicely.

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

Home Turf

Quite why I should feel any semblance of guilt by forsaking my own doorstep in favour of greater enjoyment is beyond me. Nevertheless a favourable forecast decided a visit to Troublefield was overdue.

I didn’t have to walk too far beyond the gate before the first flutters of Demoiselles graced the meadow. Both Banded and Beautiful were in attendance in small numbers, providing an early chase and opportunity of concentration.

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) - immature female
Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) – immature female

There were a scattering of Large Red and a few Azure joining the butterflies in this humid warmth, and a few of the latter provided enjoyment. However it was the Demoiselles that drew my attention.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

I had expected my first Broad-bodied Chaser to lift my spirits. Maybe a Hairy? A Golden-ringed? Not unheard of here so early in the season, but a Scarce Chaser was ample consolation.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) - immature female
Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva) – immature female

After a good trawl through the meadows I headed over to Ramsdown. Brickfield Pond gave me my first over-water activity and Hill Pond gave my first Broad-bodied Chaser of the season. A newly-emerged specimen rising up the hill to perch briefly for a record shot before being carried by the breeze further uphill.

Plenty more over-water activity with Large Red, Four-spotted Chaser, Common Blue and Azure. Walking around the pond disturbed another new arrival, a fresh Four-spotted taking its first flight to a convenient tree.

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) - freshly-emerged female
Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) – freshly-emerged female

Further along the shore I caught sight of a shimmer as in the reed another had just emerged, this time remaining within the sedge while pumping up and drying out.

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) - freshly-emerged male
Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) – freshly-emerged male

Today’s highlight for sure, and I stayed around observing and grabbing shots while waiting for the opening of wings and that glorious first flight.

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) - freshly-emerged male
Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) – freshly-emerged male

Another promise of fine weather on Wednesday saw me fulfill my plan for Latchmore, except it wasn’t quite as warm or sunny as expected.

A good finger-tip search through by favourite scrub produced nothing and further uphill where I expected a couple of Southern Damselflies only brought more Large Red.

I admit to be sorely disappointed with my choice for day and destination and just as I was about to call it quits I decided on taking an alternative path back to the stream.

I don’t know why I decided on that path. Call it serendipity, fate or just happy coincidence for here in a small patch of low scrub a couple of meters away from water was a newly-emerged Broad-bodied Chaser!

Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) - female teneral
Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) – female teneral

Once she had spent a while changing position and drying out her wings I removed her away from what could have been an early demise as a rather large spider came into view.

Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) - female teneral
Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) – female teneral

Seeing her take her first flight was reason enough to deprive this predator of a meal. Such beauty deserves a life extension after all the energy spent.

Another highlight then, and something to lift my spirits for the walk back downstream.

A Walk Through Bramshill

I remember commenting a while back how our season can be restricted to six months; I’ve never personally felt the need to search for stragglers in November. I’ll leave that to others.

While it’s always a pleasure to seek out those first Large Red of the season, the rest of April is invariably a disappointment, wasted days waiting for a little diversity to ramp up the pace.

May is when the season really starts, when that diversity reaches double-figures and you can almost be forgiven to be guaranteed a good day. Except even when you restrict the days you can still have disappointments.

I was hoping a return trip to Bramshill would offer up more numbers and a little more diversity. There were more of the same, but not in the numbers I expected, and a couple of expected newcomers.

My first grateful sighting was a Grizzled Skipper clinging to the sparse vegetation fringing the main track; a resident of this site, their previous two hot-spots now unsuitable due to too much scrub growth.

Shortly afterwards I had my first Beautiful Demoiselles right where I expected them to be, and again scattered throughout the site in small pockets of warm micro-climate.

The path down to the ponds usually provides one or two encounters and today there was an immature male Red-eyed and a female Downy Emerald flitting from perch to perch, neither of which improved on the previous visits shot.

Another couple of females graced my walk to the center ponds, however it was an immature male which gave me a better opportunity.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - immature male
Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – immature male

The pond-side vegetation was devoid of the expected damsel swarms so I continued on through miles of forest pathways until I spotted a male Hairy fly off into the distance and a few Banded Demoiselles parked up sun-bathing, including this accommodating male.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - male
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – male

So a couple of opportunities and a few more species encountered but I have to say I was disappointed to not see more, especially a Four-spotted Chaser or two which should be all over the site by now.

Counting Our Blessings

The combination of non-optimal conditions and a rather strong bout of hay fever meant I didn’t venture forth again until Sunday May 12th. Reluctant to miss another day Sue & I rose early for a last minute decision trip to Somerset.

For the past three years I’ve chosen this week in May and each time have been rewarded with the first emergence of Scarce Chaser. After a first hour of dallying with the damsels the increasing warmth saw the first rise from the bank to take refuge in the surrounding foliage.

Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva)- immature female
Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva)- immature female

This was more than enough to warrant the trip, but the sighting of our first Hairy kept the interest going despite them being less agreeable than the Scarce.

I busied myself scouring the long grass & nettles, flushing out Azure, Variable, Blue-tailed, Large Red and Red-eyed – one of my favourites.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) - immature female
Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) – immature female

Our count continued to rise with our first sighting of Banded Demoiselle. Just a couple seen today and neither offering a decent opportunity, so I picked a willing Variable from out of the throng.

Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) - male
Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) – male

We took a walk along the Sweet Track to the far meadow where we hoped to find a few feeding Hairy. We did, but they were all difficult to photograph, choosing to perch very low and obscured by grass. I opted for a few more damsels.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) - immature male
Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas) – immature male

We walked back via the main track watching Hobby and Marsh Harrier soaring high, and after a final scouring of the bank decided to head over to Westhay Moor.

Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) - Immature female
Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum) – Immature female

That fabulous sight of thousands of damsels rising in clouds always raises the spirits and the sight of our first Four-spotted Chasers of the season raised them further, resplendent in their fresh, golden sheen.

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

After ten years following my passion one of the greatest disappointments is the unnecessary vandalism of prime odonata locations. Westhay Moor has never failed to disappoint in previous years however the clearing of a large section of treeline has ruined the experience.

We did manage to find one Hairy (which didn’t immediately fly off) perched low in the ditch. Not the best of opportunities, but it will do for now.

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) - male
Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) – male

I fail to see the logic with such short-sighted management. That treeline was a prime feeding area for Hairy Hawker hunting along the length, alighting with their prey to provide perfect photo opportunities.

A shame, but I’m determined to get better so a return visit may be necessary, with the emphasis on Shapwick rather than Westhay. However I did manage to raise my season species count from 5 to 11, so a worthwhile trip.

A Little Diversity

Since the first Large Red appeared I’ve been waiting for a little diversity. A week after my first visit I returned to Bramshill and its plentiful environs for the best chance to find a few other species.

Around the country there have been plenty of newly-emerged species to fire the enthusiasm; from the expected Common Blue, Azure and Blue-tailed to Four-spotted and Broad-bodied Chasers and even Hairy Dragonfly. A Common Blue seemed the perfect second species on my season list.

 Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) - immature female
Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) – immature female

Naturally the most plentiful were the Large Red, however none provided me with a satisfying opportunity so I continued on checking a few favourite little hidden corners, finding more Common Blue and, thankfully an obliging Blue-tailed,

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

My initial walk along hawker alley produced a few more Large Red while at the far shore I found an Azure to add to my count.

Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella) - immature female
Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella) – immature female

Number four then, and I was happy. I continued on to another pond, carefully searching every stand of reed & rush hoping for an fresh emerger. Wishful thinking I know, but you never know.

I searched the shore margins and disturbed species number four – a Downy Emerald! I didn’t expect that to be the first of the larger species encountered and, despite it flying out of reach towards the canopy, I was elated.

This spurred me on with new enthusiasm having circled the pond twice more I continued on, intending to check out the center ponds.

My route took me back along hawker alley and it was here I had my moment. I stopped in my tracks as my second Downy of the day slowly flew around me looking for a place to rest.

Up and down the path she flew as I prayed she wouldn’t fly out of reach. She landed low and before I could react she rose again and flew along the track, almost going beyond sight. Thankfully she returned and took refuge on a stand of dry gorse.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) - immature female
Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) – immature female

Suitably fulfilled I couldn’t care less if I saw anything else today, but I took my intended walk anyway. Only a few Large Red and Common Blue tenerals were encountered along the route, those narrow paths yet to host the hoards of feeders and roosters.

I’ll have to wait at least a week before I can have another look as our typical Spring weather has taken a turn, but there’s no hurry. Even more than last season my intention is to choose the days and locations wisely. I already have a plan for the next trip, depending of course upon the weather.

Welcome to the New Season

A fortnight ago the first Large Red was observed and photographed in Cornwall – usually the first county to awaken. History has shown Hampshire usually follows two weeks later, so I had already planned a foray this week.

Yesterday afternoon a report and photographs of a female Large Red at Fishlake Meadows in Romsey appeared on Facebook, so things looked promising.

With a few sites in mind I began at Town Common, usually reliable for the first Large Reds of the season. I searched the usual areas to no avail and crossed the road to Ramsdown where on reaching the hill pond I noticed the unmistakable early flight of a teneral threatening to rise out of reach.

Thankfully she came to rest low down on some heather

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) - teneral female
Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) – teneral female

Not the best position but adequate for a record.

I skirted the pond in search of others and spotted just one more female, this one rising high and out of sight and reach.

Never mind – there will be plenty more to choose from soon!

The season has started. Here’s to a good one!

The Changing of the Seasons

Saturday 25th August

A planned visit by my brother over August Bank Holiday to experience and photograph dragonflies meant it was time for a return visit to Bramshill. Bank Holidays always draw the crowds to the New Forest, so heading in the other direction is the sensible option.

Bramshill is usually a great spectacle in late summer, however our Saturday visit didn’t bring forth the expected bounty. Lack of sunshine kept the temperature down and the dragonflies hidden.

It wasn’t until we were halfway down the main track that we encountered our first Odonata; the always present Common Blues and a single female Ruddy.

Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) - female
Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) – female

Long Lake provided a brief glimpse of a male Migrant Hawker around the rushes and only a few damsels braving the cooler conditions.

By the time we reached the Green Pond the sun finally decided to make an appearance, and the pond exploded into action under the welcome heat. Just enough time to witness another Migrant patrolling the far bank and a bevy of Common Emeralds along the margins.

Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) - male
Common Emerald (Lestes sponsa) – male

Over in the south-west corner Adie disturbed a male Southern who characteristically checked us both out at close quarters before disappearing off to roost somewhere.

The rise in temperature also brought out a few Ruddy, desperately grabbing the remaining warmth from ground level. I was amazed at the lack of Common Darter – not one had shown throughout our 4 hour stay.

Nevertheless it was a perfect insight into a typical dragonfly experience, albeit one of the slower days spent hunting rather than shooting, and Adie thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Thursday 30th August

I was determined to get another day in before the months close, and given a day of ‘sunny intervals’ returned to Ramsdown in the hope of finding a few hawkers.

The day started well with a female Southern offering herself as the catch of the day. Always a pleasure to find a female away from water and always a worry she may not stay around. Thankfully after rising a few times she settled long enough to engage with the macro.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) - female
Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) – female

Buoyed on by this good fortune I was ready to engage with the next subject and placed myself next to the pond and waited for the sun to appear. It was already warmer than Saturday and at least there were Common Darter here. Several tandem pairs and a few single males desperately trying to engage or battle with other suitors.

It was a while before a hawker made an appearance. A male Migrant kept at a distance across the sedge before the welcome visit of a male Southern, possibly the same individual as ten days previous; certainly the same behaviour.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) - male
Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) – male

After half an hour he disappeared followed shortly after by the sun. Still, a couple of keepers from the day meant I could go home satisfied.

Saturday 1st September

An afternoon trip to Crockford to see how things were. Very quiet except for Common Darters and one Golden-ringed, which was a pleasant surprise.

A walk around Norleywood produced a low-flying Southern Hawker who didn’t hang around and more Common Darters roosting in a sunny clearing.

Common Darter.(Sympetrum striolatum) - male
Common Darter.(Sympetrum striolatum) – male

A Summer Hangover

After a slow start I had expected a return to a normal August, but the weather hasn’t been kind. We did have was a return to default August weather, which, although good for replenishing the ponds, has meant I haven’t been out anywhere near as much as I’d like to.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) - immature male
Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) – immature male

On those days I have been out it’s been exceptionally quiet. During mid-August there are usually a bevy of Migrant, Brown, a few Southern and even Common Hawkers to observe feeding along the treeline, but the numbers are well down. Thankfully the sight of a Golden-ringed taking time out is always appreciated.

Golden-ringed (Cordulegaster boltonii) - male
Golden-ringed (Cordulegaster boltonii) – male

A fine summer of endless sun and plenty to get stuck in to has probably exaggerated matters. It feels more like September when you expect a dying down of activity. Perhaps the most surprising is the lack of Common Darters.

Common Darter.(Sympetrum striolatum) - male
Common Darter.(Sympetrum striolatum) – male

I guess we did have too much of a good thing and now it feels like the great hangover. The last time I had a chance to look at Ramsdown the water levels had increased a little, allowing some moments of joy after many moments of waiting.

Moorland (Common) Hawker (Aeshna juncea) - female
Moorland (Common) Hawker (Aeshna juncea) – female

A day of ‘sunny intervals’ means a few hours waiting for an celestial appearance, and does make you appreciate those moments when everything comes alive.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) - male
Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) – male

Bank Holiday predictably brought forth a proper deluge, and I’m looking forward to a return in some decent pond activity. Until then I’m grateful for those special moments.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) - immature male
Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) – immature male