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

Taking Flight

It’s been a very slow August so far; in part attributed to a major change in the weather and the effects of the long, hot dry spell we’ve enjoyed for the past few months.

Having encountered all non-migrant local species with the elusive Moorland Hawker now is the time to relax and choose a few special ponds for observation and indulgence. Except these ponds have disappeared completely or dried out to puddles barely enough to cover your feet.

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

Not a problem for the hardiest species such as Common Darter and Common Emerald, or indeed a solitary Emperor holding on in hope a female may visit.

The Emperor has been around since May and most individuals encountered are tired and tatty.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male
Emperor (Anax imperator) – male

Time to move over and give up the territories to the late summer hawkers; a Southern has no problem with puddles, but would rather avoid unnecessary conflict.

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

The Moorland Hawker is another who doesn’t tolerate other hawkers (except it’s own in certain places with high populations) and will happily take on an aged Emperor.

The sight of a high-flying Moorland coming in to scan below is always a welcome sight in the New Forest. Even better when he decides to come down and patrol a while.

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

Most of the Migrant Hawkers are immature and shyly shoot off with minimal disturbance from their roost of gorse and trees surrounding favourite feeding grounds. They’ll settle down once they mature and provide the easiest in-flight opportunities of them all.

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

Despite a good look around Town Common mid-week I only found a few Black Darters, a few Small Red and even more Common Emerald. I probably would’ve seen a lot more if it hadn’t have been somewhat overcast

By the time I reached Ramsdown the sun put in a very brief appearance with the majority of activity centered around the hill pond, which is deep enough to have survived the drought.

The showers we had last weekend weren’t enough to effect the driest heath ponds, however now we’ve had some more rain I’m looking forward to seeing if the ponds have recovered enough to offer some late summer enjoyment.


Sunday 5th August

This European heatwave has been a blessing to dragonfly enthusiasts with perhaps the best activity we’ve seen for many years. We had a warning back in Spring with the late start and a bounty of early emergencies across the board.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male
Emperor (Anax imperator) – male

At first excited for the pleasing bounty I remember being a little concerned as if the odos knew far more about the coming season than we could possibly predict. They knew when the time was right; get out early and live their lives while they could.

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) - over-mature female
Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – over-mature female

Three months of exciting and exhausting action to sink our teeth into is showing signs of slowing down considerably, the reason being the lack of water. Most of the ponds are dry and even some streams have stopped flowing.

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) - pair in tandem
Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – pair in tandem

The surrounding heather hadn’t had the chance to fully bloom before before succumbing to the heat. Elsewhere lush meadows now a sea of hay which is at once beautiful and dangerous. Tinder dry with many fires breaking out.

Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) - immature male
Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) – immature male

Mother Nature’s way of clearing out the cobwebs and starting afresh? Despite the worrying state of our meadows they do provide a pleasing backdrop for photography.

Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) - immature male
Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) – immature male

Crockford has been simply fantastic this summer, but has now peaked. A visit during the week found very few Southern and Small Red damselflies, a sprinkling of tired-looking Keeled Skimmer and a few rather battered Golden-ringed.

The shallow ponds on the heaths of Town Common frequently dry out and recover but without frequent showers their surfaces are dry and crisp, the Black Darters having to seek out other options further afield.

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) - male
Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) – male

Hawker Season is already upon us with Migrant Hawkers gaining numbers and feeding up rapidly among the woodland rides. Southern and Moorland Hawker are starting to patrol the remaining puddles, and therein lies the problem.

A brief respite from the parched conditions with a good lashing of rain last weekend helped replenish a few pools just enough to kick-start some activity but after a week those few pools have returned to puddles.

So far this August pickings have been slim and I’m having to choose wisely, resisting the urge to travel too far in fear of wasted fuel and time, preferring to remain local where there should be enough to satisfy.

Seeking out places where a profusion of feeder insects bring in the feasting hawkers. Choosing those areas which retain some water; the larger, deeper lakes and ponds. The constant flow of fast-running streams which contain some pools where the hawkers can patrol.

Mostly though I’m hoping for a few more downpours to replenish those ponds which offer a chance to just sit & watch without walking too far in these hot, parched dog days of summer.

Where The River Flows

No-one would have believed we’d be blessed with the best summer for decades. No-one would’ve believed the sun would remain untarnished by solemn skies and rainfall. For a dragonfly enthusiast it’s been a summer to cherish.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male
Emperor (Anax imperator) – male

The instinct to soak it all up is irresistible, and slightly dangerous. Too much sunshine can wear out even the most active soul, and I’ve bitten off just a little bit more than I perhaps should have.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) - male on patrol
Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) – male on patrol

A foolish seven mile trek in search of rare delights; an even more foolish search for a pond which turned out to be almost dry.

However these are lessons which stop us in our tracks to sit back and regroup. Take a little time out. Choose locations where you don’t have to expend unnecessary energy by staying glued to one spot.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) - male on Bog Myrtle
Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) – male on Bog Myrtle

With the unsheltered shallow ponds of the heath drying out it makes sense to choose running water. A short section of a New Forest stream is ideal to just sit back and take it all in.

Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) - pair in-cop
Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) – pair in-cop

Endless hours in the company of some of the New Forest favourites. Those boisterous Keeled Skimmers who like nothing more than a scuffle with opponents twice their size. With the Golden-ringed they can get away with it. Try it with an Emperor and they’ll end up as lunch.

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) - pair in-cop
Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) – pair in-cop

Beautiful Demoiselles cascading above while Southern Damselflies go about their business below. Finding mates, copulating and ovipositing seemingly ignoring the fracas.

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

Look closely and you will see they have their own battles to fight. Likewise the Small Red decorating the Bog Myrtle – worryingly drying out beyond the immediate shoreline.

Small Red Damselflies (Ceriagrion tenellum) - pair in-cop
Small Red Damselflies (Ceriagrion tenellum) – pair in-cop

The introduction of a female Golden-ringed flying in to find a safe place to oviposit is a sight to behold. She has an instinct to find the best place to lay her eggs regardless of the dangers she would usually avoid.

Usually preferring the dark & shady hollows beneath the over-hanging Bog-myrtle or Bramble to avoid predation and the attention of patrolling males who occasionally get lucky.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) pair in-cop
Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) pair in-cop

Forget the camera – just watch for a while. Fifteen minutes of your time can witness so much more if you attempt to understand their timescale. Lives lived much faster than ours, and over in an instant comparatively.

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

If you feel your life is moving too fast spend a few hours at a stream and relax. Suddenly your hectic life has just slowed down and been put into perspective. Life’s much faster around here.

Blue-eyed Beauties

Friday 13th July

I had some unfinished business with those Blue-eyed Hawkers which have taken up residence in Essex. A couple of weeks back we jumped the gun but were rewarded with fresh emergers.

Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – teneral female

Totally unexpected and a bonus despite only encountering a couple of distant adult males. I needed to have another shot or two at the adults so Sue and I arranged a revisit a couple of weeks later.

Thankfully we were rewarded with more than we wished for and very little traffic delays considering it was a Friday. A cracking day with over fifty males seen, five pairings and two tandem pairs ovipositing.

Barely through the gate we were rewarded with our first adult male patrolling a short dry section of the ditch. There were a few wet sections, but these weren’t half as much fun. I was in the sweet shop, in my element, having a damn good time trying to capture these beauties at close quarters in-flight.

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - male on patrol
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – male on patrol

Of course there were also Scarce Emerald and Ruddy Darter – the latter population somewhat diminished since last time; and there’s a good reason for that.

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - male
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – male

I didn’t concern myself initially about getting one perched. I found it difficult to drag myself away from watching their antics through the viewfinder.

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - male on patrol
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – male on patrol

Where to look next? A female navigating her way through the close growth of a bank-side bush, seemingly to avoid male attention or a pairing or a tandem pair ovipositing into the deep, dark recesses of cattle depressions? How about a mating pair?

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - pair in-cop
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – pair in-cop

Once I had made the most of the willing subjects available we walked on, taking each step slowly. We had a half-hearted attempt to look for the Southern Emerald population, but this was not the day for picking out tiny dancers. We were only after the divas. Those magnificent blue eyes and a species I’ve rarely had the chance to enjoy had taken all my attention.

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - male on patrol
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – male on patrol

Back to the key spots, where we noticed in the heat of the day activity started to slow down with most perching low down in the grasses; some choosing to delve into the depths, creating an audible fracas which culminated in them rising with an unfortunate Ruddy Darter in their mandibles.

Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) - male
Blue-eyed (Southern Migrant) Hawker (Aeshna affinis) – male

This could well be considered a welcome new resident species, and has been regarded so after successful breeding at their key sites. Sightings have been rife this year with new populations springing up in Hertfordshire and migrant influxes from Somerset to Hampshire.

For me the chance to spend a day in the company of such a magnificent Hawker resulted in one of my best days out this year.

Even Dragonflies Need Shade

Hot, humid, and the type of weather our European cousins to the south are used to, so why do we worry & panic? Maybe we’re a little too primitive. Haven’t adapted. Or maybe we’re so far advanced we expect it just so. There’s some old bugger who’ll complain. It’s the British way.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) - teneral female
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) – teneral female

From the late start to not being able to keep up with (comparatively) early emergencies it’s been a fabulous year for dragonflies. A headlong rush to all get out and enjoy the sunshine while it’s here.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - male
Emperor (Anax imperator) – male

I’m enjoying myself as much as I did when I started. I’m able to go out and indulge without the annoyances and distractions of recent years. Time to reacquaint myself with some local favourites without wasting time travelling.

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

Time best spent in one place; almost rooted to the spot, allowing the action to come to me instead of chasing after something which probably won’t arise, wearing myself out in the process.

Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis) - female
Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis) – female

The irony is all the photos featured here were taken while chasing around like a fool instead of heading my own advice! However I needed those unnecessary and mostly fruitless days to reprogram and settle down a little.

Emperor (Anax imperator) - female
Emperor (Anax imperator) – female

These balmy days of summer are perfect for just sitting back and taking it all in, even choosing to stay home and grab some shade instead of burning out too soon.

Live fast die young appears to be normal as far as some insects are concerned; the Silver-studded Blues are showing signs of fatigue after a few weeks of wearing and tearing. So too are the Chasers and Skimmers. They might be able to live another day if they weren’t so damn hasty.

Except the Keeled of course. They’re doing just fine. Still emerging, still feisty. From delicate teneral demoiselles to the mighty Emperor, the sensible species take a little time out from the heat.

Even dragonflies need shade.