Change in the Weather

Ten years chasing dragonflies and I’m still in love with them. Being a seasonal treat helps to forward the interest; every April I can’t wait to spot that first Large Red.

Then a wait for the other Spring species to emerge, then, all of a sudden, there’s a bounty to sink your teeth into. The spectacle of mass emergence where every step reveals the glitter of tenerals.

Species counts rising rapidly; the first sojourn to the Somerset Levels and local favourites providing endless opportunities. If the weather stays sweet it’s a non-stop feast throughout May, June and July while August allows some time to kick back, relax and enjoy the spectacle of a pond or stream.

Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) - pair in tandem
Black Darter (Sympetrum danae) – pair in tandem

August can be a fantastic month if the water levels are high enough and the temperatures remain above 20 degrees. This year however most of the ponds were dry, regardless of the rains we’ve had.

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

August is the month for Hawkers and there’s few things I enjoy more than spending a few hours at a pond engaging with a resident Southern, Moorland, Migrant or a Brown.

Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis) - male on patrol
Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis) – male on patrol

When all you’re left with is puddles the only dragonflies you’re likely to encounter are the hardier, less fussy species, and there comes a time when you have to prioritise.

Now I can happily wait at a pond for something interesting to fly in, and with the Moorland here in the New Forest you normally have to wait for one to appear.

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

On the other hand you normally wouldn’t have to wait for a Southern; there’s usually one already on patrol when you arrive. None were waiting for me this year at Ramsdown, and I had to search hard to find one at Bramshill.

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

Surprisingly I’ve had females show first at both locations, and with just the one male (so far) at Bramshill found myself running out of options

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

Cadnam Common usually comes up trumps, but alas resembles a silage pit right now and all we saw was a lone Migrant patrolling the reeds of the island, so we made the short drive to Bentley Wood.

Always a gamble and after a fair walk in you keep your fingers crossed there will be something over the water. Thankfully on our visit on 1st September not only was there a male present but a friendly, gregarious individual who it was a delight to engage with.

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

At last! I had to wait until September for for the opportunity, but looking back I normally have my best moments with Southern in September.

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

Since then it’s taken a downward turn. A couple of friends were down this week for a little late Odo action and were disappointed; as was I when I ventured out on Thursday.

Too cool, too windy and mostly too dull, and I wasn’t prepared to root around for roosters as my stealth has taken a beating since an ankle injury a fortnight ago.

I had planned to venture forth today, but with only a possible 17 degrees I couldn’t bear the disappointment of another fruitless search.

If the temperature improves and we get a late blast of warm sunshine I’ll see things through until the end of the month. A late blast of enjoyment before Autumn takes hold and I can look forward to next season.

Meanwhile in Bramshill

With the miserable weather we’ve experienced recently it’s already feeling like autumn. You could be forgiven for mistaking this month for September.

Having to choose my destinations carefully to benefit from the most sun I chose Bramshill on Tuesday. As I haven’t been for a while I decided to take the long walk around the reserve, checking out the rides for roosting hawkers.

I didn’t have to wait too long for a sighting; the first being a male Southern Hawker which disappeared off at my approach, followed by a more agreeable female.

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

It as a delight to see the rides festooned with a large presence of Painted Lady butterflies. I counted at least 50 throughout the day, mainly feeding of Fleabane.

Painted Lady ( Vanessa cardui)
Painted Lady ( Vanessa cardui)

With a stiff breeze and too much cloud cover activity over the water was subdued, with only the hardier damselflies and Common Darters braving the conditions at the North-east pond.

Things were much better at Long Pond with a Migrant Hawker showing briefly, just enough time to grab and in-flighter.

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

Ruddy Darters were plentiful with many pairings and plenty of ovipositing – possibly the most I’ve seen in this section. Also patrolling was a Brown Hawker which, much to my surprise, landed on a Bulrush to finish his meal.

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

A female could be heard ovipositing in the depths and she took a little time out to perch.

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

During an extended spell of cloud I took a walk towards the small ponds, meeting a female Emperor perched in the gorse along the way.

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

The clearing containing the small ponds has really deteriorated now; impossible to fight a way through to even the nearest pond. I really hope they clear this soon. I had to be content with a visit to the Green Pond where only a few Ruddy, Common Blue and Common Emerald were present.

Despite my initial trepidation it turned out to be quite a rewarding visit.

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!

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.

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.