Saturday, 28 May 2011

Introduction

The scientific order of the Dragonflies (Odonata) is sub-divided into the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera), the dragons being larger and bulkier than their colourful pin-like cousins the damsels. Their natural history is similar with two stages to their lives, an underwater larval stage (nymph) which can last a few months to a few years depending on the species, before they emerge during the summer months for their all too brief stay as the spectacular adults we see patrolling our waterways.

Locale

My local patch is the lower Derwent Valley in the west of the borough of Gateshead in northeast England. The borough usually has around 15 species recorded annually, and most of these appear at Kibblesworth Brickworks pools, which is unfortunately a few miles east of my ‘patch’, and some of the less common species take a bit of finding in my home valley. So my quest this year is twofold :

1. To observe and photograph every species recorded in the borough.
2. To locate and identify as many species as possible on my local patch ie the lower Derwent Valley

Main sites to cover here are the river Derwent itself and surrounding country parks, Thornley Woods pond, Far Pasture Ponds closest to me (so most regularly visited), and there's Gibside National Trust estate on the opposite side of the valley. At either end of the valley lies Shibdon Pond and Chopwell woods, both worth a visit or two, and dragonflies can occur well away from water so best to be alert at all times, I even have half a dozen species on my garden list.

Preparation

The first piece of equipment I pack for any dragonfly hunting trip is my trusty pair of 8 x 42 close-focussing binoculars. With these I can focus on anything down to about 4 ft making identification a lot easier than when I had standard binoculars which even at 10 x zoom were too far away from the subject to make subtle diagnostic traits visible.
I aim to get as good a photo as possible of every species I encounter, but a digital camera with a decent zoom is a useful piece of field equipment to have at any time, there are lots of confusion species in the world of dragons so the old adage of shoot first and ask questions later can help the observer to ID a lot you’re not sure about. This was especially true in one case for me back in 2006 when thinking I was photographing a Ruddy Darter at Kibblesworth brickworks pools I zoomed in on my digital screen to find I actually had photographed a Red-veined Darter, a rare migrant from Europe. Bonus!

Red-veined Darter (Kibblesworth 2006) 
note the red tinge on the wings - hence the name

As with bird watching, a good field guide is essential, and I use the Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Brooks and beautifully illustrated by Richard Lewington.
I never attempt to capture my quarry for fear of doing it harm so along with a notebook and pencil, that’s about all a dragon hunter needs, oh and a bottle of water and a sun hat, as like I say, dragonfly hunts invariably take place on warm sunny days.

The dragonfly season is already well under way with SIX species so far recorded in the borough of Gateshead , mostly damselflies which tend to emerge earlier than the majority of true dragons. The only downer at the moment is the weather, it’s been gloomy and strong winds for the last couple of weeks, far from ideal dragonfly weather so really just a matter of waiting for a sunny day (without babysitting duties) to explore one of the many waterways nearby. Bring it on !

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