Friday, 29 July 2011

A Trio of Mini-Expeditions

Apologies for lack of reports the last week or so, I’m afraid the DragonHunter has been out of action, not been well, must have picked up some tropical disease on one of my expeditions.

On a recuperational walk in the fresh air though I did manage to at last catch up with a few Common Darters at Far Pasture, not on the pond itself but by the access road, always a good place to go hunting for this particular species which will perch openly on ground, fences or at the top of any tall roadside plant. It wasn’t a planned visit so I didn’t have my camera. Three males seen in all, one immature (yellow), two mature (orangey/red).
The big surprise really is that it took me ‘til July 27th just to see one. I will return (officially) to record the species for my blog as soon as the chance arises.

Last Sunday a family visit to Gibside proved pretty fruitless, despite a beautiful day just a few common blue damsels at the Lily Pond, but I did get this photo of the site so you can see what a scenic little pond it is.

The Lily Pond at Gibside
(Column of British Liberty in the background)
And just yesterday a trip out of the area to Derwent Reservoir produced sightings of a couple of Common Hawkers, hawking (what else?) the boggy heathland area of Pow Hill Country Park, the only other sighting there being a Large Red Damsel.

So I haven’t been idle despite my incapacitation. Need to get cracking now though and fill in a few gaps.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A Return to Banded Country and a Great Ruddy Surprise - Part II

So on to Far Pasture . . .
Plenty of damsels front of hide . . . . and my first darter. Just out of range to confirm ID but I presume Common, an immature male on the kingfisher perch, then two flying the pond further out, and a mating pair coming in and out of view through thickish vegetation. I tried to get a focus on them through the occasional gap and reeled off a series of snaps, then the immature male settled for a better view further up the perch and I got him too. A couple of four-spotted chasers still around too, but with time knocking on and thundery clouds approaching I decided to call it a day, pleased with the days sightings.
Back at DragonHunter HQ I uploaded my photos, the immature male darter has a club-shaped tail I hadn‘t noticed at the time. I consult the field guide and discover he‘s not a Common Darter at all but a Ruddy. Bonus!

The two species are quite similar, especially if you don’t see them well and like me, don’t yet have your eye in early in the season (the finer ID points need to be reaffirmed with early sightings I find).
The (mature) males both have a red abdomen, though the ruddy is a lot richer than the more orangey and variable Common. In profile they both appear to have a club-like tail end which confuses, but viewed from the top the Common Darter has more or less parallel sides, slightly tapering towards the tip whereas the Ruddy has a pinched in middle still giving a bulged out look to the tail end.
Another good point of ID is the thorax of the Common Darter has two diagonal yellow panels each side, the Ruddy is a more uniform, brown-red, but of course on this yellowish immature specimen, the thorax appears to have yellow stripes but these will fade with age. And if you get a good look at the legs, Common Darters have a pale stripe running down the outside, Ruddy Darter legs are uniform black, and this can be seen on this specimen too.
So to the courting couple ;

I now had my doubts about these too, the male abdomen being a very deep red, and though the photos I took are not clear, there’s enough evidence for me to believe they are Ruddy as well, and this was confirmed when I read notes in the fieldguide about the significance of the way they were ovipositing, flicking the eggs into the water from just above the surface, a trait of Ruddy, whereas Common Darters would dip.

So there you go, if you can’t get a good enough view of a tandem couple, watch the way they lay their eggs, flickers or dippers, it makes all the difference.
So that was really unexpected, three Ruddy Darters before seeing a Common, the two flying way out over the water could have been either species, so Common Darter will have to wait until next time, and a more complete ID comparison.

Species Recorded : Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A Return to Banded Country and a Great Ruddy Surprise - Part I

Have to take advantage of the breaks in the weather at the moment so with this morning nice and sunny but rain/thunder forecast for the afternoon I thought a couple of hours local would be wiser than going further afield.
I really wanted to see some Banded demoiselles, just the one so far this season and that back in early June. So out came the trusty (rusty?) steed and off I cycled along the Derwent Walk and down to Clockburn Lake. Nothing there at all when I arrived, possibly too early (about 10am), not quite warmed up yet but within twenty minutes the usual cast of Common Blue and Blue-tailed damsels were showing in good numbers.
Still I waited but no demoiselles, so I went a bit further along the river to the Butterfly bridge. Scanning from there, no damsels but a dipper was foraging just downstream.

I hadn’t really intended to go much further downstream but I really wanted to see some demoiselles so thought I’d play my trump card and ride along to HaggHill, an area which hardly ever fails to deliver sightings, but being high up on a man-made viewpoint, too distant for decent photographs.

The River Derwent at Hagg Hill
A slow-moving stretch ideal for banded Demoiselle
I parked up and viewed the river below, the atmosphere was starting to warm up nicely, so I waited, and waited, and waited. Three red kites soared overhead, circling me like they were mocking my efforts. A sparrowhawk came to mock me too, but was chastised by a sympathetic house martin, and escorted away by a friendly crow. A green woodpecker laughed raucously at me from the trees across the river, and even a normally skulking blackcap came to watch me fail from an open perch. (Paranoid? not me).

But eventually after some half an hour of waiting, I spied the fluttering prussian blue wings of a male Banded demoiselle, travelling at some speed as it hugged the nearside riverbank, passing directly below me on it’s way downstream, but no stopping.
Shortly afterwards, two females rose from the rushes far-side, briefly skirmished and settled on open perches, where they remained, presumably awaiting a suitor. And finally a potential suitor in the form of another male came into view, again far-side of the river, a slow undulating flightpath as he inspected seemingly every stalk of bankside vegetation in search of females. Trouble is he decided to have a rest maybe only fifteen feet from the two still perched up, and like those two, he stayed on his perch for an awful long time.
Not a great deal of action then, on past visits I've had up to ten bandeds here, and a string of four males following a female across the river like some slow-motion Keystone Cops chase, ah well, at least I've had a few sightings.

Just to show how poor it can be for photos here
This male Banded (dead centre) was taken at 18x zoom
 No further action, dark clouds came over, I was miles from any decent shelter, and believing the forecast I decided to make my way back nearer home just in case. But by the time I got back to the Nine-arches viaduct, just in time to view a passing buzzard, the sun once again ruled the sky.
After a brief stop for water and a chat with a photographer, I thought I’d chance a visit to Far Pasture on the way back, for surely there would be some Common Darters here by now?


Sunday, 17 July 2011

Recent Updates from DragonHunter HQ

A rainy weekend, not good prospects for dragonfly hunting, so thought I’d review recent sightings from around the borough and what I’ll be looking out for once the weather clears.
An interesting encounter at Kibblesworth by Ron Hindhaugh, as he photographed this Four-spotted Chaser.

Four-spotted Chaser - Praenubila variant
Ron Hindhaugh 
Nothing unusual about that you might say, but look closely at the outer wing, the normally neat pterostigma markings on this individual are big smudges, like they’d got wet and started to run, also the spots at the wing nodes are quite extensive too in comparison with the majority of specimens, making this an uncommon colouration variety known as praenubila. It isn‘t actually known why this variation occurs in some individuals of the species, but an interesting find by Ron.

Also at Kibblesworth, Michael Eccles photographed a female Broad-bodied Chaser ovipositing.

This species expanding its range in recent years, they seem to be quite nomadic, appearing at a few sites in the borough now though only in small nuimbers. The open, shallow pond here is ideal for their preference of habitat so no real surprise, but another interesting capture by Michael, who also took another excellent photograph of a male B-b Chaser at Stargate.

‘Indiana’ Steve Fryer has also been out and about at Kibblesworth in early July, taking some excellent flight shots of the dragonflies present. Here’s a selection of the best :

Cracking shot of Emperor (male) in flight

Another superb action shot, this time of a Four-spotted Chaser in flight
Excellent composition of flight shot with reflection
I really like this shot of a Four-spotted chaser being mobbed by (I think)
an Azure damselfly. 
The last picture shows mobbing behaviour which I've noted quite a few times this year from damsels on dragons, rather like songbirds mobbing a bird of prey. Thanks Steve,(and Ron and Michael) great selection of photographs.
Am hoping to finally catch up with Black-tailed Skimmer at Kibblesworth this week but the weather prospects don't look too kind. Watch this space......   

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Second Time Lucky for Southern Hawker

A chance revisit to Thornley Woods Pond proved a good decision as I was thrilled to find a Southern Hawker dragonfly just about to emerge, right out in the open. I took a series of photos at approx ten minute intervals (over a period of about an hour and a half) though I was disappointed that I didn’t get my camera ready quick enough, as when I first saw it, only the head of the dragonfly was showing, still in the larval casing, and it was as I was trying to locate it in my viewfinder that I actually saw its first push of emergence, bringing it to the first photograph in the sequence.
The first push

just hanging around

slipping out a bit further

now reach up . . . 
. . . and swing the tail out
start pumping those wings up
wings just about fully formed

note the pale blue markings on the final few segments
of the abdomen - makes our newborn a boy!
Good luck dude !
(click on photo for better view)

And on this photo from a different angle
the pale blue/green marks can be seen running all along
the top side of the abdomen
(click on photo for closer look)
In between taking these photos, I was also on the lookout for others, and scanning the vegetation at the far side of the pond I saw the shimmering wings of a teneral hawker half hidden in thick cover. I walked round and located it, and got this photo :

A teneral female southern hawker
the thorax and abdomen have diagnostic patterning to tell species apart
the thick waist and yellow band markings at the tail end make it a female

Later a mature male came sweeping around the pond looking for mates, and flushed another teneral female which flew up into the branches of an oak tree above, again I was able to locate it about 18 foot up and got this shot from below.

another teneral female
The male was joined by another, a skirmish ensued, and they both flew off, the victor returning a minute or so later and resumed patrol around the pond margins looking for a female to latch on to, all far too quick for my photographic skills to capture, indeed I could hardly keep pace with my binoculars. The male was unsuccessful and after five minutes or so was gone, and that was the last I saw.
Damsels present were of only the two species recorded last visit. About 20 large reds and 40-50 Azure damsels.
It was with a bit of frustration when I had to leave, I would loved to have kept on photographing the emerging male southern hawker and see it through to take-off, but by all accounts it can take hours. I only hope it got away before the inevitable dog-walkers arrived for their daily rampage of the pond.
Specimen recorded : Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Secrets of the Dark Forest

Actually Thornley Woods pond, or as I call it The Dogging Pond (nothing pervy, just that everybody walking through the woods seems to let their dog rampage through it), in the hope of seeing emerging Southern Hawkers. Over the last few years I’ve recorded the entire life cycle of this species here, and only a small pond it’s definitely the best place to get up close and personal with them. I‘d been lucky enough to find emerging hawkers the last two years, and with quite a few individuals already reported on the wing I thought I’d try my luck.

The first thing I notice is the water resembles thick tea, a sure sign that some local pond life has released his mutt to damage and terrorise the proper pond life (actually that comparison is a bit unkind to the life in the pond).

Thornley Woods Pond
about half the size of a tennis court
Only a single stickleback is recognisable through the gloom, so I sit on the pond-side bench, don my trusty 8x42s and scan for emergences. I count eleven exuviae (the exo-skeletal remains of southern hawker been and gone) clinging to reeds and grasses in the pond margins mainly far side, but alas no fresh dragonflies to photograph.

Exuvia - 1 of 11

Exuvia - 2 of 11
both Southern Hawker Dragonfly
The only other sign of dragonfly presence is this hawker-sized half wing I noticed floating in the pond, one can only speculate as to what happened to the rest of the insect.

Around 30 Azure blue damsels are present, and 8 or so Large Reds, but that’s about all.
A tandem of Large Red Damsels

I’ll come back again in a couple of weeks when the adults have reached maturity and return to the pond for mating and egg-laying, usually an entertaining session if past years are anything to go by. Meantime here is a picture I took last year of an emerging adult from this same pond.
Emerging Southern Hawker 2010
probably a female judging by the thickness of the base of the abdomen.
Males are more pinched in.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Great Emerald Mystery - Solved at Last

Finally got to grips with Emerald Damselfly today, about a fortnight after seeing my first at Far Pasture. Gibside Lily Pond came up trumps in a fleeting visit while picking up the weekly farm shop order. Not a particularly nice day as it happens, overcast but warm, not much wind and the threat of showers at anytime. Plenty of damsels about, many blues, mostly common, in contrast to my visit at the end of May when the blues consisted entirely of Azures. This seems to be a trend so maybe I can deduce from this that though both species inhabit the same ponds the Azures emerge earlier than the Common Blues. Best photo I got was this Azure mating wheel:

Azure Damsels - mating wheel
The first Emeralds I encountered were a tandem pair, great for comparing the sexes, a bit distant for a really sharp photo but the one I got shows the contrasting colouring of male and female, and the typical spread-winged perching stance which as reported earlier is a generalisation rather than the rule.

Emerald Damselfly - tandem pair
male top female bottom
 Individuals of both sexes later showed well and close enough to get good shots of them, clearly identifiable with the male blue tail segment a dead giveaway.

Emerald Damselfly - male
note tell-tale pale blue tail segment, overall green and blue
colouring and spread-winged pose
Emerald Damselfly - immature male
tinged with red and looking more like a skinny female,
this male will develop it's blue pruinosity with age.
Any confusion species? Well not really once you get your eye in, their flight action is fairly weak compared to other damsels, and obviously the spread-winged perch is diagnostic, but on individuals perched with wings closed, I have been fooled when I was less experienced by a very dark over-mature male specimen which I took for a blue-tailed, but a closer look sorted that one out quickly, and on mature individuals the blue/green colouring sets it apart from any other damsel in the region. The female I suppose bears a passing resemblance to the female Banded Demoiselle, but the demoiselle is a much larger insect, with much larger wings and is metallic green all over, see the comparison below to see what I mean.

Comparison of females - Emerald (top) Banded demoiselle (below)
At first glance very similar but compare the length of the wings.
The tail is clearly visible on the Emerald but the wings cover the entire
abdomen on the demoiselle, and once you have seen both in the field
the overall size difference of the insects is clear. Simple as that. 
And finally we haven’t really covered the Banded Demoiselle in any great detail yet as I was unsuccessful on my last quest for them, so meantime here is an excellent photo of the male by Steven Fryer (the female above is also courtesy of Steve).
Banded Demoiselle male - What a beauty!
But note the wings don't cover the whole body unlike the female.
S. Fryer

Sunday, 3 July 2011

DragonHunter and the Valley of Snakes

There was a Grass Snake Information walk at Gibside yesterday morning so I trotted up with eldest sprog to find out about creatures I didn‘t know too much about. Interesting stuff, learned about habitat management, the network of ponds, basking stations, hibernacula and specialised breeding sites (compost heaps) put in place over the last few years. The whole landscape is being reshaped, land previously owned by the forestry commission (ie blocks of useless conifers) is gradually being replaced by native deciduous trees and open heathland, but in five years the resident herpetoligist has only seen two snakes (and both on the same day) so not much chance of seeing one at the moment. To be fair they are still a rarity around here but the measures being put in place not only at Gibside but all over the Derwent Valley riverside will be beneficial to a host of water-based species (including of course dragonflies), and they hope that in fifteen years time they will be a much commoner sight.

On a brighter note the walk ended at the Octagonal Pond, where a male Emperor Dragonfly and my first Southern Hawker of the year were both patrolling, excellent, wasn’t sure if I’d get an Emperor on my home patch so definitely a bonus. No pictures though, I tried but both individuals were too quick for me and I was hindered by the bairn who had been very patient during the walk so didn‘t want to detain him from his play for too long.
I’ve realised I haven’t been posting photos of the actual sites for you to get an idea of what the areas are like for the associated species, so will remedy that by getting some snaps on my forthcoming visits, and here is the first, the Octagonal Pond at Gibside.
Octagonal Pond - Gibside
One of 14 ponds on the estate, this one a designated SSSI (due to the presence
of Great Crested Newts) and a very scenic setting