Saturday, 27 August 2011

Females of the Species

Recent encounters with Southern and Common Hawkers have produced some cracking photos, so we can now do a good comparison between the females of the species with a few ID pointers.
Common Hawker (left) Southern Hawker (right)
Note the thorax of the common hawker has two diagonal
yellow stripes, that of the southern is made up of wider
greenish panels.
The overall colouring is also quite distinctive in good light, the
common hawker markings being bright lemon yellow and in smaller
patches than the dull green southern hawker.

Common hawker (above) Southern Hawker (below)
Note the differences in the antehumeral stripes (braces) on the thorax
 behind the head. Those of the common hawker are mere pips in
comparison with the thick stripes of the southern hawker.
And the differences in the coverage of the ‘mosaic’ patterning can be seen in these cracking portrait shots by Steven Fryer (Common) and Paul Davison (Southern)
Common Hawker (female)
Steven Fryer
Southern Hawker (female)
Paul Davison
Also note the distinctive yellow costa (front wing vein) of the common hawker, diagnostic of the species in both sexes.  

Friday, 26 August 2011

Chasing the Devil

I begin with a few interesting non-dragonfly sightings I neglected to mention from last weekend. On Sunday a couple of furry animals made an appearance. At Kibblesworth a vole ran almost under my feet as I was looking down for black darters, from the lighter colouring and quite long tail I would say a bank vole, then at Far Pasture a wood mouse was giving good views as it repeatedly took seed left by photographers who entice the birds down in the car park that way.

But back to Saturday and a family trip to Gibside was spent almost entirely in the new adventure play park, so no pond visits but a hot sunny day for the most part highlighted by three flyover Crossbills and only my second ever sighting of a Giant Wood Wasp. Now these really are big, scary (though harmless) insects, I kept my eye on it as it sped around the play area (thinking it was a dragonfly of sorts) on golden wings, and only when it came close enough did I realise what it was, having had my first ever sighting just five days earlier at Wallington, strangely enough in the adventure play park there too!

Strangest sight of the day though was reserved for the car park. As I was packing up the buggy to put in the boot I happened to look along the row of cars to the main path, where to my astonishment a mini dust devil was slowly making its way along. Yip, a miniature whirlwind, probably three to four feet across and about twelve feet high, a whirling mass of dust blowing along the dirt-track. I only viewed it for perhaps 5 or 6 seconds when it suddenly dematerialised as it hit tarmac. A first for me that, and a very strange sight indeed.

Back to the important matter of dragonflies though, and Migrant Hawkers on the wing at last, with three foraging males seen in two days midweek while out on scouting missions. No photographs as of yet but these late-flying dragons will be around through September and October so no hurry.
All three individuals were seen in the Derwent Valley at Kite hill, Clockburn Lake and off the Derwent Walk near Far Pasture. None yet in the popular bull field opposite the saw mill though, but this my thirteenth species sighting of the year in the valley, and more than likely the final dragon on that particular list. Only a stray black darter could boost the total now I would think, but that just an outside hope rather than expected. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

A Ritual on the Moors

A first ever DragonHunting safari to Burdon Moor today proved worthwhile though not in the way planned.
Our target species was Black Darter but once again these proved elusive.
Best observation was a pair of mating Common Hawkers, Steve alerted me to them as a patrolling male clasped a female on the pool we were watching and we noted where they landed close by in a mating wheel. They remained stationery for a good while, allowing us to reel off some excellent photos, before parting and resuming their separate business. A first for me and best photos so far of the species, especially the female which is the first one I’ve seen close up.

Common Hawkers
the mating wheel

A different angle

parting company

Common Hawker Female
doing the dragonfly equivalent of smoking a cigarette?

Some dragonfly jargon now, and today's word is : Costa
Nothing to do with expensive coffee shops, the costa is the thick vein along the leading edge of the wing. And why do I mention it now? well the Common Hawker has a diagnostic yellow costa which can be seen clearly in these photos, a nice ID feature if you can make it out.

In all there were five or six Common Hawkers present on this boggy pool, with around a dozen Common Darters and maybe eight Emerald Damselfly just around the margins where we stood. A female Common Blue Damsel completed the sightings here, and only other species recorded was on one of the other ponds observed with difficulty from behind a barbed-wire fence, (though that is as close as we wanted to get with a couple of snorting bulls on the other side of it!) when another couple of hawkers in the mating wheel rose out of the rushes and up into the overhanging trees. The fact they rose into the trees makes me put them down as Southern Hawkers as this is typical of their mating ritual, rather than Common Hawker which tend to do their mating in low vegetation as we had just witnessed.

On to Kibblesworth for another Black Darter stakeout, again unsuccessful. On the entrance pond maybe half a dozen Common Darters present, small numbers of Emerald Damsel, and one each of Common Blue and Blue-tailed (males).
We met up with a regular watcher of this site who had just spent some time at the main ponds where he had observed three Emperors and a Ruddy Darter among eight species of dragon and damsel there. A discussion about the status of Black Darter in Gateshead ensued, this observer was actually the only person to record the species last year when he had a mating pair right where we were standing., but he was quite pessimistic believing them to be extinct now in most of their former sites due to habitat destruction and the overgrown nature of some of their former regular pools, including the one we were standing at.
I’m certainly not giving up though, he gave us a couple of pointers as to where they had been seen previously, and as many sightings have been made in September in years gone by, I see no reason to write them off yet.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Hawker Quest

At last a bit of sunshine, and though I was on SHD yesterday (That’s School Holiday Duty, for the uninitiated?) by mid-afternoon I had my first garden dragonfly of the year, a fly-through hawker, can’t be sure of ID but the size and way it held it’s abdomen straight out I’m guessing a Common.

Today another good day, so DragonHunter was back in business. I went out this morning on a trek to Thornley Woods Pond hoping to observe some Southern Hawker action, males patrolling, skirmishing, finding females, mating and finally ovipositing females, don’t ask for much do I?
On completing the 20 minute trek I found another dragonfly adventurer already at the pond, hoping to photograph emerging dragons. A hawker had already been patrolling I was informed, and two large red damsels had been present, but not any more.
To the delight of my newfound acquaintance, with my first scan I found a freshly emerged Southern Hawker nymph, having climbed a stalk and ready to begin the transformation process. And not long after, the first adult hawker came patrolling the pond, and to my surprise and delight after watching it fly back and forth a number of times it turned out to be a Common Hawker male, my first confirmed sighting in the valley this summer, excellent!

Attention was turned back to the emerging dragon, my newfound colleague and I kept watch as the casing split and the head and thorax emerged. Slowly the body slipped out further but after a few twitches the emergence came to a halt. Whether this was to do with the temperature (it was overcast and cool in the shade) or some other factor I don’t know but my sequence of photographs shows how it remained up to the time I left.

And this was about as far as it got . . . .
In tandem with the emergence, more hawkers came to the pond. This time a splendid Southern Hawker male patrolled the margins for females, a relentless and empty search as it happens, but the odd bout of hovering over the emergent vegetation offered fantastic views of his splendid green black and blue armour. I tried to catch him on camera but not very successfully.

Eventually a second male came on the scene and when their patrols crossed the inevitable skirmish broke out, both dragons zoomed off away from the pond in a high speed chase, and moments later the victor returned (presumably the second male as this is how Southern Hawkers operate, by taking turns) and another lengthy and unsuccessful patrol of the margins ensued. This dragon came buzzing around my feet many times (unlike the more nervous Common Hawker which will give you a wide berth) but still I couldn’t get a decent shot on him, I reeled off almost sixty photos trying to get an aerial shot of these patrols, the best of a bad bunch I’ve added below, certainly no prize winners but good enough to show ID pointers :

Southern Hawker (male)
Note the thick green panels on the thorax as opposed to yellow stripes
of the Common Hawker

This shot shows better the green spotting along
the topside of the abdomen, diagnostic among local hawkers.
Despite this out of focus shot it shows off well the thick braces
(antehumeral stripes) at the front of the thorax,  the green top spotting
and the bold blue bands at the tip of the abdomen
Before I left another hawker briefly circumnavigated the pond at a height just above our heads. This one looked smaller altogether and with abdomen held straight I’m almost sure it was a Migrant Hawker, but it didn’t hang around so I can’t be 100%, shame.
I was running late now (afternoon SHD beckoned) so I hope my fellow dragon enthusiast gets in touch with an update on the emerging hawker, ‘til then I can only hope it eventually completed it’s transformation.

I decided to have a brief look at Far Pasture on my way home, if Migrant Hawkers are out then this is the place to see them. The sun was out nice now but as I scanned their favoured area,(the woodland edge running along the field opposite the saw mill) only butterflies were in abundance. Eventually I did spy a hawker dragonfly, but it was distant and jizz said it was a Southern Hawker rather than a Migrant, and I lost it again just as quickly so can’t confirm either way.
A quick look on the pond produced maybe a dozen Common Darters and at least eight Emerald Damselfly (all males) but time running short now I made my way back up the road, where many darters were sunning, patrolling and skirmishing. These are a lot more easy to photograph and I got a canny selection just in passing. Here are the best of them :

Common Darter (male)

Common Darter (female)

Ruddy Darter (male)

Same Ruddy Darter, different perch, different angle.

Another Common Darter (male)

And a nice arty shot to finish
No positive ID on Migrant Hawker yet then but I’m confident I’ll get one next time, though whether I can get a decent photo is another thing! Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Curse of the DragonHunter

In a word - Weather
Yip! Sorry to keep banging on about it and I know my overseas readers will laugh at the typical British stereotype, but for the height of summer, we’ve only had a couple of decent dragonfly days (ie warm and sunny) since the beginning of August.
On Sunday the forecast was for sunshine by late morning, so after spending a rainy hour in the hide at Shibdon pond, Indiana Steve and me (and faithful hound Tilly) toured the borough for early signs of bird migration, though the Common and Green Sandpipers at Shibdon and a handful of summer plumaged northern race Golden Plover noted from Dunston Staithes were the only evidence of this.
Anyway with the weather clearing nicely we decided to try for Black Darter at Kibblesworth. The boggy pond by the entrance to the site (best area for the species here) was well flooded with all the rain of late. Small numbers of Emerald, Common Blue and Blue-tailed damsels were in evidence, and a couple of Common Darters built our hopes of other dragonflies being on the wing, but after a while we decided to scour the main ponds and check this area again on the way out, when hopefully it would be warmer with more dragons flying.
A Common Hawker further along the path was flighty and typically fast, then on the larger ponds many a Common Darter were ovipositing in pairs. Another Common Hawker sped across the main pond, however our hopes were soon dashed as the increasing cover of dark clouds resulted in a prolonged heavy shower, with us caught out in the open and nowhere to hide. The promised sunshine never materialised after that, and the first quest for Black Darter was called off.

On Monday the sun did emerge, but the DragonHunter was on school holiday duty, but never mind, a family trip to Northumberland and Wallington National Trust estate would be good for a dragon or two, wouldn’t it?
Think again, sunny yes, ponds yes, dragonflies . . .err . . .no. Couldn’t believe it, a good scour of two great looking ponds produced only one Common Blue damselfly, am beginning to think it just isn’t meant to be.

So, until my luck changes, something to cheer us all up. In my other life as an artist/illustrator, my Twisted Nature cartoon series has been appearing in the monthly BBC Wildlife magazine for almost four years. Sadly that run has just come to an end but here are a few dragonfly related cartoons to inject a bit of humour to this rather downcast posting :

Dragonfly nymphs are well known for their voracious appetites, the subject of this cartoon published in BBC Wildlife magazine in June 2008 :

Two of my favourite creatures come face to face in this cartoon, the first ever in the Twisted Nature series and probably still my favourite, but sadly not chosen for publication :

And finally to illustrate the fact that many Hawker species can be found feeding late in the day, even as the sun goes down, this cartoon pays homage to one of the finest films ever made : 

There you go, hope that keeps you entertained 'til the next Quest, which hopefully won't be too long in coming.  

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Final Missions

The weather hasn’t been very kind for Dragon hunting of late, so with Tuesday the only clear day, a family outing to Gibside is the only chance I’ve had for even a casual bit of hunting this week, but it wasn‘t a bad day out as it happens.
I didn’t pack my camera so luckily there was nothing new to see, but a walk along the river produced a couple of Common Darters and some spectacular entertainment by way of a Southern Hawker (female) hunting a stretch of the river and helping herself to a good meal from the clouds of smaller flying insects thereabouts. Took me a while to sort the ID as she was hawking back and forth at great speed and changing direction with such ease of manoeuvrability, great to watch but not easy to focus the bins on her.
Our walk then took us by way of the Lily Pond and I was quite surprised by the number of Common Blue Damsels here, well over a hundred, all but a few were males and mostly congregating on the raft of lilies in the centre of the pond. A few were identifiable in the nearside margins, where only a couple of females were seen in tandem with their suitors. Closer inspection of the margins also revealed around thirty Emerald Damselfly males, (probably the most I’ve seen in one place) with once again only a couple of females on view.
Just before we left a ray of sunshine brought out a couple of dragonflies, both Ruddy Darters, both male, one easily identified deep red specimen and one yellowish immature which had to land before I could confirm ID.
A pleasant afternoon all in all, and even the kids weren’t acting up too much.

So we’re a third of the way through August already, and the final two dragons of the season, the Migrant Hawker and the Black Darter, should be on the wing once the weather clears.
Migrant Hawkers are very much like a smaller version of the Common Hawker, apart from size only subtle differences in markings to tell them apart, but opposed to the mainly solitary Common Hawker, Migrant Hawkers often gather in good numbers as they hawk woodland edges at a decent height.
The Derwent Valley is a hotspot for this species and I would expect to get them at Far Pasture (mainly in the surrounding fields) and around Kite Hill just across the nine-arches viaduct where they hunt in the line of trees just off the surrounding footpath, but they can be encountered anywhere along the Derwent Walk and also Shibdon Pond is a good site for them, where they can be seen zig-zagging across the pond and can give excellent views from the hide.

Black Darter on the other hand is a species I have never encountered in the valley (or Gateshead borough come to that). On occasions singles have been recorded at Far Pasture, where I think my best bet might be regular checks of the boggy roadside pool which looks decent habitat for them. The murky forest ponds of Chopwell woods might be worth checking out too, though no reports have been filed from here.
Away from the valley they occur in low numbers at Kibblesworth, the boggy overgrown swamp (can’t really call it a pond) nearest the entrance is reportedly the best spot for them (though two visits last year proved fruitless) and the second pond where we had the Common Hawkers last month looks decent habitat too.
Burdon Moor has also provided regular sightings and in occasional good numbers over the last few years, and sporadic sightings also at Stargate, Crawcrook Quarry and pools behind the Ravensworth Arms at Lamesley, so widespread sightings but in such small numbers I think Kibblesworth will be once again the best bet. Just waiting for the weather to clear so I can begin the search.

Meanwhile here’s a cracking macro photo of a Common Darter taken by Steven Fryer recently in the Derwent Valley Country Park. Another winner.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Mystery of the Black Tarn

Today was a day-off, but a DragonHunter is never off duty. A family outing oop north to Cragside National Trust Estate in Northumberland came up trumps on the long uphill walk to the Adventure Play park. On the way, half way up the craggy hillside is a small Tarn where we rested a short while allowing me to scan for Dragons and Damsels.
Two male Common Hawkers tussled on the far side, one eventually attempted to take a female out of the thick grass but she was having none of it and clung on to her stem, the pair’s wings rattling away as they struggled against each other. A dull yellowish darter was also patrolling far side but not much chance of an ID at that range, and in the shallows on the near-side, five Emerald damsels and a large red were the only others present.
Nothing startling there you might think and you’d be right, but on the way back down we had to stop at the picnic table there to change a nappy (sorry if that’s too much information) and hovering over the table was a very dark little darter, club-tipped rather like an over-ripe ruddy. It landed despite the presence of three noisy sprogs and while Mrs DragonHunter got on with changing duties I reeled off a few snaps in case it disappeared before I could ID it, as it continued to hover and land, hover and land, while seemingly investigating us at close quarters.
I put the camera down and inspected it through binoculars, and confirmed my suspicions I had here a male Black Darter, now excuse my excitement but not just the first of the year for me, the first of the Millenium, aye the last time I saw a Black Darter was actually last century(!) in Dumfries and Galloway I remember, when I was nowt but an apprentice, in fact my first ever DragonHunt in a successful quest for Azure Hawker. Sothis is my first one ever in England, though I ’m hoping to seek them out in my homeland of Gateshead before the summer is out as well.
Anyway here are a few snaps I took, not a specimen in prime condition, if anything an over-mature individual I would think, the orangey spotting at the base of the abdomen, and the yellow markings on the thorax are very much duller than they would be on a prime male, but nonetheless a Dragon I was really pleased to find.

Black Darter Stmpetrum danae (male)
 Can't add it to my Quest Stats though as it was outside my home borough of Gateshead. Never mind, I'll get one later I'm sure. Watch this space.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Quest for Common Darter

Common Darters will be on the wing through late summer and early autumn, some may even be seen as late as November, so no hurry to record them officially, but knowing they were out at Far Pasture now I wanted to get them photographed and filed.
Far Pasture has always been (in my opinion) the best site for this species. Once they appear they come in good numbers and are easy to photograph as they perch openly on the access road, the fences and any tall vegetation, and can also be quite approachable for excellent close-ups at different angles.
The only confusion species here is Ruddy Darter and there seems to quite a few of those around at the moment too, but once you have your eye in they aren‘t so difficult to tell apart, and if you‘re not sure, do like I do and take a photo.
On my visit still only small numbers present, I counted five males and two females (Common that is) and also three male Ruddy Darters.
But to show how similar the species can be, here are two males taken from a similar angle, one Common and one immature Ruddy. Can you tell which is which?

They are both an orangey red colour, the abdomen appears to bulge at the tip of both, and the thorax appears to show yellow stripes on both specimens too.
One thing I have noticed over the years is that in profile, the abdomen of the ruddy seems to curve down at the tip and that of the common curves up, but the biggest clue here is the colour of the legs. Ruddy Darter legs are uniform black, a diagnostic trait of this species which tells them apart from other red darters, the Common Darter has a pale (sometimes yellow) stripe running the length of the leg, not always easy to tell but on a half decent photo like this a dead giveaway. Therefore in this photo the top specimen is the immature Ruddy and the bottom is the Common Darter.

To be honest, all would be a lot simpler with a change of viewpoint. Below we see the same Ruddy Darter from above, the abdomen is nipped in and bulges at the tip.

The Common Darter from this angle shows the abdomen has more or less parallel sides, slightly tapering at the tip.

And once you get accustomed to both species, even in flight they are distinguishable as the Ruddy Darter is a smaller insect and the abdomen appears a lot shorter in comparison, also in more mature individuals the deeper red colouring of the ruddy is another factor, the Common Darter in the composite photo won‘t get much darker than it is now but look at these three Ruddy Darter individuals, all in different stages of maturity, showing how the colour evolves from orangey, to pink tinged and finally the deep red of the mature male. The mature Ruddy Darter will also lose the yellowish striped appearance on the thorax to take away another confusion issue.

Now a similar comparison between the females :

The abdomen are generally a similar yellow/brown in colour, though the Common Darter female pictured here (top) is a more mature individual and shows an orange/red tinge, and like the male, the Ruddy female looks shorter and stubbier. Study the black markings along the abdomen, on the Common they run above the mid-line, but on the Ruddy the black line runs along nearer the underside. And again, the leg colouring is the telling factor, with the pale striped legs of the female Common being more conspicuous than even in the male.

Below is a photo of an ovipositing pair of Common Darters (taken at Kibblesworth last weekend by Steven Fryer) which shows well the distinction between the sexes. Most of the ID points we’ve already covered, but note the abdomen of the female (behind) is a lot thicker than that of the male.

Species Recorded : Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Failed Quest

Well I regret to say I’ve failed in my mission to observe and record by photograph, all species of dragonfly and damselfly seen in Gateshead for 2011, Black-tailed Skimmer being the bogey.
It’s a species that only breeds at one site (Kibblesworth Brickwork Pools) and is only ever seen in small numbers up to mid-July.
This year only a single male was seen by a few lucky observers in late June/early July. I turned up on the same day as he’d been seen once but was out of luck, and with one thing and another couldn’t get back to the site for a further search until Sunday of this week, (far too late and more in hope than expectancy) when an expedition led by Indiana Steve proved fruitless, though not altogether pointless (see previous post).
So, in absence of any first-hand observations, a few pieces of general information about the species illustrated by photographs of the only individual recorded courtesy of Steve Fryer :

A medium-sized dragonfly, the species is of similar size to the local chasers, and indeed the male does resemble a stretched Broad-bodied Chaser, having a similar pale blue abdomen with yellow spots down the sides and tipped black, though that of the skimmer is much slimmer and pointed at the tail, so no real danger of confusion.
The female (not recorded at all this year) is yellow throughout, with two black stripes flowing the length of the abdomen at either side on the upper surface.
Black-tailed Skimmer (male) at Kibblesworth
The only individual observed in 2011
Steven Fryer
As the name suggests their typical flight action is to skim the surface of the water at speed, with a preference for ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers with bare or sparsely vegetated margins, where the territorial male likes to perch for long periods in the open on rocks or ground, using a favoured ‘perch’ to look out for prey, rivals or passing females, and is therefore quite easy to observe.

The same individual caught splendidly in flight,
again by Steven Fryer
That’s a brief field report on Black-tailed Skimmer then, sadly not seen by the DragonHunter this year, but I’ll make doubly sure I get one in 2012.

Species Not Recorded : Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum

Monday, 1 August 2011

To The Dragons den (though only the neighbours were at home)

After my tropical disease cleared up, at last an opportunity to visit Kibblesworth Brickwork Pools, the only known home to Black-tailed Skimmer in the borough, as an expedition was arranged for yesterday morning with ’Indiana’ Steven Fryer and his faithful hound Tilly, herself recovering from a recent minor operation.

Kibblesworth Brickworks Pools
The only site in gateshead for Black-tailed Skimmer
Unfortunately the skimmers have never been recorded after mid-July since they were first discovered here in 2006, and with only one male recorded at all this year and no positive reports on him forthcoming of late, I was afraid I was going to be too late to tick this species for the year.
And so it proved to be, we staked out their favoured part of the pond (a shallow and narrow channel skirting an island), for a good while, but nothing bar the now numerous common darters to report, with many pairs ovipositing in the shallows here.
Along another shore of the main pond an Emperor patrolled imperiously but no other dragons present. Damsels were represented by small numbers of Common Blue, Azure and Emerald.

But it wasn’t until we were leaving the area via the secondary pond when disappointment was replaced by enchantment, as we were treated to a marvellous display of aerobatics by three male Common Hawkers.
These large and colourful beasts, more at home in the boggy, densely vegetated smaller pond, would rise as the sun came from between the clouds and skirmish at breakneck speed when their patrols led them into contact with each other. But alone, their darting patrols would be interspersed with long periods of hovering, when their fantastic colouration could be admired at close-quarters through binoculars, and the rattling of their wings could be heard clearly, the sound a bit like a Tesco carrier bag blowing round a metal pylon in a gale.
My photography skills were left a bit wanting here, but I managed to capture a couple of identifiable (though rather blurry) flypast record shots for the purpose of the Quest.

Steve on the other hand got some cracking shots, so I’ll use his masterclass photo to explain better the ID of the species.
Common Hawker male (Steven Fryer)
Note the spotted abdomen in profile tells it apart from the pale blue Emperor
The dark thorax with two easily visible stripes will help avoid confusion
with Southern Hawker male which has two large green panels here  
 Another way of telling the hawker species apart in flight is the way they hold their abdomen. The Common Hawker as seen here is generally held straight, the southern hawker abdomen is arched with the tail end pointing slightly downwards.

Species recorded : Common Hawker Aeshna juncea