Friday, 30 September 2011

A Black Day . . .

. . . But in the best possible sense as finally Black Darters have been reported in the borough. It’s been looking like it wasn’t to be this year with the regular sites of Burdon Moor and Kibblesworth having been searched daily since the upturn in the weather last weekend, but yesterday it was Stargate which turned up trumps during a check by the Chief Countryside Ranger, and news filtered through to Dragonhunter HQ via ‘Indiana’ Steve.
Great news then, and a lot later than in previous years probably thanks to the early autumn sunshine. Only question now is whether the Dragonhunter himself (me) can get across there before its too late.
Meantime Steve made a fleeting visit before work and snapped a male for us all to enjoy :

Black Darter at Stargate
(Steven Fryer)
One of four males seen in a fleeting visit

And this morning news reaches HQ that Kibblesworth has finally come good too with Black Darters there today, though no further details yet to confirm numbers.

Excellent stuff!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

After the Storm . .

The aftermath of the hurricane finally subsided by midweek, and with Thursday set to be the only decent day of the week I made time for an afternoon safari to Thornley Woods Pond. The target here was to photograph Southern Hawkers, especially the male as I haven’t yet got a decent shot of a mature specimen, only this teneral male from the same site last year (below) which I actually had recorded as a female due to the colouring. And that’s a lesson I’ve learned this year through keeping this blog, there are so many variations in markings that it pays to check every detail. In fact I’ve reviewed three records from last year which I’d mistaken the ID, so I‘m learning all the time. (It hasn’t been a total waste then!)

Teneral Southern Hawker
The pale green/yellow spotting had me fooled
into thinking it was a female

But from this angle I should have checked the
narrow waisted abdomen to confirm a male.
Back to Thursday, and despite a first half hour when my only company was a speckled wood butterfly and various calls from hidden nuthatch, jays and woodpeckers, it turned out to be a worthwhile little session, when one after the other three male southern hawkers came on the scene, frantically searching the margins for females and skirmishing whenever their paths crossed. Their constant agitated flight wasn’t conducive to good photography though (my excuse) and despite reeling off over twenty photos in this first wave of action, this was the best I could command.

All went quiet again after about ten minutes of action but I decided to hang around a while longer knowing they’d return, and sure enough after another twenty or so minutes wait, back they came. One, two, three, is that four this time? And this fourth one settled further along the boardwalk, though quickly with the aid of my trusty 8 x 42s I realised it was a female ovipositing. Nevertheless a decent photo opportunity at last. It’s often quite easy to get right up to a preoccupied female like this but I approached stealthily nonetheless and due to the fact the three males present seemed more intent on seeing each other off than anything else she remained undetected by them allowing me to get some excellent close-up shots :


Southern hawker female ovipositing on the boardwalk

I was really pleased  with the sharpness of this picture I took
from much closer in

And a cracking macro shot of those complex eyes
This female carried on with her egg-laying on and around the boardwalk for a good few minutes before flying off undetected by the patrolling males, which I found quite hard to believe considering the thorough search of the area they had been conducting up ‘til then. And just minutes later I couldn’t believe my luck when (after a brief skirmish) one of the males landed rather heavily on the wooden slats further along from me. I swung my camera quickly into action as I stepped closer, he had his abdomen doubled up under him as if looking for a hold and I realised he had actually landed on a thin band of moss between two slats which (perhaps out of desperation after a fruitless search) he had probably mistaken for a female, being of similar shape and colour. He tried many times, probing around with his claspers, giving me ample opportunity to get him on camera :

A case of mistaken identity?
Should have gone to Specsavers, mate! 

Southern hawker (male)
Very pleased with the quality of this shot as he continued to probe
with his claspers, but obviously he would prefer a female with
something to grab hold of.
Eventually he gave up and flew off, probably realising his mistake allowing me to even get a fairly decent in-flight shot . . .


. . . and his loss was my gain as at long last I had got a couple of nice quality photographs of a mature male southern hawker. I’m more than happy with those last two shots, a best ever result, mission accomplished.

Friday, 16 September 2011

ID comparison file : Common/Migrant Hawkers (male)

Another whinge about the weather. Wind, rain and latterly the remnants of a hurricane mean only three reports in total filtering through to DragonHunter HQ from the network of scouts since the beginning of September :
Migrant hawker on 4th at Sled Lane Pond

3 migrant hawkers, 2 common hawkers at Kibblesworth on the 5th
 Migrant hawker and two female southern hawkers were photographed at Shibdon Pond on the 6th
(all courtesy of Gatesheadbirders.co.uk)

Note: Still no sightings of Black Darter from anywhere in the borough, possibly due to no-one looking because of the much maligned weather, but still not good news
.
But since we now have some half-decent shots of a male migrant hawker I’ll do a quick comparison with that of the common hawker:

In flight from side-on it's difficult to make a distinction between these two.
Migrant Hawker (top) Common Hawker (bottom)

But from this angle you should be able to make
out some important diagnostic features. Look for the
yellow costa of the common hawker, the pale golf tee
shape at the top of the abdomen of the migrant, and
the difference in the size of the antehumeral stripes
at the front of the thorax, thin stripes of the common (top)
but mere pips on the migrant (bottom)

Some flight jizz pointers if you don't get a perched individual to inspect :

Common Hawkers are tireless flyers and so notoriously difficult to get a good look at (never mind photograph) perched up. We were really lucky to encounter those mating pairs a few weeks back.

Migrant hawkers are noticeably smaller (around 5.5 to 6.5 cms in length compared to the commons nearer 8.0cms) in fact if just glimpsed in silhouette can be initially mistaken for darters, and are much more likely to be encountered away from ponds as they forage along woodland edges next to open land, where there can be several hunting the same stretch, as opposed to the more solitary common hawker which will hawk along woodland rides rather than be out in the open.
Migrant hawkers also fly at a cruising height of around six feet, only veering from this height to chase a meal, the common hawker has a much more up and down hunting pattern. Also a common hawker won‘t approach you like other hawkers indeed is more likely to give you a wide berth, whereas the migrant will treat you as if you were any other obstacle in its path, veering away at the last moment, or like happened to me the other week will hawk for midges around your head.
( But still not as confidiing as the Southern Hawkers which will deliberately investigate you and occasionally even land on you).

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Calm before the Storm - The Quest for Migrant Hawker

After what seems like an age, the Dragonhunter at last got back in business. The kids are back at school but my perpetual enemy, the weather, is still being a veritable pain in the derriere. So with the forecast for rain and high winds in the afternoon on Tuesday, I took advantage of the early morning sunshine to renew my search for Migrant Hawker.
In truth I’ve seen half a dozen individuals just out on casual trips with the family, the area around Kite Hill and Clockburn Lake coming up trumps on four occasions with single specimens flying, but highlight was further downstream last week when a male I was watching by the river at Hagg Hill actually started hawking the cloud of midges which had formed around my head, giving me cracking close views just above eye level, but to date no photographs from any of my encounters.

So off I went on my trusty chariot (bike) and struck lucky straight away with a male feeding in the bright sunshine along the line of trees at the base of Kite Hill. After a couple of minutes watching his to-and-fro flight I couldn’t believe my luck as he settled, hanging vertically (as they do) from a branch just off the path about 8ft up.
I reeled off a few quick snaps for record purposes just in case he flew up again but he didn’t seem in a hurry so I got closer and then moved around for a change of angle. The pics I took were on full zoom so not the sharpest but show all the ID traits I need to confirm a male Migrant Hawker.

Migrant Hawker (male) at Kite Hill
Note the similarity with Common Hawker



From this angle the diagnostic pale yellow T at the
 top of the abdomen can be seen more clearly
(click on image for better view)


From this angle the T isn't visible but the lack of a
yellow costa tells you it isn't a common hawker,
the only real confusion species in these parts.

Buoyed with this early success I decided to look in at Far Pasture, the fields off the access road are a favoured haunt for the species but on my last check a fortnight ago there weren’t any to be seen.
Again instant success, as I emerged from the avenue of trees at the bottom of the bank by the sawmill a common darter alighting the fence to the left of me caused me to stop in my tracks, and a Migrant Hawker passed through my line of vision as I glanced over. Excellent!
This was a very flighty individual though, non-stop and with that annoying ability to change direction in the blink of an eye, very difficult to get a fix on with my binoculars so I had to move further down the path to look back up at a greater distance before I could safely ID another male. I watched him for a while but he showed no signs of letting up his constant zig-zagging chase so I left to have a look on the pond and would try to get him on the way back.

The pond was bleak. For a while I only had a pair of mallards for company, then a fishing dabchick entertained me as it surfaced with a large minnow, and then I spotted a big warty toad floating along, just it’s head breaking the surface. Eventually I spied a solitary damsel, too brief and distant a sighting to call it but at this stage of the season an Emerald would be a good bet.
Wind increasing all the time now but still bathed in sunshine, I decided to check the access road again, but on leaving the hide a large hawker could be seen at the far end of the path. It continued to seek out prey as I got closer, to and fro up and down quick change of direction, too big for a migrant and eventually I spotted the blue bands at the tip of the tail as it passed below eye level to confirm a male Southern Hawker.

Back up the road and no sign now of the migrant hawker, wind very blustery and increasing cloud cover might have something to do with it, though it didn’t put the common darters off, half a dozen seen in all, a lone male and female on the road, other males along the fence, one feeding others just waiting for passing prey or sheltering from the wind. I reeled off a few photos, best of which are below :


Common Darter, having a meal.


Same beast, different view, still chomping.


Common darter female on the road

This individual seems to have a pattern on the abdomen and had me
hoping he might be something more exotic like a vagrant darter.. . . .  


. . . but from this angle the yellow thorax stripes and lack of
black moustache on the face rules out anything other than
Common Darter. 

Mission accomplished : Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta