Saturday, 28 January 2012

The missing link

Well after all those revelations from yesterday there appears to be only one species on my dragonfly list that hasn't yet been mentioned on these pages. So to complete the picture of my dragonfly sightings to date I go back to 28th July 2000 when I observed two Lesser Emperor males at Joe's Pond at Rainton in Co Durham.
This is a very rare vagrant from southern Europe first recorded in the UK only four years earlier so to have two at the same site was a very rare occurence indeed. They are a mainly mid-brown colour throughout, bar green eyes and a pale blue band at the base of the abdomen, and this is the feature which stood out on the flighty specimens I observed that very fine day.
Lesser Emperor
The pale blue band at the base of the abdomen
 is the outstanding feature when seen in flight like this

So my complete list of records from July 1997 to the end of summer 2011 is as follows :

Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens
Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa
Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula
Azure Damselfly Coenagrion lunulatum
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum
Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans
Ebony Jewelwing Calopteryx maculata
Azure Hawker Aeshna caerulea
Common Hawker Aeshna juncea
Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta
Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea
Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis
Norfolk Hawker Aeshna isosceles
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator
Lesser Emperor Anax parthenope
Golden-ringed Dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa
Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum
Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens
Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum
Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum
Black Darter Sympetrum danae
Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolumbii
Common Green Darner Anax junius
Halloween Pennant Celithemis eponina
Scarlet Skimmer Crocothemis servilia
Roseate Skimmer Orthemis ferruginea
Eastern Amberwing Perithemis tenera
Carolina Saddlebags Tramea carolina 

So there you have it, a paltry 30 species and only 7 of them damselflies.
My British list totals 23 and my Gateshead list stands at 17.
Me thinks I shall be trying to add a few new names to the lists this year as my aim is to see all the British breeding species before I carc it, and that's not easy when you don't drive and have three ankle-biters in tow most of the time, better start soon! 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In the Beginning II - Norfolk and good

Just a fortnight after my initial baptism into the realm of dragons and damsels (see previous post) I was invited on another expedition by the same group of DragonHunters (Chris Gibbins, Chris Sykes and Dave Forster), this time a weekend in Norfolk, which (despite being new to the birding game) I knew of the potential here to add some cracking birds to my list so I just couldn't turn the opportunity down.
So we set off after work on the Friday but heavy traffic for most of the way meant we arrived somewhere near our destination in north Norfolk just in time for last orders (ah the good old days), so our supper consisted of crisps, nuts and a couple of pints of the local brew.
We left the pub but in these pre-sat nav days and the pitch blackness of the Norfolk countryside we soon didn't have a clue where we were so pulled in at a lay-by off a country track and camped for the night. I say camped but we actually just bedded ourselves down in sleeping bags on the road itself (the lay-by anyway) under the stars.
Luckily these lads were experienced at roughing it in jungles all over the planet and Chris (Syko) lent me his old sleeping 'cocoon' which was watertight and acted like a vacuum flask (ie kept you warm in the cold and cool in the warm). So there I was, lying on the hard concrete surface of a lay-by under a cloudless sky, snug as a bug, watching the stars, of which there were thousands in this light-pollution free environment (including the odd shooting star and passing satellite). it felt great!
I slept well for a few hours at least, but at first light my slumber was broken as a distant peacock called out from somewhere across the flat landscape "Hah, only in Norfolk" laughed Gibb.
Daytime revealed our position to be just off a sugarbeet field and I quickly ticked a family of red-legged partridges here before we moved off to our first destination, as the plan was to try and tick a few good birds before late morning would bring out the first dragons, and though we dipped on our first target of golden oriole at a site which had been productive in the past (shame that, I still haven't seen one) we soon got turtle dove, woodlark and stone curlew, but disaster as the exhaust fell off Gibb's car and we had to while away a couple of hours in some village while he got it fixed at a garage (at least they had a decent cafe).
The village also had a pond and a small river running through it and it was here I picked up my first damsels, azure and blue-tailed, before Gibb came back with his fixed chariot and we were back on track.
The main target of the day was the rare Norfolk Hawker (or Green-eyed Hawker if you prefer) only found in the Broads of East Anglia. I can't remember the names of any of the places we visited but we were certainly succesful in our quest, with a specimen netted and studied in hand (and released unharmed I might add), and my list of dragonflies continued to grow with Southern, Migrant and Brown Hawkers all added that day along with Black-tailed Skimmer, Common and Ruddy Darter.
Norfolk Hawker
the main target species of the weekend, though I think I prefer the
continental common name of Green-eyed hawker,
 seems much more appropriate.

Dragonhunting done for the day, later in the afternoon we arrived at Cley on the coast which produced quite a few wader ticks including a cracking summer plumaged spotted redshank, and proof that even top-notch birders can make mistakes, when Dave Forster alerted me to a flock of grey plover which then took off and turned into starlings (to be fair they were quite distant).  
The evening I remember became a little bizzare. My companions had a friend living at Cley so rang him up and we ended up being invited round for the evening and overnight stay. The alcohol flowed, (all over the carpet I seem to remember) there were arguments, fallings out and an embarassing unease Ricky Gervais would have been proud of, but nevertheless we stayed over, three pissed and smelly blokes scattered around a cramped living room and Syko crashing out in the back garden. Next morning we left as early as seemed polite, front room trashed, friendships strained and hungover. What a night!
But I digress, on to the action.
Probably my main target bird for the whole weekend was bearded tit, and our early morning cobweb blowing walk along the fringes of Cley paid off when Gibb pointed out a flypast which I saw but it really could have been anything so was left a bit disappointed, but later at Titchwell we got a fantastic view of a female, preening at the front of a reedbed, even Gibb said it was the best view of one he'd ever had, just a pity we didn't get an equally good view of a male.
Another gorgeous day though and with marsh harriers galore, avocets and Sammy the (now late) resident black-winged stilt all at Titchwell, I left with some great records.
Dragonfly spotting wasn't so productive today, we dipped on our morning target species which I think may have been Scarce Chaser (I honestly can't remember, in fact my clearest memory of the morning was discovering how handy dock leaves come in when you're caught short out in the countryside after a big night on the pop, actually that's probably too much information) but we picked up Keeled Skimmer somewhere along the way and Common Blue, Emerald and Large Red damselflies.
So all in all a fantastic weekend. The details might blur (especially Sunday's) but I'll never forget the experience. And so thanks to Chris Gibbins, Chris Sykes and Dave Forster I was now an official member of the dragonfly appreciation society (though remained mainly a casual member 'til my bird listing obsession subsided almost a decade later.)   


Tuesday, 24 January 2012

In the beginning . . . .

While I'm in a reflective mood I may as well reveal how I became a DragonHunter in the first place. It was really just a case of having my eyes opened and all happened quite by accident, but back in the spring of 1997 I was having a particularly bad time at work. The depression which eventually saw me pack it all in and go to university (best years of my life) as a mature student was setting in and I took a weeks leave to chill out. I remember trying to sort my head out sitting on a bench in Mowbray Park (Sunderland) on a fine spring day eating a Greggs pastie and sandwich. A handsome male chaffinch and a blue tit came down to take crumbs at my feet and I marvelled at their spring finery, in all my years on the planet I had never before realised how dazzling our common birds could be. It was a 'Eureka' moment, I nipped straight along to Argos and bought a cheap pair of pocket binoculars (8 x 21s) and spent the rest of the week in parks and at coast building my 'birdlist' from scratch.
What's this got to do with dragonflies I hear you ask? Well it just so happens a couple of my mates were ardent 'twitchers' and had been for years, and when I told them I had finally taken the plunge into their world I was welcomed with open arms, and couldn't have had better mentors in Chris 'Gibb' Gibbins, a legend in Durham birding circles and Chris 'Syko' Sykes, both of whom had travelled the world in search of new birds.
They were also well into dragonflies, and invited me to accompany them (and another legendary Whitburn birder Dave Forster) on a daytrip to Dumfries and Galloway in search of Azure Hawkers, with the promise of buzzards and crossbills at least to add to my birdlist.
So July 13th 1997 and a trip to Silver Flowes Nature Reserve in Dumfries and Galloway was my first official Dragonquest, even though I didn't have a clue what I would be looking for, my only brief was that they were big, black and blue, and liked to perch on light-coloured rocks or the trunks of silver birch trees.
We got my first buzzards well before we arrived at the site, and I was captivated by their soaring, they were seemingly everywhere. After parking up we followed the long paths to the loch through pineforest, and my first crossbills were disappointingly high up in the trees, but in those early days you would tick a chicken sandwich if it added to 'the list'.
And on the way I also got my first dragonfly in the form of a Common Hawker, hawking the woodland ride, and not long afterwards a flypast Golden-ringed Dragonfly, now that was an impressive beast. But as luck would have it, by the time we got to the loch the heavens had opened making a search for the elusive Azure Hawker even more difficult.
Syko gave up straight away and took shelter under a tree while me and the others searched the shore of the lake for any sheltering insects, but the rain got worse so we all joined him under the tree and opened the sarnies and flasks. We were stood there a good few minutes as the lads rued their bad luck with the weather when it suddenly dawned on me that we were sheltering under a silver birch, so I glanced up the trunk as we chatted and started to laugh out loud. Gibb asked me what I was laughing at and I pointed just a few feet above our heads where a hawker dragonfly clung vertically, pale blue and black, and looked like it was shivering in the cold to keep itself warm on the birch trunk.
The others couldn't believe it, and in a flash it was netted and held expertly in the hand of Chris G so we could all take in its features and photograph it. I remember it was quite pale, not the rich blue of the guidebook, but a male all the same, probably the coolness of the day contributing to its palour.
And in fact it was the only one we saw thanks to the typically cruel Scottish weather, though we did get a distant passing Osprey (another tick). We eventually called it a day and retraced our steps, and typically by the time we got back to the car the bright sunshine of earlier had returned.
And it was here that Dave Forster heard a calling Peregrine and soon pinpointed it for me through his scope on the distant cliff face, I was well happy with that one, another first for my list and a really good view. Soon I returned the compliment as I spotted another Golden-ringed Dragon flying in and settling not far from the car. Again it was netted and scrutinised, what a beautiful creature. The lads had told me how impressive dragonflies were and this one was certainly that. I think I was beginning to get hooked . . . . .
Azure Hawker
clinging vertically to a tree trunk not unlike the scene I just described
(except it should be a silver birch and a very pale specimen, and raining)

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
A very impressive looking beast, this one photographed locally (not by me)
at Gibside in 2010, gutted I missed it.

We also stopped off on the way back to inspect a bog and ticked Black Darter and Four-spotted Chaser (or did we get four-spot at Silver Flowes, I can't remember) and I also saw another dragonfly with a pale blue abdomen which (I now think) was possibly a Keeled Skimmer given the habitat but as a newbie I didn't know what I was looking at and no-one else saw it, but a great day out for both birds and dragons, and I was on my way . . . .   

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Exploring the New World

My only other trip abroad with dragonflies in mind was even before that Tenerife holiday. In October 2000 I had a family holiday with the (then) in-laws in Florida. I was still obsessed with birds (feathered) at the time and ticking as many species as possible while doing the tourist (ie Disney) thing was my main preoccupation, so I regret that dragons were of secondary importance in those days.
I first of all had to overcome my increasing fear of flying in a two stage journey across the pond totalling some nine and a half hours in the air but boy was it worth it. A landscape so flat and totally alien to what I was used to in Europe, just about every creature and piece of vegetation I saw was something different, I was in my element, and birding was sooooo easy.
Raptors were abundant, it seemed every time I looked up there were either masses of black or turkey vultures, or a passing bald eagle or osprey, or a soaring red-tailed hawk which I quickly became familiar with.
I cleaned up on herons and egrets just by visiting the Disney parks, I really can’t stand those crowded theme parks so spent my time scouring the abundant waterways or oases of greenery for birds, blue jays and loggerhead shrikes in abundance, and the omnipresent grackles, beautifully iridescent but what a noise! But best of all was a late night sighting of a common nighthawk after the firework display at the Epcot centre, made the whole (very long) day worthwhile.
And while the others in my party went shopping I would leave them to it and wander off to the nearest piece of unspoilt countryside I could find, I have a brilliant memory of finding a fenced off pond behind a Wal-Mart and watching two pied-billed grebes through my bins when an alligator floated by between them! A great thrill that.
On another day I explored a patch of woodland and got close-up to an armadillo (nine-banded?) which was scratching around at an old fallen tree, it was totally at ease with my presence and I squatted down right by its side and watched it forage from just a couple of feet away, fantastic.
Strange episode though in the same place when I heard a loud rustling just along the path from where I was watching the armadillo, and whatever it was was getting closer. Nervously I hid behind a bush and couldn’t believe my eyes as seven massive wild turkeys came into view, they were huge! I didn’t know what to do, they were blocking my only route of escape, and remembering that large game bird of the highlands, the capercaillie, could be really viscous if encountered in this sort of situation I didn’t rate my chances if these buggers took offence to my presence. I was honestly getting a bit panicky as they were coming along the path running right by the bush I was standing mortified behind. I could see them through the light foliage, the first of them (they were in single file along the narrow path) was no more than ten feet away as I attempted to shuffle a bit deeper into cover, but snapped a twig underfoot, and the giant birds, as one, stopped in their tracks, their quiet gobbly chattering ceased into momentary silence. They all seemed to stretch their necks and look in my direction as I was still shuffling sideways, they saw me and then a horrendous din as the entire platoon of turkeys squawked loudly and took off, wings beating furiously, rising vertically like seven balloon shaped rockets, as if being hoisted up into the high tree canopy above, well I certainly didn’t expect that! Still bricking it I hastily beat a retreat out of there, and lived to tell the tale.
Other memories of that fortnight in the US include a couple of roosting sandhill cranes in the car park of our local store each evening, swarms of black vultures coming to feed from tourists eating outdoors, (rather like sparrows and chaffinches do in this country but on a slightly grander scale), encountering a living bush which I eventually made out as being packed full of red-winged blackbirds, and a trip to St.Petersburg to see the Dali museum which resulted in close encounters with brown pelicans, then finally getting a Northern Flicker (one of my main target species) almost by accident on the last morning of the trip while some of my party used the public toilets in a park we just happened to drive by.
I could go on, but as we’re mainly concerned with dragonflies here, like I said at the beginning they weren’t my main concern then, unlike the birds I had no prior knowledge of what I might find, no decent camera and my binoculars at that time weren’t particularly close-focussing, so as you can imagine I was a bit under prepared.
My one stroke of luck (or genius) was buying an Audubon guide to the flora and fauna of Florida on my first morning there. This contained about forty photographs of the commonest dragonfly species likely to be encountered, and aided by this volume I was able to identify no less than seven species.
In truth I did not have that many close encounters with dragonflies, especially not in any great numbers, and they had to be really good sightings before I had a chance of identifying them. Luckily even the common species are quite spectacular, and the large and Emperor-like Common Green Darner were not called common for nothing, possibly the easiest to both encounter and identify.

Like I say just seven species identified, and no camera so I have lifted some photographs from the internet to illustrate those I managed to tick. Acknowledgements given where possible so I hope no-one minds.
Common Green Darner
large, abundant and usually encountered well away from water
even in town centres

Carolina Saddlebags
I only remember seeing one of these but got good views
of it perched up.

Scarlet Skimmer
the male unmistakeably bright red all over

Eastern Amberwing
the amber wings speak for themselves in identifying
this tiny dragonfly

Roseate Skimmer
a paler version of the scarlet but just as impressive
in the Florida sunshine

Halloween Pennant
another tiny dragon, I remember getting
exceptionally close to the only one I saw
at SeaWorld, a little beauty

Ebony Jewelwing
The only identifiable damsel I can remember seeing
but what a cracker with those jet black wings. Superb!

So that was that, some beautiful creatures, loved the Saddlebags and the Jewelwing. The sad thing is, before I became interested in dragonflies I had foreign holidays nigh on every year, but since starting a family six years ago, and now three kids later, the furthest I've been is the Isle of Skye. I really don't see me getting away in the foreseeable future either but with plenty of unticked British species to go for, I'm not short of challenges. But if I ever do get another chance to go to The States I’ll do better. I promise.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

In a volcanic land a long time ago . . . . .

Been a while since I posted anything (possibly due to the fact that being mid-winter there are no dragonflies flying to investigate) though I haven't been idle, recently purchasing a very interesting book called 'Dragonflies' (what else?) by Philip Corbet & Stephen Brooks. Not an ID guide but a fascinating insight into the life cycle and behaviour of my favourite creatures. Should help me understand why they choose the habitats they do and therefore aid me in finding particular species when this years dragonfly season begins again.

Meantime I found some photos I took in Tenerife back in 2003, ( my first holiday with my beloved so other things on my mind ) and at a time when my interest in dragonflies was some way second to birds so no more than opportunist photos. I remember the occasion well, both spotted on an ornamental pond at an outdoor cafe we were sitting at, the heat must make them lazy, as surprisingly the Emperor hung around while I got closer and closer with a not particularly good camera. And I hadn't eved ID'd the second dragon at the scene. But aaah such memories . . . .
Emperor dragonfly (male)
a cracking photo considering the type of point and press camera I had
at my disposal at the time.
An unusual view showing off his black underside
Love the way the sun catches the wings in this shot
And look how close I got, as maximum zoom on this camera was
no more than 3x I was kneeling practically next to him
at the side of the pond, yet it's difficult to get anywhere near
them back at home.
Red-veined darter (male)
 at the same pond, same day
The red-vein was more active and didn't hang around for so long so this was the only photo I got of him. And as I've just made the ID it means the specimen I encountered at Kibblesworth in Gateshead a couple of years later (see very first post, this blog) wasn't a lifer after all !
Well I'll be . . . . .