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 . . . .   

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