Thursday, 27 September 2012

A little otter than yesterday

Late September and there's been some rotten weather to contend with lately, we got off lightly hereabouts considering the flooding nationwide. But the latest two days of constant rain did flood the river for a time, as these photos from yesterday show.

The river Derwent in flood

Torrent at the damhead
usually no more than a trickle of water down the slope
A Grey Heron tries a spot of fishing away from the rapids 

A quick visit to Far Pasture also showed an abrupt rise in water level on the ponds, but the break in the rain had brought out maybe 15 pairs of common darters in a frenzy of ovipositing, and a single ruddy darter was also seen at the usual roadside spot.

Today I chanced another visit to Far Pasture, encouraged by a much brighter late morning. On arrival I found the water had subsided back to normal levels overnight and there were even more common darters out than yesterday, at least 20 pairs, a good count for this late in the season. A southern hawker (male) was seen too before the showers crept in and sent them all into cover.

But the atmosphere on the pond changed as the fifteen or so loafing mallards on a mudflat island towards the back of the pond suddenly became alert to something over in  the far corner, obviously some sort of threat as two little grebes flung themselves away from the direction of their gaze and scampered up onto the island with them, unusual to see these little fluffballs out of the water.
Then slight panic as the object of their waryness came into view, but fantastic for me! Two otters (presume mother and cub) swimming from right to left at the back of the pond. The ducks ushered themselves to the furthest point away on the island, muttering quietly to themselves but not taking their eyes off the otters as the two animals glided past the island and into the reeds, sending a couple of moorhen scattering as they did.

The mallards look on nervously just before the otters swim past
behind the island (note the little grebe front right)

Great to see, my first sighting since back in 2007, though they have been logged here quite often recently. And unfortunately, as otter sightings go it wasn't the best, as that was the last I saw of them, but still a thrill.
I did think my luck was in though, when around ten minutes later I noticed thick vegetation moving as something large trailed through it, and was surprised when a young red fox peered out of the reeds at me. Disappointed it wasn't the otters but I still enjoyed the fox as it was only the second I've seen this year I think, and at least I had better views as it was quite close to the hide and moved slowly around to the left where I lost it in the thicker reedbed, but was difficult to photograph as it was constantly on the move.

And this was the best pic I could get of the fox,
but a treat to see all the same.

Not much else happened after that as the showers got heavier, I eventually left during a break in the rain and had a brief sighting of another hawker along the road. Can't be positive of the ID but did get the impression of a turquoise hue as it sped past me, a trait indicative of a common hawker in such situations, and unlucky for me as it zipped over the bushes and onto the pond which I'd just left!

So the dragonhunting season is all but over now. I can only hope for an Indian summer like last year but truthfully can't see the weather improving much, though if chance arises the only targets I will be looking for are females of black darter and migrant hawker, I haven't got decent photographs of either yet so fingers crossed !!   

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


A site first for me today when I spied a male Black Darter at Far Pasture. Unfortunately too distant to photograph (believe me I tried) but had great views of him through my bins as he patrolled the front edge of the island to the right of the hide, coming to rest on the shoreline, occasionally darting up to skirmish with passing common darters.

As far as I know there's only been one record at the site previously, back in September 2006 and I've been keeping an eye out in late season there ever since so a very pleasing find.

Of course it doesn't mean they are breeding here, they are a nomadic species prone to wandering from pond to pond, the males will spend a couple of days at a new site but if no females appear they will then move on elsewhere. I would hope to go down again tomorrow to see if he's still there but the forecast is for an all day downpour so the prospects not good.

Nevertheless I'm well happy with that, late season just gets better and better!

Other dragons on site :
A good count of over 30 common darters, at least 6 pairs ovipositing.
Single Southern Hawker (male) seen briefly
Single Migrant hawker (male) hawking roadside trees
Two emerald damsels on the pond.


Monday, 17 September 2012

A bit of this and that . . . .

After the excitement of last Sunday and Tuesday the rest of the week and this weekend failed to reach any great heights.
A spur of the moment visit to Far Pasture on Friday (14th) gave me an interesting sighting of a common hawker male on the pond (first I've noted here for about four years) also a male southern hawker was circumnavigating the pond, along with 6-7 common darters (1 pair ovipositing) and 3 emerald damsels.
Probably a dozen or more common darters on and around the access road (at least 10m 2f) but no ruddy darters seen today. I reeled off about 30 photos but nothing particularly exciting, the only curiosity being this specimen with a missing wing, though it didn't seem to do affect him much as I never noticed 'til I looked at the photo.

Common darter at Far Pasture
Note the left forewing is no more than a stump. Lucky escape from
one of the local swallows perhaps?

On Saturday a scooter ride with the kids around the Derwent Walk Country Park gave me an opportunistic 10 hawker sightings consisting of 1 female southern, 2 female migrants, 4 male migrants, 2 probable male migrants and a large flypast hawker which remains unidentified.
Again I tried my hand at capturing flight photos, my only near success was this one of two male migrants at Clockburn Lake outlet stream, which is also my first migrant photo of the year!

Migrant Hawker (male) at clockburn lake
The antehumeral 'pip' rather than stripe probably the easiest
ID feature to separate from common hawker.  

To show how it's done properly here are a couple of shots taken by 'Indiana' Steve early in the week at Shibdon Pond.

Migrant Hawker (male) at Shibdon Pond
Antehumeral pips much more apparent on these photos taken
by a 'proper' photographer
(S. Fryer) 

One sad fact about Saturday at the outlet stream was that there were no damsels present, the season is ended for all but a few emeralds now. Interestingly the snaps of the late Azure and Large Red damsels at Thornley Woods Pond I took on the 5th were both later than recorded in the whole of Britain last year when (according to BDS stats) the last azure was seen in Bucks.on the 1st, and the last large red was sighted in Kent on the 3rd. Remembering that last September was a complete washout though i'm not surprised.

The only other dragon to report this week was a male ruddy darter today at the walled garden pond in Gibside during a brief visit in overcast and blustery conditions.
I'll finish this round-up with another photo from Steve, this one of the male southern hawker which posed for us so well at Burdon Moor last week.

Southern Hawker (male) at Burdon Moor




Tuesday, 11 September 2012

If you go down to the woods today . . . .

A bit of business at Thornley Woodlands Centre gave me the opportunity to check out the dragonfly pond in the woods there for perhaps the last time this year. I love this intimate little site as I've said before, there's none better for getting up close and personal with Southern Hawker, and today was no exception. It was surprisingly sunny when I arrived and being completely sheltered from the blustery wind I was quite hopeful of some late season action.

Thornley Woods Pond
Superb for observing Southern hawkers
No sooner had I arrived when a patrolling male connected with a female hiding in the right-hand margins, the mating wheel was formed and after a couple of undulating laps of the pond, up they went, rather haphazardly into the treetops for the mating ritual.
A couple of minutes later another female came to the pond to oviposit (obviously a different individual as unlike humans, coupling in this species takes over an hour).
She settled on a half-submerged branch and probed with her abdomen to find suitable nooks and crannies in which to lay her eggs. She remained there for the next hour at least (she was still there when I left) giving me ample opportunity to take photos, though later I found a lot were spoiled by the incredibly strong sunlight ( I just can't win).


I spotted two common darters before the next hawker arrived, this time a male southern, who began a thorough search of the pond margins. I hoped he wouldn't spot the ovipositing female as they're not unknown to disturb the egg-laying process and force the female into mating again. But before long another male came on the scene, cue the inevitable scuffle, a fight which unusually went on for some time, I think because the first male had only just arrived on the scene himself so he wasn't going to give up his session at the pond lightly, had he been there a while he most likely would have submitted and zipped off without too much fuss.
One of the males eventually gave up the fight but like on my previous visit, the scene was set for an afternoon of territorial scrapping, with at least four different males on site.
Despite my less than successful previous attempts I still decided to try for some flight shots of the males who as usual flew tirelessly during their stint at the pond without settling, but amazingly one in particular seemed more curious of me than the others and repeatedly hovered right in front of my camera, often too close for me even to focus on him, with the result I at last got some half decent flight shots. (Yes I even shocked myself!)

I couldn't believe how sharp this one turned out as I still
had the camera on macro setting! 

If I didn't know better I'd say this feller was posing for the camera,
for a time he just wouldn't leave me alone!

Another female arrived, possibly the one seen earlier come back to the pond after mating to lay her eggs, as rather than taking refuge in the vegetation to await a suitor, she looked like she was looking for suitable egg-laying sites. Unfortunately for her there were now three randy males on the scene, two of which were busy fighting each other, but the third spotted the newcomer and chased her around until he was able to clasp on to her and carry her off up into the trees for another bout of mating, poor lass!

Still time for a grand finale though, as the remaining male on site actually landed at the back of the pond, hanging vertically (as they do) from a clump of dead leaves dangling among the brambles, and stayed there long enough for me to take a few snaps of his colourful armour in all its glory.

Unbelievable, you wait all year for one then two come along in three days, still I'm not complaining, I'm pleased to say late season is serving up some cracking dragonhunting!   


Monday, 10 September 2012

Super Sunday

If the Olympics had their 'Super Saturdays', then yesterday was a DragonHunting Super Sunday when
our most dragonfly-friendly weekend in a long while at last gave me the chance to catch up with Black Darter, and arriving at Burdon moor around mid-day in glorious sunshine for once, the darter pond was already a veritable hive of activity.

Common Darters were most prominent, with several tandem pairs ovipositing and single males in abundance. Soon a couple of hawkers came on the scene, quickly ID'd as Common males as they hovered obligingly for the purpose. Emerald Damselflies were present too in small numbers as was the odd Ruddy Darter and eventually the top prize in the shape of a male Black Darter was spotted skimming the tussocks of emergent vegetation, then another and another. Marvellous! Last years pessimism about this species being all but extinct in the borough seems way off the mark as Steve also spots an ovipositing pair and I latch onto a single female which soon disappears from view, making this is the most I've ever seen in one spot.

The darter pond at Burdon Moor
Very little water visible due to thick emergent vegetation
just how the black darters like it !

But there was so much activity, so much testosterone-fuelled frenzy as males of all the species searched the thick vegetation for females. There were scuffles everywhere between random species, like a bar-room free-for-all, nothing was allowed to settle in the mid-day heat for more than a few seconds before being chased off, even the damsels were attacking their bigger rivals. Frustration set in on my part as it looked like I was never going to get the photo of the Black darter I craved, as time and time again my quarry would settle too far out or would be driven off before I had time to zoom in on it.
But eventually, with a lot of patience and wet feet I was finally rewarded with an individual close enough and long enough to rattle off a few decent pics, success at last, and a best yet photo of a male Black Darter.

Black Darter (male)
my best photo yet of the species, well worth getting wet for!

That done I could at long last relax a bit and began to estimate the numbers present with the following conclusions:

Emerald Damselfly 6+
Common Darter 20+ with many tandem pairs
Black Darter 6 (4m 2f) 1 pair ovipositing
Ruddy Darter 5 (4m 1f) pair mating
Common hawker 4-5 males

Steve then took me along to the site for Common Lizards he found a few weeks back, and on the way was just showing me where he had photographed the mating Southern Hawkers last week when a male of the species flew into view and posed for a cracking array of photographs, again best yet photos of the species for the DragonHunter. Marvel at these!

Southern Hawker male from all angles
Just marvel at his beauty!
And a close-up for good measure

And then to cap it off  the lizards were showing as well, this adult and three much smaller youngsters out in the sunshine.

Common Lizard
A patch first for the DragonHunter 

What a fantastic day then, and (bearing weather forecast in mind) if it be the last major dragonhunt of the year then what a fantastic way to end the season, cheers Steve! 


Friday, 7 September 2012

The Mysterious Obelisk

The second part of my dragonhunting adventure on Wednesday took me to Far pasture (again? well it was on my way home so a shame not to go on such a belter of a day) just to see if I could get some better pics of Ruddy Darter, and at last I found a specimen which didn't flee at the sight of me so was able to get some much improved photos on my earlier attempts :

No fewer than eleven Common Darters scattered around the area too (9m 2f), and this overcooked female not only allowed me to get right close up, she also flew up and landed on my shoulder!

I was also lucky enough to record a bit of behaviour not previously seen this year as one common darter, presumably overheating in the exceptional early afternoon sunshine assumed the 'Obelisk' position, ie pointing the tip of its abdomen directly at the sun, so vastly reducing the surface area affected by direct sunlight. And in such great conditions with the sun behind me I got some cracking photographs as it performed the manoevre on the roadside fence.

The Obelisk
You can see how high the sun was in the sky by the angle
of the abdomen
Giving it a sense of place with the ruin of
Gibside Manor in the background
Or was he just mimicking the Gibside Column of Liberty
also visible in the background?   
Just liked the overall look of this image

And a not often seen view of the underside of the abdomen, as well as
the red wing veins showing up unusually well in the bright sunlight.

Finally I spotted an immature male Ruddy Darter a bit further along the fence and got a decent shot of him too.

So a nice way to finish a good day all round, especially after starting early morning with an unexpected and unlikely garden bird life-tick when this beaut of a Northern Wheatear was discovered sitting on the top of the safety net on the kids trampoline. Amazing!  : )

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Unchartered Territory . . .

In all the time I've been watching dragonfly behaviour in Thornley Woods pond I've never made a September visit before, so a trek up there yesterday was a bit of unchartered territory for the DragonHunter.

But there was a lot of activity to make it worth my while, with at least 4 possibly 5 male Southern Hawkers in the vicinity, resulting in many territorial squabbles sometimes involving a three-way tussle. One darker individual, presumably an older male ripening with age, took quite a few beatings at the hands of his younger rivals.
Their activity was frenetic, non-stop searching of the grasses and rough vegetation for females, though unlucky for them all, none seemed to be present, which was also unlucky for me as not once did I get the chance to photograph any of the hawkers except in flight. And here are the best of a bad bunch . . .

Told you they were bad
You should have seen the sixty-odd I binned!

More surprising for me was when I arrived on site around 1pm there were half a dozen Common Darters present including two ovipositing pairs in tandem. Surprising because it's the first time I've ever seen the species here. They too got involved in numerous squabbles with the bigger hawkers, often seeing them off.
Also still present were a couple of damsels, a large red male and an azure male, possibly the last of the season.
Common Darter
One of six seen here for the first time today. 
Azure damsel
Very late in the season for these now
Large Red damsel
Another extremely late individual, poor photo but had to
include him as he may be the last of the year
And one that was invited to supper by the spider
but didn't realise he WAS the supper

Some interesting avian activity too, with 5 very vocal buzzards calling all around me for a good long while before they came into view above the pond clearing. An assorted tit flock made its way around the clearing too, led by the tick-ticking of the long-tails, always worth trying to search through them at this time of year as anything could gang up with them, a case in point being my good mate Steve had 2 spotted flycatchers in a flock just over the road in Paddock Hill wood last week.
No such luck for me but I did manage to pin down a Willow Warbler, a Treecreeper and a little brown warbler-like job I couldn't identify.

More dragonfly activity as a single male Southern Hawker was patrolling a relatively new pond by the track. It's always been no more than a muddy shallow but all the rain this year has left it thriving, each time I've passed there have been a few large red damsels but this is the first time I've seen a dragon on patrol, so one to keep an eye on in the future.

A new pond to keep an eye on
Will have to think of a name for it

I did at last come across a female Southern Hawker, ironically well away from water in Paddock Hill Wood, where it was busy foraging, so unfortunately wasn't in the mood to pose for photographs either. Not a great session for photos then, but most interesting all the same.                    

Monday, 3 September 2012

As Summer Fizzles out . . .

Last week of the school summer holidays provided few proper dragonhunting opportunities, though quite a few hawkers seen but no chances to get up close or take even a low quality photograph.
The last few days of August brought an afternoon with the kids at the Strawberry Castle adventure play area at Gibside, which provided shelter from the blustery wind in otherwise decent sunshine, and three or four Migrant Hawkers gave me a bit of entertainment as they hawked the surrounding trees, with two or three Common Darters also in attendance.

Final day of August and a Scooter ride with the kids in the Derwent Walk Country Park also brought a few Migrant Hawkers around Clockburn Lake and Kite Hill, I watched one male hawking tirelessly for quite some time as we picnicked, hoping for him to settle but never did. And when the inevitable rain came I expected that to be it, so was pleasantly surprised to find another male still hawking around the hill uneffected, again watched for a while, then on the way back to the car park I spotted a southern Hawker (m) patrolling the river under the shelter of the bankside trees.

Yesterday just a few quick site visits in a bird-orientated day but by the river at Lockhaugh a couple of Migrant Hawkers and a Southern Hawker female, and at Far Pasture a male Southern Hawker patrolled the pond, with many Common Darters in attendance and a few Emerald damsels. I also provided Steve with his first Ruddy Darter of the year at the usual spot on the approach road.
But the only occasion I got my camera out was to snap this beauty of a Kingfisher close to the far Pasture hide.

Best shot I've ever got of our most colourful bird 

Steve later visited Burdon Moor where he got this exceptional shot of a mating pair of Southern Hawkers, and back again today where he tracked down the resident male Black Darter.

Southern Hawkers in the mating wheel
A difficult shot to get as this particular species usually performs
the mating ritual high in the treetops
(S. Fryer)  
Black Darter at Burdon Moor
Showing signs of age now, his amber spotting has
all but disappeared
(S. Fryer)

So we're into September, hope for some bright spells (as I remember last year the month was a total washout,) so I can track down a Gateshead Black Darter (or two) of my own, (my final target for the year,) as well as improve on my photos of Ruddy Darter and get some decent hawker shots.

Plenty still to do then, and with the sprogs back at school I might just be in with a chance . . . . .