Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Fizzling out . . . .

The dragonfly season seems to be fizzling out, though a bit of decent weather early week let me do a brief round of the local sites in hope of a decent send-off.
Thornley Woods Pond still had patrolling southern hawkers (3 males) and a common hawker. No females seen though and frantic searching by the males didn't help matters for photography.

A search of Kite Hill and Clockburn Lake for migrant hawkers proved disappointingly fruitless. Usually a good area to find them hawking the trees especially round the base of the hill but none at all showed in the time I was there, and sad to see the outlet stream now totally lifeless; the blue-tailed damsels which entertained me during the summer now just a fond and distant memory.

Far Pasture was more lively. Like late season last year a mating frenzy was in full swing on the main pond, must have been over 30 pairs of common darters ovipositing, by far the most I've seen here all year. A couple of migrant hawkers (males) also on the pond, plus a single southern hawker, also male.

Another migrant hawker provided good entertainment as he hawked the area outside the sewage-work gates, low down and offering cracking views as he buzzed me time and again, though wouldn't oblige for photographs. A common hawker also came through the car-park, and a southern hawker was patrolling the forbidden pond, but surprisingly few common darters here.
Common darters also less numerous on the roadside fences, (probably 'cos they were all on the pond doing what comes naturally) and another male migrant was hawking the bull field.
So plenty of dragons about at Far Pasture anyway, but once again no sign of any female migrants or ruddy darters so with little in the way of unusual or exciting I pretty much kept my camera in the bag for most of the day.

But a great bit of fox-watching last night as our front garden was visited four times in a short space of time around 11pm. Sightings were never more than a minute long and mostly in shadow, but at times were only a matter of six feet away through our front window. The last sighting involved the pair in a high-speed chase up the street, and a local cat also got involved with a bit of bravado, the fox exiting after a brief stand-off. Great stuff :)    

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fox-Trot and a Tandem Tango

The tip-off about the foxes proved to be a good one :)

Three sightings on Tuesday night of two different animals, (prob dog and vixen). The larger dog a real fit-looking beast, arrogantly strutting down the middle of the road, the smaller vixen seemed to be a bit more nervy, tending to go through the gardens and dash between cars. And last night I got a proper garden tick as one of them (vixen I think) trotted across our front lawn not once but twice within the space of a few minutes :)

No sign of the two cubs we were told about yet but I'll certainly be keeping a look-out on an evening. And don't even have to stop up late as they first appear around 10.30pm. So there you go, a new challenge for the dragonhunter; try to get a photo of a fox in my front garden.

Dragon News :

A look in on Far Pasture on Wednesday in cool conditions produced a decent number of common darters still, with 4-5 pairs ovipositing on the pond.
A quick look on the Forbidden Pond produced a patrolling male Common Hawker, just one tandem pair of darters and a couple of singles (and just one green sandpiper)
As the sun poked out, a couple of Migrant Hawkers quartered the fields, both males, but neither settling for a photo, unlike a few pairs of darters who seemed to have other things on their mind.

In tandem on the fence

Tango-ing in the trees

By all accounts the weather should start to improve after today so maybe a few more opportunities yet.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Up Close and Personal . . .

Just a few more shots from the weekend. Strange how some days I can't get anything at all in focus but on other days (using the same settings) they turn out sharp as a er . . .sharp thing.
So using a bit of photoshop jiggery-pokery, I've upped the dpi, zoomed in and cropped my original photos, with some canny results :

Looking through the undergrowth
Southern Hawker (female) Thornley Woods Pond

Full facial


Like a miniature helicopter

Ready for take-off

Great shot of the thorax markings

A common darter at Far Pasture

Zoom-in even closer for a nice shot of the frons

Same subject, different view 

Also we were informed by the woman over the road earlier that a family of foxes have been coming into our end of the street most nights over the last couple of weeks and were in our front garden last night. Could explain the strange poos we've been finding all over the lawn. Worth investigating, will certainly be keeping an eye out tonight anyhow. Only ever seen one fox from the house, trotting up the adjacent lane during heavy snow a couple of years ago.  

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Common Mistake . . . .

Now I have half decent photos of male Common and Migrant Hawkers I thought I might do a refresher on how to differentiate between these two quite similar species.

I know most folk don't need a reminder but it's more for my own peace of mind to prove I'm not going la-la after having a brief exchange with a bloke on another blog last week who posted photos showing all the features of a migrant labelled as common and then curtly dismissed mine (and another bloke's) polite comments pointing this out 'as he has seen hundreds'.
Afterwards he removed our comments then removed the comment function from his blog altogether; obviously doesn't like people disagreeing with him  LoL  

But back to the task in hand, if he or anyone needs to go through the pointers then here goes :

Migrant (top) Common (bottom)

If you can get them perched up ID should be pretty obvious. The bold yellow T-shape at the base of the abdomen is diagnostic on the Migrant, as is the yellow costa (front of wing) on the Common. Both of these features show well on a static insect. Also if you look at the front of the thorax, Common Hawker has bold yellow braces (antehumeral stripes) whereas the Migrant Hawker just has small pips or dashes there, often difficult to make out at all.    

Migrant (top) Common (bottom)
Flying subjects can be much more difficult to ID until you get a good view, even the difference in size is not always apparent due to light conditions, distance and the like, though a half-decent photo should provide enough clues for identification.
The diagnostic abdominal pattern is unlikely to be seen in flight and even the yellow costa is not always clear, and in some cases the light causes the migrant costa to appear yellower than it actually is, so the standard ID rule applies that if you only think it's yellow it probably isn't.

On the side of the thorax both have two yellow stripes, the Common usually more distinctive, being better defined on a slightly darker body, and in between the stripes there is a single yellow dash near the top on the Common, and a line of two to three small yellow spots separate the stripes on the Migrant.
Side-on views of the abdomen also give a couple of clues. At the tail end of the Common from the tip there are three bold blue markings on the top-side before the first blue mark on the underside; the blue mark on the last segment of the Migrant is hardly visible so it appears there are only two bold marks on top before the first blue mark underneath.

Also (but not really apparent from my photos) the large blue patch on the underside of segment 3 of the abdomen is more or less horizontal, forming a rectangular shape on the thicker waist of the Migrant, whereas the blue mark slopes diagonally down forming a triangular shape on the thinner-waisted Common.

The point about the thickness of the waist is a good one actually, in silhouette from below the Migrant abdomen is more-or-less parallel all the way along, the Common abdomen is very thin near the base which is very obvious in an insect flying overhead.

Other more general clues on Jizz :

Away from the breeding areas Common Hawkers are usually solitary and often hunt along woodland rides or between avenues of trees. Migrant Hawkers are more likely found hawking woodland edges next to open land, and may be in small groups.

Common Hawkers are constantly on the move,erratic flight high and low and are nervy of people, usually moving away if approached.
Migrant Hawkers hunt at a much more even height and leisurely flight, often glding as they quarter over open land and will treat the observer as if they didn't exist, not shying away and coming very close if you're surrounded by midges.
But like I said at the start these are mainly generalisations and individuals don't always stick to the rules.

That's about all I can think of, I too have seen hundreds and it's not always clearcut, but should be given a decent enough photo, as the feature differences mentioned are pretty much standard.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Keeping it in the Family . . .

The situation I encountered yesterday with the Common Hawker (male) trying to get off with the Southern Hawker females has begged an intriguing question; does inter-breeding ever happen ?

" Ow pet, do yer dee owt ? "
" Aye, but not with you ! "
Sid the Sexist - Viz

Well, not one to be stumped for an answer on my favourite subject I had a look in my copy of Dragonflies by Corbet and Brooks, an excellent publication explaining all aspects of dragonfly behaviour, though can be a bit hard-work at times for a thicko like me :)

Anyhow a brief summary of the relevant paragraphs and a bit of general information from my own subconscious :

It is reckoned that dragonflies recognise potential partners of the same species by purely visual means, based on flight style, size, colour and pattern, and ultraviolet reflection.
It is the males who do the 'hunting' and will respond first from a great distance to a potential mate, then zoom in for a closer inspection. Receptive females often just stay put, hidden in marginal vegetation and will rise up to greet a male of the same species she recognises flying over.

Interestingly enough, experiments have been carried out using tethered female Southern Hawkers which have attracted six different species of male (including Common Hawker) and it is noted that those six species (Common, Southern and Brown hawker, Downy and Brilliant Emerald, and Four-spotted Chaser) have been noted over the years as being the most likely to 'try it on' with other species. This may either be down to a flaw in their recognition abilities or a character trait which means they'll have a go with anything as long as it's female (ha'way we all know someone like that, usually aided by beer-goggles:) 

A closer inspection by the male should reveal enough about body and wing patterns to put off most non-compatible suitors but some individuals will still try to form the tandem link with the claspers around the neck, though as both claspers and neck shapes have evolved differently in the species this is usually impossible, or at best in similar species a loose connection can be formed (which is what I witnessed yesterday explaining why the females were able to escape with comparative ease)

And even if an inter-species mating wheel is formed the genitalia are different again so it's like going home drunk and trying to fit your car key in the front door lock (you just ain't getting in there).

I'm no expert but I think it's a fact that where species have reached their evolutionary peak, they are no longer able to copulate (successfully that is ;) with any other species, though as Wallace and that other bloke discovered, geographically separated species start to evolve differently, forming sub-species and races which may look different but are still capable of producing offspring where they overlap. This is thought to be true of Eastern and Western Pondhawk in the US, where intermediary individuals in more central areas are believed to be hybrids of the two.
Over here we have the Highland Darter which isn't recognised as a full species but a race of Common Darter evolving in harsher climates, but that's as close as we get; I can't speak for the rest of the world but certainly (to my knowledge) there has never been any suggestion that hawkers have interbred in Britain.

Species also try to ensure they keep to themselves in other ways, by synchronising emergence, choice of habitat, time of day visiting the breeding sites to name but a few; basically there's a reason for all aspects of behaviour and it mostly revolves around the breeding process.

And all this reminds me about something I forgot to mention yesterday; one individual at TWPond had me baffled for a while on ID but turned out it was a Southern Hawker (male) with all blue markings along the abdomen (instead of green turning to blue at the tail). Unfortunately I couldn't get a photo and he soon disappeared up into the trees with one of the females. It's an unusual rogue colouring but not unheard of, and unfortunately has nowt to do with interbreeding of the species. Certainly the first time I've encountered it in a mature adult. 

Anyhow I'm off for a rest, my brain hurts. If anybody knows anything different or additional, I'd be interested in hearing, and cheers John for the question.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Late Show, Great Show !

As I hadn't been out all week I just had to take advantage of the sunshine this morning, but couldn't decide between Thornley Woods for hawkers, or Far Pasture for another try for Ruddy Darter.
in the end I went for the former, and it turned out a good choice, for a lone male Common hawker came on patrol just after I arrived and I couldn't believe my luck as he hovered for long periods, so for once giving my slow-focusing camera ample time to lock on with great results :

Common hawker at T W Pond
I even amazed myself with this shot

Certainly my best ever flight shot of any species by far, very happy with that one :)

I reeled off a couple of others as opportunities arose and then he settled on the brambles far side of the pond so I was able to get a few shots perched up as well, the distance though making it difficult to achieve the same standard.

It wasn't long before Southern Hawker males started to arrive, three in quick succession, but these were much more flighty than the Common so didn't offer much in the way of photo opportunities, though one perched up for short while, again distant.

Many melees ensued before females too arrived on the scene, or were discovered in the undergrowth of the pond margins.
The Common Hawker latched on to a female and tried to drag her away, though she struggled free, but I'm sure a Southern female not a Common. Then he did it again with another female and the pair crashed into the tangle of brambles nearside and I managed to get a shot before they flew up, again parting company after a mid-air struggle.

Yip, that's a male common hawker attempting to mate with a female
 southern hawker - needless to say, it ended in tears.   

Eventually the right pairings occured, three females being carried off in to the tops of the conifers by Southern males, and I even managed a shot of one pair as they rose up above me.

The pond was vacant for a short while before another female southern came in to oviposit, no males to interrupt her now so I was able to track her around the pond and get some canny shots.

So another excellent session at one of my favourite local sites. Plenty of action with 1-2 Common hawker males, 4-5 Southern Hawker males, 4 Southern Hawker females and a lone common darter male.
Late season it may be but as they say the show ain't over 'til the fat bird squawks. Hopefully still more to come. :)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

All's Quiet . . . .

Kicking myself as today would have been a good day to get out dragonhunting, but as it happens I started hacking the back hedge before the sun got out and was committed to finishing the job with the forecast for the the foreseeable future not very good to say the least.

Also thought it might have been a good raptor day so kept one eye on the skies as I worked, but apart from a few red kites and a sparrowhawk, very little of note passed over the garden.
Other observations are that the smaller birds seem to be starting to flock, with bands of assorted tits harvesting the garden and bigger parties of starlings noted overhead. The local housemartins are still 'on patch' but there have been a few swallows passing through.
Highlights were a singing chiffchaff and a very vocal red kite perched in the conifers over the road.

Number 6 on it's (faded) yellow wingtag so one of the first birds released in the valley back in 2004. Adopted by Highfield Community Primary School who named him 'Flame', according to the FoRK website he has rarely moved outside of the valley, pairing with  WT19 (Ruby) in 2007 and they've nested (or attempted to) each year since, close by. He's probably the kite I identify most often from the garden as he often dives in to feed from the flat-topped garages over the back when people throw their 'Sunday dinners' up there. I know a few photographers complain about the wingtags spoiling their photos (boo hoo) but being able to identify individuals and look back at their history is much more satisfying I think. 

Anyhow Saturday looks the best bet for anywhere near decent dragonfly weather, otherwise I can only hope next week improves after the forthcoming wind and rain moves away. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Darter in the Hand . . . .

A few 'firsts' today.
At Shibdon Pond my first Ruff, Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit of the year.
Other birdy highlights of the morning were a pink-footed goose in with the greylags at Lamesley, and a brief in-flight view of a Kingfisher in the same area.

Then down to business, Kibblesworth for black darter, last of the Super 16 in the Gateshead dragonfly calendar, and the first time I'll have photographed all 16 in one summer if we could hunt one out.
I needn't have worried; I locked onto a black darter as we approached the pool, a bit of patience and I would soon have my shots :

The black Darter pool at Kibblesworth

First black darter photographed in the borough this year
and first ever at Kibblesworth (for me that is)

So there it was, a complete set of Gateshead dragon photos in one season (though I need to include the crappy common hawker flight shot I got at the same pool back in July), and actually my first ever black darter at Kibblesworth, last year I got them at Burdon Moor and the year before it was Stargate.

We then had one in good view as the sun disappeared so it was easy to approach and get some good shots.

But as soon as the sun came out again he was off, hovering just in front of me, so I stuck out my hand just below him and he landed on it, much to the mirth of the Birdman,with the result that he got some cracking photos while I just looked at it, tiny at such close quarters, robotic head movements, abdomen pulsating, just a shame it didn't poo on me :)
I wrestled with my camera, eventually pointing it in the general direction of the darter at point blank range and pressing the button in the hope I would (a) get him in the picture and (b) get him in focus. With the result :

Not too bad considering . . .

Just a record shot really but a memorable little cameo. Look on the Birdman of Gateshead blog today and you'll find a picture of me taking that picture. Not a pretty sight but worth a laugh!

There were at least 3 or 4 male S. danae on site but disappointingly no females so I'll still try and get up to Stargate this week if the weather is favourable.
We also tried to pin down an elusive Ruddy Darter amongst all the frenzied mating taking place around the ponds by the common darters, too many to count. I'm sure I got on a couple of ruddies with my bins but so much skirmishing going on nothing settled long enough for photos. But hopefully there'll be other opportunities yet.
Time running out but still plenty to go for. As well as female black darter and migrant hawker, I'd still like better photos of a ruddy darter and common hawker. I'll be keeping an eye on the weather forecasts that's for sure :)    

Friday, 6 September 2013

Last Days of Summer - Part III

After the episode with the injured southern hawker (again, I just couldn't believe my luck) I eventually made it to Far Pasture, hoping for Ruddy Darter and Migrant Hawker.
Many common Darters basking and skirmishing by the roadside, but disappointingly no Ruddies.

I had a look on the pond and more activity here than of late, maybe half a dozen tandem pairs of darters ovipositing, still not a big count for here. I checked them all out to see if any ruddies were among them but still no joy.
Tip : It's quite easy to distinguish ovipositing common and ruddy darters even at distance; though the tandem pairs both have a dipping action, the common darter female actually dips the tip of her abdomen in the water to disperse the eggs, whereas the ruddy flicks her abdomen above the water surface and expels the eggs that way. Simple.
A lot of single male darters also present and although a few caused a few ID headaches I couldn't say there were anything but common darters present. Still a few emerald damsels too, again mainly males, only one tandem pair seen, all too distant to photograph, unlike this Snipe which was feeding out in the open close to the hide.

This darter appeared to have a bulbous tip to the abdomen and a complete
lack of black or dark abdominal markings ?

But a few hawkers srarted coming in, both male and female southern (the female ovipositing) a male common and finally this fellow who gave me the runaround before unexpectedly settling near enough for a few photos.

Migrant Hawker at Far Pasture obviously ignorant of the rule that
says hawkers are supposed to perch vertically

Zoom in for a close-up before he was up and settled even closer,
but in the thick vegetation.

Not a great photo but shows a couple of ID features to look
out for; antehumeral pips at the front of the thorax
(rather than stripes like a common hawker male)
and the diagnostic yellow T at the base of the abdomen.  

So at last, Migrant Hawker in the bag, much better than the dodgy flight shot which was the best I could get last year.

But I was still a bit baffled by the strange looking darter so made a return visit yesterday in hope of getting some better pics, but all I could do was confirm that the variation in colouration (not to mention the illusions caused by angles) among common darters means unless you can get a decent picture of the face so to distinguish the frons (the black markings under where the eyes meet which vary from species to species) it can be extremely difficult to ID anything rarer, but I'd like to bet there are Vagrant and Southern Darters around the country which are never discovered.

Another individual with slightly bulbous tip and little variation
in colour to the abdomen

. . . whereas this more typical specimen shows much more contrast
And this one appears club-tailed (my art training on
perspective tells me a parallel sided abdomen would
taper as it goes away from the viewer) but the frons
tells me this is just another common darter.  

Anyhow it was a lovely sunny day so got a few more arty pics of common darters to finish it off.

Not a bad effort if I may say so myself, nothing in the
background to distract from the subject.

Hold on a mo, what's that in his gob ?

Just a snack by the size of it.

So there you have it, an excellent day dragonhunting; some great action at Thornley woods Pond, an unbelievably jammy photo opportunity with the Southern Hawker and a first decent shot of a Migrant Hawker for a couple of years.
A Gateshead Black Darter is my only outstanding target for the borough 'Super 16', but in general I would still like to get photos of females of black darter and migrant hawker to complete my gallery.
Still have the time, but will we get the weather?        

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Last Days of Summer - Part II

Back to yesterday, and with the action being so good at TW Pond I stayed longer than intended, (plus some fellow dragonwatchers turned up just as I was about to leave so the chat went on a bit too). But it really is a tremendous site for observing dragonfly behaviour, I've probably learned more about odonata (southern hawker in particular) through watching many aspects of the life cycle here than anywhere else, such an intimate little site.

But I digress, I now had a dilemma; should I continue with my planned route down to Clockburn Lake and Kite Hill for migrant hawkers, or should I just head straight for Far Pasture in the hope of pinning one down there? In the end I decided a longer time spent at one site was better than two mini-sessions at two sites, so headed to Far Pasture through Paddock Hill Woods 'til I reached the gate leading back on the A694 and for some reason decided that I would just walk down the main road rather than through the woods and along the derwent walk, something I hardly ever do . . . but so glad I did.

As I trudged along the tarmac path running parallel to the A694 something bright blue caught my eye on the ground. I looked back and did a double-take as I realised it was a southern hawker male lying head first on the path, tail in the air :O

I at first thought it must have been hit by a car and assumed it dead, but on closer inspection realised it was holding on to a twig, which I picked up and noted the hawker was still alive, though obviously stunned at the very least.
I'm thinking he must have been resting on that twig (while still attached to the tree) and it had snapped off during a sudden wind or turbulence caused by a passing lorry and smacked face down on the path before he could react.
Anyhow I carried him carefully to the next gate along the road which is further away from the traffic so I could sort him out.

Hawker and Twig, just as I found them

I wasn't sure how badly injured he was but took the opportunity to have a good look at him at close-up through my 10x magnifying loupe and got as close as I could with the camera too.

I didn't realise the extent of his injuries until I looked at the photos, noting at least superficial damage to his face, obvious damage to one eye, and head covered in dust, all probably happening during the collision with the tarmac path.

Nasty scrape to the face

Left eye sustained some damage

A light covering of dust particles 

He started becoming a bit more active, and he began to vibrate his wings like they do when they are warming up, so I carefully transferred him to a sturdy plant stem which he gripped firmly, and I continued to fill my boots (photographically speaking).




I eventually left him still gripping the stem, well away from danger, wings still revving up, and hoping he would soon take flight.

He may not survive but I suppose in a way it was lucky for both of us it was me who spotted him, he could easily have been trodden underfoot or run over by a bike on that stretch of narrow path, at least I'd given him a fighting chance. And what an opportunity for close-up photos, especially since I'd just been frustrated at TW Pond trying to photograph the same species. Fate works in funny ways :)

Footnote : When I eventually got home I realised I didn't have my loupe so (some five hours later) had to go back up to where I'd left the hawker. I retrieved my loupe out of the grass but the hawker was nowhere to be seen, so hopefully my good deed paid off. :) 

Phew! And I still hadn't reached Far Pasture yet! More to come on my big day out, final part tomorrow. . . . .dinner dinner dinner dinner batman!