Saturday, 21 December 2013

One Out, One In ?

Almost the end of the year now, and just time for a review of this year’s records before they’re sent off to the BDS.
I always go back over records I’m not happy about at the end of the season and review the photographs I’ve taken, and just two to clear up this year but they’re both potential biggies:

First I belatedly claimed an Azure Hawker at Loch Garten after discovering the female has a brown and blue form which tied in with a sighting I couldn’t identify at the White-faced Darter site. I’ve since discovered that Common Hawker also has a similar brown and blue form which is much more common in Scotland than it is in England, and taking into account the size of the dragonfly in question (on reflection it was too big to be an Azure) plus the fact Azure Hawkers have not been seen here for a number of years, I am striking it from my list for the year (The Birdman can relax as he didn’t see it anyway).

Azure Hawker female brown/blue form

Common Hawker female brown/blue form
My second review was way back on June 30th, when I recorded my first hawker of the year at Milkwellburn Woods.
It was flighty and difficult to ID though I eventually called it as a common hawker male due to the markings, though size and jizz was puzzling to say the least. I put my bafflement down to the simple fact it’s been so long since I saw one I just didn’t have my eye in yet, but when I saw my first proper common hawker male a couple of weeks later I realised it had been a mistake to call it, leading me to do some serious investigation and research to pin down its true identity.

I was out with the Birdman in Milkwellburn woods (same day we got the female Broad-bodied Chaser) and we were making our way down a fairly steep woodland ride when I spied a dragonfly hawking a clearing in the distance, wings glinting as they caught the sunshine.
When we got there it was still hawking with a rapid to and fro action about head height. Unusually I couldn't make out any markings as it zipped about and my first thought was that it was very small for a hawker. The profile view we were getting gave the impression of a very short and rather stubby looking dragonfly, in fact it resembled a flying half-smoked cigarette I recall thinking. The strong sunlight at the time wasn't helping with the ID either, but I can safely say early impressions had me totally baffled.

When at last it came below head height and briefly towards me I was able to confirm a 'mosaic' hawker pattern along the top of the abdomen which just looked pale/white due to reflecting light (though I'm sure I got a flash of pale blue from somewhere as it passed me), and antehumeral stripes at the front of the thorax (though there is a question mark next to this in my notes).
These features led me to conclude it must be a Common Hawker male, though the size and jizz was odd to say the least, but like I said I put that down to the fact I didn't have my eye in yet as it was the first hawker of the year, and thought I was just misjudging/misremembering size after an absence of some 8 months. 

Eventually (after acquiring a meal mid-air) it alighted on a tree trunk quite high up giving an angled side-on view. I had to back off to get a better angle as it hung vertically but in strong light I still wasn’t able to clearly see any recognisable markings along the side of the abdomen, and strangely the thorax appeared to be wrapped in some sort of reflective web so I couldn't make out any pattern there either, which again I put down to an effect caused by the strong sunlight.
It appeared quite settled now so I was able to go for my camera, but (as luck would have it) just as cloud cover came, and with it a strong gust of wind which lasted for some seconds and took the dragonfly away. We waited a few minutes but with the sun now in the clouds it wasn't to reappear in the blustery wind. 

So that was that. I called it in as a Common Hawker but made notes at home and kept those mental images with me until I saw my first 'proper' common hawker about a fortnight later, when I realised immediately that this dragon hadn’t been what I called it as, as these were obviously much bigger and not at all like what I'd seen in Milkwellburn Woods.

The woodland clearing in Milkwellburn Woods
Front is a dried-up boggy area, the pale tree towards the right
is where the mystery dragon landed before the wind took it
Since then I've done much research, and having explored every aspect of the sighting concluded that the true identity of this dragonfly must be a Brachytron Pratense; a Hairy Hawker, which would be a bloody good record for Gateshead as only a few historical records (of wandering individuals) exist :O
In fact looking at previous records and distribution maps for the species, the only records for the Derwent Valley are pre-1974 (from BDS historical maps and Corbet & Brooks historical distribution maps). But as a species it is certainly spreading north, already colonising Dumfries and Galloway in the west, and in the east more recent records exist from Cowpen Bewley, Durham City and Warden Law near Sunderland, as well as a scattering in Northumberland.

The fact I’ve never previously seen a Hairy Hawker in the field meant I have nothing to compare it with, (and finding one in a woodland ride would point to it being a female), but my conclusion comes after much reading of species accounts and viewing images and video-clips, as bit by bit it all began to fall into place :

The fact I described it as a flying cigarette stub; Literature says they don't have a waist like other hawkers and so look cylindrical in flight (ticks box)
I also read that markings on the abdomen aren't easily made out unless you get a really close view (ticks that box too)
The patchy descriptions of markings which caused me to call it as a common hawker (mosaic abdomen, hint of pale blue, antehumeral stripes? are all consistent with hairy hawker (tick, tick, tick)
The thorax is covered in hairs (hence the name) which explains the effect of the reflective light webbing I got when it was perched on the treetrunk (another tick)
The size - man it was really really small (tick) indeed it's the smallest hawker at an average of 55mm almost a whole cm shorter than migrant.

And the process of elimination:
Basically, having observed many hawkers of our three resident mosaic species this summer I am positive this was not one of them. It was far too small for common or southern hawker, and far too soon for a migrant; on jizz alone I should have realised it was a dragonfly species I hadn't seen before, so with all things considered, I can be 100% certain what it wasn’t, but can I be 100% certain what it was?

Hairy Hawker
Will you make my Gateshead list?
Well it’s six months since the sighting was made but actually I reached this conclusion not long afterwards. I've gone through it all again and looking back I don’t think it could have been anything else, but there's always the niggle on conclusions made after the event of "What if I'm remembering it wrong?" (there is a blur over the presence of antehumeral stripes) and it’s a fact of life that without photographic evidence, records of this nature (improbable but not impossible) are generally dismissed these days, so on my record submission it will go down as a probable (with much notation).
And I won’t be putting it down on my Gateshead or year-list just yet, but the little bugger is etched in my memory and when I actually see one in the field at a known site; then I will know for certain and tick it retrospectively (or otherwise).
I doubt it would be an indication of a nearby colony anyway, most likely just a one-off wanderer (females can be found in woodland some kms from the nearest habitable water-body), so in the scheme of things not a record of great importance (like the Gibside Golden-ringed  of 2010), just a great personal record, but I’ll certainly be checking the area next year just in case ;)

Roll on next spring! (again)

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

That was the Summer That Was . . . .

Time for a review of the 2013 Dragonhunting season, as usual a mix of highs and lows, thankfully the highs outweighing the lows by a distance. Started off on a low though, as the awful spring delayed emergence and by the end of May only the first immature Azure damsels started showing at Far Pasture, and a couple of Large Reds had been spotted.
This continued into June, but the good thing was I was out searching and got to grips with the immature stages of Azure and Blue-tailed damsels in particular, helping me to understand their maturing process a lot better.

immature Azure damsel male

Blue-tailed damsel immature female
of the rufescens form 

Blue-tailed damsel immature female
of the violacea form
Far Pasture was again disappointing for Four-spotted Chasers, with only one second-hand report coming from the main pond. That’s two years running without a sighting so I’m thinking it's safe to say that they aren’t a breeding species here, though having witnessed a single ovipositing three years ago I’m hopeful they might be one day. Despite three being seen on the Forbidden Pond the fact is that on sites where they are established they are present in good numbers, never been the case here with a maximum of five three years ago.

Four-spotted Chaser (m)
but from Gibside not Far Pasture
Better news on the Broad bodied Chaser front, Stargate as usual giving excellent photo-opportunities, and new sites explored at Mickwellburn Woods and the Forbidden Pond at far Pasture both reporting more than one individual, though sadly no females seen at FP FP but the aggressive behaviour of one of the males suggested he had recently mated there.
Broad-bodied Chaser (m)
a spectacular dragonfly and 1 of 2 seen at Stargate

Broad-bodied Chaser (f)
Milkwellburn Woods (a new site for the Dragonhunter)

Broad-bodied Chaser (m)
1 of 2 at the Forbidden Pond (Far Pasture)

Into July and it was a month of two halves, the first half brought probably the three best dragonhunting experiences of the summer, the second half just disappointment with major restrictions brought about by poor weather and the school holidays.

But to the good stuff; obviously the weekend in the Highlands of Scotland with the Birdman of Gateshead would take some beating anytime. Northern Damselfly, White-faced Darter and Northern Emerald were three lifers, add to that Dotterel, Ptarmigan, summer plumaged Snow Buntings, excellent views of Ospreys and distant Golden Eagle, and the fact I climbed a mountain for the first time, it was an experience I’ll never forget.

A couple of Northern Damselflies (m)
Lifer number 1

Dotterel - worth climbing a mountain for . . . .

. . . . . which is exactly what I did

White-faced Darter (m)
lifer number 2

Northern Emerald (f\)
Lifer number 3
The following week back in Gateshead we had unbelievable views (and photos) of both male and female Emperor Dragonfly, and a few days later a best ever count of perhaps 26 Banded Demoiselles on the river Derwent at their dazzling best in glorious sunshine, an absolute treat to watch but not the best place for photographs unfortunately.

Close encounter with the Emperor (male)

Close encounter with the Emperor (female) . . . .

. . . . . even though it was a bit gruesome
But like I said it all came to an end in the second half of the month with a string of disappointments, biggest of which was the lack of activity at Thornley Woods Pond with Southern Hawker emergence seemingly very poor this year. Hope for better next year, certainly one thing I’ll be monitoring closely.

August was probably the most disappointing month. A brief view of a Golden-ringed Dragonfly in Dumfries&Galloway was too brief a highlight, but in a month of limited opportunities due to weather and school hols I spent much of the time fruitlessly searching for Ruddy Darters at Far Pasture, usually a really good site for them, but this year only one to report despite (like I say) much searching. Again the end of the month came to the rescue, with a superb session observing and photographing Black Darters at Cragside in Northumberland.

Black Darter (m) at Cragside
With the kids back at school and a few sunny days, the first half of September proved to be the best period since early July with some fantastic action from both Southern and Common Hawkers at Thornley Woods Pond on a couple of occasions, and the fluke of the century when I found an injured Southern Hawker on the footpath between Paddock Hill Woods and the A694, giving a marvellous photo opportunity as I got close-ups from every angle as he recovered from his trauma, and hopefully allowed him to live out the rest of his short life with no more than a few superficial injuries.
Finding an injured Southern Hawker male was the biggest
stroke of luck of the summer  

But he seemed to be recovering well when
I left him attached to this stalk

And not before I'd got some unbelievable

This hovering Common Hawker male at Thornley Woods Pond
provided my best ever flight shot

Decent Migrant Hawker photos at Far Pasture the same day were followed by more Black Darter shots, this time from Kibblesworth, (one of which I got to land on my hand) giving me the last of the Gateshead Super 16 and indeed the first time I’ve managed to photograph all 16 annual Gateshead species in one summer.

Patience paid off when I eventually got a perched up
Migrant Hawker (m) at Far Pasture

My hand came in errr . . . handy for this Black Darter shot
at  Kibblesworth 

Giving me a photographic record of all 16 resident
Gateshead species of Odonata in one season for the first time :)
The second half of September was pretty uneventful, no Indian summer but the weather was OK on and off through October, when I concentrated mainly on looking for the disappointingly elusive Ruddy Darter or something a little rarer among the Commons at Far Pasture but ended up just photographing numerous variations of Common Darter ageing, which was useful but I think I spent too much time there when I could have been searching other sites like Stargate for Black Darter and Shibdon for Migrant Hawker.
So the summer eventually fizzled out, but my final outing on October 24th was noteworthy when I had great views of a foraging female Migrant Hawker, something I’d been waiting weeks to find. Unfortunately too distant and flighty for photographs and so my main local targets for late season next year will be females of Migrant Hawker and Black Darter (again).
But all in all a very good year; a few disappointments but plenty to look back on, and plenty to look forward to next summer, with just a few gaps left in my photographic log to fill .

Can’t wait to get stuck in again J             

Monday, 16 December 2013

Back in Action . . . . .

A very stressy weekend, but with xmas more or less taken care of now I ventured out for a bit of birding for the first time since early November :O
A cycle along to Far Pasture this morning reminded me of what I've been missing since the dragonfly season ended and my annual bout of SAD kicked in (it's true, once the summer is over, the dragonflies have gone and the weather turns for the worse, I find it really hard to get motivated for birding again and before I know it the Christmas build up takes over, it happens every year).

But within seconds of dismounting my (t)rusty bike at the forbidden pond gate I got my mojo back as three super little birds, a goldcrest, treecreeper and willow tit were all foraging the roadside hedges and better still, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a movement on the road and looked down to see a corker of a stoat bounding along the road beside me. He stopped and we eyed each other for a second at close quarters, then scurried off into the undergrowth. A magic moment.

A young photographer from Darlo informed me the pochard was still on the pond (first reported Saturday) so after a scan of the car park which was alive with passerines, star of which was a chiffchaff seen briefly, I went to the hide to tick the superb drake pochard which was most likely a site first for me.

Four little grebes were the best of the other waterfowl, surprisingly no snipe on show and a water rail was heard but not seen.

Back out again I had a sneaky look along the track where I gained better views of the chiffchaff (presumably the same one, as up to three overwintered last year) and found it to be a very dull grey bird so presumed it to be of the Scandinavian race abietinus
It's not surprising there were so many small insectivorous birds here though as there are more midges here than there were round my arse in the Highlands that time ;) and both pied and grey wagtails graced the pans of the sewage works, with good views of a small flock of maybe 8 feeding siskins completed my sightings here.

Back in the car park, the flat rock was freshly seeded by the photographer and was attracting a lot of attention from the tits and finches including a couple of Willows and a pair of Bullys (also an excellent nuthatch was taking peanuts from a baited stump) and a couple of bank voles nervously fed from under the rock.

More long-tailed tits and a helluva lot of goldcrests in the hedges completed a cracking little session before I pedalled off home again. Not much raptor activity to report, just four kites and a sparrowhawk, though the photographer had buzzards and kestrel before I arrived.

Fair to say it's good to be back in the game :)