Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Out for a Few Jars . . .

. . . . Nightjars that is.

An early start meant we (Steve, Bob and myself)  had time to take in the atmospherics of the mid-evening around Blanchland moors, and were rewarded with excellent views of Black Grouse males, two out in the open, another slightly distant and a female in half-cover. The bubbling calls of the distant male were a first for me, and seeing them eventually fly past us was a treat, graceful birds for their size and shape, large-white wing bars and rich red eyebrow outstanding on the deep Prussian blue sheen covering the bulk of the bird. A sight to behold.

Black Grouse - first sight

My sub-standard photo falls way short of doing justice
 to the rich colours of this cracking bird
The activity on the moors was at its height; snipe were still drumming overhead, curlews flew to and fro, calling all the while, lapwings were busy chasing off basically anything that moved and redshanks paraded along the dry-stone walls, while the calls of the lambs echoed all around.

Cuckoos clocked . . .

Up to the Nightjar site hoping for only my second ever sighting of these mysterious birds. The cuckoos were still giving it welly all around, calling from near and far, and one in particular teased us as it gathered massive hairy caterpillars just down from the layby and ate them from fenceposts, seemingly knowing that the fading light was just not good enough for photos even at this short distance, though remained excellent viewing as it remained on its post for minutes on end.

On top of the overture of sounds, the sight of the setting sun was something else to behold, and I tried to capture it with my limited powers of photography as the landscape changed colour :

As the sun disappeared over the forest the first woodcock came out, emitting a high pitched 'seep, seep!' as it flew over our heads. Others soon followed, or was it the same bird? half a dozen sightings involved at least two.

Then as darkness arrived, so did the nightjars, two flew out of the trees to our right and churring began from further up the bank. We moved up the road to get a bit closer and flushed a male just off the roadside, the white spots on wingtips and tail stood out like the proverbial sore thumbs even in darkness.
Shortly afterwards a female circled around with minimal spotting, but when the churring stopped another male flew around the trees then towards us, giving superb views as he passed us in that slow fluttery flight on bent wings, and joined by a woodcock they flew practically side-by-side down to where the cars were parked.
A bit of a lull so I walked back down the road. Two churring now, one ahead of me and one behind. No further flying activity though so I walked back up to where Steve and Bob were. . . as the rain (which hadn't been forecast), started :-O

As it gradually got heavier and our only airborne company was now a couple of (probably pipistrelle) bats, we though that was going to be it, but no; one last bit of excitement as another male Nightjar came out of the felled area and danced around our heads for another superb show, before fluttering off over the moors, and began churring in the distance.

Thank Photoshop for the photo I wished I'd got :-)
The steady rain showed no sign of easing so we called it a night, happy with the superb close views but disappointed there weren't more of them. A roadside Tawny Owl completed a top night out on the way home, and with it still being relatively early in the season, hopefully there'll be another chance for more of the same before long, as seeing the Nightjars, and the antics of the supporting cast was as good as anything we'd missed on Springwatch.

Cheers Steve, excellent session.  

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Off Patch but On Song.

A good morning spent around Derwent Reservoir and the moors with the Reservoir Birder, the weather was decent considering the forecast though hardly fit for dragonflies, so here's a summary of the day's avian sightings :

In the area around Blanchland Moor the star bird was a merlin, which I got onto as it zipped past but unfortunately Steve only got on as it dipped into a gully and it wasn't relocated.
But several cuckoos and a tree pipit, overhead drumming and wall-perched snipe, oystercatchers, redshanks and curlews were all good viewing and entertainment before Steve came up with the next cracker, a male Black Grouse in good view feeding in pastures.
Back on the move and not to be outdone I claimed two more black grouse in the distance, to which Steve enquired "Where are they in relation to the oystercatchers?" (d'Oh!) Well it was from a moving vehicle through dirty windows, but had we been in a cartoon, the donkey's ears would have been sprouting from my head. 

Into Blanchland where we waited patiently for a Spotted Flycatcher to appear, in the meantime we watched several Siskin coming to a garden feeder and a Red Kite drifting along in the distance (a Northumberland first for us both)
An old lady enquired what we were looking for and told us she's had redstarts and a slow-worm in her garden already this year. Nice.

Once a flycatcher turned up we made our way to the reservoir for a cuppa tea in the hide, hoping for the Osprey to make an appearance as one was only reported again yesterday.
But, for the third time in a month I was out of luck, though cracking views of a couple of male goosander, common sandpiper and great crested grebe among others were all superb, and a calling cuckoo was our 7th of the day.

Back on the road again, Steve asked if the two Oystercatchers we passed in a field were both Shelducks, and I suddenly didn't feel so bad.
A second Red Kite before we left the reservoir (this time in Durham) and we took the road back home across the moors past Edmondbyers, for more cracking views of Red Grouse families, Golden Plover looking superb in summer garb, numerous meadow pipits and a couple of Wheatear.

On the downside a knocked down lamb by the roadside was a reminder of the reckless way some people choose to drive in these parts, just as an earlier dead stoat in a trap was a reminder that zero-tolerance of anything predatory is the price paid for the upkeep of the habitat we had just enjoyed.  :-(  

But, some quality birds, and lots of quality views made a cracking morning out, so wasn't even disappointed in missing the reported Grey-headed Wagtail at Lamesley.

I would say 'Back to the Dragonflies next time', but the 5-day forecast doesn't look too good in that respect, and with the kids off school for a week and a new exhibition to prepare for, it might be another week before I can get out for Four-spotted Chaser, but at least there should be plenty on the wing by then. :-)



Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Gory Details . . .

Finally got round to watching 'Insect Dissection' last night after recording it a couple of weeks back. Fascinating (if gruesome) stuff, and answered another dragonfly question I'd wondered about for a while.
Like how do they feed during periods of shitty weather in the summer? As from what I see and read, if they aren't involved in some part of the reproductive cycle all they seem to do is eat, but when the sun ain't shining they don't even come out of hiding. So how do they survive, or do they just starve to death?

Well no, apparently the insect digestive system (though a lot like ours) also contains a sizeable crop, so most of those insects they chew and swallow are stored for (literally) a rainy day, and in this way they can survive for some days without eating. Simple, but another mystery solved. :-)

Other things of note in the programme, they asked why dragonflies are the size they are today whereas millions of years ago some had wingspans of a metre or more. It's well documented that it has to do with the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere. In dinosaur times it was 30% nowadays it's nearer 21%.
Oxygen powers all the functions and is carried to all the muscles and organs by an intricate network of tracheal tubes, and it seems to be a case of the bigger the insect, the more of these tubes it needs to get the right amount of oxygen to function properly, so they have reached their maximum size for the oxygen levels of today.
To prove it they did an experiment at Harvard with a darner dragonfly (a hawker on our side of the pond) whereby they reared one in artificial conditions containing 30% oxygen, with the startling result that the emergent dragonfly was almost 25% bigger than the parent (and that was just a single  generation). Of course the poor bugger ended up pinned to a board to show size comparison, but never mind, all interesting stuff.

Another fact I found out, the muscles which power the wings take up practically the whole of the thorax, with massive air-sacs in the centre to fuel them (as this was part of the dissection I can safely say I saw the whole lot in its gory glory), and the muscles themselves make up around 60% of the total bodyweight of the insect, showing just how much power they must need.

A lot more general stuff too but very interesting it was. I always thought insect innards were just a pale yellow mush which somehow caused the insect to work, but no, they function very similarly to us, with microscopic nervous, digestive, respiratory and muscle systems in amongst the pale yellow mush, which is actually just the stored fat.

But to finish, the ghoulish image (surprise surprise) was about the cockroach, which has a nervous system running through the length of the body in nodes like tiny brains, meaning that if the head is cut off it would continue to run around, until it eventually starved to death.

Don't have nightmares :-)


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Mystery with a Twist in the Tail

Every now and again I encounter a damselfly with a kinked or twisted abdomen. A slight deformity doesn't seem to be too detrimental (indeed, last year I photographed a large red with a twisted abdomen in a mating wheel) but I wondered how it came to be.

Yesterday at Gibside I found the answer, quite obvious really, when I stumbled upon this unfortunate azure emerging in thick grass (apologies for rotten photos but it was really bright yesterday and I couldn't tell if I was in focus through the viewfinder due to reflections, a proper point and press job).

The abdomen had obviously been obstructed by the grass stems while still soft, and though I cleared some of it away, it was too late for this poor bugger as it looked to have been there for some time, already past the teneral stage as the body had already hardened and had immature colouring, wings clear rather than milky.

But that wasn't the only problem; the right hind-wing hadn't formed properly either, and was actually still attached to the exuvia.

I got it in hand to try and remove it but believe it or not it fluttered away, dragging the empty husk behind it.
Somehow I don't think this one is going to survive for too long. It's shaped like a corkscrew and is carrying excess baggage.

So there you have it; next time you see a damsel with a warped abdomen, it's caused by obstructive vegetation during emergence. Mystery solved.  

Monday, 19 May 2014

First Flights . . . .

Luvverly day today and with me having been struck down with the lurgey for the last few days I thought a bit of fresh air might do me good (plus the fact I couldn't be arsed to do anything constructive).

So I had a hike up to Gibside to see if there was anything out up there.
Checked the Walled Garden Pond first and after clocking a few large red damsels as I stood at the fence, a teneral dragonfly made its maiden flight past me, a Four-spotted Chaser no doubt but though I tried to track it with my bins it kept going and I lost sight of it. Shame that, would have been a first if I'd managed a photograph.

Encouraged by that I stuck around a while, more large reds and a few distant blues, more maiden flights, by damsels though, but no more dragons.

So I moved on to the Lily Pond, my favourite of the Gibside ponds, and the place was teeming with damselflies, though only two species on show, large red and azure, and it looked like a good day for emergence, so many tenerals fluttering up from the long grass skirting the pond.

The reds had obviously been out for some time, as they were all fully mature, many in tandem and a few ovipositing.
I made a good search of the surroundings hoping to stumble across a Four-spot but I'm afraid my luck was out today.

My best shot of a Large Red male today . . .

. . . and my best shot of a Large Red female. 

Some of the many teneral and immature Azure damsels at the Lily Pond.
From the top - male, female (blue form), female (green form)

Shot of the day - male Azure damsel munching on a greebly 

Closer still for a bit of gore :-)

Can honestly say I've never seen so many damsels out this early, remembering last year there were none 'til May 26th, despite numerous searches of many sites, so hopefully it's going to be as good a year for dragons as it has been so far for butterflies.

Approx totals :

Walled Garden Pond : 20+ Large Red damsels (including 6 tandem pairs), 12 Blues (presumed azure) 6 adult 6 teneral, 1 Four-spotted Chaser (teneral)

Lily Pond : Large Reds 50+ mature adults (c10 tandem pairs, 3 ovipositing) 50+ Azure damsels (20+ tenerals) 3 exuvia found. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Caught in the Act . . .

Regular readers will remember the joy I displayed at discovering a pile of dragonfly poo in one of my photos last year.
As it happens I've discovered it wasn't such a rare occurrence, having spotted similar 'discards' in a few other photos as well that I hadn't noticed before.
But I went one better yesterday as I actually managed to catch a blue-tailed damsel in mid-poo in a sequence of photos I only noticed on checking through them last night.

Here goes :

Ordinary picture of a blue-tailed damsel at rest . . . but hold on,
what's that globule appearing at the rear end?

Looks like a bit of a tortoise head to me . . .

Whatever it is, it's getting bigger!

Yip, that's a chod all right ! but it's a case of
now you see it . . .

. . . and now you don't!

Anyone got any paper ?

Can't believe how pleased with meself I am :-) Yeah, maybe I should get out more . . . 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Coming to an Outlet near You . . .

Site : Clockburn Lake

Target : Blue-tailed Damsel

Managed to wangle an hour at Clockburn Lake outlet stream today hoping to connect with Blue-tailed damselfly (as I find it's the best spot for them locally).
But first up was this mature male Large Red, much richer in colour than those immatures I'd seen at Thornley Woods pond the other day.

But it wasn't long before the first Blue-tail fluttered into view, and I eventually found a good selection of males and females in various stages of development, which is what this little area is great for.

Maturing male Blue-tailed damsel
Note the thorax is neither green (immature) or blue (mature) but
something in between.

Immature female Blue-tail of the rufescens variety
Though this one a bit short on legs.

Cracking colours but don't know how the lack of limbs will
effect feeding.

Mature male with a deep blue thorax

Female of the violacea form, this one edged its way around the leaf
of the plant to avoid getting her picture taken.

But this violacea was less camera shy, a cracking example.

And finally an immature male complete with green thorax

Fantastic! It's like they've never been away.

In total 12 individuals, just the one Large Red and also good to see were 3 maturing male Azure damsels.

And later I got an email from Shibdon George, to inform me damsels were also out at Shibdon Pond, and this photo of an immature female Azure to prove it.

Immature female Azure damsel (green form) - Shibdon Pond
courtesy of George Simpson.
Cheers George.

Great stuff; Mission Accomplished. :-) Though it looks like I need to get me eye in with the macro setting on me camera again, sharper images required :-( 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

More of the Same . . .

As I was in the area I had a look on Thornley Woods Pond again this morning and had more success with Large Red Damselflies.

Five exuvia found in the patchy clumps of grass along the nearside, and this newly emerged teneral male :

There it was, basking in what little sunshine we had this morning, though
the photo is deceptive, he was in thick grass low down and I had to
clear the way to poke the camera lens through.

But then he took a brief flight and I used
a 'spotter fly' to track him down . . . not !

Immature male Large Red damsel, first I've seen.
Pale red abdomen will develop black towards the tip,  and yellow
antehumeral stripes which will turn red as he matures.

The main area for likely emergence here is at the far side of the pond, which is inaccessible due to the thick growth of brambles, but I thought I'd walk around the path there and see if there were any immatures basking on the bramble leaves as the sun was shining by now (though not for long).
Bingo, this young female was right by the path :

At last, a specimen in good view 

Nice deep red abdomen but wings still showing the milky sheen of a teneral

Then lifted up to show a nice profile view 

And an unusual shot of the underside of the
abdomen, showing the small, curved ovipositor.

A good scan with the bins didn't produce anything else, but still quite pleased with my fieldcraft
and I thought I'd check for the recently seen Pied Flycatcher further in the woods, now I knew what to listen for after seeing maybe half a dozen at Muggleswick on Sunday.

Pied Flycatcher from Muggleswick
(one of many)

No luck I'm afraid, looks like it's moved on. But I did find a pair of treecreepers taking nesting materials into a split in a tree so that'll be worth keeping an eye on, and a really smart-looking fox trotted into view out of the undergrowth. I stayed perfectly still as it was no more than 40 feet away and it too came to a halt in the middle of the path for a cracking view, though of course when it turned to look in my direction it did a momentary freeze then shot off into the dene.

Still, not bad for a hastily grabbed hour of wildlife watching, and probably my last for the week, but with warmth forecast there may be a few blue damsels around by the time I'm next out. :-)       

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Odalinata . . .

As today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of one of my heroes, Salvador Dali, I thought I'd mark the occasion by investigating the appearance of dragonflies in his work, but in truth was a bit disappointed.
Whereas beautifully painted (and lifelike) butterflies featured often in his major works, and swarms of ants symbolized mortality in his surrealist paintings, and even the humble fly appeared quite often, I'm afraid dragonflies featured only in loose sketches and watercolour studies, indeed these were all I could find :

Untitled Watercolour 1949
Untitled Watercolour 1926

Untitled Lithograph 1975

This watercolour was made as part of the publicity
for the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage and featured
a giant dragonfly, though the film itself only
featured Raquel Welsh.

Vanishing Face (featuring dragonflies)
Lithograph 1980
One of his final images as frailty caused him to cease
 working in 1983 and he died six years later.

So a shame they don't feature in his masterworks as his fascination with metamorphosis would have made them an ideal subject I would have thought, but their life is aptly surreal in its own way I suppose.


Friday, 9 May 2014

Turning Japanese . . .

Someone posted this photo on Twitter earlier, and I was immediately intrigued :
I probably know what some of you are thinking, but for those who's minds aren't in the sewer :-) it's a 17th Century Japanese Warrior's helmet in the shape of a dragonfly, as used by a high-ranking Warlord during the feudal wars of the time.
It's made from iron, lacquer, wood, leather, gilt pigments, silk, and papier-mâché.
An iron bowl is covered with papier-mâché over a wooden framework to form the body of the insect, and covered with lacquer. Wooden wings flare to the sides, while the insect’s eyes are rendered as large golden orbs.
For over 200 years from the 15th century onwards, times were turbulent in Japan. Feudal lords fought with rival clans to secure their lands. They amassed large armies whose effectiveness depended on being properly armed and outfitted, but having to create so many helmets and armours prompted craftsmen to fashion simple designs which were of course cheaper and quicker to make.
But at the same time, high-ranking Warlords began to embellish their helmets with sculptural forms so they could be easily located on the battlefield.
Exotic helmets (kawari kabuto) allowed leaders to choose symbolic motifs that reflected their personalities, like this superb example of a dragonfly, for in Japan, the dragonfly symbolizes focused endeavour and vigilance among other things, due to its ability to move up, down and sideways while continuing to face forward.
They were thought to be the spirits or guardians of the rice because they were often seen hovering above the flooded rice fields, and in fact due to their abundance there, ancient texts refer to Japan as Akitsushima, which translates as Island of the Dragonflies.

Sounds like El Dorado to me !

Here's another example I found, a more arty rendering of the same subject:

Don't think I'll be getting one though, don't want to look dafter than I already do :-)

Thursday, 8 May 2014

"Here We Go, Here We Go, Here We Go!"

Had to call in to Thornley Woodlands Centre today so decided to check the pond while I was there, though (unlike Charles Dickens) not with any great expectations.
It wasn't even a particularly good day, the sporadic sunshine had ceased a while back when I got there, so I scoured the margins for any sign of emergence without much conviction when this caught my eye :

Could it be? 
Yes it is! First damsel of 2014
Teneral Large Red
Lo and behold! A freshly emerged Large Red Damselfly, which on closer inspection turned out to be a female, and by the colouration is of the uncommon fulvipes form.

Note the abdominal colouring of segment 6, mainly red
rather than all black (like s7) so is likely going to be of the
uncommon fulvipes form.  
A bit more searching and I tracked down the exuvia in the thick emergent grass clump.

Exuvia (larval casing) of Large Red damsel

Excellent! But despite a lot more searching, no more could be found either here or Far Pasture on the way back home.

So a few firsts today:
First dragon of 2014 (obviously)
First time I've EVER seen a teneral specimen of Large Red Damselfly (I see plenty of them, at plenty sites, but always fully mature adults).
First time I've seen an LRD exuvia.
First time I've noted proof of breeding for LRD at Thornley Woods Pond. It's always been a very good site for them and have noted much mating and oviposition here, but never before have I seen a damselfly exuvia or an emerging specimen, so nice to have proof.   
And first target of the 2014 season achieved, hunting down and photographing an immature example of a Large Red damsel. :-)

Good start, though I won't hold me breath 'til my next sighting, as I'm a bit busy over the next week preparing for the Spring Show at Newcastle City Library and by the time that's out of the way, my local patch (Far Pasture) will be closed for road repairs for SIX weeks. Nightmare!