Thursday, 11 September 2014

Last Piece of the Jigsaw . . .

Since starting the Dragonhunter Diaries four years ago the one dragon (of the Gateshead regulars) which has eluded my camera has been a female Migrant Hawker. I haven't even seen that many, and it wasn't 'til Mid-October last year I saw my first one hawking the top field at Far Pasture.   

This year however, the species has been more abundant than ever, and already during August I had two females hawking the same field and then one in tandem on the pond at FP, though none even close to being photographed.
Shibdon George alerted me to better opportunities along the boardwalk at Shibdon Pond late last summer, and has been keeping me informed recently, so I've been waiting for the chance to get up there and try my luck. Today that chance came.

I bussed up to Swalwell mid-morning hoping a scan from the hide first might bring me some interesting waders (or even a Glossy Ibis or something mega) but disappointment was an understatement. It's not often you can say there's nowt about and mean it, but as they were strimming in front of the hide today, I can honestly say there was absolutely NOTHING to be seen on the pond from the hide. Just my luck.

Instead I went straight into dragonhunting mode and my disappointment was soon forgotten on the boardwalk when I found first a male, then a female Migrant Hawker, close to the walkway and still quite docile so allowing me to get quite close up.

So here she is, my first ever photographed female Mig :

First contact - a record shot before the approach

Moving in - a cracking yellow individual
Profile - vivid yellow marrkings
on thorax and base of abdomen

Best ever photographs, best ever views, in fact the first
time I've ever seen a female perched up like this
Have to say I was quite happy with that little lot, it was still quite dull so the photos could have been better, but a bit of photoshopping cleared them up a bit.

I also got decent photos of the male, though he was a bit more alert and only put up with my intrusion for so long.

Love this angled shot of the male - superb blue eyes
of a mature individual

Best shot of the season for the male as well, capped a good day here.

Common Darters were also beginning to appear, so with mission accomplished and the weather improving all the time I decided to call in to Thornley Woods Pond on the way back. A dozen or so common darters here too, aggressive males fighting over females and then each other after a tandem pair was formed, melees involving four males at a time were quite vicious.
No damsels today, I fear they've all gone now, but more surprisingly no Southern Hawkers :-O
This is the first time ever that I've visited during good weather and not seen at least one, hasn't been a good year at all for them here, very disappointing, I fear numbers are gradually diminishing if the trend of the last two years continues, certainly something to keep an eye on next year.

On to Far Pasture, decent numbers of Common Darters but again still nowhere near as many as recent years. Half a dozen ovipositing pairs on the Forbidden Pond, similar numbers on the main pond where I would have expected many more in the sunshine today. A few emerald damsels still flitting around and another 4-5 Migrant Hawkers, one female gave excellent views as she oviposited alone in the nearside margins, laying eggs in reedmace stems well above the waterline. Amazingly she came close enough to photograph on occasions but the focus on my camera let me down and I came away empty-handed, I suppose it would have been too much to ask for, getting an ovipositing female on the same day I get my first ever. Never mind, not complaining, here's another photo of the Shibdon female to finish:

One for the Gallery
Love it when a plan comes to fruition. Cheers George :-)            

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Black Spot and an Ant-elope

I managed to locate Gateshead's first Black Darter of 2014 today at Kibblesworth Brickworks Pools but a poor count of dragons here today, though I think we arrived a bit early, as things were (literally) just warming up as we prepared to leave.
Other dragons on show were a couple of migrant hawkers, c8 common darters, a few emerald damsels and a blue-tailed damsel. None of which I bothered to photograph.

Back to Friday, and the last of our three nests of Black Garden Ants swarmed, a lot later than usual. The winged kings and queens have usually eloped en masse in the nuptial flight by mid-August, gauged by temperature, and two of our three nests did so, but the third nest beside the back door is in shadow most of the time and due to the poor August hadn't yet swarmed, though I've seen them abort on a few occasions while the other nests close by held successful launch parties.

Over the years it's been great entertainment, and can often become a feeding frenzy for the local birds, I've had house sparrows and blackbirds feeding on the ground, robins and blue tits 'fly-catching' from the cherry tree and good numbers of starlings and hirundines feeding in mid-air, plucking the unfortunate ants out of the sky before they had a chance to fulfil their destiny.

On one memorable occasion a passing band of swifts got in on the action, swooping low into the garden to take the ants just after take-off. I stood perfectly still by the corner of the house as swifts brushed past me at breakneck speed, circling around the greenhouse and back in again for more. A great experience to get so close to them and one which probably won't be repeated, though I live in hope.

On Friday the star 'ant-eater' was a jackdaw fly-catching from the house roof opposite, time and again it darted out, snapped up a victim and returned to the roof. Others were mopping them up in mid-air, as were a few starlings.
The ants themselves are rubbish flyers, mainly clambering up to the highest point they can reach before taking the leap of faith, some go straight up, others seem to tread water before making any headway skywards, and some plummet straight back down to earth again, either perishing or dusting themselves off and having another go.

Even at the highest point at the top of the greenhouse, the future queens
were literally clambering on top of each other to gain a bit of
extra height.

The one above was like someone someone making a leap from the high-diving board for the first time, scuttling forward to the edge as if ready to go, but stopping abruptly, changing her mind and scurrying back again. She did this numerous times and I still don't know if she made it in the end.

Numerous others came to a sticky end in the spiders webs, of which there are many, constructed in nooks and crannies of the greenhouse. One individual was right out of luck, she became entangled in a web and there was no escape anyway, but then a wasp attacked her before the spider had a chance to claim its prize, with the result that she was dismembered in the web and eaten in double quick time, leaving only a pair of wings and a head for the spider.

This unfortunate individual flew straight into a web and was
immediately pulled in by the spider in residence.

If it wasn't bad enough flying into a web, this poor sod was
torn apart and devoured by a passing wasp. 

The wasps seem particularly fearsome at this time of year, and another was actually trying to get at spiders which were cowering in their shallow holes, they hold no fear over those stripey bastards.

As always it was a highly entertaining event though they reckon only one in a hundred flying princesses will successfully form a new colony and become queen, a stat at which I'm not surprised, given the carnage I witness each year :-O        

Friday, 5 September 2014

By George . . .

Yesterday at Far Pasture I was slightly distracted by the appearance of the otter, and then in the hope it would come back, so I spent more time in the hide than I normally would have, there were plenty of migrant hawkers around but no females (which was my target for photographic purposes) and I tried to get one of the males in flight, something I could hardly do with my Panasonic (sob) never mind the Krappy Kodak, as you can see :

Believe it or not these were my best efforts. I decided to show them as what they
do show is the vivid blue 'banding' effect at the base of the abdomen,
a diagnostic ID feature in flight for the male Migrant Hawker.
Later back home I received an email from Shibdon George, sending me a couple of cracking snaps of migrants he'd taken yesterday, along with some movie footage, all of which I intended to upload, but unfortunately I've mislaid the movie file and one of the photos won't open now I've downloaded it. So here is the one remaining photo (apologies George) :

Migrant Hawker (male) at Shibdon Pond by George Simpson

Lovely photo of a mature male, showing those cracking blue eyes. It looks like there is obviously more scope for getting pictures at Shibdon than at FP so that'll be my task next week (weather permitting), a trip to Shibdon to see if I can finally photograph a female Migrant Hawker.

Edit : A female mig actually flew through the garden this morning, but didn't bother stopping. In fact it's been a canny week for dragon spotting at home as I've been out in the garden a lot, a total of 4 hawkers and 2 darters have passed through, only a common darter bothered to stop, perching on the side fence for a while, and only the female mig was a definite ID for the hawkers, the others just zipped through too quickly.   

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Brief Encounter, and a Murder Mystery

Far Pasture beckoned again today with the sun beating down and a couple of hours to spare, so off I went, with the intention of finding a female Migrant Hawker to photograph.
In the event I didn't even see one, but there were plenty of other dragons to be seen and a bit of other interest, so I'll concentrate on the interest then list the sightings at the end.

Approaching the roadside ditch a couple of skirmishing darters low in front of me both had the look of ruddys, one flew off and I located the other which indeed turned out to be a ruddy :

Another Roadside Ruddy

Then I spied a mating pair of common darters on the fence opposite, and knowing how difficult these are to approach I used 'stealth' photography ie approached them taking small steps, getting a shot off with each step and see how close I could get. As it happens on this occasion they didn't flinch, allowing me to get to point blank range from which even the KK could rattle off a few shots I was pleased with.

Not often you can get this close-up to a mating pair
without them flying off.  

but I got even closer, and noticed the extended black down
the side of the frons on the male, unusual in this species. 

a close-up of the female, she too appears to have extended
black around the frons. 

And the whole affair, possibly the best photo of common darters
mating I've ever taken, certainly the closest. 

 Then something very strange. Looking back along the road I got my bins on a darter which looked like a Ruddy, but also didn't 'look right'. I walked back and found a badly injured male Ruddy Darter, abdomen still pulsating, head still intact but thorax badly squashed.

Is it the same ruddy I just photographed ? I hope not :-(
I didn't remember passing it on the way in, I surely would have noticed, and after inspecting the injuries again, came to the conclusion it must have been 'taken' by a bird, (the injuries to the thorax caused by being grasped in a beak) and then dropped from the sky for whatever reason and onto the road.
Anyway a couple of minutes later it had expired and as I had a collecting container in my bag I scooped it up and will inspect it later with a magnifying loupe.
By strange co-incidence it's exactly a year to the day since I found the injured Southern Hawker by the A694, though that one had a slightly happier ending.

In the hide I was greeted with the news an Otter was about, and it duly showed in the channel by the right hand island, inspecting the recently deserted Grebe nest then swimming out into the open, diving and leaving the tell-tale trail of bubbles across the open water, surfacing briefly then under again into the centre reedbed. No more than 20 seconds but as with my other otter encounters, one I won't forget.
It also served the purpose of sending the birds in the reedbeds scattering into the open pond, confirming there were still 3 juv little grebes as well as the parents, meaning the whole late brood has survived thus far, as three eggs were hatched just a month or so back.

So to the dragons, here is a chronological list of sightings :

Top field : 2 male migrant hawkers hawking the field, 3-4 common darters on the roadside fence.

Roadside ditch area :  1-2 ruddy darters, 5-6 common darters (1 mating pair) 2 male migrant hawkers.

Pond : 2 male southern hawkers, at least 4 male migrant hawkers, 20+ common darters including half a dozen tandem pairs and 2 pairs ovipositing, 8 emerald damsels including 2 pairs in tandem, 3-4 azure/blue damsels (unsure of species).

Roadside ditch again (this time in overcast conditions ) Possible ruddy female, 2 southern hawker males, 2 migrant hawker males, 3-4 common darters.

Still a bit more to share but I think I'll leave it 'til tomorrow. Knackered now.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Seven Up

The second part of my adventure in the sunshine yesterday took me to Far Pasture, and first thing I noticed (difficult to miss it really) was this Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar crossing the road, what a size!

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar, my second one this year,
what a monster :-O
I picked it off the road, not wanting to see it squashed by a passing motorist (though judging by the size of it there might have been more damage to the car) and placed it on a fencepost where I took the snaps.

And where I left it
A canny start and with a few flighty darters by the roadside it was looking like a good session in prospect.
The roadside ditch had a couple of Migrant Hawkers close by and a male southern, but otherwise not much to report. More migrant hawkers as I made way to the hide, and on the pond itself, quiet at first but a few common darters in the vegetation under the window with a couple of pairs ovipositing in the shallows, a few emerald damsels, some in tandem and then I spotted a ruddy darter on a broken stem under the window so snapped away.

Yet another Ruddy Darter, been very good for them
at Far Pasture this year 

Performed a bit of sky-pointing
Pleased to find another ruddy, but then the hawkers started to come in, eventually at least five or six migrants, with 4 males skirmishing in one melee and then a tandem pair crossed the pond towards a reedbed. A very good count here though sadly none of them would perch for photos.

The Forbidden Pond was again very poor, a couple of tandem pairs and single common darters, plus an unidentified hawker which whizzed through.
On the way back up the road again, probably four migrant hawkers hawked the top field, so I reckon there was easily a double-figure count of the species here today, very good after relatively poor years of late.

Trekking back through the woods another insect on the ground caught my eye in the form of a large, fat beetle scurrying across my path. I quickly got off a few shots before it disappeared into the undergrowth though a moving subject does not make for decent photos.

Just make out the 'splayed' antennae, a clue
to its identity 

Quite a fast runner

And a lovely blue tinge to the shell of the beetle

I reckon it to be a Dor Beetle Geotrupes stercorarius, a type of dung beetle, quite common but not easy to catch in the daytime.

A quick countback  and I make that 7 species of Odonata seen at both sites today, 2 hawkers, 2 darters and 3 damsels. Not bad for early September.
And later in the day I received an email from Shibdon George, telling me there are plenty of Migrant Hawkers around the boardwalk of Shibdon Pond also, so somewhere else to visit in the coming days.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Last Tango in Thornley

Taking the kids to school this morning it was like a bright, crisp autumnal day, but a couple of hours later with hardly a breeze or cloud in the sky it was back to summer.
So after trimming the overgrown ivy from the side of the house and a trip to Blaydon tip, I was dropped off at Thornley around mid-day for a look on the pond.

In bright sunshine I reckon around 20 common darters were present, with half a dozen pairs mating or ovipositing, and a couple of male southern hawkers were great entertainment, clashing regularly as they searched the margins (unsuccessfully) for females.

A few snaps of common darters, the southern hawkers were
far too active to pose for the camera unfortunately.
But it was the presence of some damselflies which I found most surprising, a copulating pair of azures and a single male skimming the pond, but more unusually a Large Red male flitting among the emergent grasses. As the first damsel to emerge it's not often we see them (up north anyway) as late as September, though my latest ever sighting of the species (Sept 5th 2012) was also at this pond, so I'll try to get back on the 6th to see if he's still around.

record shot of the single male azure damsel, the copulating couple
were too distant for a photograph.  

Star of the show, probably the last red damsel in the borough
this year, kinda sad really :-( 
He seemed desperate for a final fling, engaging with male common darters every time one flew near his perch, but then I was pleased to see him tackle another damsel and disappear into the cover, but when I got my bins on him I found him desperately trying to manoeuvre his claspers into position behind the neck of his startled partner, without success though as he was trying it on with another species, an emerald, and double misfortune as it appeared to be a male :-O
By the time I'd sussed what was going on it was too late to photograph the event, as the 'victim' made escape and was never seen again (hardly surprising).  

The likelihood is that he is the last of his species for this year here so will no doubt try it on with anything red or damsel-like for the next few days of sunshine out of sheer desperation, until he cashes in his chips for the last time. I hope he finds a mate but the odds are against it, but I'll try to get back for another look as long as the sun shines.