Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Lady in Black . . .

Another family visit to Gibside turned up trumps yesterday; no new species but I came across a female large red damsel of the melanotum form, by far the rarest of the three colour forms of the species and indeed this is the first I've ever encountered. I wasn't 100% sure as I thought it might be showing a bit too much red, so checked with the BDS who kindly confirmed it.

Thick black markings all the way along the abdomen confirm
this as a melanotum form female, unlike other forms they retain the
yellow antehumeral stripes as they mature.
There was hardly a damsel to be seen on the Lily Pond itself but the tree closest to the pond was alive with immature large reds and a few azures, so I snapped as many as I could in hope of getting a few good 'uns. Here's the best of the bunch :

This female is of the second uncommon form fulvipes, but I tend to
see quite a few of this form locally 

A male, note the much thinner abdomen compared to female 

Another male, and like the others, still in immature colours
when fully mature the antehumeral stripes will be as red as the abdomen 

This male stayed still for a close-up

And closer still

Azure damsel male now fully mature

And an immature specimen of the same species

There were also quite a few of these colourful froghoppers around, one of the more spectacular looking species so worth a photograph.

Unlike other less colourful species of froghopper the larval stage is
spent underground, though still surrounded by frothy 'cuckoo-spit'
which interestingly is made up of thousands of tiny fart bubbles :-O

The Octagon Pond was devoid of damsels bar one imm. female azure hiding in the undergrowth, and the walled garden pond was disappointingly empty as well.

So here we are at the end of May in what has been a very poor first month of Odonata spotting. 5 species on the wing in Gateshead so far, but all in very small numbers. I've still only seen two, but Rob (Gatesheadandbeyond) has had 4-spot chaser, common and blue-tailed damsels at Kibblesworth. Large red damsel has also been seen at Burdon Moor, and George found his first azure damsel at Shibdon Pond only yesterday.

The first recorded Large Red (May 28th) was a full 20 days later than the first recorded last year. The forecast is for a vast improvement in the weather from midweek, so hopefully things will quickly move on.
Finding that melanotum female large red is the undoubted highlight of the month, as it's only taken five years to get one :-)

Next week I'll be going for blue-tailed damsels at my favourite site for them, which will also hopefully bring common blue and with any luck a banded demoiselle, but I'm not holding my breath on the latter  :-)

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Big Red

Sunny if a bit on the blustery side this morning, but with conditions due to deteriorate around lunchtime I took a chance on visiting Thornley Woods Pond, hoping to connect with a long overdue Large Red damsel at the fourth time of asking.

On arrival all was quiet. Only a chiffchaff rose above the sound of the wind rushing through the trees and the fizmer emitting from the erumpent grasses on the pond (Packham eat your heart out). A good survey of the pond and margins (with the new Papilios) revealed very little, but I did a double-take as the field of grasses mid-pond suddenly revealed a damsel hanging on to a single blade as I scanned to and fro. I could see straight away it wasn't a large red however, guessed it would be an azure as I've never seen a common blue here and sure enough the photo revealed a female azure :

Female Azure damsel confirmed by photograph
First damsel at TWP this year
But it was while I was lining up this shot a red Damselfly slowly flitted right past me. I could see it was a male Large Red (hurrah!) but rather than settle it fluttered weakly away from the pond and along the sheltered path. I followed but lost it as it rose higher into the windswept trees and that was that. Gutted.
But where there's one there must be more. It looked like a fairly mature individual with deep red colouring so must have been out a while. I checked the other end of the pond, where a clump of mixed vegetation revealed another large red, and this one was going nowhere :  

First Large Red damsel photographed of 2015 -
Female showing immature typica form colouring

Love those eyes, like miniature planets

From above you can see she has a deformed wing,
caused by an obstruction during emergence. 

In close-up it's a malformed hindwing, should still be able to fly,
but the wings were still a touch milky and she made no attempt
to fly while I was there.
After filling my boots with that one I looked further round the pond but no sign of any others. Working my way back around, the female I'd just photographed was now hiding under a leaf, no wonder you can't spot them in crap weather, had I not known she was there I would have walked straight past. The books say you will never see a Dragonfly walking, I'd watched this one walk from a leaf to a stringier plant, back again and now she'd walked round the underside, so unusual it might be, but not unheard of.

I got back to the point where I'd seen the flying red earlier, and finished scanning the margins, where I found a couple of exuvia, long since emerged.

One of two exuvia

Mission accomplished, Large Red damselfly in the bag, so now five dragons on the wing in Gateshead, though this was only my second. A bit of catching up to do ;-)    

Magnify-cent Views . . . .

I just got a pair of these Pentax Papilio (latin for butterfly) close-focussing compact binoculars for viewing the macro world of invertebrates (dragonflies in particular) and I'm absolutely blown away by them.

I took them out with me yesterday for the first time and though it was a difficult day for getting really close views of the damselflies, I was able to study a few from about 3-foot away, identifying them easily without having to take a photo and study in the camera, and see every hair and marking on their hard outer casing in greater detail than I thought possible. I even watched one cleaning its face, and it was a revelation.

Pentax claim a minimum focussing range of .5 of a metre, I measured it and it is actually .4 (a 10cm bonus). I bought the 6.5x as opposed to the 8.5x as some reviewers complained of dimness of image in the 8.5 version. I have a couple of pairs of pocket binoculars already and know this is often the case, as the bigger the ratio of zoom to lens diameter, the more light gets in and the brighter the image, which is why I use 8x42 birdwatching bins (ratio 5.25) as opposed to 10x42s (ratio 4.2) so sacrifice image size for quality, which is especially good in low-light situations.
I can't speak for the 8.5x Papilios (ratio 2.47) but the image quality of the 6.5x (at a mere 3.23) is excellent, no complaints whatsoever.

Something else which puts me off the pocket binoculars is there is often a doubling of image causing a strain in the eye which gets uncomfortable after a while, the Papilios are specially built to prevent that, and the single image even at the closest focussing distance is perfect.

Another plus point about these optics is that although their selling point is the 'macro' function, they are incredibly versatile so birdwatching at distance also provides great views, like I discovered yesterday, switching from studying insects from 2ft away to red kites over the distant valley was just a case of a quick spin of the focus wheel. And an excellent image at distance so I didn't even need to take my birding bins out with me.
The 6.5x zoom stated actually refers to the image size at distance, the close-focus image is around 8x (on the 8.5x version the close-focus image is around 10x).

Back in Macro-land I watched a green-veined white butterfly probing flower heads with it's straw-like probiscus and could see the individual scales of its wings. On a 14-spot ladybird no bigger than 5mm I could see every detail, even a tiny yellow mite attached to its leg. I've been watching the ants in the garden go about their business of excavation, found one of their 'landfill sites' and watched them dump the husks of a variety of invertebrate prey and dismembered parts of their fallen colleagues. I could count the eyes on a zebra-spider on the kitchen window.
Small beetles you would otherwise hardly notice become intricate living things, the macro world is fascinating, and it's all around.

As you can probably tell I'm in my element at the moment, and can't wait for a proper look at some damsels; the bigger dragonflies will look amazing :-)

The Papilio binoculars measure only about 4 x 4.5 inches, and are superb for the price. The 8.5x retail at around £140, the 6.5x are around £110 though I picked up a bargain 'as new' pair from ebay for £75. Though I only recently discovered these myself, they have been on the market for a few years, and now there is a Papilio II version with coated lenses for even better imaging. These are just under £200 but I know what I want for xmas now ;-)

Summing up, I can't recommend these highly enough for anyone interested in dragonflies, butterflies, moth-trappers, or even handy for photographers already weighed down with bulky equipment. They are compact, versatile, offer a quality image and come in a belt-attaching case, 'nuff said. But don't just take my word for it, read some reviews yourself.
It's opened up a whole new world for me, I'm itching to get out and use them again.

Rating : Wow!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Az U were

With our planned trip to Cragside postponed today due to Sprog1 not feeling very well, this afternoon I managed an hour or so at Far pasture in glorious sunshine, so hoping for a few more damsels, some different species, or even a four-spot chaser on the wing by now.

But I'm afraid it was a case of 'as you were' as only azure damselflies were to be found once again, the only difference being there are now a few mature individuals in full blue/black garb.

First mature azure seen this year, blue and black the
only colours on show

And another

I checked both the main pond and the forbidden pond but both were Odonata-free zones, and the damsels weren't showing that well at the roadside either so I snapped a few of the more interesting insects I encountered :

I first thought this was a hornet on seeing the brown
markings on the thorax and it being so large, but later found it to
be a Queen Median Wasp, a species first noted in southern England
in the 1980s, and has been spreading north ever since.


They build nests in trees and bushes making paper from wood pulp,
you can see the marks where this Queen is stripping wood from
the fence to construct her nest.   
Soldier Beetles
Many similar species, getting their name from
their red and black colouring, reminiscent
of soldiers uniforms of days gone by. 

Flesh Fly
So named as they live on carrion, and fairly unique in that
the female lays live young rather than eggs.

Snipe Flies
Known in some parts as the 'down-looker' fly due to its habit of
resting pointing downwards (like above)

Similar to robber-flies they catch smaller insects by
darting out at them from a perch, though these two are too busy
doing other things to think about food. 

The macro world is fascinating, you just need to be able to see it, watch out for my next post :-O


Saturday, 23 May 2015

Nothing New Under the Sun

Got to Gibside earlier than I thought with a trip up there today in glorious spring sunshine. The idea of the trip was for the kids to play on the adventure playpark for a couple of hours, but me and Sprog1 took a detour to a couple of ponds first to check out the dragon situation.

The Walled Garden Pond held nothing at all so we quickly moved on to the Lily Pond, where a similar lack of dragons looked to be the case. No excuses as the sun was beating down and hardly a breeze, if they were there, they'd be out.

Lo and behold, a damsel eventually showed, just away from the pond as tends to be the case with immatures. I tracked down a few more, but like at Far Pasture they were all Azures, and in small numbers too.

First Azure spotted at Gibside - immature male

A female next, didn't realise 'til I saw the photo she was
munching on something

Another male, one of about ten.
Just a few snaps as none were really in decent view, then we re-joined the rest of the family at the playpark and had a cooling ice cream after our slog from one end of the estate to the other.

Some late Dragonfly News from today :

Kibblesworth Brickworks Pools held the first 4-Spotted Chaser and Common Blue damselfly (both immature females) courtesy of Rob Stonehouse (photographs on Gatesheadandbeyond)

Other stuff

Quite a few toadpoles in the Lily Pond and three newts also seen, one sporting the large paddle feet typical of a Palmate.

Dark tadpoles usually belong to toads, frogs are
paler and spotted

Close-up shows definitely a toad pole
Just a handful of butterflies around, mainly orange-tips but also a couple of speckled wood :

Speckled Wood

Earlier at home I evicted a spider from the house and as it regained its composure on the side fence I got a super macro shot of it, a scary beast :

That's close enough thanks
And a bit of skywatching gave 4+ red kites, 2 buzzards and a kestrel.

Hunting kestrel, eventually mobbed by house martins

The local House martins seem to be back with plenty of airborne action above the garden, and an established nest being visited over the back. I forgot how good their predator warnings are, the little farting noises being suddenly replaced by shrill ringtones means it's always worth looking up, usually a sparrowhawk is about, today it was the kestrel.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Few Odds and a Few Sods

Just a quick catch up on non-dragonfly events over the last few days.

In the garden I've stopped putting feed out for the birds because of all the unwanted attention from the local moggies lately. There are so many of them around here now they hunt in packs, each morning I find two or three stalking the feeders and two attempted nests (dunnock and blackbird) have been abandoned. The final straw came the other day when the first fledgling of the year, a starling, was seen in the uncut grass and was wandering about the back of the garden :

Sadly the next time I saw it, it was dangling from the mouth of one of the afore-mentioned moggies. What a sad end to a short life :-(

Shame 'cos I was still getting a few goodies in; the Stock Dove pair have been back on and off, same for a single Tree Sparrow, and three Bullfinches (2m 1f) was the best count in a long while.

One of the three
A Blue Tit has been getting in the greenhouse on a couple of mornings, been seen gleaning the hatchling spiders (of which there are many) from all the nooks and crannies.

Blue Tit eyeing up a few tasty spiders

The macro came in handy for this 7-Spot Ladybird I spied on the fence, came out well as I could rest the lens on the edge of the rail.

Shibdon George kindly sent me this nice photo of a Dingy Skipper he snapped at Shibdon Pond the other day :

Dingy Skipper
And finally I got another crack at a feeding Orange Tip at Far Pasture the other morning, not an easy butterfly to find settled for any length of time so I was lucky with this one :

Male Orange Tip - great camouflage on these small white flowers

same photo - cropped 

Same butterfly - different angle
That's about all. Cheers.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Rest Azured . . . it's just negative news

The cold spring up north is causing a bit of consternation, or were we just spoiled last year when the mild spring had everything out early. Certainly the cold nights and mornings (and days like today) are doing nothing to encourage the emergence of the early dragons; to date I've seen no other reports in the northeast apart from the few azures at Far Pasture. 

Yesterday another visit to Thornley Woods Pond was as depressing as the last. A man with two mutts was just leaving as I arrived, wet dogs and churned up muddy water at one end of the pond were the tell-tale signs of what had just happened (grrrrr!).  
At the other end an oily film stretched across the surface. Only signs of life were a few toadpoles and a stickleback. No sign of damselflies or emergence once again, it just looks grim there at the moment.
More negative news from Shibdon George as he has yet to see any damsels at Shibdon Pond either.

As I didn't spend a lot of time at Thornley I nipped down to Far Pasture in the late morning sunshine to see if there was anything new there, but again the roadside undergrowth held maybe 8 or 9 immature azures, much the same as my previous visit. But at least they posed for a few pictures :

Immature male azure

managed to snap this one just as he was about to alight

Close-up shows the distinctive U shape at the base of the abdomen

Two more - focussed on the front one . . .

. . . focussed on the back one
And a 'peeper'

So not much variety, the forecast is for improving temperatures at the weekend but its a prolonged spell we need to get things going. Kids holidays again so should get an opportunity to visit Gibside next week and do the rounds of the ponds there. Fingers crossed.    


Friday, 15 May 2015

Azure start to the season

A couple of hours to spare so a return trip to Far Pasture this morning in hope of seeking out a few more Azure damsels.
Patchy sunshine made for a lot of waiting around; in the first half hour only three glimpses of damsels along the road, none of which were vaguely photographable (is that a word?)
I realised I wasn't going to have much luck stretching over the roadside fence searching the sheltered ditch and hawthorns, so changed tactic and just searched the roadside vegetation in easy reach, and soon found a few hidden gems, which either stayed put under cloud or flushed up within easy reach when the sun shone :

Immature male Azure

Teneral female Azure
(green form)

Immature female Azure
(blue form)

Another immature male, this one with a bent abdomen,
most likely the result of a slight obstruction during emergence. 

For the hour and a half I spent on site I still only had 11 sightings in all. Every one of the 8 identified was an azure, and of the others I'm just about sure one was a teneral large red but it settled too distant and briefly for me to be 100%
Star of the day though was this female Azure perched right on the edge of a dock leaf, with her shadow showing through the sunlit leaf, too good an opportunity to let pass by, shame I couldn't get the focus right, you dream of getting a shot like this then feck it up through poor technique, it could have been a corker :

And this is her in full view
Along the track I found what looked like a predated pheasant egg out in the open (though I'm no expert on egg ID) :

Looked like it had been bitten in two, fox perhaps?
And a couple of more arty damsel compositions to finish :

This male was hiding in cover but a shaft of
sunlight had his front end beautifully lit.

Just liked the splodge of red contrasting with
the green leaf in this composition. 
Not quite happy with the focussing yet though, experimented with a few settings today, the only thing I haven't tried yet is manual focus as it's not easy to tell through the viewfinder, definitely give it a go next time though when I can find a settled subject.
Great to see them back though, even if just in small numbers at the moment