Friday, 28 August 2015

Something Old, Something New, Something Special in Brown and Blue . . .

Feeding off scraps at the moment, looking after the kids for the most part due to a family bereavement on my better half's side. Yesterday I needed to go to the Bank so took my camera and bins out with me with a view to looking in on Far Pasture on the way home.

Sunny but very gusty when I eventually got there mid-afternoon, didn't have much time so didn't go as far as the pond, just looked for hawkers and darters in the fields and roadside.

A male Migrant Hawker gave good close views (in-flight) for a short time and another search for ruddy darter proved fruitless, in fact common darters were few and far between as well, just 5 or 6 showing along the fence.
Having wondered why I bothered I walked back up the steep road to be greeted with the sight of a male southern hawker looking for somewhere to settle opposite the access barrier at the top of the bank.
I waited 'til he settled in the long grass by the road, and though he wasn't in the most open of positions I got a few decent shots before a particularly stiff gust took him off and away.

A second male rose up from further in the grass at the same time and a brief skirmish ensued, then both flew off in the distance and that was that.

Back at home after downloading my photos I had a look at the new posts on blogs I follow and stared in disbelief (tinged with jealousy) at Ron Hindhaugh's Notmanywords blog (see link right) as he had some cracking in-flight pictures of an array of dragons at Kibblesworth Brickworks Pools, including this superb male Brown Hawker :-O

Brown Hawker - a Gateshead 'mega'
reproduced by kind permission of 'lucky' Ron Hindhaugh

To my knowledge this is the first ever recorded at Kibblesworth, and after searching official records only the second in Gateshead this Century, after one recorded at Burdon Moor in 2003.
Previous records reveal a scattering of sightings at Chopwell Woods in the 1980s and 60s, with Gibside holding the only other records from around the same time, plus one going far back as 1827.

So well done Ron, a cracking find backed up by photographs, even the Gateshead 'records committee' won't be able to refute that one ;-)

Friday, 21 August 2015

Antmageddon !!

Late afternoon a procession of familiar sounds streamed through the open kitchen window, after a couple of minutes it finally registered and I looked up from my workstation to see the fleeting shapes of swallows repeatedly sweeping by.

The only reason I could think for them to be coming so low was the annual swarming of the ants in the garden, though I thought this had finished a couple of weeks back, but sure enough that was exactly what was occurring.

The main nest is around the doorstep of the conservatory, and it has grown to such proportions there are now thousands of the little blighters digging under the stones of the patio. I don't mind them, we get a few in the house in the spring but otherwise their main activity is digging out new chambers for the winged kings and queens, of which this year there are a lot. But once flown the ants disappear back underground, work over for another year, and will remain largely unseen until next spring.

Swarm 'ere 'innit
Black Garden Ants lasius niger preparing for take-off

They show up well on the white Upvc of the conservatory step

Appearing through any crack they could find

But these unfortunate winged queens would never fulfil their purpose.

Outside I went to view the event at close hand. Ants were streaming out of what seemed like every single gap in the bricks of the patio and base of the conservatory. The workers in a frenzy covering a wide area to guard the participants of the nuptial flight on the ground, but they had no defence against attack from the air.

Around a dozen swallows circled low around the adjacent gardens and swooped in to scoop up the slow-moving ants as they rose more-or-less vertically in ones, twos and threes. In the half hour I watched I didn't see a single ant make more than a 20 foot ascent before being plucked out of the sky, most were taken before reaching even four feet up, as the swallows competed with each other to snap up an easy meal. Basically it was a slaughter, and one it was a privilege to witness. Swallows zipping past my head as I watched, so close I could hear their beaks snapping shut around the bodies of their victims.

Incoming !!

A close crop shows hunter and quarry, easy pickings

Sometimes two by two, it was a race to snap a victim from the air, miss one and you'd
have to hope you get lucky on the next loop.

Two hunters, one meal.

It was the incoming rain which finally led to the ants abandoning the event for the day, the workers ushering their winged superiors back into the cracks and crevasses, still many more to make the perilous journey another day, probably just as well for them. Those which made the attempt today all seemed to suffer the same fate at the hands (or beaks) of the swallows. Great viewing.     

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Short and Sh#te

Far Pasture today was piss poor for dragonflies again :

On the pond a patrolling male southern hawker, 3 emerald damsels and a blue-tail was the sum total.

Along the road was more productive with about 10-12 common darters on the roadside fence, another southern hawker male and first migrant hawker sighting of the year, a solitary male foraging the field opposite the sawmill.

At the top of the access road a coupled pair of southern hawkers flitting through the treetops was a surprise being so far away from water, a single male also in the area and just one common darter here.

Hardly a photographic opportunity to mention,  just tried to see how close I could get to one on the fence.  

Common Darter (male)
Desperate times . . . .

Friday, 14 August 2015

Black and Tarn

One thing I do look forward to during the school summer hols is our annual visit to Cragside, where the Slipper Tarn is the best site I know for Black Darter and to date has never failed to deliver.

Slipper Tarn (Cragside NT Estate)
An elevated acidic lake half way up the hillside trail from the main car park to the play area 
Today was no exception, though a lengthy delay due to roadworks on the A1 meant we arrived a lot later than planned, and didn't get to the Tarn until after 2pm after doing lunch and stuff. It's a lovely walk from the main Car park to the Tarn (and eventually to the play area which is the main target for the kids) but a 15 minute stop-off produced numerous Black Darters; mature males, females, a few tenerals and a new photographic first for me, as I'd never before managed to find an immature male. It was exceptionally warm and sunny up there today (yes I said warm and sunny) and the dragonflies were very flighty. Usually I find the Black Darters quite approachable but not today which means the photos in the main aren't as good as I'd hoped :

Black Darter (immature male)
My first photographic record of this stage of development so a good result after four years of visits here

Black Darter Immature male
Colouring similar to female but abdomen noticeably waisted and
black side-markings a wavy pattern rather than straight-edged (see below)


mature female found away from the lake later in the day
Striking similarity to the immature male but note the subtle differences in abdomen shape and patterns
Mature male
A striking dragonfly in his prime, still lots of bright yellow on show 

This would have been a cracking picture but for the single strand of grass waving around which
just got in front of his head as I snapped him, hence the vertical line of blurring

This feller is quite a mature individual, his yellow markings dulling down somewhat
Other dragons on show today included 4 male Common Hawkers (all of which proved too flighty to get on camera), a couple of Southern Hawker males, a good number of Emerald damselflies, a single male Large Red damsel and an unidentified blue damsel flying low across the water.

Many Emerald damsels at the Tarn
This one a male 

Mating and ovipositing pairs too

This male was the only Large Red damsel I saw today 

Other sightings of interest were a Giant Wood Wasp by the play area, though it didn't perch long enough for a photo (still haven't got one of those photographed despite seeing many) and just as we came out of the slow traffic past the A1 roadworks near Stannington, a hovering Kestrel caught my eye, but I wasn't expecting what happened next as it was attacked by a Peregrine as we approached! The kestrel neatly side-stepped the attack, then fled into the nearest trees, leaving the disappointed Peregrine to posture aerobatically for a moment then slowly glide off, great moment seen well thanks to the roadworks (never thought I'd say that).

Back in the valley, another disappointing visit to Thornley Woods Pond earlier in the week resulted in two Common Darters, a dozen or so large red damsels but once again not a hawker to be seen. Early afternoon in good sunshine so no excuse.

Large red damsel male at TWP
One of maybe 8 singles, plus 3 tandem pairs 

The only hawker I did find that day was a female Southern at the top of Far Pasture bank, possibly the same one I photographed there last week, but foraging today she didn't perch up anywhere, though I was treated to a close-up of a kill as she snatched a flying queen ant (swarms of them today) from the air right in front of my face.
A few Common Darters by the fence along the access road but still no Ruddys, and once again no damsels here.

Cougar on the prowl ?
This over-mature female common darter (bottom, told by the redness of the abdomen) seems to be
stalking the immature male (top).

Star of that particular day though was a cracking Stoat running across the path in front of me. Brief, but as always, a wow moment.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Drought Continues . . .

Since my fortuitous encounter with a Southern Hawker on Tuesday it's been business as usual in the valley, one visit to Thornley Woods Pond and two to Far Pasture have resulted in Dragonfly numbers (of species I might normally expect to see this time of year) resembling an Australian Cricket Team scorecard :

Southern Hawker     3
Com. Hawker          0
Mig. Hawker            0
Com. Darter             8
Ruddy Darter           0
Azure damsel           0
L Red damsel           0
Com. Blue damsel   0
Blue-tailed damsel   0
Emerald damsel       0

The lack of damselflies is baffling, its getting late in the season for them but in sunny conditions I would still expected to see decent numbers on the ponds but not even one recorded in three site visits.
Of the Common Darters, a single was the only dragon present in over an hour at TW Pond late morning, and just 3 and 4 on consecutive visits to Far Pasture, including this one doing the 'obelisk' on Saturday.

Male common darter pointing his abdomen directly at the sun (I checked) in an attempt to cool down by
reducing surface area in direct sunlight.
 I was also greeted with this sight at Far Pasture on Saturday where some bright spark has climbed through the hide window and snapped all the stalks of vegetation in front of the 'kingfisher perches'  so they can get a clear photo. I know many photographers who are good folk but I just don't know what gives some others the idea that its ok to selfishly take matters into their own hands and abuse a nature reserve in this way. Though the tossers who planted a  'No Fishing' sign in front of the hide a few years back so they could take a highly unoriginal photo take some beating.

No excuse for this wanton vandalism just for a photograph. It might not seem much but when left alone
the vegetation makes good cover and perching for a variety of small wildlife and when the
darters are out in force in the coming weeks the gaps between the reeds is prime ovipositing habitat, . . . not any more.

To be honest they way some folk go on you'd think the kingfisher is the only creature of any importance here, it's certainly the only thing enquired about when someone comes in the hide, well believe it or not folks, not everyone is bothered about it, nice to see, but not the be all and end all.
It's a nature reserve, for a good variety of wildlife, not an outdoor photographic studio.
Ok, rant over.

Saturday's visit to FP at least afforded more views of a couple of Southern Hawkers by the trees at the sawmill gate :

Shame this hawker was behind a fence but at least Sprog1 was able to view it well from the pathside

Rather than use wirecutters on the fence I moved around to get a better angle
for my best photo of this immature male Southern Hawker  

A second male Southern Hawker (this one in fully mature colours) alighted far above us in the trees
and I was just able to get a clear shot against the sky 

From a different angle a poor photo but shows the
shimmering wings of the same dragonfly in the strong sunlight

But that's the sum total of excitement in what (numbers-wise) is fast becoming the worst dragonfly summer since I began keeping this blog 5 years ago. I've looked back at previous years though and often my first sighting of ruddy darter is mid-August so time yet, and small numbers of common darter isn't that unusual by early August, though I would expect the first Migrant Hawkers to be around by now. The lack of damsels is a worry though, they should still be around through most of August and occasionally into early September.
Let's see what next week brings.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A Star Near Far . . . Pasture

After missing out on Monday, the mid-late afternoon sunshine yesterday had me scurrying down to Far Pasture to see what was about.
From the hide there was nothing in the way of dragons, the Forbidden Pond is now very well stocked with water but not with dragons, and Pond3 is still guarded by killer ponies so remains inaccessible.

But the roadside fences at last held a double-figure count of Common Darters, both males and females in various stages of maturity, but still no Ruddys to be found by the ditch.

maturing male

immature male

and another

mature female

immature female
A couple of bonus fluke 'oddities' in the selection were an octo-winged darter and another which appeared to have nailed its meal to the fence :

The light was so strong and the illusion so good that from distance I actually thought this
was two darters one on top of the other

" Ha! Got you pinned down now."
"Yeah, like literally" 

Star of the day though was our final sighting at the top of the access road, where a foraging female Southern Hawker alighted in thick roadside vegetation as the sun dipped behind cloud, and thankfully stayed put for a long while as she was so well camouflaged it took an age to find her even though she was in unobstructed view. She was also very well settled, and even an impatient Sprog3 couldn't remove her from her low perch as I snapped away with him shouting in my ear (though I have to say he was impressed when I showed him what I was snapping, even recognising it as the same dragonfly I have on my screensaver).

Unbelievably difficult to make out with the naked eye, marvellous camouflage.

But very obliging allowing cracking close-ups

Another view of her blending capabilities

She hung around for a while allowing me to get a variety of angles

This my favourite, showing the superb patterns on the abdominal segments

A good find and not at all displeased with the photos. The X-S1 is proving its worth with the bigger dragonflies. It was also a treat to view her in detail through the Papilios from point blank range, what a great buy they are turning out to be (I even noted a pair being used by George McGavin, insect man on The One Show the other week, and if they're good enough for George . . . . )  :-)   

Monday, 3 August 2015

Would you Adam and Eve it ?

First decent Dragonfly day in weeks and I've been busy all day, so to illustrate my mood here's a picture of some bees showing their arses :


A bum deal indeed :-(

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Week Two Round-Up

Week two of the summer hols was (if anything) worse than week one. Mostly washed out with the rain (about two months too late) we hardly got outdoors, and Dragonhunting was restricted to snatched hours in the valley, for the most part during unkind weather and mainly amounting to nothing much.

A morning visit to Thornley Woods Pond last Sunday after a night of rain gave just a single large red damsel and a few azures.

Thornley Woods Pond
The thick mat of grasses creeping further out from the far margins, the nearside still regularly
used as a dogs bathing area.  

Highlight today was watching this wasp drinking raindrops from the emergent grasses.

Far Pasture the same day didn't fare much better, three common darters on the pond, azure, common blue, blue-tailed and emerald damsels scattered about in ones and twos, and a brief glimpse of a mystery hawker which showed an extended light blue saddle on an otherwise dark abdomen reminiscent of a female lesser emperor, but so brief was the view as it shot across the pond that was the only bit that registered, after which three days of rain meant I wasn't able to investigate further until Thursday, by which time there was no sign of any hawkers at all on the pond.

At least the Little Grebe family showed well, parent feeding the little stripey with a selection
of fishy treats

Not much in the way of dragons but I did find a common blue damsel on the road
which bore an uncanny resemblance to Hitler 
Three subsequent visits to far pasture at the back end of the week (including today) gave very little in poor conditions, no more than 3 or 4 common darters on each visit, even lesser numbers of damsels and three more unidentified hawkers, two flushed up from the roadside in poor light and a third hawking the avenue of trees at the top of the road in silhouette.

Nice weather for ducks
Bright sunshine when I set out for far Pasture on Thursday, but spent the best part of an hour here
just watching the ducks get wet.
Slightly better weather on Friday with Sprog1 in tow, and at least a few darters showed during the sunny intervals, but even then we had to cut the visit short with the gathering dark clouds.

Common Darter (immature male)
mainly yellowish in colour 

Common Darter (maturing male)
starting to develop an orangey red tinge along the abdomen

Common Darter (mature male)
Abdomen now the complete orange/red colour

Common Darter close-up
The immature male showing a mainly yellow thorax and yellow striping on legs 
Today it was the turn of the females to show well, though again an ultimately disappointing visit :

Common Darter (female)
A boldly marked individual, note the much thicker abdomen than the male. Similar to the
Ruddy Darter female but the yellow leg-stripes are a giveaway. 

She began probing the fence with the tip of her abdomen in a graceful rhythmic gymnastic show
I've never seen performed before, so no idea what it was all about. 

Token arty shot to finish.

Disappointingly not a sniff of a Ruddy Darter yet, but given the poor numbers of common darters on show so far that's hardly surprising either.
Hoping for better weather and opportunities next week.