One of the reasons for my trip to Fen Drayton a few weeks ago was to have a look to see which of our dragonflies were out and about. I went in early June and that time of year is a little early for the true dragons to have emerged, although it’s not impossible. But despite the shortage of the true dragons, the hedgerows and lake sides were abuzz with damselflies.
Male red-eyed damselfly – Erythromma najas
Dragonflies and damselfies are the two members of the taxonomic order ‘Odanata‘ or Odanates. There are two sub-orders within the Odanata: the Anisoptera – the true dragonflies, and Zygoptera – damselflies.
Azure damselfly – Coenagrion puella – the blue form of the immature female
Damselflies in the UK are approximately 4-5cm (1.5-2 inches) long and have thin abdomens and are all smaller and more delicate than the chunkier dragonflies. Having said that, the biggest living Odanate is currently a damselfly who resides in the rainforests of Central America, it has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5 inches) and the abdomen is 10cm (4 inches) long. A real whopper!
Blue tailed damselfly – Ischnura elegans – immature femaleBlue tailed damselfly – immature male – Ischnura elegans
Male and female Odanates, and immature and mature individuals, can often be distinguished by colour. The common blue female below is conspicuously brown so the species gets its name from the electric blue colour of the male. The common blue can easily be confused with the variable damselfly which is the same blue colour, but they are distinguished by the black markings on segment 2 of the abdomen which is shaped like a goblet on the variable and a club on the common blue. Also, the antehumoral stripes (on the side of the thorax) are complete on the common blue and broken on the variable. Although, as the name suggests, the variable is indeed variable and it can make distinguishing the two species a little tricky.
Common blue damselfly female – Enallagma cyathigerum – the only common blue we saw on this trip, perched on my friends finger
The black goblet on segment 2 is visible under the front of the wings on the variable damselfly below. But confusingly, it’s living up to its name because the antehumoral stripes are unbroken.
Male damselflies have two sets of paired claspers at the end of the abdomen which it uses to clasp the female on her pronotum, which is the protrusion in the middle of the back of the head. The claspers have tiny hooks on them which match grooves in the female pronotum and in order to avoid procreational mismatches the hooks and grooves are species specific.
Variable damselfly – Coenagrion pulchellum
In the picture above a variable male has clasped his lady by the pronotum. Male damselflies have primary genitalia at the end of the abdomen on the 8th segment, but in order for fertilisation to take place he needs to transfer a ‘spermatophore’ from the primary genitalia to the secondary genitalia on the second segment at the thoracic end of the abdomen. The female then curls round in to the ‘wheel’ position to transfer the sperm to her genitalia which are underneath her 8th abdominal segment.
A pair of variable damsels in the wheel position
All the Odanates are carnivores, and the larvae which hatch from eggs layed under water are ferocious carnivores, the larger ones will even take small fish! On one occasion last year while I was photographing large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma nymphula), a large hawker dragonfly (I think it was a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta) which had been buzzing around higher up for several minutes suddenly dived down and caught one of my large red damsels. In a few seconds the migrant butchered it and ate it on the wing and the inedible bits of wing and leg were discarded and rained down around me.
Scarce chaser – an immature male
A lone Anisopteran, or ‘true’ dragon was spotted on this trip and it was an immature scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. He was a lovely mustard colour and he can be differentiated from the female by the colour of the thorax which is dark grey in the female, and from the male adult who is electric blue. He undergoes quite a transformation in transitioning from immature to adult.
Impressive shots Finn! I would have been so thrilled if I got to see all these damselflies! And I learnt something new here today as always. I’m not too sure if I’ll be able to tell between a damselfly and a dragonfly though. Thank you so much for this educational write-up. Sharon
Hey Sharon, you’re very welcome. Damsels are the small delicate ones, they are all around 3-4cm long and the abdomen is 1-2mm thick. Dragons are always bigger and chunkier than damsels. If you’re interrested there is lots of good information here: ‘http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/’. BW. Finn
Hi again, Finn, late off the mark again, I’m afraid, finally catching up with backlogs of blogs and comments, but I want to say how much I like this post. Damsels hold a very special place in my photographic heart, and you have paid them an excellent tribute here. Well done!
Hello Gary, no problem, I’m in the same boat. I’m catching up on all the jobs I haven’t done over the last two years because I’ve been blogging, so I have an enormous backlog to catch up with. Damsels do indeed make fine subjects for photographs. Thanks for your comment, I’m very pleased you like them.
Hi Finn, I found your site when I was searching for lists of dragonfly species that I might find at Fen Drayton. I went there for the first time yesterday but didn’t do as well as you – well done. How great to find a pair of mating Variables.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to correct a couple of your captions, though, all in the interests of furthering the cause of dragonflies, naturally. 😉
Your Blue-tailed Damselfy with the greenish thorax is actually an immature male. Though the females of this species occur in about five different colours, this isn’t one of them; it’s the males that emerge with a greenish colouration and a blue tail light. They also have a noticeably thinner abdomen than the females, as this one does, and you can just see the secondary genitalia beneath S2 (probably more easily seen on your original, full-sized picture).
Your Scarce Chaser, the last picture, is a female rather than an immature male. The widely spaced anal appendages are the biggest indicator here; a male’s anal appendages would be longer and more centrally positioned at their root.
You did very well to find a female Scarce Chaser, it took me two years to find one!
All the best nature spotting, John
Hello John, thanks for taking the trouble to drop me a line and put me straight and to include all the details to assist in future identifications, I shall amend the captions accordingly. I’m always pleased to be corrected and thus avoid taxonomical inexactitudes 🙂
Which species did you find there? Are you local to Fen Drayton? It’s a great place for birds, flowers, dragons etc. etc. Cheers
Excellent photos, Finn! The thumb shot shows that you had a bit of luck on your side, as well as providing a little size perspective.
Thanks Rick, you’re right about the thumb shot, it was early in the morning and quite cool and damp, so I think the flies were lethargic and waiting for some sunshine before they could get properly active.
Some wonderful shots here Finn! I especially like the pair of variable damsels in the wheel position. Wow. Me and my girlfriend recently got back from spending 2 weeks in the South West and we came across a handful of different dragonflies and damselflies during our travels. Amazing little creatures they are. Thanks for the post.
Hello Woody, you’re welcome, I like taking pictures of dragons and damsels – they’re extremely photogenic!
Hi Finn, I just nominated you for the Illuminating Blogger Award: http://lornastearoomdelights.com/2012/07/09/awards-in-july/
Thankyou very much indeed Lorna, I’ll be glad to accept your nomination for the Illuminating Blogger Award!
Hurrah! Very well deserved, too, you are constantly illuminating me!
Nice dragonflies, Finn. I am not lucky with them, they tend not to pose for me…
Thanks Bente, I’ve found that the best time to photograph them is early in the morning when it’s cold, or when they have just emerged as new flies. But I was out photographing them last week and I’ve decided I’m going to practice capturing them in flight. It won’t be easy but it’ll be fun trying!
Beautiful members of our tiny world. 🙂
Thanks Scott, they are gorgeous little fellas are’nt they. And there were hundreds of them buzzing around on this trip!
You’re welcome, Finn…and they certainly are. I can imagine them in the hundreds, too. My last hike into the mountains brought me into the company of their multitudes of cousins up here. 🙂
GREAT photos, Finn, and very informative narrative. Thanks!
Thanks Ruth, I was really lucky on this trip, the damsels were in a cooperative frame of mind and I got so many good pictures. I’m glad you like them 🙂
Marvellous photos, Finn, and an instructive post. Those variable damsels are smashing. Don’t you find that insects convey a great sense of the ecological well-being of a place? A meadow or marsh can be absolutely humming, just as a sprayed tillage field can be deathly silent.
Hello Robert, you’re absolutely right. I think the number of plant species and by extension, the number of insect species, all of which provide the support structure for all other life forms (including H. sapiens) are intrinsically linked, and the key to maintaining both in a healthy state is less human interference. In ‘managing‘ land for human benefit we either destroy almost everything in it or reduce viable populations to unsustainable levels. We desparately need to adopt practices for managing the world which are less destructive for land, air and oceans. If we don’t I think the longer term ramifications are looking increasingly uncomfortable.
These are all terrific photos and the information is fascinating! What a wonderful post!
Thanks Terry, I’m glad you found it interesting, I enjoyed writing this one!
Amazing photographs and information!
Fascinating stuff and glorious photos, Finn! I have never, to my knowledge, had a damselfly land on me, that shot on the finger is terrific! I really am astonished at the way you capture nature on camera, it’s superb.
Hello Lorna, thankyou very much for such a nice comment. Damselflies are ace – if you find one settled you can often gently place your finger next to it and it will hop on. Give it a go and let me know if you’re successful 🙂
I will, thank you!