Category Archives: Insects

The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Butterflies:
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term  is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

The amazing potential of phone photography

A few weeks ago, in August, I was in Toronto and on a glorious sunny day I took a boat trip out to Centre Island, which, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Toronto wondering what to do, I can heartily recommend. There were many huge and colourful butterflies including monarchs and swallowtails fluttering around the island, and some others I didn’t recognise. It was a work trip so I hadn’t taken my DSLR with me and the only way to get a photograph was with my phone camera. And then I discovered that monarchs are skittish and it’s not easy to get close to them, which I needed to do as I only had a phone to take pictures with, but after chasing several and failing to get within range I managed to sneak up on this one:

monarch-toronto-aug-2016-ppMonarch butterfly – Danaus plexippus

I stooped down on the opposite side of the plant to the butterfly and reached around to point my phone and take this picture. I must confess, I was a little gobsmacked at how well it worked. The light conditions were challenging as it was late morning and the sunlight was intense, so there was lots of contrast between the shade and the light. But after minimal post processing to darken the sunny bits I think is a pretty good image! I changed my phone earlier this year for an iPhone 6S plus and I was impressed with the quality of the camera from the start, but after this shot I’m really impressed with it.

I hope it’s not a global phenomenon, but this year, due to climatic aberrations, many butterfly species have been hit really hard and their numbers have plummeted. The results of the ‘Big Butterfly Count‘, an annual survey of our Lepidoptera here in the UK, was reported today, and the news was bleak. Many erstwhile common species have really suffered and this is a phenomenon which I’ve noticed and commented on several times since the Spring this year. And now it’s official. Sir David Attenborough (the worlds greatest living human being), and president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said that butterflies are a good barometer of the state of nature in general. I’m inclined to agree with him and I think it’s a very bad sign that the plight of our butterflies in the UK is so dire. It doesn’t augur well.

small-copper-wandlebury-roman-road-sep2016-ppSmall copper – Lycaena phlaeas

But one of my absolute favourite butterflies, and one that I only see very infrequently, even in a good year, is the small copper. I think they’re gorgeous. I haven’t seen one for about three years and then, randomly, a friend of mine showed me this picture a couple of weeks ago which he took with his phone, also an iPhone 6S, on the Roman road between Cambridge and Linton.

So there are still some lovely butterflies out there, but please think of them and, if you can spare it, leave a little bit of your garden to grow wild with no chemicals to help them recover. And if you don’t have a camera handy to take a portrait give it a go with your phone instead, you might be surprised!

Celtic Damsels

This will be the last post from my trip to Scotland in 2014 during which we made an early morning visit to the osprey nest at RSPB Loch Garten to hopefully catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent predators. There was an adult on the nest but without more magnification than I had I couldn’t get up close (but it looked spectacular through binoculars!):

An adult osprey , Pandion haliaetus, Dansk: fiskeørn, perched on the nest

The ospreys overwinter in sub Saharan West Africa and are another great conservation success story. Despite that they’re conservation status is still amber with only 200 pairs in the UK. They can cover up to 275 miles a day on migration and they stop off on the way south for a couple of weeks to feed up, they also stop on the way north, but only for a few days,to ensure they arrive at the breeding grounds as early as possible to maximise the length of available time for the actual breeding.

Whilst at RSPB Loch Garten we got an excellent steer from one of the RSPB girls on a couple of pools in the forest where we could find dragonflies. It had been a grey morning, but as we arrived at one of the pools the sun emerged, and with it, the dragons. I’ve already posted dragon pictures from these sites in an earlier post, and here are some more images of mating damsels:

Northern damselfy pair, Coenagrion hastelatum

The northern damsels are in tandem, the blue male is clasping the female prior to escorting her around the pool to find suitable egg laying sites. Large red damsels were also mating over the pool at the same time:

Large red damsels, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, in the process of egg laying under the water

I think this picture of the large red damsels is the best insect photo I’ve ever taken. I like it because they’re in motion and in the process of doing something, and the shadows are cool! The large red can only really be confused with the small red, but the small red has red legs and doesn’t have the yellow bands which can be seen on the female in this picture.

I also like this floating spider:

I don’t know what species the spider is, I’ve never seen one like it anywhwere else. The markings are distinctive and it may be the same species as the one in the previous post, but I was assured by the experts at the British Arachnological Society that it could only be unambiguously identified by microscopic examination after dissection.

The majestic Scots pine trees of the Abernethy Forest

The two dragonfly pools were in the Abernethy Forest. I think it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere of a forest in photographs because the temperature and humidity, the sounds and the smells, all contribute to the feeling of a forest, and none of these can be captured in a photograph. Even the light is difficult to capture because the camera settings required to give a good quality image don’t necessarily recapitulate what it actually looked and felt like.  So the picture above of the Scots pines of the Abernethy Forest is the best I could do, but having said all that stuff, in the absence of all the other sensory inputs it does convey a little bit of my memories of the forest. I hope you know what I mean and I hope you like it!

As I mentioned at the top of this post, this is the last installment of my ‘Cairngorm Chronicles‘. It was a fabulous trip and we saw some breathtakingly beautiful places and lots of wildlife. I can’t wait to go back and see more creatures peculiar to that part of the world such as grouse, ptarmigan, capercaillie and red deer, as well as the ones I missed on this trip such as crested tit and crossbill. So much to see and so little time…

Welcome house guests

One day in the summer I noticed a crane fly sitting on the outside of a window so I grabbed my camera with the macro lens and went on a bug hunt round the house. And these are the beasties I found lurking:

Male house spider, Tegenaria gigantea, with a glint in his eye

It was a murky day so the pictures I took in the house required the flash, so I experimented with the flash power, the ISO, and used the smallest aperture I could to maximise the depth of field (DOF). The ones I took through the window didn’t require the flash, but I kept the ISO higher, again so I could maximise the DOF:

Crane fly or daddy longlegs, Tipula paludosa, revealing one of the more bizarre head designs in the animal kingdom

On the same window as the crane fly were a number of garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) including this male:

The same male garden spider wrapping up a hoverfly

The crane fly was playing a dangerous game running the gauntlet of the garden spiders but it managed to avoid getting eaten. The garden spider above was on the window for weeks and was rather larger at the end, demonstrating that ambush predation is a highly successful strategy when combined with a sophisticated web to ensnare the prey.

Female oak bush cricket, Meconema thalassinum

It’s not uncommon in the summer for oak bush crickets to appear in the house and there’s no mistaking this creature. the one here is a female which is immediately apparent from her long ovipositor protruding from the back end. They are common all over the south of England and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects, so they’re welcome in the house.

And another carnivore which I’m happy to provide accommodation for is the daddy long legs spider:

Daddy long legs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, with a few of her many offspring

The daddy long legs spider looks so delicate but is a voracious predator and will catch and eat the much chunkier house spider as well as its siblings!

Glorious Glen Affric

During my excursion to the Highlands in June 2014 we  took a trip from Garten up to Inverness and down the north shore of Loch Ness before heading up to one the wildest places I’ve been to in the UK, Glen Affric.

It seems that Glen Affric is right in the  midst of the back of beyond and I can imagine it’s a harsh place to live in the depths of winter. But often with remoteness comes undistrurbed natural beauty, and so it was here. On arrival we parked up at a car park on the bank of River Affric, and after fastidious application of insect repellent to deter the midges we ate lunch at a picnic table . And as we sat and watched the river a dipper was busy skimming to and fro. A closer look after lunch revealed that it had built a nest on the underside of a bridge and it was bringing insects back to feed the chicks.

Dipper – Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær – contemplating the next foray upriver…

This was too good a photo opportunity to miss and I hopped from stone to stone into the river and eventually perched on a rock a couple of inches above the water that was just about stable enough to keep me out the river. I wanted to get a picture of a dipper as it skimmed past low over the water and I managed to capture this series of shots as it took care of the crucial business of feeding the hungry youngsters:

… setting off

… passing through at high speed…

… and heading back with a beak full of grubs. A successful mission.

I’ve never had the chance to photograph dippers like this before so I’m very happy with this series of pictures. I rarely see them because they’re birds of fast moving rivers like the ones found in the hills and mountains and consequently they’re not to be found in my part of the world. Despite the fact I see it very infrequently, the dipper is a resident breeder in the UK and is green listed and therefore not of concern. And unlike most waterbirds which hunt by swimming or diving, the dipper hunts by running along the bottom of the riverbed. Some years ago I watched one do this in a mountain stream in Betws y Coed in Snowdonia, it’s a fascinating thing to watch and it made me wonder how they diminish their bouyancy in order to avoid floating off the river bed.

The reason we went to Glen Affric was to see rare dragonflies, specifically, the northern emerald which is very local to the Highlands of Scotland and absent from England, and the downy emerald which can also be seen in some parts of England but is uncommon. For the record, we saw a lot of downy emeralds over Coire Loch at Glen Affric but no northern emeralds. As we were dragon hunting I only took my long telephoto lens and I didn’t take any landscape shots of the terrain (or none which I’m happy to share), but to get an idea of the place follow the link above and the two pictures on the first page labelled ‘River Affric‘ and ‘Looking down over Coire Loch‘ best reflect my memories of it.

I didn’t get any dragon pictures here either because I couldn’t really get close enough to them, so as it was a gloriously sunny afternoon I just enjoyed the silence and the views and the whole atmosphere of the place, which was utter tranquility.

Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea, Dansk: bjergvipstjert

Like the dipper, grey wagtail were also darting up and down the river.  They are resident breeders and passage visitors with amber conservation status in the UK, but their numbers are not of concern in Europe as a whole and they are beautiful little birds to be seen hunting insects over fast running streams. I think the name ‘grey wagtail‘ suggests something a tad dull and uninteresting, which does them a huge disservice, something like ‘saffron wagtail‘ would be more appropriate!

The best sighting of all at Glen Affric was one I didn’t get a photograph of because I was driving at the time. And it was also the most unexpected. We had just left the parking place at Glen Affric to return to Garten at around 6.30pm when a dark brown/black creature approximately the size of a cat bounded across the road and ran along in front of the car for four or five seconds, and it was a pine marten (Martes martes). We had paid to sit in a hide two nights previously to guarantee a sighting of this most elusive creature, and here was one running down the road in front of us. It’s funny how a whole four day trip can be made by a four second sighting of an incredibly rare and charismatic creature.

Spiders, dragons, damsels and reptiles

During my trip to Scotland earlier in the year with my friend we stayed at Boat of Garten in Speyside which is close by Loch Garten in the Abernethy Forest, the primary location in the UK for seeing ospreys. So, as well as the ospreys, one of the iconic ‘must-see’ creatures on my wish list was the pine marten (Martes martes), but we had fairly low expectation of seeing one so we booked an evening with Speyside Wildlife in a purpose built pine marten viewing hide. We spent the evening there with half a dozen other folk and a knowledgeable guide who told us all about the local wildlife. We saw a deer and a badger and then a couple of hours later, well after dark, a pine marten appeared and spent several minutes feeding right in front of us, just a few feet away. So it was well worth the wait! It fed from a branch right outside the window and it was a truly beautiful animal, and what struck me most was its size, it was much bigger than I’d anticipated. Because it was night time and I didn’t want to disturb teh marten there are no photographs, but if you want to see one there are images on Speyside Wildlife’s website if you follow the link above and browse to the Gallery. It was an evening well spent!

An unidentified, but spectacular, floating spider

The morning after the marten hide we set off into Abernethy Forest, stopping off at RSPB Loch Garten to see the resident osprey which duly obliged and perched on the nest. There were lots of other small birds, in particular siskin, mobbing the feeders around the visitor centre, but after the osprey we headed off into the forest on a dragon hunt.

We found a small pool in the forest but the weather was grey and cool so the dragons were still under cover, but a magnificent spider was hunting on the surface. There are tiny dents in the water at the end of its legs where the surface tension is being tested but is still holding firm and supporting the weight of the spider. My knowledge of arachnidis is miniscule so I sent this photograph to the British Arachnological Society in the hope that they could identify it, but they said without dissecting it they couldn’t unambiguously name it.

In the absence of dragons we decamped to another much bigger pool a couple of miles away, and as we arrived there the sun emerged and brought the dragons out. It got very warm very quickly and they appeared in their hundreds:

Four spot chaser – Libellula quadrimaculataNorthern damselfly – Coenagrion hastulatum

The four spotted chaser is common all over the UK and can be seen in my neck of the woods too, but the northern damsel is only found in a few small lochs – or ‘lochans‘ – in Scotland. Consequently I’d never seen this one before. It can be identified by the bottom half of the eye which is green, and segment 2 of the thorax has a black marking resembling the ace of spades.

And while squadrons of dragons patrolled the air, the suns warmth had also enticed out a modern day dinosaur who was patrolling the marsh around the edge of the lake:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

And now the sun was out we headed back to the original pool with increased hopes of finding a white faced darter and lo and behold we found a newly emerged one:

A very newly emerged white faced darter – Leuchorrhinia dubia

This species is limited to just a few sites in England and Scotland, it has declined in recent decades due to habitat destruction, pollution, etc, etc – all the usual reasons why human activity is causing species loss. This was the only one we saw here and I couldn’t get into position to photograph its white face, but I was very pleased to see such a pristine example of a species I hadn’t seen before.

Isle of Wight 2013

Part 1 – Lepidoptera

I’ve already grumbled in earlier posts about how the weather over the last three years leading up to 2014 was cold and unpredictable here in the UK, and how it had a very bad effect on our wildlife. In particular, overall numbers, and numbers of species, of butterflies, which are very sensitive to environmental change, seem to have been dramatically affected over those three years here in Cambridge at least.

But last year whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight I took a walk from Shanklin up to the old WW2 radar station which is the highest point on the island, and apart from a flypast by a peregrine falcon, the most eyectaching natural phenomena were the butterflies, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the previous three years.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

The first part of my route took me through a wooded area bound by sea cliffs on one side and farmland on the other. A huge buddleia bush overhung the pathway which was hosting numerous species of butterfly, including the comma, above, and a painted lady, of which I’d seen plenty in 2010 but virtually none in the intervening years when the weather had turned bleak.

Painted lady – Vanessa cardui

The comma is resident to the UK and in recent years its numbers and range have actually increased and this has puzzled the entomologists as it is bucking a general trend amongst all butterflies here in the UK. in contrast, the painted lady is a handsome migrant which, according to my field guide, may or may not show up in the UK, consequently the entire population depends on immigration from Africa. But that raises the question what happens to the adults that are born here?

But since my guide was published, some research has been published where populations were tracked in and out of the UK on their migration routes by radar, and it revealed that painted ladies leave the country at high altitude – 500-1000m – where they can’t be seen by eye. The application of technology is revealing many hitherto unknown phenomena about many species and it’s interesting that up until now it was thought the whole UK population of painted ladies died out each year simply because they fly back just out of visual range.  And even more amazingly, it has now been discovered that this species takes up to six generations to make a circular 14000km (9000 miles) round trip from the Arctic Circle to Sub-Saharan Africa!

Which raises another mind boggling question: how is it hard wired into this tiny creature to make successive steps of this awesome migratory feat, covering half the globe, all in the same direction, at any one time? Unbelievable! But on the other hand, if populations on a previous leg of the journey take a hit for whatever reason it may be the explanation of why population size can vary so much from year to year in the UK.

Common blue male  – Polyommatus icarus

After emerging from the woods I climbed a steep incline, crossing the main Shanklin to Ventnor road and up the chalk downland of Boniface Down towards the WW2 radar station. Consequently, the terrain and the vegetation changed and so did the butterflies. The common blue is another species which I sighted frequently before the three year cold snap of 2011-14, but this male was the first one I’d spotted for a while.

Silver Y moth – Autographa gamma

The silver Y – it’s easy to see how it got its name – is a migrant moth which isn’t peculiar to chalk downlands and can be seen in most habitats, including the farmlands here around Cambridge, and this one was soaking up the sunshine on the down.

Marbled white  – Melanargia galathea

But the real gem of this trip was the marbled white, of which there were numerous examples fluttering around the down, and this one was sipping nectar from a greater knapweed flower. The marbled white is a UK resident and its favoured habitat is chalk downland.

Emerging on the top of the downland the vegetation changed to primarily low scrub consisting of acres of thistles which were home to more gatekeepers than I’ve ever seen before in one spot, I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally hundreds of them. The information board at the entrance said that small coppers were also in residence but I only saw one and unfortunately it didn’t settle, which was a pity because they’re beautiful little brown and orange chaps and I wanted to get a photograph of one to share. Oh well, next time.

Gatekeeper – Pyronia tythonus – this one is a male, identifiable by the brown patches on the forewings, the ‘sex brands’

During the winter of 2013-14 and so far through this year the weather has warmed up, the cold, the rain and the high winds have all abated allowing many species to start to recover. It’s been a good year so far for butterflies and dragonflies, and hopefully lots more insects and the other creatures that predate them. The resilience of the natural world is astonishing, but I’m hoping we get another couple of mild years so the recovering wildlife can consolidate its numbers before the next big change in the weather.

The views from the top of Boniface Down were lovely. The cliffs on the southern edge of the island falling away to the English Channel were to the left, and when I looked north I could see mainland England. It’s not discernible in this photograph but the Solent and the south coast of the mainland are in the distance:

The only bird I managed to photograph up there was this little fellow who I think is a meadow pippit:

The pippits were very busy feeding youngsters, toing and froing across the scrub with beaks full of insects.

And the other reason I hiked up the hill was to see the old radar station at RAF Ventnor at the top of Boniface Down. This was one of the original installations set up before WW2 and was instrumental in detecting and reporting the massed attacks on southern England by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

The remaining pair of radar towers at RAF Ventnor – there were originally six

The station was twice bombed by the Luftwaffe and I believe it holds the dubious distinction of being the only radar station to be destroyed by the enemy!

Home grown dragons

One end of my front garden is curved and tapers to a point and was pretty much dead space, so last year I decided that I’d turn it into my own tiny nature reserve and make a pond. The street side of the garden is lined with beech hedge and the open end is bound by a hazel tree which I planted there 5 or 6 years ago, so it is an enclosed space which I hope will remain fairly undisturbed, apart from my forays to photograph the wildlife that takes up residence.

In order to try to maximise the wildlife potential I followed all the instructions on how to create a wildlife pond, so it’s around 30cm deep (which is enough to prevent the bottom from freezing even during the coldest UK winter) and was seeded with plant life and minibeasts from my friends pond, and there are no non-native species and no fish. The water went into it in February this year from my water butt (tap water contains chemicals which are not good for a balanced wildlife pond) and it’s remarkable how rapidly nature has taken hold. As well as all the beasts added by me which seeming to be flourishing, it has been discovered by various species of dragonfly, butterfly and hoverfly, and I put twenty common frog tadpoles in from another friend’s pond, of which at least one reached adulthood.

Common darter female (Sympetrum striolatum) perched on an iris leaf

In the corner of the garden where the pond is I’ve let the grass and wild flowers grow and I mow a path all the way round, so I can view it from all angles, and in one corner a small patch of stinging nettles is allowed to grow unhindered. In this way I’m hoping that eventually the grassy area will reach a balance with local wild flowers and provide a suitable habitat for a few more insect species. As well as the ubiquitous white butterflies, peacocks, and other regular garden butterflies visiting the garden, since the completion of the pond I’ve also added gatekeeper and speckled wood to my garden species list.

Common darter male drawing breath after a hard days mating

Apart from the introduced tadpoles, the most interesting visitors to my little zoo have been the dragons, of which I’ve seen at least 3 species of damsel, one darter and one hawker species, all either settled around the pond or hunting over it. Of these, the most notable have been the common darter which are very common in my part of the world, and are often very easy to photograph, and consequently the most frequent species shown here in my posts. But I think they’re incredibly photogenic! And this year in the garden I’ve managed to capture several aspects of their reproductive life cycle.

Common darter tandem pair

This pair, in the midst of copulation, were being constantly harassed by a lone male which had taken up defensive positions on the pond and was defending it vigorously. But they were not to be deterred and completed copulation and began ovipositing in the pond despite the unwanted attentions of the loner.

The male common darter has primary and secondary genitalia, the primary genitalia, located on the last abdominal segment, produce the sperm which he transfers to the secondary genitalia on abdominal segment 2 (counting along from the thorax), which contains the penis with which he inseminates the female. Transfer of sperm is done prior to clasping a mate with the anal appendages or ‘claspers’ at the ‘pronotum‘ (a plate of the exoskeleton at the back of her head) in the case of damselfies (Zygoptera), or by the head in the case of the Anisopteran dragons. She then attaches her genitalia to the sperm-containing secondary genitalia of the male and fertilisation ensues.

The tandem pair, now fertilised, looking for places to oviposit

Once the female had been fertilised, they flew around the pond and when they had identified a suitable location the female swung her abdomen downwards to eject an egg into the water. Some species of dragonfly search for specific locations underwater, such as the underside of leaves or within the stems of water plants, to lay their eggs, but the common darters were placing them directly into the water. Consequently they darted swiftly to and fro over the pond and the ovipositing movement was extremely rapid, making photographing the event a challenging task, but I managed one half decent shot:

The next chapter in this story will be when the eggs hatch to release the larvae into the pond, which happens 2-5 weeks after laying the eggs. Dragonfly larvae are voracious predators but there should be sufficient other insect life in the pond to keep them sated, and if I can catch one I’ll post the pictures later. And hopefully I can pphotograph one as it emerges from the water and metamorphoses into the adult dragon, which should happen next year if they survive.

Dragonfly drama

Early last Saturday morning I set off for Paxton Pits, a group of lakes on the edge of St Neots, between Bedford and Cambridge. It was anticapted that we wouldn’t see much birdlife but there could be some inteersting dragonfly activity. And apart from a lone turtle dove (which justifies the trip on its own!) and a sparrowhawk, we noticed surprisingly few birds. But the Odanata were there in abundance with large numbers of various species of damsels and true dragons.


Common blue damselfly

I spotted this common blue (Enallagma cyathigerum) before I’d even got out the car. This one a male, was perched on a seed head at the edge of the carpark and there were several others in the vicinity warming themselves up in the early morning sunshine. At the other side of the carpark is the visitor centre which has a small pond outside and over the pond were a red eyed damsel (Erythromma najas) and another common blue warming up on the same rush leaf:

Paxton Pits are disused gravel workings and have been turned into a nature reserve that is managed by Huntingdonshire District Council with the back up of the voluteers of the ‘Friends of Paxton Pits’. If you happen to be contemplating a visit to the Pits, there is a lot of information on their website: (https://sites.google.com/site/paxtonpitsnaturereserve/home), and the reserve also has a blog where sightings at the lakes can be recorded: (http://paxtonpits.blogspot.co.uk/). The website lists all the Odanata that have been resident there and many of them were on display on Saturday. They don’t all emerge at the same time of year so it would never be possible to see all of them during one visit.


Another common blue damsel on final approach to land on a stinging nettle stem

The Pits are adjacent to the River Great Ouse and swarms (literally!) of banded demoiselles (Calopteryx splendens) were fluttering within 20m or so of the banks of the river. The banded demoiselle is one of two species of demoiselle in the UK and the only one in the east of England, and I think they’re absolutely beautiful as they sparkle in direct sunlight:

A female banded demoiselle perched on top of a nettle (I like the background here – out of focus brambles)

The other species of UK demoiselle is called the ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo) and is found in the south and west but not the east. It is most easily distinguished from the banded version because the wing pigmentation in the male extends to the base of the wing, so it’s a much bigger spot than those on the wings of these banded demoiselles:

Above and below: male banded demoiselles

And the female beautiful demoiselle  has broader wings with a brown tint that’s lacking in the banded demoiselle. The male demoiselles were busy chasing females with all thoughts turned to mating.

But in the midst of all the the mating activity, danger, as always, was lurking in the undergrowth. This unfortunate female common blue damsel had been caught in  a spider web and was in the midst of a mortal struggle with the owner, which she eventually lost:

The male common blue was also caught in the web and was struggling to extricate himself. Fortunately for him, all the spiders efforts were needed to subdue the female and whilst it was otherwise distracted he made his escape whilst the female eventually succumbed to the spider venom.

A dragonfly larva having scaled a stem to leave the water will shortly burst out of its skin and fly off as an adult dragon

It’s also that time of year when dragonfly larvae are metamorphosing into adults. The larval stage of all dragonflies is aquatic and so they require gills or ‘caudal lamellae‘ to breath underwater, and these can be seen protruding from the end of the abdomen of the larva above. At the end of its aquatic life the larva climbs a stem out of the water and emerges from its larval skin as an adult, leaving behind its discarded outer casing, or ‘exuvia‘:

Dragonfly exuvia  – a dried out larval husk left behind on a rush stem after the new adult has flown

As well as the damsels, several species of true dragons were on the wing including brown hawker, migrant hawker, black tailed skimmer, and the grandaddy of all UK dragons, the emperor (Anax imperator):

Emperor dragonfly male patrolling his stretch of water against allcomers

The emperor, as its name suggests, is a whopper. It is also an aggressive defender of its territory, a consummate aeronaut and a ferocious hunter, taking prey as big as other dragonflies. It’s easily distinguished from other dragons by its sheer bulk, the apple green thorax and the drooping abdomen. I sat and watched this one for some time and he rewarded my patience by posing for a portrait on a stem just  a few metres away:

And after all the dragon activity I peered into the water on the way home and spotted this little chap:

A young newt

I don’t know what species of newt this is but it’s still so young it hasn’t adapted to air breathing and still has its feathery gills which are visible just in front of the fore legs.

It’s been a long time since I last posted so it’s good to be back Life should be generally less busy for the back end of the year and I’ve got lots to share, so hopefully I can start to post more regularly again!