Category Archives: Anisoptera

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.

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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.

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!

Life in the kiln

After a lengthy absence from the blogosphere I’m rushing to squeeze a last post in in 2013. It won’t be topical so I’m harping back to a visit to the Lime Kiln in Cherry Hinton, on the southern edge of Cambridge, from back in July. I posted from here earlier in the year about the resident peregrine falcons.

The main reason for this visit to the Lime Kiln was to see if the peregrines were still in residence. One of them appeared overhead and gave chase to a pigeon, but it was in level flight not in  a stoop so the pigeon made good its escape. It was more like a juvenile practice run than a serious attempt to make a kill. It seemed that the family group had dissipated and were no longer spending the whole day at the Lime Kiln.

A single peregrine falcon – Falco peregrinus – quatering the Lime Kiln

The peregrine is the worlds fastest bird, but only in a stoop, which is gravity assisted and more a controlled fall than real flying. In level flight it is comparatively cumbersome and not the fastest, that accolade goes to a species of swift called the ‘white throated needletail‘ (Hirundapus caudacutus) with recorded level flight speeds of around 70mph (112km/h).

Black tailed skimmer – Orthetrum cancellatum

The black tailed skimmer dragonfly was perched on the chalky ground and this is characteristic behaviour of the species. As the temperature rises above the mid 20’s Celsius he will perch on low vegetation instead. This one is an adult male, his blue abdomen is diagnostic and can only be confused with the male scarce chaser, but he lacks the dark patches at the proximal end of the wings which distinguish the scarce chaser.

The female and the immature skimmer have yellow bodies instead of the blue of the male:

Black tailed skimmer female

I’m not entirely certain whether this skimmer is a female or a juvenile, the juvenile has pale green eyes and the female has darker grey/brown eyes so I think this one is a female. Interestingly, this species is associated with water and males will fiercely defend a bankside territory against other competing males. But as far as I know there is no water in the Lime Kiln so the male above may be a non-territory holding male, and females do spend time away fom water. The black tailed skimmer feeds on a variety of prey and can show a preference for bigger prey species such as butterflies and grasshoppers. They’re ferocious, albeit short lived,  predators!

A pair of jackdaws, Corvus monedula

There were very few birds to be seen on this trip, it was at lunchtime on a very hot day (mid to high 20’s Celsius) so I think they may have been hunkering down in the shade, but I could hear a male whitethroat singing and a family of jackdaws were playing around on the white chalk cliff face.

Because of the relatively young age of the Lime Kiln, and possibly as a result of the unusual nature of the terrain, large areas of the floor are bare chalk and there are less plant species than there may be in a more conventional habitat.

Either a small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) or an Essex skipper (Thymelicus lineola) sipping nectar from a self heal flower

One of the wild flowers growing there is self heal (Prunella vulgaris). This skipper butterfly was perched on a self heal flower head but I’m not sure if it’s an Essex skipper or a small skipper, they are very similar in size, shape and colour, and alas I’m not sufficiently expert to unambiguously identify them.

I didn’t manage to publish this post in 2013 so it’s now my first post of 2014. So Happy New Year to everyone, may the next 12 months bring you health and happiness!

The Four Spot and the Strawberry

Regular readers of The Naturephile may have noticed numerous references to the loopy weather we have experienced in this part of the world this year, in particular the wetness of the spring and the subsequent brevity of the summer. And you may also have cottoned on to the fact that I have a spider fascination.

Despite the unusual summer weather conditions, later on in the summer and into the autumn I found lots of spiders including two species which I haven’t seen here before. Common garden spider webs (Araneus diadematus) adorned every surface in my garden in the autumn and this particularly nice example was strung between two hawksbeard stems in the local meadow:

Garden spider web bejewelled with dew

One of the most intricate webs I found was that of the labyrinth orb weaver (Agelena labyrinthica), they’re amazing constructions and most of them aren’t very visible until there’s a cold morning and the webs are laden with dew, then it’s possible to see that they adorn all the hedgrows and undergrowth.

The two species I found which I hadn’t seen before were the four spot orb weaver (Araneus quadratus) and the strawberry spider (Araneus alsine, aka orange wheel weaving spider).

The green body of the four spot orb weaver

Both my initial encounters with these little beauties were a little unnerving because I was unaware that spiders with these colours were lurking in my local undergrowth. The four spot flew past me at high speed when I snagged it’s trip line when I was trying to get in position to photograph a male common darter dragonfly:

https://i1.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8066/8155314987_f0c0087b41.jpgA male common darter dragon – non-arachnid interloper in this post

And a strawberry spider dropped down a few centimetres from my eyes when I was unlocking my gate! All I saw was a bright red bulbous abdomen so my first thought was “Bloody hell, it’s a black widow!”. So I ran to get my camera before it disappeared. Both of these were females and around the same size as a regular garden spider, but as you can see the colours were very different.

The bright red body of the aptly named strawberry spider

Another spider I found in my garden this year was the missing sector spider (Zygiella x-notata). I was intrigued by the name of the missing sector spider and it transpires it comes from the design of the web. If the planar, circular web is a clockface, the part between 11 and 12 o’clock has no spiral threads, so is effectively a ‘missing sector’.

The missing sector spider making a meal out of a cranefly

This particular individual was busy securing a cranefly and it seemed to take great pains to ensure the fly was maximally envenomated. It spent a couple of minutes running around the struggling fly, inflicting multiple bites before wrapping it up in a cocoon of silk and carrying it off to be hung from the window frame and consumed at leisure.

Lunchtime nature walk

Several years ago I took a lunchtime walk around the lakes on the Science Park in Cambridge and the banks of one of the lakes to a depth of 5-10m was absolutely jumping with froglets. These little guys must have just emerged from the shallows en masse, there were literally 10’s of thousands of them and when I stood still it looked as though the grass was moving. It was an amazing sight.

I took another walk around the same lake this summer and the frogs were there again, not in anything like the numbers the first time I saw them, but big numbers nonetheless. They were the young of the common frog, Rana temporaria. Fortunately, this time I had a camera with me and I managed to get a picture of this little chap. As you can see, he was tiny, smaller than a clover leaf which was approximately 1cm across.


A tiny froglet seeking cover under a clover leaf


Scarce chaser in flight, reflected in the lake

The timing of my foray was just as the rains were subsiding and several species of darter, hawker and chaser dragonflies were busy hunting over the lakes, including this adult male scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. I’ve decided to try to photograph dragonflies in the act of doing soemthing other than sitting still and this the first shot I have of one flying. Not brilliant, but OK for a first attempt!

Because the Science Park is all neatly kempt and the grass cut regularly it’s not the best place to see wild flowers. So it was a pleasant surprise to see an orchid lurking in the undergrowth close to the lake where the blades of the grass cutters can’t reach.

Common spotted orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsii

I think of all orchids as being terribly exotic, but this little beauty is relatively common, as its name suggests. It’s found over nearly all of the UK and thrives on a wide range of habitats including marshy wetland, chalk downland and also colonises wasteland. It’s a favourite food source for day flying moths and gets its name from the purple spotted leaves which are clearly visible on this flower.

Back yard safari

A couple of posts ago I described my Fenland safari and since then I just happened to have had my own ‘back garden safari’! Lots of colourful creatures have been stopping by to refuel.

I’ve previously expressed concern for the depleted populations of insects, in particular butterflies and dragonflies, due to the mad weather we’ve experienced in the UK this year, but in the last couple of weeks there have been some great sightings outside my back door.


Common darter (Sympetrium striolatum) female perched on the clothes line

The dragons have been late to appear but since the last week in August there have been common darters regularly alighting and migrant hawkers hunting overhead.

And of course it’s that time of year when the arachnids are most in evidence, and my garden is festooned with garden spiders, there are webs attached to every surface: walls, plants, windows… everywhere.

Garden spider female, Araneus diadematus, despatching her prey, a small fly

The female garden spider has a bulbous abdomen which is adorned with the fabulous diadem that gives the species its name. The male is smaller than the female and has a flatter, kite shaped, abdomen, but he also carries the diagnostic markings. A couple of years ago I posted about the perilous love life of the garden spider, suffice to say the sex life of the male can be dramatically and terminally curtailed if he fails to show the lady sufficient respect!


This garden spider male set up home inside the bedroom window – until  the resident arachnophobre found him and relocated him

As well as the spiders, the occasional cricket strolls by, and this little chap was taking shelter under a sunshade from the unseasonally hot weather last weekend:


Oak bush cricket – Meconema thalassinum – the male of the species. The female has a long, upturned ovipositor protruding from her rear

The oak bush cricket is quite a small example of the genre, they are 13-17mm long and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects. They live on the edge of woods and in gardens and appear from July into the Autumn.

Also putting in a welcome appearance was a common buzzard, Buteo buteo:

The buzzard has been one of the birds which has really bounced back since the more stringent controls on of agricultural pesticide use were introduced in the 1980’s. I’d never seen a buzzard until I was in my 20’s and even then it was the occasional sighting in the wilds of west Wales or down in Cornwall. But they can now be seen over all of England – even from my garden.

Hoverfly – Volucella inanis

Hoverfies rarely have common names, they’re simply known under the generic name ‘hoverfly’. And V. inanis is no exception, at least as far as my research reveals. There was great excitement when it first buzzed into the garden because at first glance we thought it was a hornet due to it’s size and its yellow and red colouration. And it was a whopper! They can grow up to 15mm long and this one was one of the bigger ones. It eventually settled and posed rather obligingly on the edge of the rabbit run while I snapped a portrait, and it is a very handsome fly. It has an interesting breeding tactic too laying its eggs in the nests of other social wasps, including hornets – which probably explains its size and colour scheme – where they hatch and feed on the larvae of the host.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

I waited expectantly for this comma to open its wings and show the gorgeously ragged orange symmetry, but it didn’t. So I had to content myself with this silhouette of it perched on a cooking apple.

Fenland safari

Wicken Fen is the largest remaining area of true fen in England and has survived because it has been conserved by encasing it in what is effectively a gigantic plastic bag. The earth on the Fen is waterlogged and if the bag weren’t there the water would simply drain away leaving very rich agricultural soils but none of the wildlife associated with fenland habitats. Another result of the water retention is that the Fen is 6-8 feet above the surrounding farmland and the earth literally shakes if you jump hard on the ground as it’s like a saturated sponge.

Because of the water the predominant habitats are reedbeds and waterways which is reflected in the wildlife. The Fen is so rich in wildlife that a hike around there is like a mini safari! I was there on a hot and sunny Sunday morning in June and wildlife of all sorts abounded. In particular the insects were very busy. This dragonfly had recently emerged from the larval stage as an adult and was sitting in the grass drying out before taking to the air.


Black tailed skimmer youngster preparing for it’s first flights

The young skimmer was on the edge of a path which ran alongside one of the lodes (man made water courses) and on the water opposite the skimmer were lily pads and sitting on one of them was a damselfly, warming itself up in the morning sunshine.


Red eyed damselfly (Erythromma najas) in beautiful repose on a lily pad, surrounded by reflections of the clouds

And of course, that time of year is the season for lurv for many creatures, including this pair of variable damseflies (Coenagrion pulchellum) which are in the process of mating. The male is the blue one and he is clasping the female by gripping the back of her head – the pronotum – whilst she has pressed her genitalia against his abdomen to receive the sperm.

As well the inscect diversity the unique habitat of the Fen is home to lots of beautiful plants and flowers, including this common spotted orchid. This orchid is indeed common and can be found in fens, marshes and other wetlands all over England, but is rare in Scotland. Common, or not, I think all orchids are spectacular flowers and it was really good to see them in such numbers on the Fen.

Common spotted orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsi

Whilst I was busying myself trying to get photogrpahs of the dragons and orchids a kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) was busy overhead. But even better than that a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) was on the hunt for dragonflies and small birds.

The hobby is a small falcon which can be seen in these parts in the summer and hunts low over farmland and reedbeds at phenomenal speed. It’s one of very few predators that can hunt swallows and swifts in flight. This one was doing exactly that and in the distance, a few hundred metres away were at least another two. So I guess it was a family and the chicks had recently fledged and the adults were showing them the ropes. So I whiled away a good half an hour watching their breathtaking aerobatic exploits!


Brimstone butterfly sipping nectar from a thistle flower

I did volutary work at Wicken for 3 years or so back around the turn of the Millenium. It was incredibly rewarding and a good opportunity for a lab-based sedentary person such as myself to get outside and do some donkey work under the sky. One of the projects I worked on back then was scrub clearance to create an area suitable for butterflies to breed. I went and had a look at it on this walk for the first time since I helped to create it and it was very different. The scrub we cleared had been replaced by less scrubby, more proper woodland, trees, and there was small open glades with grasses and wild flowers. Whilst I was in there I flushed a leveret, which is about the closest I’ve ever been to a wild hare, it had been sitting tight but made a run for it when I got just a tad too close – about 5m!

So I didn’t manage a picture of the hare but I did manage a shot of the brimstone butterfly above (Gonepteryx rhamni), which I thought was absolutely lovely, sitting on the purple flower and framed by the two grass stems. It was terribly obliging and let me move all round it to get the best angle for a portrait. So this is about the best shot and one I’m very pleased with. I hope you like it too!

Damsels of Fen Drayton

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.