Category Archives: Damselflies

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…

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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!

The disappearing dove

Every year millions of migrating songbirds heading from Africa to Europe get blown out of the sky by weird people with shotguns. That combined with the policy in the UK of destroying habitat at an alarming rate is making life impossibly possibly difficult for some of our iconic bird species, one of which is the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur, Dansk: turteldue).

But last summer I was exploring one of my regular haunts, Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on a warm Saturday morning and the air was buzzing with insects including this handome hoverfly known as the ‘footballer‘ due to its rather fetching black and yellow striped thorax. This species is common in England reaching a peak in July which is when I snapped this individual.

The footballer hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus

And hoverflies aren’t the only abundant insects to be found in July. Milton Country Park is also home to mumerous species of Odonata, the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera).

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum – perched on a seedhead

The Park has 4 big lakes:

MCP map

…and a few other streams and pools, and despite the abundant human presence it remains a haven for some properly exotic wildlife including a bittern that appeared for a week or so last year, and the occasional osprey stopping off on migration from sub-Saharan Africa to breeding sites further north in the UK.

The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) isn’t an exotic migrant but it’s a beautiful bird and can always be found here:

The grebe was almost hunted to extinction because its dense feathers were coveted as a substitute for fur. But it has recovered and can now be found on lakes over most of the UK. The one above is an adult and the one below still has the striped head markings of a juvenile.


But getting back to the point, the undoubted star of the show on this trip was the turtle dove:

The turtle dove is in very serious decline, I believe we have lost around 97% of our breeding population and it is anticipated it will become extinct in the UK by 2020 as it’s also under increasing pressure in Europe. The reason for its catastrophic decline is that it feeds on seeds from cereals and other plants and both of these are a scarce commodity in the fields of the UK at the time the doves need them.

So the birds arrive here in the UK exhausted after a heroic migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. And those that avoid the gun-toting imbeciles in southern Europe arrive here to find there’s not enough food. So as it takes them a long time to rest and feed and get back into breeding condition, they only have time for a maximum of one brood per season before they have to head all the way back. And this enforced curtailment of there breeding window means they just can’t sustain their numbers.

They arrive back in the UK from around mid April so I’ll try to capture some more photographs before they finally stop coming here all together.

Impington Lane

In the summer I posted about the desire of our local council to build houses on the green spaces around our village. One of those green spaces is a small area on Impington Lane which is between 5-6 acres in area, and a friend of mine who lives adjacent to this unassuming piece of scrub told me there were reptiles on the site which would be evicted if the proposed construction took place.

So with my campaigning hat on I set off very early one Sunday morning to try to capture some photographs of the resident reptilia to promote the argument that this diminutive fragment of green belt should remain unmolested.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

The reptiles were staying under cover but there were wild flowers in abundance along with the accompanying insects. Hedge woundwort, as the name suggests, has medicinal properties and was used to staunch bleeding.

At 6am the sun was rising and it was already warm so damselfies were basking in the early morning sunshine to warm their bodies to enable them to go hunting. I found two species of damselfly:

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum

Variable damselfly – Coenagrium pulchellum

(I’m not totally confident of my damselfy identifications so if you spot a mistake please let me know).  The undergrowth in the field was waist high in most of it and it was full of these particular flowers:

Carder bumble bee landing to feed

It’s very similar in size and shape to another wild flower called jack-go-to-bed-at-noon which is yellow (Tragopogon pratensis). But all these flowers varied from pale pastel purple to rich dark purple. I don’t know what species these flowers are, or if they’re related to jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, or whether they are wild or escapees from gardens, but they are very pretty and the bees like them.

Fluttering amongst the stems of all the wild flowers were numerous examples of this handsome creature, which I first thought was a butterfly:


Subsequent research revealed that it’s not a butterfly at all, it’s a latticed heath moth, Chiasmia clathrata, and is one the moth species that is active by day in May and June in this part of the UK. They were fiendishly difficult to photograph as they were skittish and hunkered down close to the ground on the stems of the flowers, and any slight gust of wind rendered any photography impossible. But fortunately the wind abated for long enough to get one half decent portrait.

Herb bennet – Geum urbanum

Herb bennet, also known as wood avens, is a very pretty flower which prefers to grow in the shade and was lurking at the edge of the field out of direct sunlight.

Despite all the flora and insectivora, no reptilia put in an appearance on this outing. But in the weeks after my exploration my friend told me of two separate occasions where reptiles ventured into houses which are on the edge of this field, and as luck would have it both times someone managed to photograph the intrepid creatures and were good enough to send copies to me:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

Despite the fact I very rarely see a common lizard they’re the UK’s most common reptile and can be found in most habitats including heathland, woodland,  grassland and gardens, from March to October. At my last house a quince bush grew around my front door and I found common lizards in there on a couple of occasions, showing that they can coexist with humans where suitable habitat and a lack of interference prevail.

Grass snake – Natrix natrix – rescued in a sandwich box and restored to the wild

It’s not common to find reptiles in the UK and it’s extremely rare to find them in ones house! So the second invader, which I’m told caused much consternation, was a grass snake.  Grass snakes like to frequent damp recesses, they are proficient swimmers and feed mainly on amphibians.

My favourite grass snake story occurred some years ago when another friend of mine lived in Kent and had an enormous back garden with two small lakes in it. On a visit there I was helping declutter the edge of a lake by removing the offending undergrowth with a grass rake. And on shaking the rake to remove a big clump of weed a sizeable bright yellow snake fell off the bottom. I jumped out my skin and may even have uttered an involuntary yell (in fact it was probably more of a squeal), because I reasoned we don’t have big yellow snakes in the UK, and if it’s a foreigner it may well be less benign than Natrix natrix, and be unhappy at this unwanted intrusion. But a somewhat digruntled grass snake uncoiled itself, flipped the right way up and, glided into the lake and swam across to the opposite bank to take cover where the undergrowth was still undisturbed! I’m not sure who was most taken aback, me or the serpent.

Both the reptile species here are listed as priority species by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). So I hope this will be taken into consideration when decisions are being made whether or not to destroy the green lungs of our village!

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.

Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.

Dragon hunt

Not the fire-breathing type but Anisoptera. I spotted the first dragon this year over Easter during a picnic at Grantchester Meadows, south of Cambridge. It wasn’t, technically speaking a dragonfly, but a damselfly, specifically, a large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula), which is one of the first to emerge after the Winter. Due to the weather this year many things have happened earlier than usual and the large red was out and about in late April. And they are magnificently red:


Large red damselfly male. There are three colour forms of the female all of which have more dark banding on the abdomen than the male

Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge is a great place to see numerous species of dragonfly and damselfly, and on a foray there on Saturday with my friend, David, we counted 10 species. Dragonflies – I’m using this generic term interchangeably to cover dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) – are remarkable creatures, there are few more accomplished aeronauts in the animal kingdom, and the various life cycles are amazing.

The life cycles involve an aqautic larval stage, the larvae hatching from eggs laid either underwater or inside plant material close to the waters surface. The duration of the larval stage is affected by various factors including temperature, and for species such as the blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans), this results in the difference in duration of the larval stadium (developmental stage) of 1 year in warmer parts and 2 years where it’s colder.


Blue tailed damselfly, immature male

After the larval stage, metamorphosis, switched on by warmer temperatures and extended day length, occurs over a few weeks and concludes with the emergence of the adult from the larval cuticle when it will dry out and take to the air. The drying out process is hazardous as it renders the new adults susceptible to predation by birds, consequently they time their emergence to occur at night or in the early morning. New adult dragonflies then disperse from water for approximately a few days to a few weeks, until they are sexually mature, when they return to the water for the serious business of finding a mate and starting the whole process over again.

This is a very incomplete and generic description of the dragonfly lifecycle, but if you want to discover more I recommend a book called ‘Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland’ written by Steve Brooks and illustrated by Richard Lewington (ISBN 978 0 9531399 0 3). It’s a very well written book with lots of easy to read information and high quality illustrations. And because there are only around 40 or so species of dragon and damselfy in GB and Ireland it won’t take you all year to read!

On our walk we saw hairy and emperor dragonflies (Brachytron pratense and Anax imperator respectively), both species of hawker, which I couldn’t get good photographs of as they were whizzing around over the water at high speed and never seemed to settle within range. Similarly with the four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata), but then as we positioned ourselves in a very good viewing location on one of the smaller lakes a scarce chaser (Libellula fulva) appeared on a nearby seedhead and with occasional forays stayed there all the time we were there, giving some great photo opportunities:


Scarce chaser male, the female has a yellow abdomen with a thin black spine and doesn’t have the three black end segments

There were lots of damselflies too, apart from the large red and blue tailed already mentioned. Variable damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum):

Azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella):

And common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)

This pair of common blues are in ‘tandem’ with the green eyed female underneath. This position is adopted by non-territorial damselflies where the male grips the female behind the head and in this way ensures that no other male can mate with her before his eggs have been laid – a process called ‘ovipositing’. The eggs hatch out after 2-5 weeks and the larvae begin their development underwater where they are ambush predators, feeding on a variety of prey from other insect larvae to tadpoles and even small fish!

They are amazing creatures, and more species will be emerging over the next weeks and month so hopefully I can gather some more images of other species for subsequent posts before the Summer ends.