Tag Archives: milton country park

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.

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Ever the optimist

The font of all wisdom in my area for what birdlife is around is the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s About‘ blog. A short while ago there was a report of a sighting of a bittern at one of my regular nature walks, Milton Country Park. This was an exciting development because I’ve never seen a bittern before, so on the following Saturday morning I set off before dawn to be in situ at sun up to try and see it. The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: Rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reedbeds and is so perfectly camouflaged it is almost impossible to find until it breaks cover. It’s famous for the ‘booming‘ call of the male which can be heard up to 1km away, so I set off hopeful of not only seeing one but maybe hearing it boom too. Ever the optimist!

The conservation status of the bittern in the UK is red, meaning it is scarce and under threat. Alas, the chap I was hoping to catch a glimpse of was very scarce indeed, to the point of being completely absent. Oh well, next time maybe. But every cloud and all that, even though the bittern had absconded there was other birdlife in abundance.

And not only birds, snowdrops were blossoming on the forest floor

The Country Park is made up of old gravel or quarry pits surrounded by a mixture of grassy scrub and mature woodland. Up in the treetops great spottted woodpeckers were hammering holes…

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

I think this one is a female – the male has a red patch on the back of his neck which I think was absent on this one. The woodpeckers drumming sound results from the frequency of drilling rather than the power. They have energy absorbing tissues in the head to prevent brain damage and they strike at a frequency of 10-40 times a second which makes the tree trunk resonate, and that’s how they create their unique sound. Treecreepers were spiralling up these trees too, but they were just too quick to get a photograph.

But on the lakes there were hundreds and hundreds of water birds of all types:

Courting great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker)

The full mating ritual of the great crested grebe is a wonderful sight. I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it involves swimming away from each other to a distance of 20-30m or so, then turning and swimming rapidly towards each other and when they meet they rise up in a vigorous display of necking before settling back into the water facing each other and creating a heart shape with their heads and necks. This is repeated mofre tha once and is utterly absorbing and delightful to watch. I was fervently hoping that my pair here were going to perform but they were content to simply preen, commune and doze. Still lovely though.

Another male great crested grebe with a pair of male pochard in hot pursuit (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Two male tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) eyeing a lady with bad intent. Love, or something, was in the air!

Both pochard and tufted duck are divers and the rapid spread of the tufted duck in the UK in the 19th century is though to be the result of colonisation of UK waterways by the zebra mussel which originates in southern Russia.

A male gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand)

On a grey murky day the gadwall looks like a dull grey/brown duck but when the sun shines on them they are quite handsome birds, easily recognised on the water by the black rump, general brown plumage and the grey/black beak.

Coot and moorhen (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne and Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne, respectively) are both members of the family Rallidae along with water rail (which I saw on a previous recent visit to the Country Park, but not this one, even though I spent 10-15 minutes quietly looking where I saw one before) and crakes, which aren’t to be found in these parts.

The coot…

…and the moorhen

The male coots were in the mood for love and fighting out on the water on all the lakes, and were too numerous to count, and the occasional, more secretive and less aggressive, moorhen ventured into view from the reeds at the lake edges.


The brown heads are male wigeon, the black and white ones are male tufted duck, the two brown ones in the foreground are a pair of gadwall and out of focus at the back is another gadwall and a coot

As the sun came up the birds on the water semed to spring into life and large groups of various species busy feeding. All the pictures in this post were taken in a couple of hours or so from dawn until 10-11am and within a 300m radius. But as the sun arose and the light changed the colour of the water changed dramatically and gave some wonderfully varied backgrounds.

I stopped at a gap in the undergrowth to photograph the various species above and as I stood snapping the robin hopped into view between me and the water pecking at the seeds on the ground left by a benevolent walker for the ducks:

I think the most colourful, and therefore my favourite duck of that morning was the wigeon:

A pair of wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the male behind, the lady in front

The male on his own – resplendent in his psychedelic finery

The wigeon is a resident breeder in the UK and it’s conservation status is amber, which surprised me because I see plenty of them on the lakes around Cambridgeshire. They are vegetarians feeding on leaves and shoots and rhizomes, and in my view they are one of our prettiest ducks.

So no bittern on this trip but lots of other wildlife on the water and in the trees!

Mating Mutes

The sun is shining a lot now and the snow has totally disappeared. Unlike two weekends ago which was bitterly cold and the lakes at Milton Country Park were partially iced over. It’s not always easy to see all the water birds but they had been coralled into smaller areas by the ice. Ducks abounded at the park with teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) and tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) in numbers, as well as the customary mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand). There were two highlights of the trip, a goldcrest was busy hunting in a bush just a few feet away and seemed undisturbed by our presence. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge) are beautiful little birds, they are our smallest breeding species, weighing 4-7 grams, and the northern populations migrate south in winter with Scandinavian individuals crossing the North Sea to overwinter in the UK.

Mute swan pair with a male tufted duck in the background

I didn’t manage to get pictures of the goldcrest, which is a pity, but I did manage to get pictures of the second highlight, which was a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane). And if the goldcrest is our smallest breeder, the mute swan is one of the biggest (if  not thee biggest), weighing in at a hefty 10.5-12kg, and breeding is what this pair had in mind.

Mute swans pair for life and the courtship dance is delightful to watch, they gracefully circled each other, repeatedly intertwining their necks:

And the dance culminated in mating. The male climbed on board the female and grasped the back of her neck with his beak, the whole thing lasted just a few seconds, which was just as well for the lady as her head was held underwater and she actually disappeared from view.

And after mating they rose up, breast to breast out of the water and continued the necking dance:

Finally, they relaxed back into the water and finished the ritual by bobbing their heads towards each other, and apart from the mating moments the whole thing was very calm and sedate. I think mutes are simply regal, they are very big, powerful, animals and I can’t hink of any creature which is quite so pristine.

And shortly after mating the male climbed out of the water onto the ice for a post-coital stretch up to his full height and opened his wings, surrounded by a retinue of coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and gadwall. A fitting finale to this series of captivating natural events.

Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

Not long after my lunchtime spin around Cambridge Science Park I paid a visit to Milton Country Park which is about a mile from where I work, as the crow flies. Wild flowers were everywhere, the sun was out, and there was lots to see including a family of treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, Dansk: træløber). Prior to this I’ve only seen treecreepers individually but this time a whole family of at least five birds was flitting around a tree trunk before flying to an adjacent tree. Treecreepers are fun to watch, they begin hunting low down on a tree trunk and climb up it in a spiral pattern to ensure they don’t miss any insects lurking in the crevices of the bark, they are very aptly named. I didn’t have my long lens with me so I couldn’t get any photographs of the treecreepers, but I did capture some gorgeous flowers on this outing:


Scarlet pimpernel flowers

I’ve never noticed scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) growing around Cambridge before but I’ll be happy if it spreads. The flowers, which were less than a centimetre across, open in the morning and close mid afternoon and were shooting from amongst the short grass. It’s common in England but less so in Scotland.

The purple and yellow flowers of the woody nightshade flowers (Solanum dulcamara) were illuminating the undergrowth:


Woody nightshade

The flowers of the woody nightshade are beautiful and eventually give way to berries which are green before they ripen into a lovely deep red colour. As the colour may suggest they are toxic, the main ingredient being an alkaloid called ‘solanine‘ (an alkaloid is a plant-derived nitrogen containing compound which can exert a physiological effect on humans. More infamous members of this category include opium, cocaine and marijuana).

The glycoalkaloid ‘solanine’ found in members of the Solanaceae family including the nightshades and potatoes

Solanine is also the active ingredient in deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, and is the compound which makes green potatoes toxic! The green pigmentation is due to chlorophyll which is produced when potato tubers become exposed to light and is not therefore toxic, but it is produced along with solanine. Solanine isn’t degraded by cooking so eating lots of green spuds is a bad idea.

As you might expect, solanine has physiological properties which make it a useful compound. Ancient Greeks would take it before consulting the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, to utillise its halucinogenic properties. And Italian ladies used the sap of the deadly nightshade in days of yore to dilate their pupils as they believed this made them more beautiful. Hence the specific name of the deadly nightshade ‘belladonna‘ (‘beautiful lady‘ in Italian). It was also used by torturers as a medieval truth drug to extract confessions. In more recent and enlightened times therapeutic doses have been used to treat a range of conditions incuding inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis, and it has also shown inhibitory properties when applied to melanoma (skin cancer) cells. It’s amazing stuff!


Common frog – Rana temporaria

A frog hopped across the path in front of me and hunkered down in the undergrowth to avoid being spotted and/or predated, so I got up close to capture some portraits. I was within 8-12 inches and it didn’t flinch, so I took half a dozen pictures before it hopped off deeper into the bush.

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

At the edge of a lake a stand of rosebay willowherb was just coming into flower. The flower spikes and leaves of willowherb have been used to treat grumbly bowels and apparently it makes a good mouthwash too. The willowherb was interspersed with spears of aarons rod:

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

This aarons rod was a very fresh example and was only just coming into flower but when in full bloom the spear is full of yellow flowers from the leaves to the apex. They have been lining my route to work since June and there are still some hardy individuals lingering on into the autumn. Aarons rod has been used medicinally as an expectorant to treat coughs and for numerous other conditions including colic, eczema, boils and warts. It’s a very versatile plant.

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

Many shrubs and bushes were festooned with the flowers of tufted vetch which is a European native and has also been introduced to the Americas where it is a weed. The flower heads were several inches long and a rather fetching blue/purple colour. It grows over other plants by shooting out tendrils which grasp stems and provide an anchor for further encroachment. It can grow up to 2m tall and can strangle smaller plants. But the flowers are lovely

Wild Geese

At the same time I was experimenting with ISO and coots at Milton Country Park there were geese in the vicinity too. A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) were grazing in a field  immediately adjacent to the park.

There is another flock of greylags I encounter every day on my way to and from work. There are around 20-30 that have taken up residence in a field that is on my cycle route. The field is adjacent to a lake and the cycle path passes between them and every morning I pass by there are numerous heads poking up above the crop. I’m surprised the farmer puts up with this because the field now has a number of large threadbare patches as a result of the goose activity. But the geese have been there for a couple of months now and so far he hasn’t shot them so I imagine he probably doesn’t plan to. Which I’m rather pleased about.


Five of a small group of greylags ensconced in a field immediately adjacent to Milton Country Park

The RSPB website tells us that the greylag is the ancestor of domestic geese and is one of the largest and bulkiest geese native to the UK. It also describes it as ‘uninspiring‘. However, a few weeks ago on my way to work the flock of greylags were spooked and flushed up into the air. They headed for the safety of the lake which was only around 75m away so they didn’t need to gain height and one of them veered around and was heading straight for me at headheight. We simultaneously computed that if we continued on our current trajectories the end result would be an ugly collision twixt self and goose! So I braked and the goose wheeled, and it duly arrived at the lake unscathed, passing a few metres in front of me. My adrenaline levels were significantly elevated for the remainder of my journey to work and I can attest to the fact that this particular greylag was indeed very large and very bulky. And anything but uninspiring.

A lone canada goose – I like the symmetry of the reflection

The canada goose (Branta canadensis, Dansk: canadagås) was introduced to the UK and is now a resident breeder here and can be seen all over the UK apart from northern Scotland, and like the greylag it feeds on vegetation. I think it’s a handsome bird.

Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

Autumnal Anisopterans

Yesterday, 28th October, was one of those glorious sunny autumnal days where the air was fresh but the temperature was raised by bright sunshine, and I’d heard that the winter migrants were arriving on the lakes at Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge. So I took my camera to work and headed there for a stroll at lunchtime in the hope of snapping a teal or wigeon or perhaps a more unusual visitor. Several waterbirds were on parade including these cormorants:

Several migrant duck species were there too, including wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the duck with the chestnut head in the background of the cormorant picture is a male wigeon, tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand):


A male tufted duck resplendent in his pied plumage and bright yellow eye

…and gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand).

What I didn’t expect to see though, certainly not in the kind of numbers present, were dragonflies. It’s  nearly November and the weather has started to get more autumnal but the warm weather up to now must have suited these airborne predators. In particular common darters (Sympetrium striolatum) were conspicuous, six at one time including two mating pairs. It’s always a treat to watch dragonflies but especially on a sunny day at the end of October, living uo to their name and darting about making a loud low frequency buzzzing noise .

Stunning symmetry of a pair of mating common darters

The darters were sunning themselves on the fence lining a viewing jetty on the edge of a lake and while they were busy warming and copulating a migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta) was patrolling the adjacent reedbeds. All the dragons were pretty much oblivious to my presence unless I ventured too close then they would rise into the air, the copulating couple in tandem, only to return to pretty much the same spot with 30 seconds or so.


Migrant hawker

Every so often one or more of the common darters would chase the hawker away until it lived to its name and plucked one of them out of the air and butchered it whilst flying around our heads, scattering the inedible parts around us. After its aerial snack it headed up into the treetops and disappeared.


The hawker missed a trick. It went to alot of effort catching its darter on the wing when it could have had twice as much protein if it had spotted this pair. But I’m glad it didn’t!

Water birds at Milton Country Park

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I was at Milton country Park on a dragonfly hunt there were lots of birds about too, So between photographing the darters and hawkers I managed to capture some water birds:

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, preening on a log in a lake
Moorhen chick

Moorhens are common water birds seen on rivers and lakes, they can be secretive but are often seen out of the water on grassland. They are resident breeders and winter visitors in the UK with approximately a quarter of a million individuals. They are omnivores and are one of the few British birds which practice cooperative breeding where youngsters will assist in rearing subsequent broods. Their red beak and very long yellow legs and toes are distinctive and peculiar to the moorhen. The taxonomic name ‘Gallinula chloropus‘ translates as ‘little green footed hen’. For my international readership, the Danish name is ‘Grønbenet rørhøne‘ – according to the BTO. (If you actually call it something different or have a local name please let me know).


This coot (Fulica atra) was one of a group of moorhens and coots, including the moorhen above

I find coots amusing to watch as they have splendidly bad attitude and defend their patch against all comers, even members of their own species, and will aggressively charge other birds. They inhabit the same territories as moorhens and are also resident breeders and winter visitors. (In Danish – blishøne).

Great crested grebe with youngster

My favourite water bird (apart from the kingfisher, of course) is the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus). They can regularly be seen on open lakes and have been persecuted in the past because of their dense plumage which was used in place of fur. They have distinctive crested head plumage and an amazing courtship display. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 I watched a pair for a long time performing on a lake in Leicestershire – one of the few pieces of countryside where access wasn’t forbidden at the time. They would swim away from each other in a straight line for 20m or so and then turn and with beaks low on the water swim towards each other at high speed, raising up when they reached each other forming their necks into a heart shape. All terribly romantic! It’s a beautiful display and one of these days I’ll hopefully see it when I’ve got my camera handy. (By the way, in Danish these are ‘toppet lappedykker‘). Great crested grebe are also resident breeders and winter visitors but the numbers are much less than moorhen or coot, with 8000 adults here in the summer. Despite the lesser abundance their conservation status is green.

Hawkers and darters

A lunchtime visit to Milton Country Park on the northern periphery of Cambridge this week to look for dragonflies turned out to be an hour well spent. For the first 10 minutes they were conspicuous by their absence but then a brown hawker appeared over a small pond, very distinctive with it’s rufous wings shimmering in the sunlight. I tried to photograph it in flight but it proved beyond my talents. Even though there were three or four whizzing around the pond at any one time  I moved to a place under a tree which was overhanging the water and knelt down and waited. Within a couple of minutes a female brown hawker alighted on a log floating in the water and started ovipositing:

She seemed to be completely unfazed by my presence and busily worked her way along the log probing below and above the waterline for a suitable crevice to secrete her eggs.

She was there for around 10-15 minutes in total and every so often she took off but seemed to always to return either to her log or to a spot on the pond bank 5-6 feet from me. Even when my friend, Joe, came to see she still went about her business taking little notice of us.



She eventually departed along with all the other hawkers so we strolled along to a different location which was a wooden jetty protruding into another of the lakes. It’s surrounded all the way by dense rushes and has previously been a good place to see dragons. And that didn’t let us down either. We saw only two species, a pair of blue tailed damselfy and numerous common darters. All males. The males of this species are easily distinguished from the female as they are a glorious red and gold compared to the less vibrant green of the female.

The male of the species…

…and the lady:

There were several male common darters perched along the wooden jetty (the female above was snapped in Histon a couple of weeks ago), they were also happy to let us get up close and would occasionally dart away suddenly to chase a prey insect before returning to the same spot.


The compound eyes of the common darter – I like the depth of field in this picture rendering just the dragon in focus

When I was out for a stroll with my friend, David, who’s a bit of a dragonfly expert, last weekend, we found a dead migrant hawker dragonfly. We were marvelling at the complexity of the compound eye and he told me that a chap in the States had counted the facets in the eye of an American species, and apparently he got up to around 28000! He must have had a string of long winter evenings to fill. But dragonflies are amazing creatures and I can see how they inspired him to want to do it.

I also took a couple of nice bird photo’s on this trip but I’ll save those until next time.

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.