The annual search for White Admiral as “poseur” – 21st June

Having noted at Warren Heath the new season flight of two big deciduous woodland butterflies, it was time once again to re-attempt another difficult insect objective. In my experience White Admiral is one of the most difficult species to photograph. Every year I set out to capture premium or even satisfactory images, and each time these insects frustrate for two reasons. One is they invariably keep to the shadows in habitat where they occur, and the other is their condition deteriorates very rapidly. So within a week of emergence any available subject is likely to have chunks out of the wings or other imperfections.

Added to all that is the little matter of a suitable weather window that in 2017 at least has not been an issue. Wednesday 21st was the last of five forecast very warm days and so I headed for Pamber Forest in north Hampshire (SU616608) to try my luck again. I had turned down an invite from Ewan for a 4am start to go back for the Elegant Tern. Then after a 3-11 pm shift at the Rizlas for grunters kiosk, and sitting up to unwind once I got home I only slept on the summer solstice for two hours anyway.

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Silver-washed Fritillary

There were a lot of White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary (pictured above) on the wing at this Hants & IoW Wildlife Trust managed ancient woodland when I set out to explore mid-morning. But they were not being very co-operative and so it was dragonflies that took equal billing. Pamber Forest is an easy location in which to lose sense of direction, and at one spot I would not know how to find again I encountered the week’s third Common Goldenring. I had been told that most magnificent of English dragons flies in these woods, but had yet to see one on several previous visits.

Like the stream-bed counterparts of my previous experience this male ghosted up and down its chosen stretch of forest track over and again, examining perches and settling from time to time. I had to wait to get a picture of it and when the opportunities came they were always against dark and blotchy backgrounds (pictured below). But this was my first observation at this site and so I wanted record shots.

Later in the morning my attention was caught by a perched White Admiral nectaring on bramble flowers. The butterfly remained faithful to one spot for quite a while but the light was appalling. Inevitably my subject was favouring dark recesses in bright sunlight as these butterflies habitually do. But despite their graininess these (below) are actually my best ever underwing captures of what is a perfect fresh specimen. The patterning is quite complex and beautiful, in contrast to the rather plain brown and white of this species’ top wings.

So here was a result of a kind and I suspected this individual would be my day’s co-operative subject. The top-wing capture (below) aptly illustrates the difficulty White Admiral present given the backdrops against which they choose to present themselves. I have attempted to offset the image’s lack of quality with creative effects. It is pleasing in its way but there is just too much bright light and shadow involved, and so my annual quest must continue. Perhaps the much wanted premium shot will come this year or maybe there will be another 12 month wait. It keeps me going and that is the point of all this.

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White Admiral

I headed back to the car and a sandwich break and on the way came across a teneral male Black-tailed Skimmer dragonfly. I find the yellow form (below) very attractive and this one provided a much better photo opportunity than the season’s earlier find at RSPB Otmoor, Oxon. I was able to circle the insect with my telephoto lens while it remained unbothered by my attentions. If I did put it up the BTS would return to the same perch but at a different angle, and so things went on. Eventually I went in with the macro to gain the right-hand image.

In mid-afternoon I made a second circuit of the wood as heat continued to stifle. I now had the place much to myself since the dog walkers, joggers and hurtling lycra-clad kamikazes of the morning had mostly dispersed. Unfortunately the butterflies were now less in evidence too. From time to time White Admirals would float up from cover low to one side of me, to either vanish on the other or circle upwards into the trees. It seemed that after whatever they do earlier in the day they were now keeping in shade more than ever, and who can blame them in the conditions?

A text arrived from Ewan to say he had not yet seen the Elegant Tern, then reports began of that bird having relocated to the rather bigger (than Pagham) Poole Harbour. Well no matter, I have been enjoying taking pictures of insects for the last week instead. After stopping for a power nap on a woodland bench I headed home to review my latest day’s work.

As I write this on Thursday morning my park home has returned to a pleasant 21 degrees inside. It is quite uncomfortable being in a wooden building around which all the shade has been removed in the temperatures of the last five days. If I gain more or better images of White Admiral this season, within the limited time-frame involved I will revise and extend this post.

“Scorchio”: Emerald Dragonflies and more at Warren Heath, Hants – 17 & 19th June

The last three days have been the hottest of the year with southern England basking in 30 degree plus temperatures. So losing myself at a shady pond somewhere seemed a rather more sensible option than frying in my garden at home or indeed Pagham Harbour. Trying to secure more pictures of Downy Emerald dragonfly being the next item on this year’s insect agenda, I therefore headed off to the commercial forestry plantation Warren Heath in north Hants (SU774596), the best location I know.

Emerald dragonflies favour sheltered, acidic woodland pools such as this (pictured below) and rarely disperse far from the breeding site. Downies typically emerge over two weeks following the first prolonged warm spell in May, while the metallic green Brilliant Emeralds follow on three to four weeks later. The immature insects fly away at once into the surrounding woods then return to the pond as adults up to 10 days later.

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A relatively cool venue on a very hot day

As I walked mid-morning down to two ponds at the southern end of this site, 2017’s debutant Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly appeared to one side of the track. The area just south of my destination had been felled recently, giving the immediate vicinity an entirely different character as it would. Then as the water surface came into view a first Emerald passed over my head and up into the trees above. And upon my reaching the eastern pond edge several more were immediately apparent.

I had not expected to find both Emerald species here on this day, but given the recent fine weather their flight periods are indeed overlapping, as they will into mid-July. It appears Downy and Brilliant Emerald are enjoying a good season in sunny 2017.  I found a spot where some photogenic natural perches were protruding from the water and sat down to stake them out. As any experienced odo observer knows securing images of perched Emerald dragonflies can involve a very long wait since they seldom do that at the water’s edge. When they do settle occasionally it is usually in nearby vegetation or up in the canopy. And so I have just three previous Downy pictures in my collection and none of Brilliant.

For the next couple of hours I watched the various individuals present carrying on with what their kind always does, patrolling the same zone over and over again fast and close to the water, while chasing each other about. There were no Four-spotted Chaser around initially and so they only had each other to compete with. The patrol flight is punctuated by frequent bouts of hovering though never for long. Hence I did manage to get some blurry flight shots, of which these (below) are the better ones.

According to Brooks and Lewington, males fly earlier in the day than other species and seldom occupy a territory for long before departing back into the woodland. The vacant zone is then quickly taken over by other males, of which several might time-share a relatively small area of the pond. All of this was borne out by my experience this time. It was very difficult to calculate just how many Emeralds might have been active here, though I certainly saw more than on any previous occasion today.

The lesson of all this is one just has to be lucky in finding perched subjects away from the water, and there is typically a very large area of vegetation in which to come across them. By early afternoon I tired of my unlikely goal and went for a wander. Crossing over to the far side of the pond that was in sunlight, Four-spotted Chaser were in command of territorial perches all along the shore. Occasional Blue Emperor and Keeled Skimmer were also seen.

Next I followed the stream that feeds these ponds. Along it numbers of Beautiful Demoiselle (pictured above) were flopping about and glistening in the sunlight, mostly males in the ratio of a typical shift at the petrol station where I work part-time. The insects were rather more agreeable company, not having ink covered limbs or beards, or grunting about Rizlas and VAT receipts. And they didn’t call me “mate” or “chap”.

But I digress. The season’s first White Admiral butterfly was on the wing here, along with more Silver-washed Fritillary. Foxgloves were everywhere and this rather dapper long-horn beetle (below, right) made for something a little different. Having checked my field guide I believe it is one of several similar species in the genus Strangalia maculata, for what that’s worth.

Eventually I returned to the original waterside spot with its protruding perches. But this side of the pond was now in shade, while the far side was in glary sunlight so the likelihood of securing meaningful pictures was receding fast. There were huge numbers of Large Red and Azure Damselfy everywhere at this site today, along with fewer Red-eyed and Blue-tailed. All of them were largely preoccupied with propagating their kind, that from time to time made practising with camera settings against the desired props more interesting.

The great enjoyment of a visit like this is just relaxing with the camera, recording whatever is seen without any particular agenda. Hoping to photograph perched Emeralds gave things a purpose, but once on site it was possible to spend hours just pottering around for no particular reason at all. Two days later I returned for more of the same.

This time I paid more attention to the woodlands away from the pond edge. A few times I caught sight of Emeralds heading off into the trees or flying above me, but on no occasion could I tell where they went. And so once more I opted to enjoy what was going on all around, rather than concentrating on what would be the frustration of attempting mission almost impossible. Along the feeder stream several Keeled Skimmer were active. The pre-mature males (pictured below) were still showing varying amounts of yellow in their colouration, and as always struck up some very pleasing poses.

Also present here were two Common Goldenring that would glide up and down their patch at intervals looking equally mysterious and spectacular. For me this is the daddy of English dragonflies and always magnificent to behold. They mostly kept in shade but this male (below) took a few passing looks at one sunny stream-bed perch and so I staked it out. Before long the insect settled and that was job done. I just love Goldenrings!

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Common Goldenring (male)

A second observer then arrived who said he had been monitoring Warren Heath for the last 15 years. He confirmed the valley in which we were standing was indeed a long-established Goldenring location, though numbers of this and other dragonflies here are no longer what they once were. He also said that in all that time he had secured just one picture of a perched Brilliant Emerald. So that set down a marker!

I next explored a little further, walking away into a grassy area and then upstream until the habitat became a little too off-piste to attempt without more protective clothing. The main interest here was female Keeled Skimmer that provided some similarly satisfying images (below) to the males.

Lastly I returned to the pond where on its sunnier side Black-tailed Skimmer made up the midsummer mix for the site. I captured this male (below) in an appropriately blue light, then just stood and took in for a while the continuous drama of that dragonfly, Four-spotted Chasers, Blue Emperors and Emeralds all harassing one another and competing for local supremacy in the early afternoon glare.

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Black-tailed Skimmer (male)

Later in the day I moved on to the long pond at Bramshill Plantation (SU746632) to the north of Warren Heath. There the water level was higher than on my visit a year ago (see here) and hence there were less extensive marginal areas in which to observe dragonflies. So I completed a circuit of the water body mainly in tree cover on the off-chance of coming across a perched Downy Emerald, once again without success. So the objective that had brought me to this part of north Hampshire will have to wait a little or perhaps much longer to achieve.

More Hairy Hawkers and mid-summer Oxon odonata – 14 & 15th June

After this journal’s May post (see here) on the Hairy Hawker I still hoped for better pictures of male dragonflies this season if possible. That aim was realised yesterday (15th) when on a late afternoon visit to the same location I was surprised to come across three still fresh subjects. Though against a rather too cluttered background, which after all is how these insects are most often observed, the image (below) is probably my best ever capture.

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Hairy Hawker (male)

On each of the last two (work-free) days I have dithered over trying again for the Elegant Tern in Sussex, but decided June’s top national bird so far would be no easier to see properly than when I dipped it in the available time on Tuesday morning (13th). Instead I have spent time trying to restore my wildlife garden at home, and checking out the local Odonata. I cannot recall a recent season when there was predominantly fine weather through May and June, and so have used the extra field time to gain a better understanding of teneral (immature) forms of some more regular dragonflies.

On Wednesday I visited BBOWT’s Cothill Fen reserves to the west of Oxford, Parsonage Moor (SU 461997) and neighbouring Dry Sandford Pit. At the first of these some very pale looking and delicate Common Darter were emerging. I had not photographed this widespread and abundant dragonfly at it’s teneral stage before, and find the light yellow colouring with orange bands and black dots very attractive.

Another teneral captured for the first time this week was Black-tailed Skimmer, at the same site as the Hairy Hawkers. This form is very similar to females of the species, but the eyes are pale green instead of brown and the black bands across the abdomen are less bold. A yellow band between abdominal segments 2 and 3 shows clearly in this record shot (below).

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Black-tailed Skimmer (teneral male)

Cothill Fen is the largest surviving area of alkaline fen in central England. The habitat here is fed by springs from the underlying limestone and sand and so remains permanently wet. The complex of shallow swamps, reed beds, wet woodlands, water courses and open pools is carefully managed to support a great diversity of plants and insects.

This is Oxon’s only location for Keeled Skimmer dragonfly and Southern Damselfly, both of which I observed again on Wednesday having not visited here in 2016. BBOWT volunteers were conducting species counts on both reserves and confirmed that the Southern Damselfly (below) are having a good season.

Keeled Skimmer (below) are always photogenic somehow and this occasion was no exception. These images of both species were secured at Dry Sandford Pit.

Back at home in Garsington’s shanty town the Scarlet Tiger season is underway. I have good but manageable numbers currently of these moths (pictured below) that brighten up summer proceedings each year. They have emerged just as the food plants of Green Alkanet and Caucasian Comfrey, that attracted them to my wildlife garden in the first place, have peaked following the spring attentions of the moth larvae. And long may this cycle continue.

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Scarlet Tiger on Meadow Rue

I have not lost interest in birds, but like any results-oriented activity birding can be subject to form dips and I am enduring one at the moment. In the fair weather circumstances enjoying communion with the fascinating insects featured in recent posts seems a more relaxing and less frustrating if rather parochial option. And the next few days are set to be a scorcher.

A celebration of the Black Hairstreak: 7 – 10th June

This is an account of my quest to capture uncluttered images of a special butterfly. In Oxford we are not only blessed with the potential for finding more than 40 species within an hour’s drive of the city, but also with having one of Britain’s scarcest and most sought butterfly gems on our doorstep. I am referring to Black Hairstreak that occurs only in old woodland sites stretching from the outskirts of Oxford, north-eastward through Bucks’ Bernwood Forest complex into Northants and Cambridgeshire.

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Mission accomplished – premium Black Hairstreak

This is an elusive butterfly with a short flight period, usually in the first half of June but possibly in late May after an especially warm spring. They are not easy to locate since most colonies, typically of a few dozen individuals occupy restricted areas of the woods where they occur, seldom moving far. On some days BH do not fly at all, preferring to rest out of sight in tree tops where they feed on aphid honeydew. But depending upon the availability of that sweet, sticky secretion they will also come lower to nectar on wild flowers such as Bramble, Dog Rose and Privet that grow amongst the Blackthorn food plant. Then these butterflies can compensate for their more usual inaccessibility by being very approachable.

In their regular Bernwood Forest strongholds, Black Hairstreak have been monitored for many years by expert naturalists active within Butterfly Conservation’s Upper Thames Branch. But an almost mythical status arising out of great scarcity also attracts collectors who can remove eggs and larvae, as well as inappropriate attention from casual observers. By the latter I mean the peculiar field underclass that is interested only in photographing Black and Brown Hairstreak, Purple Emperor and Large Blue. The conversation of such “butterfly tourists”, as I term them exhibits a lack of knowledge that matches their capacity for trashing habitat. And the result is pressure upon the most precious resource that the aforementioned butterflies represent.

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One of Wednesday’s Black Hairstreak

Having myself become increasingly sensitive to that situation I dropped Black Hairstreak from my summer agenda in 2016. But this year I really rather fancied experiencing them again. Sightings began from 1st June just before last month’s mainly fair weather changed for the worse. Knowing Ewan’s yearly interest in these insects I tipped him off and he replied in the affirmative. My choice of location was BBOWT’s Finemere Wood reserve in Bucks. This is a well-known and monitored BH site over many years, so writing about it here can do no harm.

We met there at 10am on 7th June. Tuesday had been a cold and changeable day and this overcast morning had a definite hangover. No matter. We set off for what is known as one of the woodland reserve’s BH hotspots, and in still subdued conditions came across a first Black Hairstreak nectaring on Bramble flowers. BC UTB’s species champion, Stuart Hodges arrived shortly afterwards to fill us in on all things local BH. I have participated in his guided walks through this wood previously and nobody knows more about the butterfly than he.

We remained at this spot for some time, estimating that perhaps three BH were present. Usually in bursts of sunshine these butterflies would appear quickly around the Brambles before returning to the Hazel trees or tall stands of Blackthorn above. They were always restless, not settling for long and often leaning with closed wings sideways to the sun as BH do.

When I reviewed the above images at home my initial reaction was they were poor. So I turned to the editing suite to try to make them creative. But Hairstreaks are usually seen like this, constantly moving subjects flying jerkily against contrasting bright light and dark patchy backgrounds. They just don’t normally do uncluttered. On scanning back through previous seasons’ results those were all pretty much the same.

Eventually we moved on to check out another area of the wood that Stuart had cited as a hotspot. On the main ride we met a visitor from Dorset who had not seen Black Hairstreak before, and so took her back to the spot where we had been. It is always a pleasure to assist genuine and knowledgeable enthusiasts, as opposed to butterfly tourists in this way. Our guest was pleased to add a missing species to her British list and so be rewarded for a three hour drive. By this time conditions were mainly sunny and perhaps up to five BH were active.

In the early afternoon we visited another site where Black Hairstreak are being reported, finding a similar number again of always hyperactive butterflies. Here there was a lot of wild Privet growing amongst the Blackthorn stands, though the former was mostly still in bud. BH can be very tolerant of human presence when feeding on Privet, especially in cooler conditions and so I resolved to come back here to try for less cluttered pictures once that shrub is in more extensive bloom.

In the event things happened two days later. On Friday (9th) I spent three more hours at the second location. In changeable sunny and cloudy conditions I found about 10 Black Hairstreak in different parts of this wood but didn’t manage any pictures because none of them were settling. But I did make a thorough reconnoitre of the entire site to search out naturally occurring props on which butterflies might pose on a better weather day. There is something missing in each of the above two pictures. I was prepared for filling in the blanks to take some time but my goal was actually realised much more quickly.

Saturday morning (10th) was gloriously sunny with only very light cloud in the skies, and so I headed back here again. During the visits described in this post Black Hairstreak have mainly been encountered in small groups of three or four individuals. Today I was pleased to locate one such cluster very close to flowering Privet in a sunny place. So I staked out this spot waiting for butterflies to settle on the pungent smelling flowers and did not have very long to wait.

From time to time what was possibly the same BH returned to the Privet, but never settling for long and inevitably favouring darker recesses when it did. But occasionally over the next two hours it would settle on protruding flowers against lighter backgrounds. Then my camera would go to work mostly with disappointing results. The images (above) were all captured using my Nikkor 300mm telephoto lens that I have always found to be suited to insect photography.

Ultimately three butterflies became active at once and the longer I remained the more they seemed to become accepting of my presence, as insects do. Photography aside it was a superb experience to be so close to these rare and beautiful little jewels, and best of all was that I had them completely to myself. Now I decided to have a try with my macro lens. The BH allowed me to take hold of the twigs on which they were nectaring and manoeuvre them into a favourable light, whilst using the camera on auto focus with my other hand.

Almost all my macro work was over exposed and out of focus with one exception (above, left). Some people may object to this but I must stress that BH when nectaring are practically impervious to disturbance, as is well known. Also since my selected Privet was overhanging a public bridleway there was no need to wade into or flatten habitat, which in any case is something I take care to avoid doing. The other close-ups, taken into the sun were achieved with heavy editing (* lyric © I Astbury / B Duffy).

Black Hairstreak appear to be having a good year in 2017 as is usual following a warm May. The images in this post took around 12 hours in the field to secure over three days. I am very pleased with my insect observations so far in the early summer. After success in recording female Hairy Hawker (see here) and emerging Clubtail (see here) dragonflies, the Black Hairstreak butterfly has provided another long-sought result. Just over a week from the first emergences these most transient of butterflies are already showing signs of wear and tear. They will no longer be with us by the end of June.

Early season Odonata at Latchmore Brook, New Forest – 3rd June

After reading online this morning that some attractive teneral forms of female Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly could be seen in the New Forest I decided to go and have a look. It is getting difficult now to find new and different odonata to photograph but there are still immatures (teneral) and females of some species that I have yet to record.

This being a snap decision the late departure would mean braving traffic congestion between the A34 / M3 junction and the M27. That obstacle took 40 minutes to negotiate but afterwards it was a clear run to a site I have visited in each of the last two seasons (see here and here). The B3078 road from the end of the motorway to Latchmore Brook (SU182124) had an extra “aawww factor” on this occasion since many of the New Forest ponies had foals.

I arrived on site just before 1pm and donning my wellies set off for the SBTD stronghold in a bog just to the north of the brook. The first odo to show themselves predictably were Banded Demoiselle, closely followed by Large Red Damselfly. At one small pool a Broad-bodied Chaser (below right) was holding territory, while two males were competing for the next, larger area of water that I reached.

A short distance beyond that spot lay the bog, glistening in the early afternoon sunshine and full of attractive wild plants. This habitat is created by water run-off from the higher ground of Hampton Ridge on its northern side. Now two more blue dragonflies were encountered: first an early Keeled Skimmer (above, left) of which there will be many at this site come mid-summer, then a magnificent Blue Emperor (below right) suspended lazily from a resting place in Gorse.

While I was watching the latter a first male  Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly appeared. These always have a ghost-like quality as they drift weakly over the bog surface, only to vanish in an instant when the light changes. They are valley mire specialists favouring disturbed habitat that has been grazed and trampled by livestock.

As the pictures below (left and upper right) show, males are predominantly dark brown, with segment 9 of the abdomen blue with two small black dots, and part of segment 8 also blue. Markings on the thorax develop from a straw colouration on emergence, through green and turquoise to deep blue when mature; so I was observing fairly young specimens today. The larger Blue-tailed Damselfy (bottom right) has a rather more sharply defined blue tail that is contained within segment 8. I found several male SBTD at this particular spot but none of the teneral females I had come here hoping to see.

By mid-afternoon conditions, frustratingly became more overcast. Then it seemed the longer I stayed here the less I found. Each time I began to walk away the sun would emerge, usually weakly again but not for long before being enveloped by cloud once more. A cool breeze also grew and everything stopped flying. Eventually I did put up an unfamiliar insect that looked like a teneral female SBTD, but it flew off ahead before disappearing into cover. In four hours on site I had gained some reasonable pictures but not photographed anything new before the grey stuff rolled in … and that is so often the way with insect watching!

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But should any reader be suffering from insect fatigue … Aawww!

An unusual Clubtail experience + Orchids at Hartslock, Berks – 24 & 25th May

Common Clubtail has once more lived up to its reputation for being difficult to locate in this new dragonfly season. The reason is they are tree top dwellers, and so if not observed upon emergence from slow flowing rivers are unlikely to be encountered again. My only previous English record was four years ago along the Thames path at Pangbourne on the Oxon / Berks border (SU662774). Multiple visits to that site in the seasons since produced just one fly past and I again drew blank on three occasions in the last week.

All that changed today when I found myself attempting to assist in the birth of one Clubtail before witnessing a second go gloriously on its way. Yesterday afternoon (24th), with a friend Wayne Smith I had checked out Goring railway bridge across the Thames (SU606797) further upstream from Pangbourne. This is the classic Oxon site for Clubtail emergences that I had also visited unsuccessfully twice in 2015. Now in company with a lady off the train from London we at least found four exuviae (larval cases), two on the concrete wall of the bridge abutment and two more in long grass at the top. These were the first odo exuviae (pictured below) I have ever seen and I admit it was my companions who uncovered them.

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Common Clubtail exuvia

Banded Demoiselle damselflies are everywhere along the Thames at this time of year. I particularly like the bottle green and orange-toned females, though both genders are always photogenic. Just upstream from Goring railway bridge is a tiny nature reserve Little Meadow that is administered by a local charity. Until walking around this site I had tried not to become too distracted by the Demoiselles. But here they were posing so perfectly against uncluttered backgrounds that I just couldn’t resist some premium shots (below).

Finding the Clubtail exuviae was to tread on a slippery slope. I now just had to witness adults emerging in this place and so resolved to go back earlier today (25th) with my chair and stay until something was seen. I arrived on site around 11:30am, the ensuing three hours being reputed as the optimum time for emergences here. After an hour of regular checks, upon the concrete abutment was a strange shape that had not been there before; and something was starting to climb out of it (pictured below).

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Emerging Common Clubtail

I was about to watch and photograph an adult Common Clubtail dragonfly entering the daylight world after it’s long underwater sojourn as a nymph. But it soon became apparent this might take some time. After 30 minutes I was joined by another observer, James who is a post-graduate ornithologist at Oxford University, and we watched on together. I was concerned by how low on the wall our Clubtail had elected to emerge, since it could easily be dislodged by the wash from passing boats.

Eventually the inevitable happened. We couldn’t tell whether the stricken dragonfly was trying to re-attach itself against the wall or just being splashed around, and so the decision was taken to rescue it. Using a long stem of Cow Parsley I extracted the sorry, sodden insect from the water and we then placed it on a wooden post where it might continue to emerge. But things were clearly very wrong.

The dragonfly looked grotesquely twisted and had plainly been having difficulty in emerging properly even before falling back into the water. So I held down the tip of the exuvia at which the Clubtail made greater efforts to release itself but still could not break free. If any reader objects to any of this all I can say is that in my inexperience I did what I could think of to give a clearly distressed creature a greater chance of life. But things were to no avail and eventually this unfortunate insect expired. I will submit it’s remains to the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) for DNA analysis, via the Oxon county recorder.

The failed emergence had lasted two hours and the time was now approaching 2:30pm. My companion wandered away and soon called me across to where a second Common Clubtail (pictured above) was perched on the abutment wall. This one was much bigger and more robust than the deformed runt we had so concerned ourselves with. There it was, perfectly formed but rather pale looking alongside its larval case. As we watched the second insect seemed to colour up a little then suddenly flexed it’s wings a few times before flying off majestically over our heads. So there was a positive ending after all to what had been a rather strange Clubtail experience.

common clubtail.1704 with exuvia goring

All’s well this time … how it should happen

A short walk downstream from Goring railway bridge lies BBOWT’s Hartslock Reserve (see here) that is famed for it’s rare Lady and Monkey Orchids and a possibly unique hybrid of the two. 2017’s only Lady at the site had now finished but the Monkeys were in full bloom though not of their best this year due to the mainly dry spring weather. Most of the Orchids in bloom today were of the Lady x Monkey Hybrid that has established itself at this site since 2006. I am not a botanist and so hope I have got this (below) right. The unimproved chalk downland hillside of Hartslock also enjoys stunning views over the Goring Gap and River Thames.

Common Clubtail from the river below are said to fly over the BBOWT reserve though I didn’t see any during a fairly brief visit. I assumed they would be active high up in the wooded areas. With this so difficult dragonfly and female Hairy Hawker both observed in May two of my top odo priorities for 2017 have been converted successfully. That must be due to this past week’s complete sunny days, instead of the more usual scenario of leaving home in sunshine only for cloud to roll in on site. The countryside around Goring-on-Thames, a designated AONB is also very pleasant just to walk around and these two days have been uplifting in no small measure.

Note: The Oxon BDS recorder is maintaining a complete log of 2017 Common Clubtail sightings in the county. To consult this click here.

A celebration of the Hairy Hawker – May 2017

One of my top dragonfly priorities in the last two seasons has been to acquire better pictures of Hairy Hawker, and also to observe females of that species for the first time. But two years ago (2015) neither aim was realised and last year there were not suitable spring weather conditions to keep them out in the open.

Since my return from abroad on 13th May there has been a lot of wet weather that has been great for my wildlife garden at home, and for writing up my experiences in northern Greece but not for getting out and seeing insects. The first sunny weather window was on the morning of 18th and so I headed for RSPB Otmoor, probably the best place locally to engage with Hairy Hawker. Fortunately the prime HH spots on this former enthusiasts’ reserve, now populist playground are away from the visitor trail.

I parked in the village of Noke and walked into the reserve’s western end, to be greeted immediately by an enquiry of: “Have you seen much out that way?” Gritting my teeth I strode on, crossing paths with a first male HH as the morning warmed. After stopping to chat with other Oxon birding colleagues I walked on towards the “cross roads” at the reserve’s heart. A medium-sized dragonfly went up from one edge of the track and flew around a little before settling in a bush on the other side. This was indeed my first ever female Hairy Hawker (pictured below) and what a cracker she is!

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Hairy Hawker (female)

To me there is nothing more fascinating, complex and subtle in the natural world than dragonflies, and this was one of the most attractive I have ever seen. Behold the rust, ochre and chocolate brown patterning; the deep yellow veining in the wings and those languid, pale blue eyes. This insect had possibly just emerged because she remained faithful to the same sunny spot for a long time and was still there when I set off back to Noke. As I went a mating pair flew by then disappeared into cover to continue with what must be done.

Unfortunately it is seldom possible to deflect accosters along Otmoor’s bridleway by saying I am looking for dragonflies, without those people talking about Hobbies (ie the summer Falcon). It irritates me when seasoned birders and other persons carrying optics alike dismiss the beautiful and charismatic creatures that dragonflies are as “Hobby food”. I’m sorry chaps and chapesses but you’re missing out. In my view such beauty should not be regarded so trivially.

I have borrowed the above images from two other Oxon birders © rights of the owners reserved. This dragonfly is so called because of a noticeably downy thorax. It is shorter than other hawkers with a stout abdomen, creating the impression of being a more compact insect. Males typically make low and inquisitive patrols in and out of the gaps in vegetation. HH has an earlier flight season than the British Aeshna hawkers, Southern, Migrant and Moorland; all of which peak in late summer

The last two days (21st and 22nd) have been gloriously sunny, perfect dragonfly weather. Yesterday I had work commitments but much of today was spent odo hunting, mostly for Common Clubtail without success. In the late afternoon I returned to Otmoor to attempt to photograph male Hairy Hawker. A very pleasant 90 minutes ensued, this time at the eastern end of the reserve away from the over-trafficked visitor trail.

At least seven individuals were encountered, including another female but these were not inclined to settle in the bright sunlight. And so they patrolled up and down hawking for midges, now here now there; while a similar number of Four-spotted Chaser were warming up for their own new season of hustling and mugging. As I progressed a courting pair of Turtle Dove were chasing around overhead, the male’s tree top purring filling the air. A Cuckoo called constantly and out in the field on one side of Otmoor’s bridleway a lingering Peregrine surveyed the scene stoically from a post-top perch. This was the acme of springtime.

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Hairy Hawker (male)

Eventually I was rewarded when on catching sight of another male Hairy Hawker it settled fairly high up to one side of the track. This (above) is actually not a bad result considering the distance at which it was captured. But I yearn for uncluttered images, though in truth that is not how Hairy Hawker are usually seen. My best past portrait in that regard is still of an imperfect specimen with most of one wing missing.

As of two seasons ago I had observed every regularly occurring English dragonfly. So my current interest lies with improving on past pictures where necessary, gaining more experience of certain species and recording females of others. Hairy Hawker has provided a satisfying start to the new season. How much time I will devote to the more difficult and frustrating Emeralds, Common Clubtail and Moorland Hawker I cannot say. But thank heaven for dragonflies that as spring turns to summer have a special capacity to impact upon the quality of life.