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.
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).
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.
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.