“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.

warren heath.1702

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.

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