Blue-eyed Hawker and Scarce Emerald at Canvey Island, Essex – 13th July

The county of Essex where I grew up has some choice odonata specialities, two of which prior to yesterday I had recorded just once each. These are Blue-eyed (or Southern Migrant) Hawker dragonfly and Scarce Emerald damselfly that occur in marshlands along the northern shore of the Thames estuary. When both were reported last weekend from a particular drainage dyke on West Canvey Marsh this was an opportunity to experience them properly. I had seen just one deformed individual of the first-named before (see here), while the latter was a matter of removing all doubt.

This is the fourth season since Blue-eyed Hawker arrived in England around here. When news got out from Wat Tyler Country Park on the southern outskirts of Basildon in 2014, the odo equivalent of a mass twitch ensued. Prior to then there had been just three national records. In mainland Europe the species is present permanently only around the Mediterranean, but there can be influxes further north in hot summers. It’s range in Essex has expanded somewhat since 2014, thankfully since a country park in the school summer holiday is not an ideal environment for serious observation.

I parked at South Benfleet railway station and walked out across Benfleet Creek, arriving on site just before midday. Opposite a local authority recycling facility a public footpath gives access to a stretch of sea wall (TQ779852) to the southern side of which lies the ditch in question. It didn’t take long to encounter a first Blue-eyed Hawker (pictured below): a medium sized, bright blue hawker with even more vivid blue eyes. Even by dragonfly standards these are seriously beautiful creatures, if a little prone to grassy poses.

The weekend post on the BDS sightings page cited more than 30 males along the length of this dyke. I continued to walk westwards and began to see Emerald damselflies as well, but were they of the right variety? I had forgotten to read up on the diagnostics before leaving the station car park, but now some of it came back to me and on the back of the camera these insects looked right for Scarce Emerald. Company arrived at this point in the form of two more odo hunters, one of whom said this was the place to see what is a highly localised damselfly 20 years ago. But both were much more interested in the star hawkers.

On reviewing my pictures (below) they all showed the correct characteristics for Scarce Emerald. Abdominal segment 1 and half of 2 are blue, with two darker spots on the blue part of segment 2. In Common Emerald both segments are plain blue. The second key diagnostic is the inner anal appendages that in Scarce Emerald are broader and more inwardly curved than for common. Brooks and Lewington also cites squarer shape of the pterostigma (black wing tags) and brighter blue eyes.

It had been much easier to identify this insect positively here than at nearby RSPB Bowers Marsh a year ago (see here). Then just one or two had been mixed in with Common Emerald and were in immature colouring. There were many more at the Canvey Island site this time as the BDS sighting had stated. So all doubt concerning what was the final species on my English damselfly list has been well and truly removed.

I next continued searching along the dyke for more Blue-eyed Hawker, counting 12 males on the walk out but there seemed to be more on the way back. One of the people I spoke to had counted 21, so between 20 and 30 at this site seems a reasonable estimate. I only hope there are females around too so this most attractive dragonfly can continue to establish itself, but I didn’t see any mating pairs on this visit. What I did see at intervals were hovering males at head height, patrolling up and down the ditch.

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Blue-eyed Hawker (male)

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BEH has a penchant for hovering, keeping still for relatively longer than other hawkers, which makes it easier to photograph. The upper picture, above was the icing on the cake of a pleasing experience, while I also like the lower capture of the dragonfly through it’s own wings. It is always a bonus to obtain flight shots. This had been a fairly brief visit of around three hours, in between peak periods on the M25 motorway, and I would like to come here again for longer in the future. With more reports getting out on-line I suspect this site will be very well attended this summer.

A Black Darter in Berks and much more at Decoy Heath, Pamber Forest and Silchester Common – 6 & 10th July

I always enjoy a visit to the heathlands of the Hampshire basin lying between the old A4 and A30 trunk roads, since in Oxon we do not have this habitat in which much special wildlife can be found. Last Thursday (9th) after concluding my butterfly business in Pamber Forest I moved on to BBOWT’s Decoy Heath reserve (SU613634) a little to the north, to see if any Downy Emerald were still about. This is a hidden gem of a place and one of the best odonata sites in Berkshire with 23 species having been known to breed.

There are three large ponds here, one of which is now seriously off-piste, and other areas of shallow surface water that often dry out. I didn’t find any Emerald dragonflies this time but Common Emerald damselfly (pictured below), a site speciality were much in evidence. These long-bodied, metallic green and blue damsels struck up some nice poses as they are wont to do, being an insect that rarely disappoints.

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Common Emerald damselfly

At the most open of the ponds I was surprised to find a lone male Black Darter (pictured below), my first ever record at this site. The closest to home I had observed this acidic heath-dwelling specialist before was Thursley Common in Surrey, so this was a very welcome find. I view these dark and diminutive darters with their rock star shades of eyes as rather dashing and mysterious. This individual remained faithful to the same perch from which it ventured out and returned continuously. So it could only be photographed into the sun, though that did make for some interesting Chernobyl effects.

Another first for me here was White-legged Damselfy (pictured below), a further site speciality. So many damsels are difficult to capture well, but this species has a nice knack of settling against interesting backgrounds. The pastel tones of blue, green and brown are both unmistakeable and to my mind very enticing. Other odo species observed on this visit were Blue Emperor dragonfly, Four-spotted Chaser, Ruddy Darter and Common Blue Damselfly.

Four days later on 10th I returned to try to photograph the Black Darter in a better light. Conditions were now cooler and upon my reaching the pond he was the first dragonfly I found, perched on a protruding stick (pictured top right, below) some distance from the location favoured first time around. I then spotted another male, but on checking out the first perch again realised this was the same individual moving between the two. Thereafter he frequented an area of rushes close in to the nearest shore (other pictures, below) and with the sun behind me that was mission accomplished quite nicely.

As on my earlier visit, this appeared to be the only one of its kind on site, though the species is a wanderer and often occurs at non-breeding locations. It was notable how the resident four-spotted enforcers and big boss Emperors seemed to leave the dark vagrant alone. Indeed my Black Darter was most often displaced by Common Blue Damselfly. In addition to those species already noted, Brown Hawker, Black-tailed Skimmer and Large Red Damselfly were also seen this time. And once again Common Emerald and White-legged Damselfly offered themselves to the camera well (pictured below).

This is the site where odo watching all began for me. Several seasons ago I came here looking for Grayling butterflies and ran into an Oxon birder who had just seen a Brilliant Emerald. He suggested I get into dragonflies too and I replied they don’t keep still for long enough. Then he said: “That’s the challenge”. A couple of years later I took up his advice and the outcome has been endless hours of motivation and enjoyment.

Decoy Heath also has an important population of Adder that is sustained by BBOWT’s habitat management. I came across this contented couple (below) absorbing what warmth was on offer, before they realised there was company and slid back into their burrows. I presume the smaller snake in the foreground is the male, since females are often much larger. It is always good to get reptiles into this journal … I just adore ’em!

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Mr and Mrs Adder

I next explored some interesting footpaths to the immediate south through what is an extension to the ancient woodland of Pamber Forest. I don’t usually bother with moths in the field, on the reasoning that trying to pay attention to everything is too distracting. But a Black Arches (below, left) roosting on a tree trunk just caught my fancy. It is a common woodland species in southern England.

In the afternoon I went back to Pamber Forest but this time instead of heading south from the usual parking area (SU616621) I walked eastward into what is known as Lord’s Wood. Then I reached an area through which a brook flows that floods to form a large pond in especially wet times. This I understood to be a prime location for Common Goldenring dragonfly. While scanning for them from a low wooden footbridge a Holly Blue (above, right) began foraging around the stream bed beneath. Though a common or garden species this butterfly is somehow easy to overlook and tricky to capture, so it is always good to add another image to my collection.

I was at this point engaged pleasantly by a quite exceptional dog walker who actually took an interest in what I was doing rather than talking at me about her dog. As we chatted a Common Goldenring appeared below us. But though I caught two more glimpses this dragonfly didn’t patrol the stream bed for long and I could not relocate it. Numbers of Beautiful Demoiselle were also active in this place.

It remained to pay my annual respects to the Silver-studded Blue (pictured above) on neighbouring Silchester Common. The hotspot for these tiny blues is at the northern end of that heath near a classic car dealership (SU621625), but today I walked in from the village of Pamber Heath to explore a little more widely. This is a declining butterfly restricted to southern English heaths, but locally very numerous. At the peak of their June to August flight season the ground here can seem alive with SSB in places, but today things were strangely quiet.

Eventually I came across a very small number of females and glimpsed just one male. The preference in photographing all heathland butterflies is to capture them on Bell Heather, as in the right hand image. After some patchy attempts the sun went in just as I took up position over the miniscule female pictured. This insect then remained so still for so long I was able to completely re-educate myself on f-stops and other camera settings in the search for sharper images. The results are quite pleasing, but I was puzzled as to why so few SSB were on the wing here today at what has been a prolific site on some past visits.

These had been two more very pleasant outings with the camera just relaxing and seeing what could be found. If there is no particular agenda much more time can be focussed on gaining better quality images. And as always I returned home to the editing suite at peace with the world, with my spirit refreshed.

More summer butterfly and odo days as premium White Admiral edges closer: 3rd – 6th July

2017 is without doubt a superb summer for getting out and about amongst butterflies, and dragonflies too. It is most probably down to the good number of long hot days making insects active, rather than their getting on with things out of sight while frustrated observers wait for the sun to struggle out, as has been more usual in recent years. So wherever I look in suitable places right now sometimes huge numbers of these fascinating creatures oblige with their special capacity for uplifting the spirit.

On Monday of this week (3rd) conditions became butterfly friendly in mid-afternoon and so I headed to a Bernwood forest site I have paid less attention to in recent years. The BBOWT-managed Rushbeds Wood (SP672154) is an ancient woodland of Oak, Ash, Beech, Hazel and Hawthorn; that is bordered by Blackthorn hedges and wild flower meadows. This mix spells butterfly utopia and the whole place was teeming with them.

At intervals along the woodland rides were clearings containing large stands of blooming brambles in amongst the Blackthorn, Sallow and other shrubs. In these open places a seeming multitude of Silver-washed Fritillary tumbled, glided and flirted amongst golden Comma, brown Skippers, Marbled White, Meadow Brown and a trillion Ringlet. White Admiral, the guiding purpose of my current butterfly activity, was also well represented while Brown and Southern Hawker dragonflies patrolled the semi-shade. Clearly I had chosen to visit an exceptional site for insect life.

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Damaged Valezina SWF

Along the main north-south ride a female Silver-washed Fritillary of the Valezina form appeared (pictured above). A much prized sighting amongst lepidopterists, these genetic mutations can account for up to 15% of females in some central southern populations, according to Prof Jeremy Thomas. Unfortunately they are less attractive to male SWF which serves to keep their numbers down. Valezinas have a dusky blue-green sheen to the upper wings while their undersides are tinted pink. They tend to keep in shade more than regular females, as this one did against the type of background I normally try to avoid, but record shots had to be gained. This is a butterfly I have wanted to photograph for some time.

Things became most interesting in early evening as the falling sun lit up particular bramble patches into which nectaring butterflies became concentrated. In one spot I found several Silver-washed Fritillary of varying sizes all busying themselves and looking lovely. They are such beautiful, photogenic things when they offer themselves to the camera in this way (below), and only too happy to do premium.

After a while a White Admiral joined the proceedings, always settling fleetingly and being at once chased off by other butterflies. But eventually this interloper became more bold and stood its ground. And so the quality of image I have gained this summer whilst concentrating on the species continued imperceptibly to improve.

I felt quite pleased with the evening’s results and so texted Ewan to tell him of the bountiful butterflies on offer here. We agreed to rendezvous at 10am on Wednesday morning (5th) that turned out to be the hottest day of the week. He was at once impressed by this woodland reserve as I had been, saying he had never before seen so many SWF in one place. Again there were dozens of the biscuit brown charmers everywhere along the forest rides. We spent around three hours on site prospecting for pictures, the stand out sighting being a male Purple Emperor (pictured below) that my companion spotted high in some Sallow.

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A Purple Emperor moment in Rushbeds Wood

In the afternoon we moved on to Oakley Wood as I had yet to see Purple Hairstreak this season and large numbers were duly found. The commonest of the English Hairstreaks dwells in self-contained colonies, rarely straying far from individual Oaks in which they breed. Many trees at sites where PH occur will be empty but then the wandering observer will come upon one Oak that seems alive with little silver flashes as the hosted butterflies move around nectaring on honeydew. There is one spot about 500 metres from the Oakley Wood car park (SP612117) that is reliable every year, but during today’s visit the Hairstreaks did not come low enough to co-operate for the camera.

At the epicentre of Bernwood Forest’s Oakley / Shabbington / York Woods complex is a cross roads besides which lies a muddy pond. There a Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly will usually be in residence and this day was no exception. The individual, a male had a favourite perch on dead wood protruding from the centre of the pond, from where it would circulate around various other, more photogenic perches. On one of them I was able to capture the insect against a pale brown muddy background that is quite pleasing (below).

Ewan suggested coming back here the following morning, but having seen and photographed Purple Emperor along the main track through Oakley Wood so many times in past years I preferred to try somewhere new and different. This season I really wanted to find that showcase species further afield in Pamber Forest, north Hants (SU616608) which is where I returned on Thursday (6th). Arriving in what is reputedly the best late morning window of opportunity for ground level sightings I headed for the location where I was told last year the PE master Oaks are.

Just before reaching that spot I came across a White Admiral that I sensed at once would be my day’s co-operative subject. Early in every visit during my current quest there is one of these, after which they seem more difficult to find. But on reviewing the photos this time none were worth keeping. I hung around the supposed Purple Emperor trees for an hour without seeing anything, feeling I really should have done in that time if indeed they are here. Then, becoming bored I set off to explore previously untrodden areas of this ancient woodland.

On my way back to the car another White Admiral appeared (pictured above) that again I felt instinctively would yield results. Eventually it settled and actually kept still for long enough to capture sharper than usual if still shady images. This year, possibly because they are not being battered so much by rain, WA seem to be deteriorating less quickly and hence I am still finding near perfect specimens more than two weeks after first emergence.

Observing and photographing insects well cannot be hurried. Over the past 16 days I have added 21 White Admiral pictures to my collection. I think it could take a long time to gain the premium shot I crave, since this butterfly just doesn’t usually perch against pale-toned backdrops, but for this season at least my quest is now run.