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.

common emerald.1701 decoy heath

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!

adder.1701 decoy heath

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.

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