Also known as odonata the damselflies & dragonflies are fascinating insects of the warmer months. The earliest fossil records date back some 300 million years! These beautiful creatures have not evolved much in that time which goes to show how efficient they are. There are 62 species on the British list, however this includes rare vagrants and those that have become extinct in recent times. A more realistic figure is around 45 but with predicted global warming this may increase. There are several more species I have yet to see let alone photograph so this page will be updated as and when.
Terminology. A few words I may use explained. Pruinescence. This is a blue coloured powder that forms on the male of some species as they mature. Pterostigma. A small coloured cell on the leading edge, towards the tip, on all four wings. This helps to stabalise flight. Antehumeral stripes. Shoulder stripes on the upper thorax. ws = wingspan, l = body length, fp = flight period. The females of nearly all species differ greatly in colour to the male.
My favourite field guide is Dragonflies & Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Brooks and Steve Cham with beautiful illustrations by Richard Lewington, ISBN 978-1-4729-6453-3. Also a big thanks to Neil Marks and Tabs Taberham and members of UK Dragonflies & Damselfies fb group for help in difficult I.D.
CALOPTERYGIDAE The demoiselles
Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)
ws 58-63mm l 45-49mm fp May – August
A species that loves fast moving, clean gravel bottomed rivers. Mostly found in the south and west. The wings of the female lack the dark colour.
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)
ws 61-65mm l 45-48mm fp May – August
Found in areas of slower moving water with muddy bottom. Widespread over most of England. The female is green and lacks the wing colour.
LESTIDAE The emeralds
Emerald Damselfly (Lestes sponsa)
ws 42-45mm l 36-39mm fp July – august
Common and widespread, prefers still water. Only the male has the blue pruinescence which wears off with age.
Scarce Emerald Damselfly (Lestes dryas)
ws 45-47mm l 34-39mm fp June – august
Restricted to an area of the Brecks in Norfolk/Suffolk and around the Thames estuary. Difficult to separate from the Emerald, however on the male the pruinescence at the top of the abdomen is not as extensive and the pterostigma is squarer and edged white. The best I.D for males is the shape of the inner anal appendages but you need a good photograph to see these properly!
Southern Emerald Damselfly (Lestes barbarus)
ws 45-47mm l 34-39mm fp June -September
First recorded in 2002, can only be found in a handful of sites mostly around the Thames estuary. Has a bi-coloured pterostigma.
Willow Emerald Damselfly (Chalcolestes viridis)
ws 50-63mm l 38-45mm fp June – November
Another recent colonist. First recorded in 2007 on the Suffolk coast it is spreading steadily westward. Lays it’s eggs in bark overhanging the water so the larvae fall in on emergence to continue their growth.
PLATYCNEMIDIDAE The white-legged damselflies
White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes)
ws 43-46mm l 35-37mm fp May – August
A central and southern species found in vegetation often away from slow flowing waters. Very susceptible to pollution and disturbance to bankside habitat. The males are pale blue but both sexes have the diagnostic swollen white legs and pale brown pterostigma.
COENAGRIONIDAE The red & blue damselflies
Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)
ws 44-48mm l 34-36mm fp April – August
Widespread throughout the UK and often the first odonata seen in spring. The males are brighter red with less black to the tip of the abdomen.
Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum)
ws 34-40mm l 27-35mm fp May – September
A scarce species of southern counties and west Wales, one small colony in East Anglia. It favours lowland heath and bogs. ID features, red legs and pterostigma, males have no black on the abdomen.
Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella)
ws 38-44mm l 32-35mm fp May – August
A common species found in a variety of habitats up to central Scotland. The females are mostly green and black.
Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum)
ws 39-45mm l 31-35mm fp May – August
Can be mistaken for other blue damsels. The male usually has broken antehumeral stripes. Each species of blue has a different black mark on segment two of the upper abdomen and it’s best to consult a field guide. Not very common with a patchy distribution.
Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)
ws 32-41mm l 29-35mm fp May – September
The most abundant and widespread of all odonata. Prefers still and slow moving water.
Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfy (Ishnura pumilio)
ws 30-36mm l 27-31mm fp May – August
Scattered colonies in south, south/west and south Wales. Favours shallow sparsely vegitated pools and boggy seepages on heathland. Has started to colonise quarries and chalk pits in central England. A weak flier that keeps low and close to emergent plants.
Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ishnura elegans)
ws 34-40mm l 29-33mm fp May – September
Common and widespread. The females come in several colour forms from green (infuscans) to purple (violacea).
Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas)
ws 41-48mm l 33-37mm fp May – August
Quite common in south and east England. Likes to sit on floating water weed i.e lilies.
Small Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma viridulum)
ws 36-42mm l 26-32mm fp July – September
Found in the UK as recently as 1999 in eastern England, now spread as far as Wales. Difficult to tell apart from the Red-eyed Damselfly without good views. Has paler red eyes, more blue at the tip of the abdomen and a black cross on the upperside of the tip.
AESHNIDAE The hawkers
Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense)
ws 69-75mm l 52-62mm fp May – July
The smallest and earliest of the ‘hawkers’ to emerge. Not common but has a widespread and patchy distribution. As the name suggests the thorax is covered in a fine down. The males have blue spots on the abdomen and prominent antehumeral stripes. In the female these stripes are reduced and the spotting is yellow.
Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis)
ws 81-89mm l 55-65mm fp June – September
A recent colonist from the Continent first found breeding in 2010. Several sites around the Thames estuary but is expanding it’s range.
Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta)
ws 81-89mm l 55-65mm fp July – October
Well established in England and spreading north and west. Likes slow moving and still waters but is often seen in gardens.
Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea)
ws 94-106mm l 65-75mm fp June – October
This big dragon likes slow moving and still water. Often lays it’s eggs in rotting wood by the waterside. Can be seen in woods and gardens over most of England, scarce in Scotland.
Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis)
ws 96-108mm l 69-77mm fp July – October
The only British dragonfly with coloured wings. Rarely settles. Hunts along hedges, woods and open water.
Norfolk Hawker (Anaciaeshna isosceles)
ws 89-97mm l 64-68mm fp May – July
Once restricted to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads but has now spread to the Fens. Seen patrolling marshland dykes.
Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator)
ws 100-110mm l 68-86mm fp June – September
The biggest wingspan of all British dragons. An impressive sight over lakes, ponds and slow moving rivers. The female is mostly green.
Lesser Emperor (Anax parthenope)
ws 93-107mm l 63-75mm fp May – September
A rare vagrant from Southern Europe. First recorded in 1996 it has been known to breed so may become a permanent resident.
CORDULIIDAE The emerald dragonflies
Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea)
ws 64-72mm l 46-54mm fp May – August
Mostly found in southern England with a few scattered colonies in the north and Scotland. Males patrol low over the margins of tree lined pools. Normally perch in the canopy. Medium sized with the males having an uptilted club shaped abdomen that is dark greenish bronze.
LIBELLULIDAE The chasers, skimmers & darters
Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva)
ws 70-78mm l 42-46mm fp May – July
When freshly emerged these dragonflies are a striking deep orange. The females eventually turn dark brown whilst the males develop a powder blue pruinescence. Not common and restricted to East Anglia and southern Counties.
Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata)
ws 72-82mm l 39-47mm fp May – August
Common and widespread. A still water species that can form into swarms and have large communal roosts in reedbeds. Both sexes are the same colour but have different shaped anal appendages.
Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)
ws 42-50mm l 40-46 mm fp May – August
A very flat and compact looking dragonfly. Prefers well vegetated still waters and ditches. Not found in Scotland. The males become blue with pruinescence.
Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum)
ws-73-81mm l 44-52mm fp May – August
Likes to rest on bare ground and is tricky to approach. The female is yellow with two black lines on the abdomen. Found from the west midlands eastward.
Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens)
ws 57-63mm l 38-46mm fp May – August
Found mostly in the south and west on wet heath and moorland. Often sits low down with it’s wings swept forward.
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum)
ws 55-62mm l 34-42mm fp June – October
Widespread and abundant across the Country. Can be found well away from water but not on higher ground.
Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum)
ws 52-58mm l 32-38mm fp June – October
Very similar to the Common darter but has all black legs. The males are also a brighter red with a narrow ‘waist’. More confined to south east England.
Black Darter (Sympetrum danae)
ws 50-56mm l 33-40mm fp July – October
A species of lowland heath and upland moor. Rare in the midlands and East Anglia.