Southern Migrant Hawker, a return to ‘The Ditch’

In July last year I was shown the delights of the Canvey Island ditch in south Essex by John Wiltshire.  It was a very hot, sunny day and our target, the Southern Migrant Hawker dragonfly, was in no mood to settle to have it’s picture taken!  On Friday I decided to treat Mrs H to a day out as things have been somewhat topsy-turvy just lately.  It was going to be hot but with some cloud at times so somewhere nice and scenic with a bit of interest for me, where better “To the ditch!”  Ok so it’s not that scenic, I may have glossed it up a bit to wangle a day’s dragonfly watching but pack a nice pic-nic and let’s make the most of a glorious summer day.  Two hours and a hundred and thirteen miles later and we were ‘darn sarf’.

Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis) Deja-vu?

So a quick recap.  The Southern Migrant Hawker is a rare dragonfly in the UK.  It only colonised after an influx in 2010 and is mainly found around the Thames Estuary (hence the trip to Canvey) where it was found to have bred. It is medium sized, about 2.5 inches (60mm) long with (the male) striking bright blue eyes and black & blue abdomen.  As last year, the males were holding territory along the ditch, patrolling up and down looking for emerged females.  On the territory boundary a small clash would ensue if two arrived at the same time.  I was hoping if the cloud covered the sun for a while then they might settle, wrong.  They went into a feeding frenzy.  Nothing for it, I would have to resort to in-flight shots.  Now I know some of you have tried this amusing form of wild life photography but for others who have not, this was my approach.  Keep on the macro lens (they can come close plus the lens is sharper) set to manual focus, use shutter priority (I set 1/1250th sec), lowest iso you can get away with, in bright sun it was 320 and let the apperture sort itself out.  Watch your subject, they tend to have a flight pattern and will hover for a second or two, now is the time to focus and shoot.  Easy yes?  No!  A hit rate of about 1 in 30.

Southern Migrant Hawkers egg laying

We noticed a pair in tandem where they fly with the male grasping the females neck (who says romance is dead?) and they dropped into the ditch.  Tina’s sharp eyes picked them out, they were ovipositing.  Most dragons lay eggs directly into the water or submerged water plants, affinis lays in the cracks in mud with the male lowering his mate down.  Here the eggs go into diapause (dormant) waiting for the winter rains to fill the ditch or until conditions are right, maybe a year or two, then the life cycle is completed in very quick time.

Marbled White (Melanargia galathea). Fading fast but still pretty

There were lots of butterflies in the field including a few Marbled Whites which were coming to the end of their flight period.  Also hundreds of smaller dragonflies, the darters.  Mrs H was sitting in the shade and called me over to see a very friendly female Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum).  It was sitting on a grass flower and going into the obelisk position.  This was to keep the insect cool by ensuring the minimum amount of sun was on it.

And curtsy…. Tina’s new friend

Well not a bad day out but when the herd of cattle moved into the field, complete with calves, it was time to call it a day and head for home.

Hunting Dragons

Well, right now I should not be here, in front of the laptop, tapping out another post.  I should in fact be 500 miles away and enjoying a weeks holiday in Berlin, probably sitting in a bar overlooking the River Spree with Mrs H and the Lemming enjoying a nice cool pilsner (or three).  For obvious reasons (unless you have been on another planet for the last few months) the vacation is binned 😢.

Friday dawned warm and sunny.  I still have ten days off work and frustration is starting to build, so I jumped in the car and drove the ten miles to one of my favourite sites in the Norfolk Broads.  The joy and relief washed over me like a wave as I stepped out along the footpath between reed bed and wet woodland.  The rich, dank smell of bog, ditch, mud and water plants is nicer than the finest perfume.  Greeted by the excited chatter of Sedge Warblers marking their territories among the reed.  They finish their song by fluttering up several feet and parachuting back down.  In the alder trees, Willow Warblers sing their sad descending refrain and from a bush by the dyke a majestic Marsh Harrier eyed me with suspicion before gliding off.  As quick as a flash a Hairy Hawker appeared, snatched an insect then sped away, my first dragonfly of the season.

Mini dragon! This is a freshly emerged or teneral Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum). Over the next couple of days it will acquire it’s blue colouration

During the winter scrub clearance had been taking place.  A couple of areas looked pretty sad but the short term loss is the long term gain.  The Broads are not a natural feature.  They are the result of flooded medieval peat diggings.  Over the centuries nature moved in and some of this nature is rare and precious.  Left to it’s own devices the Broads would eventually silt up and revert to wet woodland or carr.  The reed beds (another man made feature to supply thatching material for roofs) would be lost and so too those iconic creatures that have made it home, Bitterns, Harriers, Bearded Tits, the unique Swallowtail butterfly and a whole host of others overlooked by all except the conservationists and naturalists.

A male Variable Damselfly in full colouration

It took a little while to get my eye in.  The winter had left my observation skills a bit rusty.  Eventually I picked out the weak flutterings of damselflies.  Most had yet to attain full colour and are known as teneral.  They are difficult to track at the best of time and even harder in this form and they tease and torment as they settle, allow you to get in position to get a shot, then fly off a couple of feet away.

Male Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella). One of our most abundant odonata but a joy to see the first of the year

I walked the path enjoying every sighting, a Kingfisher on a branch over the Dyke, Buzzard cruising above the wood, various spring butterflies and more Hairy Hawkers though it was far too sunny for any to settle.  As I turned around to retrace my steps I was stopped in my tracks.  On the path ahead sat a Swallowtail butterfly, so fresh not a mark on its wings.  This is the 8th of May, even if the weather stayed fair I would not have expected to see this stunning beauty for at least two weeks!

So beautiful and so early. Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus). There are many Swallowtail species around the world, this one can only be found in the Norfolk Broads

A fantastic ending to my ‘escape from lockdown’.  The weather is about to change for the worse and I expect the Swallowtail will succumb but there will be others and more mornings like this one.  It can’t replace the hollow feeling of not seeing my daughter but it put a smile on my face.

All of a Flutter

August has so far been an excellent month for all things fluttery in the garden.  It’s been warm and mostly sunny.  We have had the odd spectacular thunderstorm but not the flooding experienced in other parts of the Country.  The last two days have been very windy, but this has not stopped the little winged ones.  The buddleias are living up to their common name ‘butterfly bush’.  At times dozens of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies and Peacocks have been feasting on the light purple sprays with their heady scent.  These are joined by various species of white and brown.

And now the dragonflies are appearing.  Hyperactive Migrant Hawkers zipping around, slower, larger and more colourful Southern Hawkers, even a Brown Hawker but with none of the drama of my last post.  Now they just seem satisfied to hunt tiny flies, not each other.  The seasons are slowly starting to change.  The fruits of the hawthorn hedge are turning red and the elderberries a deep glossy black, a sure sign summer is on the wane.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) takes a breather on the ripening haws.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on garden blooms

Mid-week I took a drive a few miles east around the coast to Winterton.  In autumn this is an excellent site for finding migrant birds but I went to look for butterflies and odonata.   This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and managed by Natural England.  The beach is wide and sandy and is backed by an extensive area of sand dunes that stretch for several miles.  At this time of the year the inland section is covered in beautiful flowering heather.  There are also a few little groups of stunted oak trees.  It was among the heather and along the sandy paths that I searched for the Grayling (Hipparchia semele).  These butterflies are the masters of disguise.  You see one in flight, it lands and almost instantly folds it’s forewing into the hindwing.  It turns to angle itself into the sun so as not to cast a shadow and disappears, only to fly up when you step too close.

Grayling caught with forewings raised

About a mile west of the village, nestled in the dunes, are two ponds known as the ‘toad pools’.  The toads in question are the rare and protected Natterjacks, none around today.  There was a lot of damselfly activity but since I last visited a few years ago someone has kindly erected a fence.  No one about so let’s get closer.  The damsels were Emeralds (Lestes sponsa).  In the past the very rare Southern Emerald has bred here but I found none today.  Two large and impressive Emperors patrolled the pools and dozens of tiny darters, Common and Ruddy, went about the business of creating a new generation.  A lovely morning out.

Male Emerald Damselfly. Possibly photographed from behind the fence with a massive lens or probably not

Kiss of Death

Friday afternoon was quite pleasant despite a fresh northerly straight off the sea.  Thought it would be nice to have a wander around Upton Fen looking for dragonflies.  One area was particularly good, an area of cut reed on the edge of the woodland, nicely sheltered.  A newly emerged Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta), wings soft and shiny, struggled into flight.  Seconds later it’s brief life was snuffed out as a patrolling Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis) took advantage of an easy meal.

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Not for the squeamish but this is nature

All this happened right at our feet!  Mrs H was not overly impressed, I was ecstatic.  The image above has created quite a stir on a dragonfly facebook group, not something that is often witnessed let alone photographed.  The Brown Hawker is a big dragon it’s body 3 inches (75mm) long, the Migrant Hawker is 2.5 inches (63mm).  The brown didn’t eat all the migrant it was soon airborne catching more ‘normal’ prey.  I think it was just taking advantage of something weaker.

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The Brown Hawker with a normal catch

Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Southern Migrant Hawker

Can not hide the fact I was disappointed to return from Cumbria without having seen the two dragonflies I had targeted.  I should not be greedy, after all I have seen and photographed five new species this year.  Yet I am greedy!  A plan was hatched sometime ago where John from Hertfordshire would take me to a special site to see a special dragonfly (or two!).  The site is called the ‘Canvey Ditch’ so let me set the scene.

Canvey Island is in south Essex.  It is in the Thames estuary east of London and is not noted for being a beauty spot.  On the north side of the busy A130 that leads to the town centre is a cattle field, not very wide, that is split down the middle by a very narrow ditch at the most only a few feet across.  For the most part of it’s 1.5 miles the ditch is dry or at least muddy and has an abundance of reed and true bullrush growing from it.  The banks were dotted by hawthorn bushes.

A super start to the day. A pair of mating Southern Migrant Hawkers

We met mid-morning in the leisure centre car park and the temperatures were already in the mid 80’s and the sky cloudless.  Only a few minutes after entering the field and saying hello to the resident cattle I spotted our target a Southern Migrant Hawker dragonfly (Aeshna affinis) and then a mating pair.  This beautiful dragon was a very rare visitor to our shores.  Then in 2010 there was a small influx to south east England.  In later years it was found to have bred successfully in a few areas like the Canvey ditch.

On patrol

The males held territory along the ditch, each had a stretch of about ten yards between bushes.  When they met on their boundaries a quick tussle ensued.  They were searching for newly hatched females.  The day was very hot and the dragonflies were not going to settle so I had to resort to trying for in-flight images as they hovered for a few seconds whilst on patrol.

Searching for a mate

Also in this area resides a very rare damselfly the Southern Emerald (Lestes barbarus).  Carefully I checked the rushes.  There were dozens of Scarce Emeralds, a species I saw for the first time on the pingo trail ( see post ‘A day with the damsels’).  Then by chance I spotted one without any blue, a couple of quick shots for conformation, this was a Southern Emerald.  First recorded in 2002 it is limited to only a couple of sites in the country.

A rare damsel the Southern Emerald

A very successful day.  The field also held a good number of butterflies including Marbled Whites which we do not have in Norfolk.  The only downside to the day (apart from the travelling on over congested roads) was I forgot to check my camera batteries after the drag racing, yes they went/were flat!

Up close with a Scarce Emerald


A Day With The Damsels(flies)

Friday promised to be a good day inland away from the cool on-shore breeze.  A bit of a dilemma what to do.  There was a hot rod drag race on an airfield in south Norfolk which sounded fun or we could go and look for dragonflies at a new site.  In the end the latter option appealed more so we headed to the Brecks and Thompson Common the start of ‘The Great Eastern Pingo Trail’.  “What on earth is a pingo?” I hear you say.  Without being too scientific a pingo was formed in the last ice age.  It is a mound in the permafrost which creates a pond.  These ponds are important habitats so there is plenty of conservation work carried out to stop them disappearing.

Male Scarce Emerald Damselfly (Lestes dryas) This individual caused a bit of debate over id on a facebook group

Thompson Common is a really beautiful place.  A walk through woodland, in the cool shade, led to open flower filled areas favoured by several species of butterfly.  The pingos varied from being in deep shady woodland looking like primeval swamp to open marshy dips to the large meadow pool with reeds, lilies and lots of open water.  It was here I searched for the Scarce Emerald (Lestes dryas) a rare damselfly in the UK.  There were hundreds of damsels around the pool, lots of Emeralds (Lestes sponsa) which was confusing, my field guide said these should appear later in July.  I found my target but the differences between the two are quite slight.

Female Emerald Damselfly (Lestes sponsa). Females of both species lack the blue pruinescence

The emerald family are also known as spreadwings.  Unlike other damselflies which hold their wings along their backs the emeralds often have theirs in this semi open position.  The pingo trail is eight miles in total.  We walked a couple before returning to the car to find a pub lunch.  After lunch and a refreshing pint at the Chequers we drove through Thompson village down a narrow and rough track to Thompson Water, a large man made lake at the western end of the trail.

Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma najas)

As we approached the lake the whole area was covered with countless thousands of Common Blue and Azure Damselflies which rose up like a little blue cloud as you carefully walked among them.  What I had come to see would be found on the water.  These were the Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed Damselflies.  Two species that look very alike, these sit on floating aquatic plants.  Tina was in her element as my ‘spotter’ and was pointing them out to me.  Trouble was they were several feet from the bank.  I tried my zoom lens but the results were not sharp enough so I switched to the macro and hung out as far as I could, with my camera at arms length to get close, thankfully some shots were spot on!

What are you having for lunch? This Common Blue Damsel (Enallagma cyathigerum) has captured a species of Longhorn Moth!

A great day out and four new species of odonata photographed.  Next week we are off to the Lake District for a holiday so if the weather behaves I hope to see some more, fingers crossed.

A New Dragon

I had hoped to get out and about looking for new dragonflies this summer and for that matter there were plans to track down a couple of butterflies as well.  As happens other things crop up or the weather decides to go awol.  A couple of Sundays ago (father’s day) we visited the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen, in the river Yare valley, a few miles east of Norwich.  I used to come here a lot in years past but it has become very popular.  I’m not over keen on crowds when trying to photograph wildlife and here the big attraction is the Swallowtail butterflies that visit an artificial flowerbed by the visitors centre.  No chance today far too windy, anyway I prefer my local spot where there are more butterflies than people!

Female Scarce Chaser (Libellula fulva). Nice to find them so easily!

No, my target was to try and see the Scarce Chaser dragonfly.  Not that uncommon in parts of England but lives up to it’s name here in Norfolk.  As it was so windy I decided we should walk the woodland trail which has a nice dyke running alongside.  Several areas were sunlit and lots of various damselflies were in the throes of making the next generation, dragonfly porn as Tina calls it!  Also we saw some Banded Demoiselles, large, blue and with a slow butterfly like flight.  Without any trouble I spotted a female Scarce Chaser which kept returning to the same bent reed and wasn’t bothered in the least as I clicked away.

Newly emerged Scarce Chasers are this gorgeous bright orange, the males become pale blue

Also in the same area were two newly emerged chasers.  No males seen, they were possibly patrolling open water elsewhere.

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

This last Sunday A Broadland village had an open garden event.  It was a really good day out, even a classic car show to keep me amused!  Mrs H said to take the camera along as there maybe the odd dragonfly about, and there was, several.  The one that caught my eye was an Emperor which was patrolling a boat mooring staithe.  I tried to get an image and eventually managed one not too bad (for a flight shot).

Emperor (Anax imperator) One of Britain’s largest dragons

Whilst in one of the gardens I was sitting by an ornamental pond watching the damselflies having fun (no I’m not a pervert) when I thought this water lily would make a nice shot.  Many of you have got the art of floral photography down to a tee so don’t snigger at my effort, please.

Not quite a Monet

I have also been busy putting a new blog page together ‘British Butterflies’ if you would like to have a look here is a link.

Have A good week.

Pole Dancers

On reflection I should possibly have chosen a better title for this post.  I can imagine all sorts of ‘interesting’ people being directed here by search engines!  Hey-ho let’s run with it anyway, might get some interested in nature.

I have managed to get out and do a bit of dragonfly watching this past week or so.  It was a slow start but is picking up nicely.  Mike over in the States ( ) has been posting images for some weeks now, so we are playing catch-up.  Started by checking out Hickling Broad and on Sunday we went to Upton Fen.  At Upton I had to use my zoom lens to get the images and was pleasantly surprised at the detail.  A great lens for drag racing but after a lot of pretty poor butterfly images I was reluctant to use it.  You can see the link in the images and the reason behind the dodgy heading.

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Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) at Hickling. These are the smallest and earliest of the Hawkers to emerge and are forever on the move. If a bit of cloud covers the sun they will settle as happened here. The name ‘Hairy’ is because of the fine hairs on the thorax which you can see in this image
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Also at Hickling this male Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum). It was bending it’s abdomen in almost a complete circle
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The Norfolk Hawker (Anaciaeschna isoceles). This is a scarce species in the UK and as the name suggests are mostly confined to my home County, though they are spreading their range. This one was at Upton and is another dragonfly that rarely settles
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Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) The most numerous of the early dragons at some sites they can form ‘swarms’. This backlit one at Upton is beautifully marked with the colour on the outer spots (pterostigma) ‘bleeding’ into the wing, this is form praenubila.

Cumbrian Discoveries pt2

With day one a great success for day two we headed across the River Kent estuary to Arnside Knott.  On the very southern edge of Cumbria the Knott is a 500ft high limestone hill with commanding views.  I had been given recommendations on two areas to search for High Brown Fritillary and Northern Brown Argus on the lower slopes, so we headed there first.  No Frits in the first spot and no Argus in the Primrose Field, which was very parched, plenty of commoner species though.  Time to head to the summit.

July 2018, a Grayling on Arnside Knott nectaring on wild marjoram

Despite the day being lovely and sunny a mist hung in the distance obscuring the views of the mountains to the north.  Last year this place was covered in flowers, now it was brown.  Patches of flowers were growing in the sheltered spots and one large marjoram was proving very popular with insects.  The Grayling (Hipparchia semele) in the above photograph is rarely seen nectaring, they usually sit, camouflaged, on stony paths.

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Nice to see you, a Northern Brown Argus

Whilst crouched down in the vegetation photographing the Grayling a very small butterfly zipped by, it was the Northern Brown Argus! (Aricia artaxerxes).  Amazing, when you are not looking for something it turns up.  This butterfly differs from it’s southern relative (featured a few posts back) by having indistinct spotting on the underwing, they also only have one brood per year.  I must have caught them at the end of their flight period as they were quite faded, in all we saw six.

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The colours might be faded but this Argus still looks sprightly!
A common butterfly but the colours of this fresh Small Tortoiseshell make for a lovely image

Didn’t get to see any High Brown Fritillaries but there were a few commoner Dark Greens, all females looking to lay eggs.  Also saw  a very early Scotch Argus, possibly the first of the year, but it would not settle, can’t win them all.

On day three would you believe it rained!  The first for many weeks.  So we acted like tourists and drove up to see the famouse lakes of Windermere and Coniston.  Beautiful scenery and if I was any good at landscape photography a paradise, but I’m not, so you will have to use your imaginations, ha ha.  In the afternoon the skies cleared and we visited Tina’s friends who live nearby.

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My final discovery, a Beautiful Demoiselle

We went for a walk in the parklands of the Holker Estate taking their three sheep dogs along.  When the youngest ran off toward a ditch I followed and made another discovery, my very first sighting of a Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopeteryx virgo).  What a fitting end to a short but welcome holiday.

For more images of Butterflies in Cumbria on my HOME page click on this link.

Cumbrian Discoveries pt1

At last a weeks holiday!  A return visit to Southern Cumbria.  This year we are picking up our daughter Victoria (the Norfolk Lemming) from Manchester Uni a few weeks later, so I hope to see and photograph some new species.  Beautiful weather and on day one we went to Latterbarrow nature reserve.  This is a narrow site on a hill near Witherslack, the vegetation was parched dry due to the very hot summer with few flowers.

High Brown Fritillary at Latterbarrow

Tina spotted a Fritillary whilst I was searching for Northern Brown Argus.  To our great delight it was a High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened species.  Once widespread in woodlands across Britain it can now only be found on a few limestone hills around the Morecambe Bay,  and at a couple of sites on Exmoor.  The population has crashed by over 90% since 1970!

New species number two, a Black Darter

Absolutely elated.  I noticed a small dragonfly, eventually it settled on a swaying grass head and I reeled off a few shots.  It was a Black Darter (Sympetrum danae).  I have never seen one before.  In Norfolk they only occur at two sites in the west of the County.

Then a really pretty moth, a Mint Moth (Pyrausta aurata)

Mint Moth
Slightly worn but still beautiful, the High Brown Fritillary

Day one a great success!  I have updated the portfolio on my HOME page