A walk in the woods in late July soon became a quest to recognise and photograph some exquisite insects.
The whirring dragonflies powering along the paths, bordered by abundant summer vegetation, were at first too fast to identify, but at the riverside, the gentle flutter of brown and blue wings was unmistakeable. Beautiful Demoiselles.
It is incredible to think that over 300 million years ago, the ancestors of dragonflies were whirring around too, almost 100 million years before the dinosaurs appeared.
Odonata (the true dragonflies of today) date back a mere 250 million years, according to my brilliant and much-used reference book, A Guide to the Dragonflies of Great Britain by Dan Powell. In Britain we have two suborders: the Anisoptera (dragonflies – powerful fliers that keep their four wings out to the sides when perching on a plant in the sun – and damselflies, which fold their wings above their backs and fly in a daintier way). There are living Odonata species that have characteristics of both dragonflies and damselflies – look up Epiophlebia to find out more.
So there I was in the woods yesterday, down by the stream, actually wading into the stream on very slippery pebbles to get a little closer to the blue and green wonders that are the male and female Beautiful Demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo). They danced in the air like fairies until the moment I pointed my camera at them, when they either flitted out of view or settled on a stem or leaf. They did this so many times, it was turning into some bizarre photographic comedy, in which I felt I was going to end up falling into mud in the stream, camera and all, but eventually I did get photos of flying damselflies … at a distance.
When I eventually began to wend my way homewards, one flower-lined path was particularly full of dragonflies – maybe four or five. I think they were all the same species: the Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii). At speed, they seemed black and white, but when they settled, they revealed big compound eyes of a leafy green, and vivid yellow stripes. The lacy wings are exquisite, and used to stunning aerobatic effect.
Almost back at the entrance, I was crossing the stream when something caught the corner of my eye… hanging upside down from a tall buttercup leaf on a log high above the water, the empty nymph case of the Golden-ringed Dragonfly. still clinging with its little hooked feet, covered in dried silt from the bottom of the stream where so many children and dogs play. I looked carefully, in case it hadn’t yet hatched, but there at its shoulder was the tell-tale hole where the miracle had happened and the adult dragonfly had emerged to spend the final, short phase of its quite long life out of the water, on land and above all, being master or mistress of the air.
Other local sightings on other days this year may well have included a lovely golden female Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens), which I assumed was a female Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) at the time, and mere glimpses of two very thin, delicate, pale species: the elusive Southern Damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale) and Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum). However, on both occasions, they took me by surprise and had vanished before I was able to collect any photographic evidence or report them with confidence. Remind me to carry my camera – switched on and ready at all times – and watch this space, just in case….