Sunday, 3 June 2018

Early Doors Dragon Round-Up

A personal slow start to the Dragonfly season, yet the hotter than usual May made up for the cold late winter and had the damsels out on time, and the dragons a bit earlier than usual.
My first sighting was actually up at Cragside in Northumberland on May 6, where Slipper Tarn had emerging Large Reds on the day we were there, plus a few blues already on the wing.

Not a great photo but first dragon of 2018
Large Red damsel freshly emerged at Cragside (May 6)

First local dragons were at Kibblesworth BP on the 15th. Four types of damsel on the wing and the first dragonflies in the form of a handful of Four-spotted Chasers, a female of which I managed to snap just before she took her maiden flight.

Four-spotted Chaser (f) recently emerged at the edge of the reedbed
(exuvia just visible at bottom of pic)

Flexing her wings just before taking flight for the first time

A walk along the Bowes Valley Railway Path at Burdon Moor on the 24th gave me my first Broad-bodied Chaser, and a photographic first in that after a decade of trying I finally got a picture of an immature male in mid colour-change. A good few damsels around too.

Immature male Broad-bodied Chaser
At last I found one in mid-change, been a long time coming

Quite distant at the back of the mountain of gorse so quite pleased how this photo turned out
on 26x zoom

A bit closer were these tandem Large Reds
many of these around today

A few Azure damsels giving good views too, the odd blue-tail was flitting around
but none still enough to photograph 

Another trip off-patch to Washington WWT on the 28th saw just a single pair of azure damsels ovipositing on the Forgotten Meadows Pond, but these were joined by a splendid male Broad-bodied Chaser which eventually perched close enough for a half-decent pic.

Forgotten Meadows Pond - Washington WWT
Male Broad-bodied Chaser gave me the runaround for a while

Eventually settles close enough for a decent pic

The only other dragons present were this pair of ovipositing azures, again distant. 

Yesterday (June 2nd), a walk down the river to the Demoiselle site turned up trumps at last with a good number showing despite the lack of sunshine. This helped with photos though as they remained perched for long periods (though most too distant), only flitting up to catch a meal or re-sighting if I got too close, at least 8 males and 6 females on show.

Start with my favourite shot
Was only intending to snap the female at rest but as I pressed the shutter the male came in
and she spread her wings to take flight.

Banded Demoiselle male - one of eight or more on show

Banded Demoiselle female - one of six or more on show
This is the female at rest before the male disturbed her (see first shot)

At first they were all a bit distant and happily perched up in the overcast
but humid conditions.

Patience paid off as I eventually got some closer shots

Another fairly decent close-up

They only took flight to intercept a meal
This female had a Mayfly for lunch 

No idea what this male had for lunch - maybe his dodgy eye affected his vision

Finally a great find by George at Shibdon Pond who reported seeing a Black-tailed Skimmer on June  1st. Have to say I had my doubts as it's a good couple of weeks early for that species in this area, but lo-and-behold, photographed the next day a cracking male BTS, never doubt you again George ;-)

Black-tailed Skimmer (m)
The first this century at Shibdon Pond, maybe ever. 

More than one apparently as well, plus a Broad-bodied Chaser, so maybe after years of being quite poor for dragonflies (bar the Migrant Hawkers late summer) Shibdon could be making a comeback. And after last years imm. male BTS at Clockburn Lake, maybe this is a sign that they are at last expanding from Kibblesworth, which since 2006 has been the only breeding site in the borough.    

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Local Round-Up

A slow but sure improvement in the weather of late has seen me doing a bit of local exploration. I had a walk down the riverside to the Banded Demoiselle site on the 15th but the usual rich emergent vegetation these beauties love is still submerged with little sign of growth at the moment. On the way back I came across a Willow Tit nest, right on the path and less than 3ft from the ground (which is typical from what I read.) To be fair I hadn't even realised they excavate their own nests, and thought at first I might have a Lesser Spotted Pecker nest hole, it being so tiny (though confused by the height). Learn something every day.

Willow Tit nest hole (near top, centre) just below the broken trunk.
As you can see right on the path, luckily its not a busy one, an off-shoot of the Derwent Walk 

Zoomed in you can see the hole properly,
I stood well back and eventually caught the occupants zipping in and out to confirm the residents.

Plenty of 7-spot ladybirds around, primarily on the gorse, maybe they'd been hibernating
among the thickets, seems a good place.

Chiffchaff, plenty of those singing in the valley that day, and Blackcaps.

During the midweek mini-heatwave a walk around Burdon Moor on Thursday (19th) produced nothing of any note, everything keeping out of the sun by the look of it. But anyway a good walk out with MBH, we ended up at the Birkheads Secret Garden CafĂ© for a much needed cuppa before heading back to the Tanfield Railway for our bus, where I checked on the colony of Formica lemani ants I found last year.
Plenty of activity from them in the afternoon sunshine, and surprised to see three queens wandering about outside the nest. Apparently they do this to warm themselves up after coming out of winter slumber, just catching a few rays really (who wouldn't after the long cold winter) and much the same reason there was so much activity from the workers, but any worker coming into contact with a queen would attempt to drag them back into the nest unceremoniously, they get in a bit of a panic on finding a queen out of the nest, fearing for their safety in the big outdoors. The queens didn't want to go back indoors however as they were enjoying the sunshine, hence many a tug-of-war ensued, but the workers eventually won, I saw two queens dragged back underground before we had to get the bus.

Foemica lemani worker (left) dragging the much bigger queen (right)
back towards the nest entrance, took a while but managed it.

We also discovered another colony of probably the same species next to the platform of the Tanfield Railway Station, but will confirm that on my next visit.

On Friday (20th) a wander round the valley produced a patch life-tick in the form of a Lesser Whitethroat while on the way to visiting another Ant species just a few minutes walk from home. Too flighty (and looking into the sun) for a photo I left it for the way back, visited the (fresh out of hibernation) colony of Leptothorax acervorum, a tiny red ant species I first discovered in the rotting timbers of our greenhouse in the Gill shortly before we moved, and thought I'd never find another one. But a rotting old log at the side of a pasture turned up trumps, and once again I was surprised to see a queen of this species on the log surface, helping move the colony from the cold low depths of hibernation to the upper surface now being heated by the sun's rays. An apple bait gave me a decent photo of a worker as well, not easy as they really are tiny, even compared to other ants.

Leptothorax acervorum
One of around 20 workers seen scurrying about, which may have constituted the whole colony,
not only are they small in size (3-3.5mm) but also in number. 

The queen (with larva) is much darker (and slightly longer) than the workers, unusual to see her 'mucking in'
I thought, but needs must in a small colony.

While I was observing the ants, I heard the Lesser Whitethroat again just behind me, then again to my left in trees away from the direct line of the sun for once, so waited and managed one shot at it before it flew over the other side of the field out of range.

Lesser Whitethroat
I think this is what's termed a record shot, piss poor but recognisable

I also noted worker ants of two more species, Myrmica ruginodis (our most common red ant), and Lasius niger (our most common black ant) making my total ant species for the year so far up to six, though two remain unidentified for now.

On Saturday (21st) I visited the ants again to show the kids (our youngest is fascinated by them too) and a walk along the riverside meadows again produced not a lot as there's still not much growth or flowering, but we noted four species of butterfly, three species of common warbler singing (willow warblers are fairly abundant now), plus the Lesser Whitethroat was back in its original spot, though still flighty, where a couple of swallows also passed overhead.

Back at home in the garden a comma butterfly, plenty of bee-flies, and many a tawny mining bee, the female a gorgeous redhead (well actually red everywhere but the head), the male a handsome but indistinct chap.

Bee Fly
Seen many more of these than usual this year, not complaining, they're cracking insects.

Tawny mining bee - male

Tawny mining bee - female

Good to see the Yellowhammers still coming to the gardens here.
I thought after the snows had gone they would retreat into their spring habitat, but still seeing
up to four daily, mainly feeding two doors up but occasionally dropping into ours.  
A pleasant few days in the sunshine without seeing a lot really, though things are starting to happen, and I'm more than happy getting the Lesser Whitethroat (first for many a year as well as a patch lifer) and to see those queen ants. Just waiting for the sun to shine again now :-/

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Gateshead Dragons - 2017 Review - Part II

Into July now and supposedly the peak of the dragonfly season.
Early July brings a must-see event in the DragonHunting calendar, the Southern Hawkers emerging from Thornley Woods Pond, 2016 had been a record year, with over 40 exuvia or emergences seen in the space of a week, and I got some cracking photos.
So when the rain finally stopped I paid a visit on the first sunny day (July 3rd), but was surprised to find nothing at all, I put it down to a delay caused by the low June temperatures, but two subsequent visits met with exactly the same result. The fact is, a pair of Mallards had taken up residency of the pond, a brood of eight ducklings was seen on my visits. I wasn't aware at the time but dragonfly and damselfly larvae provide a meal for the ducks, and being such a small pond I'm afraid there's nowhere to hide, I presume every larva which climbed out of the water will have ended up as a snack for the family of Mallards, not to mention those hoovered up by random dabbling. I certainly didn't see any exuvia on any of my July visits for the first time ever. If the ducks remain in residence this year, soon the pond will be emptied of it's Southern Hawker population. Awful.

The reason for the sudden demise of the TW Pond Southern Hawker population?

A cracker of a rufescens form blue-tailed damsel
snapped at Clockburn Lake on the way home

After giving up on Thornley Woods Pond, more iffy weather meant a later than usual visit to Stargate Ponds (13th) for the Broad-bodied Chasers, I usually visit mid-June and it's my favourite site for photographing the chasers, but patience is needed on this open aspect pond.
Two males were present the day I was there and I tracked one down to a favourite perch for photos, a couple of 4-spot chasers here also, but was surprised at the low number of damsels, it's usually teeming with them (in mid-June anyway).

Broad-bodied Chaser male, kept returning to the same spot so I took up position and waited

Same Chaser, different angle

Next a return trip to Kibblesworth (18th), I needed a big dragonfly day before the restrictive school holidays started, and expecting a high species count at a peak time, I was once again disappointed. No chasers or skimmers, so the stars of the day were the Emperors, 2 or 3 males and a couple of ovipositing females. Plenty of common darters and a second wave of damselflies were emerging, but nothing in really big numbers. The highlight was probably on the way back home, coming across an imm. male Southern Hawker hawking the Bowes Valley Railway path.

This female Emperor was ovipositing for a long while, unfortunately always too distant
for a decent photo, this a heavy crop.

Bonus Southern Hawker on the way home, pale colours denote an immature male
feeding well away from water. This one had me puzzled until I got a good look at it, as the abdomen
seems stunted compared to your average S Hawker. 

More bad weather, school hols and a week away meant my next dragonfly day out was our second visit of the year to Cragside on August 8th, a banker for Black Darter at this time of the year. But as luck would have it the mainly overcast conditions almost spoiled it again, rescued late on by a tandem pair and a couple of new emergences.

Black Darters at Cragside, a site which never fails to deliver, and this tandem pair
gave me a good photo-shoot to end the day.  

Focussing on the female

Focussing on the male

Tenerals were flying up  from the grass, a bit of stealth
needed to get close enough to photograph them - This one a female

Same darter, different angle

Happy to find a male teneral, hadn't successfully photographed one before

A good site for Emerald damsels too, this an ovipositing pair

One of those peek-a-boo shots
Believe it or not, that was it for August. Always difficult to get a full day out during the school hols coupled with the persistent poor weather for the time of year made long treks an uninviting prospect (the perils of being a non-driver), basically I was missing my local (doorstep) patch. I used to take the kids our for an hour or so down Far Pasture during the hols and record all that was there, can't do it any more. Sadly for me this meant there was an almost FOUR week gap between Cragside and seeing my next dragonfly, and even then, not much to write home about.

September, and with the kids were back at school I awaited the next day of sunshine and trooped off down to Shibdon Pond for that early autumn highlight, the Migrant Hawkers (Sept 8th). Happily they didn't disappoint, not so many as last year though, and photo-opportunities were few and far between.

Migrant Hawker (male) at Shibdon Pond - I think my favourite hawker

Close-up of same dude - love the patterns and colour combinations

The following week I made a final foray along to good old Far Pasture hoping to find a late Ruddy Darter, a species I missed out on altogether in 2016 for the first time in a decade. Alas, no luck this year either, they seem to be in decline over the last four years, certainly at Far Pasture it's been a dramatic fall. One to focus on this year I think, I'll have to check all the sites I've previously seen them. A few late damsels were the highlight of my visit, though too distant for decent photos.

So that was the 2017 DragonHunting season in a couple of nutshells. It started off very well indeed,  but was the proverbial season of two halves. All the main highlights were in May and June, the rest of the summer saw a string of disappointments, both personally and record-wise my worst dragonfly summer since I began recording back in 2006.
Some worrying situations with the Thornley Woods Southern Hawkers and the Ruddy Darters' continued decline. Numbers of all species (especially damselflies) were down on previous years, possibly due to the fact I visited different sites, or the usual sites at different times from the norm, as well as the poor weather (did I mention that?)
We certainly need a decent summer this year, they seem to have been getting progressively worse since 2013, and with dragonflies it makes all the difference.
Making plans as best I can now for the 2018 season, the lessons learned from last year should help me make a better fist of it this, and I can't wait to get started. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Gateshead Dragons - 2017 Review - Part I

A belated review of the 2017 Dragon Hunting Season with the new one just a matter of weeks away now.
Last year wasn't the best (understatement) as after a bright spring which promised so much, the summer fizzled out as the proverbial damp squib. Sunny days in the north east were few and far between, so trying to synchronise free days with amicable weather was a mare, and with it also being the first summer in our new home, I tried a few new sites, restricting my favourite old haunts to just a few visits over the season. This met with mixed results, with some fantastic days out, but also some big disappointments, and I really missed not having a Dragonfly patch on my doorstep.
Being just 10 minutes from Far Pasture Ponds in the past I could visit at the drop of a hat if the Sun came out. Now it's a good hour and twenty minutes round trip, basically needing most of the day free if I want a worthwhile visit. A bit far when (like last year) the Sun has a habit of disappearing for long periods, and nigh on impossible to make a spontaneous visit during the school holidays before or after taking the kids out somewhere as I had done in the past.
Anyway, that's by the by, lessons learned for this year, and there were still some cracking highlights, so here's a photographic account of the 2017 Dragonfly Summer in Gateshead, more in-depth reports can be found by searching the blog for the dates last year :

Early May produced decent temperatures, but it wasn't until the 10th that I made a first visit to my old haunt Far Pasture. Earlier visits to Thornley Woods Pond for Large Red damsels had proved fruitless, but Far Pasture roadsides delivered with a few Azure Damsels in various states of maturity to kick off the season.

Season Kicks Off - Immature Azure damsel (male) at Far Pasture (May 10)

No more 'til the 17th, Clockburn Lake usually delivers Blue-tailed Damselflies early on and so it proved again with some cracking immature rufescens females among those on show.

Close encounter with a Blue-tailed damsel at Clockburn Lake

Superb rufescens Blue-tailed immature female 

On the 23rd I paid my first visit to the Derwent riverside at Hagg Hill (now my closest site to home) mainly to suss out the access, but also in the hope of an early Banded Demoiselle or two. I was delighted to find this immature male, first time I've encountered a 'youngster' of this species.

My first immature Banded Demoiselle (male) - the brown eyes are a giveaway, will be black when mature.
Last day of May saw my first visit to Gateshead's premier dragonfly site, Bowes valley Nature Reserve near Kibblesworth. It's the one site where all 16 resident odonata species can be seen over the summer, and late May I was looking for emerging Four-spotted Chasers, but got something even better, an emerging Emperor Dragonfly. Couldn't believe my luck.

Male Emperor Dragonfly already emerged when I found him 

Pumping up the wings

Now the abdomen starts to unfurl, a slow process and sadly for me I had to take my leave at this point.
Not complaining though, an unexpected treat.

In the event I did also get an emerging Four-spot, a gorgeous morning had teneral damselflies of four species in good numbers, and the day capped off by a powder-blue male Broad-bodied Chaser on the smaller pond.

Four-spotted Chaser hanging loose, waiting for the legs to harden

Missed the acrobatic escape from the exuvia as I was watching the Emperor.

Wings pumping up with one of the many other 4-spot exuvia in the background 

So by the end of May I'd recorded 8 species (3 dragon, 5 damsel) half the Gateshead total. I was looking forward to a good summer of recording after this early success, but alas June was very different, heavy rain in the early part meant I restricted myself to visiting the riverside in between showers to check on the Banded Demoiselles, (no bad thing) and they didn't disappoint, the stretch of river on which I'd found the immature held decent numbers, showing beautifully when the Sun shone and in good view for photographs. They really are exotic creatures, so please excuse my indulgence.

Banded Demoiselle (male) not great focus but looks great in front of the yellow bankside flowers

Banded Demoiselle (female) note the missing leg


I find them easier to get close to while they're feeding, still have to be stealthy though

Another handsome male

Just liked the composition on this shot

Nice profile shot of a female

The rain continued on and off, the cool and overcast conditions weren't conducive to dragonhunting at all. I was itching to get back over to Kibblesworth, as there were migrant species being reported all over the country, I wanted to find one and this site had delivered in the past, plus I needed to catch up with Black-tailed Skimmer, a species I'd missed out on the previous three years, and Kibblesworth was the only breeding site in the borough.

Into the second half of the month and the Sun began to shine again, an impromptu wander around the valley on the 19th proved to be one of the highlights of the year.
At Clockburn Lake while trying to relocate an Emperor which had flown over my head I chanced upon an immature male Black-tailed Skimmer, a site first, and to my knowledge the first of this species recorded anywhere (in the borough) other than its breeding site of Kibblesworth since it was discovered there in 2004.

What's this? Black-tailed Skimmer? Marvellous!

Immature male

Will have to check the site again this year, hopefully an attempt at colonisation.

Continuing with my planned visit to Far Pasture and then a walk along the river I went on to record 9 species in total, which for one day in the valley is an excellent count.

Four-spotted Chaser at Far Pasture 'Chaser Pond' - nice reflections

The Sun shone too on Friday the 23rd, and I looked at Ron H's blog that evening to see a photo of a Red-veined Darter at Kibblesworth, was I jealous or what? I dropped all plans to go Sunday and went Saturday instead. Sadly there was no sign of the darter, but at least the Black-tailed Skimmers showed well, and a mating pair gave me an excellent photo-opportunity, with plenty of teneral and immature Common Darters around and several Broad-bodies Chasers it was still a very good session despite the disappointment of not getting the RV Darter, which incidentally wasn't seen again.

Black-tailed Skimmer (male) -Bowes Valley NR 24/06/2018

Same feller, different angle

Pair in mating wheel, I was able to get as close as I liked with these two  

Focussing in on the female

Better view of the female, neck grip doesn't look too comfortable though

On the Sunday we left the borough for Cragside in Northumberland. A visit to Slipper Tarn here gave me my first Moorland and Southern Hawkers, and first decent photo opportunity of Emerald Damselfly, though just too early for the Black Darters.

Emerald Damselfly (immature female) - Cragside NT 25/06/2018

That was it for the month of June, as the rains returned and left me restless for a week. Despite the weather it had been a highlight-filled opening to the season. Unfortunately this was about as good as it got as things were about to take a turn for the worse, find out how in Part II.