Odonata 2

Rooksbury in August

John Solomon

August is the month of the Hawkers, the larger insects everyone thinks of when we talk about “Dragonflies”. Around Andover we have five species and all are found, in varying numbers, around all three of our local lakes. Some have emerged earlier in the Summer but, at this time of the year, are still present even if their colour is fading and their wings are becoming battered. Others are only now beginning to scramble out of the lakes in which they have lived and grown for the last four or even five years. Easing their way out of the nymph skin, leaving it as an “exuvia” clinging to vegetation, often reeds, to pump up their wings and let them harden in preparation for the maiden flight. To then take their place as adults, mate and then lay the eggs that will ensure the next generation.

I pull into Rooksbury car park on a lovely August afternoon, the sun generous with its warmth, an occasional light breeze to keeping the heat from being overwhelming. I lock the car and head through archway of bushes, turning left and walking down towards the bridge that crosses the river on my right, but at this point I turn left into a small meadow. Immediately I see white butterflies, but it is too far away to be sure exactly what they are. There are two large buddleia bushes on the far side and I can see activity around them but, again, too far away to identify the species.

Small white, female.

Walking slowly into the grassy area I am soon close enough to a white butterfly that lands and allows me to look for distinguishing features. It is medium-sized and the hind wings are a smooth, pale yellow. A Small White. Very common, its caterpillar feeds on a wide variety of different plants. This individual, as with most of the butterflies around at this time of the year, will be “second generation”. The first generation will have appeared in the Spring, laid their eggs, the larva growing up and pupating during the first half of the Summer. Now they have emerged and they, in turn, will be laying the eggs that hatch out into the caterpillars that will feed up and pupate over winter to emerge as the first generation of next year.

Green-veined white, female.

Another medium-sized white with butterfly lands nearby and I slowly make my way over being careful not to make any sudden or jerky movements. It lets me come in very close where I can easily see that the undersides of the rear wings have the veins marked out, almost as if they are dusted with a grey, or greeny-grey powder. This is another very common species, the Green-Veined White, again, second generation and again a species that feeds on a wide variety of plants, in this case what are known as the crucifers. These are plants with flowers formed of four equal petals arranged in a cross.

Common blue, male.

Now a small, blue butterfly sweeps past, perhaps a little subdued in its colouration. Maybe a little greyish or a tinge of lilac in the blue. It lands but it doesn’t need to for me to know it is a male Common Blue. The food plant is Bird’s Foot Trefoil and, once more, this is a child of the generation that would have been found here two months ago. Looking around it isn’t long before I discover a female, however, she is not blue but brown. She lands and opens her wings to the sun as she probes the marjoram flower she has alighted upon with her long proboscis, allowing me to see the line of small orange markings running along the borders.

Holly blue.

I am moving closer to the hedge and see another flash of blue, but this is no Common Blue. This is a more powdery colour and, instead of fluttering around the grasses of the meadow, is sweeping up and along the hedge. This is a Holly Blue and, again, this butterfly is second generation. The first generation, emerging the Spring, lays its eggs on Holly but this, the second generation, will lay it eggs on Ivy. So … the Holly and the Ivy!

Moving round to the large buddleia bushes and the activity I saw as I entered the meadow reveals several large and colourful butterflies. These are the Vanessids and are commonly found in gardens, particularly those with a “butterfly” or buddleia bush. The smaller one is a Small Tortoiseshell, the striking one with those eyes on the wings is a Peacock, the darker one with the red stripe running across the fore-wings and round the borders of the hind wings is the Red Admiral, while the large orange one is a Painted Lady. All four use stinging nettles as their food plants and all are second generation.

Small Tortoiseshell
Red Admiral, female.
Peacock
Painted Lady.

The Painted Lady is our most extraordinary butterfly and perhaps our most exotic. In our Winter the insects are in Africa, even sub-Saharan, and as the year starts they begin to migrate north. By early Spring they are moving into Europe and by the end of May or the beginning June the very first individuals start to arrive here. Throughout the Summer the migration continues, reaching up as far as the Arctic Circle and into Scandinavia and even as far as Iceland. As the last of the Summer warmth fades they are turning south and heading back to warmer climes, usually using the faster winds found at high altitudes. The whole round trip can easily be 9,000 miles with the butterfly continuously breeding along the way, so a generation might fly from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa or the south-European coast and another might fly up to northern Europe or even make it here. The next might make it up towards the Arctic Circle, then their offspring start the long flight back. It could be the fifth or even sixth generation that finally lands back on sub-Saharan soil. Migrations vary in size from year to year but roughly every nine or ten years we will experience one much larger than usual while in some years these butterflies can be something of a rarity. This is probably determined by weather patterns. In 2009 there was an outstanding event, with hundreds being counted at a time at many locations, and this was repeated to a less extent in 2019. The 2019 migration might have been encouraged by the weather event commonly termed an African Bloom, where hot air from the Sahara is carried north across Europe, which occurred several times during the Summer from May onwards.

I return to the footpath and cross the footbridge towards the smaller of Rooksbury’s two lakes … and don’t have to wait long for my first sighting. This is over the river to the left. A large Dragonfly, black, with striking gold markings along the length of its abdomen. This is unmistakable and I immediately recognise it as a Golden-Ringed Dragonfly. By a millimetre or two this is our second largest Odonata. Most of them prefer standing, or at least very slow moving, water but the Golden-Ringed likes streams and small rivers. This one lands the brambles over-hanging the river and stays long enough for me to move in and see the swelling towards the end of its body. This means it is a male, the female being straighter and finally tapering. I can also see that the wings are a little bit ragged around the edges, in fact one forewing looks to have lost its tip, almost certainly the result of an attack by a bird, not that this will hamper its flying ability at all. This wear and tear is simply down to age. Golden-Ringed are one of the first Hawkers to appear, emerging as early as the beginning of June or even very late May, and this insect could easily have been on the wing for eight weeks.

Golden-ringed, female.
Golden-ringed, male.

As I turn to look over the lake I see another dragonfly that may have been out for a similar period of time. Distinctive in flight as the abdomen droops down slightly towards the end. As it passes close to me I can easily make out the green thorax and the blue-marked body and it confirms that I am looking at an Emperor and a male. This actually is our largest Dragonfly. As I am watching another insect flies in, looking very similar but the blue of the long, thin abdomen is noticeably paler and I recognise that this is a female Emperor. Immediately the patrolling male spots her and dives, curling his abdomen down and forward to try and latch the claspers at the very end of his abdomen onto the back of her neck. I watch fascinated as … he mistimes the stoop!

Tragedy!

Instead of locking onto the female and sweeping her up, hopefully for her to agree to his rough embrace and a mating tryst, he stuns her downwards and she splashes into the water. Suddenly oblivious to her and her plight – shucks, it wasn’t me – he wheels away to continue patrolling his chosen stretch of bank, chasing away any other male Dragonflies that encroach while continuing his search for a prospective mate.

In the water the situation is life and death serious. She might have lived four or five years in this element but it is no longer her natural environment and, while she is truly a dragon in the air, in the water she simply a nice meal for a fish. She flounders. Those wings, capable of such astonishing feats in flight that a helicopter looks foolishly clumsy, can do nothing but slap on the surface or, pulling upwards through the viscosity, threatening to drag her down. The seconds tick by … a minute passes. Her body is soaking. Surely at any moment there will be a swirl and she will be gone, yet she is still there and she struggles on. There is waterweed emergent through the lake’s surface and she is fighting to reach it, but she is so slow and she will be tiring, perhaps unable to breath through the spiracles along her side. I am rooting for her but there is nothing so unforgiving of carelessness, or simple bad luck, as nature.

It is life or death out here, no forgiveness and no mercy.

Two minutes.

And then … a leg, maybe just one hooked foot, finds a hold and she pulls herself forward and … slowly … out of the water. Soaked. Exhausted. Then up the reed a little bit more. The heat of the sun rapidly drying her she opens those wings and, unsteadily, takes to the air. Low over the water she sweeps up to land on the same brambles behind me that a short while ago had held the Golden-Ringed. I walk slowly over. She is truly an older dragonfly. Throughout the second half of June and right the way through July these magnificent insects have ruled the air above and around the lakes but by the middle of this month their numbers will have dwindled. Her wings are shabby and the colour is going from her thorax and abdomen, leaving them almost grey with only a trace of the original green and blue, but she is alive.

Emperor, male.
Emperor, female.

Almost as breathless as she I turn and follow the path to the right and around the end of smaller lake.  Turning the corner I slow down, peering across the water. Over on the far side of the lake, highlighted against the dense shadow of the undergrowth on the bank, I can just make out a small firefly of light cruising along to the right and then back. Another dragonfly but impossible to tell what … and then something flies across to the left just the other side of the wall of vegetation in front of me. I push forward, being careful to keep an eye on where the bank ends and the drop down into the lake begins. Waiting, a few seconds, then it cruises back, almost silhouetted. A dragonfly, again with a blue abdomen, but this time the thorax simply looks dark and this one is flying with its abdomen held slightly upwards. The signature posture of the Migrant Hawker. This one is a male, hence the blue on black abdomen, the female being strongly yellow on brown. Don’t be fooled by the name, the insect is very much a resident here, although its numbers are always boosted by autumnal migrants from the Continent. They are, along with Southern Hawkers and Common Darters, among the last of the Odonata to emerge and this is the first one I have seen this year.

Migrant, female.
Migrant, male.

A few yards further on a second bridge crosses the river. Unhurriedly, not wishing to disturb anything that might be around, I walk onto the bridge and look downstream. Almost straight away I see another dragonfly but this one is different. It turns and streaks upstream towards me when, almost close enough to touch, it shoots upwards, snatching a small something in mid-air and wheeling away back downstream. Coursing, hunting, coursing. This one is a chestnut brown and, as it came so close, I could see the line of blue markings down its sides. A Brown Hawker and a male. Until 2019, although the occasional one might be glimpsed around our lakes, it was not thought that they were truly resident and breeding here, but now they are regularly seen numbers locally. As I watch another dashes in and the two start a dog-fight, each trying to drive the other away, and they soar up and out across the lake. Seconds later the victor returns from the skirmish and restarts its patrol.

Brown Hawker, female.
Brown Hawker, male.

Then, a movement down in the stream, tight against the reeds, and a small brown shape paddles out a few inches and then swims back in. A young Water Vole. They are found both here and at Anton Lakes, but Rooksbury is something of a haven for them. Traditionally very shy here they seem to have no fear of the humans blundering around and “oohing” and “ahhing” when we spot them.

Water Vole

They dig burrows into the river banks, often with an underwater entrance. Here they begin to mate in Spring producing two to five litters of around four pups at a time. The young leave their mother after just a month and a pup born in July might be producing its own pups in the Autumn although, more usually, most reach sexual maturity after their first Winter. They eat a mainly vegetarian diet of reeds, sedges and rushes during the Summer, changing over to roots, tree bark and fruit through the Autumn and Winter. They will occasionally also eat insects and other invertebrates.

Banded Demoiselle, male.
Banded Demoiselle, female.

I look back upstream and find that I have been facing the wrong way. Over the water weeds covering the surface there the fluttering, almost shimmering shapes of blue, male Banded Demoiselles. Then, the paler, green forms of the females. I have no trouble counting half a dozen males and a handful of females. The males are quite striking when they land and they can be properly seen, their dark, metallic bluish green bodies and their wings with the easily discernible dark blue “thumb print”. The females are less imposing but beautiful in their own way, their bodies a dark, metallic emerald green. This, too, is their last hoorah. Before the end of the month they will have gone, leaving their legacy, their eggs and young, to rise and entertain us next year.

They are not alone. I see more Brown Hawkers, their wings golden in the sunlight, three straight away but then another, and another. There are both males and females dancing over the stream, the females having paler or yellow markings along the sides of their abdomen in place of the males’ blue.

After a few minutes watching the males dogfight and the females avoiding the males advances I leave the bridge to continue walking west alongside the lake. Entering the shade of the bushes I open the kissing gate and walk through being sure to close it behind me. I am following a walkway enclosed between two wooden fences that passes beside three rough, rectangular ponds on the left hand side. As I emerge from a tunnel formed by the bushes reaching overhead I am looking over the brambles that reach down to the water and am rewarded with a flash of orange. It alights a couple of yards away and I am looking at a Comma. A common butterfly, another Vanessid that uses nettles as the food plant, it is recognised by the irregular edges of wings. The first brood, which is seen in early Summer, is paler but this is the second brood and, suitably for its autumnal flight period, is a much stronger russet. Some of these will hibernate and be among the first butterflies seen next Spring.

Comma

Walking round and over the small outlet from the stream that is now to my right I wait for a few seconds and carefully examine the top rails of the fences either side. Back in June, even July, I would have been looking for Blue-Tailed Damselflies, which seem to love sitting on the wood warmed by the sun, but now I am looking for early emerging Common Darters. I am unlucky and there don’t seem to be any here today. I move on and, similarly, pause on the bridge over the stream and examine the water weeds. This is a favourite place for Water Voles during the Autumn and Spring and they can often be located by spotting the movement and twitching of those very same water weeds but, again, I am unlucky. I walk through the shade of another tunnel of foliage and onto another bridge, pausing, as usual, to see what there might be to see. This time I am luckier.

Beautiful Demoiselle, male.
Beautiful Demoiselle, female.

Just downstream, in the sunlight playing across the verdant growth on the left hand bank, I see the fluttering of wings so similar to those I have just been watching from the bridge by the lake. I think I have two more Banded Demoiselles until one perches and I see that the wings on this Odonata are not clear with a tell-tale smudge but are completely dark blue, almost black. Then the other lands, and I can just about discern that although this is a female Demoiselle her wings are not green but brown, almost gold when the sun catches them from the right angle. These are Beautiful Demoiselles, the same size and with the same flight as the Banded and also enjoying the same stream environment. Though both species are considered common the Banded is by far the most prevalent.

Off the bridge and along the wooden walkway I am once more searching the upper rails of the fencing on either side. Towards the far end, just before the right hand turn, I find what I’m looking for. The small, grey-brown shape of a female Common Darter. When they first emerge they take on a beautiful yellow colour which gradually fades to this far more subdued tone and, as they age, begin to show tinges of red at the joints of the wings to the thorax and along the length of the abdomen. The “teneral” males, which simply means very young, have an ochre colour which quickly becomes red along the abdomen, the thorax becoming dark and almost black. There is a similar species, the Ruddy Darter, but it isn’t found on any of Andover’s lakes so any Darter you see will be Common.

Common Darter, young female.
Common Darter, mature female.
Common Darter, male.

I cross the third stream of this walk-through and along a straight section up towards the bench. The left hand side is thick with Great Willowherb, the food plant, along with Rosebay Willowherb, of the caterpillar of the Large Elephant Hawk Moth. This is one of our most striking, if not beautiful moths, being a stunning mixture of pink and green with white legs and antennae. The larva is very different. When full grown it can be easily over 3 inches long and notably thick. It can be green in colour but is more often a muddy grey with the texture having something of the appearance of an elephant’s skin, but that is not why it is called the Elephant Hawk Moth.

Large Elephant Hawk Moth

The reason for this is its ability to extend its head forward like the extension of an elephant’s trunk. Immediately behind the head is a thickish section, almost like shoulders, and on the top are four circular markings, like eyes, which the caterpillar can use to scare of would-be predators … although how successfully is a moot point. In August they are nearing maturity, becoming ready to bury themselves under the leaf litter and perhaps an inch or so into the soil beneath, but have a habit of climbing up to feed during the late mid-afternoon. If you are walking this way around four o’clock take a little time to search for them since, as they are large, they are quite easy to find if they are here.

By the bench seat I step off the wooden dais and into the nettles and reeds. This is one of my favourite hunting spots and you may well find the trail my searching has worn. Eight weeks ago, even only six, these reeds would have been full of damselflies: Common Blue, Blue-Tailed, Azure and Red-Eyed, but now there is little about apart from occasional Common Blue and Blue-Tailed. On a more positive note there are a number of mating pairs but I am, of course, hoping for something a little more. I reach the lake shore and stop for a while to see what there is. Earlier in the Summer you might see Black-Tailed Skimmers here, although Rooksbury is not known for them particularly, Charlton Lake holding more appeal for this species. Today I see an Emperor,  cruising along the reeds to my left, then I am dive-bombed by a Brown Hawker which soars away through the trees behind me.

Black-tailed Skimmer, male.

I creep on, moving slowly and trying not to disturb anything that might be there. Much of this game is about finding them just before they get concerned about you …

A week or so ago we had some strong winds and the reeds have been flattened here revealing lower stems and even glimpses of the ground beneath. A tiny movement catches my eye. A young frog, only an inch or so long, pushing and half hopping its way through the tangle. I often see young toads here, too. The dense reed bed is an excellent nursery for these baby amphibians, this year’s brood, hiding them from predators while holding plentiful supplies of the spiders, small insects, slugs and snails that form their diet.

Now I am approaching the standing bullrushes and scan their height for anything of interest, but also search lower down over their base stems and across the browned off lower leaves. It is down on one of those, perhaps a foot off the ground, that I see a long, thin splash of colour. I ease back and find a gap that will let me move out a yard or so and then round and back in. When I carefully complete the manoeuvre I sink gently down to put myself as near the same height as the insect as I can and bring the camera forward … and get it. Another couple of shots to make sure. The striking colours of a male Southern Hawker. Yellow stripes on the sides of the thorax and the blue on black patter nation of the long abdomen. The telltale characteristics of this species are on the front of the thorax, or, if you prefer, the top front of the shoulder. Two immediately obvious bright yellow markings, like headlights. This is the first one I have seen this year and has great, fresh colours as perfect as you could ever wish for.

Southern Hawker, male.
Southern Hawker, female.

I move on through the rushes and see nothing more exciting than the occasional Common Blue or Blue-Tailed Damselfly and the pale Mother of Pearl moths, which also use the copious stinging nettles as their foodplant.

Back on the wooden walkway I turn right, to continue round the lake. As I round the corner ahead of me I now have the River Anton to my left and the lake to my right. It is always worth investigating the fishing piers around the lake. A few minutes standing here and searching over the water will usually show a Dragonfly or two at this time of the year and often you will find a Common Darter resting on the wood and soaking up the warmth. It is a good idea, too, to take a look at the reeds along the side of the river bank. Damselflies are here along with both species of Demoiselle, but the real gem is a fleeting glimpse of the stunning blue of a Kingfisher. If you are lucky it might perch on one of the branches that overhang from the opposite bank allowing a good sighting or even a photograph. The male has an all black beak but if you see one that has a red lower bill then you are looking at a female.

Approaching the top end of the lake I see the tell-tale golden wings of a Brown Hawker and, as I round the corner, another … then another. This has been an outstanding year across all three lakes for this species and, as I stand there, another one joins us and all four are surrounding me. Swooping, darting, their wings shimmering in the strong sunlight. I stay for several minutes hoping that one will land but, when it does, it is ten feet up a tree and well out of the range of my 60mm macro lens!

Speckled Wood

I move on and as I near the kissing gate I am joined by the superficially dull, and muted tones of a Speckled Wood butterfly. This is an insect of woodland and hedgerows, often ignored as just another little-brown-flying-thing, but if one lands near you, as they often do, take the time to move in slowly and look at it properly. A fresh one, with the dark brown background colour of the wings broken by an array of cream spots is quite a handsome beast. Look at the “eyes” towards the rear of the hindwings. The food plants are various grasses and, just as with most of the butterflies I am seeing, this individual is second generation. Weather allowing they could be flying into late September or even early October.

I am around half way down this homeward bound side of the lake before I see something just a bit special. I have just walked down onto a fishing pier and straight away have seen a dragonfly, an Emperor, and I know it is a female and she is egg-laying because she flying with her abdomen, the “tail”, turned well down. Low over the water she is searching for a suitable site. Emperors lay their eggs into floating debris with reed and rush stems being favourites. This is very different behaviour to Southern, Brown and Migrant Hawkers which prefer to lay into standing stems, the females often being heard rather than seen as their wings flap against the vegetation around them. She finds what she is looking for and drops down, which is when I notice another dragonfly hovering very close to her. At first I am worried, as this looks like a male and he could well try and force himself onto her, but then I realise that something altogether different is happening. Far from looking to take her and mate with her he is, in fact, guarding her. They have already mated and he is now standing watch over her as she lays the fruits of their joining and, all too soon, his help is called for as another male rounds the bushes and shows interest. The skirmish is fast and to the point and the other male is chased away. This is quite common and, as I have just seen, often necessary.

Almost back to the car park now. It has been a wonderful couple of hours, but I must just have one quick look in the small meadow to the left. White butterflies flit across the grasses or along the blackberry bushes, some Small and some Green-Veined. Perhaps a Large White, but too far away to see for sure. Still some distance away I can make out something on the brambles at the far side of the clearing, something blue, and move in. An Emperor, a male. I move in closer and closer and he seems totally at ease, letting me get a great look at him and run off several shots with the camera. An old Emperor, with rather tatty wings, but, to me, all the more special for that.

Just as with the older female I saw so nearly drown at the beginning of this walk.

These insects lay thousands upon thousands of eggs, yet, next year, there will still be only roughly the same number here as this year. The year after that, much the same number, and the year after that, and so on. Out of all those eggs just two will make it through to spread their wings, one to replace the male and one the female. All the others will be lost. Perhaps some will not hatch. Some will be eaten the moment they do. If they are not then every second of every day of their lives they will run the gauntlet of the jaws of tadpoles, fish, frogs, toads and a myriad of other predators including other Odonata nymphs. If they actually make it to finally climb out of the water and push their way out of the exuvia they no longer need then their wings must expand and fill and dry perfectly, otherwise they will not be able to fly, not be able to hunt and not be able to mate.

And so there they are, the old lady Emperor and the old man. They made it, heroic enough in itself, and now they have lived their lives, they have mated, probably many times, and they have fertilised and laid the precious eggs that secure the next generation. Their faded colours and tattered wings are the hard won medals of their success.

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