A Secret Pond – Damselfly Hunt

Secret Pond

John Solomon

4th June 2020

While David was sampling the historic and exotic delights of Salisbury Plain I was off hunting a puddle. I get all the best gigs, but bear with me!

I was on the trail of a conundrum. Rooksbury Lake is one of the most productive sites locally for Damselflies and Dragonflies, although the Common Emerald, found in small numbers at Anton Lakes, is not present here. All the others known to be in the area do at least turn up, including the Large Red Damselfly. A few days ago I saw one there, however, I didn’t find any last year, only found one the year before and none the year before that. That is the conundrum. Any naturalist worth his salt will observe that one insect will not a colony make, at least two are usually required and they should be male and female**. That being the case what was going on here? Was the occasional insect flying the best part of two miles all the way through the streets of Andover town from Anton?

(** David taught / attempted to teach John A-level Biology; I leave you to judge his success.)

That was possible, but this is a valley full of water meadows and streams, so perhaps there was somewhere rather closer.

Thanks to being a local boy, born and bred, and my father before me, I am lucky enough to have a few connections around the area. I began to get interested in Dragonflies several years ago and a friend told me of a friend of his who had a property in a valley nearby. A previous owner had dug a large pond several decades ago, so I was told, and it was full of wonderful things. A number of times I had thought “I really must get out there and take a look”, but as with so many good intentions it has never happened.

Well, it has now.

A beautiful, sunny day, as so many of our lockdown days seem to have been. I had made the phone call and received directions and made my way over. I cannot reveal the location as this is private property and the owner, while happy for me to take a look, really does not want it to be advertised. The gate was locked, as I was warned it would be, so I scrambled over and landed in a small field that had clearly lain fallow for a very long time. I could see the water towards the further corner and made my a path through the thick grass and occasional sprouting reeds. I found a body of water too large to be called a pond but too small to be entitled a lake. Roughly oblong but clearly man made the bank the banks are vertical, dropping straight down into the water. It was difficult to get as close as I would like as there is almost continuous vegetation, around three to four feet high, running all the way round, but I peer through and am instantly rewarded.

Several blue Damselflies and no less than 4 Large Reds.

I have a monocular with me and try to identify the blues but the day is very warm and they are super-lively. This hampers my counting during all the time I am here because I can’t quote a number if I can’t make out what it is I am looking at. It also makes photography all but impossible! I am not going to go into identification details as I have already covered those at length in the post Odonata One, but suffice it to say that Blue-Tailed are easily determined. The problem lies in telling Common Blue from Azure. Normally this is done through examination of the thorax which, in the Azure, has a small finger of black projecting into the blue. This is the Coenagrian Spur:

Azure, male

I have circled it on the thorax. There is, however, a second method of quickly determining the species and that lies in the second, lower circle I have put on the photo. This is that indentation of black into the blue at the rear of Section 9.

This next photo is a Common Blue and I have circled the same part of this insect to highlight the distinction:

Common damselfly, male

Note that the circle of blue around the abdomen on section 9 is unbroken on this insect. This difference in the pattern at the end of the abdomen can often be easier to find in the field than trying to get a decent view of the side of the thorax.

I follow the bank of the pond along clockwise and find that this is not the only body of water here. There is another pond lying alongside, possibly twenty-five yards long. This pond is a mass of activity, a lot more than I’ve seen on the main pond, and more than half the insects I see are joined up as mating pairs, in tandem, either flying or laying eggs. There are dozens of Damselflies here, nearly all Azure or Common Blue, sometimes Blue-Tailed, but I do see the occasional Red and one is good enough to pose for me:

Large, red, male

Another arresting sight is hundreds of large tadpoles. These will be Toads as Frogs make their way to the water and mate three or four weeks sooner. There are no more tadpoles in the smaller pond, but there are, again, a lot of Damselflies and a lot of breeding activity.

Back to the main pond and continuing my clockwise journey. I see a few Red-Eyed Damselflies and I think there are rather more here than I actually spot, hidden away down on vegetation in the water underneath the bank. About half way round something flies. It has a yellowish colouration and is rather larger than a Damselfly. The body is a long torpedo that tapers towards the rear, but all I get is a rough impression as it shoots away. Knowing the species present locally, and taking into account the time of year, my guess is that it was a female Black-Tailed Skimmer, which I would love to get a photograph of! Not today it seems.

There is a stream running along this side of the field, a few yards from the edge of the pond, so I approach the bank slowly to see if there is anything there. There are significant trees along the far side of the river, casting their shadow across and onto the field, but down in the vegetation I get a glimpse of a small, dark shape. A wing, maybe. I move a bit to one side and … yes! A Beautiful Demoiselle and a male. This is my first this year. My reference books declare that these insects emerge first and then are followed by the very similar Banded Demoiselle, but in my experience, locally at any rate, the order is the other way round – I have been seeing Bandeds for the best part of two weeks.

I work my now along two banks, that of the river to my left and the pond to my right. The river gives me nothing more but the pond continues to show me Azure, Common Blue and, occasionally, Blue-Tailed Damselflies and Large Red. There is a spread of lily pads as the curve of the pond arcs away from the stream, perhaps ten or even fifteen yards across, and here I see some more Red-Eyed, but it is the Dragonfly sweeping back and forth over the water that grabs my attention. This is an Emperor, our largest Dragonfly and the World’s second largest. It is also very common, particularly around here. The point is, there is only one and this pond is not really ideal for them. They like there to be reeds around. This pond has no emergent vegetation and just a few clumps of reeds along the edges, which do not intrude into the larger body of water at all. I wonder if perhaps we have two-way travel going on here. A mutual exchange. Rooksbury Lake, where these are the most numerous species of Dragonfly, is not that far away for a fast flying insect such as an Emperor Dragonfly. Perhaps as Large Reds sometimes visit there from here, so to do Emperors from Rooksbury come and play around this pond for the odd afternoon.

Around the corner of the pond and nearing completion of my slow circuit. I am peering over the reeds at a Red when something crawls into my sandal! Something cold! I lift my foot and try to shake it free and as it drops onto the grass I immediately see it for what it is. A tiny baby Frog! Peering down around me I can see that the grass blades are moving. There must be several dozen tiny frogs just where I am standing. I step back carefully and move slowly along finding that they are all the way along this bank.

Finally I walk back to the car and over the gate. Two hours and plenty seen. I’ve got 69 Common Blue and 70 Azure written down, but that was no true reflection of the numbers really here, simply the number I could reasonably identify. 10 Blue-Tailed and 10 Red-Eyed, 7 Banded Demoiselles, 1 Beautiful and an Emperor. Oh, yes, and don’t forget 22 Large Red Damselflies. This means there is a very good colony here … and also that the conundrum is solved. This is where the occasional visitor to Rooksbury almost certainly comes from.

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