Damsels

Chilbolton Common, June 25

John Solomon

Thursday, mid-afternoon, and the summer has returned with a vengeance. The degrees “C” begin with a three and it is heavy and humid with not a hint of a trace that this sky ever saw a cloud. I pass the Mayfly on my right, West Down sweeps up to my right, an SSSI that is not as good for butterflies as it was before the conservation work of a few years ago but is still a home for Common Blue, Meadow Brown and occasional Marbled White butterflies. Earlier in the year Dingy Skippers can be found here in small numbers and, very rarely, a Green Hairstreak, but I have other prey in mind.

Through the village of Chilbolton and winding round the church, this is where I shall park. I stop the car on the verge opposite the church gate, making sure it is tucked off the road as much as possible, and step out into the heat. It is really warm! I grab the camera, my note pad and, last but not least, my genuine Aussie outback leather hat. I am prepared and lock the car. There is a footpath that leads across the field towards the Common on the corner just beyond the church. I clamber over the stile and walk over the short and drying grass with the church on my left. Through the kissing gate in the far corner and along the edge of a small and over-grown fallow field. Another kissing gate at the far end and now the footpath is in shade. It runs along beside a small stream which becomes the gutter on the Common that is my destination. There is nothing to see here but I enjoy the coolness, a short respite before the path turns out into the sunlight again and along another small and wild field.

I start to see butterflies here. Nothing rare or exciting but for a small field the numbers are fairly good. Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites, of course, but also several Small Tortoiseshells. There are two kissing gates at the end and I take the one to the left out onto the Common. I stride across the rough turf and after a hundred yards I am standing on the gravel track the leads to the cottages that stand behind me. Ahead of me is the entrance to the Common and the area used for parking. The sign, official or not, was telling the truth. I am glad I drove on and parked where I did. It’s a few minutes walk away but it would have been a nightmare to try and squeeze the car in here.

There is a section of concrete set into the gravel track which, with pipes running through, forms a basic bridge over the stream I walked alongside five or six minutes ago. I peer up through the reeds and catch a glimpse of a Damselfly, but it is too far to have any idea what it is. I toy with the idea of pushing through the tall and lush undergrowth of thick reeds and God knows what, but give it up as a plan that might require considerable investment in effort with very little payback. Instead I turn back to face the other way. Perhaps two hundred yards and the stream, really just a gutter, meets with the River Test and I intend to search here today. It will be hard work, I know that, as it is thick with reed beds along its small banks, perhaps hidden nettles and even brambles, and underneath the ground is marshy and water-logged, but this is the kind of thing I cope with all summer. I’m up for it!

I step off the gravel track and find a narrow path pushing through the reeds to the gutter. I have hardly reached the stream when I catch my first glimpse and a Large Red Damselfly parks itself on the reeds opposite me. It’s a good three or four yards away and in the shadow so, although I manage to find it with my monocular, I can’t be certain which sex it is. I walk a few steps further and turn round. There is a break in the reeds around the rill here and, now the sun is behind me, I can scour the area more thoroughly and am quickly joined by four blue Damselflies. They are rather lively but I manage ascertain that two of them definitely Common Blues. I push on through the reeds. There is more here than I thought there would be but deciding exactly what species they are is difficult because they refuse to stop darting about! I do eventually manage to determine that one of them is an Azure, but mostly they seem to be Common. I spot another Large Red, but I am also picking up on Banded Demoiselles. These seem to be here in reasonable numbers, which is what I had hoped for.

The reeds become thicker, higher and more formidable as the ground grows progressively rougher and, often, rather soggier beneath the feet I have long since lost sight of. The heat beats down and this is wearing, but, like I say, I do this all summer. I hunt, I count and a couple of horseflies find and hunt me. I flick them away. I already have three very good bites from their kin and have no particular wish to gain more. I had a very good one a week ago that got me on the side of me jaw and caused a swelling that looked as if I was walking around with a golf ball stuffed inside my mouth. The joys of summer!

I near the River Test and it really is busy. Social distancing clearly belongs in a different land as groups sit and laugh, splash around in the water and generally do all the things people should do at this time of year.

I jump over the stream and walk fifty yards or so along the bank of the river. There are reed beds all along the bank and I know there are Banded Demoiselles here. I roll up the legs of my jeans and prepare for the plunge. I am wearing my waders, which are actually simply sandals and far better than wellington boots. Wellingtons will only go that foot or so up your leg but with sandals on I can go to any depth at all!

The river is shallow here and I step in, bracing myself for the sudden chill, and the water is … cool! Just refreshingly cool. I paddle out a few steps from the bank and start to hunt, seeing Banded Demoiselles straight away. Slowly  along the reed bank and the count goes steadily up. After ten minutes I suddenly realise something. I am not steaming hot anymore. In fact, I am very comfortably cool, thanks to the river flowing around my legs and taking the heat out of me.

A couple of times I look at getting a shot. On land this straight forward. I drop the hat on the ground, because you want be as unnoticeable as you can be and a hat makes you look a lot larger. I would then drop my notepad onto the turf, but I am in the river and if I engage in that course of action I would be unlikely to see either again. So I look too big and too dark and threatening and I can’t handle the camera properly so, it’s no surprise, I get no trophy. Consequently this piece has no photos as I only post those I take when I am at a particular site.

However, I do get a count of 3 Large Reds and no fewer than 74 Banded Demoiselles. An hour and a half well spent!

One thought on “Damsels

  1. Years ago we walked on chilbolton common when our children were at Marsh Court and we had friends who lived under the. Observatory, many a happy meal at the Mayfly even with the hostile host, the mayflies and the River Test made up for her sharpness. Happy the wildlife and the Flora is doing well.

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