Secret Pond Late Spring 2021

John Solomon, 21/06/2021

And it has most certainly been late spring, but, finally, it is here and everything is bursting to make up for lost time. Reeds that seemed forever stuck at ankle-nibbling height are now shooting up over my waist, nettles are over my shoulders and various Cow Parlsey-like plants are threatening to tower over my head. The same is true for Odonata. For weeks, when spring should have been filling the reed beds with various Damselflies, such as Common Blue, Azure, Blue-tailed and Large Red, all I’ve managed to find are occasional individuals that look almost embarrassed about being there. Now the switch has been flicked on that ball of fire in the sky and the air is, once again, filled with the shimmer of tiny wings.

It was hot, the car said 27 degrees, as I scrambled over the gate of this privately owned pond. When I enter an area, whether a smallish site like this, or a glade in a wood, or a fresh reach of hillside, I always like to stop and wait for a minute or two. For me, this allows me to take in what is there and where it is. For other creatures that may be around it gives them a little while to realise that I’m there and, hopefully, to accept me and start to ignore me as they get on with the rather more important business of living their lives. There is a pair of Swans on the bank of the large pond, and out on its surface a family of eight Canada Geese, two adults and six goslings. I move slowly forward and start scanning the reeds that run along this side. Plenty of the common Damselflies, including Common Blue, Azure and Blue-tailed, then the untidy flutter of a female Banded Demoiselle as I approach just a bit too close for her.

I’m not bothering to try and get photos of these since I already have a choice of a number in my photo library. Then something catches my eye which I decide I will have a go at. The angle is awkward, as I am poised right on the edge of the steep bank, on top of which there is gusty little wind blowing just to make it more interesting:

A male Large Red, apparently having a mid-afternoon snack.

I pass beneath the drooping branches of a medium-sized Weeping Willow and start searching the reeds just beyond. Not seeing anything overly interesting and stand for a moment and look out across the water – which was, perhaps, what I should have done earlier. A male Emperor Dragonfly was patrolling over the large spread of lily pads at this end of the pond. This way, that way, this way, that way, diverging from his course to shoot up, down or across the water to grab some unfortunate insect. With a 95% success rate once one of these decide you’re lunch, then you are lunch. I move on round, now spending time searching for anything else flying out there, and it isn’t long before I spot the glistening wings of another Emperor across the far side. So, they’ve carved this large pond up between them, I thought. Perhaps in this case the pond really was large enough for the both of them!

Then another flies in, but what? This one seems slightly paler and the male Emperor on the far side, rather than attacking it, seems to be following it. As the insect moved into the territory of the Emperor nearest me the one this side stormed towards the intruder.

A female, I thought, and, sure enough, rather than chase her the Emperor began to do the equivalent of trying to woo her. Swooping around her and trying to move into a position where he could try and use his claspers. She made it clear she wasn’t interested, dropping down and starting to lay eggs on the edges of the lily pads. The male wasn’t giving up, though, and after a minute or so she got fed up with his continued efforts and raced away.

As I mentioned in the piece I wrote about this place last year a stream runs along this, the western side, and, having checked the reeds along the pond bank turned my attention to the undergrowth along the side of the stream. I was very quickly rewarded with a couple of Banded Demoiselles. Again, no photo attempt, I have some great shots of these already. They like flowing water and the Test Valley and its tributaries are full of them. What was interesting, was a pair in tandem and clearly intent on finishing the job. That I did want a shot of, unfortunately they must have known that I did and carefully hid themselves away amongst the greenery. I knew where they were and I could see the male, but there was no way I could get a photo of the pair.

There is, however, another species here that loves the fresh flow of the local streams. I moved very slowly along looking for the dark wings and was rewarded very handsomely:

Female Beautiful Demoiselle

This is a female Beautiful Demoiselle. This is nowhere near as common locally as the banded demoiselle, probably because they supposedly like acidic water while the chalk streams of Hampshire are alkaline. I saw several males but only one was kind enough to sit for me and, unfortunately, the wind had decided that this was just the time to surge up. As a consequence this is nowhere near as sharp as I would usually deem acceptable:

Male Beautiful Demoiselle

On the other hand, this specimen is rather interesting. This is an immature male, which is why the wings have the noticeably brown colouration. When mature they turn to become an inky blue-black.

I didn’t know at this stage whether the photos I’d got were any good, I never do until I get back, pop the SD card into the computer and bang them up on screen. I was pretty pleased with what this site had given me so far, even if I was offered nothing else – but this magical pond hadn’t finished with me yet. I continued slowly round the pond until I reached the second, much smaller one. Approaching unhurriedly it seemed to take off from its chosen perch right on cue to grab attention. My first thought was Broad-bodied Chaser, but I immediately got the feeling of a more torpedo-shaped abdomen, not the broad and flattened one I should have seen. Then it clicked. A Four-spotted Chaser.

We don’t get many of these around Andover. Historically, there usually seems to be one a year turning up at what is known as the Tench Pool at the town end of Anton Lakes, although not one was seen in the area last year. Like Skimmers Chasers will often find a perch they like and use it as a base while it holds the sunlight. Launching themselves out to hurtle round, hunting food or a possible mate, or even both, and then returning to the same spot over and over. I noted its current favourite spot and made my way round. It didn’t seem to take the slightest notice of me allowing me to snap away, examine the proceeds, trash everything and then snap away again. Eventually, through my highly trained photographic skills, and the ancient truth that if it cracks off enough shots eventually even a Chimpanzee will get something passable, I ended up with this:

Four-spotted chaser

In Dragonflies the norm is for the male to be blue and the female green or yellow. In this particular species the sexes are virtually identical, certainly in terms of identification in the field. However, a quick examination of the photograph on the screen on the back of the camera tells me all I need to know. If you look at the claspers at the end of the abdomen you will see that they flare outwards. This, then, is a male. On the female they are straight.

I went back to the larger pond for a while. There was something out there I was seeing, but it wasn’t landing where I could get to it yet. I waited. The sun would move slowly round and we would see. A hunter must be patient. After half an hour or so I took a look back at the smaller pond, and the Four-spotted Chaser had itself relocated to a different vantage point. Earlier, as you can see, it choosing to use a stick protruding out over the water, but now it had relocated to the top of a plant spike. This allowed me a different shot altogether, although it took a good twenty minutes or so as the wind was playing gusty games again:

Four-spotted chaser

And so it was back to the larger body of water to see if what I had spotted earlier was going to give me a sporting chance. Previously, it had been using a stick poking out of the lower bank, similarly to the Four-spotted Chaser, but now it had moved to adopt a position atop a stick pointing straight up out of the water:

Black-tailed skimmer

A Black-tailed Skimmer. This is an immature male, and one of our prettiest Dragonflies. When they are very young they are a bright yellow all the way along their length, with black linear markings dividing the abdomen into rectangles. As they move towards maturity, as this one is, a blue pruinescence gradually bleeds through the blackish lines and then out across the whole abdomen, the adult male’s colouration being wholly blue with the dark tip the insect is named for.

As ever, I snap and snap and snap as the insect darts off to circle low over the water, hence the name “Skimmer”, only to repeatedly return to its chosen vantage point. All of a sudden, it seems, the sun has moved that few degrees and a shadow closes in on the chosen perch. Another flight, but this time there is no return. It is late afternoon and the line of trees along the western side of the meadow, in which the ponds lie, is casting a shadow across most of the water. Everything here will now roost. Damselflies into the reeds, Dragonflies into the bushes and trees … and it’s certainly time for me to head home for tea.

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