Dorset heaths

The Dorset Heathlands

David Beeson

My part of Southern England is dominated by a chalk geology. That results in thin, calcium-rich soils and a characteristic ecology. Much of south-east Dorset has sand and gravels beneath the surface, and these generate very different conditions.

I was based a few kilometres north of the walled, Saxon town of Wareham – in Wareham Forest. Morden Bog National  Nature Reserve is just a short walk away. To the south is the (UK talking) huge area of nature conservation zone owned by various organisations, including The National Trust and RSPB – Arne RSPB reserve, Stoborough Heath NNR and Hartland Moor NNR. That joins on to Studland Heath NNR.

A quick viewing of a map will allow you to decide that this is not the whole picture. For, just to the south of these acidic soils is a ridge of chalk centred on the amazing settlement of Corfe Village with Corfe Castle. The headland at Ballard Down is the best location I know for seeing wild adders. On a divergent note, there is a steam railway between the Victorian seaside town of Swanage to Corfe and, when the railway is not running, is a great snake spotting venue!

This locomotive pulled me to school on several occasions! Shows my age ….

The two, native deer to the UK are the roe and red. This part of the country has large numbers of sika deer, and you will find it hard not to see them at Arne. During my visit the mammals were gearing up for the annual rut – again, best seen on the fields at Arne (GR 975 880).


Poole Harbour is the second largest inlet in the world, and its southern shore stretches from Arne to Studland. Shipstal Point has good hides to allow viewing of the tidal zone birds and the sika deer feeding on the marsh. Brownsea Island, in the harbour, has a Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve with red squirrels. I have carried out research on Brownsea (voles) and Arne (adders and small mammals).

Looking north over the heathlands to Poole Harbour

Wareham Forest.

The forestry industry dominates this area and mainly grows non-native conifers, although Scots pine are seen. The valley sides and hillocks are full of sand that has a hardpan beneath, and that inhibits water drainage further, pushing it sideways to form Morden Bog.

Wet and dry at Wareham Forest
Sandy substrate allows xerophytic plants to grow – especially heathers.

Attempts were made in the 1960s to grow trees (probably sitka spruce) on some of the wetland. This was achieved by ridges and furrows, with the trees planted on the ridges. The photographs will give a strong indication of its success.

60 years of growth produced this! And, this was the best bit.

Recently a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the ecosystem, however the Morden Bog area escaped and looks pristine.

Morden Bog … well, I found it interesting.

The fauna to look for include: Dartford warblers, sand lizards and the ubiquitous sika deer. With extensive conifer plantations, keep alert for crossbills. Newts occur in the numerous ponds, yet the one encountered could have been smooth or palmate. Adders are around, but kept out of the way, sadly. The flora is dominated, in the open areas, by heathers – Dorset heath is rare, but widespread here, ling and bell heather are common. In the bog I encountered carnivorous sundews, cotton grass and bog asphodel, plus the various sphagnums.

Sphagnum moss. The ultra-rare (I’ve never found it) bog orchid grows here.
Oval-leaved sundew. The round-leaved version was nearby. Carnivorous.

There are long walks and off-road cycle trails available, but few seats.

Parking available (free) at the start of the Sika Trail.

Arne RSPB reserve is an absolute delight. Rare birds, all the UK’s reptiles, too many sika deer and views across Poole Harbour. The reserve can be busy and dog’s too numerous, so chose a potentially quiet time. Free parking for RSPB members, otherwise £5. Food normally available and plenty of helpful staff and maps.


Two main trails are available, yet the vast majority of the reserve is closed to visitors. In summer the eastern trail is the more divergent with heathland, deciduous woodland, freshwater pools, with numerous uncommon dragonflies, raft spiders and amphibians. The views over the harbour yield sightings of spoonbills, various egrets, deer. Woodlarks, nightjars, Dartford warblers and 34 species of waders can all be seen.

The other trail transgresses an open heathland, home to the smooth snake and possible views of osprey.

Look out for two interesting plants: dwarf gorse, that grows close to the ground, and the thin pink threads of the 100% parasitic dodder.

Studland Heath

This has most of what has been described elsewhere, plus large lakes and glorious sand dunes along the seacoast. The only snag is the beach is amazingly popular in summer, and parking can be impossible. NT members park for free, others pay a lot!

From the road between Corfe and Wareham a single-track road crosses the NT heaths northwards towards Arne. This gives access to lonely areas of open heath.

Heathers and dwarf gorse.
Wareham Forest.

An English Canal

David Beeson

September 2020

The Basingstoke Canal

(This is located in Central Hampshire, close to the M3)

Serendipity led me to this spot. We had an appointment in the ever-enlarging town of Basingstoke, and, having completed this chore aimed somewhere new. Having arrived at Odiham, a Georgian-styled town, we explored: finding beautifully-designed houses, the village stocks, inns and restaurants … and a canal.

The Basingstoke Canal is a British canal, completed in 1794, built to connect Basingstoke with the River Thames at Weybridge via the Wey Navigation. With the waterway passing through only agricultural areas, it was never a commercial success, and the last barge that penetrated to Basingstoke was in 1910. Mostly, since then, it has been neglected, and the 1Km Greywell Tunnel collapsed in 1932. However, that is not the end of the tale. From 1966 volunteers have been restoring the waterway and, today, it is navigable along most of its length.

It is the final stretch that will never be restored. Greywell Tunnel is an important bat conservation location, and the mammals will not be evicted.

So, why would a wildlife-enthusiast be so interested in the canal?

Wikipedia says:

Two sections of the canal totalling 101.3 hectares (250 acres) are a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Nature Conservation Review site. These are the main length between Greywell and Brookwood Lye and a short stretch between Monument Bridge and Scotland Bridge in Woking. It is the most botanically rich aquatic area in England and flora include the nationally scarce hairlike pondweed and the nationally scarce tasteless water-pepper. The site is also nationally important for its invertebrates. There are 24 species of dragonfly, and other species include two nationally rare Red Data Book insects.

I would care to add:

In places, springs throw crystal-clear water into the canal. In these spots the freshwater fish are easily seen – perch, rudd and pike, for example.

At either end of the towpath walk from Odiham to Greywell are old-English inns – The Waterwitch and The Fox and Goose at Greywell. Parking is free near the Odiham inn.

The canal is worth exploring.

Barges were ‘legged’ through Greywell Tunnel as there was no path for the horses. Men lay on their backs and pushed for several hours to navigate the tunnel.
There are no extant locks between Odiham and Greywell.

As a bonus, on the walk one passes the ‘Historic Ruin’ of Odiham Castle. At one time this was one of the most prestigious castles in England.

Odiham - Wikipedia
The High Street of Odiham in Hampshire | Photo published in … | Flickr

NOTE: over 90 articles available, free of adverts. See: – Rocky Mountains, USA and Index.

Early September

David Beeson

A tour of the chalk landscape.

For me, this is a quiet time. The male birds (except the pigeons)are non-territorial and mostly quiet, although the UK robin is his normal pugnacious self. Butterflies have largely vanished to dust, while a few struggle on. It is the same with the flora, some show their colours now, while the English flush of flowering is history. So, we have to look for more divergent highs – the fungi are showing their spore-bodies and the misty mornings are atmospheric. The fallow, sika and red deer are gearing up for their rut, however the roe are past their mating season (May and June locally) and the muntjac females are sexy all the time!

I am hopeful of spotting bronze slivers of baby slow worms soon. A mating pair spent 36 hours in copulation in the spring and this female spends time near our wild hedge … so I will keep an eye out under some tin put down for them. Our horse-obsessed neighbour kept hens until recently (I’m told to eat the ticks carried by the horses), and these birds (with pheasants) are reptile predators. With the last hen’s demise I am hopeful the slow worms will increase their population.

About half of the Summer Meadow is now cut short, and that herbage is composting. The remainder is awaiting the final movement of butterfly larvae to hibernate at soil level before it too will be managed. If the plants are not removed the meadow will go through succession, becoming shrubby and will grow too strongly for the orchids and lower-growing plants to thrive.

Conservation is always a compromise. What do you save? In our case, with only a small Summer Meadow we aim at flora first, then insects. The seeds are not left for the finches, so they lose out. However, the ant-eating green woodpecker enjoys the short turf. Fungi find too little organic matter to show well, and voles have too little cover. Wood and yellow-necked mice do well from the hedge, mini copse and quantities of nuts, acorns and hedgerow berries on the garden’s forest fringe.

The flower borders still attract insects

Flower borders still hold both pollen and nectar, so the wild bees are having a good time. There are wasps and their bully-brothers, the hornets, around searching out food. A day ago, I watched a common wasp stalking around and chasing, on its feet, a big aphid. It caught it and ate it while the green insect attempted to depart. The wasp won.

Chalk heath and chalk downland intermixed. Tank training areas in the distance.

Yesterday, Annette and I joined Julie and John Moon exploring Sidbury Hill on the army’s Salisbury Plain Training Area. The Moons have a great knowledge of the area.

Sidbury Hill is a Bronze Age settlement situated on chalk. Nearby are (Superficial) Reading Beds of a more acidic gravel geology and these have allowed the development of chalk heath – a more acidic soil type that allows ling (a heather) and gorse to establish themselves on top of the chalk.

Wide landscapes for Southern England. Track edges, short and long grass gives a divergent open habitat.

Some butterflies were still flying: small heaths, common and Adonis blues, meadow browns.

The army’s conservation partners
Eyebright, Euphrasis nemorosa
Carline thistle, in flower (not seed).
Edible mushroom
Ling on the chalk heath
Yellow version of the normally red Fly Agaric
A boletus?
Silver weed, Potentilla anserina dominates this gateway
Beech woodland on chalk. The large input of leaf litter and limited light allow a specialist flora to develop at ground level. White helleborine orchids occur in their thousands, together with bird’s nest orchids and yellow birds nest.
Rupture seed capsules of the bird’s nest orchid. This non-green plant probably feeds off the underground fungi.
Only exceptional plants can live under these conditions. Marsh fritillary butterflies occur nearby.

The extreme north-west of Hampshire is a quiet area. A place lost.

These images are of a walk from Linkenholt to Combe.

Combe Church. Guess the date … answer below.
Domestic pheasants dominate the area, but the swathe to the left is open grassy meadowland.
Barn owl nest site built into the old barn
Scentless mayweed in the stubble.
Ancient woodlands coat the shallow valley’s sides
Countryside at Combe.
Look carefully! Notice the gibbet … a hanging spot in the Middle Ages.

So, that’s a tour of what’s about on the north Hampshire chalklands.

Plants are clever. 2

David Beeson

For more information on this topic: see MOSSES article.

September 2020

Seeds are crucial to the survival of a plant species. No viable seeds and the genetic line will die out, although some plants (e.g. English elm) mainly asexually reproduce from suckers forming a genetically identical cluster of plants.

Parts of a Seed, Their Structure, and Functions with Diagram

Seeds are a genetic mixture of DNA (genes) from the two parents, plus genetic mutations that throw in the ‘joker’ of new genes. Constant re-shuffling of the genes in a population (called the gene pool) is good, yet adding new genes is better longer-term.

The seed is an immature plant: stem + one or two seed leaves (cotyledons) + shoot (plumule) + root (radicle) + food store in the leaves or separately as an endosperm (in monocotyledonous plants such as the grasses or sweetcorn). Around all this is the seed coat, the testa.

Seeds start with an endosperm, then in the dicotyledonous plants (two seed leaves) the food store moves into the seed leaves which enlarge. Peas, beans and peanuts all have two seed leaves filled with stored resources.

(The white of a coconut is endosperm, as is white flour.)

Most books ignore the testa. Sadly, as it is the most interesting part! It is the seed’s protector and it controls germination. A seed germinating under the wrong conditions will be committing suicide. A waste of resources.

The seed coat is made up of several layers of sturdy, thick-walled cells, and in many plants it is impregnated with wax or varnish-like chemicals. Unchanged, this testa will stop water ingress and inhibit germination. The rate at which the seed coat breaks down controls germination. Seeds can occasionally remain viable for thousands of years (Egyptian tombs).

In arid locations, the seed coat is designed to take up water and rupture when water is sufficiently abundant. Sometimes, it breaks down when rubbed by water against sand grains. Gardeners can rub seeds against sandpaper to stimulate germination in a seed tray. With dodder (Cuscuta), I have treated the seeds with an acid (white vinegar) to encourage growth. (It didn’t work!) In germinating hardy orchid seeds, I have used bleach to break dormancy.

Oxygen can also be a stimulant to germination in some species. Presumably these seeds are in danger of being deposited deep underground, and the diggings of hogs allow them access to oxygen and growth when nearer the surface.

The range of germination stimulants is long, including light (lettuce), micro-organism attack, release of anti-inhibitors by other plants and time. Seeds of some plants germinate in phases and others need smoke to stimulate growth.

(Seeds come from a fertilized egg cells. As you can see at the end of the article, it is not as simple as human egg plus sperm! In reality, the plant’s egg cell is one of several cells that make up a female gametophyte, that has arisen from a spore.)

Above: life cycle of a fern. Note the two stages, that can live independent lives. Such cycles occur in all plants from mosses to flowering plants.

Below is a diagram of the ‘female’ parts of a flower. Stigma, style and ovary – containing the ovule (within yellow coloured part.) This flower has a single ovule in the ovary. That is not always the situation.

how the process of fertilization takes place in plants draw labelled diagram  to explain the process - Biology - | 007p1sydd

Below is a flower with many ovules with one ovary. The number varies. In the pea, the pod is the ovary wall and the peas (seeds) form from the ovules.

Fruit Facts for Kids

Seeds are contained within a modified ovary wall. Seeds + modified wall = a fruit. The starches that may be present in the fruit change to sugars when the seeds are ready for dispersal. (My yellow fruited viburnum and crab apple trees have fruit that never ripens to the red colour and are mostly ignored as inedible by the birds.)

Seeds eaten by birds mostly pass through the gut unchanged. If they are crushed they will be digested and die. (By putting chilli seeds in with a bird food mixture it will discourage rodents, who chew seeds, and not birds who usually just swallow. The birds do not taste the hot chilli seeds.)

Giberillins (gibberellins) are plant hormones release from the embryo when it becomes hydrated. The hormone works on the stored starch in either cotyledons or endosperm causing amylase production. Amylase is a starch digesting enzyme (Like salivary amylase in mammals). The sugars produced is the energy and raw material for growth and germination. However, it all is triggered by the testa allowing water into the seed.

The Life Cycle of Plants: Alternation of Generations | SparkNotes

Above, a diagram showing the complexity of ‘real’ flowering plant reproduction. Meiosis is cellular and nuclear division that halves the chromosome number to make gametes. Gametes (sex cells) combine to form a zygote and to grow to form the next generation via the seed.

In flowering plants the gamete-producing stages are held within the ‘normal’ green plant.

NOTE: over 90 articles available, free of adverts. See: – Rocky Mountains, USA and Index.

What do plants look like inside? Part 1, leaves.

David Beeson

August 2020.

A section through the mid-rib of an Acer plant.

A section through the mid-rib of an Acer plant.

The mid-rib is the central support of a leaf and has both structural support and the transport (vascular) tissues.

The cells are visible as they have firm cellulose walls which hold their shape (provided they are water-filled).

You will notice the cells vary in design with smaller cells on the surface (epidermal cells) and some larger ones inside.

The central core of the mid-rib contains the main veins, with xylem (water transport) and phloem (organic transport – sugars, amino acids and hormones).

Those cells that appear to have thicker walls are some of the support tissues, holding the leaf in a position to enable effective light capture.

On either side are the flat parts of the leaf – the leaf lamina.

Part of a leaf lamina. This shows a small leaf vein and the lower epidermis.

The big red-coloured (they are stained and not naturally this colour) cells are xylem. They have their cellulose cell walls filled with water-proofing lignin. Beneath the two large xylems is a patch of green-coloured cells (also stained). These small cells, with cellulose walls, are the phloem.

Green-stained cells containing red dots are the main photosynthetic cells – chlorenchyma. The red dots are chloroplasts, the organelles that carry out the light capture and production of glucose.

You know the formula!

6CO2 + 6H2O + light energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 + some waste heat.

Carbon dioxide combines with water, if suitably activated by energy, to form carbohydrates with the release of oxygen.

Here you can see from the upper epidermis down to the lower epidermis. Between are the chlorenchyma cells – long thin ones at the surface and more irregular one below. The irregular shaped ones allowing gases to move (diffuse) between them.

Upper epidermal cells usually have thicker walls and a surface layer of wax (lipid or fats) to reduce water loss.

Epidermal cells contain the leaf’s toxins.

A single stoma (plural, stomata) with a hole in the middle of variable width and two guard cells containing chloroplasts. These mainly occur on the lower surface and allow gas exchange into and out of the lamina. They can open and close to control flow.

Above, vertical section through a leaf with stomata visible with their guard cells.

The red structure is a leaf hair. These are mostly used for protection against water loss in that they reduce the diffusion of water vapour to the environment. They are especially common on the leaves of plants living in dry locations.

A section through a heather leaf. This is living in dry conditions, so has thicker epidermal cells with (look carefully) a thick waxy surface. Small leaves are an adaptation to reduce water loss.

A section through a growing shoot. You should notice the young leaves developing and dense areas of rapid cell division. The small dots are nuclei.

Chromosomes! Can you see the darkly staining nuclei in the cells and some are dividing, showing the chromosomes.

Hope you liked that! Feed back appreciated!!!!!

NOTE: over 90 articles available, free of adverts. See: – Rocky Mountains, USA and Index.

Plants are clever. Part 1.

Plants are well adapted to life, part 1.

David Beeson, August 2020

Evening primrose with a bumble bee seeking nectar. Note the X-shaped stigma.

Annuals, biennials and perennials

Evolution, through Natural Selection (Survival of the Fittest), is a powerful force. Death does that! If a plant’s strategy is poor, it dies and fails to pass on its genes. On the other hand, if it gets everything perfect, it will have many viable offspring and its genes are not only passed on but multiplied. And, that’s the aim of life.

Annual plants are often agricultural weeds, or plants surviving alongside soil disturbers such as pigs or badgers or rabbits. They germinate in the spring, flower and seed during that year, and die when adverse weather conditions hit them. The parent plant might have died, yet its progeny will have over-winter protection and germinate next spring when adverse conditions are past.

Namaqualand bursts out flowering if spring rains fall. Mostly annuals. An amazing sight with square kilometres of amazing colour. Visit!

Garden centres are full of annuals in the spring – but put them into your garden too soon and you will lose them all to frost. Poppies are an example of an annual.

Biennials have a different life strategy. Mostly they germinate in the spring, grow a whorl of ground-level leaves and then store their products of photosynthesis in their roots. In the late autumn, they cuddle down for the winter, and remain comatose. Spring temperatures and sunlight levels stimulate growth using up their stored starch or oils and proteins; they grow tall to have their flowers visible to pollinators, set seed and die. In the UK, foxgloves are good examples of biennials.

Perennials can be large organisms. They hold the resources produced each year and do not die back. Redwoods, oaks and eucalyptus can live for many years, and put on tonnes of weight. However, they too have their challenges, especially away from the tropics were frost, snow and freezing temperatures may persist for several months. Of course, other environmental factors can cause dormancy. For example, summer drought or extreme temperatures.

Perennials need well-protected buds, to keep the growth points (meristems) away from weather damage. This often involves having thick, closely overlapping scale buds that hold out moisture. Inside the bud will be low in moisture and may have added anti-freeze to stop needle-like ice crystals forming and destroying the cells.

Scale buds are best seen on horse chestnut buds.

Horse chestnut’s scale leaves protects underlying tissues by being water-proof. Note also the leaf scares and ‘dots’ which are the sealed off vascular tissues – phloem and xylem.


Whatever the life strategy, a plant needs to flower early enough to disperse full-formed seeds. Genetic material that are protected to remain viable until germination time. Flower too early and frost could kill the plant. Too late and the seeds will not have enough development time to be viable.

Fuchsias flower late into the year. Early flowers generate viable seeds.

In my local forest, Harewood, many plants flower in March or April. They store resources in swollen roots or bulbs so they can rush to leaf and flower before the trees shade them out and pollinators vanish. Inside a woodland, temperatures are more moderate than in an open site, so frosts are less likely and so allowing early flowering.

Many plants flower later in the growing season, allowing maximum growing time, photosynthetic resources and, hopefully, lots of seeds. In my garden the flowering peak is May or June for the flower borders and June and July for the wildflower meadows. Some plants only flowering in August, but they are in a minority. I have to selected plants carefully to have flower-power late in the year – Japanese anemones, asters and fuchsias … these being exotics, not native plants.

Our native trees and shrubs flower from February (cherry plum) through to July (privet). Non-natives, such as hibiscus, may flower into September, yet I doubt viable seeds will be produced before the first frosts hit them.

Crimson Cloud – a red version of the common hawthorn. It flowers in April to early May and has produced a bumper crop of fruits this year. Biological success.

2020 had a wet spring, but lacking cold weather, and seed / fruiting has been exceptionally heavy. Our English oak is currently shedding a huge crop of acorns. The winter birds and active rodents will have plenty of food.

(At this time of the year, domestic pigs are released into the New Forest – called pannage. The hogs are keen acorn eaters, so reducing the chance of forest ponies being harmed by the acorns’ tannins. Pigs are immune to the toxic effects of the tannins.)

New Forest pannage

(Non-native plants will have evolved under different environmental pressures, so their flowering strategy will be non-adapted to southern UK conditions.)

We will return to flowering shortly. It is a complex topic!

Here be DRAGONS and DAMSELS! A major article.

A major article by John Solomon, August 2020

Migrant hawker, male, showing eye structure – multiple detection segments. Compound eyes!

A guide to the ODONATA of the ANDOVER region.


Odonata is the Latin term for the insects more commonly known as Damselflies and Dragonflies. While superficially very similar they do differ in several ways. Firstly, Dragonflies are larger than Damselflies and when they rest they always do so with their wings stretched out from the body. The nymphs, the immature forms that live in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, add another major difference in the positioning of the gills they use to breathe. Damselflies have three feathery gills, known as caudal lamellae, attached to the end of their abdomen. Dragonfly nymphs, on the other hand, have their gills inside their abdomen, actually taking water in and then expelling it through the rectum. If necessity demands they can eject this water very forcibly to give them a short burst of speed, perhaps to escape a predatory fish.

Being insects all Odonata larvae have six legs, an exoskeleton with wing buds and a hinged jaw. A characteristic of this is the extendable lower lip, or labium. This mask consists of two connected parts and a pair of labial palms, these end in thorns which are used to grab the prey. In resting state the mask is held under the head and covers the mandibles, but when striking prey the mask is extended by a contraction of muscles and bodily fluids, greatly increasing the reach. This strike can happen in as little as 25 milliseconds and enables the nymph to catch and kill prey even larger than itself. It was this that provided the inspiration for the Alien in the movies of the same name. While young nymphs might feed upon small water insects such as Water Fleas more mature and larger nymphs might take on small fish, tadpoles and even newts. They live in submerged vegetation, or even down in the silt and sediment at the bottom of bodies of water, and are prodigious hunters.

As insects they cannot grow by simply getting larger, their exoskeleton prevents that, so at regular intervals they shed the exoskeleton they have replacing it with a new one a size larger. The smaller Damselflies will go through 5 such moults but the larger Dragonflies might moult as many as 14 or 15 times. Similarly, the larger the insect the longer it takes for it to feed up and reach the state of emergence. The Common Emerald Damselfly lays its eggs towards the end of Summer and they do not hatch until early the following Spring. The larva then feed voraciously, emerging only 3 months or so later as adults, but this is exceptional. Most Damselflies take 1-2 years to reach the point where they are ready to leave the water and take to the sky, although this is dependent upon the availability of food. Larger Dragonflies, such the Golden-Ringed, can remain as nymphs and feeding up for as long as 5 or 6 years.

The timing of the emergence the insect is decided by the nymph being fully grown, but also the length of daylight and the temperature. When the insect decides the time is right it climbs up out of the water, often using a reed. The exoskeleton of the nymphs splits and the adult insect starts to push itself out. It pauses once the head, thorax and legs are free, waiting for half an hour or so to allow the fresh and soft new exoskeleton to harden. Once the legs are firm it then hauls out the abdomen. By pumping fluids around the body and through the veins of the wings the abdomen is extended and the wings reach out into their full glory. The fluids are then drawn back into the body and the wings and exoskeleton allowed to dry and set. This is a crucial period in the insect’s life. Not only is it intensely vulnerable to any predator but if the expansion of the wings is compromised, for instance by being restricted by vegetation, then the wings will not form properly and it will not be able to fly … and if it cannot fly it cannot catch prey and feed.

They leave behind the empty shell, or exoskeleton of the nymph they have been through their water-bound phase, known as an exuviae. These can often be found still attached to reeds around the water margins. This is the exuviae of a Migrant Hawker:


The newly emerged adult, or teneral, may not necessarily have its full adult colouration and patterning. Dragonflies are often pale green while the Damselflies offer a variety of different colours, the female Blue-Tailed Damselfly being an excellent example, and the insect may take around a week before the full, adult pigmentation is seen. This can make identification interesting.

With wings dry the insect now heads skyward to take its place as one of the most deadly predators on Earth. Their hunting success rate has been estimated at 95%, so if you are a small flying insect and a Dragonfly or Damselfly decides that you are lunch, then you are truly lunch. They owe their devastating prowess in part to their four magnificent wings. They can operate all of them independently through a wide range of movement, enabling them not only to fly forwards, upwards or sideways but also to hover and even fly backwards. Furthermore, they are able to execute a change in direction at blinding speed. To guide this amazing flying ability and pinpoint their prey they have remarkable vision. All insects use what are known as compound eyes, being formed of a series of what are effectively tubes, known as facets or ommatidia. These contain light sensitive proteins, or opsins, which respond to different wavelengths of light. In the case of Dragonflies and Damselflies there four or five different opsins enabling them to see beyond our own spectrum and into such optical regions as ultra violet. Each eye can contain up to 30,000 of these ommatidia and, thanks to their round structure, the two eyes give them a fully spherical field of vision. Last, but not least, careful examination of those 6 legs will reveal what look like hairs or bristles, but they are not. Instead they are stiff, hard spikes of the chitin that forms the insect’s exoskeleton. When it attacks its prey it wraps them up in its legs, which form a cage known as the basket, and those spikes help hold it secure. Damselflies and Dragonflies really are the dragons of the insect world. Unsurprisingly, the choice of prey will depend on the size of the insect. Damselflies will take smaller flying bugs and beetles but the Dragonflies, especially the larger ones, will take anything and everything, from smaller prey right up to butterflies, bees and other Odonata, including Damselflies!

As adults their main aim in life is to breed. To this end male Dragonflies will often commandeer a stretch of bank or reed bed which they will patrol relentlessly, investigating any intruder. They will drive away possible rivals but the insect will endeavour to mate with any suitable female that passes through, often quite forcibly. Damselfly species found in the area are not so territorial, mainly living in large groups throughout the reed beds around the local lakes, although the males are just as bent on fulfilling their obligations. The weather can be conducive, or otherwise. The hot early summer of 2018 filled the reeds and even the air with courting couples, while the rather lower temperatures and gustier wind of the same period a year later, in 2019, saw a much lower level of activity.

Male Odonata have two sets of sexual organs with the primary sperm producing organs situated at the very base of the abdomen. The insect transfers sperm from here into what might be thought of as a pouch on the underside of the second section, known as the ‘accessory genitalia’. During mating the male holds the female by the back of the neck using the claspers at the very tail end of his abdomen. If the female is agreeable she then reaches the tip of her own abdomen forward and up, so it meets the male’s accessory genitalia, and the sperm is transferred. This position is technically known as in copula and more commonly described as ‘the wheel’, although any observer will see from the shape the insects form that perhaps the term ‘the heart’ would be more fitting in more ways than one. The length of time the partners remain in this position varies considerably and has little to do with the size of the insects. The Blue-Tailed Damselfly is one of our smallest but the pair may remain attached to each other for up to 6 hours, while in the Chasers it lasts only a few seconds and can even take place in a brief mid-air encounter.

The fertilised female will spend most of her adult life engaged in laying eggs. Most species lay their eggs in floating or emergent vegetation, sometimes depositing them directly into the water but more often using a needle-like ovipositor to inject them into plant stems. A Damselfly will lay hundreds of eggs during the 2-4 weeks of her life and a Dragonfly, which may live for couple of months, could lay thousands. To give an idea a Banded Demoiselle was observed laying 450 eggs in one 45 minute session, while another unidentified Dragonfly was seen hovering over Rooksbury Lake laying at the rate of one a second for 7 or 8 minutes, giving a total of between 420 and 480 eggs. Normally the eggs hatch within 2-5 weeks although, as mentioned above, some species, such as the Common Emerald as well as some Hawkers and Darters, wait until the following Spring.

The egg-laying process is often a solitary thing for the female, but not always. It is common to see Damselfly pairs, locked together by the male’s claspers, flying low over the water in tandem. The male is the insect on top, carrying the female from egg-laying site to egg-laying site whilst keeping a lookout for anything threatening. Occasionally you might find a place that is popular for the activity and it can be surreal to see twenty, thirty, forty or even more pairs gathered closely en masse, the females down on the floating vegetation and laying while the males, attached to them, hover above. Although Dragonfly pairs will be seen flying in tandem this is not at the egg-laying phase but earlier in the courtship, as the male seeks a safe perch for them to complete the fertilisation. Once the deed is done it is very normal for the male to simply fly off into the blue yonder in search of another conquest, however, just occasionally he will stay with the female. I have watched this at Rooksbury, a female Emperor Dragonfly down on the floating debris and laying as her male hovers a yard or so over her offering protection. On this occasion I saw him drive away another male, a would-be suitor, so as to ensure it was his progeny that she injected into the floating stems.


Parasites are one of the most diverse groups of fauna infecting virtually every organism on the planet. As such they are a significant evolutionary force, influencing genetic diversity and affecting not only individuals but entire species. In the Odonata these are mainly Gregarines and Water Mite larvae with studies finding that individuals often suffer from an infestation of both. Damselfly females tend to be far more vulnerable to ectoparasites than males, but there was no difference between the sexes in Dragonflies. Territorial and larger species, which mainly means Dragonflies, also seem to have far less susceptibility than smaller species, mainly the Damselflies. This might, perhaps, be reflected in a greater annual variation in the numbers of individuals counted. When the insect numbers are high this provides a ready feast for any parasites, resulting in a rapid growth in their numbers. This profusion means that the numbers of the host species are driven down, making life harder for the parasitic species and causing their numbers to fall. The drop in numbers then makes it easier for the host species to proliferate, which results in a rapid growth of their numbers in turn. Then the cycle starts again running over several years.


Endoparasites, these are a group of Apicomplexan alveolate, classified as Gregarnasina or Gregarinia. They are large for Protozoans, roughly half a millimetre in length, and inhabit the intestines of many invertebrates, including Odonata, but are not found in vertebrates. They are usually transmitted by the orofaecal route but some may be passed from one individual to another during copulation.

Water Mite Larva

These are what are known as ectoparasites. The vast majority of Water Mite larva are parasites of aquatic insects, including Odonata larvae, the mite young attaching themselves to the underside of mainly the thorax and occasionally the forward sections of the abdomen of the nymph. Some species of nymph can resist infestation by what is known as melanotic encapsulation, by which the mite’s stylestome, or effectively the feeding tube, is blocked and the larva starves to death.


Dragonflies and Damselflies are insects, which means that, in basic terms, their bodies are formed of three sections. Their head, which is self-explanatory, holding those over-sized eyes, the crushing jaws and a pair of very small antennae. The mid-section is a large and solid box, known as the thorax, which has the wings on its upper surface, holds the powerful flight muscles, having the under-carriage of the legs underneath. The third section is visually its tail, stretching out long and slender behind the insect, but is in fact the abdomen. In the Andover area there are two species of Demoiselle and seven of Damselfly. While the Demoiselles are reasonably easy to tell apart the Damselflies often have a blue male and a green female. It is only the careful study of the different colours, and sometimes very slight and subtle variations in the patterns of the markings, which enable differentiation. For identification it is also important to remember that the long abdomen is formed of ten sections. As mentioned above the male has accessory genitalia. This is effectively a bag seen as a small bulge found on the underside of section 2, just behind the thorax. In the descriptions that follow there will often be references to sections 8, 9 and 10, the end of abdomen’s “tail”, where some of the minor but important differences between species can be found.

As a general rule Damselflies emerge earlier than Dragonflies and that is certainly so for the species found locally. They will start to be found in small numbers towards the end of May, rapidly growing the populations through June and into July, then gradually disappearing through August. We start with the Demoiselles.


The two species of Demoiselle found in the UK are the Banded Demoiselle and the Beautiful Demoiselle. Both like moving water and when they are found around standing water there will always be running water nearby. They love the chalk streams that run throughout the Test Valley and can also be found all along the Test itself. They emerge fairly early in the season and certainly you will begin to find them on the wing by mid-May. Most numerous through June and into July their numbers begin to drop off as you move through the month and into August.

They are metallic looking insects of medium size with a noticeably fluttering flight, often seen among reeds. The males like to find a spot at the water’s edge where they will establish a vantage point on a chosen reed and wait for a female to fly by. From here they will often dart out off their perch to chase other males away. In thick reed beds they seem more tolerant of each other, but the male will still like his chosen reed and expect others to keep away.

Banded Demoiselle

The commonest, one might say ubiquitous to the area, is the Banded Demoiselle:

The male:


The female:


Easily identifiable the male has a dark “thumb print” on its forewings. The female has pale green translucent wings with a “false white spot” towards the tip.

They can be found throughout the Andover area but are particularly prevalent at Rooksbury Lakes, which has a small network of streams running through it, also on Cow Common at Chilbolton. However, anywhere you are able to reach the reed beds at the side of the streams throughout the Test Valley you are going to find these.

Beautiful Demoiselle

The second Demoiselle species, the Beautiful Demoiselle, is far less numerous:

The male:


The female:


The male is immediately different to the Banded as the forewing is completely dark. I have read this described as a brown-black but, to me, it seems more a deep, inky blue-black. At first glance the female seems little different to the Banded Demoiselle female above and, in the wild, they can be difficult to tell apart. The thorax and abdomen are much the same colour but the wings are actually a translucent brown instead of green. Sometimes the sun will catch the insect at just the right angle and then she becomes lit up as a surprising gold. The one way to be sure, unless you are lucky enough to stumble across a mating pair, is a reasonable photograph. Even if the colouration isn’t clear from this you will be able to see that the “false white spot” of this species is not quite as far along the wing, being a little further away from the tip, in comparison to the Banded female. This species can be found at Rooksbury and at Longparish, but the numbers are always rather low and always by the streams that run through. It is doubtless present along the length of the Test Valley, but access is severely limited so its exact distribution is not clear.

Moving on to the Damselflies themselves, unsurprisingly, the country’s four most common species are all present and correct, namely the Common Blue, the Azure, Blue Tailed and Red Eyed. All four are easily found around the three local lakes, but the first three also cope with moving water, particularly the small streams and gutters that are liberally spread throughout the water meadows of the Test Valley. The adults begin to emerge in May, although all three continue to hatch throughout the summer months, keeping a presence until the season draws to a close. The adults will usually live for around 2 to 4 weeks, although some individuals will be lucky enough to be on the wing for rather longer.

When these Damselflies first emerge they have very little colour, being an off-white, but this gradually becomes a browner hue. This is a female Common Blue:

At this stage of its life the insect is described as teneral. Over the next few days the insect will normally adopt its adult colouration.

Common Blue Damselfly

The Blue Tailed female manages to confuse matters so we will stay with the Common Blue Damselfly:

The male:


The female:


The male is always the electric blue colour but the female comes in two forms, blue, looking almost identical to the male, and green. However, the two can be easily told apart by a rapid examination of the “tail” of the abdomen:

The male:


The female:


As can be seen the male has the blue colouration wrapping boldly around sections 8 and 9, while in the female it is broken and concentrated where the sections meet. As the name suggests these are very common insects and can often be seen as mating pairs on reeds and other foliage, and also flying locked in tandem as the female lays eggs into floating vegetation.

Teneral Common Blue Blue, female

Azure Damselfly

The Azure Damselfly is very similar in appearance to the Common Blue:

The male:


The female:


As with the Common Blue Damselfly the female occurs in both blue and green forms and, again, the same broken “tail” colouration can be seen in the female as with the Common Blue, allowing the differentiation of the two sexes. As can also be seen, these two species are very similar. There are several ways of telling them apart, but with all of them either a very close view or a reasonable photograph is necessary. The first is known as the Coenagrion Spur. This is a black marking, almost like a finger, protruding into the thorax colour of both sexes although I show it here on the male:





The next is a marking on the top surface of the second abdominal segment. If you examine the above photos and look at the upper surface of the second abdominal segment you will find the second difference between the two species. The male Azure Damselfly has a clear black marking looking approximating the lower three sides of a rectangle. This is commonly termed the “beer glass”. On the other hand the male Common Blue has a smaller marking looking almost like a child’s drawing of a silhouette of a round tree.

The females, similarly, have a different marking on the top surface of this segment:





In the Azure this almost a wine glass shape while the Common Blue female has a much more robust slab of black.

The third difference applies only to the males and is found right at the end of the tail of the abdomen. This can be seen in the lower black circle marked on the above photos. The Common Blue has solid colour wrapping around sections 8 and 9, whereas in the Azure male this is broken by an obvious intrusion of black on section 9. In the field this often the easiest identifier to see. The mark on section 2 can be hidden when the insects land as they usually lay their wings along their length, hiding it, and the Coenagrion Spur requires a good close up view of the side of the thorax.

Blue Tailed Damselfly

This leads us to the most confusing of the commonest Damselfly, namely, the Blue Tailed. The male is simple enough. After emerging he first assumes his immature colouration:


As can be seen the thorax is green and the blue tip of the “tail”, the reason for its name, is very clear. Careful examination of the underside of the second section of the long abdomen will reveal a small bulge, being the accessory genitalia. This is the adult colouration:


So far, so straight forward, but the female adopts an array of different colours depending on not just maturity but also simple colour variations. She has two immature forms. The first is known as violacea:


This very attractive lilac form then changes to either of two adult forms. The first is typica:


This particular example still has a trace of immature lilac on the thorax but the similarity to the male is very clear, that is why a good photograph is desirable. Examination of the second abdominal section is required, checking out whether the male’s accessory genitalia are present, to establish exactly what the insect is. The other possible colouration for the violacea form to mature into is known as infuscans:


The second immature form of the female is rufescens:


As this example shows in a young and fresh insect the thorax can be a very striking raspberry colour. This insect matures, the thorax going through a more adobe colour, gradually assuming a golden brown colour known as rufescens obsoleta:


Red Eyed Damselfly

The last of the four species is the Red Eyed Damselfly. This is more strictly a still water species, preferring ponds and lakes, especially those with a healthy reed growth, but it can also be found along canals and very sluggish rivers.

This is the male:


Notice the obviously red eyes and the Coenagrion Spur, which can occasionally finish in a detached “full stop”, but there is another visual clue which is helpful if you are more than a few yards away. This is that the insect has no shoulder stripes running down along the upper side of the thorax. These are known as the antehumeral stripes and their absence can make it look almost as if the Damselfly is wearing a “Batman” style cloak:


The female is green and very similar to the Azure female, having the same Coenagrion Spur on the side of her thorax. The eyes do have a reddish upper surface but it is nowhere near as noticeable as the burgundy-red of the male:


The tell-tale for this species is, again, the antehumeral stripes. The female does have them but they are short, often only running a third of the way back along the thorax:


This particular specimen is an absolutely text book example, which is why I have used it, but I have come across others where the cut-off of the antehumeral stripes is nowhere near as clear, and even others where there is a very thin a wispy vestigial stripe running most of the length of the thorax.

If you are very lucky you might come across a Damselfly that looks like a female but the antehumeral stripes are missing and the insect seems to be a rather paler green, almost a yellowy colour:


This is an immature male Red Eyed and it will take him a day or so to assume his electric-blue adult colouration.

Small Red Eyed Damselfly

There is one more “blue” Damselfly found in the area but it has only been reliably seen and recorded on film once, on 25 July 2017, at Charlton Lake. This is the Small Red Eyed Damselfly. It is nowhere near as common as the Red Eyed, only beginning to colonise this country in July 1999. Its flying season is later than the Red Eyed, beginning in the second half of July and stretching through August, so a sighting of a possible insect at the beginning of June will be the Red Eyed. It favours still waters with plenty of floating or emergent vegetation over which it will fly, mate and sunbathe, making it difficult to photograph as it will usually be well away from the bank. I feel they could well be present on Anton Lake, at the town end, as there is plenty of emergent vegetation there, but to find out would require access to a boat which I don’t have! This is a mating pair:


As can be seen the similarity with the rather commoner Red Eyed is obvious and the two species are virtually impossible to tell apart without a reasonable photo. With this species, too, the Coenagrian Spur often finishes in a “full stop”. The differences between the two species are very small indeed and to try and show them I am first going to zoom in on the above photo:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 32small-red-eyed-mating-identification-details.jpg

This shows that the female has a complete and strong antehumeral stripe, and that the male has a small break in the blue band around section 10. These are the only immediately obvious identifying features.

Large Red Damselfly

This completes the “blue” Damselflies in the area but there are two other species resident. The first I shall look at is the Large Red Damselfly. These are widespread and common, according to the book, but they are nothing like as ubiquitous as such a description would lead you to believe. Like the first three Damselflies, Common Blue, Azure and Blue Tailed, they are not too fussy about their environment, being found both on still water and small streams and gutters. They like the presence of reeds and other emergent vegetation and perhaps that explains why they don’t seem to be present on Charlton Lake or at Rooksbury.

The male:


The female:


They are easy to tell apart by looking at the abdominal sections:

The male:


The female:


As can be see the male has only a red band circling the joining of the sections and broader red bands at the junctions of the last four. The female has yellow banding as well. The female variation shown is the commonest, being  known as typica. She comes in two other forms. One has barely any of the blackness on section 6, being known as fulvipes, while the other has the blackness extending all the way up the abdomen and is called melanotum. Personally, I have so far only seen typica in this area … watch this space!

Common Emerald Damselfly

The last Damselfly known to be in the area is the elusive Common Emerald:

The male:


The female:


Apologies for the softness of the female photo, she was being blown around by the wind. This mating pair shows her more clearly:


These have only been found at Anton Lake, in what is known as the Tench Pond at the town end of the lake. Another species annoyingly described as widespread and common it is on the wing later in the summer, through July and August. It is not a robust insect or a strong flyer and it is only found where there is still water, preferring ponds or parts of lakes where there are thick reed beds in which it can tuck itself away. This makes it a tricky customer to see properly or photograph, the females being particularly shy. In fact the photo above of the female is very third rate compared to what I  consider acceptable and I wouldn’t normally use it, except that it is the only one I have.

This Damselfly has a very different life cycle to others which usually lay their eggs, in submerged stems or debris floating on the surface, through the spring and summer. They then hatch and the nymphs feed up over the next 9 months or so to then emerge as adults the following year. The Emerald female lays her eggs in the stems of the reeds and other emergent vegetation towards the end of summer. Often they will not be laid below water level but may be deposited quite far up the stem, I have even watched a female injecting them into plant tissue near the top of tall reeds. The eggs don’t hatch until the following spring, the prolarvae wriggling out and, if necessary, dropping down into the water. As with all other species of Odonata the prolarva quickly sheds its skin and then starts hunting and eating. Common Emerald nymphs are voracious, and they have to be. In as little as two or three months they must feed up and reach the stage of being mature nymphs ready to take to the air as adults.

The fact that they over-winter as eggs means the Damselfly can colonise and inhabit smaller ponds which might dry up as the summer progresses. That is not a problem for them as the ponds will fill with water over the wetter winter months ready for the young to hatch from the eggs in spring. It also brings with it the added benefit of removing any predators.

I include one more photograph. Identification of this species in the field is made a lot easier by the position it assumes when sitting. Other Damselflies habitually sit with their wings either folded along the length of the abdomen, or else with them held out horizontally at right angles to it. The Common Emerald, very distinctively, holds its wings in a delta formation:


This is very noticeable, even from several yards away and, helpfully, both sexes do this.

This concludes the section on the Damselflies in the Andover area, now let us move on to the Dragons!


Dragonflies are larger than Damselflies and always rest with their wings held out horizontally from the thorax. Many of them are relatively large insects with powerful flight enabling them to easily travel significant distances. Upon emerging and taking to the air they will often leave the lake, pond or river where they spent their nymph stage of development to be found coursing woodland paths and rides. The smallest members of this family are the Darters.


Common Darter

The sole local representative is the Common Darter. Both sexes of this species emerge and first adopt a yellow colouration:

The male:


The female:


Apologies for the not entirely sharp quality of the male! The two insects look very similar at this stage of their lives, but don’t worry, they know the difference! To us the easiest to see is that the female has a clear rectangular panel in the middle of the side of the thorax, as circled. After a few days the insects take on their adult colouration:

The male:


The female:


The male adopts a strong red colour with two very clear yellow, diagonal stripes on the side of the thorax. These markings will delineate it clearly from the very similar Ruddy in areas where they are both found … not here, as mentioned above only the Common Darter is found locally. The female turns a grey-brown colour and as she ages displays a blueish pruinescence along the underside of her abdomen. The species is very common around the local lakes, preferring still water, but occasionally being found along rivers and streams in the area. They like to adopt a perch on an outstanding stick, twig or other vantage point from where they will ‘dart’ out to take prey, then often returning to the same place, hence the name.


Broad Bodied Chaser

There are two species of Chaser found around Andover but it is believed only one is actually resident. This is the Broad Bodied Chaser:

The male:


The female:


These are very much creatures of the lakes and ponds and are often the first Dragonfly to colonise a new body of water. They are one of the earliest on the wing being found in May through to July and often far away from water. Locally they are seen at Charlton and Anton lakes but also at Harewood Forest where they will cruise the clearings looking for small flying insects to devour. The female is often nicknamed the Hornet Dragonfly because of her and, in flight, the similarity is very clear. The golden filigree at the base of the wings is fairly typical of the Chasers but tends to fade with age. The female shown is young and the colours are strong and vibrant. Below is a photograph of another much older female, this time taken on 7 July 2018:

As can be seen the difference is remarkable to the point where you would not think they were the same species of insect.

Four Spotted Chaser

The second Chaser found here is the Four Spotted Chaser:


The one shown is a male but the female is almost identical. I have circled the claspers at the end of the abdomen and, as you can see, they curve slightly outwards. The claspers on the female are straight, otherwise the female’s abdomen is slightly stockier but the two insects are very similar. The only place they have been seen locally is the Tench Pond at the town end of Anton Lake.


Black Tailed Skimmer

There are only three Skimmers indigenous to this country, the Scarce, the Black Tailed and the Keeled, and locally we only have the Black Tailed … and I only have photos of the male. The first is that of an immature individual, which I include in spite of the fact that it is one of my earlier efforts and, therefore, rather unsharp, because this insect looks very different when newly emerged to the eventual adult colouration:

This is a mature male:

Again, this species of lakes and ponds but, especially when young, can be found well away from them. The youngster above was found out in the countryside near Longstock. The female is yellow with striking black markings, but not too dissimilar to the juvenile male:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is black-tailed-skimmer.jpg

As with the Darters  their flight pattern matches their name. Like the Darters they have a tendency to find a perch they like from where they sally out ‘skimming’ low over the water, back and forth, back and forth until they return to their chosen vantage point.


Brown Hawker

These are the large and showy creatures that everybody thinks of when the term Dragonfly is mentioned. Showing no preference I shall go through them alphabetically, starting, therefore, with the Brown Hawker. I make no excuses here, I only have a female example in my photo-library, so here she is:


You are not missing too much. Just as with the Four Spotted Chaser the two sexes look very similar, the only giveaway being that the upper surface of the eye is blue in the male.

Their main flight months are July and August. These are insects of standing water and sometimes canals and very slow rivers where the water flow is negligible. In this area that means the lakes and we seem to be in a situation for this insect that is, hopefully, in the process of developing. For a good number of years the occasional one has been seen here and there, the thought being that these individuals were tourists visiting from some other site unknown. Then, in 2019, there were suddenly large numbers of them.It was extremely unlikely that all those insects were visitors. Insects don’t have access to the internet and so wouldn’t have read rave reviews and suddenly decided to visited Andover en masse. A possible and more reasonable explanation is that around three or four years ago, the approximate length of time it takes for the nymph of this species to feed up, a fertilised female came to the area and spent a few weeks dashing around the local lakes laying eggs. Since numbers have always been down to individual sightings it is unlikely that a gang descended on Andover so the most plausible explanation is that just one insect was involved. In 2020 sightings were back down to the occasional single specimen, which supports this hypothesis of colonisation. It will be interesting to see what the numbers are like in 2022-23.

Emperor Dragonfly

The Emperor is officially the largest native Dragonfly and the second largest in the World, although more of this later! It is one of the commonest species around Andover’s lakes, preferring still water although it will inhabit sluggish moving water such as canals and very slow flowing rivers.

The male:


The female:


At rest this species would not be confused with any other appearing locally as the green thorax and blue body of the male is very distinctive. The  ultimate diagnostic feature is the clear black line that runs all the way down the upper surface of the abdomen. The female can be trickier to identify, but only in telling her from the male as she, too, has a the same clear black marking. Often she has a green abdomen, in which case the identification is straight forward, but equally she may have a blue body, as with this specimen, then the differentiation is more difficult. In real life it is clearer that the blue colouration is rather paler on the female than the male. This species is also fairly easy to identify in flight as it characteristically flies with the abdomen drooping slightly downwards behind it.

It is one of the first Hawkers on the wing, appearing as early as late May, although more usually early in June, and continuing to emerge through the summer months. Late insects may even be seen through September.

Golden Ringed

This striking insect is a creature of moving water, loving the rivers and streams of the Test Valley. These are found all around the area so the Dragonfly is widespread but never particularly numerous. They don’t often turn up on Charlton Lake but are regularly seen at Anton and Rooksbury, along the Anton River and, of course, the Test. When I described the Emperor Dragonfly, above, as our largest Dragonfly I said I would mention that again. For me this is arguably the largest Dragonfly. According to “the book” the abdomen of the Emperor runs between 66mm and 84mm, while the same measurement for the Golden Ringed is 77mm for the male and 83mm for the female. The length of each hindwing is 45-51 for the Emperor and 41-50mm for the Golden Ringed. In other words the size of these two insects is so similar, allowing for individual variations, that it is impossible to truly describe one as bigger or smaller than the other. It also seems to me that the Golden Ringed is slightly stockier than the Emperor. Whichever way you choose this is a beautiful thing.

The male:


The female:


This is also on the wing from the beginning of June and will continue to emerge through the summer, although gradually disappearing through September. While looking superficially similar the sexes are easily told apart by the examination of both ends of the abdomen. While the female is stocky around sections two and three the male is clearly waisted. Meanwhile, at the further end of the abdomen the female is straight while the male has clear swelling to the shape.

Migrant Hawker

This is probably the commonest Dragonfly around the local lakes. It is noticeably smaller than the Emperor and while the latter flies with its abdomen drooping this insect flies with the abdomen held slightly aloft.

The male:


The female:


At a glance this species can be confused with the Southern Hawker, but examination of the segment just on the top of the thorax, just behind where the wings join, reveals a clear “T” shape as circled on the male, which both sexes have. Don’t be fooled by the name, this species is very much resident although, as with a lot of British insects, their numbers are regularly bolstered by visitors from across the Channel. They are a later emerging insect, generally first taking to the air in August. Their exuviae, and the photo I have used earlier in this article is one such, can often be found hanging onto reeds around a foot or so out of the water. The Tench Pond at Anton Lake is an excellent hunting site for these. The freshly emerged insect will happily travel away from the lake for a while to adopt its adult colouration, and can turn up anywhere. As with many other Dragonflies the female is rarely seen, concentrating on egg-laying, but she may be heard as she lays her eggs into the stems of live reeds and other vegetation. Listen for the rustling and beating of her wings against the leaves. The male can be seen in numbers, especially around Anton and Rooksbury, patrolling a chosen territory and occasionally resting on reeds or even surrounding bushes. Often he will be unfazed by a curious human creeping over to take a good look at him or run off a few shots.

Southern Hawker

Not the commonest species locally but usually present, more so at Rooksbury and Anton Lakes than Charlton. This is another creature of the second half of the summer, emerging through July, but continuing to fly right through September, it is one of the last to finally give way to the chill of autumn.

The male:


The female:


As mentioned above there is a superficial resemblance to the Migrant Hawker, the visual clue is the two bold yellow markings on the front of the thorax. Called “the headlights” by Dragonfly spotters they are not only obvious when the insect lands but can also often be discerned in flight. The sexes can be more difficult. Like the Emperor, the female can have a green abdomen but all those I have seen have had a more bluish colour, very similar to the male. The answer lies in the second and third abdominal segments where, as with the Golden Ringed, the male is waisted while the female is stockier. Like the Migrant the freshly emerged insect can travel considerable distances from where they hatched to adopt adult colouration, and the female shown here was found on Danebury Hill Fort. Again, they prefer lakes, ponds and canals and the female lays her eggs into the stems of vegetation growing in the water, such as reeds. Listen for those wings beating in the vegetation next to you!

That completes the roundup of local species, 9 Damselflies, including two Demoiselles, and 9 Dragonflies, including 1 Darter, I Skimmer, and 2 Chasers. However, we are not so many miles from the south coast and South West area of England, which is the landing and colonisation area for species from Continental Europe, and it is always possible that something not on “the list” may turn up. Candidates include the Willow Emerald Damselfly, there is no reason why the Ruddy Darter might not find a home here and the Lesser Emperor Dragonfly has been recorded as far afield as Gloucester, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and even Orkney. Keep your eyes open, always have a camera with you and … good hunting!

This and That in the Garden

August always feels a quiet month to me. Yes, the wood pigeons are still flirting and the stock doves singing their cooing lullaby, yet the other birds are back into their teenage groups and flittering around the trees and shrubs.

Gulls are around here in never-seen-before numbers, and flocks fly in to roost on our industrial estate’s roofs nightly.

Bird breeding success has been poor here. The goldfinches built and went elsewhere. Various tits built in our provided boxes, although one pair never laid and one other family were discovered dried out like Egyptian mummies. Harewood’s oaks had a lack of caterpillars during the crucial feeding period and this may be the reason for the poor reproductive rate. I doubt anyone disputes global warming these days – one consequent is that oaks and other trees can synthesise their tannin toxin faster – killing off the insect larvae. No free meat, no breeding success for the insect-consuming birds. Guess the more vegetarian finches & pigeons have done okay.

Our grassland butterflies have laid their eggs and perished. The meadow is strangely quiet with just a few whites enjoying the remains of the summer’s glut of nectar.

Physostegia virginialis … guess its origin!

Bees are still active. The bumbles, the solitaries and the miniatures still go about their nectar collecting, often in ways that circumvent the plant. But, that’s the plant’s fault – the ones I’m watching are exotic plants and should not be here. Their specific pollinators do not exist and our native bees cannot let those Joules (Calories) of energy go to waste.

Thieving bee

The bumbles insert their tongues between the petals and sepals of the physostegia and extract the nectar totally bypassing the stigmas and anthers. A clever ploy I have never seen before. With the Lobelia cardinalis, they are attacked by drilling holes through the petals near the sugar supply, and the tongue can reach the normally unreachable in that divergent manner. Of honey bees I see little, as they seem to need urgently collect water to cool the hive and they have ignored our flowering plants.

Lobelia cardinalis

With the warmth, hornets were expected but have been absent. Just an occasional one being spotted … so far, no invasive types.

Hostas remain seedless as pollinator not present. Eastern Asian plant.

A wasp spider has moved into the meadow. They come and go, not being consistently around each year. The big females appear willing to tackle any prey.

Wasp spider, I think.

I measured the heights of our wild cherry and walnut trees recently. I did the two species together as they are the same height! All are 28m, with the textbooks stating 25 is a maximum height. Someone is wrong.

The cherry trees fruited well and the cherry stones have been spread far and wide. Walnut fruits are maturing and falling, with the glut due during the next month.

Red version of Wayfaring tree. Berries ripen and are eaten.
Yellow version never fully ripen and are less attractive to wildlife.

The wild fruit will be amazing here soon. Hawthorn, sloe, elderberries, dogwoods and hazel looks wonderful. Winter birds, dormice and other fruit eaters will have a great autumn.

John’s new car. WOW!

Nectar, food of the gods?

Firstly, some questions. Now, no cheating and you really should write down the answers.

Question one. (An easy one to give you confidence) Does nectar contain dilute honey?

Question two. Are nectar and honey of the same composition, even if honey has less water?

Question three. Where is nectar made? (Precision needed here!)

Question four. How does it get out of the plant?

Question five. Does nectar protect the plant?

Question six. Do non-flowering plants such as ferns make nectar?

Question seven. With floral nectaries, where are most located?

Now, that was not too difficult. The answers are in the script, so no need to send in your responses for me to mark.

Nectar is a sweet exudation from a plant. Not all flowering plants do produce it, for example wind pollinated plants often lack nectaries, as do magnolias and conifers. Surprisingly, the fluid can be produced anywhere – flowers, leaves, stems and even, it is said, roots. Other similar structures can produce oils, for example in Lavandula and Mediterranean species, and insect attracting scents.

The base of the stamens are the most likely location for them in a cabbage-family flower, although they occur at the base of sepals, petals and carpels.

Nectar is a sweet carbohydrate mixture with the main ingredient, apart from water, sucrose (Common table sugar) although small quantities of glucose, fructose and traces of protein may be present. The stomach enzymes of honeybees converts the sucrose to glucose and fructose (A mixture often termed invert sugar). So, nectar and honey are different in that the chemical composition is revered.

Nectar is made in epidermal (surface layer) cells and pushed out through modified stomata. Production can be stimulated by the vibrations caused by foraging insects, land mammals or bats.

Nectar-filled spurs are found in many orchids and only accessed by long-tounged insects.

UK orchid with spurs

Floral nectaries co-evolved with insects. Larval stages of many flies and butterflies require body-building proteins and fats to grow. Once mature most do not grow or live long lives, so they only need energy supplies, and these can come from the sugars secreted by plants. Baby butterflies often eat plants, adults take nectar.

Here, at Forest Edge, many of the larger bumblebees cannot squeeze into flowers and access the nectar, so cut holes and rob the plant without dispersing the pollen. Their problem is that the tongue lengths of bee species varies, so are not suited to all flower designs … so cheat! We have honeybees, bumbles and solitary bees such as Davies’ mining bees, also the miniscule common masked bee that is only 5mm long and nests in holes in wood. Physostegia is the common masked bees’ favourite flower.

Photo by Pixabay on

I’m sure you have noted that bees do not spend their time in a single bloom, but constantly go from one to the next. This is clever plant behaviour, delivering miniscule quantities that takes time to restock – so enhancing the chance of pollen transfer.

To my surprise I found that ferns produce nectar. They, like plenty of other flowering plants, use the free sugars to attract insects that remove insect parasites from them. One African acacia grows holed galls in which nectar is produced and the ants nest. When animals browse the plant, the ants rush out to sting the opposition.

Sundew leaf

The guttation seen especially well in tropical (house) orchids is a type of nectar secretion. Pitcher plants produce the chemical below the lip to encourage risky insect behaviour and the sticky glue of sundews could be produced by modified nectary cells.


Freshwater wildlife

July 18th 2020

David Beeson

As much as many of us enjoy seeing and recording wildlife we need to engage others – especially young people. Big Butterfly Count and RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch are following that approach although the oldies tend to dominate. I do not believe the results are taken really seriously as the sampling is not regulated. Yet, I’m not knocking them as they do encourage involvement.

Some of my grandchildren descended this weekend from London and aquatic ecology was on my agenda.

The garage was set out as a laboratory and a professional water net had been purchased.

Initially my small pond was sampled: some dragonfly nymphs, two types of snails and myriads of waterflea-type organisms. Not a great catch, but we only had a minimal volume to search through – which did keep interest for long enough.

Upper reaches of the River Anton
Old cressbeds

Phase two was a local chalk stream, shallow enough that fun could be had and safety was not an issue. Kick samples of the gravel bed and amongst weed was well received.

What’s that?

And back home for sorting.

This time the catch was more divergent: bullhead fish, a miniature minnow, plenty of caddisfly larvae, may and stonefly nymphs, wonderfully interesting planarians, a few fly larvae and water beetles. A chance to view an alga (Spirogyra) and to see its cells was lovely addition.

I was lucky. The children were enthusiastic and absorbed plenty of new information and observed the diversity of life.


If you have never encountered planarians, do investigate them. Their mouth is mid-way along the body and is both mouth and anus … no through gut. If you cut the head in half it grows two heads, with the world record 64 heads on one planarian. Cut in half and the head section grows a new tail and the tail a head … and much more.

NOTE: over 90 articles available, free of adverts.

See: – Rocky Mountains, USA and Index.

What do your insects eat?

A photo-essay

17th June 2020

David Beeson

As you know Forest Edge aims to be an eco-friendly garden. It has a range of habitats that change through the year. It has a native and non-native flora. But, who eats what?

The wildflower lawn has now been cut, yet the borders are still very flowery – potentially plenty of pollen and nectar.
Pelagoniums have plenty of blooms but are mostly ignored by insects. No queuing here.
Single and double opium poppies
The double poppies are ignored but the bees are desperate for the single-flowered types. But, no butterflies as nectar is probably absent.
With nectar-rich small flowers this verbena is popular with bees and butterflies.
Crocosmias attract brimstones
Clematis is ignored.
Bees and butterflied LOVE scabious.
Betony is popular too.
Marjoram is nectar-rich
Wild carrot is irresistible to flies and beetles, but butterflies mostly ignore it.
This sedum has a bee fan club.

Great project here for children?

Our butterflies today are small, large and green-veined whites, red admiral, peacock, skippers, tortoiseshell, ringlet, meadow brown, gatekeeper and brimstone. If I looked longer I’m certain a white admiral and silver-washed would arrive. The ‘blues’ seem to have moved on for now.

NOTE: over 90 articles available, free of adverts.

See: – Rocky Mountains, USA and Index.

The fringes of an ancient English forest

Harewood’s fringe and Longparish in summer – a photo tour

David Beeson

Dormouse hedge and hare’s domain on the edge of the woodland

The woodlands that now form Harewood Forest once spread far and wide. They joined south to the New Forest, west to Great Selwood and north-east to join The Windsor Forest and east to The Wield. So, there’s not much left! Not much I can do about that.

Where the slopes are easily ploughed the woodland was removed before the 19th century and now yields cereal crops with the help of tonnes of fertilizer. One small area has been left unploughed and unfertilized and even the native grasses struggle to grow. Small zones are planted with sweetcorn to support factory-bred pheasants and the occasional partridge.

Grassy field, but no signs of badgers. The adjacent deep 1870s railway cutting, now unused, is a different wildlife environment that sprouts ash trees rather than oaks.

Where grassy fields do exist a few cattle and sheep can be seen. Here our local brown hares can be spotted and, in the past, rabbits. Rabbits can still be seen, but viral diseases have almost eliminated them. Badgers should be feeding on earthworms in these fields, yet all the very local setts have mysteriously died out. Bader setts remain active elsewhere … it just seems very local. Badgers are, of course, protected mammals.

Stone and flint church. Ancient grave stones support lichens and mosses.

The road fringes are often composed of hazel and other shrubby species and these have dormice living amongst them. Mice, voles and shrews mostly inhabit the lower shrub environment but will seek food at higher levels. These woodland / grassland interactions are rich habitats for small mammals and slow worms are also encountered.

Where the chalk gives way to the river deposits close to Longparish the flora changes. Willows and their allies take over from sloe, vibernums and hazel. Now rushes and yellow flag iris dominate the open areas. This is harvest mouse land for the taller non-woody vegetation provides spots for nests and mechanical herbage cutting is difficult. Elsewhere they only occur in the thicker, ungrazed grassy areas.

Upper Mill (left) and the overflow from the mill’s water supply

This is where it is still possible to see a grass snake … better named water snake.

It is now unusual to spot pollarded willows

Cress beds are found along the chalk streams. Some are going out of use – as is the one below.

I poison myself


David Beeson, 12th July 2020

Now, I should know better. I write articles on plant toxicology and specifically know that euphorbias are poisonous … yet, I can be amazingly thick / uncareful at times.

It was time to cut back some ‘spent’ plants in the garden. It’s a big area for the UK – 1.25 acres, so bigger than a football pitch and its immediate surroundings. Annette and I maintain it as ecologically wide and botanically diverse a garden as possible … so, there is deadly nightshade, monk’s hood, foxgloves and spurges – euphorbias. All known to be toxic, as are runner beans if uncooked … honestly, do not eat them raw.

Some gardeners wear gloves when working. I’m not one of them. Some wear goggles, yet I have glasses … so, not that either.

With pollen levels still elevated my eyes suffer until I take an anti-histamine tablet. They water with tear fluid. Yesterday having finished my tidying (the last plant being a euphorbia) and with sticky hands from the miniscule volume of sap that remained on the secateurs, I washed my hands … presumably not well enough. I rubbed my eyes, relented, and went for an anti-histamine tablet.

Within minutes my eyes were even more filled with tear fluid, the sunlight felt too intense and my eyes pained considerably. I had to escape eventually to an almost enclosed room and, even so, put on darkened glasses. My eyes refused to open and the urge to sleep was considerable … I mostly slept for the next 18 hours. An eye bath, cold water and an attentive wife had little effect for several hours. My eyes eventually started to improve (with less pain) and could be opened after about six hours.

It is only today that I managed to research euphorbia toxin effects as I could see no other easy explanation. It looks a good match.

From the web:

The milky sap or latex of Euphorbia plant is highly toxic and an irritant to the skin and eye. This report illustrates the spectrum of ocular inflammation caused by accidental inoculation of latex of Euphorbia plant. Three patients presented with accidental ocular exposure to the milky sap of Euphorbia species of recent onset. The initial symptoms in all cases were severe burning sensation with blurring of vision. Visual acuity reduced from 20/60 to counting fingers. Clinical findings varied from kerato-conjunctivitis, mild to severe corneal oedema, epithelial defects, anterior uveitis and secondary elevated intraocular pressure. All symptoms and signs had resolved by 10-14 days with active supportive medication. People who handle Euphorbia plants should wear eye protection. It is always advisable to ask the patient to bring a sample of the plant for identification.

I have gardened with euphorbias for 50 years and understood their sap’s effects. Here the dose must have been low, yet accompanied by the hay fever effect had a significant impact.

My eyes feel normal today, the future will involve rather more caution when tacking this plant!

Watch out. Plants can bite back.

Something for the World

Picket Twenty Urban Park’s WildlifeAn introduction to Andover for non-locals!

David Beeson

July 2020

We all have an in-built tendency to complain and moan. I’m moaning now about people moaning! So, it must be true. Development has, especially in the past, been about destruction; fields into dense housing, hedges torn out, rivers canalised, trees removed. Generally, things are now better, although the UK’s potential new high-speed railway goes through every ancient woodland it possibly can and avoids ‘posh’ people’s sterile agricultural land. However, there are some real high spots – a series of conservation-minded organisations in Dorset have pooled their land to form a mega-nature conservation area (for Britain). On a smaller scale I will give my local authority credit for the Picket Twenty Urban Park. It has plenty of positives in its design with something for most folks.

Picket Twenty is a large, new housing estate tacked onto an existing hamlet and just a couple of miles from the market town’s historic centre. The park is adjacent.

Andover is considered to be of Saxon origin … so, possibly 1500 years old, but the Romans were here even before that with a fort just north of the town.

Andover is in Hampshire. It is north and slightly west of Winchester … just above the ‘p’ in Hampshire.

With a constant water flow along the River Anton it would have had watery meadows, water mills and forest nearby to supply timber, charcoal, deer meat and herbs for cooking and medications. Now the settlement is a hub for small-scale industry, general commerce and commuting to London – which is about an hour away by train. Arable agriculture surrounds the town with wheat, barley, oilseed rape (canola) and grasses for a biogas plant. There are few cattle, but sheep dot the chalky hillsides.

The church is located along the ancient Harrow Way track that goes back to pre-historic times.
The Town Mills Pub. Bridge Street. Andover. Hampshire. England. UK.

Effort is being invested in focusing more on our crystal-clear river and there are ambitious plans with a revitalisation of the retail centre. The waterways have a trio of urban parks / conservation areas along their lengths and a new team-game activity hub (football and cricket) was recently established on the upper lands just to the west – Picket Twenty.

The numbers and diversity of native trees and shrubs planted has been impressive, even if I would have reduced the planting density in places. Dense thickets have started to draw in many passerines and buzzards and red kites are often around. The games pitches have been well prepared and consequently their worm population is high – attracting even buzzards in wet weather.

Not everything is mown grass. A chalky slope with wild carrot dominating.

The shrubs and emerging forest trees in the planting have become high and thick enough for a flood of nesting birds and their song has been a delight during my exercise walking. House sparrows, finches, warblers, tits and thrushes are now well established in the wildlife community. A rich supply of fruit is now maturing and wil also bring in the winter migrant birds.

Mammals are in short supply. I have spotted an occasional rabbit, a fox left its territorial marker earlier this year and small mammals must occupy the hedgerows but of stoats, weasels, badgers and deer there is no sign. Hopefully there is a resident hedgehog or two, yet their droppings elude me.

Dense thorny shrubs (Hawthorn, blackthorn etc) gives some security to nesting birds.

The flow of white flowers from March until now has been both attractive and a food source for myriads of organisms. Now the inevitable arrival of (non-native) buddleias is showing itself as they burst into high-summer flowering and have their butterfly admirers. Skippers, whites, hairstreaks, meadow specialist such as the meadow brown, gatekeeper and marbled whites, and the commoner species are all building up their numbers. Soon white admirals and out two local fritillaries will join them … perhaps even the purple emperor.

At ground level not everything (but most!) has been mown to ground level. There is a transient pond (to drain excess water off the pitches) with annual flowers including the uncommon prickly ox-tongue lining its edges. A wonderful wildflower walk has been sown, and insurgents are creeping in amongst the shrubby plantings – including orchids. Mown pitches are filling with clovers – red, white and the rare hare’s-foot, plus the usual grassland ‘weeds’ that donate seeds to the birds. It is far more diverse now than the grassy fields it has replaced.

Some folks are even adding the seeds of rare species to enhance the biodiversity!

In 100-years this will be a lovely spot. Can’t wait!

So, Picket Twenty Urban Parks is not a biological wasteland … even if there are no games currently going on because of another biological invader … a Coronavirus!

An ancient hedgerow has been retained and is biologically diverse.
Changing rooms with car park to the right. Note: photos taken when very quiet!
The edge of the urban park. Barriers have been added to try to stop ‘travellers’ accessing the area.

The most hated wildflowers?

Trampled, poisoned and mown to the ground. Are these the most hated wildflowers?

Grasses and their allies

David Beeson

Delicately waving in the summer’s breeze, their leaves capturing the sun’s donated energy and using an alchemy to weave it into chemical bonds that trap the Kilojoules (Calories) into a usable form, grasses have a vital role. Without the tamed grasses human nutrition and agriculture would be quite different. No cows, no cow’s milk, no beef, no sheep, no cheese … the list goes on. The grasses of the Fertile Crescent around the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates jump-started the agricultural revolution that gave humans the food resources and time to produce towns, cites, development and culture. Without the taming of grasses we would have no wheat, barley, rye, rice, sweetcorn or oats in the fields today. No bread, no pizza, no pasta, no beer, no rice pudding. No bamboo canes for the garden.

Grasses may lack the gleaming colours of yellow flag iris, red ragged robin, blue cornflowers and the white of wild carrot, yet they have a unique beauty of their own.

Even as a biologist I seldom spend the time to seek out the splendour of their wind-pollinated flowers with their feathery stigmas and their huge, mobile anthers. I do not invest the time to explore their oat-coloured flower parts that are so divergent from their showier cousins. Even in fruit they have a stunning form that flower-arrangers appreciate more than wildlife enthusiasts.

With growth points, nodes, not at the tips of their growing points, these forgotten flowering plants (Angiosperms) can take grazing when others would wither away. In the hottest, driest and combustible of UK summers they may shudder and retreat but, given a burst of rainfall will pop up again, making no complaint, and just get on with life. Not so the most beautiful of roses or orchids who would sulk and wither away, never to be seen again.

They are common and diverse. Even UK commercial seed mixes are said to contain up to 100 different grass species. Around the world there are over 11000 different species. Yet I mostly ignore them. Do you? Is that fair?

A typical grass:

Grasses? Well, most of us confuse grasses, sedges and rushes. They all look relatively similar … green, often long leaved and with comparatively non-showy flowers. They are plants with parallel leaf veins (Monocotyledonous plants – plants with a single seed leaf) as opposed to plants that have spreading (netted / reticulated) leaf veins (Dicotyledonous plants – with two seed leaves). They are wind pollinated so have no need to offer nectar, pollen and a showy exterior to attract pollinators. Growing in masses they use the wind to effectively spread their pollen DNA.

Most grasses are hollow stemmed, prefer well-drained, dryish conditions and full sun, whereas most sedges and rushes like it moist.

Grasses have small flowers (florets) enclosed by a pair of scales (glumes) and are grouped together into spikelets. Their leaves are arranged alternately forming two ranks.

A single grass flower:

Sedge stems are solid, not hollow, and usually triangular in cross section. Their leaves are arranged spirally in three ranks. Sedge flowers are wind-pollinated with small, often brown or black male and female flowers being borne on the same plants. Some sedges will thrive in fairly deep shade.

A typical sedge:

The stems of rushes are round in cross section, with solid or pithy, but not three-sided, stems and in many species the leaves are reduced to sheaths around the base of the plant. The bract around the flower can look like a continuation of the stem, so flowers appear to stick out of the side of stems. These flowers have a more conventional form with six ‘petals’.

A leafy rush:

A more locally common rush:

Soft and hard rushes, like the above, are common on local wetlands.
StemHollowSolidSolid or pithy
Shape of flower stalksRoundTriangularRound
LeavesCan be along
flower stem
Mostly basalMostly basal
NodesAlong flower stem
and ground level
Along flower stem,
but less visible

Grasses are found in virtually any habitat, with float (flote) grass (Glyceria fluitans) even being found growing in my own pond and in ditches or shallow ponds. However, they mostly prefer drier conditions.

For rushes and sedges it is best to look in moist meadows, although the glaucous sedge (Carex flacca)) is found on even dry chalky hillsides.

These grasses, sedges and rushes are important organisms. From the icy tundra, to the tropics, the mountain tops, to seaside sand dunes and even in the depths of a forest you will encounter them. They support the grazing animals on the American plains, the kudu and impala on the savanna and the rabbits on my lawn. And they keep on surviving despite all the nibbling, burning and trampling. Impressive!

Grasses are even fashionable in the UK ornamental garden. Stipa gigantica, a beautiful 1.5m high grass, is a star in my own garden and many other species join it in delighting gardeners in high summer.

Stipa gigantica in a flowerbed

Marram grass and lyme grass hold sand dunes together, allowing them to stabilize and hold back the sea, while reeds clean water of pollution and provide a habitat for numerous types of birds and made the roofs of ancient people’s dwellings.  

Why are they hated?

Well, it is mainly by tidy gardeners who want stripes on their lawn and their grasses cut to within a millimetre of their survival. They hate them growing too tall and how dare they try to flower!. And, should they think to encroach on their ‘flower’ beds then the glyphosate will surely be there in a moment. The farmer may enjoy some wild grass species, but only if they grow rapidly and feed their cattle, sheep or horses, the rest are killed and replaced by rye grass.

But they are mostly ignored by us – the wildlife enthusiasts. So, we must mend our ways! Look out for the delightful quaking grasses on the chalky downs, wood medick in woods and shady places, wall barley on waste ground, cocksfoot in which harvest mice love to nest and the fine-leaved fescues. Once these are recognised it is easier to explore the other grasses, sedges and rushes.

While you are there … why do grasses stay small? Oak trees and redwoods can be huge, yet grasses never reach that size.

Cross section of a grass stem. Note the vascular bundles are spread and NOT in a single organised ring
Sunflower, but a young tree section would be similar. Here a single ring of vascular tissue is developing.

The upper diagram is a cross section (TS Monocot)of a grass stem. The lower a sunflower, but could be a young redwood tree (TS dicot). The critical spot to look is for the location of the vascular bundles – these contain the phloem (organic and mineral transport), the xylem (water and other mineral transport) and between them the growth region for new phloem and xylem – the cambium (meristem).

Xylem are the big red cells. Phloem the greenish cells below the phloem fibres and the cambium miniscule green-stained cells between the two. Red staining shows woody cells, green staining non-woody cells. Phloem fibres are not transport cells but provide mechanical support to the stem. (The staining on this slide is not perfect! Someone used too much red stain.) The pith is towards the centre of the stem.

With the sunflower growth in the cambium allows the girth of the stem to increase and leaves the xylem (wood) on the inside, with the phloem (soft, non-woody cells) being crushed to the outside. Similar growth in the grass results in chaos and a woody core never properly develops – so no chance of a structure that supports high growth. Grasses remain small and their upright stems seldom last for long.

But, why would the grasses care? They do not. Their strategy, and it is a successful one, is to remain small and live alongside the grazers by having their growth points out of the reach of most herbivorous teeth. For a similar reason they do not fill themselves full of metabolically expensive toxins, using their resources instead to quickly regrow after being partly eaten. However, some grasses are rich in silica that discourages too much grazing. The silica is taken up from the soil.

As innocuous as they may look, some grasses are well defended mechanically.

From –

What (below) looks like the mouth of a shark is actually the edge of a blade of grass. It is covered in microscopic, razor-sharp daggers. The daggers themselves are specialized structures called “phytoliths.” Grasses can manufacture phytoliths from silica that they absorb from the soil. Not all species produce these daggers. Some distribute phytoliths throughout their leaves, essentially packing themselves with tiny granules of glass. Their presence is an adaptation against being grazed. 

It’s not hard to imagine how effective silica daggers can be. Run your finger along the stem or leaves of one of these grasses and you are likely to draw blood. Early US settlers coined the term “ripgut grass” because the bellies of horses and other livestock would get seriously lacerated from running through it. Whereas this defense is rather straight forward, the other types of phytoliths are a little more subtle in their effectiveness. 

Silica is tough and chewing on leaves chock full of it can do a real damage to teeth. That is the main reason why the teeth of many grass grazers alive today grow continuously. If their teeth were like ours, the phytoliths within the blades of grass would wear them down to useless nubs. In fact, the evolution of phytoliths in grass is thought to have ushered in a new age of grazing mammals via the extinction of those that could not cope with these microscopic defences. 


It’s not just about teeth either. Insects feeding on blades of grass may be able to get past the phytoliths without an issue, but the story changes once it makes it to the gut. Silica particles have been shown to interfere with digestion. Caterpillars feeding on grasses containing high amounts of silica in their leaves had decreased levels of digestion efficiency, which resulted in reduced growth rates.

Freshwater Habitats

On a different track, I’ve just come across a new organization (to me) – . Might be worth checking out.

For INDEX of 100 nwhwildlife articles see:

You Should Read This! Ticks.

Ticks – what every wildlife enthusiast should know

David Beeson

If you wander the byways and grasslands almost anywhere in the world you will soon encounter one of these arachnids. Eight-legged little delights! Relatives of the spiders. They are common locally but I’m unaware of Lyme Disease here.

There are over twenty different species of tick found in the UK. The most likely species to bite humans is the Sheep tick Ixodes ricinus, however bites from the Hedgehog tick (Ixodes hexagonus) are also reported.

Ticks are external parasites, living by feeding on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. Because of their habit of ingesting blood, ticks are vectors of many diseases that affect humans and other animals.

With high populations of both pheasants and deer Harewood Forest and other local areas are likely to have a high population of ticks and you should check yourself after visiting.

More advanced information: know your local ticks.

For an ecosystem to support ticks, it must satisfy two requirements; the population density of host species in the area must be high enough, and humidity must be high enough for ticks to remain hydrated.

Due to their role in transmitting Lyme disease, ticks have been studied to develop predictive models for ideal tick habitats. According to these studies the presence of a sandy soil, hardwood trees, rivers, and the presence of deer – were all determined to be good predictors of dense tick populations.

A habitat preferred by ticks is the interface where a grassland meets woodland. Ticks like shady, moist leaf litter with an overstory of trees or at least shrubs, and they deposit their eggs into such places in the spring, so that the larvae can emerge in the autumn and crawl into low-lying vegetation. The 3 m of boundary closest to the grassland’s edge is a tick migration zone, where 82% of tick nymphs in grass are found.

Ticks attaches to its host and can bite painlessly. They are initially are unnoticed, and they remain in place until they engorge and are ready to change their skin; this process may take days or weeks. (Hopefully not on you!)

Ticks are extremely tough, hardy, and resilient animals. They can survive in a near vacuum for as long as half an hour. Their slow metabolism during their dormant periods enables them to go long periods between meals. During droughts, they can endure dehydration without feeding for as long as eighteen weeks. To keep from dehydrating, ticks hide in humid spots on the forest floor or absorb water from moist air.

Leg one contains a unique sensory structure, Haller’s organ, which can detect odours and chemicals emanating from the host, as well as sensing changes in temperature and air currents. Ticks can also use Haller’s organs to perceive infrared light emanating from a host. They know we are there!

Some ticks attach quickly, while others wander around looking for thinner skin, such as is found on the ears of mammals. Depending on the species and life stage, preparing to feed can take from ten minutes to two hours. On locating a suitable feeding spot, the tick grasps the host’s skin and cuts into the surface. It extracts blood by cutting a hole in the host’s epidermis, into which it inserts its mouth parts and prevents the blood from clotting by excreting an anticoagulant. Their weight may increase by 200 to 600 times compared to their pre-feeding weight.

UK ticks require three hosts, and their lifecycles take at least a year to complete. Thousands of eggs are laid on the ground by an adult female tick. When the larvae emerge, they attach and feed primarily on small mammals and birds. After feeding, they detach from their hosts and moult to nymphs on the ground, which then attach and feed on larger hosts before dropping off yet again in order to moult into adults. Adults seek out a third host on which to feed and mate. Female adults engorge on blood and prepare to drop off to lay her eggs on the ground, while males feed very little and remain on the host in order to continue mating with other females.

NHS _ Symptoms of Lyme disease

Many people with early symptoms of Lyme disease develop a circular red skin rash around a tick bite.

The rash can appear up to 3 months after being bitten by a tick and usually lasts for several weeks.

Most rashes appear within the first 4 weeks.

A classic bull’s-eye Lyme disease rash on an arm.

The rash is often described as looking like a bull’s-eye on a dartboard.

A circular red Lyme disease rash on an arm.

The skin will be red and the edges may feel slightly raised.

Not everyone with Lyme disease gets the rash. Some people also have flu-like symptoms in the early stages, such as: a high temperature, or feeling hot and shivery; headaches; muscle and joint pain; tiredness and loss of energy

Only a small number of ticks are infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

A tick bite can only cause Lyme disease in humans if the tick has already bitten an infected animal. But it’s still important to be aware of ticks and to safely remove them as soon as possible, just in case.

Ticks that may cause Lyme disease are found all over the UK, but high-risk areas include grassy and wooded areas in southern England and the Scottish Highlands. To remove a tick safely:

Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool (above|). You can buy these from some pharmacies, vets and pet shops.

Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.

Slowly pull upwards, taking care not to squeeze or crush the tick. Torture it when you have removed it.

Clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water.

The risk of getting ill is low. You do not need to do anything else unless you become unwell.

 Yes, the red bit is mine.


Click here for PHE leaflet (I hope)

Longparish on the River Test

Longparish Mill

or the Hunt for a Golden Bloomed Longhorn Beetle

John Solomon

What am I doing here? There is a blustery breeze and nobody would describe it as warm, perhaps 19C but not over 20C. I didn’t get rained on driving out but some of the heavier clouds threaten to spit on me before the afternoon is done, then the sun breaks through for a few minutes and the humid heat bears down like a furnace.

I am standing by the car parked by the side of a small lane that wriggles along behind Longparish Mill. The small pull-in I have stopped at is found at OS 444 448.

There is a footbridge across the Test here and I pause on it to peer out over the reed bed upstream and to my right. I was here on Tuesday, it is now Saturday, and the sun shone down from a clear blue sky and the reeds almost danced with Banded Demoiselles. Now there is nothing. I walk on, through the arch formed from the branches and leaves of trees and bushes at the far end, out into a small meadow and onto the bank at the side of a small and fast running stream to the right. Again, on Tuesday this stream was busy with activity but today there is nothing. This could be a quiet day.

So, why am I here, when so clearly everything is hidden away from the inclement weather and roosting? Two simple reasons. First, when the sun is out everything is flying around and easy to see, but … it is flying around, the heat making them full of energy. If it is cooler then if you can find something you have a much better chance of it allowing you to creep up on it get a good photo. Secondly, because when the sun is out and the butterflies and dragonflies are flying that is all you see, but, of course, that is not all that is here. When those alluring insects are no longer stealing your attention then you can concentrate on those less showy things that would normally be far below your radar and, today, one species in particular. The Golden Bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle. Check it out on Google. I first found a couple here last year and got a poor photograph. I usually keep even a third rate photo if it is the only example I have but, stupidly, I have managed to bin it. Regardless, I would want a better one. They are around through May and June and generally considered to be widespread but local in central and eastern England, so I was quite excited to find them down here. I did catch sight of one a month ago, but it was a very warm day and, although it stopped twice where I could see it, it didn’t stay around for anywhere near long enough for me to move in and get a shot. Today would be the day.

I start hunting in the triangle of thick vegetation to my right. The rain we had all over winter has put an enormous amount of water into the ground and, as everywhere, everything is tall, over my head and still shooting up. I am not having much luck with the Longhorn Beetle, even though I am going very slowly and examining every blade of grass, every leaf, peering down into the greenery beneath, but a fly catches my eye. A Hoverfly. I am getting quite interested in these lately and decide to go for a shot:


This is a Tapered Drone Fly, or Eristalis pertinax. Very common it first begins emerging in spring and then is present until the end of the summer. The larvae are described as “rat-tailed”, meaning that they have a “tail” at their rear end which is actually hollow and used as a snorkel to allow the maggot to breath. They live in sodden vegetation in small pools and ponds.

Not far away, hovering around the same flower heads is another:


This is a Glass Winged Syrphus, or Syrphis vitripennis. The larvae of this species have a rather more glamorous and exciting lifestyle, living on plants and hunting aphids. Very much the gardener’s friend. They, also, are very common although numbers can vary considerably as this insect engages in mass migrations from continental Europe.

Ten minutes or so later and another flower, another hoverfly:


This one is small and easily over-looked and goes by the name of the White Footed Hoverfly, Platycheirus albimanus. The larva is another aphid hunter, but this time low on the ground and among the leaf litter.

As I look up from this last conquest I spot bright red among the nearby nettles. I close in and, somewhat obligingly, the sun slips behind a cloud:


A Red Admiral. This is a female as the “red” bands have an orange look to them. A male would be more obviously scarlet.

I turn, now, to the meadow. There is a path straight ahead of me, running parallel to the stream. This is the footpath you will find marked on a map, but there is another rough path to the left running round the back of the meadow. I set off along this very slowly. This is another great area for Banded Demoiselles and with the cooler temperature I am hoping they will be less lively and more accepting of my presence. I do find several but if they were meant to just sit obligingly for me they didn’t get the memo. I do manage to pick up a rather tired Meadow Brown:


This is a male, although the wings are well worn.

It takes me around twenty minutes to work my way along and then I step out onto the far end of the public footpath at the opposite end of the meadow to where I started. I walk slowly back, scanning the grass stems, scanning the bramble leaves, glancing up and around just in case something is flying. Fifty yards or so from the footbridge there is an area of grass, perhaps fifteen or twenty yards long, with small pathways worn through at each end where people have made entrances to the stream bank. I walk into the first, then slowly make my way through the high grass. Stop! Down, low to the ground, a male Banded Demoiselle bouncing around on a blade of grass. I very slowly drop down. There is grass between us but I try and work the camera through. I can’t, however, the wind is gusting and I think I might be able snatch a couple of shots as it pushes the stems to and fro. Funnily enough those two words “fools” and “errand” keep popping, almost rhythmically, into my head … which tells you all you need to know. I stand up as the insect flies off.

I move on. Three yards and the grass is flattened, perhaps where two dogs had a fight? Perhaps where Adam and Eve lay down on a blanket? Just a few more yards then back home for tea. I step forward, and again, then scan … and almost half jump as I have one of those truly OMG moments every hunter hopes to get every once in a while. Sitting just over a metre, or around four feet or so if you prefer, away from me is the most beautiful insect I have seen all year. It looks a bit sea sick as the reed it is clinging onto for grim life is shaken this way and that by the wind, but it is there! Almost so close I could reach out and touch it!

It mustn’t fly! I must get the camera organised. I mustn’t rush, but I must do it quickly … and very calmly! It mustn’t go wrong! It mustn’t fly! Please don’t …

It didn’t. In fact it didn’t seem worried about me at all. Maybe clinging onto that reed was quite enough for it to worry about at one time. I took shot after shot after shot. Starting hanging with its back towards me the wind got the better of it and it moved round to the far side of the reed, but still I could get the camera through to it. I rattled off around fifteen photos, giving myself a nightmare of a job later as I tried to decide which two or three to keep, then put the camera down and moved in to examine her with the naked eye. She and me, both out on a grey and gusty day, a foot apart, eye to eye. I said thank you to her, as I always do to any insect that allows me to photograph it, then left her. I turned back as I reached the footpath and she was still there. I like that, when I take a shot and the insect was so unaffected by my presence that it continues its life as if I don’t exist. That’s how it should be.

Oh, yes, you want to see?

Not a Golden Bloomed Longhorn Beetle, another day perhaps, but a female Golden Ringed Dragonfly:


For non-locals, Longparish is a beautiful village full of thatched cottages that sits on the River Test. This is expensive fishing territory with a pristine, chalk river and enormous wild brown trout awaiting people with far too much money! David’s images below from December 2019.

The river is braided with several channels.
In spring and early summer this area is full of warblers that have migrated here to breed.
Pollarded willows here grace the banks of this highly guarded riverside.

Sampling and Recording Data

Wildlife recording and sampling

David Beeson, June 2020

You are interested in the natural world. You keep your eyes open or go out actively looking for organisms. So, what do we do with what we see? How useful is that data?

Here are my thoughts on wildlife data and an encouragement for us all to do more with our skills and knowledge.

Level 1. We all go for a walk and spot some organism and do nothing with that information  – this is useless to science, but we all do it because we enjoy the environment and the stimulation of what we do or might see.

Level 2. We spot something and tell a friend – virtually useless unless the data is then passed on.

I’m as guilty as anyone!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wild-guess.jpg
Shall I take the results here? Yes, there are lots of them! NO!!!!!

Level 3. We see something and pass it on via a phone app or similar. A bit like stamp or train number collecting!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is stamps.jpg
I must only collect one stamp … numbers not important!

However, at least it allows science to see the distribution of a species. It gives no indication of numbers or the environment, so, the information is rather lacking. However, this is better than nothing.

I do this level when recording mammal sightings in the hope The Mammal Society can do something with my dot on a map. I’m not fully convinced.

This information can be greatly improved if the task is repeat at regular intervals.

I used this when recording otter spraints on a present / absent basis along the River Avon and Itchen at near regular intervals. Gives an indication of population size.

But, is the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch of any value? Do you think folks count one bird twenty times? I do. Data is only valuable when it’s accurate.

A non-accurate way of recording data. Plenty of subjective decisions and criteria will vary person to person. Cannot be repeat by another person.

Level 4. The recorder gives some indication of number – absent, rare, occasional, frequent and abundant or a similar system.

This can be repeated at regular intervals, e.g. recording damselfly numbers at a site. But, the sampler can select the data collection site, so, a bit dodgy! What about elsewhere? Did they just select the best location for them?

I used this level with new students sampling a freshwater habitat or plants on a site because it is quick and simple. Best if repeated and using a quadrat to improve data.

A transect is basically a line along which you record data. Results can be taken at regular or at random locations.

Level 5. The recorder follows a transect – a line of data collection of known length and location.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is longworth.jpg
Longworth trap. The big snag is the worry about catching shrews. Needs regular checking of traps to release shrews before they are stressed or die. Caught animals often humanely marked and released, then hopefully recaptured – allows population to be estimated.

I used this belt transect system when seeking harvest mouse nests and so assessing the animal’s density and when setting out Longworth (live mammal) traps on Brownsea Island nature reserve (Vole sampling) and the Arne RSPB Reserve (Small mammal sampling). The use of a transect takes away much recorder bias.

Useful technique when recording physical conditions: e.g. wind levels between open and closed canopies.

Some butterfly recorders use this recording level.

% cover of plants within a quadrat is a good way to assess populations.

This is now real quantitative data. Real numbers, rather than present / absent which is qualitative. Proper research information is being generated.

Level 6. For plants you now employ a quadrat along a transect or at random (Random numbers generate the sampling sites.) locations over the whole site. The randomness stops the recorder moving to seek the species he / she wishes to observe. Far more scientific than just wandering a location.

Level 7. You sub-divide the site into different zones according to their environmental factors – wetter, scrub, near woodland etc. Random quadrats used. Called stratified random sampling. Great data as records not subject to recorder’s whims and statistical analysis worth the effort.

Used by my students to assess the impact of badgers on vegetation around a sett.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 10-pin-point-frame-bonham-1989.png
Point frame – you only record the plants touched by the pointer. Possibly the most accurate sampling technique for plants. With random locations it avoids sampling errors.

Level 8. As 7 but using a point-frame quadrat (for plants mainly) that avoids all errors with selecting specimens or working out % cover.

My students employed this when assessing trampling on flora. In this situation random numbers pinpointed sampling sites which were line transects across the pathway.

Certainly, as one moves down the list the quality of the data improves, while the effort increases. A PhD student will probably be at Level 6 or 7, the average person at Level 2 or 3. You, now, will be at level 7!

Different techniques need to be employed according to the target habitat or species. The capture-mark-release–recapture technique is great for mammals but less useful for plants! There are plenty of sampling techniques in the textbooks.

By sharing data with conservation bodies the material can be aggregated and is potentially useful.

Sorry, that was a bit boring! But, hopefully worth saying.