Damsels & Dragons

Enter the magical world of damselflies and dragonflies this summer with local wildlife expert Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

 

From dancing damsels to majestic emperors, the enchanting world of damselflies and dragonflies could be wrapped up in a children’s fairy tale.

 

During the long warm days of summer, there are few sights more captivating than these delicate jewelwinged insects in flight. We have over 40 species of breeding dragon and damselfly in the UK, with an extra handful of migrants arriving in the summer months to swell our populations. They are creatures of the water, lording it over wetlands, moorland and woodland glades, feeding on flies, midges and even each other. It’s easy to encounter them up close by simply taking a wander along the Avon, stopping by a lake, or meandering along one of the many streams and brooks than run through the villages of Worcestershire. But what should you look out for?

 

How the story unfolds

Multi-coloured and iridescent, dragon and damselflies move through the air with such effortless grace that you could be forgiven for not realising that they spend most of their lives submerged in water.

 

Other than their constant ducking and darting over water to catch flies, it’s hard to imagine the connection these stunning aerial acrobats have with life beneath the surface. Yet depending on the species, dragon and damselflies spend their first two or three years living in ponds, streams and rivers as nymphs. They move through a three stage life-cycle, hatching from an egg, developing into larva and only much later transforming into beautiful airborne creatures. Most live above the surface in the mature form most familiar to us for a fleeting period of between two and eight weeks.

 

Unlike the elegant adults, nymphs are creatures that look hard to love. Small, almost nondescript dull brown insects, they spend much of their time hiding in mud, ready to snatch passing live prey. Study their faces in detail and you’ll see that they have an extending jaw that makes them look like the alien in the famous films of the same name.

 

Hatching from eggs, nymphs moult many times as they mature, breaking out of and shedding their old ‘skin’ multiple times until eventually, they clamber out of the water, shake themselves down, and discard their skin for a final time. It can take the newly emerging adult up to three hours to fully stretch out and dry their wings, and pump the fluids necessary for their new existence around their bodies.

 

Newly emerged dragonflies take a little time to develop their colours too – if you spot a particularly pale dragonfly with extra shiny wings, the chances are it will have only emerged in the last day or two. As soon as they are able, the adults will start to hunt and this often takes them away from their original bodies of water. They will, however, return to breed and some males will inevitably engage in fights with others to maintain control of a particular territory.

 

Glittering fairies

Beautiful and banded demoiselles in flight look just like the fairies of our imagination. Their delicate needlelike metallic bodies and fluttering pearlescent wings could have flown straight off the pages of a child’s story book.

 

At a glance, it can be tricky to tell the females of the two species apart as both have lustrous green bodies. There is a subtle difference in that female banded demoiselles have pale green wings whereas those of the female beautiful demoiselles are dark brown, but in the field it’s often difficult to distinguish these colours.

 

The males, on the other hand, are much easier to identify. Both have magnificent iridescent peacock-blue bodies that can appear Prussian blue in certain lights and mallard green in others. However, it’s their wings that make them easy to separate. As the name suggests, male banded demoiselles have a dark band across the central part of theirs whereas the wings of male beautiful demoiselles are dark all over.

 

However, the two species are not always found together. Banded demoiselles prefer slow-flowing rivers with muddy bottoms whereas beautiful demoiselles prefer rivers and streams with a gravel base. Look for banded demoiselles along the rivers Avon and Isbourne or the Bow and Badsey brooks. Beautiful demoiselles can be spotted on the Carrant, Leadon and Longdon Brook. This species is probably also present on the Broadway Brook and other small streams but sightings elsewhere have not been reported to us; if you see one on your travels, we’d love you to take a snap and let us know.

 

Majestic emperors

The UK’s largest dragonfly, emperor dragonflies, are magnificent creatures on the wing from June to August. At 7cm in length, these impressive insects dwarf many of the other dragonflies in our area but are nothing in size when compared to the UK’s biggest ever dragonfly. The’ Bolsover Beast’, as it’s known, flew over swamps in Derbyshire 300 million years ago when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were much higher, and had a massive wingspan of more than 20cm.

 

Emperor dragonflies stay close to large expanses of water and tend to fly high up, looking for insectprey such as butterflies and other dragonflies. It catches its prey in midair and usually eats it on the wing. Watching out for these feeding habits is a good way to identify different species because dragonflies are labelled according to them. Hawkers tend to patrol up and down, often zigzagging whilst looking for prey and defending a territory, whilst chasers and darters make sudden dashes from a perch and skimmers brush close to the water’s edge.

 

Emperor dragonflies are hawkers, constantly on the move and rarely sitting still, even when eating. Male emperors are a wonderful sky blue colour with an apple-green thorax (the bulky middle part of their bodies). Keep a look out for a fast-moving dragonfly that barely ever comes to rest, even when it’s caught its prey; the down-turned tip of its body is the final feature that will help you distinguish it from its similar looking cousin, the southern hawker.

 

Female emperors are green all over and it’s these that you’re more likely to spot up close as they come down to find suitable vegetation amongst which to lay their eggs.

 

Southern hawkers are our largest and fastest flying dragonflies; note how they hover and fly backwards. Like emperors, males and females are blue and green respectively but their bodies have more brown on them, making them easy to distinguish. Unlike emperors, they will patrol garden ponds and woodland rides, hunting for food, well away from water. I’ve seen a southern hawker hunt and catch a butterfly and even watched one munch its way through a bumblebee. It was not pleasant to watch but I remind myself that it’s all part of a healthy ecosystem; if the predators are doing well, everything else in the food chain must be working too.

 

Smiling dragons

It’s a mistake to project human emotions and thoughts onto animals but common darters – the smiling dragonfly – always seems to look happy. One of our later dragonflies, they emerge from early June onwards and hang around until the autumn, sometimes as late as November. They’re ubiquitous around still or even stagnant bodies of water and are frequently found around garden ponds.

 

The females are a pale yellow-ish brown, not to be confused with immature males who haven’t had chance to gain their orange-red colour. Males are easy to confuse with ruddy darters, which are less common, but common darters are orange in tone (rather than deep red) and have yellow stripes down their legs. Their most interesting feature is their two-tone eyes; take a closer look at that smiling face and you’ll see they’re brown at the top and yellow beneath.

 

Group flight

The common clubtail dragonfly is a medium-sized, bright yellow and black beast with a club-shaped abdomen, in flight from early May to late June. Unlike most dragonflies it has separated eyes. Elusive as adults, once emerged they quickly move from the river to woodland as far as 10km away, where they spend most of their time in the canopy of trees. Now only found on fewer than fifteen stretches of river in the UK, they had a stronghold in the Avon for many years. Sadly, surveys over the last two years have found none present in the south of the county. The news isn’t all bad for Worcestershire as they’re still present in the Severn and Teme but if you think you’ve spotted one, or would like to help out with surveying next year, please get in touch.

 

Clubtail nymphs offer one of natures’ many enchanting spectacles as dense groups of them emerge from the riverbed synchronously and then the adults take flight together, a few hours later, all at the same time. It’s a sight I’ve not yet managed to see, despite many attempts, and the short clubtail season is almost over but I’ve not given up yet. The wonderful thing, when it comes to learning about wildlife, is that there’s always next year…

 

 

Find out more:

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/sites/default/files/wildlife_pond_pack.pdf http://dragonfliesofworcestershire.weebly.com

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/spotting-sheets

 

 

WWT events include:

 

Sun 24th Jun – Butterfly Walk at Monkwood. Booking advisable.

 

Fri 6th Jul – Swinyard Hill: Flora & Fauna. Booking essential.

 

Wed 18th Jul – Wild in the Woods Survival for families, Lower Smite Farm.

 

Wed 1st Aug – Minibeasts Mystery fun for the family. Lower Smite Farm.

 

Wed 22nd Aug – Whose Poo? Fun for the family. Lower Smite Farm.

 

Thur 6th Sept – Limestone & Grassland Butterflies of the UK talk. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern.

 

Wed 19th Sept – Antarctica talk. Bishop Allenby Hall, Worcester.

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on

 

Did you know?

 

Worcestershire Wildlife Trust is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. We’d like you to join in with our celebrations by helping to turn Worcestershire wild.

 

We’re asking you to Pledge a Patch for wildlife www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/pledgeapatch

 

Do you know someone who does amazing things for wildlife? Why not nominate them to become a Wildlife Hero? www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/wildlife-heroes

 

Why not watch our 50th birthday video, featuring some of the 9935 species of wildlife that have been recorded on our nature reserves www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_tffAkShAU

 

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

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