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Thursday, 2 June 2016

White-faced Darter - on 23rd May, 2016

WARNING !!! This is a long post with many images!!

On Monday 23rd May I spent best part of 5 hours on my knees in a bog on the Welsh Borders. No, I was not calling for Huey down the big white telephone, but attempting to photograph a very localised species of dragonfly at a wonderful location known as Whixall Moss, which straddles the English/Welsh border. This is a National Nature Reserve, a Ramsar site and also a European Special Area of Conservation - a pretty important place in other words!

I'd done a bit of background research with the help of the Reserve Manager, Peter Bowyer (thank you!), and as the weather forecast for the day looked quite promising, I set off westwards at around 08h15 (I don't do early starts!). I first called at the NNR offices where I paid for a booklet that had kindly been sent to me on trust, and where a very helpful lady explained, with landmarks, the best route to the area of the moss that had been indicated by Peter as being the most likely place to find the White-faced Darter (WFD) that I was seeking.

I set off in bright sunshine, although there was a strong cool breeze blowing. After about ten minutes or so I came to a place where I'd been told that there was a possibility of of seeing WFD on my way to the main location - and there I saw my first-ever WFD, albeit briefly and at a distance. What a splendid dragonfly it was too! The WFD is the smallest of the British darters at just under 2 inches (50mm) long.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (male) - Whixall Moss
A little more relaxed in the knowledge that the day was not going to be a total failure, I continued onwards. A little further on I found a pair of Stonechat which, as some of you might know, is one of my favourite passerines. Things were really looking promising!

I knew I'd found the right place when I came to an area of water, the boundary of which was marked with canes carrying numbers and letters, and with duckboards round part of the edge. Almost immediately I spotted a mating pair of WFD which briefly settled on the ground out of the breeze in the lea of a sapling, and then moved to another sheltered spot.


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (mating pair 'in wheel') - Whixall Moss
Shortly after this I spotted a teneral male WFD which took its first flight in the breeze, landing awkwardly on the grass, where it partially closed its wings for some time and rested - it takes a while for the red colouration to develop. I found a stick to put into the ground to mark its position so that it wouldn't get accidentally trodden on.



White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (teneral male) - Whixall Moss
There were a few males flying around and occasionally settling, but the only females that I was seeing were mating, with the exception one female that appeared to be ovipositing. Although there was no obvious dipping of the abdomen, she did seem to be just 'tipping' the open water.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (female) - Whixall Moss
The male WFDs were settling quite obligingly, although very alert to an approach.


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (male) - Whixall Moss
This next image is of another teneral male, which has flown, but closed its wings again - possibly because of the breeze.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (teneral male) - Whixall Moss
Finding mating pairs wasn't difficult, but they still remained very alert to intrusion. The second image, below is not a good photo, but is included as it is the only one I have which shows most of the white face which gives the species it common name.


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (mating pair 'in wheel') - Whixall Moss
The males spent a fair bit of time sunning themselves on the duckboards - not the most natural of settings, but it gave a much less cluttered background than any of their other resting places that I saw!

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (male) - Whixall Moss
It was at 11h31 that I noticed a dragonfly nymph making its way across the weed. I subsequently confirmed that this was of WFD. 

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (nymph) - Whixall Moss
I watched it for a while as it travelled over weed, under water, and through a 'soup' of algae.


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (nymph) - Whixall Moss
It was then that 'the penny dropped' - 'it's making for the bank and it's going to emerge!!!'

I'll now show some images of the emergence sequence with the times they represent - sadly, the most exciting bit is missing, as I'll explain shortly.

White-faced Darter - From Nymph to Dragonfly

11h50 = datum + 000 minutes    Nymph leaves the water and starts ascending the bank    

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (nymph) - Whixall Moss
Now this is the real sad bit! I was standing about 10 feet (3 metres) away and the nymph crawled into the vegetation and I lost sight of it. I went round to the area that it had disappeared into but didn't dare search too closely for fear of damaging it. I couldn't find it so then retreated again to my original position. I spent some time watching and then gave up, being distracted by other things going on.

12h48 = datum + 058 minutes    Dragonfly now emerged and hanging on to the exuvia   

Suddenly I noticed that a dragonfly had emerged from its casing immediately above where I'd seen the nymph emerge. I'd missed the hanging downwards bit whilst the legs, etc dried, and here it was with body upright and wings just emerged.


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (newly emerged female) - Whixall Moss
The thing that I found remarkable at this stage was that the WFD sported an almost luminous green face!

I was now watching intently and determined to see this through until it took its first flight. 

12h55 = datum + 065 minutes    Wings now starting to fill out   

Just seven minutes later and the emergent WFD was starting to look different. The green face was now yellow, and the wings were taking shape. It had also moved slightly higher up the blade of grass.


12h58 = datum + 068 minutes    Wings now filling out  a little further

It was now getting more breezy and sunny weather was starting to give way to cloud. This meant that the newly emerged dragonfly was blowing around and making photography a tad more difficult.


13h04 = datum + 074 minutes    Wings still expanding and becoming clearer


13h20 = datum + 090 minutes    Wings now getting much clearer


13h24 = datum + 094 minutes    First partial opening of wings


13h41 = datum + 111 minutes    Abdomen extending and starting to take on colour

At around this time I got the impression that the process had slowed down somewhat. This might well have been due to conditions turning dull and colder, with an increasing breeze.


14h23 = datum + 153 minutes    Wings spread, abdomen extended, and markings visible


14h47 = datum + 177 minutes    Markings clearly visible and abdomen well-coloured



Whilst taking those last two images, I sensed by the movement that she was ready to fly, and moments later she flew and disappeared into the distance. It had been almost exactly 3 hours from the nymph leaving the water to the flight of the teneral adult. This was the first time I'd ever watched the transition from nymph to teneral adult, but I hope it won't be the last.

I was now rather cold, damp-kneed, and aching from stooping, so my last act before heading homeward was to take the exuvia as a souvenir, and carefully place it in a glass phial that I'd taken for this very purpose! This itself was a rather hazardous process as it twice blew away as I was attempting to coax it into the phial! I was hoping for a bit of sunshine today, in order to photograph the exuvia, but had no luck on that score!


White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (exuvia of female) - from Whixall Moss
Back to the rest of the day:

Whilst photographing the emergence described above, I had allowed myself the occasional distraction - sometimes out of necessity for the sake of my knees! Here's a few images taken during this period.

On the bank where the darters were emerging were a few Sundew plants. I don't think I've ever seen Sundew in the wild before, and now wish I'd taken more and better photos! Thank you, Pete, for the ID on this.

Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) - Whixall Moss
I did actually see one perched female WFD, but at a great distance! This, however, was possibly a teneral.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (female) - Whixall Moss
As well as Large Red Damselflies (which I did not photograph) there were a few Four-spotted Chasers around. I tried for a few flight shots - and failed! One did settle briefly whilst I was watching.

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) (male) - Whixall Moss
Although I didn't witness 'my' WFD hanging down from the exuvia when it first emerged, I did see several others in this this state. Here's one of them, which eventually revealed itself to be a female.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (emerging female) - Whixall Moss
At one point I found it necessary to take a short stroll to get my legs and circulation working again. I used this to observe the Stonechats.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - Whixall Moss
I continued to take photos of the WFDs - here's one of a male emerging.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (emerging male) - Whixall Moss
. . . . . and here's another adult male.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (male) - Whixall Moss
I did watch one female WFD which took its first flight and landed in a tree. This was the only time I saw a WFD in a tree, although I understand that female WFDs habitually rest in trees.

White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia) (teneral female) - Whixall Moss
Whilst photographing that last specimen, a male Reed Bunting was singing loudly above me. It didn't seem to care about my presence.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) (male) - Whixall Moss
There were also Linnet nearby, but I only managed a snap of a female.

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) (female) - Whixall Moss
Back at the water, shortly before 'my' WFD took flight, I noted a nymph swimming below the surface about 6 or 7 metres from me. I'm confused as to what it might have been as it appears to have caudal lamellae, indicating a damselfly species, but it appeared to be too large to be a damselfly - in fact my first reaction on seeing it was that it was too big to be a WFD! I guess my sense of size was seriously at fault. Any clues or suggestions would be appreciated! I've now been told that this is a diving beetle larva, and probably of a Dystiscus species (i.e. Great Diving Beetle) - Thank you SteB! So probably my general ID skills at fault, rather than my sense of size!!

diving beetle nymph (prob. Great Diving Beetle Dystiscus sp.) - Whixall Moss
At the end of my five hours at Whixall Moss, as I departed, I took some shots of one of the pairs of Stonechats.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (female) - Whixall Moss
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - Whixall Moss
I've had some good days of late, but this one has to be the most rewarding of the lot. I fired off 1,136 frames there (a record for me for a day's shooting), but this was partly because of difficult conditions due to the breeze moving the subject matter around, requiring the 'scatter gun' apporoach to photography! Whixall Moss is a fabulous place - I just wish it was a little closer to home. Weather permitting, I shall be back there on 4th June - I've probably shot myself in the foot by saying that!

Thank you for dropping by - I hope this post hasn't been too heavy for you!

30 comments:

  1. This is a brilliant post. I really will have to find some dragonflies this year. Your perseverance paid off in bucketfuls.

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    1. Thank you, Adrian. I hope you get some dragonflies. With your skills, I'm sure I have something to look forward to!! Wishing you the best of luck - - - - Richard

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  2. And when may we expect your illustrated dragonfly book to hit the market?

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    1. I guess it was a bit long-winded, David!! I've never been skilled at brevity! Love to you both - - Richard

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  3. Top post Richard with some excellent photography. If I can get half the shots you did, I will be very pleased. A great study, well done.

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    1. Thank you, Marc. I've still got a lot to learn, both about the odonata and about macro-photography, but I'm pleased with the progress I'm making - on both counts!

      Keeping fingers crossed for some fine weather tomorrow - didn't see a single damsel or dragon this afternoon as it turned cloudy, cold, and windy as soon as I arrived. Best wishes - - - Richard

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  4. You have had a fantastic day. Great images :-) Greetings

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    1. Thank you, Anne. The day was a wonderful experience! Best wishes - - - Richard

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  5. Well your perserverance and patience certainly paid off big time because this post is brilliant both the narrative and the stunning photography.

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    1. Thank you, Margaret, for your very kind words. Best wishes - - - Richard

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  6. Wow,what a fantastic post Richard,would have loved to get these results,absolutely brilliant,we would all love to have days like this,perhaps this is what drives on.
    After seeing this post,the Camera is set to go.
    John.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, John. If ever you decide to come up this way for the WFDs, I'd love to meet up with you. Best wishes to you both - - - Richard

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  7. A most rewarding day and the photos say it all.
    Regards,
    Roos

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    1. Thank you, Roos. For me it was one of the very best days, and I learned a lot too!

      Have a great weekend - - - Richard

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  8. An excellent series of photos Richard. You've done better than me and Whixall is my local photography patch now. The larvae swimming below the surface is a diving beetle larvae, probably a Dystiscus species i.e. a Great Diving Beetle larvae.

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    1. Thank you, SteB, for your kind words and your help with the nymph ID. It never occurred to me that it might be something other than an Odonata nymph! I've modified the text accordingly.

      I wonder if you were the person with a camera who came down the track from the north and turned right behind me, just as I was leaving? I only saw five people that day whilst on the moss!

      Thank you again, and best wishes - - - Richard

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    2. Hi Richard

      I was up on the 22nd, but not the 23rd. It looks like you had the better weather. I'm normally wheeling a bicycle around.

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    3. Hi Stephen. I'll keep an eye open for you next time I'm there!

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  9. Hi Richard, super post with some wonderful images of the Dragonflies, luckily had a sandwich and a cup of tea with me for sustenance. A fabulous post. John

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    1. Thanks, John. It was a marvellous day. It's a pity that it's a bit far away for you to get to and have enough time there.

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  10. What a superb post, amazing photos well done.
    If I disappear for a month next week it is because (French strike permitting!) we are going overseas and I will not be taking a laptop. Therefore posts will be very limited on the nexus and comments also. I will be back mid-July. Diane

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    1. Thank you, Diane. I hope the strike doesn't cause you problems and you have a wonderful month away. 'See you' on your return - - - - Richard

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  11. Brilliant set of pictures, amazing to see the transformation of the dragonfly from a nymph. I often wonder how is it possible for the dragonfly to grow in such a small body of a nymph, nature never ceases to amaze.

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    1. Thank you, Lin. It really was a treat to observe that transformation. Yes, it is amazing how such a compact under-water creature can become one of much larger dimensions and a master of flight - in such a short period of time!

      Have a great week - - - Richard

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  12. Quite an incredible and rich post Richard,
    A pleasure to see even more here and with a Reed bunting and a lovely stonechat!!
    Warm hugs to you both and enjoy your WE :)

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    1. Thank you, Noushka, for your encouragement and inspiration which greatly influenced my efforts which resulted in this post.

      I'm having a wonderful weekend - celebrating my 70th birthday today!!

      I hope that all is working out well for you. Love and best wishes - - - Richard

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  13. I have to say that goes down as one my all time favourite blog posts.
    Again the quality of the WFD emergence images is I think even better then previous images.
    Glad a pair of Stonechats distracted you too.

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    1. Thank you, Doug, for those extremely kind words.

      I suspect that this place is going to prove interesting on the bird front too, as I saw quite a bit of interest, but was concentrating on the dragonflies. It's also said to be good for butterflies and reptiles. I'd probably be spending a lot of time there if it was closer to home!

      Have a great week - - - Richard

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  14. Hi Pegler,
    amazing photos of the Ruby Whiteface. You've got too can shoot a nice mating wheel. The other dragonflies are really cool to see. You then have five hours sitting on your knees in the swamp but the pictures are more than worth it.

    Also great to see the larvae and hatching bvan the dragonfly. Really very beautiful!

    I see sundew and I also love very much.
    In addition, some beautiful birds.

    Cordial greetings,
    Helma

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    1. Thank you, Helma. It was a wonderful day!

      I hope your weather is better than ours - we have had flooding since Friday!

      Best wishes - - - Richard

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