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Friday 24 September 2021

September Dragon Hunting - 2021

I didn't get out dragon hunting in September as much as I would have liked to. This was partly because of weather conditions, but also due to domestic events in terms of outdoor maintenance (house and garden) plus the installation of air-source heat pumps to our home putting pressure on my time. However, I did manage four excursions during that time.

This blog post will cover those four dragon hunting excursions, plus some of the incidentals spotted during those visits.

Thursday, 2nd September          Saltersford Valley Country Park

It was relatively warm and sunny, but a bit breezy on this day, so I headed off to nearby Saltersford Valley CP for a mid-afternoon visit. 

The Common Darters (including mating pairs) were resting on 'the ground' rather than on twigs, presumably because of the stiff breeze.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Saltersford CP
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (female) - Saltersford CP
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male+female in cop) - Saltersford CP
A couple of male Migrant Hawkers were seen, but these were mainly confining themselves to flying along a very narrow trail between the reeds, and not settling. This made my attempts at photographing them doomed to failure. I include the following two poor shots of one of them so that you can get a feel for the problem in tracking them.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Saltersford Valley CP
In one more sheltered area, I found male Ruddy Darters that were more helpful by perching a little off the ground.

Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) (male) - Saltersford Vally CP
There was little in the way of incidentals to the visit. However, this is a quite reliable place for Speckled Wood butterfly. This shot of one shows its curled up 'tongue'.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) (male) - Saltersford Valley CP
I believe this rather attractive flower to be of Pennyroyal Water Mint- one of the mint family - my thanks to Conehead54 for pointing me at this correction to my original ID.
Water Mint (Mentha pulegium aquatica) - Saltersford Valley CP
I was on site for just over an hour, and it had been a pleasant experience, even if not over-productive dragon-wise and photography-wise.

Sunday, 5th September          Heather Lake

My previous visit to Heather Lake, on 15th June, had been disappointing as the woodland on the approach had been drastically thinned out, and most of the marginal vegetation had been removed. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I approached the lake on this afternoon with the weather just being 'sunny periods'.

As I headed through the woodland en-route to the lake I could hear the mewing of Buzzards in the distance and, on emerging into a clearing, I noted three well-spaced and distant Buzzards calling to each other. One eventually came a little closer as the others disappeared.

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) - near Heather Lake

On reaching the lake, a quick scan from the northern corner revealed just two distant Migrant Hawkers. One of these landed in the rushes opposite me. However, this next shot, taken with the lens at 500mm and then significantly cropped, will show that it was rather distant!

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Heather Lake

I set off on a clockwise circumnavigation of the lake, and during the next ten minutes saw little. I resorted to photographing a butterfly - yes, another Speckled Wood!

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) (male) -Heather Lake
As I was taking this shot, I noticed a Common Darter land, giving me my first proper dragon shot opportunity of the session.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Heather Lake
Dragon sightings dried up again and so I started photographing (common) birds.
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) - Heather Lake
Coot (Fulica atra) - Heather Lake
I also took some shots of a rather ferocious-looking fly.

fly (Tachina fera) - Heather Lake
I was now more than halfway round the lake and a little disappointed with how few dragons I was seeing, and not a single damselfly. I then found an immature female Common Blue Damselfly!

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) (immature female) - Heather Lake
I soon came upon this next dragonfly which had me fooled for a while. It was holding its wings forward like a Ruddy Darter, and was coloured very much like a male Ruddy Darter. It also seemed to show some waisting on the abdomen. However, on closer examination, I see that it has pale stripes to the legs, no extension down the sides of the the black line on top of the frons, and pale side patches on the thorax, defining it as a male Common Darter.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Heather Lake
I'd completed the circuit, and was nearly halfway round an anticlockwise return when I found a Migrant Hawker that seemed a little curious about my presence, although it never got very close. I spent a while trying for some flight shots before it disappeared, but did not do as well as I'd hoped for.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Heather Lake
Near the southern end of the lake were two Little Grebe. I find these to be rather cute, with their powder-puff rear ends!

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) - Heather Lake
I was more than three quarters of the way back to my start point on the lake when things took a turn for the better. A male Migrant Hawker was showing an element of predictability in its flight pattern and seemed to be looking for a place to settle. This enabled me to get a couple of reasonable flight shots, although my shutter speed was still set as for the grebe shots and not fast enough to freeze the wing motion.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Heather Lake
It then did what it had been wanting to do, and landed somewhere just out of my line of vision. I went over to try and get some shots of it perched, and was just raising my camera when something caught my eye behind it - a pair of Migrant Hawkers mating. I immediately switched my attention to them although they were not in an ideal position. I'm showing a close-up in the second image below as it shows the mating connections. Males have two sex organs - the primary being at the tail-end of the abdomen and the secondary being at the front end of the abdomen. The male collects sperm from the primary sex organ and transfers it to the secondary. In the mating wheel, the female is 'plugged in' to the male's secondary organ while the male holds her in position behind her head with claspers at the tail-end of his abdomen. She, meanwhile, is holding onto his abdomen with her legs.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male+female in cop) - Heather Lake
Before I left the site, I had one more pleasing encounter with another Common Darter.
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Heather Lake
I'd been on site for just under two hours, and a slow start had turned up trumps in the end - even if nothing rare had been seen.
Tuesday, 7th September          Eyebrook Reservoir and Laxton
With a week of unfavourable weather being forecast for a while from later in the week, I took the opportunity to head for Eyebrook Reservoir with one particular objective in mind, and that was to try and connect with the Willow Emerald Damselflies that had first been seen in Vice County 55 (Leicestershire & Rutland) in 2019 and which I managed to connect with and photograph a few days later, and then again in 2020. 

Eyebrook Reservoir, although in the same county as my home, is not an insignificant distance from my home and the scenic route takes me about two hours. I set off mid-morning, taking a picnic lunch.

On arrival, I was disappointed to find that access to the place where I'd had really good views of the Willow Emeralds last year was so overgrown with nettles and brambles that I was not going to be able to reach it without considerable, and lasting, discomfort to myself - my trousers ('pants' to my transatlantic friends) are thin enough that nettle stings penetrate them as I have found to my detriment before! I was, therefore, confined to observing from the bridge over the Eye Brook.
At first, I could see no sign of any damselflies of any species and only a few dragonflies (Southern Hawker, Migrant Hawker, Brown Hawker, and Common Darter) that were zooming around in the distance. The day was quite warm for the time of year but, as with so many days this year, there was a stiff breeze.

After about twenty minutes, I spotted a Willow Emerald arrive and land on a distant willow twig. I had just raised my camera to take a shot when a Common Darter arrived to settle on the twig near the Willow Emerald, causing the emerald to fly off!

Willow Emerald (Chalcolestes viridis) (male) + Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Eyebrook
It was another twenty minutes until the next bit of action, when a male Willow Emerald landed on a leaf that was much nearer to me. It was difficult to get a shot as it was blowing about in the breeze, but I did manage to get one just about usable shot before a particularly strong gust blew it off the leaf.
Willow Emerald (Chalcolestes viridis) (male) - Eyebrook
It was only a couple of minutes, however, before it returned. To add to the strong breeze, the photographic difficulty was added to by the subject constantly blowing into, and out of, deep shade!  I did, nevertheless, manage a few more usable shots of this remarkable damselfly.

Willow Emerald (Chalcolestes viridis) (male) - Eyebrook
I stayed for another couple of hours, but little happened other than distand views of Banded Demoiselle, as shown below.
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) (male) - Eyebrook
Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) (female) - Eyebrook
Before departing, I took a shot from the bridge of a Moorhen in the Eye Brook.
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) - Eyebrook
While I was out that way, I thought I'd visit Laxton to see if the Red Kites were still frequenting the village. It seems that the gentleman in the village that fed them has probably ceased to do so as, although two were seen in the distance, and one approached the village on a couple of occasions in the hour or so that I was there, they were extremely sparse compared to previous visits.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Laxton
The journey home was a pleasant one, and at one point I stopped to open the gate on a gated road and spotted a Little Owl in a good position a little further up the road. I should have taken a safety shot there and then as, when I got into my car, drove through the gate, and closed it again, being very careful not to look at the owl (they are expert at knowing when they have been spotted), I found that it had taken the opportunity to depart unobserved - this is quite typical of Little Owls.
Thus ended a day which was quite long-winded (I was out for eight hours) but with objectives achieved.
Saturday, 18th September          Saltersford Valley Country Park
It seemed like forever since I'd last been out, so I took a quick trip down the road to Saltersford Valley CP once more. I was a little concerned that there might be too many people about on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon  but, in the event, I didn't see another soul in the hour and a half that I was on site!

As is usual, when I have got my head screwed on straight, on arrival at a favourable location I took a shot of  'something', just to check the camera settings. I decided to keep the 'check shot', shown below, because it amuses me. It depicts the back end of an average-to large sized fly (I think it was probably a Noon Fly), but also includes a couple of extremely minute insects, the ID of which I have no idea about!

Saltersford Valley camera settings chck shot!
Sadly, as I finished checking my settings, a female dragonfly in ovipositing mode dropped onto the deck in front of me and then dashed off into the reeds which, in places were taller than head height. I didn't even have time to take in the ID of this individual but suspect that it was a Southern Hawker.

Has anyone else noticed that, in these parts anyway, the vegetation seems, this year, to have grown twice as high as usual, in both gardens and countryside? I'm not talking about trees and bushes, but those plants that grow from the ground up each year, either as regenerating perennials or from seed. Couple this with the lack of maintenance in public places due to lack of workforce or funding, and places are getting more and more difficult to access, or see through or over.
Dragonflies seen were the usual mix, for this time of year in this region, of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers. No damselflies were seen at all! The dragonflies, however, were settling regularly.
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Saltersford Valley CP
Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Saltersford Valley CP
There is one 'incidental' that I offer an image of. Although extremely common, a Mute Swan is one of the most majestic birds in UK. It was good to see this one close to the shore I was by, and its partner and healthy young family on the far side of the lake.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) - Saltersford Valley CP
That brings me to the end of my September dragon hunting efforts. Commitments over the next week mean that I am unlikely to be dragon hunting again before the end of the moth.

My next blog post will almost certainly be featuring my garden observations for September and will, I believe, contain a good mix of subjects.

In the meantime, take good care of yourself and Nature.

Sunday 19 September 2021

A Very Fine Day - on 11th August 2021

A good friend, and Chairman of the wildlife group that I am part of (Blackfordby Wildlife Group), is a keen botanist, and very interested in orchids. When I once mentioned that I was aware of a particular area of a nature reserve that was said to be good for Yellow Birdsnest (a plant that has no chlorophyll), he was rather interested, and so I offered to show him the area at a time when this particular plant might be found. It was to this end that Brian and I visited Ketton Quarry Nature Reserve on this August day.

Although we did not find Yellow Birdsnest, the day turned up some remarkable surprises.

With the current Covid situation, I did not fancy car sharing for a journey that would, with stops to check out locations en-route, take approximately two hours each way, so I led Brian on my favoured cross-country route. A stop at my Little Owl site No.34 came up with the goods as Brian had never seen a Little Owl in the wild before!

Little Owl (Athene noctua)  - my LO site No.34
Just to give a little background to Ketton Quarry, this is an ancient disused limestone quarry and supports some wonderful wildlife. My visits here have mainly been in spring and early summer, primarily looking for butterflies and lizards. The reserve is a great place for Green Hairstreaks, Grizzled and Dingy Skippers, Dark Green Fritillaries, and Marbled Whites, with the occasional Silver-washed Fritillary being seen also. I had previously seen very little in the way of dragonflies here, and the same goes for birds too.

It had been more than two years since my last visit here (29th June, 2019) and the visit then had been dominated by Dark Green Fritillaries and Marbled Whites. No dragonflies had been seen during that visit. I was, therefore, somewhat delighted when the first item of interest seen on this visit, beside the entrance gate, was a Common Darter.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (female) - Ketton Quarry
On entering the site I was immediately struck by the good numbers of 'white' butterflies seen, which I initially presumed were Large Whites. I was, therefore, surprised to notice the odd yellow one and realise that these were all Brimstones. I think that I saw more Brimstones this day than I have, cumulatively, over the past ten years or more! I didn't record numbers but if pushed for an estimate I'd say over 50.

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) (male) - Ketton Quarry
As we headed up the path to the area where we hoped to find Yellow Birdsnest I spotted a Painted Lady in pristine condition.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) - Ketton Quarry
By now, I was seeing Common Darters everywhere, but the perched ones were all female.
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (female) - Ketton Quarry
I was also seeing numerous fritillaries. It had been a couple of years since I last saw a fritillary and I'd forgotten the ID pointers that distinguish Dark Green from Silver-washed and seeing the different patterns on the upper side of the wings I thought that I was seeing some of each species. It was only when I'd got home and looked at my photos and my reference book that I realised that every single one was a Silver washed - the difference in wing pattern being the difference between male and female. Again, I will have to guess at numbers but I suspect that there may have been over forty seen - certainly more than the cumulative number from the whole of my life up until that day!

Sadly I did not spot an undamaged specimen amongst the whole lot, with some of them surprising me that they were still flying. The males were particularly tatty. These are the best condition specimens that I could find of each sex.

Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) (female) - Ketton Quarry
Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) (male) - Ketton Quarry

We had a few sightings of day-flying moths and these all seem to have been Shaded Broad-bar.

Shaded Broad-bar (Scotopteryx chenopodiata) - Ketton Quarry
Near the northern end of the site we noticed a dragonfly which seemed to be looking for a place to settle. It did, and we were both able to get close-up shots of this male Southern Hawker.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) (male) - Ketton Quarry
At the extreme north edge of the reserve, where the ancient quarry meets the solar farm, now part of the vast modern quarry operated by Hanson, the insect situation changed significantly. Past visits here at a different time of year have turned up good numbers of Green Tiger Beetles. Here we found Common Blue butterflies.

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (male) - Ketton Quarry
Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (female) - Ketton Quarry
I thought that this was a fresh female Common Blue when I took this next shot, but realised when I came to look at the photo that it was a female Brown Argus - and not so fresh!

Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) (female) - Ketton Quarry
There were many grasshoppers around, and I believe these to be Common Field Grasshopper.
Common Field Grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus) - Ketton Quarry
Brian created some excitement when he found a cricket which neither of us were sure about. I subsequently identified it (I hope that I am correct!) as a male Roesel's Bush-cricket - although apparently common, this was a 'first' for me.

Roesel's Bush-cricket (Roeseliana roeselii) (male) - Ketton Quarry
On the way back, I came to one location where there was an area, probably about 8 metres by 8 metres where I can say with all honesty that I have never seen so many dragonflies in such a small area - damselflies, yes, but dragonflies a definite 'no'! I'm guessing at 50 plus individuals but they were swirling around in a cloud. They were in an inaccessible place at some distance but, as far as I could tell, they were mainly Common Darters, a number of Migrant Hawkers, a few Southern Hawkers and two Brown Hawkers. I tried to capture the scene with my camera but everything was happening too fast and too far away.

Exploring other areas of the reserve turned up little that we'd not already seen in abundance.  A Peacock butterfly posed quite nicely, as did a hoverfly.

Peacock (Aglais io) - Ketton Quarry
hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus) (female) - Ketton Quarry
It had, for me anyway, been a remarkable visit with so many 'most evers', the most amazing being the number of dragonflies. This location, in just hours, went from 'somewhere where I consider myself lucky if I see a dragonfly' to a place where I probably saw the biggest concentration of dragonflies that I have ever seen. The crazy thing is that I'm not aware of any significant area of water nearby!
After this, Brian had to take the speedy route home to attend to his wife who was recently out of hospital. I took the scenic route which really paid off as, on reaching my Little Owl site No.41, I found a Little Owl showing, confirming my suspicions that the owls here had found a new nest hole. This was, of course, the real icing on the cake for this day.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Little Owl site No.41
Thus ended a somewhat satisfying day, even if the prime objective (for Brian anyway - sorry Brian!) was not achieved. If there was a downside to the day for me, it was that there was not a lot of opprtunity for dragonfly photography as most of them were constantly in flight against a background of trees and bushes.
At this point in time, I am not sure what the subject of my next blog post will be, but I suspect that it will largely feature damsels and dragons. In the meantime, take good care of yourself and Nature.