Monday, 5 October 2015

In search of dragons....

Well, October it may well be, but with daytime temperatures recently reaching a balmy 17/18C, any insects that remain on the wing have been making hay while the sun shines. I arranged to take an afternoon off work and headed over to a local Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserve - Danes Moss near Macclesfield. The reserve comprises sizeable areas of lowland raised bog - a rare and threatened habitat in the UK, as well as areas of woodland and heathland. The boggy habitat type suits many species of insect perfectly, with 11 species of damselfly and dragonfly having been recorded on the reserve, as well as 19 species of butterfly.

Some species of dragonfly can be seen in their adult stage as late as October, so armed with my trusty camera and macro lens combo, sunshine and a clear blue sky I was hopeful for what I might find.

Male Southern Hawker at rest

My wanderings got off to a great start when one of the first dragonflies to be seen was a Southern Hawker - this  turned out to be the species that was to dominate this visit. I canot help but be impressed by these large insects - with a body length of 7cms and a wingspan of around 10cms, they are one of our largest dragonflies. It's incredible to think that their basic body design has remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years - fossils of their ancestors date back to over 300 million years ago, and some such as species of Meganeuropsis had wingspans of up to 71 cms - about the same as a female Sparrowhawk! The hawker that had been flying about around me I was lucky to see land amongst a stand of long grass next to the path, but no sooner than he had alighted, he was up and off again, but soon settled again, this time choosing in a tree, just about at head height. There he stayed and was the model 'subject'. I took several photos and then left him be, not that he had appeared remotely concerned by my presence.

Moving closer to the water's edge I could see another 4 or 5 hawkers, all Southern as far as I could tell. I had inadvertently strayed onto the patch of one particularly inquisitive male who made numerous fly-pasts, and briefly hovered to get a better look at this trespasser. This offered another opportunity for a challenge I'd set myself earlier in the year of trying to photograph insects in flight. Fun and frustrating in equal measure I persevered and with a combination of manual focus and luck, managed a couple of photos I was quite pleased with. (Room for improvement for sure, but this was the most success I've had so far with flying dragonflies!)

Male Southern Hawker in flight
And again (the same individual as above)

A lovely surprise was to notice a female Southern Hawker ovipositing in a peaty bank 2/3 feet up from the water's edge. I have seen dragonflies of other species laying eggs into the water, or on vegetation in the water, generally in tandem (such as species of damselfly and darter), but with Southern Hawkers, the female lays on her own, and I was surprised to see her laying her eggs a relative distance from the water (this isn't something I was aware they did though apparently it isn't uncommon for Southern Hawkers to do so). Seemingly oblivious to my presence I watched as she got on with the important business of laying her eggs (and took a quick camera video also).

Female Southern Hawker ovipositing

The large hawkers are undoubtedly impressive, but the reserve is also home to many smaller species of dragonfly. At this time of year many species have already had their time in their brief adult lives and their DNA lives on in unseen eggs and larvae. Two species of darter though were still ubiquitous - Common and Black Darters, the latter being our smallest species of dragonfly in the UK. Both of these beautiful dragonflies allow a close approach, indeed if you hang around in their territory long enough they are quite likely to treat you as part of the furniture!

Sharing a picnic table with a Common Darter (female)
Side view (the same individual as above)
Male Black Darter

Female Black Darter (taken in September)


  1. Fabulous photos Jan, especially the flight pic. I think dragonfly's are popular in the same way that falcons and cheetahs are - a charismatic predator

    1. Thanks very much Phil, trying to take the flight shots was fun, if tricky!!! They are certainly impressive predators (I vaguely remember that their success rate when hunting is far better than mammalian predators), as well as being great looking insects.

  2. Great images and information Jan. Dragonflies are fascinating creatures that unfortunately I don't often see locally.

    1. Thanks Dougie, I guess the numbers/types of dragonfly dwindle off the further North you go, though you have a couple there in Scotland we don't get here. This reserve is particularly good for dragonflies, it's pot luck most other places I visit!