Here be dragons…

I’ve been fortunate over the last few months to be able to spend some time watching and photographing dragonflies down at my local nature reserve, Wolverhampton’s Smestow Valley. The reserve is well served with potential breeding sites for these enigmatic and beautiful insects, with three suitable ponds, a canal and several brooks. Invariably I have found myself drawn to Willow Pond – this peaceful spot is probably my favourite place within the reserve and, fortunately, the site with most dragonfly activity. Of the 14 species spotted to date in the valley, 13 have appeared on Willow Pond, with one of them being a first record for the county (more on that later!)

Things kicked off down on the canal in early June with the appearance of the stunning, metallic Banded Demoiselles. Meanwhile, the canal and ponds were getting busy with the emergence of several damselfly species: Azure Damselfly, Common Blue Damselfly and Blue-tailed Damselfly were all present in good numbers. These were soon joined on Willow Pond by their larger relatives, the chasers. Both Four-spotted Chaser and Broad Bodied Chaser occurred regularly, obligingly posing for photos on handily placed twigs!

By July, the activity on Willow Pond had increased with the arrival of at least three Emperor Dragonflies (with at least one breeding pair). This is Britain’s largest dragonfly and has been doing well in recent years, steadily increasing its range across the UK. The end of the month saw the arrival of Brown Hawkers, with ovipositing (egg laying) females being noted on both Willow and nearby Nursery Pond. Around the same time, small numbers of the pretty little Emerald Damselfly were spotted on Willow Pond.

It wasn’t until the end of August that any new arrivals were noted, with the seemingly explosive emergence of Common Darters, living up to their name and occurring in good numbers across all habitats. The handsome red and yellow males and sombre yellow females are fascinating to watch and often tolerate a close approach. Sometimes too close – at one point a loud buzzing in my ear alerted me to the presence of a mating couple on my shoulder! It’s always worth checking amongst the clouds of darters for something a little less common. This turned up a solitary Ruddy Darter on Willow Pond one day in early September.

As September rolled on, Common Darters became the ubiquitous species in the reserve. They were soon joined by a couple of the big ‘mosaic hawkers’. Both Southern Hawker and Migrant Hawker were regularly sighted on Willow and Nursery Ponds and on vegetated stretches of canal. These large dragonflies rarely keep still long enough to be photographed but patience eventually paid off with some decent shots of both male and female Migrant Hawkers on Willow Pond. The Southern Hawkers are proving to be more troublesome: this inquisitive species will often investigate humans and will frequently and repeatedly hover within inches of your face while it checks you out. A wonderful experience, but hard to capture with a telephoto lens that won’t focus that close! There’s still time to try again, if I remember to take a wide-angle lens with me…

And so we save the best till last! During the final week of September, on one of my now regular skulking-in-the-vegetation-beside-Willow-Pond-trying-to-photograph-a-hawker sessions I snapped what I then casually dismissed to be an immature Emerald Damselfly. However, on later viewing the photos on a large screen I began to suspect it was something altogether more exciting: a Willow Emerald Damselfly. This species is a relative newcomer to the UK, only really getting established as a breeding species in around 2007 in the South East. It has rapidly spread along the east coast and is now spreading westwards. My record of the Willow Emerald has since been confirmed as a first for the Staffordshire vice-county, and the furthest west the species has currently been recorded in the UK. It was my great pleasure to show Willow Pond to our county dragonfly recorder, Dave Jackson, the day after my sighting. After hanging around for two hours, Dave managed to spot the Willow Emerald for himself as it finally put in a 10 second appearance in a willow tree. A Willow Emerald in a willow tree on Willow Pond. Seems appropriate!

2 thoughts on “Here be dragons…

  1. Lovely read and photos that make identification possible for beginners who struggle in the field.
    I am going to look out for someone ‘skulking in the vegetation by Willow Pond”.


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