Sunday, 11 March 2018

A Flight of Hawkers

During the past few years, I have become quite obsessed during late June and July in photographing the nationally rare Norfolk Hawker in flight. I am very fortunate in that this species continues to expand its range and numbers in east Kent, particularly within the Stour Valley areas of Westbere and Grove Ferry / Stodmarsh. As well as being a stunning species to look at and study, this species also has the tendency to pause and hover briefly in flight, which allows the photographer the chance to capture them in flight if ready. Over the past few years, I have spend many hours watching the males flying up and down various dykes and in doing so, have become well tuned to their habits which in turn enable me to take photos in flight. After males have been on territory a while, they will often follow the same path, at the same speed and at the same height. This is not always the case though as sometimes they will be occupied with chasing off other males before returning back. In the photos I have taken successfully so far, I have been able to watch the males flying up and down and see where they pause to hover and at what height. This has helped me to already prepare the scene and sort out camera settings etc. I tend to use a Canon f4 300mm lens which gives me the distance and quality but can sometimes be tricky to locate the hawker quickly as I'm only a couple of metres away. If I have a close hawker hovering for me, I have also started to use my Sigma 150mm macro lens which gives me the chance to locate the subject quicker but the downside is the hawker is slightly further away and more cropping is needed. A lens of about 200mm would be ideal in this situation in an ideal world. I always use manual focus which enables me to locate the hawker quickly and f5.6 to blur out the background, then its a case of clicking away with the shutter button finger and hope you have some in focus. I also tend to move the focus ring ever so slightly as I'm firing off the shots as this sometimes helps with obtaining photos completely in focus, as often, a number will not quite be in focus. Its a game of chance but you've got to buy a ticket to win as some will say. I intend to spend more hours again this year trying for photographic excellence of them in flight and hopefully, with my knowledge and experience, I will continue to improve. I may even ask if others want to join me for a few photography sessions with them to improve on their flight shots and share information. Its a challenge I very much look forward to now every year and I hope you enjoy the selection below of some of my favourite images of this lovely hawker in flight.

Norfolk Hawker (male) in Flight

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Southern Emerald Damselfly (Lestes barbarus)

With March very much on the horizon, the season moves ever nearer with a lot of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs entering their last stage as a nymph before emerging into adults to start the cycle off again. However, as I look out at the garden pond, it is completely frozen over and covered in snow which seems to have engulfed parts of the south of England in the past few days, and likely to continue for a few days yet. I wonder how these sun loving adult dragonflies cope as nymphs in these freezing temperatures and manage to stay alive? Another of those mysteries that nature throws at us. This weather has given me ample time to look back through a number of images taken over the years whereby I come across a number of images taken of the rare Southern Emerald Damselfly I found in east Kent in July 2014. These damselflies have probably the shortest flight period of the damselflies which makes them all the more challenging to find. I have only seen this damselfly twice, my first time being a single male at a traditional site at Cliffe Marshes RSPB reserve where they seemingly continue to breed in small numbers. I used to visit a site nearby to where I live until access was stopped which hosted an excellent variety of species and on one visit in July, I managed to find a few Scarce Emerald Damselfly and not long after, a single male Southern Emerald Damselfly. These damselflies are stunners and are easily identified by their metallic green bodies and bicoloured wing spots. How this individual ended up at this site remains unknown. Had it emerged from the site as it was in excellent condition or migrated from another site nearby? I was fortunate to visit over a short period and take a number of images which to date, are the best of this species I have. I really hope this year sees them appear in better numbers at Cliffe Marshes in accessible areas and that I get to visit again and enjoy them. Another date for the diary which seems to be getting filled up quite quickly already. As stated earlier, it's March this week and only a few weeks to go now until the first Large Red Damselflies think about emerging...if the weather warms up considerably!

Southern Emerald Damselfly (male)

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

2018 Challenges

With the season fast approaching now, I have started to think about what challenges lie ahead for me during the new season and thought I would share a few of them.
Photographing a male Hairy Dragonfly Emerging
I have been very fortunate during the past few seasons to rear a few Hairy Dragonflies through to emergence but despite having a few males to observe and monitor, it has only been the females that I have successfully photographed emerging. I did have a male start to emerge last year but it was unsuccessful and unfortunately, was unable to completely emerge from the exuviae and subsequently did not make it. I have netted a few Hairy Dragonfly nymphs during the winter months and although most have been released back to where I found them, I have put a few in my pond including a couple of males that I once again, I will monitor closely come May to see whether I can at last photograph a male emerging. This dragonfly to me signifies the 'real' start to the season and is always eagerly awaited every year. Will 2018 deliver me that chance?

Hairy Dragonfly Emerging (female)
The Norfolk Obsession
The past few years in Kent have seen the Norfolk Hawker continue to establish itself well in the Stour Valley and from what I am told, a few other areas within north Kent. As well as being a stunning dragonfly to photograph with those contrasting green eyes with brown body, they are also a favourite with the photographer as they often pose well at rest and also in flight. This has seen me continue to improve on my photos during the past few years and get quite an obsession with the 'perfect' flight shot. The last few seasons have seen me slowly improving my efforts but I would like to think that I can once again, challenge myself and raise the bar and get some more pleasing efforts. No doubt, a lot of July will see me at Grove Ferry and Westbere spending time in the company of these stunning dragonflies.

Norfolk Hawker in flight (male)
A 'Kent' Southern Migrant Hawker
One of my memorable sessions last year was watching 20+ male Southern Migrant Hawkers flying up and down a single ditch in Essex. These have got to be one of the most stunningly coloured dragonflies to see and I can't recommend enough to others if you have not seen them yet. Hopefully they will appear this year again in good numbers and I will most definitely make the trip again. I wouldn't say no to finding an exuviae too. In contrast to Essex where I have seen quite a few now, I have still to see my first in Kent despite them being seen for the past few years on private land in the Cliffe Marshes area. I have tried to gain access but have not yet been successful. It would be nice to think with the Essex population doing well that they may continue to spread in Essex and north Kent. There are some great dykes in the Reculver area on the coast that could well host a colony of these dragonflies in the forthcoming years. Fingers crossed that this species continues to go from strength to strength.

Southern Migrant Hawker (male) Essex
The New Forest Calls
Its been four years since I last visited the New Forest where I saw some of the iconic dragonflies and damselflies that live there including the Golden ringed Dragonfly, Southern and Scarce Blue tailed Damselflies. Its a superb place to spend time in and I really need to get back there again to see and improve on my photos from my last visit there and take in one of the best places to see odonata in this country. All being well and if time allows, I can once again meet my good odonata friend Paul Ritchie in his local backyard to sample the pleasures of the New Forest.

Golden ringed Dragonfly (male) New Forest
July Means Willow Emerald Damselflies
This is a damselfly as many of you will know who follow this blog that I have spent much time studying and photographing over the past few years. I have been lucky to photograph the nymphs, emergence and adults but would love to also photograph and witness the prolarvae emerging from their eggs in the branches where they have spent the winter. Although this task is pretty much impossible to see, I might be able to at least photograph some prolarvae as I have collected a branch which is currently hovering over some water. I shall keep checking come March to see whether I can see this most of rare sights. I shall find it hard to keep away from this species i'm sure again this year and will enjoy countless hours in their presence. I also intend to spend more time surveying in the area to see whether the species continues to spread.

Willow Emerald Damselfly Emerging
And There's More...
I have yet to visit Scotland where I still need to see Northern Damselfly, Northern Emerald and Azure Hawker. Its a long way to drive living in East Kent and their season peaks when I am still at work making it hard for me to make time to visit as I work in education and need to wait for the summer holidays at the end of July. Maybe its possible, I'm not too sure? I would also like to spend some time at Thursley Common searching for Downy and Brilliant Emerald exuviae as well as making some time to see the Common Hawker, a dragonfly I have only see a few times and only possess the one photo of. Add to that seeing a Kent Golden ringed Dragonfly, looking for Red veined Darters etc, it looks like its going to be a busy season and fingers crossed, the weather plays its part and allows plenty of time to spend out and about observing and photographing.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Branching Out

With the forecast again today for lovely sunshine and temperatures reaching the dizzy heights of 10 degrees celsius, I decided to have a wander around at Nethergong to look for and photograph the gall marks laid into branches overhanging the water by the Willow Emerald Damselfly. With the leaves off the trees making it easier to look, I was able to find many branches showing the tell tale markings left where the female had laid the eggs into the branches. Most were laid on the younger thinner branches on the outside of the trees which I assume are softer for the female's ovipositor to penetrate. I ended up finding gall marks on Alder, Willow, Dogrose and Stinging Nettle and all being well, it looks like it will be another good season for this damselfly. As I write in mid February, it wont be long now until the eggs hatch in March whereby, the young will hopefully fall into the water to start their lives as a nymph. They do have a back up plan though in that should they not fall into the water for any reason, the young prolarvae have a jumping mechanism which will hopefully enable them to reach the water. Nature never ceases to amaze. The nymphs unlike some other species will then grow rapidly and emerge as adults a few months later in July /August. Having photographed most of the life of the Willow Emerald Damselfly except the actual young prolarvae hatching and emerging into the water, I decided to bring home a piece of a willow branch and a stinging nettle stem with eggs in them where I have positioned them over a water tray in the hope of photographing some of this action. Its a long shot but you never know, I will just be happy to see some of the prolarvae and try to photograph them before returning them back to the stream at Nethergong where I found them. On another note, I have finally got round to making up a dragonfly and damselfly flight times chart which can be accessed by clicking on the 'Flight Times' tab at the top of the page. I hope others may find it of some use as I no doubt will.

 Willow Emerald Damselfly Ovipositing Sites

Willow Emerald Damselfly 'Gall' Marks