The beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) and its not dissimilar cousin, the banded agrion, rate as two of my favourite insects. Stunningly beautiful in the sun with their metallic finish making them look almost unreal, the colours just being impossible to recreate. Even the male is worthy of the name 'the beautiful maiden'!
The banded agrion is quite common but the beautiful demoiselle is far less so as it has particular preferences in habitat. The beautiful demoiselle likes fast flowing clear, unpolluted water with abundant aquatic vegetation. The upper reaches of some of Dorset's chalk streams are ideal for them. This preference for a special habitat means they are far from common anywhere in Dorset but where they do occur they can be abundant. They are also inclined close to where they laid their eggs so are, by nature, a local species.
It is the absence of the dark patches on the wings of the males that immediately distinguishes them from the banded agrion.
Banded Agrion: a splendid damselfly
In general, it seems, people do not like insects much preferring birds and mammals but there are some stunningly beautiful insects and the banded agrion (Calopteryx splendens) damselfy has to be up there amongst the best. Well, it is in my book anyway and is certainly in my top ten beautiful insects in Britain and I never tire of watching them
The banded agrion can be told from its close cousin, the beautiful demoiselle, by the dark bands on the wings but otherwise both have this wonderful metallic green/blue colouring which is just amazing in sunlight. This makes it a very conspicuous species and you can hardly miss it when it flies. The female is quite different to the male and can be mistaken for other species and is often thought to be the emerald damselfly.
The banded agrion is a much larger insect than most other damselflies. It is a species of larger, slower moving rivers and canals and can be seen along most of chalk rivers in Dorset; certainly on the Stour, Avon and Frome. It is not fond of the still water of lakes and ponds. Flying from May until September this is quite a common insect in terms of distribution although common is not a word to describe its stunning appearance.
Emerald Damselfly: open to interpretation
The emerald damselfly (Lestes sponsa) is not uncommon in Britain but it does tend to favour shallow water and is very tollerant of acidic bog pools so it is on the damper areas of Dorset heathland that you will most frequently encounter them. They are also quite able to survive in sites that dry out in late summer as it over winters as an egg rather than a larvae.
I think there is some confusion over identity of this species. The banded agrion and beautiful demoiselle are both a lovely emerald green and some assume that this means they are the emerald damselfly but this only goes to emphasise the difficulty of our English names which can be quite misleading at times. There is an additional problem with this speciess too. With a distinctive bright band around the tail the emerald damselfly can easily be dismissed as a blue-tailed damselfly as the emerald green colouring really shows up best in good light. However, the best distinguishing feature is that the emerald rests with its wings at 45 degrees to its body rather than along its back. Add this to its preferred choice of habitat, heathland, and it becomes quite simple.
The emerald damselfly can be seen from May right through until October but are most common in August and September.
Large Red Damselfly: a sign of the times
The large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) is the first of our odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) to emerge each year and it is a sure indicator that things are warming up and summer is coming! Warming water temperatures in ponds where the nymphs live trigger their emergence. It can be seen as early as March in a mild spring and is at its peak in July. There is a small red damselfly which is far less widespread and emerges in the autumn so, in spring and summer, if you see a red coloured damselfly is certainly going to be this one.
The large red damselfly is also one of the most common and certainly the most widespread of our damselflies as it will quickly colonise new pools of fresh water when they appear. We created a new pond in our garden when we moved to Dorset and within two years we had large red damselflies in tandem, laying eggs back in to the pond in which they were born. The males can be fiercely territorial and will defend their patch of water against all comers!
The male is bright red and the female has golden patches merged in with the red on each segment of the abdomen. The female also appears in a darker melanistic form. Both are lovely to look at close up but are so easily overlooked.
Small Red Damselfly: home comforts
You will often hear that the heathland of Dorset is a unique habitat and has many special species associated with it. The small red damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) is undoubtedly one of those special species being nationally scarce but occurring in various places on our heaths in pools in wet bogs or near small streams.
It is much smaller than the large red damselfly, lacks the dark tail markings of the large red and flies much later in the year. Add in the special habitat requirement and, in theory, you should not mistake them!
They are such delicate insects with a weak flight so they tend to like home comforts and will only be found near suitable habitat.
White-legged Damselfly: a damsel in distress
The white-legged damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes) is one of our less well known damseflies, if any are well known other than by enthusiasts of course! It is an uncommon species found on some rivers in south east Dorset, notably the River Stour. In the United Kingdom it is very much a southern species, primariliy the south-east, and so the Dorset community is somewhat isolated.
This is a species that thrives in open, slow moving muddy rivers and the lower stretches of the River Stour around Wimborne and north Bournemouth meets this criteria very well. They seem to be quite common here which belies their overall status. Overall, this is thought to be a species in distress and declining as they are very fond of dense riverside vegetation but our inclination seems to be to cut this back to tidy up and make a riverbank accessible for fishing.
You are most likely to see these damsels in June and July. Look for them in riverside nettle beds and other tall, dense vegetation. They are often found where the banded agrion occurs although the banded agrion is much more widespread than this species.
This species can be easily dismissed as a common blue damselfly but, when you take a closer look, it is much paler in colour generally and it does have white legs!
This is a very rare species found in restricted habitat types in south east Dorset.
Azure Damselfly: blue and common but not the common blue
This is a common blue damselfly but is not THE common blue damselfly! There is a tiny difference between the common blue and the azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella) and closer inspection of the first segment of the abdomen will reveal that this is the azure damselfly rather than the common blue. Why? It has a black tumbler shape on this segment whereas the common blue damselfly has a wine glass!
There are other differences to be fair but telling them apart in the field is not easy. The common blue has more black patches on the blue abdomen than the azure and the azure is more numerous in May and June whereas the common blue is more numerous later in the summer. The azure tends to be found around small, sheltered sites such as ditches and garden ponds whereas the common blue prefers larger, more open areas of water. You would rarely see a common blue around your garden pond for example, much more likely to be azure.
All in all, though, tricky chaps!
Common Blue Damselfly: egg cup or tumbler?
There are many tricky tests out there for the amateur naturalist or the casual wildlife observer and it can occasionally come down to detail. Sometimes you need microscopic examination or even DNA analysis to tell species apart and it becomes a job for the scientist. Blue damselflies are tricky but at least there are clues that mean scientific knowledge is not essential.
The common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), the azure damselfly and the southern damselfly are superficially similar. The fact that individuals can vary does not help but, first and foremost, the key difference in appearance is the 'symbol' that occurs on the first segment of the abdomen. The common blue has what is best described as a black silhouette shape of an egg cup whereas the azure damselfly has a profile of a tumbler glass or perhaps better described as the outline of a square without the top bar, just three sides showing. The southern damselfly has a mark a bit like a Viking helmet!
That is all well and good if the insect is at rest and will let you get close enough to see the marking but I am afraid that is rarely the case! It is at that point that the non-specialist is forced to fall back on fundamental principles, where does it live and statistically how many are there and what are the chances of seeing that species as opposed to others. Whilst your record may not be accepted by the county recorder you can still have a pretty good stab at telling them apart. The southern damselfly is rare, even here in the south. Unless you are at a place that is known to support them you will not see one! The common blue likes open areas of water whereas the azure can be found around damp ditches and small weedy ponds. The azure is often more abundant in spring and early summer with the common blue more abundant later. These are clues and they help but you really need to get a look at the vital segment marking to be sure.
Blue-tailed Damselfly: give us a ring
The blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans) is such an elegant insect, quite small and delicate with its wings folded away tidily along the length of its body when it is at rest. It deserves the name latin name elegans.
This is a common damselfly in Dorset but because it is dark in colour it can be overlooked as perhaps the female of some other species. The distinctive feature, that blue ring at the end of its tail, stands out quite clearly in both the male and female blue-tailed damselfly although, as always, a word of caution as other species have a similar marking on the tail, notably the emerald damselfly.
This damselfly prefers slow moving or static water and likes to spend a lot of time perched on waterside vegetation. It does not move far from the waters edge. It is quite at home in garden ponds and it was next to our pond that I caught this one.
A scarce species in Dorset and not easy to tell apart from some other species.
A scarce dragonfly found mainly in east Dorset.
Although called the common hawker it is scarce in Dorset.
Migrant Hawker: on patrol
Hawker dragonflies derive their collective name from the way they patrol their territory almost continuously, just occasionally resting. They defend their territory fearlessly and will even approach human beings who enter their patch to check them out! Whilst that can be a bit disconcerting the dragonfly is, of course, totally harmless to people. This hawking seems to form two purposes, the same two driving forces behind all of nature; one is food and the other reproduction. They are hunting for food and hunting for a mate! This almost constant movement can make it difficult to tell species apart.
In Dorset the most common hawker is the southern hawker but you occasionally encounter this species, the migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta). As a general rule, if the insect looks green and/or blue then it is probably the southern hawker but if it looks brown it will probably be the migrant hawker although in the east of the county a golden brown species will be the brown hawker! The migrant hawker is also somewhat smaller than the other two mentioned. To be sure you really do need to see them at rest.
Although it has the common name of migrant hawker it is a resident species which can be found near well vegetated ponds, lakes and gravel pits which is where it lays its eggs. However, numbers in late summer can be boosted by incoming migrant insects from Europe.
Southern Hawker: check it out
Dragonflies are so exciting, especially the hawker family; they are colourful, large and imposing insects. They are also quite inquisitive and will approach people entering their territory for a closer look! You just cannot ignore one; in my view, you just have to look and marvel.
In Dorset there are five resident species of hawker dragonfly; the southern, the migrant, the brown, the common and the hairy. The sexes of each differ so there are various subtle differences to get to know when trying to identify them. The southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea) is undoubtedly the most common of these five species in Dorset and we frequently have one in our garden in summer and so they are often encountered elsewhere. The male has a mainly blue appearance whereas the female is more greenish. The main distinguishing feature, however, are the two yellow patches on the first segment behind the head. Being blue the male is often mistaken for the emperor dragonfly.
The southern hawker is a strong flier and can be encountered almost anywhere, in all sorts of weather, and any time from June through to October. It lays its eggs in well vegetated ponds and lakes, especially those with trees nearby.
Common in Britain but is less so in the south west and is not widely distributed in Dorset. It can be found to the east of the county.
Emperor Dragonfly: in its birthday suit
The Emperor's new clothes? Well, this emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) looks splendid in its birthday suit! This is undoubtedly our most impressive dragonfly, the biggest and most beautiful; whoever named it certainly chose well. In some years they seem quite scarce, other years almost common. Quite often they are confused with the southern hawker which is also a blue colour but once you have seen the emperor dragonfly I doubt you ever forget it.
They are very active dragonflies, constantly patrolling their territory and will see off any intruder, be it another emperor or any other species for that matter. What he really is looking for is, of course, a mate and does not want any competition should a female come his way. They rarely seem to settle and you need to keep a constant eye on them and wait for some time before they go to ground and you get the chance to take a closer look. You rarely see an emperor away from fresh water, be that a pond, lake, river, gravel pit or canal; its is where they hunt for food and where the females will lay their eggs. Look out for them from June to September although they do seem more common later in the year.
Golden-ringed Dragonfly: the band of gold
The golden-ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) is a very distinctive species and one that cannot really be mistaken for anything else. It is not difficult to see where the common name comes from because, as it says on the label, it is 'golden-ringed' with the abdomen being a series of alternate gold and black rings. It is the longest, though not the biggest, of our native dragonflies. It has strong, purposeful flight and is not easily deflected from its route as it hawks up and down its preferred track. It has a slow flight and often halts to hover before continuing on its way
My reference book says this is a species of the west and north and Dorset is right on the eastern edge of its range and is frequent here if not common. It has a preference for flowing, well oxygenated, acidic water. Here in Dorset I have seen it in a variety of habitats but it does seem to be more catholic in its taste and I have seen it quite regularly on heath land without fast flowing water anywhere nearby.
This particular specimen is a male that has not long hatched. You may notice the slightly wavy body as it gradually expands from the compressed environment of what was its larval form.
An uncommon species of heathland pools and very difficult to photograph as it rarely rests from its constant territorial patrol.
Four-spotted Chaser: spot the spots
One of the more common dragonflies of heathland ponds and bogs is the splendid four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata). It gets its name from the four black spots, one on each of the four wings. It is easy to mistake this insect for the female broad-bodied chaser so spotting those markings on the wings can be important.
In many dragonflies the males and females are very different but in the four-spotted chaser this is not so, they are very similar. This is the male as you can clearly see the 'claspers' which is uses to hold on to the female while mating. The males usually have a preferred perch from where they launch off to deter any intruding male, or mate with any female, that might enter their territory. This is the species you may have seen some time ago on Springwatch where Simon King sat by a pool at Arne holding a twig and the dragonfly came and sat on it!
Flying from late May until August the wet areas of the Purbeck heaths are as good a place as anywhere to see them but they can also be found on other still water ponds and lakes that have a degree of acidity and are fairly shallow and with extensive vegetation.
Broad Bodied Chaser: the boys in blue
Bright blue is a popular colour amongst odonata. In damselflies we see this in the common blue and azure damselflies and three or four other less common species and in dragonflies there is the mighty emperor of course as well as keeled and black-tailed skimmer but this beauty is the impressive male broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa). If you see a dragonfly that is bright blue it is always worth a closer look just to make sure you do not jump to conclusions.
The broad-bodied chaser is quite common and is one of the most likely blue dragons you will see. The male is very different in colouring to the female which is olive green. The broad-bodied chaser is best identified through its ... broad body! The skimmers are much more pointed towards the tail and the emperor is longer and an even width along its long body.
This chap is fiercely territorial and it will often take over a small pond and defend it against all comers, apart from attractive females of its own kind of course who are very welcome and are greeted by being ceased and mated with in mid air! Often, however, the female will then find a pond that is unattended by a male and lay her eggs in peace and quiet.
This is one of the earliest dragonflies to appear and can be seen around ponds everywhere, frequently newly formed or newly cleared ponds.
The scarce chaser is scarce in Dorset, so scarce in fact I have yet to find one to photograph!
Black-tailed Skimmer: skimming the surface
This incredible sky blue is a common feature amongst dragonflies but the much darker, almost black tail end of this one gives it its name, the black-tailed skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum). The female is yellow and black but without the dark tail.
The black-tailed skimmer likes large areas of open water with surrounding vegetation and occur round farm ponds and flooded gravel pits. They also like water gardens! They also occur in boggy areas where there is open water, they are not too bothered by the acidity of the water and so can be seen commonly on the Dorset heaths. Like many species of dragonfly the males are fiercely territorial and skim the surface of the water as they patrol their patch.
Flying from Late April right through until September the black-tailed skimmer is very much a dragonfly of the south of England and it is common in Wessex and that, of course, means Dorset.
Keeled Skimmer: on an even keel
The keeled skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) is a specialist of wet heathland and bog, especially in areas where sphagnum mosses thrive. As a result the heathland areas of Dorset are one of its strongholds in this country and it is, nationally, quite rare. Where it does occur, however, it can be abundant.
Easily dismissed at first sight as a broad-bodied chaser because of its bright blue body (the male that is) closer examination, if it settles, will show a narrower body tapering to a point at the tail. It also lacks the yellow side markings on the abdomen.
The keeled skimmer tends to fly low over the water of its chosen pond, skimming over it in fact. It has a rapid and unpredictable flight pattern, usually near the edge of the water, where the pond side vegetation grows. The male settles on a favoured perch to monitor activity on their patch but show interest in intruders rather than out right confrontation, unlike the aggresive broad-bodied chaser.
The females are green and have a thin, less tapered body.
Black Darter: darting here, darting there
The black darter (Sympetrum danae) is a dragonfly of the heath and moorland; it favours acidic boggy waters and whether that be bog pools, ditches, or whatever does not seem to matter as long as sphagnum mosses are present. With this as its main habitat it is not surprising that the Dorset heaths are a good place to find this particular insect. It can be seen flying from July through until October.
It is a very active dragonfly, darting here and there around its patch. It is not one of the more territorial species, far more interested in looking a mate than a fight with another male. They rest in cool conditions on stones and bare ground and can even be found on warm cow pats as they try to acquire heat to enable them to become active.
The black darter is the smallest dragonfly found in Britain. The male is very handsome insect; black with yellow markings! That said, the female in her golden brown dress is pretty tasty too in my opinion, but then I like dragonflies!
One sunny afternoon we were sat by our garden pond and were fascinated to watch a pair of common darter dragonflies (Sympetrum striolatum). The female was dabbing her tail into the water weed at intervals of about one second laying an egg with each dip and as she did this the male sat nearby on the stones watching the proceedings and every now and again he would take off, do a quick patrol to ensure there were no rivals about before returning to the same stone.
The common darter is not only the most common of the darter species here in Dorset, it probably the most common species of dragonfly. You can see it from June right through until October, perhaps even November if it stays mild. It is quite tolerant and will frequent any form of fresh water including ponds, lakes and ditches and even slow moving rivers and streams.
The male is orange-brown but also often occurs in a darker red form and so can be easily confused with the much less common ruddy darter. The females are predominantly yellow and so can be easily confused with female black darters.
A scarce heathland species easily confused with the common darter.