Migrant Hawker in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

  • The Migrant Hawker is now commonly recorded within Cumbria, especially around the southern coastal areas, such as Walney, Askham and Aldingham, and on the Solway Plain.
  • It is an under-recorded species, as its resemblance to the widespread Common Hawker means that it is easily missed if not checked out carefully.
  • It emerges later than the Common Hawker, being on the wing from late July/early August into the autumn. An early August date suggests local breeding; September and October occurrences may be the result of immigrations.
  • On the wing, it gives the distinct impression of being smaller than the Common Hawker, with paler and smaller areas of blue (male) and yellow (female). At rest, it is rather more easily approached than the Common Hawker, which enables the diagnostic yellow triangle at the base of the abdomen (arrowed in photo) to be seen. Common Hawkers have a diagnostic yellow costa (leading edge to forewings), whereas it is brown in the Migrant Hawker.
  • Immature males have lovely pale lilac markings which later turn blue and are well worth looking out for in early August.
  • The Migrant Hawker is more likely to be found hawking along hedgerows and in sunny glades than the Common.
  • It breeds in ponds and gravel pits, but avoids the acidic moorland pools that provide much suitable habitat in the county for the Common Hawker. Unusually, the Migrant Hawker completes its lifecycle in one year, after overwintering as an egg. It therefore requires warm, sheltered and shallow pools that warm up quickly in spring to ensure rapid development of the larvae.
  • In the north of the county Migrant Hawker is more likely to be encountered as an immigrant later in the flight season.

Golden-Ringed in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

GOLDEN-RINGED DRAGONFLIES IN CUMBRIA

  • This is a Lake District speciality, being a species of small, deeply cut moorland streams; it may be encountered further down-stream as summer comes to an end.
  • It is our largest species and a very attractive one. With golden-yellow bands on a black body it looks handsome but close inspection of an example at rest will enable the wonderful green eyes to be seen. They are narrower than the eyes of hawker dragonflies and meet in a point on the top of the head.
  • They have a very purposeful flight, moving in one direction along a stretch of stream before turning round and going back over the same stretch. After a while they may disappear into the surrounding vegetation.
  • The larvae survive in a very harsh environment; slow flowing streams of summer may become very fast flowing and icy cold in winter. Consequently it may take the larvae several years to grow fully.
  • Females have unusually long ovi-positors so that eggs can be laid deep into the stream bed to stop them being washed away. Similarly, the larvae largely submerge themselves into the stream bed in order to get a grip and not be carried away. They generally wait for food to flow past them rather than go looking for it.

Downy Emerald in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

THE DOWNY EMERALD DRAGONFLY IN CUMBRIA

  • We are fortunate in Cumbria to have a few reasonably strong populations of the scarce Downy Emerald dragonfly. Most English colonies are found in the south-east from Dorset to Kent. Otherwise the strongest populations are in Glen Affric in Scotland or Killarney in Ireland.
  • In the South-east of England typical habitat is found on ponds and lakes on large country estates. In Cumbria it is associated with tarns in old woodland. Indeed, the species probably occupies some of the most beautiful sites that you could hope to find for a spot of dragonfly watching (see above and below)!
  • As one of the early species, the Downy Emerald is usually on the wing in Cumbria from mid-May. Apart from the damselflies, the most likely species to be around at this time is the Four-spotted Chaser.
  • It’s not the easiest of species to identify as it rarely comes to rest in accessible places and identification in flight is the only way. It is most likely to be encountered in ones and twos at the tarn edges as a medium sized, bronze coloured dragonfly. Males patrol in a low fast flight, pausing to hover at intervals. As the species turns towards you the most striking feature can become apparent….the bright green eyes. A pair of binoculars will help with this feature, but are of little use in picking out the hairy abdomen from which the species gets its name. Even less likely to be visible is the yoga-like way it places its front legs behind its head when hovering!
  • After emerging from the larval state the species spends ten days or so maturing in the woodland before returning to water. Even then, males spend much of their time feeding and resting in trees, only visiting the waters edge for 30 minute spells to look for a mating opportunity. In this way the best sunny inlets are used on a time-share basis by several males. Females are more likely to be seen ovipositing early and late in the day, thereby evading the attentions of the males.
  • The key habitat requirement for the species seems to be undecomposed leaf litter (the larva of other species prefer more fibrous, decomposed, muddy litter or growing vegetation). Oak and Beech, which are so typical of Lakeland woods, are notoriously slow to decompose and may help the species to survive here. The larvae are amongst the slowest of all dragonflies to develop, taking three years or more to reach maturity in the south. In the colder waters of the Lake District it is possible that they may take even longer.

Dragonflies in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

We are fortunate in Cumbria to have a lot of good dragonfly habitat, but our cooler northern climate means that few sites hold more than 10 species. Damselflies, of which we have six species, are delicate looking insects with two pairs of almost identical wings. At rest, these are held closed over the abdomen (except for one species). Dragonflies are more robust, the forewings are narrower than the hind wings and these are held open when the insect is at rest. Because of their long thin abdomens and their habit of buzzing from side to side, as though sowing a thread, an old folk name is “devil’s darning needle”.

Damselflies

First to emerge in the spring is usually the Large Red Damselfly followed by the two easily confused “blues”. The male Azure Damselfly has narrow blue stripes on the thorax and a characteristic black U shape on the second segment of the abdomen, whilst the Common Blue has broader stripes and a club shaped mark on this segment. The similar Variable Damselfly has two small populations on the West Coast; it is difficult to identify, but males have the U-shaped black mark on segment two joined to the black ring below it, creating the impression of a wine glass!

Large Red Damselfly

The Blue-tailed Damselfly is more easily recognised by its mainly black abdomen with prominent blue band near the tail. Females are interesting in that the colouring of the thorax varies (see above for a reddish form).

Emerald Damselfly

The Emerald Damselfly emerges rather later, from July onwards. It is the only damselfly to rest with wings held at an angle to the body (see photo). The speciality of the southern areas of the county has to be the Beautiful Demoiselle (it therefore has its OWN PAGE) – males of this species in flight look like a spectacular metallic turquoise butterfly. The species has a very limited distribution in Cumbria; colonies can be seen in July and August on the River Crake from Sparkbridge back to its tributary streams on Subberthwaite Common, in the Coniston/Ambleside area (especially Cunsey Beck), on the River Gilpin and possibly around the River Duddon.

Banded Demoiselle
Banded Demoiselle

In the north of the county, the very similar Banded Demoiselle is the one that sparkles. This has a preference for slower moving stretches of river than the Beautiful Demoiselle and was found in Cumbria only on the Rivers Waver and Eden on the Solway Plain. However, since about 2010, sightings have become regular on the River Winster around Pool bridge (with Beautiful Demoiselle) and Sampool – it is likely these are dispersals from colonies in North Lancashire. In 2013 mating and egg laying was seen, suggesting that these are now breeding colonies.

Dragonflies

HAWKER DRAGONFLIES.

Sitting by water on a warm summer day as a large hawker dragonfly glides past, it is hard to imagine that such large insects have been around for over 300 million years. Their large size, beautiful colours and spectacular acrobatic skills remind us that they are essentially insects of the tropics. The few hardy species able to survive in Britain need to be nurtured and cherished. These large dragonflies, with restless patrolling flight, have their peak flight period in August. Until the last ten years the only hawker of the region was the Common Hawker, but now three more species may be seen.

The Lake District is ideal habitat for the Common Hawker, which is found around bog pools at upto 600 metres in the north and west of Britain; it has a preference for slightly acidic moorland and Grizedale Forest and the mosses of Torver, Subberthwaite and Outley are good strongholds. Look out for the adults in late July and August; males appear quite blue and with binoculars the yellow leading edge (costa) of the wings can easily be seen. Females (brown with yellow markings) are more likely to be heard rustling noisily in the vegetation as they seek out suitable sites to lay their eggs. Eggs are laid on living plant stems close to the surface; larvae may take upto four years to develop into adults in these cold environments.

The Southern Hawker is a recent settler in Cumbria, which has a marked preference for deciduous woodland and is more likely to be seen around garden pools than the Common Hawker. It has a more turquoise appearance than the similar Common Hawker but with the last two segments usually appearing distinctly blue (on the male). In binoculars the stripes on the side of the thorax also appear to be greener and the costa lacks yellow. As with most dragonflies immature specimens often take time to develop their colour (see photo), in which case the yellow triangular mark at the start of the abdomen helps to identify the Southern Hawker.

Males patrol small bays along the pond edges usually close to trees. Occasionally they may dart out over open water to catch an insect. This is a very inquisitive species which, unlike the Common Hawker, will approach close to humans. Hold a stick out in front of you and it will hover near the end, jumping from side to side as if to weigh up the situation. Again females are probably first noticed as they rustle in the vegetation.

The Brown Hawker is a sturdy dragonfly that creates a beautiful orange-brown reflection from its wings when flying in sunlight. In the early 1990’s it colonised the Furness peninsula, liking the many pools left by gravel and iron ore extraction, being tolerant of more polluted waters. Almost every pond from North Walney through Dalton and Lindal to Ulverston carries the species by late August. With binoculars the sky-blue markings on the abdomen of the males can be seen clearly. Females generally appear lighter in colour in flight, and have a broader abdomen with yellow markings. Males are often seen hawking a long section of hedgerow, resting only to eat an insect. They also fly high and purposefully above the tree tops. Where they occupy the same sites as the Southern Hawker they are easily chased off by the less robust species. Females oviposit alone, preferring dead and softened wood just below the water surface, near the edge of the pool.

A species to look out for in South Lakeland and around Carlisle is the Emperor Dragonfly – hopefully it will be seen more frequently in coming years. There have been occasional sightings of this resplendent species since 1995 and an egg-laying female was seen near Windermere in 1999. With green eyes, apple-green thorax and sky-blue abdomen it does indeed look regal. It is an earlier species than the others and may be on the wing from June to August.

Migrant Hawker
Migrant Hawker

Finally, a fourth species, the Migrant Hawker, is now turning up on a regular basis in Cumbria. Slightly smaller than the Common Hawker which it closely resembles. Immatures have a lilac/grey colouration but the key identification is the yellow triangle at the base of the abdomen (see photo) which distinguishes it from the Common Hawker. The two narrow stripes on the thorax distinguish it from the Southern Hawker, which has two broad stripes and generally has a more greenish appearance. Specimens seen in early August may be locally bred, otherwise, as its name implies, it is a species that can arrive by migration later in the month or in September.

GOLDEN-RINGED DRAGONFLIES.

The Golden-ringed dragonfly is one of the largest species. This gorgeous green-eyed insect, with black and gold rings on its abdomen, is most at home around moorland streams, although they often turn up downstream towards the end of the summer.

EMERALD DRAGONFLIES.

Cumbria has only one member of this family, the Downy Emerald. We are fortunate to retain colonies of this compact dark greenish bronze species, with apple green eyes, in the Coniston/Ambleside area, for example at the beautiful locations of Loughrigg Tarn and Yew Tree tarn. Emergence starts from mid-May onwards (see DOWNY EMERALD for more details). A trip to northern Scotland or Sussex would be necessary to see it otherwise.

CHASERS.

Four-spotted Chaser
Four-spotted Chaser

In the past there has been only one species of this type, the Four-spotted Chaser. It can occur in large numbers over a range of habitats including moorland bogs, canals and slow-moving streams, with numbers peaking in July following an emergence from late May onwards. Both sexes are similar but immatures have a more yellowish abdomen that darkens to brown with yellow sides.

However, in 2004 the Broad-bodied Chaser moved over the border from Lancashire and was seen at Foulshaw Moss. Males have a flat-looking pale blue abdomen with yellow lateral spots. This is another species relatively new to the county well worth looking out for. It is now a regular breeder in garden ponds in the south of the county (roughly south of an east-west line through Kendal.

SKIMMERS.

This group is sparsely represented by the Keeled Skimmer, a scarce species nationally. Males of this broad-bodied species are powder blue and females yellow becoming brown, although males only develop the blue colour at maturity. Although only recorded from a few sites it does seem to be steadily expanding its colonies in the triangle between Subberthwaite, Torver, Foulshaw and Outley mosses and expanding into the Borrowdale region. In 2005 the Black-tailed Skimmer was recorded for the first time near Gosforth on the Cumbrian coast with occasional sightings elsewhere since.

DARTERS.

Of the four darters possibly encountered in the area two are common, one is nationally rare and one is a recent migrant just gaining a foothold. The attractive White-faced Darter hangs on tenuously to the west of Windermere at Claiffe Heights and at Scaleby Moss near Carlisle. Strenuous efforts are now being made to provide improved habitat for this species and to reintroduce it to Foulshaw Moss in the south of the County. Its only real stronghold is in the far north of Scotland. In contrast the red Common Darter turns up everywhere from July to September as numbers can be swollen by influxes of migrants from the continent, although the less frequently seen females are yellow. Immature males are yellow, slowly turning orange-red. The pair of broad patches on the side of the thorax show well in the female in the image of the mating pair.

Common Darter
Common Darter

The Black Darter is often abundant at the acidic bogs where the Keeled Skimmer occurs. This is a late species; flight is from August to mid-September. Again females are yellow but can be distinguished from female Red Darters as they have a black triangle on the thorax. The Ruddy Darter has only recently (since 1995) gained a foothold in the region, being right at its northern limit and only previously encountered occasionally as a migrant. Its main site is at Oulton gravel pits near Wigton with occasional sightings elsewhere. Careful examination is needed to distinguish it from the Common Darter – look for the waisted blood-red abdomen, as opposed to the straight red abdomen of the Common Darter. The Common Darter also has a yellow stripe on the outer side of its legs.