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.

THE BEAUTIFUL (and BANDED) DEMOISELLE IN CUMBRIA

  • The Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly is found in the Lake District mainly in the area between Coniston and Windermere. It is a species that likes clean flowing water and does not tolerate pollution well – consequently its other strongholds are the south west of England, Wales and West Scotland.
  • Emergence begins in late May but mature adults don’t generally appear at the streamside until mid-June, spending the intervening time feeding and developing elsewhere. They are on the wing throughout June and July and often into August.
  • This large damselfly actually looks more like a butterfly when seen in flight, and a slightly tipsy butterfly at that (an old folk name for the damselfly is “water butterfly” probably because of this species). The blue males seem to loll about as though they can’t quite decide which way to go!
  • Images of this colourful species were often painted in the margins of illustrated manuscripts in the Middle Ages, suggesting they were perhaps more common at that time.
  • One of the best sites I know for Beautiful Demoiselle occurs at the southern outflow from Yew Tree Tarn, near Coniston. Here there is a sunny glade and even a bench to sit on while you take in the sight. Hundreds of people must pass here every week in summer but most look the other way over the tarn and few probably notice the delightful behaviour of this species behind them (or the nesting Titmice, Pied Flycatchers etc.)!
  • Other prominent sites include a large population on Cunsey beck on the west shore of Windermere and they can also be watched well from the bridge at Sparkbridge on the River Crake.
  • Males defend the best bits of vegetation overlooking the best sites where females might lay eggs (as in the photos above). At rest, with wings folded along the body, they might seem to be just a dark damselfly, but when they open their wings the metallic sheen becomes more obvious. It is when they fly in the sunshine that the eye sees a stunning blue shimmer:-
  • The metallic colour on the wings of the Beautiful Demoiselle develops with age until it covers virtually all the wing, apart from the tips remaining brownish. The degree of irridesence varies with the light:-

In contrast, the Banded Demoiselle has a distinct band on the outer half of each wing and at rest or in flight looks obviously “banded” (as in the image below).

Banded Demoiselle

Notice the clear areas at either end of the wings. When seen together the Banded looks the smaller of the two species – the abdomen is slightly shorter, but the wings are noticeably shorter and less broad.

  • The Banded Demoiselle is much less common than the Beautiful in Cumbria, though it is relatively common from Cheshire southwards. It has a similar lifestyle, but the Banded usually prefers much slower flowing, or even still, water than the Beautiful Demoiselle.
  • Until recently it was found only at a few sites in the north of the county close to the Solway and more recently on the Derwent near Cockermouth. However, since 2010, it has been seen for the first time at a number of sites in the south of the county on the rivers Gilpin and Bela. Unusually, at Pool bridge near the Howe, both species can be seen on either side of the same bridge – the Banded usually being found on the south-east side!
  • Females of both species are less frequently seen, unless ovi-positing and watched over by the last male with which it has mated. Females of both species are very similar in appearance, developing from brown to brown-green, but unlike the males have no pigmented areas on the wings at all. Beautiful Demoiselle females have larger wings than Banded and the wings usually have a distinct brownish tinge (as in the image below):-

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.

Cumbria’s Amphibians

(April 25, 2019)

If you like to breed in water but also need to keep your skin moist when on land, what better place could you find to live than Cumbria!! Not surprisingly, all six native species of amphibian thrive in the county.

Common Frog

The Common Frog is widespread, even near the tops of mountains at over 800 metres. Colour can be variable from green to brown. Spawn (in the familiar large blobs) is usually laid in late February or early March, perhaps later in the colder fell tarns. Mating starts early – the photo below was taken at Walna Scar in the Coniston Fells on 18th February. To attract a mate the frog croaks, its white throat becoming engorged to make the noise (see photo above). Tadpoles are intitially black, like toad tadpoles, but become brown speckled with gold as they grow.

Common Toad

The Common Toad is a little less hardy, does not venture as high up the fells and prefers deeper water. Its spawn is laid in strings two or three weeks later than frog spawn. The Common Toad is well known for its long distance hikes (in procession) to return to its area of birth and there are many places where this has occurred for generations (let me know if you are aware of any!).

Cumbria has two of the largest colonies in England of the Natterjack Toad at Drigg and Sandscale Haws; indeed the twenty or so Cumbrian populations account for around 65% of the UK’s population (upto 25% at Sandscale alone). This comical yellow-striped toad (males have a throat with a blue sheen, whereas females have a white throat speckled black) prefers the seasonal shallow pools characteristic of sand dunes that warm up quickly in the sun, but is also found at 150 metres above sea level in the seasonal pools of Subberthwaite Common in the south-west foothills of the Lake District.

Newts

Newts are possibly under-recorded in the county, as they generally need some searching out. The Great-crested Newt is a protected BAP Priority species that breeds widely in the county. There are many breeding sites in the area between Ambleside and Milnthorpe and along the length of the Eden Valley, with more scattered places found on the north-west coastal plain. Ideally they would like ponds without fish, but increasingly seem to use garden ponds. Between April and late June a search with a torch at nighttime may yield a sighting – but REMEMBER it is illegal to catch them or even disturb them.

The smaller (about half size) Palmate Newt is possibly the most abundant in the county as it prefers acidic water – there’s plenty of that in the fells, but it is also found in lowland ponds, even in gardens, where it likes newer ponds with less well developed vegetation. The similar sized (both about 10 cm long) Smooth Newt is also common in the county, sometimes even in the same water body as the other two newt species! The best distinguishing feature is the spotted throat of the Smooth Newt – Palmate Newts have a plain throat. In the breeding season male Smooth Newts develop a crest but Palmate Newts do not – instead they have characteristic black, webbed hind feet and a fine filament projecting from the tip of the tail (these features show well in the photo below of the male Palmate Newt (upper) but are absent in the female Palmate (lower).

Newts lay their eggs singly on leaves, which are then wrapped round the egg. They hatch into larvae known as efts (below about 8 mm long, see below)- efts acquire their front legs first, unlike frog and toad tadpoles which acquire their back legs first. I believe “eft” derives from “ewt” the former name for a newt, but as “an ewt” was difficult to say it became “a newt” (a similar change happened in reverse when “a napron” became “an apron”)!

Wildlife Life in the UK

(April 24, 2019)

What is Biodiversity Wildlife?

Biodiversity wildlife is where there is a variety of wildlife in nature and
their species and groups are all individually different between each other.
This article is just within the UK and we do not realise how many species
there actually are that are in our wildlife and how much of an amazing sight
this can be.

How many species of wildlife do we have in the UK?

There are over 650 species of wildlife in the UK ranging from animals all the
way down to insects. This is generally in the UK alone. Within Europe there are
over 650 species that are recorded and known. There are probably more species
to be discovered in the UK and will eventually be catalogued and recorded.
This could be just a small amount of what we could potentially find.

What are the five main groups of wildlife in the UK?

The five main groups of wildlife within the UK are Mammals, Amphibians and
Reptiles, Birds, Marine and Insects.

How many species of mammals in the UK?

The current estimates of species in the UK that there are, is at least 44
species of mammals that are well known to us. These include: –
· Otters,
· Moles,
· Red Squirrels,
· Weasels,
· Adders.

Red Squirrels

How many species of amphibians and reptiles in the UK?

It is estimated that there are at least 12 species of amphibians in the UK
but there are potentially yet more to be discovered. These include: –
· Common Frog,
· Common Lizard,
· Common Toad,
· Grass Snake,
· Great Crested Newt.

Frog

How many Species of Birds in the UK?

It is estimated that there are at least 130 species of birds within the UK.
Some of them we have not even heard of some of us. These include:

· Barn Owl,
· Blackbird,
· Chaffinch,
· Magpie,
· Robin.

Chaffinch

How many species of marine life is there is the UK?

There are 200 species of marine life that is recorded to surround the UK
although as we all know there have been limitations to discovering others
because the ocean is classed as a different world and there is much more that
needs to be discovered. The two hundred species that are recorded are extremely
varied. These include: –
· Plaice,
· Mackerel,
· Dolphins,
· Bass,
· Basking shark (the 2nd biggest shark in the world).

Basking shark

How many species of insects are there in the UK?

There are roughly about 262 species of insects discovered in the UK.
Although many class them as ‘creepy crawlies’ some of them are fascinating
to observe. These include: –
· Ladybird,
· Wasp,
· Black Beetle,
· Daddy Long Legs,
· Butterflies.

Black Beetle

Where is the best place to see the biodiversity of wildlife in the UK?

There are many places throughout the UK where you can observe the native wildlife.
There are many local places to your area such as zoos, butterfly and bird museums
as well as nature reserves and centres. One particularly good centre to visit if
possible is the British Wildlife Centre. This provides a good example of the
wildlife in the UK within one area.