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”.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.