June and July are relatively quiet months on the birding front so I usually avail myself of the opportunity to go chasing butterflies and dragonflies. Well they too have wings don't they? They are also with a few exceptions just as beautiful and attractive in their own right.
Checking the weather online last night I was greeted with a big round yellow sun symbol for today, Tuesday, so it was all systems go to seek out two dragonflies I have not seen before. The first was to be the Norfolk Hawker or Green Eyed Hawker which could be found at Westbere Marshes Reserve in the deepest rural reaches of Kent. I planned to follow this up with the Scarce Chaser which was to be found at Maldon in the next door county of Essex.
I left the house at 5am with the day already promising to be fine and joined the car bound commuters on the A40. Now semi retired I no longer have to inflict on myself the insanity of commuting to work and with a grown up daughter, no longer have the dreaded school run to endure but I still shudder inwardly about all those years spent on our highways beholden to my employer or time constraints and feel nothing but sympathy for those who still are caught in the rat race.
Never mind. I cruised on along the busy roads listening to the Today programme bringing me news of various disasters and seemingly endless doom and gloom stories. Tired of all the prattle I broke my journey on the M25 at Clackett Lane Services where a hot chocolate, skimmed milk, no cream thank you but with my beloved cinnamon sprinkles, partially revived mind and body. The extravagance of a Danish pastry also went down rather well.
Leaving the radio off I rejoined the now much busier Motorway heading for Canterbury and was thankful when I finally turned off onto quieter rural roads, winding through small villages until I came to Walnut Tree Lane, a dead end in the tiny village of Westbere.
It was now just before 9am and the sun was already warm and promising to get much warmer although a gentle cooling breeze was a welcome relief. I followed a footpath up one side of the railway for two hundred metres, crossed the lines and then followed a similar footpath back down the other side before turning left onto a grassy path leading away into ninety five acres of reed beds that comprise part of Stodmarsh NNR.
The path at first wound its way through some cool damp woodland, all green and dappled with sunlight, the light patches rippling like water as the breeze stirred the leaves, creating infinite patterns that no light show could possibly emulate. A little further and the path emerged into more open habitat with wide water filled ditches on each side full with the burgeoning lushness of riparian vegetation.
The home of the Norfolk Hawkers
Bright green rushes as high as my head and flowering water lilies greeted me, the yellow globes of the unopened flowers like beacons above the flat, olive coloured lily pads floating on the still, clear water. Grey green reeds stretched along by the path sides, their monotony brightened by the occasional creamy froth of Meadow Sweet and the rhubarb purple flowers of Great Willowherb amongst them. A Yellow Flag Iris stood sentry, proud and isolated, in full flower on the bank. I was in my element as the reeds regularly broke into a soft wistful sighing as each breath of breeze wandered through them, unutterably soothing after the long journey and providing a gentle background accompaniment to the scratchy songs of the Reed and Sedge Warblers issuing from deep in the reed beds on the other side of the path. A Cetti's Warbler, startlingly loud and exclamatory, revealed its concealed presence with a bright and very loud flurry of notes and I could follow its hidden progress through the reeds as it periodically repeated the notes. I never saw it once.
A Marsh Harrier flew overhead, then wings collapsing to its sides, stalled and descended at great speed and was lost to sight behind the depth of reeds. A Mallard flew up fast and franticly from where the harrier had disappeared. A close call maybe?. A few seconds later the Marsh Harrier re-appeared gaining height and recommenced hunting. Common Terns as buoyant as the air they rode, their slim bodies rising and falling with each elegant wing beat followed the river's slow course.
The sunlit path wound on but despite checking the ditches on either side which are the reputed home to the Norfolk Hawkers, there was no sign. Possibly I was a bit early, it was only just after nine in the morning after all and dragonflies are late risers, needing the sun to energise them. I came to the end of the path and it joined another crossing it. A natural T junction. I chose to wander left as the path in this direction had the sun shining on it. A medium sized dark brown dragonfly passed rapidly over my head and was gone, away over the reeds and back along the ditch I had just passed. That must be one surely? A Norfolk Hawker, but it was gone in a flash of gossamer wings. I reflected that I would need better views than that to justify my long and tedious journey
A few yards further and another Norfolk Hawker unseen at first, rose from some brambles and then settled, hidden from my sight in the whispering reeds. I went after it but it was away before I could get close but I clearly saw the distinctive green eyes as it glided off. It was getting better but the ultimate would be to see one settled where I could look and admire at my leisure.
I retraced my steps back to where the original path left the one I was on. A cul de sac of water at the turn of the ditch now harboured a male Banded Demoiselle as well as a crowd of tiny beetles, so small they looked like ball bearings as the sun reflected off their shining bodies on the water's surface, each keeping close to its neighbour. They moved as one across the water's surface always keeping in the sun.
I commenced walking back up the path and a Black tailed Skimmer sunning itself on the path, rose from my advance. I was becoming a little downhearted at my lack of success so far in getting close to a Norfolk Hawker but found a gap in the reeds and looked over the ditch on my left hand side. A Norfolk Hawker cruised past and then back and then away and then back again. Here was a chance of getting close to one at last. It obviously had set up its territory along this short stretch of still water and rich vegetation. It settled on a sedge stem but as I raised the camera it was off again, cruising back and fore a foot or so above the water. It settled again and this time remained motionless for a minute. Enough for me to take its picture.
Male Norfolk Hawker
I looked at it closely. Predominately brown but with huge emerald green eyes it was a strange but still attractive combination of colours. In fact the brown was a pleasant shade of walnut when seen close to. A tiny triangle of yellow showed at the top of its body but there were no other distinctive features. They are very rare although increasing in this country and are slowly expanding from their stronghold in Norfolk to colonise southern areas such as Cambridge and Kent.
I remained here entering the dragonfly's green and watery world. The general surroundings melted away and I was transfixed in this tiny secluded world of green that was the hawker's domain. It was never still for long, constantly cruising back and fore, back and fore, then settling for never more than a minute, before ever restless and inquisitive, something else stirred it into action. Mind you it was severely put out when a Hairy Hawker appeared cruising its patch and it immediately intercepted and then accompanied the interloper off its territory. The Hairy Hawker seemed untroubled by the attention and returned on a number of occasions always to be confronted by the Norfolk Hawker.
I walked back along the path and the formerly dragonfly deserted ditches now held three or four Norfolk Hawkers each patrolling its own small territory. The sun obviously had done its work. I stopped at one and it flew almost nose to nose with me in, I like to think, curiosity. It backed off and hung in the air on quivering wings, a few feet away over the water before swooping away down the ditch but was soon back to examine me once more. Finally, curiosity satisfied, it settled on a sunlit reed.
Now fully satisfied with my Norfolk Hawker encounter I walked back along the original path and this time turned right at the end. This path too was bounded by summer rich vegetation, mainly reeds but instead of ditches bordering the path, on one side was a lake and on the other the slow moving, almost still River Great Stour, full of yellow water lilies. I don't know what it is about water lilies but they seem incredibly exotic and out of place in our waterways and remind me more of tropical climes and the steamy heat of places such as Africa. A Marsh Frog hidden amongst the lily pads was making its curious croak, a bit like wet rubber being slowly rubbed together.
This path and the river were teeming with Banded Demoiselles, squadrons of them fluttering over the slow moving river water or settling head down and body up on a leaf, always facing the sun. The males dark as ink and mysterious, all iridescent greens and blues glinting as they caught the sun. The females less showy but still a beautiful metallic iridescent green and looking almost like another species
Male Banded Demoiselle
Female Banded Demoiselle
Two more Norfolk Hawkers rose and disappeared from a bramble clump that was already in flower. Three or four Red Admirals and a Comma shared the bramble flowers with innumerable insects and damselflies whilst Blue tailed and Common Damselflies enacted their hesitant existence, in their restlessness appearing to be never quite sure whether to settle, almost as if they thought that the next leaf or stone was always better than the one they were about to choose.
Common Blue Damselfly
Blue tailed Damselfly
I had been here for three hours but it had seemed to go so quickly as I headed back up the path for the final time. I had seen at least a dozen Norfolk Hawkers and had close, very close encounters with two of them. I looked in on the ditch again. The Norfolk Hawker was still there ceaselessly patrolling and a surprised Water Vole crash dived under the water and rustled away into the reedy depths on the far side of the ditch. This probably explained some of the mysterious plops I heard coming from the ditches earlier. Further up the path a Cetti's Warbler startled me as it burst into a volley of sound just a few feet away from me. Stopping, I could not locate where it was. I waited. It lost its nerve and rose from cover closer to me than I thought possible. Briefly I saw a brown bird with a broad tail the colour of the rich earth it loves to remain close to, before it disappeared into the thick tangle of vegetation.
It was now noon. The heat of the sun had turned the air inside the car to an oven high temperature. Windows open and a drive down yet another Motorway soon cooled things off physically if not mentally. Chaos at the Dartford Tunnel greeted me. I have never seen so many articulated lorries in one place at one time and the Black Audi felt very insignificant and insecure surrounded by these roaring and fume belching behemoths. The tranquil peace of Westbere seemed a very distant memory at that precise moment
Through the tunnel into Essex and soon I was on the A12 and thirty minutes later arrived in the pleasant outskirts of Maldon where I parked at the entrance to the local Golf Club at a place called Beeleigh Lock.
A small and attractive old bridge spanned a disused, I think, canal called the Chelmer and Blackwood Navigation which was first built in 1790. A footpath skirted with the purple flowers of Common Mallow ran along the far side.
The canal's immediate environment was not dissimilar to the conditions I had found at Westbere, with slow moving almost still water bordered with thick riparian vegetation.
I crossed the bridge and set off left down the narrow footpath between the canal and the golf club. Almost immediately a large brown dragonfly flew along the canal. It was a Brown Hawker and then a slightly larger dragonfly, bright blue and green intercepted it. A male Emperor Dragonfly. They flew together before separating but there was no sign of a Scarce Chaser which, I ruefully reflected, were living up to their name. The far bank was bright green with tall sword shaped rushes and yet more yellow water lilies brought their tropical like beauty to the scene. A pale blue mark on one of the reed blades attracted my attention. I looked in the bins and there was a male Scarce Chaser clinging to the sun soaked reed, its head constantly moving as it searched the air around it for insects. I relaxed but wanted to find one nearer, preferably on my side of the canal so I could get a photo. I walked on and found another male, frustratingly again on the far side of the canal. I came to another bridge and walked on past it.
Scarce Chaser was in the reeds on right of path
Just a few metres beyond I located a male Scarce Chaser but this time on my side of the bank resting on what appeared to be their favourite perch, a blade of reed. Mission accomplished.
Male Scarce Chaser.
All the males I saw showed the dark scraping marks on their body where
the female's legs had grasped them during copulation
Mindful of the time passing and the necessity to set off for home before the mayhem of rush hour on the Motorways commenced I retreated back down the path. Moorhens and their young families footled in the reeds and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled its cadenza of notes from a blackthorn. I reflected at the irony of all the natural vegetative lushness of the canal banks just feet from the sterility of grass mown to within an inch of its life that was the golf course. I came to a patch of dead vegetation by the path. A dark dragonfly flew up and then settled again. This time it proved to be a female Scarce Chaser, an old one as it had lost its yellow body colour which was now a plumbeous brown, and very tattered wings testified to an already tenuous existence in its short life. No matter it was a good find. Behind me, amongst the lilies a female Emperor Dragonfly was ovipositing eggs into the still water, her long tubular body bent over to deposit the eggs. Another three male Scarce Chasers, strikingly pale blue in the strong light flew out of some reeds together and disappeared just as quickly.
Old female Scarce Chaser with brown body and tattered wings
I arrived back at the original bridge over the canal and stopped for one last lingering look down into a quiet backwater of the canal. A pale powder blue body, distinct against the green of the reed it clung to, betrayed yet another male Scarce Chaser and close by a female Emperor Dragonfly was steadfastly depositing her eggs amongst the lily pads.
Male Scarce Chaser
Female Emperor Dragonfly laying eggs
I could have sat there for some time listening to and enjoying all this live murmur of a summers day, to paraphrase Thomas Arnold, but I needed to get going, so left with my memories and into the world and wave of men departed, to paraphrase yet more Thomas Arnold. It was a poetic day as you may have guessed.