Sunday 21 July 2013

New Forest Dragons 21st July 2013

My name, Ewan, translated into Scots Gaelic is Eoghian (pronounced eeooshgun) and in some translations means eternally young. I quite often live up to this by not really acting my age and as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong in that. I take a childish delight in the natural world about me especially with the prospect of the enticing reward of a Cream Tea at the end of an adventure, so you can imagine how I was feeling as Badger and myself set off yet again for another jaunt in the New Forest, one of my favourite places to visit at any time of the year. 

Usually we are there within an hour and  half but today many other people seemed to have taken to the Motorway and it was nose to tail for a considerable spell as everyone headed for presumably the coast, on a delightful sunny Saturday morning. We finally turned left off a busy road, crossed a cattle grid and we were in the comparative tranquility of the Forest. Our first stop was at a place called Ipley Cross where four roads meet in an area of heathland covered with Bell Heather and Ling. 

Specifically we were looking for a pond on the heath where, courtesy of the estimable Wayne Bull, we knew we had a chance of encountering a scarce dragonfly species - a Black Darter. This would be a new one for both myself and Badger. We arrived at the chosen spot but there was nowhere to park so in the end in desperation we parked on the verge, off the road. I  subsequently got told off for doing this, although there were no notices to this effect, by way of a sticker found on my windscreen when we returned to the car. Apparently parking on the verge is now frowned upon and the sticker advised me of this. There always seems someone all too keen to tell you what you cannot do in this crowded island. Anyway, prior to the sticker we got out of the car and immediately encountered scores of Silver Studded Blues fluttering low over the heather avoiding the strong warm breeze blowing in from the northeast. 

Silver Studded Blues
The tiny butterflies were everywhere, many more males than females, flying up from our feet as we walked towards the distant pond through the heathland. Four Crossbills flew over, identifying themselves with their distinctive chipping calls and a Silver Y moth careered crazily off across the heathland, crash landing into another heather clump. The pond was teeming with dragonflies and damselflies, virtually all concentrating at one shallow muddy end and it was noticeable that when they were not cruising over the water the dragonflies would leave the pond and rest in oases of sun formed by the comparative shelter of the heather clumps. 

Badger videoing a Black Darter in the heather
A Blue Emperor zoomed unchallenged and unassailable around the pond with a number of Black tailed Skimmers demonstrating their usual aeronautical skills. Insect versions of Jump Jets but even more phenomenal in their manoueverability. As our eyes became accustomed to the insects about us we picked out a chunky Broad bodied Chaser, squat, powder blue and compact of body resting on the drying mud margin. Common Blue and Azure Damselflies, forever diffident, ventured no further than the edge of the water with many more remaining in the cover of the grassy and heathery margins, as did a few Common Darters and Four Spotted Chasers. 

Four Spotted Chaser
Common Darter male
Neither of us had seen a Black Darter so were not sure exactly what to look for except that the male was mainly black with yellow markings on the thorax and abdomen.We scanned the dragonflies but could see nothing that fitted the description. Time drifted by. Thirty possibly forty minutes at the most elapsed. I slowly walked the favoured margin of pond and heathery surrounds and after a short while, a small, slender and inconsequential dragonfly flew up briefly from the grasses and heather before settling back on a heather twig. 

Male Black Darter
I looked at it in the binoculars and a black body with  lemon yellow markings and noticeably emerald green eyes confirmed that I had found a male Black Darter. A dragonfly for the connoisseur, of such petite understated elegance and on close examination very smart colouring, it quite took my fancy, and I called to Badger to announce that our quest was now successful. We both respectively took copious photos and video of this little charmer which was very co-operative, allowing close approach and although occasionally moving position, always perching prominently. Sometimes we lost it in the heather when it moved but a quick search always managed to relocate it until eventually it joined the other dragonflies over the water at the edge of the pond. Due to it's unexpectedly small size, dark colouring and the dominance of the other larger dragonflies it was very hard to follow over the water as it was always moving incredibly fast in all directions to avoid harassment and finally we left it having watched it for almost an hour. We walked back through the heather to the car and now, as the air had become warmer, literally hundreds of Silver Studded Blues, possibly thousands, were on the move, fluttering, fragile as tissue but indomitable, into the breeze and settling to warm their wings on the purple heather flowers or sandy heathland soil. 

We moved on to Crockford Bridge where the small moorland stream that flowed under the bridge would hopefully yield up one or more Golden Ringed Dragonflies. In contrast to the Black Darter these are big, bold, unmissable dragonflies, incredibly smart in their black and gold colouring and only slightly smaller than the Blue Emperor. If we saw one there would be no mistaking it. 

The tiny car park near the bridge was empty as we drew in and then walked the short distance back down the road to the stream running under Crockford Bridge.The sun was now well and truly up in the heavens and the heat bore down on the dark green trees and diluted the peaty waters of the moorland stream into a clear, light amber colour. Small shoals of Gudgeon, lit by the water filtered sun shot like a shoal of torpedoes into the cover of the bank at our approach before tentatively re-emerging from their hiding place. 

The stream under Crockford Bridge
We followed the tiny stream's meandering course through the boggy moorland grass and scattered gorse bushes and a Golden Ringed Dragonfly cruised past us and frustratingly disappeared into the gorse. Large Skippers and Gatekeeper butterflies, all orange and brown, flittered onto and around the gorse, settling and opening their wings to the sun. 
Large Skipper

We passed through a small copse and came out on the other side following the stream as it emerged from the trees and into a boggy, acidic moorland with yellow spikes of Bog Asphodel standing sentinel amongst the heather and Cotton Grass. 
Bog Asphodel
It was a sight that gladdened our eyes but even better a Golden Ringed Dragonfly was ovipositing into the aquatic vegetation in the stream, completely oblivious of us. 

Golden Ringed Dragonfly ovipositing with attendant Keeled Skimmer top left
Up and down she pogoe'd, her black and gold body delicately dipping into the clear water countless times and depositing eggs for all her worth. Keeled Skimmers constantly harried her but she ignored them, her sheer size and bulk ensuring the skimmers afforded her a healthy respect. I walked to within a few feet of her. There was no reaction. She had one purpose and that was to concentrate on her role in reproduction. No time to lose. On and on, up and down she dipped, her long, dramatically coloured body held vertical and the tip of her abdomen dip, dip, dipping into the water whilst her black veined wings whirred and shimmered at speed. Egg after egg was deposited until finally it was over and she retired unseen to rest. Keeled Skimmers exhausted by their inquisitive attentiveness to the Golden Ringed Dragonfly's intrusion into their restricted universe rested on the warm earth, their bodies and wings flattened to maximise the recharging of their energies by the warm sun 

Keeled Skimmer male
Keeled Skimmer female
We walked on. Keeled Skimmers were everywhere we looked and there must have been in excess of sixty along and beside the few hundred metres of stream we followed, all busily investigating anything which took their notice. There were many more of the obvious blue bodied males than the less conspicuous yellow bodied females. At times the narrowness of the stream, no more than two feet wide at most and only a few inches deep meant it was lost from view, hidden under the surrounding low growing vegetation but always re-emerging further on. Other Golden Ringed Dragonflies cruised their particular territories further along the stream where it was open to the sky and in the end we counted no less than twelve patrolling the stream and surrounds. 

Golden Ringed Dragonfly
It seemed so strange for such a large dragonfly to inhabit such a restricted environment. One would think, due to their size, they would have looked and felt much more at home over a large lake or more open water but this inconsequential moorland stream, often no more than a trickle was their chosen and obviously favoured habitat.

Beautiful Demoiselles, the males impossibly elegant in their garb of blue green and metallic emerald fluttered their dark wings over the stream like long winged butterflies and shone like green jewels in the sun when they settled. Occasionally an orange winged female would put the males into a frenzy as she fluttered by and then they would settle again awaiting the next chance encounter.

Male Beautiful Demoiselle
Time wore on and we had achieved the satisfaction of finding two much desired dragonflies as well as having a thoroughly enjoyable time. 'Cream Tea Badger?' I enquired, feigning an air of casual innocence as if it was just an after thought but having planned it from the outset. I was confident of an answer in the affirmative and so it was that we made our way via sunlit forest lanes to Acres Down Farm. 

We knew only too well what to expect as we were serial cream tea afficionado's at this particular venue. We manouevred past some cows placidly strolling along, parked in the shade at the end of the forested lane and entered a garden, blousy and richly scented in the full bloom of high summer, seeking a table in the shade. The scents of flowers and aromatic bushes permeated the air and the bright, white afternoon sunlight gave a feeling of timelessness and a glimpse to a bygone age of slower pace and more gentility. The customary extravaganza of scones, jams, cream and reviving tea in a huge brown pot duly arrived. The delight of eating alfresco in warm summer air settled upon us. Good luck Badger my trusty friend. Here's to next time

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