Sunday 16 October 2016

The emperor's new pose

You know how I'm quite fervent in my appreciation of dragonflies and damselflies? Almost bordering on the religious? Well this blogpost features a second coming, a resurrection and an ascension. Yes, really.

Last month, and twenty four hours after the event, I discovered that a Vagrant Emperor dragonfly, Anax ephippiger, had been seen on South Ronaldsay in Orkney. This species is an occasional Autumn migrant to the United Kingdom, hitching a lift on southerly or south easterly winds from such far flung places as West Africa or the Mediterranean area. Unlike the Painted Lady butterfly, it is not thought that the species breeds in the north and then a new generation returns south to complete the cycle.

Back in September, when retracing the previous day's itinerary, I realised that we had driven within a mile of the location of the sighting. Whilst this was a little irksome from a personal point of view, I was very happy to note the record, the first since 2011, when another Vagrant Emperor had been seen on the nearby island of Burray, reportedly perched on a pair of knickers on a washing line.

The 2016 sighting was made by a lady who not only knew a bit about dragons, but was also a dab hand with a camera. My grateful thanks go to Kim for the use of the image below.

Flight shot of Anax ephippiger in Orkney by Kim McEwen, September 2016
To put the sighting into some context, here's a map of the UK from the National Biodiversity Network Gateway showing records of the species up to the year 2015 (sightings from Autumn 2016 not yet added).

On Friday evening, Our Lass and I attended a talk about peat restoration in the Flow Country which was held in Kirkwall and hosted by the Orkney Field Club. Upon returning home, I flicked through social media and saw in a post from the UK Dragonflies and Damselflies site on Facebook that a Vagrant Emperor had been seen on Orkney. Puzzled as to why this news would re-surface after several weeks, I followed the link to an original post on the British Dragonfly Society Facebook page, where it became apparent that this was a new sighting from the previous day.

Whoa! I'd missed another one.

Yesterday morning, to confirm the details of the sighting, I phoned the lady who had discovered the dragonfly. I learnt that it had been stuck in a spider's web on a shed door in Birsay, from where her husband had rescued it, before photographing it and contacting the BDS. The insect was still with them, though dead, and I was welcome to go and view it.

As I had not previously seen a Vagrant Emperor, I accepted this offer, thinking that taking a few photos and having a perusal of the identification features for the species would be a handy thing. So, despite near gale conditions and lashing rain, Our Lass and I made preparations to drive to the north of mainland Orkney. Just before we left the house, the phone rang. It was Sue, the finder, to say that she had brought the dragonfly into the kitchen and it had started moving! We reasoned that due to the cold weather, on initial discovery the insect had been in a state of torpor, but in the warmth of the kitchen, it had 'miraculously' come back to life.

Double Whoa!

Advising Sue to put the insect back in a cool place, we drove in a controlled manner to Birsay. Thoughts en route surrounded the potential for releasing the dragonfly back into the wild. It was difficult to estimate how long it would survive: food sources are diminishing; as are warm days. With the south easterly winds, next stop from Birsay could well be Iceland (Vagrant Emperors have been recorded there!).

After chatting with Sue, and her husband Graham, we thought it best to release the dragonfly when the winds subsided and the the rain ceased. Looking at the weather forecast, the calmest day would be Tuesday. However, we knew the insect hadn't eaten for at least three days, so it would probably not survive that long. Sue kindly let us take the Vagrant Emperor away, in a plastic container, so that we could take more photos and hatch a plan for the release.

Sunday saw lighter winds and occasional sporadic sunnny spells, so Our Lass and I decided to go ahead with the release sooner rather than later. That way, the insect would have a chance to feed and maybe migrate further. We needed a site that would contain small flying insects, offered some shelter from the wind and had a sunny spot for warming up (the dragonfly, not us). We chose Olaf's Wood in South Ronaldsay, which had these attributes, though I had to studiously ignore the fact that it would also be full of hungry migrating birds.

Once in the wood, we soon found a small glade that fitted the bill. Our Lass gently placed her finger under the Vagrant Emperor and he responded to the warmth of her hand by stepping onto it.

America has Cape Canaveral, Russia has the Baikonur cosmodrome and Europe has the Guiana Space Centre. Welcome to the Vagrant Emperor launch platform, Orkney style.

The dragonfly was approximately 65mm in length, with a 100mm wingspan. The blue segment on the abdomen in an otherwise brown/yellow body is diagnostic for the male of the species.

Although there were some spells of sunshine to help warm up the dragonfly, I was expecting to see plenty of wing whirring, as it tried to generate heat in its flight muscles. Apart from a short burst of a few seconds, this behaviour was mainly absent. I did manage to video some 'pre-flight checks', as it cleaned its eyes, but I totally missed the lift off, because a Blue Tit (a rarity in Orkney!) called behind me at just the wrong moment.

The Vagrant Emperor soared up into the air and disappeared over the tree tops in an instant. Its ultimate fate was now in its own hands wings, and no matter how long, or short, it survives, I feel that is the correct decision for the insect.

The pre-flight video can be seen here.

As I write this, the only other Vagrant Emperors reported in the UK so far this Autumn have been two in the Isles of Scilly, way to the south of mainland Britain.

My grateful thanks to Sue and Graham Wharton for finding the dragonfly, rescuing it, contacting the BDS and entrusting Our Lass and I with its immediate future.


Spadger said...

Great - pleased for you. It looks a stonking beast. Mind you there was a severe case of giggles and chortling on reaching the line: 'we drove in a controlled manner' ha ha!! PMSL

Imperfect and Tense said...

I was a little bit pleased about the Blue Tit too.

Martin said...

Lovely story. I must remember to handle all 'dead' dragonflies in future in case they come back to life again :)

Imperfect and Tense said...

Not so much healing hands as heating hands!