Saturday 29 July 2017

Damp day afternoon

Day 3 of National Dragonfly Week was interesting for many of the wrong reasons. Let's face it, picking a week in the middle of July and expecting wall-to-wall sunshine for the entire nine days (I know, it's dragon maths) is always going to be a problem in Orkney. Heck, if we have the same weather two days in a row, folk start freaking out. Maybe I just have a very low threshold for cabin fever?

The evening before our proposed visit to Shapinsay, our host, Paul the local nature reserve warden, had to drop out due to illness, as did one of the attendees. Fortunately, another Shapinsay resident, Karen, offered to be our guide for the afternoon (and Paul the warden furnished us with his itinerary and other useful info). Then I looked at the weather forecast.

Oof! It didn't look good. With 4 attendees still hoping to see some dragons or damsels, I pondered the possibilities of finding a few needle-sized insects in an island-sized haystack, in the rain. The situation, as I saw it, was the necessity to balance reasonable expectation with the likelihood of success. Then I got all gung-ho and decided that if we didn't go ahead, we definitely wouldn't see any odes, whereas if we trudged out into the wind and rain we stood a good chance of not seeing any odes.

Early the next morning, I put back the start of the event by a few hours, to allow the worst of the rain to pass through. Everyone was ok with this, but even so, once on Shapinsay, it was still raining. Using a community space, I gave a short talk about the life cycle of dragonflies and how to identify the eight species breeding on Orkney which, happily, lasted until the dry weather arrived.

We looked around the southern part of the RSPB reserve at Mill Dam, but this was probably not sheltered enough, or so large that our quarry was good and hidden. I decided that narrowing our search parameters would be a spiffing idea, and we targeted smaller sheltered water bodies which, on Shapinsay, meant disused but flooded quarries. Here the odds were more in our favour, the vegetation at the 'shallow' end helping to concentrate efforts and the quarry walls offering some respite from the gusty conditions. At our first quarry site, a Large Red Damselfly was soon found, along with several exuviae. Some of the exuviae were upside down, suggesting inverted emergence, which is a trait of Blue-tailed Damselflies. The next quarry site offered up a single Blue-tail, and the third quarry, a further two, with the attendees now finding their own damsels unaided. Result!

This acquired skill, 'getting your eye in' to find damselflies, was one of the main aims of the tour around the islands, allowing folk to have the confidence to go out and spot odes by looking in likely habitat. If they then passed on that data in the form of records, well, that would be a bonus.

Megan finding our quarry in a quarry
OK, four damselflies wasn't a great haul, but the weather was rubbish for dragon hunting. I was buoyed up by the thought that if it was possible to find insects in these conditions, then on a warm, sunny day, it would be a comparative breeze, so to speak.

All photos, bar the last one, courtesy of Alan Nelson.

Sanday Sunday

The 2nd day of National Dragonfly Week saw the the OrkOdo team (Our Lass, the Admiral and me) catching the mid-morning boat from Kirkwall on mainland Orkney to the low-lying island of Sanday. We were to meet up with Emma, the Island Ranger, and her husband Russell, at the community hub, Heilsa Fjold. The forecast was for bright and breezy weather, with the threat of showers later. Not ideal, but if you set the bar too high in Orkney, you'd never leave the house!

As well as Emma and Russ, a local mum and her son, Leanne and Luca, came along too, and we set off in two vehicles to explore the myriad water bodies of Sanday. First port of call was a small pool near the western tip of the island. It was on a hillside in rough pasture and, at the time of our visit, was facing the oncoming wind. Undaunted, we stared and stared at the water's edge, the floating water weeds and any emergent vegetation, until one of us 'got our eye in' and the Admiral yelled "Blue-tailed Damsel!" Sure enough, sat on the water's surface, a few feet out from the bank, was a (probably) immature male, his green thorax not yet the same blue colour as his 'tail light'.

Soon, Russ was finding exuviae, the shed larval skins of the emerging adult insects, on vegetation at the water's edge, although trying to transfer these delicate, ephemeral items to a sample pot in a strong wind was interesting!

However, we did manage a few, so everyone was able to see these at close quarters, as well as an adult damselfly that I managed to coax into a larger pot with a magnifying lid.

The next few water bodies, as we headed back east along the island, looked promising but failed to give up their odonatological secrets, if they had any, so after lunch we decided that we definitely needed to find damselflies at our next port of call.

Nothing seen here
Fortuitously, this was at Whitemill, a part of the island I had not previously visited, and although it was only separated from the sea by a bank of tall sand dunes, we struck odo gold straight away. The breeze was blowing across this pool towards us, which meant that the intervening flag (iris) bed was providing some shelter from the wind on its lee side, nearest to us. Also here was a lower stane dyke, whose upper stones were warmed by the afternoon sun. It was damselfly heaven: shelter from the breeze, a warm loafing area, and food on tap, as countless midges were falling into the slack air behind the tall flag irises.

There's at least 7 damsels in this shot

We could even watch the more adventuresome Blue-tailed Damselflies manoeuvring in and out of the flag bed, chasing other insects. Searching for this phenomenon on other islands during the week became known as the Sanday Flag Technique.

By the time we had also visited a site on the north east end of the island, we had seen about 70 Bluetails for the day, as well as being shown some excellent dragon/damsel habitat. My grateful thanks went to Emma and Russ for their tour, and to Leanne and Luca for turning out to help look for matchstick-sized insects on a big (for Orkney) island.

Apart from the stone wall shot, all photos courtesy of Alan Nelson.

Record collectors

For 2017, National Dragonfly Week ran from the 15th to the 23rd July. That's not strictly a week, I know, but who's counting, eh? Well, as it turned out, my Dragonfly Week began at an indoor event at the Orkney Wildlife Information and Records Centre (OWIARC), formerly the Orkney Biodiversity Records Centre. And believe you me, those guys count everything!

Hmmm, I must admit that, several  months ago, my early Spring black mood was not helped one iota by the realisation that I had double-booked myself for the first day of National Dragonfly Week. How could I make such an elementary mistake? Mid-July, perfect time for looking for Odonata, and where was I going to be? Indoors. Doh.

The cause was a good one, mind. An Open Day at the Records Centre, allowing the general public to see what goes on within, to view some of the collections and also to bring along photos (or specimens!) for ID.

Saturday dawned, and pretty much stayed, grey and wet, so I need not have worried about missing out on any odo action. Along with a few other County Recorders, I set up a stand for my area of... er... 'expertise'.

Some of the collections on show were amazing. Who knew that a slime mold collected in the 1960s would still retain its structure and be recognisable under a microscope over 50 years later?!

Whilst numbers of attendees weren't huge (probably due to the weather), it was good to see a broad age range present, from keen young children to enthusiastic pensioners. And I discovered from one visitor that Dragonfly Week had been plugged on the local radio in the fortnightly wildlife spot. Yay!

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Dragon Hunt

Within Orkney, there are only eight breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly, four of each. All eight species occur in Hoy, the island to the south west of mainland Orkney, but no other island of the archipelago has the full assemblage. None of the species are rare in a UK context, but one, the Four-spotted Chaser, has a very local distribution on Hoy and appears to be confined to a few pools in the Rackwick valley.

In 2014, no records were received for Four-spotted Chaser. In 2015, only one exuvia, the shed larval skin, was found. This, at least, proved that one had emerged to be an adult insect. Last year, 2016, there were no recorded sightings of the species on Hoy, raising the question "Are they still there?"

It appears that there is only a small population, so it might be that, as the dragonfly has a two year life cycle (perhaps longer in a harsh environment), flying adults will only be seen every two years. In this scenario, the 'missing' years being explained by the fact that the larvae are only half-grown. Equally, as the pools are not readily accessible, it may just be that lack of recorder effort is the reason for the dearth of sightings. Having not seen a Four-spotted Chaser in an Orkney context, I was keen to see if they were present in 2017. An added complication to surveying for dragonflies, especially in Orkney, is the presence of breeding Red-throated Divers on many of the same pools that the odes use. The level of protection (Schedule 1) afforded to these divers means that a licence has to be obtained to approach them during the breeding season.

It is also possible, though perhaps unlikely, that the Red-throated Divers on Hoy are predating the Four-spotted Chasers, either as larvae or as emerging adults, on the pools which they share. Having liaised with a Field Club colleague who possessed a Schedule 1 licence, it still remained necessary to find a convenient date where we were both available and also when the weather was suitable for dragonflies and surveying.

The chaser's flight season within Orkney begins in mid-May and lasts until mid-August, with the peak time being mid-June until the end of July. As this time ticked by, it began to look as though we might miss the opportunity for another year. But this does rather suggest that recorder effort is the problem! Fortunately, several days before National Dragonfly Week commenced, all the planets aligned and the Hoy trip went ahead. Hours before setting off, we learned that the divers on site had failed in their breeding attempt for this year, which took away a bit of the pressure we were feeling.

Once on Hoy, a local minibus dropped us off on the nearest bit of tarmac road to the pools in question, then it was a yomp across country, very off piste, over heather, bogs, burns and hills. En route, we saw several Large Heath butterflies, which I mistakenly presumed were day-flying moths until I was educated otherwise. At the pools, there were many damselflies on the wing, the day being very sunny and with a gentle breeze. An immature Black Darter dragonfly was seen, then we discovered an emerging Common Hawker, hanging beneath some heather at a pool edge.

The Admiral busy logging all Odonata activity

Common Blue Damselflies in tandem

Blue-tailed Damselfly female, form rufescens-obsoleta

Recently-emerged Common Hawker

Our guide pointed out another dragonfly, whizzing low over the water, which soon resolved itself into a Four-spotted Chaser. So they were still present! Yay! Then we spotted another and another.

Four-spotted Chaser, with minimal wing damage

Four-spotted Chaser, with quite a bit of wing damage
We did not witness any breeding activity, and our photographs from the day can only confirm that two of the chasers were male, so there's a bit of a question mark over the future. Hopefully, our brief snapshot of their flight season is not typical, and sufficient numbers of males and females made it onto the wing and were able to mate. Pond dipping for larvae would be an option, but I think it would fall foul of the Red-throated Diver issue.

Returning to the ferry on foot, we popped into another site and found evidence of Emerald Damselfly emergence, meaning that on the visit to Hoy we had seen seven of the eight Orkney species. A good day's work.

All photos courtesy of Alan Nelson, less for the first one.

Next time: National Dragonfly Week begins...

Monday 24 July 2017


[Moves aside several weeks' worth of accumulated detritus, blows the dust off the 'New post' button and tentatively presses it...]

It has been nearly three weeks since my previous blogpost, which means that my usual 'twice a week' habit has foundered on the shores of the unchartered island of Doingotherstuff.

And what other stuff have I mainly been doing? Well, it's been quite an intense period of odo-ing, brought about by a decision made months ago to celebrate National Dragonfly Week (15-23 July) with a tour of the smaller islands of Orkney. The plan was to raise the profile of dragons and damsels throughout the outer isles, so that more folk might take an interest in conserving their habitat and to generally look out for these wondrous insects.

As a member of the Orkney Field Club committee, I was also keen to give some time to folk on the outer isles, because most Club walks and talks tend to be Mainland-based. So here was my opportunity to put that right and perhaps collect some useful data along the way.

I would have to take the time off work for the duration of National Dragonfly Week, but there would not be a possibility of recce-ing each island beforehand. To overcome this problem, I approached either Island Rangers or nature reserve wardens (RSPB) on individual islands to act as hosts and provide some logistical support, mainly in the form of transport. As a self-funded venture, I tried to keep costs down by not taking a car to each island. The wardens and rangers were keen to be involved, so the week's itinerary soon filled up and we then publicised the events. Through the Field Club network, via my own OrkOdo page on Facebook and with flyers sent to each island, the visits were promoted from about two weeks in advance.

I already had a prior commitment on Saturday 15th July, at an open day organised by the local biological records centre, but this would also act as a promotional day for the OrkOdo tour.

The Sunday before National Dragonfly Week, we (Our Lass, The Admiral (visiting on holiday), and I) took the ferry over to Graemsay to survey a quarry pond as a shake-down trip, to iron out any possible problems. This worked well, we seemed to have all the correct gear, plus we found a handful of Blue-tailed Damselflies emerging, which proved that they were actually breeding on the island, rather than being blown in from elsewhere.

A recently-emerged damselfly with its exuvia (shed larval skin)

Our Lass, Yours Truly and Sian (from Life on a Small Island), possibly as you've never seen her before

This is what we were looking at, a female Blue-tailed Damselfly
All photos courtesy of Alan Nelson.

To be continued...

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Pond life

A few weeks ago, on a walk with the Flora group of the Orkney Field Club, in between all the orchid wrangling and what have you, I was shown a flooded quarry that had potential as a dragonfly site. Once I discovered who was the land owner, I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to survey the site for Odonata. This afternoon, I had some free time and, more importantly, lots of sunshine!

Whilst most of the site is probably too deep for odes, there are shallows at the margins, with emergent vegetation likely to appeal to a damselfly larva looking to take the next rung on the ladder of Life.

It is also home to lots of these wee guys...

so maybe not so hospitable for insect larvae of many species?

After a few minutes of searching, I came across a Blue-tailed Damselfly, and then another and another.

There were Large Red Damselflies too.

All damsels so far, approximately 15, were mature adults, and I couldn't discount the possibility that they had flown in from elsewhere. However, just as I was retracing my steps, I spotted this very fresh immature one, pale-coloured, milky wings and not far from the water's edge. It may well have just taken its maiden flight. I think it's a Blue-tailed Damselfly, but no amount of searching could locate the exuvia from which it had emerged. So the breeding status of the site is unresolved.

I did find Large Reds ovipositing in tandem, so they are trying to breed here. Time will tell whether they are successful in that endeavour.

And whilst we're on the subject of mating, back home at Tense Towers, later in the evening, the local Hares were looking decidedly frisky.

It's not just March when they go mad, y'know.