Saturday 5 August 2017

Dragon Central

As National Dragonfly Week entered its second weekend and its eighth day, it was time to visit the island of Hoy. I often refer to Hoy as Dragon Central, and with good reason. All eight of the breeding species in Orkney can be found there, and some in good numbers. OK, 'good numbers' is a bit imprecise, but let's just say that the abundance is good for Orkney. The weather, too, was very Orkney, cloudy and dull for the morning, but with brightening prospects for the afternoon. Hey, after some of the days we'd had, I was happy with that!

The group (Alan, Jenny, Brian and myself) met at Houton pier in Orphir, to catch the ferry across to Lyness in Hoy. As the planned walk was up a hill very near Lyness, we didn't need to take a vehicle across and, once on Hoy, we were joined by islander Trish.

Heading up the rough track that leads to Wee Fea, we passed a derelict military building, before making our way to a set of shallow pools on the southern flank of the hill. As with most of the week's trips, due to the logistics involved I had been unable to recce any of the walks, but for some unfathomable reason on this day I was particularly apprehensive. Perhaps it was the thought that Hoy is the shining light for Odonata in Orkney and I was feeling some pressure to deliver wonderful, yet unpredictable, wildlife moments? The contours of the hillside meant that the pools could not be seen until the last few yards of our approach. With the low cloud adding a sombre dimension to the occasion, we crested a rise and could finally see our destination. Phew, the pools were still there, not flooded out, not dried up, and looking good for odes. I allowed myself a happy thought of relief, but was aware that the rest of the group were wearing expressions of concern. Perhaps it was a case of "Is this it?" Or maybe "There're no signs of any insects at all!" So, without further ado, I set about looking for damsels and dragons in the soft rushes that bordered the pools.

Acidic pool habitat, Wee Fea. Photo: Alan Nelson

For some reason, there always seems to be a period of 'getting your eye in' when looking for odes in sub-optimal conditions. For species that are brightly coloured and strikingly marked, you would think that they would be easy to see. Eventually, a Large Red Damselfly was found, clinging to a plant stem, then a few Common Blue Damselflies tucked away amongst the soft rushes. As we progressed along the pool edge, we hit a sweet spot, with maybe a dozen Black Darter dragonflies nestled in the vegetation, along with more Common Blues. With the reassurance and confidence that these sightings gave, we also began finding some Emerald Damselflies and a few Blue-tailed Damselflies. This was more like it!

The sun was still struggling to burn through the low cloud, but the temperature was slowly rising. At the point where even us humans could feel the warmth on the backs of our necks, it must have hit a critical point for the dragonflies. Suddenly, all the Black Darters were lifting into the air and jostling amongst themselves. Common Blue Damselfly males were out over the water, scouting for mates and chasing competitors. It was a magical, if brief, moment. Then the cloud covered the sun again and all became calm once more.

Black Darter dragonfly. Photo: Alan Nelson

Checking the ID guide for differences between genders. Photo: Alan Nelson

A recently-emerged Black Darter with exuvia

A Large Red Damselfly makes short work of a moth

Large Reds ovipositing. Photo: Alan Nelson
As well as clear evidence of breeding by the Black Darters, Large Reds, Blue-tails, Emeralds and Common Blues were all busy mating or egg-laying.

A sudden shout by Alan alerted the group to a Common Hawker dragonfly, which was flying along the water's edge, either looking for lunch or love. Alan even managed a flight shot in the tricky conditions.

A Common Hawker dragonfly. Photo: Alan Nelson
After a picnic lunch, we made our way back down the hill, stopping at another pool in some rough pasture, as the sun put in an extended appearance. Here, again, we saw six of the eight Orkney species, the highlights being several Common Hawkers, a pair of mating Black Darters and a host of Emeralds in love.

Emerald Damselflies in tandem. Photo: Alan Nelson
All too soon, it was time to return to Lyness to catch the ferry back to mainland, but the trip had been a resounding success. In five hours on Hoy, we had seen as many odes as we had seen all week on all the the other islands. Dragon Central, indeed.

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