Thursday, 4 July 2019

Flight paths at the riverside

Watching dragonflies with Mark (Martin Kelsey)
Late June and July are when things really take off. I am sitting on a water-worn rock in the shadow cast by a single-arch stone bridge. My body adjusts to its smooth contours and I relish its coolness and the shade: a respite from the heat surging from Spanish-blue sky. The ancient bridge, which is just wide enough to walk across, also carries a stone channel along which clear cold water races, on its way to irrigate vegetable gardens  on the other side of the deep valley. Water dribbles from the rim of the arch of the bridge, leaking from this channel, creating  a silvery cascade dripping down to the river below. Dodging this constant trickle, a pair of Red-rumped Swallows bring food every couple of minutes to young hidden in the bowel of their mud-built nest at the apex of the arch. The adults give their friendly budgerigar-like chortle. A pair of White-rumped Swifts zoom up the valley, somewhere they will be using an abandoned Red-rumped Swallow nest like this for themselves.

Today these are but delightful distractions, because I am becoming totally absorbed by action at the water's edge. From my perch I can see half a dozen species of Odonata, both dragonflies and damselflies. I leave the photography to my companion Mark. My defective camera has been a blessing, and I am granted the sheer freedom to put it aside and to observe. I am engrossed.

Around me is a community of these extrordinary insects, busily meeting the demands of their brief adult lives. What I start to see are differences, each species behaving in distinct ways. I can identify each species simply on what I am learning through these minutes of careful observation. Some of the species indeed bear common names based not on their appearance, but on their behaviour. Thus the chunky-bodied Splendid Cruiser sweeps past me on a circuit that takes it over the quiet water to my left and back again across the boulders and torrents to shady pools to my right. Almost the whole time it is on level flight, cruising as it were, and repeating this flight path every five minutes or so, only deviating from it when a chance encounter with a neighbouring Splended Cruiser sends them both skyward so fast that I can barely follow them.

Western Spectre (Martin Kelsey)

A Western Spectre, less showy and a bit smaller than the Cruisers, lurks close to the water, right next to the bank, pausing where vegetation hangs down, disappearing briefly from view as it explores the shade under the fronds. On the very same leaves hang Western Demoiselles, their pigmented wings in semaphore. Into view comes an Orange-spotted Emerald, hovering at the entrance of a small bay, stationary in mid-air before chasing off a much larger Splendid Cruiser or a Keeled Skimmer. It is feisty and pugnacious, keeping its patch clear of all intruders. This constant aerial motion contrasts with the behaviour of the pincertails which sit, abdomen raised with the heat, atop mid-current rounded stones, making just the briefest of sortees out across the water before returning.

Looking for Hooktails with Mark (Martin Kelsey)

The next day we are at a very different river, wide and slow-flowing with tangled vegetation spreading across the gravel banks mid-stream. Instead of a mountain stream, it is a languid, almost tropical river. Another community of Odonata is there to be enjoyed. Violet Dropwings perch on Typha stems, making forays and returning to their perches where they obelisk with the heat. Tiny White Featherlegs shift from hiding places in the vegetation as I struggle through it. They have a slow, gravity-defying bouncy flight, as if suspended by fine elastic.
White Featherleg (Martin Kelsey)


Across the water, another dragonfly darts at great speed, just above the water level. It crosses the width of the river in what seems like a fraction of a second, and then zooms back again towards me. As soon as its path leaves the water and crosses the gravel bank I lose sight of it, not knowing if it has landed or simply done a large loop, because soon it is back over the river. For minutes on end, this action is repeated but I remain frustrated at not being able to work out what it is doing. Mark and I carry on walking, putting up Little Ringed Plovers and finding a singing Western Olivaceous Warbler in the gallery woodland of willow shrubs.
Green Hooktail (Mark Ferris)

We return with renewed impetus to see this dragonfly. It rushes in from the water, but this time I am better positioned and spot where it has landed. I approach it carefully, immediately identifying it as a male Green Hooktail, a particularly striking species, bearing an almost prehistoric demeanour. Perched on a piece of dry vegetation, it watches me. Something drives it to be airbourne again and off it goes on his zigzag flight path across the water. But this time I am patient, I know this species too and anticipate its return to the same perch. I do not have to wait long for its re-appearance there. A reward for patience and for figuring it all out, understanding and intepreting these myiad of marvel.