Articles in ‘Odonata – dragonflies and damselflies’

Blue in the shade

Written by Lucy Brzoska

By a riera in Montseny, Southern white admirals were flying, flickering past in black and white.  One settled in the shade, among nettles and brambles, and at this angle it turned deep blue, a colour it usually conceals.

southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) turning blue

Overlooking the stream, there were glints of metallic turquoise as Beautiful demoiselles displayed.

beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) in Montseny wings closedbeautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) on Montseny displaying

After a summer shower, rain drops and tiny tree frogs clustered on the waxy leaves of Montjuïc’s pond vegetation. One day I’ll find the elusive blue morph.

mediterranean tree frog on Montjuic after the rain

Springtime in Barcelona: Montjuïc

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Poo-pooPoo-poo. Perched on one of the tall Cyprus trees that surround Montjuïc cemetery, a hoopoe is calling, a peaceful sound of spring. But a rival takes objection, and a bout of fierce hissing ensues, as the aggressor tries to claim the territory.  Feathers are spread wide – the wings, tail and crest – making the birds appear double in size.

hoopoes dispute territory on Montjuic

A common visitor to Barcelona on spring migration is the Willow warbler.  This one was thoroughly grooming a blossoming Judas tree.

willow warbler pausing on migration in Montjuic Barcelona

A much rarer migrant is the Vagrant emperor dragonfly. Like the Willow warbler, it had paused on Montjuïc to refuel, after probably beginning its journey in North Africa.  It was hunting by the ponds in the Jardins de Mossen Cinto, a male recognisable by its blue saddle.

Vagrant emperor dragonfly - Anax ephippiger - on Montjuic Barcelona

The discrete presence of pheasants has been detected on Montjuïc this winter, but spring is making them bolder. This one was strutting in full view along the cemetery wall.

pheasant on Montjuic

Iberian Blue-tailed Damselflies on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Large flocks of Blue-tailed damselflies (Ischnura graellsii) emerge from the ponds in Montjuic’s Jardins de Verdaguer.  They’re so tiny that in flight often all you can make out is a quivering blue blob.  When they settle, the spot of blue turns out to be the tail end of an endless abdomen (segment 8, to be precise).

the-tiny-iberian-blue-tailed-damselfly-ischnura-graellsii

Throughout the month of June the Blue-tails are harvested by House sparrows.  Bills bristling with wings,  the sparrows somehow manage to keep on collecting without dropping any of the existing catch.  You can imagine their nestlings getting fat on plentiful damselfly protein.

house-sparrow-hunts-for-damselflies-in-the-pond

By the end of July, the pond vegetation is full of Tree frogs (Hyla meridionalis),  perching motionless alongside the Blue-tails.  I found one very slowly ingesting its meal, till it seemed to be champing on a blue-tipped cigar.  One tremendous gulp and the rest was engulfed.

tree-frog-hyla-meridionalis-eats-bluetailed-damselfly-ischnura-graellsii

Food chains are long and complex.  Damselflies hunt small flies . . .

cannibalism-in-blue-tailed-damselfies-female-eats-teneral

. . . and each other.  As the sunlight broke free of the early morning clouds, it stirred the damsels from their resting places. A newly emerged Blue-tail on its maiden flight was immediately snatched, hoisted up and devoured by a mature female.

Collserola gothic: Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis

Written by Lucy Brzoska

In July the shadowy halls of Collserola’s shallow, trickling streams are filled with a spooky, fluttering presence.Groups of dark insects flicker in the half-light, or perch on isolated vantage points.

male-copper-demoiselle-calopteryx-haemorrhoidalis

These are the male Copper Demoiselles, staking a claim for a stretch of stream. Their wings are black, and their bodies darkly iridescent, tinged purple like blackberries.When impressing the females, they kink their abdomens, revealing a red under-tip.This has saddled the species with the Latin name Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis

The common name, though, is inspired by the rich coppery tones of the female.She signals from a distance with white spots on sepia-coloured wings.

copper-demoiselle-female-showing-wing-spots

When a male, from his prominent lookout post, sees a female enter his zone, he’s immediately in attendance, serenading her in semaphore.The hovering wings form a cross, a performance being repeated up and down the stream.

male-copper-demoiselle-courtship

After a successful courtship, the female is whisked up to a twig.

mating-copper-demoiselles-calopteryx-haemorrhoidalis

Eggs are deposited in a tangle of pink roots at the water’s edge.

copperdemoiselle-female-ovipositing

 

Black-tailed Skimmers at lunchtime

Written by Lucy Brzoska

With parallel worlds evolving in the park, it’s amazing what can be happening by your elbow, unnoticed.

I’ve seen squirrels hanging upside down on the tree trunks, looking down at oblivious heads only inches away.  Or Black rats bursting out of the hedge, flying straight into a litter bin, while people chat or have lunch nearby, none the wiser. And the other day it was the Black-tailed Skimmers.

A pair were trying to mate in the wide expanse of the palace forecourt, getting pestered by a lone marauding male.   The couple finally found some peace and quiet on the stone balustrade that runs behind the semi circle of benches.

black-tailed-skimmers-orthetrum-cancellatum

You could clearly see the way the male folds the darkened tip of his flexible abdomen over the head of the female, to secure her in position.  Or the way the female uses four legs to hold onto her partner, while the third pair gets tucked right back, neatly out of the way.

Perhaps I disturbed them, because the Skimmers flew over to a flowering bush, next to a woman absorbed in her newspaper. The dragonflies, their green eyes like aviator goggles, held on tight, as the twig swung in the breeze.

black-tailed-skimmers-in-wheel-position

After separating, the female rested on the ground for a while.  Female Black-tailed Skimmers emerge into the world bright yellow, but with age can change colour.  This one had an indeterminate grey green shimmer.

female-black-tailed-skimmer1

I saw her zipping over the ornamental fountain, dropping off eggs at a terrific speed.  The only pity is it wasn’t the pond, where chances of hatching are significantly higher.

A new generation of damselflies

Written by Lucy Brzoska

All round the pond, firmly stuck to the low concrete wall, were quantities of papery husks.  I immediately suspected what they might be, remembering the concentration of mating Western Willow Spreadwings (Lestes viridis) in the park last autumn.  It must have been a spectacular sight to see the nymphs emerge from the pond in such numbers and burst out of their unravelling skins.

One damselfly was still clinging to an exuvia, much smaller than itself. How could it fit inside?  Reading up, I found that once half out, they pause and inflate their wings and abdomen into shape with hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood.

lestes-viridis-damselfly-with-exuvia

Looking closely at one of the exuvia, it appears like a Mutoid Waste sculpture. The long “snout” is the labial mask, or lower lip, which the nymph flips open to grab passing prey.

lestes-viridis-exuvia-showing-labial-mask

The nymphs do their work well. The two biology students who volunteer to keep algae levels at a  level acceptable for park authorities found no mosquito larvae in the pond at all.

After the mass metamorphosis, the damselflies had dispersed, but I did find one pristine young female clinging to a leaf.  Her wings had a pink shimmer and were still held close together, not at the 45 degree angle that gives the species its name.  With any luck, in a few weeks she would be laying eggs in the bamboo grove by the water’s edge.

lestes-viridis-damselfy-recently-emerged

October heat

Written by Lucy Brzoska

red-squirrel-in-pedralbes-park

The roast chestnut stands were raising the temperature of the city streets while people roasted in the October sun. In the park, where benches in the shade were at a premium, there were other reminders it was officially no longer summer: the rustling of squirrels picking acorns in the oaks, or the engrossed silence of parakeets gorging on berries and seeds. One day the grass was cut, and a flock of swallows paused to dip and dive and feast on the disturbed insects. Pedralbes Park is on the busy Diagonal road, a causeway for migrating hirundines, just like the coast.

monk-parakeet-eating-berries

A  new sign has appeared at the pond: “Urban diversity protection programme. Amphibian reproduction point.” Hopefully, pond life will be allowed to develop undisturbed and the bright spark who thought to drain and scrub it out mid-May will now be restrained. Sheltering from the heat, I sat down under the Buckthorn tree to watch the legion of Darters who’d gathered to mate.

One had set up his territory in front and hovered in a haze of just-discernable wing-movement. I was awestruck by this display of energy. It only allowed itself the briefest of rests on the ledge. These breaks would last all of 2 seconds before it zipped off in pursuit of a rival Darter, driving it into another part of the pond. As well as aerial pursuits, there was also a lot of ovipositing going on, the darters still in tandem as the female dipped into the water.

hovering-darter-sympetrum-sp

Even more copious, though much less conspicuous, were the Western Willow Spreadwings. They’ve been in the park throughout summer and autumn, barely noticeable except as a spindly insect presence, dangling off leaf tips.

western-willow-spreadwing-on-leaf

But if one lands nearby you notice their beautiful green and coppery colouring, and their astonishing eyes. Our eyes, set deep in sockets, are half hidden. These orbs are on full display.

western-willow-spreadwing-lestes-viridis

On this day there were couples of Spreadwings dangling all over the place, looking for a quiet spot. One pair alighted in the Buckthorn tree. The male clasped the branch and then his long straight abdomen began to fold. He slowly lifted the female, like a dancer raising his partner.

lestes-viridis-mating-female

She reciprocated by thrusting her abdomen up in the air, until they were linked together in a jagged heart. While he clung to the branch, she clasped her abdomen. They remained like this, rocking gently from side to side.

lestes-viridis-mating-damselflies

This year I’ve seen 5 Dragonfly species in the park: the Broad Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis erythraea), Blacktailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum), Red-veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii), Desert Darter (Sympetrum sinaiticum) and the Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator).  On this occasion, despite clicking away, I somehow managed to avoid all the best ID angles!  They might have been Common Darters, but a positive ID is impossible.

 

Dragonflies out to graze

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The beginning of September is dry and dusty in Collserola, after weeks of cloudless skies and hardly a drop of water since early July.  Only the Umbrella Pines look fresh and green.  One of the few flowers to be seen is the Sacred Herb (Verbena officinalis), tiny specks of blue on the tip of long stems.  Thistles are brown and petrified.  A few Corymbose carline thistles still show yellow flower-heads among the blonde grass, where flocks of young dragonflies cling.  They’re this year’s second generation of Red-veined Darters (Sympetrum fonscolombii), out to graze on flies and build up their strength.

They have plasticine-bright colours – yellow abdomens, pale green segments in the thorax and sky-blue eyes.  This young male has just a touch of the deep red of his adult colouring.

immature-red-veined-darter-sympetrum-fonscolombii

The males turn scarlet as they grow, while the females stay yellow.  Females are distinguished by their double black lines, like this one who munches on a fly while clinging to a broom seed pod.

female-red-veined-darter-with-fly

The darters anchor themselves to twigs and stalks, immobile except when the breeze ruffles their wings.  Sometimes they turn their heads in quick, deft movements.  This male’s golden wing veins will soon turn red.

young-male-red-veined-darter-wings

For all things dragon and damsel, it’s well worth visiting Steve Jones’ Cornish Nature web site, where you’ll find a wealth of information and superb photos of species found in Cornwall and Iberia.  Steve loves dragonflies and they’re quite partial to him too.

Midday with damselflies

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The plan was to walk along the small river that comes down from Montseny to Aiguafreda, marked on the map as the Riera de Pujol. It was a bit disconcerting to find a bone-dry river bed, but a few shallow puddles on the outskirts of Aiguafreda encouraged me to keep walking.A kingfisher hunting by a small dam was an even more hopeful sign.

The sporadic pools were linking up.A waterfall crashed down, where a man stood immersed up to his chin, eyes closed, exulting in the cold water.Up on the dusty track, the sun was scorching hot. Two women from the fire-prevention squad had parked their jeep and were refilling water bottles at the spring. I followed a path that dipped steeply under the trees.

It was like stepping into a church.  At the end of the vault of trees there was a flat gravelly bank.Beyond that point the river deepened and levelled off, and the water grew still.On one side were smooth grey rocks, where a dipper had been perching, and the other bank was a tangle of vegetation in full blast of the sun.Boots flung off, I cooled down in the shade, and observed the scene.

There was a general commotion: iridescent damselflies flashed turquoise, clusters of butterflies fed, mated and basked, quantities of spindly water striders littered the water and light dappled on every surface.As usual when you sit in one spot for long, dimensions began shifting.Soon I was looking at a vast wilderness river, flowing by sheer grey cliffs and impenetrable jungle.Then I’d wade out into the canyon and, with water just above my knees, the world would shrink again.

The sunny bank was bustling with butterflies.Dusty pink Hemp-agrimony and a large dome of Wild Angelica were the most popular attractions, attended by a constant crowd of Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia).Any butterfly that fell into the water soon disappeared under wiry clumps of striders.

silver-washed-fritillaries

Most beguiling of all were the Beautiful Demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo), whose name goes straight to the point. The males would display their wings in a flash of dark blue silk, like peacocks.

calopteryx-virgo-beautiful-demoiselle

The females are very metallic, a white spot on each of their four bronze wings, their abdomens a coppery green.

female-beautiful-demoiselle-calopteryx-virgo

An impish damselfly perched on a twig, as if flown straight out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. Though in silhouette, the dark band of its narrow wings revealed it to be a female Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis).

female-copper-demoiselle

Engrossed in damselflies,  legs pleasantly chilled, a sharp pain made me look down.The mob of water striders were honing in for a nibble.

I retreated to the cool gravelly bank and lay listening to the water tumbling over rocks to fill the canyon.  A waspish Large Pincertail (Onychogomphus uncatus – see Forum) settled on a stone. The dipper returned, flying low up-river.From this angle its white breast looked enormous.A Silver-washed Fritillary floated down like an autumn leaf.Occasionally a gust of wind would come up the valley, roaring in the tree tops, making the branches creak.It was a reminder of the hot world out there.It felt good down in the cool green vault.

silver-washed-fritillary-argynnis-paphia

I began to hear the sound of car doors slamming – post-siesta people coming to stock up with spring water.I walked up-river for a while, rock-hopping, and surprised a sparrowhawk who’d also been quiet down under the trees.

 


Late July in the park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Up in the pine trees, the hectic sawing of the cicadas almost drowns out the parakeets. The sprinklers are on in force, hissing curtains of recycled rain water. When puddles form on the paths, magpies and parakeets waddle over to bathe.  A Tree rat emerges from the undergrowth, spruce and bright-eyed, and wants to join in, but is driven off by a magpie.  Tail-pecking is a tried and trusted technique, often used on cats.

I get to see my first ever cicada.  It seems ludicrous that I’d never seen one before. Fixed quite low on the tree, its body vibrates without pause, long wings curved like sycamore seeds.

cicada-tibicen-plebejus

Over in the pond, an inevitable Red-eared slider swims ponderously past.    Someone’s also introduced shoals of small gold fish – several days hunting for any kingfisher passing by next autumn.  Dragonflies sunbathe on the stone slabs round the edge and I try to sneak up for a closer look.

broad-scarlet-dragonfly-crocothemis-erythraea

The Broad Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis erythraea) is almost transluscent under the hot sun.  It’s saturated with colour, which spills over to the wings, where the veins near the body are like red netting.  The amber pterostygma at the tips are like small stained glass windows.

There’s another basking dragonfly – the Blacktailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – stocky and powder blue.

black-tailed-skimmer-orthetrum-cancellatum

So many male dragonflies – where are the females? I spot two Scarlet Darters coupled up in the wheel position.  Once released, the beige-coloured female oviposits pogoing across the water, dangerously oblivious to the group of young mallards.  One lunges at her, but she’s away.