Although I have enjoyed wildlife photography for many years, I have been mainly focused upon butterflies and birds. It is only since we became the owners of Alvecote Wood and put in eleven ponds that my interest in dragonflies and damselflies has been ignited.
Dragonflies and damselflies are really fascinating insects, belonging to a very ancient order of insects. They also have a fascinating life cycle, with many species taking years to reach maturity, almost all of that time spent underwater in various stages of nymph, although some can complete a life cycle within a single year. The adults that we see are thus the culmination of a long period of development, and their life span is rather short – just a few weeks at most.
Although they need wet places, usually ponds, sometimes rivers, streams and canals, to breed, they can be seen a long way from those water bodies, and we often see them resting on leaves, trees, twigs and plants within our main woodland, some distance from the ponds. Most are predatory on smaller insects, worms, grubs and even small fish.
Our ponds have become home to an increasing range of species, although we have no uncommon species in our woods. As with birds and butterflies, I take an interest in, and enjoy taking photographs of, the commoner species, as well as the rare ones – they are often surprising, with iridescent colours that glow in differing light, always changing, and always beautiful. I could happily watch the numerous four-spotted chasers and emperors ranging over our ponds all day, defending their territories from all comers. Most of them will perch and watch on dead stems of reeds and sedges emerging from the shallow water, although the common darter will also sit on a stick almost anywhere, including the canes that we use to stake our young trees. The hawkers, too, will range into the woods where you can find hairy dragonfly, migrant hawker, southern hawker and brown hawker at different times of year.
Damselflies are much more delicate – they usually sit with wings folded, rather than out to the side, and both wings are similar size, whereas the dragonflies have one large wing and one smaller one on each side, rather like butterflies. In summer there is a small cloud of little azure and large red damselflies, together with the beautiful and delicate blue-tailed damselflies, hovering over the ponds, mating, and depositing their eggs below the surface on submerged stems. The larger damselflies such as emerald and the lovely banded demoiselle will range more widely and are often seen perched in the meadows or on twigs and saplings. The increasing population of dragonflies and damselflies have themselves attracted predators in recent years, including the Hobby, a small falcon that feeds on them.
Dragonflies and damselflies are worth a closer look. They are primeval, beautiful and always surprising.