Nothing heralds the arrival of spring and summer like the sight of dragonflies and damselflies flitting around the woodland or the fringes of Forest pools. There are around 20 species of damselflies and a further 30 species of dragonflies to be found in Britain, but how do we tell the difference between them all, and where is best to find them in the Heart of England Forest?
Dragon or damsel – what’s the difference?
Damselflies are usually small, fragile flying insects having four wings of almost equal size and shape. They stay close to water margins or water surface and, when at rest, hold their wings along the length of their abdomen. Their eyes are always separated, never touching.
Dragonflies have hind wings that are usually shorter and broader than their forewings. They are commonly large, strongly flying insects that can often be found well away from water. When at rest, they hold their wings out from their body, often at right angles to it.
Luckily, local dragonfly experts Peter and Kay Reeve, from the Warwickshire Dragonfly Group, have been on hand recently to offer dragonfly and damselfly identification training to Forest volunteers and staff. During a fascinating day’s training, the group of 10 learned how to identify those dragonflies and damselflies that are likely to visit the Forest, as well as how to go about monitoring our ponds and providing ideal conditions for them colonise. Peter pointed out, “if you find the presence of a larvae case on the edge of ponds then this is positive evidence there is a breeding population of that dragonfly or damselfly.”
We asked Peter to give us a list of his top 6 species to look out for in the Heart of England Forest.
Here are his tips:
Common blue damselfly
Perhaps the most typical British damselfly, it shares its blue and black colouration with several other species, but can be distinguished by its broader stripes and the all-blue colour at the side of its thorax (the middle part of the insect’s body). The female sometimes shares these colours or can be found in a shade of dark green.
Photo: male common blue damselfly (copyright: Kay Reeve)
Usually around 38-43mm in length, this dragonfly can be found during the summer and autumn – sometimes even as late as November. The thorax on both male and female is brown above poorly defined stripes and yellow panels on the sides. The male becomes bright orange-red with small black spots as it matures. The female has a pale yellow abdomen and often develops red markings. Both have black legs with a yellow stripe along their length.
Photo: male common darter (copyright: Kay Reeve)
Britain’s bulkiest dragonfly can measure up to 78mm! Found mainly from June until August, its vivid colouring (the male has a sky blue tail with a dark central line along it, while the female has an apple-green tail that can turn blue on warmer days) makes it conspicuous when hunting over water. It rarely settles and prefers to eat its prey mid-flight.
Photo: male and female emperor dragonflies paired (copyright: Kay Reeve)
Peter’s tip for identifying the Emperor dragonfly: “It flies with the rear of its abdomen curved slightly downwards with its legs tucked in, whereas most other dragonflies fly with a straight abdomen.”
Abundant from May until August, although sometimes found as early as April or late as October, this dragonfly can often be found skimming low and slow over the surface of open water. Females are a pale yellowish-brown, while the males develop a vivid blue abdomen that darkens towards it rear. The latter retain their colour markings, although they become more greyish-brown with age.
Photo: male black-tailed skimmer (copyright: Kay Reeve)
Visible from May until September, this dragonfly is often among the first to colonise new ponds. Regularly returning to the same low perch after swift flights along pond margins, its main characteristic is, as the name suggests, its broad, flattened abdomen.
Both sexes have thin, pale blue stripes and brown eyes. Their wing bases are very dark brown. The male develops a blue abdomen with yellow spots along its sides, while the female has a golden brown abdomen, also with yellow spots along the margins.
Photo: female broad-bodied chaser (copyright: Peter Preece)
There are at least five different colour forms of the female of this species. While the male always has a blue spot on its tail along with blue stripes on the thorax and blue eyes, the tail spot of the female can be violet when it is young. They can also have a salmon-pink thorax and blue spot or, when more mature, an olive green or pale brown thorax and brown spot. Visible from April until September, they prefer lowland habitats including salty or polluted water, where they may be the only species present.
Photo: male and female blue-tailed damselflies paired (copyright: Kay Reeve)
Tell us if you see any….
There are a variety of ponds and waterways around the Heart of England Forest walks – Colletts Pond on the Dorsington Wood walk, for example, is a favourite haunt for dragonflies and damselflies, and the River Avon at Barton car park is a great place to do some dragonfly watching. When you are out and about and looking to spot these colourful insects then you’ll find it handy to have a pair of binoculars with you, so you can see them up close before they fly away.
As, ever, we’d love to know if you are able to spot any as you stroll. If you do and are quick enough to snap a photo, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with a brief note telling us where you saw it. If you want to know more about these enchanting creatures, then take a look at the Warwickshire Dragonfly Group and British Dragonfly Society websites – there is a lot of useful information. And if you’d like to take part in wildlife surveys in the Forest then drop us a line, we’d love to have you on board!