Damsels and Dragons

Golden-ringed dragonfly
Smoo Cave, Durness, Scotland
Smoo Cave, who knows what could be lurking in the dark depths?

Our wildlife tour had taken us right up to page 107 of my Road Atlas of Britain, along the Kyle of Durness and into the awe-inspiring Smoo Cave on the north coast of Scotland. After slowly heading south over a few weeks, we suddenly jumped to page 2, the far south-west of Britain, exploring Cornwall. What better place to search for damsels and dragons?

Southern hawker dragonfly (male)
This male southern hawker dragonfly was flying along a woodland path at Gwaith Powdwr, a North Wales Wildlife Trust nature reserve.

In truth, spend any bright summer day near freshwater and you will soon be captivated by the jewel-bright flashes of damselflies and dragonflies as they dart across ponds and lakes, or skim along rivers and streams. You don’t even need to be near water to see some species, we often saw hawker dragonflies as we walked along woodland paths. But the days we saw whole rainbow selections of damsels and dragons were those we spent in the West Country and North Wales. I’d like to attribute this to some mythical link, but actually I suspect we were just lucky with the weather.

Buzzard in the sky above Bissoe Valley
I stop to watch buzzards. There were several in the sky above Bissoe Valley.
One of the large ponds at Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve
One of the large ponds at Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve.

Making the most of the warm Cornish sunshine, and feeling optimistically energetic, we set out from Devoran on the coast to coast cycle trail. After just a couple of miles I was excited to come across a Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve sign. Hastily abandoning my bike, I went to investigate Bissoe Valley nature reserve. Noticing my absence after a while (it’s not unusual for me to be lagging a bit behind, I stop to look at things and probably don’t make a very good cycling companion) Geoff cycled back to the reserve, picked up my bike and parked it properly, and came to see what the distraction was this time. Just as well he did, as he took some fantastic photographs. All the images in this post are his, please credit Geoff Woolley if you want to use any.

This common darter dragonfly was very obliging for the camera.

Metallic green emerald damselflies with sapphire eyes shimmered across the pools. It is easiest to photograph them when they are “in tandem”, the male clasping the female behind her head. This is part of the mating process, the female will curl her tail round (technically, her abdomen) to the male so that sperm can be transferred.

We saw several other species, but unless they stayed still for a few moments it was impossible to photograph them. You will just have to visit a reserve to see for yourself – it’s not too late, you should see them on any warm day over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here are a few more from our travels.

 

The Ercall

Oak woodland
The edible arch at The Cut, Abbey Foregate, one of Shropshire Wildlife Trust's visitor centres.
The edible arch at The Cut, Abbey Foregate, Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s HQ and visitor centre.

Shropshire Wildlife Trust has a fantastic HQ, beautiful old restored abbey buildings surrounded by gardens, that once housed the Cadfael Experience, celebrating the books and TV series about a medieval monk with detective leanings, set in Shrewsbury. The garden still has an old-world, kitchen garden feel, with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees promising an abundant harvest.

Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager and Pete Lambert, River Projects Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust
Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager and Pete Lambert, River Projects Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust

I was there to meet Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to find out more about the work of the Trust, especially how it runs behind the scenes. They have a lot of great projects running at the moment. I met the incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team running an extensive landscape restoration scheme, The Meres and Mosses, and had a very interesting chat with Pete Lambert who manages the varied work that the Trust is doing to improve Shropshire’s rivers.

Wheat sculpture water feature Shropshire Wildlife Trust Vistor Centre
We timed our visit well, as the Trust was hosting a pop-up restaurant, so we sat in the garden enjoying lovely vegan food and a ferociously healthy smoothie.

Of course I couldn’t visit Shropshire Wildlife Trust without seeing a nature reserve, so in the afternoon, clutching a map and set of directions, we braved the rain and set off to visit The Ercall, little sister to that more famous Shropshire landmark, the Wrekin.

The changeable weather enhanced our experience of the reserve. The Ercall is covered with ancient oak woodland, with moss covered trees, lush green ferny undergrowth, open grassy glades and small ponds. As we walked through the trees, the rain pattered softly through the leaves and gave everything an emerald glow.

Just as we reached the top of The Ercall, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, lighting up the woods and wet landscape in glorious technicolour.

The Ercall is hugely important geologically, the scars left by quarrying reveal that the area was once under a shallow tropical sea just south of the equator.

I loved this poem carved into stone, reflecting the site’s geological history.

Poem carved into rock
A poem inscribed into the rock

Upon my shore you stand
Marking time
A mark in time I am
And older yet than that
Over hill
And under the sea I’ve seen
The birthing of this land

 

By pick and blast made now
Ripped open
It ripples on through me
A scar reclaimed by green
Uncovered
My secrets held in folds
Of quiet eternity

On that reflective note, I have to leave you with a gorgeous Shrewsbury sunset, one of the most fiery skies I saw on the whole trip.

Shrewsbury sunset

 

One good tern…

Keen to try out another top UK wildlife experience, we headed to Cemlyn Bay, a North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve, seeking out one of the UK’s largest nesting tern colonies. Wear a hat for terns, the Wildlife Trusts’ website suggests, as terns are very protective of their nests and will dive bomb suspected intruders. No hats were needed, however, as the terns had just finished a busy summer of raising chicks, and most of the birds had dispersed.

Even one tern is worth watching though, and we stood spellbound on the beach as the few terns that were left wheeled and turned effortlessly, their finely pointed wings slicing through the air. Every now and then they paused to hover before folding back their wings and plunging into the water.

There were still plenty of birds to see on the islands in the lagoon that lies behind the long shingle spit, including a few more terns, oyster catchers and ringed plovers. A heron stood like a statue in the shallow water whilst a little egret stalked through the water.   On the way round the circular walk that we explored, we saw a heron, possibly the same one, flying low over a field with long slow beats of its huge wings. The hedgerows were glowing with red campion, which seemed to grow more thickly along Anglesey lanes than anywhere else, intermingled with the softer purples of black knapweed and devilsbit scabious.

Another place to add to my list of reserves to revisit then, but next time I’ll come a little earlier in the summer.