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.

 

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.

A Gannet Extravaganza

Swirling clouds of gannets
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast, is Europes largest gannet colony
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast. The entire rock is white with gannets at this time of year.

Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.

We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.

Following The Wildlife Trusts’ advice on how to see gannets at their best, and a tip from Alan at Scottish Wildlife Trust, we were on a boat trip from North Berwick to Bass Rock, the biggest gannet colony in Europe.

Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.

As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.

Spellbound by Orchids

common spotted orchids
Common spotted orchids on the Roadside Nature Reserve just across the road from my office. It is spectacular in July; even driving past you can see the pink flower spikes of the orchids.

When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.

You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.

bee orchid by Steve Weeks
Pollen poised to rub off onto the back of any bee that visits this Bee Orchid (image © Steve Weeks, Kent Wildlife Trust)

The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.

Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.

Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.

 

Seabird city

Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano  (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.

Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.

We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)

Arctic skua
Being dive-bombed by skuas is part of the Handa experience. The footpath passes close to this arctic skua’s nest. We didn’t hang around for a close-up!

The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.

 

Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.

Boat leaving Handa Island
Leaving Handa Island

Partying with the puffins

Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

Aiming to try out as many of the Wildlife Trusts Top UK Wildlife Experiences, we went to Flamborough Head this weekend to see the seabirds nesting on the towering chalk cliffs.

It was a stunning spectacle. Guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes clung perilously to the tiniest ledges; it seems impossible that they can raise chicks here, but they do.

Kittiwakes and chicks in nest on cliffs
Kittiwake nests perched perilously on the cliff ledges, with chicks like tiny balls of fluff

And of course puffins! Not in such great numbers as the other birds but easy to spot with their bright orange feet and colourfully striped bills. I was particularly enchanted with the way they trail their feet splayed out behind them like little orange flags as they fly.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Flanborough Cliffs nature reserve is well worth a visit at any time of year, but during the seabird breeding season it has to be one of the top wildlife spectacles in England.