One of the true joys of giving space to nature is the gifts in return for the long, physical, hard work. These late summer days bring such gifts, jewels of richness of our natural world that need their space.
The dragonfly dance troupe: an exciting and colourful race against time
One such gift is the dramatic airborne performance of the dragonfly dance troupe! The common hawkers and common darters are back in town with an exciting West-Side-Story-style dance routine full of frenetic energy – zappy, nippy, twisty, side-stepping, curling and flying upside down. Some dance with partners, while for others the desperate search continues. The scrapes and pond have erupted into mayhem with dragonflies, darters and damsel flies emerging from all sorts of places, leaving behind on occasions their ‘suitcase’ – their larval cast.
The antics of the dancers are incredible, as are the costumes: the brilliant blue and green, striped, ‘jazzy’ outfits of the migrant hawker; the reddish-crimson fur effect of the common darter; the iridescent blue all-covering outfit of the damsel flies; and the dusky, light blue of the four-spot chaser. Colours reminiscent of beautiful saris at an Indian wedding, rich, exotic and memorable.
The mating frenzy is in full pelt as weather and predators are no longer the challenge, just pressure of time to ensure next season’s offspring have a chance. So, working in fields where nature is in control means being mindful of low-flying insects – red-tailed bumble bees, moths, butterflies and dragonflies. It’s a non-stop feast of nature’s extraordinary activity, all in tune with themselves and avoiding us. Stars of the year 2022 in numbers and activities have been the speckled wood butterflies
Going by the book
The scrapes emerged from experiments of size and depth with the help of an old British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) book on how to ensure wildlife-friendly pond. Like many good things supporting nature, the BTCV was lost in the early era of the Cameron government. Its loss took with it experience, real country and wildlife knowhow and nationally recognised, practical in-depth handbooks on conservation. The BCTV book guided the scrapes’ and ponds’ construction over three years, adding another one each year to make a total of three sites. The last five years have been a constant revelation: the potential of the scrapes has been wholeheartedly seized upon by nature, leading to an ongoing series of surprises and spectacles, for example the dance troupe display. Yet there were challenges in store…
A hot summer brings unexpected developments
We became aware early in the bird breeding season, as we observed the numerous rapidly low-flying blackbirds, wrens and thrushes, that something unexpected was happening.
The offspring were at the fledgling stage, and the birds were at times clearly stressed and frantic. Further observation revealed some startling activity around the pond. The temperatures were warming up to 24C plus. The lack of rain and the persistent bright sunshine meant the dragonfly larvae were on the move to emerge, climb up the stem of soft rush, irises, bog bean and bulrushes, and start their emergence from nymph stage into the flying world. They had lived in the water for months, mainly at the bottom of the scrape, crawling around, feeding and exploring and waiting for these moments.
The wilding had allowed the dragonfly most of what they needed – a mixture of vegetation, big cobble rocks from the fields to bask on in the sun and meet each other. Edges of long grass, water mint, yellow flag, cinquefoil, watercress, bog bean, bulrush and soft rushes and sagittaria were their vegetation options. Fallen branches from trees lying by the edge or just dipping into the water provided a much-valued location for egg laying and for more basking and resting. A dragonfly idyll, but one that was about to be rudely interrupted.
Easy pickings for hungry birds
Enter stage left: a male blackbird. His cleverness had discovered the availability of delectable food, miles easier than trying to find worms in drying-out, brick-hard clay – dragonfly larvae, a crunchy food source delicacy of two centimetres in length. Quiet havens of birth for the dragonflies; lunchtime tapas for the desperate blackbird.
He lurked around the edges of the pond most mornings and evenings looking for such delicacies. He even risked crossing onto the water by moving steadily across the bog bean or other plants in the pond. He explored numerous pond-side plants, including monkeyflower, to pick off larvae, seven larvae in one 20-minute period. Then the female blackbird joined in the fray when released from fledgling care.
As each day passed, our hearts sank, as it was far from a one-off hunt. It was turning out to be daily and systematic, with the blackbird sounding the alarm every time a human being came within 10 metres. Then, more shock as the wrens appeared and went to upstream pools to seek similar juicy morsels – with success. We even wondered if the hobby, a bird of prey which hunts dragonflies, might appear as there had been local sightings! We became worried that the dragonfly numbers would be decimated by such superb hunting skills by these predators. Of course unnecessary worry as nature was in control!
Harmony restored by nature’s choreography
As June and July progressed, with once per month rainfall and blistering heat up to 35C on some days, the odd sighting of a common darter was all that happened, despite the ponds and scrapes being friendly habitat places.
Then, mid-August, the adult birds went to moult, disappearing from the scene and ceasing their hunting. Suddenly it was bonanza time for the aerial acrobats and taking centre stage were the dance troupes of dragonflies and darters. Amazingly, the pacing over the weeks of the natural world created its own balance. So, from pond bottoms to flying dazzlers or mid-summer takeaways for growing bird chicks, all is in harmony. Enough food for growing birds and still some dragon flies left to create next year’s dazzling dancers, in fact on all the scrapes despite the bulrush take over.
Phew! We were glad we had just let nature – a much better choreographer than homo sapiens – have its place and space.
Next time: nocturnal happenings…