Highland Dragonflies

Published: 20th July 2018

Taking advantage of the second (!) protracted spell of hot, sunny weather here in the West Highlands we have been searching hard for dragonflies over the last couple of weeks. Already the temperatures have way exceeded those of last year (up to 30oC at the warmest), which has been a distinct boost to emergence, with practically all local species now flying in the second week of July. Lucky (?) guests have been encouraged to look for these enigmatic insects, whilst admiring the wildlife of the wider countryside. We have been busy trying to locate sites and hone up identification skills whilst preparing for our first dragonfly week at the end of July. Our only concern now is that some of the earlier species may have enjoyed the good weather so much that they have made hay whilst the sun has shone and called it a day by then. As ever, the weather may not be relied upon, but that is always the case up here, and we rarely have a week without some bursts of sunshine.

One of the best Lochaber sites we have visited was along an unpromising forest track. The first burn crossing under the path produced hawkers, however, which subsequently turned out to be azures when we got a better look at them on the way back. A series of bog pools between the track and the conifer plantation were full of bogbean and bog pondweed.  These were alive with 4-spot chasers and white-faced darters.  The feisty little darters buzzed low over the pools and across the surrounding vegetation, irritating the chasers as they intruded on their territories. The handsome males have a notable black and red abdomen, whilst the white faces (frons) are a giveaway. We found other similar pools further along in association with the larger lochans. Large golden-ringed dragonflies zipped about the pools and along the track. Suspected northern emeralds hunted along the tops of trees, but it was not until we came across a female basking on stones by the side of the track that we were able to confirm the identity of these.  We eventually reached the Dubh Lochans, well fringed in parts with white water lilies and other vegetation and connected to the surrounding bogs by runnels and pools. Circumnavigation of the lochans produced many damselflies; the ubiquitous large red as well as common blue and blue-tailed. Angry greenshanks called continuously as we walked cautiously round the water, despite an absence of ill intent. Along a boggy forest ride we were approached by an azure hawker, who chose my shirt as a perch to sit and eat its prey, a hoverfly. These medium-sized hawkers have blue abdomens, blue eyes and a brown thorax with blue stripes – no sign of yellow or green. Quite often they can be relied upon to perch, allowing ready identification, but the extreme heat has made this more of a challenge recently. On the way back, a red deer calf jumped out of its hiding place, which I had already walked past, and ran for the cover of the trees.

Azure hawkers have been present in several areas including the woods along Loch Arkaig, the falls at Chia-Aig and along the road in Glen Loy. Here we have also seen the first of the year’s keeled skimmers, with their wide, powder-blue abdomens being diagnostic. Glen Loy has some nice dragonfly pools, with white-face darter already having been seen there this year. In common with many bogs, however, these have largely dried out, which has reduced the opportunities for egg laying. I have read that white-faced darter larvae can survive in barely moist sphagnum, so providing eggs were laid whilst the pools were still wet this should not be too much of a problem. Some of the larger bog pools, such as we have investigated off the main Glencoe road, should not have been as badly affected. We look forward to picking a day to explore these further when the sun is actually shining (no-one said we have had continuous good weather)! Closer to home ‘our’ resident southern hawkers have emerged from the garden pond and have been hunting round the Lodge.

We have also been searching a little further afield for some of the more specialised Highland dragons.  A trip across to Rothiemurchus to look for the tiny northern damselfly proved successful. We found a couple of small sedge-fringed pools apart from Loch Mor and had a good look at these, before progressing to the larger lochan. Amongst the many hundreds of common blues flying we eventually managed to find some of the slightly smaller and flimsier northerns. These had a weak flight and seemed to keep close to the water’s edge and just above emergent vegetation. Photos were the order of the day, to confirm the diagnostic details, including the green underside to the eyes and second thoracic stripe. Angela managed to catch a mating pair, which were rather more preoccupied. Other dragonflies include the ubiquitous four-spot chaser and golden-ringed, with northern emerald again putting in an appearance. There were also plenty of emerald damselflies in the fringing vegetation. The day was equally notable for the heat, and we were glad that the walk in was not too excessive (despite a wealth of butterflies along the way). A celebratory ice cream was more a necessity than a luxury.

Loch Bran near Foyers is a well-known spot for brilliant emerald and did not disappoint when we visited. These are shiny green dragonflies with bright green eyes. The males have a habit of hovering slowly and close-to, but seldom perch. Despite much effort we did not manage to get a photo. The odd female was dipping her tail directly into the water as she laid eggs. The loch itself is a gem, with attractive fringing vegetation and water lilies. Common darters had emerged and were everywhere. We also saw a brilliant red darter that obligingly perched on the end of a small branch and glowed inn the sun. This looked to have black legs and looked for all the world like a ruddy darter, but if so this is a long, long way from its usual haunts further south.

An even further flung trip to Glen Affric also yielded dividends at the Coire Loch. This is noted for its emeralds, all three species having been recorded there. By far the most numerous was the downy emerald. These patrolled back and forth along the water’s edge, males holding their virtually black abdomens just above the line of their heads. Other species seen included a (probable) brilliant emerald, along with a single white-faced darter, with northern emerald and common hawker on the forest track. Rannoch looper moths were all over the place – an unexpected abundance of such a rare species.

Yesterday we saw our first black darters of the season, which more-or-less completes the set. We are probably too late this year for hairy dragonfly and variable damselfly require a trip down to Oban. There is always next year, and if the weather is not kind, the year after. Then there is always the small matter of a decent photo!