Sunday, 11 September 2016

Shortened Expectations

Cruelly I am now spending most of my days in a small dark room. I am feeling very nature deprived, though the fact I'm big enough to not be eaten by a spider is cause for some comfort when I do get some time outdoors.

Hop No More

Like Monet, my eyesight is deteriorating, so here's an impression of a good photo

One for my sponsors

Daddy long legs spider and food parcel

Back swim no more

Another less impressive impression of a good photo

Monday, 29 August 2016

Hawkers and Hangers

My dragonfly education continues and I'm now able to identify different species of Hawker dragonflies in the skies of Tyntesfield. At the same time I am compelled to accept that the Emperors, flying since June, have now hung up their wings for good.

Embracing death and the cycle of life, I've now developed an interest in 'things found hanging in spider webs', not least because they are relatively easy to photograph and intriguingly mysterious when viewed in close up. 

Southern Hawker Dragonfly (male)

Migrant Hawker Dragonfly (male)

Fly in gothic spider nightmare

Fly no more

Strange spider web blob thing

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Invasion Of The Lilly Snatchers

Last week I witnessed a strange phenomenon at the kitchen garden pond. The entire water surface was covered in a dusting of white flecks. It seemed to me that these were hatching flies of some kind, but it was not obvious what they were to the naked eye (not to my declining ones anyway). I returned with a macro lens to discover a flotsamic mess of drowning insects and shed skins. Where any plant protruded from the water it was covered in survivors as were the lilly pads and their flowers. This was, I was to discover, an explosion of Water Lilly Aphids.

As I tried to photograph these 1-3mm long sap suckers I began to notice all the predators in attendance. Lots of pond skaters and backswimmers, but more to my amazement was witnessing a tiny parasitic wasp come and inject her egg(s) into a hapless aphid (who was perhaps at the time wondering how it had had the good fortune to avoid the drowning fate of so many of its siblings).

On reviewing my photos I then saw more than one aphid carrying what looked like fly eggs on their backs. These I now believe to be hover fly eggs. I can't imagine the aphids have a particularly long life, so both wasp and fly larvae must develop very quickly, perhaps moving onto a secondary host if they themselves outlive the aphid?

Anyway, the moral of the ongoing story is that just because there are no fish in a pond it doesn't mean nothing is going on.

Mysterious debris on surface of kitchen garden pond

Debris revealed in close up as plague of Water Lilly Aphids

As I was attempting to get the aphid on the left in focus a tiny (3mm) parasitic wasp appeared...

The wasp also evaded my focus, but quickly approached the aphid...

Swiftly injected its egg...

...and left the scene in a blur

A huge number of predatory Pond Skaters also in attendance

Aphids on iris leaf. On the right of frame is an aphid covered in what I think are hover fly eggs

Aphids watched by Midge

Pond skater floating on floating feather floating

A Backswimmer, presumably partial to an aphid, but not witnessed doing anything unpleasant (unless you count breathing through its rear end).

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Emperors Go Wild

Released from my self imposed watching duties in the walled kitchen garden, yesterday I took a freedom tour to the other ponds on the Tyntesfield Estate. I've lived on the estate for over a decade, but I never knew of the existence of Warren Pond until a National Trust estate guide told me of it. I'm slightly ashamed about this as it's not particularly hidden, in fact it even has a sign post. 

Anyway, it was pond love at first sight. I watched Broad-bodied chasers duelling, mating and egg laying and was briefly visited by a Banded Demoiselle, to me the most seductive of all the dragonfly family that I have so far encountered. A year ago I didn't know what a Broad-bodied chaser was, I'm now familiar with half a dozen or so species, so my journey of discovery has really only just begun.

Having been tantalised at the kitchen garden pond, I determined to try and catch some photos of dragonflies in flight. I took about 200 shots with my very modest camera without great success, but I did definitely improve with both camera operation and fieldcraft.

Later I moved on to another pond near to Home Farm and the 'scrotum tree' as it's colloquially known (to me at least). Here I had the joyous discovery of an Emperor Dragonfly male hawking back and forth across the pond. He stopped briefly for a generous portrait and then continued on the wing, mating with a visiting female who then withdrew to the pond margins to lay her eggs. Another 200 or so photos and a milestone in a my photography as I managed to get him in flight AND in focus.

Two Broad-bodied chaser males having a territorial battle... and nearly in focus.

Banded Demoiselle with damselfly escort

Damsel, Demoiselle and Chaser - like a Bambi scene for dragonflies.

Male Emperor Dragonfly - a triumph for photographic persistence.

Female Emperor Dragonfly laying eggs.

Monday, 6 June 2016

All Good Things Start Again

The 2016 Emperor Dragonfly hatch at the kitchen garden pond is officially over. 51 individuals were either observed actually during emergence, or had left behind their empty larval cases (exuviae) as evidence. This is a record since records began, although as it stands this is the first recorded record. Phil the gardener predicted 50, clearly demonstrating the value of local wisdom. I'd predicted 100, betraying my own background in making television.

Of the 51 that hatched only 3 did so in daytime. Of that three, none waited for my dedicated week long filming stint. As such, I managed to capture exactly 0 minutes of daytime emergence. I did capture 3 post dawn take offs and got to attempt first aid on two who had got stuck (futile, not recommended). However, as an event at Tyntesfield it was a great success despite not firing any cannons. Dragonflies and the pond are now firmly on the map. I learnt a great deal and was able to pass on a great deal of learning to others. Overall, I rate it as my most successful failure yet.

For our last day, with just about all of the adult dragonflies departed, we concentrated on looking at some of the younger larvae now showing up in the pond. The larvae spend two years underwater, so now it's the one year olds (and perhaps a very few tardy twos) that remain. Pictures below of the larvae at different stages. The developing wing sheaths are visible, even on the smallest larva where they look like tiny black scales behind the head. They get bigger through each stage of growth. All measurements rough by my eye.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (1). 1yr old (last summer's egg) Tiny <2cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (1). 1yr old (last summer's egg) Tiny <2cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (2). 1yr old. Small 2cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (3). 1yr old Bigger Small 2.5cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (4). 1yr old (last summer's egg) Medium 3cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (4). 1yr old (last summer's egg) Medium 3cm.

Mayfly larva. A popular dragonfly snack. <1cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (5). Precocious 1 year old, or late developing 2 year old. I think this one had just moulted to the final larval size. 6cm.

Emperor Dragonfly larva (5). Precocious 1 year old, or late developing 2 year old (next day from above).

Saturday, 4 June 2016

My Life With Other Animals

Today is the eighth and last day of my vigil at the kitchen garden pond attempting to film Emperor Dragonflies emerging and, just like on real telly, I've yet to see one in daytime. However, my other aims of learning all about them and sharing dragonfly love with Tyntesfield's visitors have gone extremely well. I now know the Emperor's underwater lifecycle in intimate detail and have talked to what must be over a thousand people about these extraordinary animals.

It's now 11 days since the first adults took to the air, so there is a chance the first breeding adults could return to the pond today to start laying eggs. There are also one or two stragglers in the water who might decide to emerge, but I shan't be holding my breath and will instead focus on attempting to enthuse children and adults alike with an underwater bug parade.

Below are pictures of some of the other animals who've been keeping me intrigued, entertained and spiritually buoyant over the last few days.

Male Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly

Female Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly

Female Broad-bodied chaser, egg laying with concerned expression.

Large Red Damselfly

Newly hatched damselfly, not sure of species just yet

The kitchen garden pond's two frogs. Yesterday I saw a miraculous single tadpole that had survived the dragonfly feast.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Last Stage From Pondsville

The Emperors have been continuing to emerge, but all at night time and so eluding my watchful, wishful filming gaze. In the meantime I've been learning much more about the underwater larvae. Once they've completed their final underwater moult, there's one final metamorphosis where the wings swell and the mouthparts change. The ferocious underwater jet propelled killing harpoon retracts into the gripping, piercing jaws of the adult.  When an individual is ready to emerge, you can see the green colouring showing through the skin, bulging eyes and a general 'uncomfortable in its own skin' kind of behaviour.

Through the photos below I also managed to distinguish between earlier larval forms. One I think is the final stage, but before the very final metamorphosis, and one an earlier stage without wing cases. Even better, I found what I thought was a completely different species, a charmingly black and white striped mini beast. This, it transpires, is in fact itself an Emperor Dragonfly nymph. About 1.5 cm long and about a year old (from last year's eggs).

Emperor Dragonfly larva on the cusp of leaving the water

Emperor Dragonfly larva after final moult (probably), but before final metamorphosis

Earlier stage (stadia) Emperor Dragonfly larva (no wing cases)
Early stage Emperor Dragonfly larva, at least 10 months old

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Emperor Explosion

Overnight between Friday night and Saturday morning at least 17 Emperor Dragonflies hatched from the pond. I found a dismembered wing, so at least one didn't make it into the air, but the calm conditions that followed the Friday evening storm were ideal for safe departures.

Barry, Friday daytime's beleaguered wing damaged individual, was still hanging around. He tried to fly and fell in the pond, so I picked him up and carried him around on my finger for a couple of hours. Saturday was the first day of the public event I am running with the National Trust and The British Dragonfly Society, so along with all the evidence of the hatch, Barry became a star attraction in capturing the attention of early visitors to Tyntesfield.

We attempted some pioneering veterinary surgery by trying to attach the found wing to Barry's withered stump with superglue, but alas our attempts failed. Various opinions were given as to how best manage Barry's end of life care (he was clearly running out of energy in front of my eyes). In the end we let him clamber on to some raspberry canes for some peace and quiet.

Over Saturday night 11 more Emperor's hatched, I visited at midnight to see it all going on, until recently I assumed it all happened in daylight hours, a magical thing to see (with the aid of an infra red camera). That brings the current tally 35 and still plenty more to come.

Barry the grounded Emperor Dragonfly. Eye damage from crash.

Barry meets visitors at Tyntesfield

A found dragonfly wing. Would it fit Barry?

Last known picture of Emperor Barry

A male Broad bodied chaser.

My first ever flying dragonfly photo. A female Broad bodied chaser.

My second ever flying dragonfly photo. Again, a female Broad bodied chaser.