Like many other parts of the UK, here on the Thames we have had months of unprecedented and sustained flooding over winter and into the new year.
It is amazing how quickly nature recovers however! Spring has well and truly sprung, the waters have receded, the banks of the Thames are looking glorious again and it’s all too easy to forget how bad things looked a couple of months ago.
Thoughts go out to the people of the Balkans who are now suffering terrible flooding while we at last get some dry weather here. More evidence of climate change? I suspect it is.
Grim as it was to see people’s houses being pumped out while walking around the sodden flood plains of the swollen river here, I couldn’t help wondering what could also be happening to the river wildlife.
Such was the extent of the flooding and the sheer rate of the river flow, day in, day out; much must surely have been washed away.
Dragonflies and damselflies are incredibly ancient creatures, going back some 300 million years, but could the recent flooding have affected their numbers in the Thames area?
They differ from most other insects because they have no pupal stage and instead having been laid as eggs on or near water, spend most of their lives in larval stages.
These larva or nymphs can spend more than a year underwater before they emerge as adults.
It is at this larval stage, where I imagine our river based Damselflies and Dragonflies would be at their most vulnerable and I have been wondering if many may have been dislodged by the floods and washed away.
The adult stage, obviously is the one we see and appreciate best for the beauty of these colourful creatures performing their aerial ballet in our warm summer air, but it is in fact usually the shortest stage in the dragonfly or damselfly’s life-cycle. It rarely lasts for more than a week or two in Britain, according to the British Dragonfly Society, which has a mass of useful information on its website here: http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk .
Dragonflies and damselflies are stunning, seemingly other-worldy creatures with extraordinary capabilities. They have incredible eyesight, fabulous flying skills and are capable of performing astonishing manoeuvres with gorgeous, delicate looking wings that glitter like church windows – did I say I love dragonflies?
As so often in nature however, it is the small things that have an importance disproportionate to their size and dragonflies and damselflies are no exception. These amazing creatures belong to the order Odonata, meaning ‘tooth-jawed’ and are fierce predators, fulfilling a vital role in keeping waterborne flies, midges and mosquito larvae, on which they prey, under control.
In turn they themselves are an important part of the diet of birds like the small Falcon often seen swooping over lakes and rivers, the beautiful Hobby.
Banded demoiselle male, by the River Thames in Surrey, earlier this month. Panasonic GM1, Leica Macro-Elmarit.
About two weeks ago I saw my first Damselfly of the year, a beautiful Banded Demoiselle glistening on a leaf like a precious jewel.
The blue colours of the male demoiselle are a stunning azure with a metal sheen, offset by a smart rust red flash where the wings join the abdomen, a perfectly suited colour scheme for a precision flying machine that could almost have been designed by Red Bull.
The female looks equally stunning in her matching metallic British racing green – once again, as so often in nature, you couldn’t make it up!
A Banded Demoiselle emerging sometime around late April, is just about on time, so this initially seems to be a good sign. I did not see clouds of them, but ones and twos, maybe around 3 pairs.
A few days later I saw a Large red damselfly, again incredibly decked out in racing colours Ferrari would be proud of! I have since seen a couple more of these flamboyant Damselflies.
Then, a couple of Emerald damselflies, including a female, munching on what looked like the remains of a mosquito.
Again, I have not been seeing large numbers of Emeralds, just one or two at a time, in around a 150 metre stretch of bank-side vegetation.
Is this the same as the same time last year? It is incredibly hard to remember precisely, which is why it is worth making notes and sharing sightings.
This year, in view of the scale of the flood problem, the Canal & River Trust have instigated the Great Nature Watch where the trust are asking the public to “take a trip to your local towpath and tell us all about the creatures you see there”.
“By taking part in the Great Nature Watch, you can help us monitor numbers of dragonflies, damselflies, and in fact, all species living on our canals and rivers over the coming years.” There is also a handy app you can use to record your sightings: http://canalrivertrust.org.uk/great-nature-watch
Dragonflies and damselflies only flourish where water conditions are healthy, so their presence is a key indictor of the health or otherwise of a stretch of water.
The Great Nature Watch seems an excellent initiative from the Canal & River Trust and the more people who take part, the more useful statistical evidence can be accumulated and analysed to give a picture of what impact the floods have had.
Will it be a good year for Dragonflies?
It is still early days, too early to tell, but my first impressions two weeks after my first damselfly sighting are that numbers for damselflies on our stretch of the river may indeed be down.
We have yet to see how the dragonflies in their turn will fare. They tend to emerge later, starting around late May for the earlier species, with others not tending to emerge until June or even July and then on through to October.
I sincerely hope dragonfly numbers will not be too badly hit. We have a number of ponds and lakes around the Thames in this area, which while experiencing unusual rises in level, did not experience the massive flow that the river itself was subjected to.
Hopefully therefor, the nymphs in these backwaters should have survived, so that we can enjoy the activities of these fabulous aeronauts again later this year.
Last year as well as photographing them, I managed to get a few shots of dragonflies in super slow motion with our Sony FS700, at 200, 400 and 800 frames per second.
In celebration of the dragonflies and while we anxiously await their return, I have put some of these sequences with some other spring insects into a rough little edit here that I have called ‘Flight into summer’, along with some time lapse I have shot of spring flowers and footage shot the year before with a hacked Pansonic GH2.
Also included are some shots of Demoiselles and Damselflies filmed this month with the pocket sized Panasonic GM1 and the FS700. Music is by hamageddon. I think the Slow Motion helps give an insight into the incredible beauty and precision of the flight of dragonflies. I hope this short sequence conveys some of the magical qualities I feel these otherworldly masterpieces of natural design posess. See how many species you can identify! AL May 2014