Tuesday 10 June 2014

Garden Pond - Dragonfly Drama

It's funny how involved with events, even tiny ones in nature that we can become. I see this quite frequently with Kate (WildlifeKate to her crowds of fans) when she experiences the highs and lows of parts of the lives of animals she encourages on to her land. Perhaps because I'm darting around between different subjects, I rarely see the whole story of something, so don't become attached; maybe I'm missing out?

A couple of years ago I decided to make more of an effort with attracting wildlife to my garden and dug out a pond. I have avoided the urge to bring in species to it, like from another pond for example, leaving nature to do its thing. And it amazed me how quickly it arrived, with newts populating it in only a few weeks.

Back in 2012 I noticed a large dragonfly (southern hawker I believe) buzzing around the garden, and was very pleased to see it drop down to the pond, and start laying eggs around the edges of it. I even had chance to grab some shots as it did so.

Since then I have seen the nymphs frequently, sometimes even catching them when I'm trying to remove the slime from the water. I still haven't worked out how to judge those parcels of barley properly. Fascinating creatures, how they stalk around the depths of the pool, shooting forwards to grab things and consume them. And so large too - even the newts keep a distance from these wee beasties.

So if they were laid as eggs in August 2012 and the articles I have read claim they emerge after 2-3 years, surely I might see them this year? This is what I hoped, and when possible, I have been checking the pond each morning. Annoyingly, last week I discovered a discarded exuvia, floating on the surface. I had missed one emerge! Hopefully more were still to come...

On Saturday morning, at 6am I was awoken by the rumbles of thunder of the much forecast storms, and the rest of the morning was restricted to being indoors as the torrential downpours continued, and when it did brighten up, I chose to head to Upton Warren for the afternoon. And in doing so reminded myself that RAF Cosford's airshow was on the next day... However, just as I was about to leave on Sunday morning, something nagged at me - check the pond.

It's not a big pond so it didn't take long to spot them. One dragonfly had already broken free and was perched, wings open drying off, and another nearby was midway through the process of emerging from the exuvia. A dash back inside to rig up the 7D and 100mm macro, and I was soon crouched beside the pair, trying to get shots through the moving reeds.

The one drying off must have had a very early start, as by the time I started to observe, it was already perched up away from its discarded exuvia, wings open at 90 degrees, and starting to vibrate them too.

The other was halfway out, using gravity to help it ease out.

Crouching for any length of time soon becomes painful, so I popped indoors to grab a bin liner, to sit on. In the time it took me to get that and return, the emerging dragonfly had pulled itself out, and was now gripped on to the exuvia, with various vessels still attached, presumably transferring fluids.

The wings appeared somewhat like a deflated balloon, hanging from its back.

With each passing moment though, they got longer.

And longer...

And longer, until they actually resembled proper wings, although these were opaque still.

The other dragonfly was now out in the open, frequently vibrating or even fluttering its wings. I took a few shots of it, guessing it'd be off shortly.

I was right, and it took off on its maiden flight, off over my apple tree and into next-door's garden. Great to see it head off into the great wide open.

That left the other, which was hanging from the exuvia, drying its wings.

A lengthy process, and unfortunately this is where the story takes rather a downward turn. I had been getting annoyed by the breeze moving the reeds around in front of my lens, but what I didn't see (until I reviewed these pics) was that the dragonfly, when in exuvia form, hadn't made a very good job of affixing itself to the reed.

With one slightly stronger gust of wind, the exuvia broke free of the reed and it, with its newly emerged dragonfly tumbled down to the pond below, getting snagged just above the water, on some other reeds. Wriggling free, the dragonfly broke off the exuvia, and then climbed up the reed itself, but had twisted and folded its wings in the process.

When I took some more pics, after it had settled to a new hanging position, I could see droplets of green fluid on its body and wings, possibly from when it broke off the vessels, but also perhaps from damage to the wings themselves? I was worried that this could be the end of it - if the wings were damaged, it couldn't then fly. Surely evolution of this species has had to cater for windy days before?

Unfortunately for me, work (yes, on a Sunday!) then got in the way, and I had to leave the drama, to hopefully unfold (literally) by itself. Returning later that evening, I found the dragonfly still in the same place, with clearer wings and hence giving me some hope that it might survive.

It had gone by the morning, so I live in hope that it flew away, like the other one, but it could have of course been predated by one of the many new additions to the bird community in my garden. Since the weekend, two more dragonflies have emerged, and I think I'll need to be up earlier to see any more!

I tend to travel the length and breadth of the UK to see some fabulous wildlife spectacles, but it just shows, you can see some fascinating stuff, that captures your imagination and emotions, just in the confines of a small garden pond.

Thursday 5 June 2014

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

It's strange how you can go through some years and completely miss out on seeing some favourite species of birds. Last year for example, I failed to connect with any puffins or ospreys. Which reminds me, I need to head up to Rutland. Puffins however, would surely be seen if I went up to Bempton Cliffs, so an early alarm was set (not too early as some of the motorways heading up there are closed during the night!), and just before 9am, I was kicking up a cloud of dust as I parked near the RSPB visitor centre.

I ought to point out now that I hadn't made the 3 hour drive up there for puffins, as despite them being there, photo opportunites aren't great. I was really hoping to see gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and any other cliff-nesting sea birds I could encounter. Despite the sun shining and a promise of a warm day, I still chose to wear a fleece just in case it was breezy along the cliff-tops. And I was glad I did, though not for the breeze... no, for protection from the flies. Clouds of them in their millions, and biting ones too. I doused my head with some spray, donned a hat and swiped off any that bothered me, but some folks was covered in them. Horrid. When the breeze picked up occasionally, they peppered my hat as if they were rain drops.

As usual the first thing you notice at Bempton is the odour of fish drifting up from the nesting area, but more pleasingly, I also got a lovely song from a nearby corn bunting. It was sat on a barbed wire fence belting out songs, with its beak moving so fast it became a blur, even on a high shutter speed.

Peering over one of the view points I was chuffed to see a kittiwake looking back up at me. White birds in direct sunlight isn't easy, but being observant of the exposure readings in the viewfinder allowed me to get some decent detail on the bird, before I strolled off.

The cliffs were a mass of activity, both on the rocks where all manner of birds were nesting, bickering, greeting each other, stealing nest materials, feeding and decorating the rocks, as well as in the air where gannets and fulmars sailed expertly along with minimal effort, contrasting to the frenetic direct flight paths made by the puffins, guillemots and razorbills.

On the water were rafts of birds, maybe enjoying the view from down there, waiting to see if anything worth catching swam by beneath. It was a fabulous spectacle on such a sunny, clear morning.

Being a such people-person, I soon found myself away from the crowds and pretty much alone on the cliff path, surrounded by a sea of campion flowers. I found spots along the walk where I could view the colonies, and in some cases, get remarkably close views of the birds.

I could also get angles where the background was more pleasing on the eye, as a lot of shots taken here have cliffs behind, usually a mass of other birds and droppings. So not that attractive.

The flies were still a problem and I have had to clone some out of some images, as they were rather unsightly. By crouching down, I attempted to include the wildflowers in some shots, though more often than not, the subject would move before I'd lined up the shot I was striving for!

After finding somewhere to set up where I could watch the birds fly past, I simply enjoyed the experience. I tried for whatever was flying past, which was fun. The gannets were usually easier as they are large enough to focus on at distance and track as they approach.

Fulmars too drifted by but have a habit of turning back without warning and heading out of view.

And I kept an eye out for subjects nearby, particularly gannets which were coming and going frequently, and showing signs of affection to one another when together on the nest sites.

Wearing a hat and fleece in temperatures of over 20C isn't wise, and my bottle of Ribena was getting emptier. So I headed back along the cliffs, grabbing shots of whatever took my fancy, though the haze from the warmth was now pretty apparent. The local tree sparrows were making the most of the bonanza of flies though, carrying dozens in their beaks as they hopped along the fences, picking them off easily.

By the time I had reached the car again, my feet were aching and I'd maybe lost a few ounces from sweating! Not a pleasant thought, though neither was the return trip down the M1 motorway. Still, I'd had a great few hours at the reserve, and had hundreds of images to review later.

And did I see a puffin? Of course, and even took a "record" shot to remember it.