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Hatfield Forest four years on – hunting for white-legged damselfly colony while fending off demanding ducks and daws





Four years ago last week, I was reporting from Hatfield Forest for my regular Nature Notes column and I encountered several white-legged damselflies. These were the first I had come across in the forest or, in fact, anywhere near Bishop’s Stortford.

I managed to get a few close-up photos detailing the diagnostic white-striped legs showing long dark hairs on the tibia. These were forwarded to the head office at the forest and I was informed that they were a new species for the whole forest.

Consequently, I thought it appropriate that I should return in the same week of the year to see if the colony had established itself and so set off to try to find these small insects.

White-legged damselfly
White-legged damselfly

I parked at Thremhall Park, registered my car registration number via the tablet in the café and enjoyed a coffee before collecting my optics, crossing the old A120 and entering the forest.

Here, lush meadows were full of buttercups and creeping cinquefoil that were clearly attracting numerous meadow brown butterflies. In with these were several small heath butterflies.

A search through some long grass near the entrance gate off the Flitch Way proved to be a success as numerous grasshopper and cricket species jumped away from my footfall. I changed lenses for some photos and, whilst taking these, I came across a few exuviae of grasshoppers.

The exuvia – the cast-off outer skin after a moult – of a grasshopper species
The exuvia – the cast-off outer skin after a moult – of a grasshopper species

These are the discarded exoskeletons of the insect which has grown out of the shell. It splits behind the head and the new, larger insect fights its way out. This shedding of the outer skeleton can happen three or four times during the life of the grasshopper, finishing only when the creature obtains its full adult size.

Also in the grass were several moth species: Crambus lathoniellus and Chrysoteuchia culmella, two grass micro moth species, along with a cnephasia species. There are many species of cnephasia and all are identical to the eye so require genital dissection to establish which species they are. The one I discovered lived to fight another day as it soon winged its way to a new patch of grass, but not before I had managed to get a close-up photo of it at roost.

I also came across a common green grasshopper eyeing me from a grass stem and managed a macro shot of this, too.

Next stop was a large patch of dog rose and bramble, both in full flower and so attracting bee species. Here, Apis melifera, the Western honeybee, was prolific, whilst also in attendance were several Bombus lucorum and Bombus hypnorum, the white-tailed bumblebee and tree bumblebee respectively.

Bombus hypnorum (tree bumblebee)
Bombus hypnorum (tree bumblebee)

The joy of wandering around Hatfield Forest is that I just head wherever I like and so I trundled along rides, taking random turns to areas that looked good and began my search for the elusive white-legged damselfly, but none was apparent in an area where I had previously discovered them, so I moved on to another ride with lush, uncut vegetation on the sides. This is the perfect habitat for teneral (juvenile) damselflies to roost whilst they get their colour before they return to the lake to find a mate.

A chiffchaff called over the top of a burbling nuthatch whilst a family party of jays had a big disagreement about whatever was irritating them. The first speckled wood butterfly of the walk landed in front of me, whilst upon more dog rose a larger hoverfly, Eristalis abustorum, was nectaring.

A common buzzard mewed as I disturbed it from a large oak tree and, as I rounded a corner, a fallow deer was grazing. I fired off a few shots before realising that all the camera settings were for previous macro shots, so, sadly, I missed a good photo opportunity.

Common blue
Common blue

Another open meadow habitat caught my attention. Here, more butterflies with two marbled whites flitting over the long grass – the first of this species for me this year. Also, common blue and holly blue were resting atop thistles.

I arrived at another ride where white-legged damselflies had been recorded previously and it wasn’t long before one flew to long grass and posed for numerous photos. As expected, it was a teneral showing a white abdomen along with the white legs.

Female mallard asking for food with menaces!
Female mallard asking for food with menaces!

I’m pleased to see that they have established themselves. After a few minutes of searching, I had counted eight specimens. With this success, I deemed it was time for my picnic lunch so I headed to the lake and the benches.

I checked the lake for birds: mute swans and black-headed gulls but no hoped-for common tern. These were probably at the far end of the lake where they sit on dead wood when not hunting for fish.

No sooner had I got my sandwiches from my rucksack when I was interrupted by a trio of mallards demanding food. These were very confident ducks, with the female walking over my feet in the hope of getting some bread. As she left, empty-handed, a jackdaw flew down, also anticipating a free lunch. He, too, was left disappointed.

Jackdaw after my picnic!
Jackdaw after my picnic!

After lunch, I packed up and headed to the decoy lake near the Shell House. Here, a class of primary school pupils was excitedly searching trays from their pond-dipping session. Loads of enthusiasm and shouts of “There’s a caddis fly!” Great to see.

More dragonflies and damselflies skimmed the water. The majority of the larger dragonflies were four-spotted chasers. These are relatively easy to photograph as they have a habit of returning to the same roost branch, so I managed to get a good few shots of this species. Also, black-tailed skimmers, the males with bright blue abdomens tipped with jet black colouring.

Four-spotted chaser dragonfly
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly

Common blue damselflies and azure damselflies were in good numbers, but a careful check on other blue species showed there to be at least three adult white-legged. Great to find the adults at their breeding grounds and it showed how far away from water the tenerals travel to keep away from potential predators, such as the dragonfly species.

Coots and mallards dabbled in the water lilies as I tried to get photos of the numerous common spotted orchids that border the lake. Here also, a solitary bee orchid. Always good to find these plants in flower.

Rhadinoceraea micans (iris sawfly)
Rhadinoceraea micans (iris sawfly)

A final check of the bankside vegetation gave views of many caterpillars upon yellow iris leaves, Rhadinoceraea micans, the iris sawfly, whilst on another leaf floating on the water was a pond skater. Just a yard from the bank, a fish tail broke the surface – a 2ft pike was busy eating its catch, completely unaware of my presence.

I moved on, back over open grassland. I had now got my macro lens on the camera and was after more insect photos. A large skipper butterfly posed nicely after a five-minute chase around thistles and buttercups along with more meadow browns and small heaths.

Large skipper
Large skipper

I entered another ride where more young white-legged damsels moved over the swaying grasses before attaching themselves to a stem rather like an airship coming into land.

I noticed a good stand of honeysuckle in flower. This is the larval foodplant for the uncommon white admiral butterfly, so I spent some time waiting to see if one came along. There was no show as it is only the start of this butterfly’s flight period, with the peak week usually being around the last week of June, so I plan to return soon to check this area again whilst also searching for the hard-to-find purple emperor.

Honeysuckle
Honeysuckle

This large and magnificent butterfly spends most of its time in the upper canopy but can be found on the ground. They are attracted to banana skins, so I shall munch a few bananas as I wander around, leaving the skins in places that look good for this species.

I completed my circuit of the western side of the forest, recording a red admiral near the Flitch Way gate, and was soon back at the car.

Common green grasshopper
Common green grasshopper

In total, I had seen seven species of Odonata (dragon and damselflies) and eight species of butterflies, a pleasing number.

It was certainly a worthwhile wander to prove that the white-legged are still present and in fairly good numbers. Another check next week to see if there are more and also to check the far end of the large lake to see if any adults use that area for breeding and feeding.

Bee orchid
Bee orchid

Whilst I had my coffee at Thremhall Park, I learned that Mantle, the company that owns the buildings for office space and meeting rooms, is organising a Nature Wander on Tuesday July 4, beginning at midday. The walk will be a chance for business people to meet others whilst wandering the Flitch Way and the forest. All are welcome.

The forest is alive with creatures at present, so it is well worth a visit on a warm and sunny day to catch up with all the glorious butterflies that inhabit the rides and woodland. Soon, the spectacular silver washed fritillary will be on the wing – always a superb insect to see close up.

Pondskater
Pondskater
Meadow brown
Meadow brown
Apis melifera (Western honeybee)
Apis melifera (Western honeybee)
Cnephasia micro moth
Cnephasia micro moth
Common spotted orchid
Common spotted orchid
Eristalis arbustorum
Eristalis arbustorum
Speckled wood
Speckled wood


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