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Spot butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on nature walk around Hatfield Forest





Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop’s Stortford

Some years ago I was wandering around Hatfield Forest, recording dragonflies and damselflies. In one ride I encountered an unusual, very pale damselfly in good numbers. I managed to get a series of close-up photos that proved these to be white-legged damselflies – a new species for me and, as it transpired, a new species for the forest. All the ones I observed that day were immature ones, known as teneral.

Early last week I decided to return to the forest to see if they were still present, as well as to see what other species were on the wing.

Immature white-legged damselfly
Immature white-legged damselfly

I enjoyed a coffee and sausage sandwich at the café in Thremhall Park, where I parked the car and headed off over the B1256 into the forest by the Flitch Way. This area is mainly open grassland so it was no surprise that I was soon observing butterfly species associated with such a habitat. Meadow brown, ringlet and marbled white were ubiquitous, affording photo opportunities.

The marbled white is a recent addition to the fauna of East Herts and West Essex. It had a huge range expansion from about 2005, moving eastwards very rapidly. I first recorded one locally at Westland Green in 2008 and they have since colonised all favourable habitats well into Essex. I must have seen over 100 specimens between the entrance and the lake area on this wander.

Other butterfly species were in much smaller numbers. Small heaths flitted over the shorter grass, frequently resting in their characteristic sideways pose. Several well-marked red admirals were loafing around bramble bushes and a few small skippers could be seen, frequently near bird’s-foot trefoil, upon which they occasionally nectared.

Azure damselfly in the wheel position
Azure damselfly in the wheel position

A green woodpecker rose from an ant mound whilst plenty of chiffchaffs and blackcaps called.

By now, I had arrived at the area where the white-legged damsels were recorded. Today was not too conducive to these species being flighty as it was overcast. They prefer bright sunshine, so I had to search for them. After half an hour I had drawn a blank, so thought I would try the café area by the two lakes and hoped that the temperature may increase as the morning turned to afternoon.

Firstly I checked the larger lake. A mute swan with three cygnets rested on the far side, mallards trundled about and black-headed gulls rested on the tern breeding raft. No sign of any Odonata species (dragon and damselflies). Odonata means toothed jaw.

I was beginning to wonder if I had chosen the wrong day for my walk as I had only a handful of worthwhile photos and my concerns grew as I approached the small decoy lake, where there appeared to be little to be seen. I checked the water lily pads for resting damsels, but there were just plenty of lilies in flower.

Ringlet
Ringlet

The best place, however, is the far end of this lake where there are sedges, upon which several species can be seen, either searching for a mate or indeed mating. Common spotted orchids stood to attention in good numbers and a colourful mallard secondary feather floated upon the surface.

Finally, a black-tailed skimmer dragonfly alighted on some baked mud. This is a species that frequently returns to the same resting place, so I set up the camera and didn’t have to wait too long until it reappeared. At last, something to photograph.

I arrived at the sedge area, changed lenses to the macro and sat down on the bank. Soon, a pair of azure damselflies came by. The mating pair, in tandem, came along in the wheel position. The male uses its claspers at the end of its abdomen to hold onto the female near the head whilst the female curves her abdomen to clutch onto the male’s thorax. They can fly like this, but usually like to rest on vegetation. I managed to fire off a series of shots of this activity before I noted a smaller pair of damselflies in tandem: the blue-tailed damsel. They, too, posed for photos.

Drake mallard feather
Drake mallard feather

Behind me, a wing rattling sound. I turned to note a teneral ruddy darter settling down in the grass. Things were rapidly improving as the sun finally appeared and I was able to remove my jumper. Donning such attire is not expected in July!

Odonata species have very keen eyesight and so it was a game of cat and mouse as I followed the darter until I was able to get a few macro shots.

Common spotted orchid
Common spotted orchid

The emergence of the sun triggered a large increase in damselflies in flight. I noted an adult blue-tailed in the grass whilst, nearby, a common blue was also resting.

Azure and common blue are very similar, the former showing a mark on the first abdominal segment, similar to the Honda car logo, whereas the common blue shows an ace of spades mark. These are mid-blue in colour.

Not far away, I saw a lighter blue species. I crept closer for photos. It was an adult white-legged, showing the diagnostic white stripes on the legs which also boast a fine array of hairs. My first adult of this species.

Small skipper
Small skipper

Buoyed by this success, I started to search with more conviction now I knew these were present.

An adult ruddy darter landed in front of me, another species that returns to its favoured resting site.

More photos ensued before I thought it was time to recheck the ride that had failed to provide me with any sightings earlier.

Water lily
Water lily

As I strolled across the newly-mown hay by the road leading to the car park, I heard a kestrel calling continuously. I looked up to see it was involved in an aerial dogfight with the much larger common buzzard.

These two species do not get on. In the past I have witnessed a buzzard snatch a female kestrel off her nest. I suspect the kestrel here, a female, was protecting a nearby nest.

White-legged damselfly
White-legged damselfly

In the grass were more butterflies, with several small skippers posing well for some snaps. A wide variety of flowering plants here, so plenty for them to feed on.

Overhead, a red kite glided by. A rather tatty bird which was obviously entering post-breeding moult as many feathers were missing from tail and wings.

Common blue damselfly
Common blue damselfly

Upon arrival in the ride, I meticulously checked the vegetation and soon a creamy white damselfly went by before attaching itself to a grass stem. I moved in just in time to watch it rise rapidly into a hazel tree.

Marbled white
Marbled white

I continued to search and came across another one. This one was far happier to have photos taken. Again, the diagnostic white legs confirmed the ID, as did the pterostigma. This is a cell in the veined wings that shows colour. All the other cells are transparent.

It is believed that this cell aids balance when in flight, allowing the insect to turn rapidly to catch prey. In the white-tailed the pterostigma is a pale orange colour. It was good to see that this species has become resident here.

Ruddy darter
Ruddy darter

I headed back to the car. Even more ringlet butterflies along with hordes of marbled whites. I suspect the latter and the white-legged damsels would not have been present here just 20 years ago.

Black-tailed skimmer
Black-tailed skimmer

When you add in the fact red kites and common buzzards were not here either 20 years ago, it just goes to show that nature is constantly increasing in some habitats whilst other species have long since disappeared, such as the nightingale, marsh tit and lesser spotted woodpecker. All of these three would have been regulars in this habitat 20-30 years ago.

Blue-tailed damselfly
Blue-tailed damselfly

The reason for the decline in numbers of the lesser spotted woodpecker is not fully understood as the habitats remain the same, but they are very few and far between in Hertfordshire today.

Immature Ruddy darter
Immature Ruddy darter

To back up this claim, records show between 1967 and 1973 there were 128 possible breeding pairs of lesser spots. Between 1988 and 1992 this had risen to 177, but between 2008 and 2012 this had crashed to just 49 pairs.

Meadow Brown
Meadow Brown

It is thought chick starvation may be partly to blame, plus interference from the larger great spotted woodpecker. These will raid the nest hole for both eggs and chicks. The great spotted woodpecker has increased in number over the last 35 years, with rough estimates showing that in Herts alone there are over 1,000 breeding pairs.



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