Monday, 14 July 2014

Shellingford Dragon Pit

Having gone for my bijou twitchette last week for the Cheltenham Night Heron my twitching urges hadn't yet grown to the extent of demanding full blown outing. Still, I felt that another local excursion would be a good idea to keep the beast sated. Of course at this time of year it's usually insects that occupy my attention and there were two species of Damselfly that was supposedly resident in the county which I'd yet to see. One was Variable which I was probably too late for now and the other was Small Red-eyed Damselfly which should be out. The only location for this second species was Shellingford Pit near Faringdon, a former quarry that has now been allowed to revert back to nature. This seemed like a reasonable outing and one which shouldn't take too long so as it was a sunny Monday morning and there wasn't much for me to do on the work front I decided to give it a go. I sent out a few text enquiries to local birders as this wasn't a site that I knew at all well and fortunately Barry Hudson came up trumps with some access directions. Thus it was that a little after midday I sped off in the Gnome mobile towards Faringdon along the A420.  A little over 30 minutes later I arrived and after a false start managed to find the correct gate to park in front of though it was rather a small space given the bulky size of the Gnome mobile. Still I managed to get it off the road and struck out down the very overgrown path that lead down to the pit. 

Shellingford Pit
I had no idea where to go so I just followed my nose and soon found myself overlooking the pit with some very overgrown bankside vegetation on my side of the pit. I struggled down to the shoreline through the wonderful array of wild flowers that were buzzing with butterflies and insects. With my new found interest in flowers just starting to blossom I could easily have spent all day there trying to work out what the various species were but I decided to be focused and therefore limited myself to just one new plant on my visit. In the end I chose a pretty pink dangly flower to photograph which I later found out was Russian Comfrey.

Russian Comfrey
Eventually I struggled my way to the rocky shoreline and had a look about. Little Grebes were whinnying away noisily and Coots and Moorhens were hurrying about their business. In the distance were a couple of Tufted Ducks and a Great Crested Grebe and a Grey Heron took exception to my presence and flew off squawking loudly. Over the water there were loads of Black-tailed Skimmers zooming about though only a few Damselflies. I managed to pick out a single Red-eyed Damsel though it was of the standard large variety. I worked my way along the shore for about 50 yards as best I could given all the vegetation until I came to a small backwater. Here one could get closer to the Damsels and I soon picked out quite a few Common Blues, a few Blue-tailed and even a couple of Emeralds.

Common Blue Damselfly
Emerald Damselfly
Over by the mouth of this inlet there was a patrolling Emperor Dragonfly, looking impressively huge as he careered about, bossing the whole area. Try as I might though I couldn't find any Red-eyed Damselflies of either the small or large variety apart from my single sighting earlier. It was all rather frustrating.

I contemplated giving up and heading home as I'd already spent quite some time scouring just this small section. Back up near the car I noticed that the path forked off and decided to have a quick explore to see if perhaps I could get around to the other side of the pit which looked much more accessible. The path took me along the side of a Wheat field which I was pleased to see was also full of wild flowers of various types. I soon came across some more Dragons and Damsels along the path including a fine female Common Darter.

Female Common Darter
Eventually I found a gate that lead down a slope to the far side of the Pit. This looked much more promising. For starters it was more sheltered: there'd been a bit of a breeze on the other side. Also one could easily access the shoreline without being ripped to shreds by brambles. I started to have a look around and soon began to see lots of Damselflies. I soon came across a Red-eyed Damselfly though it was the standard one. Still it was nice and close and one could easily see the red eyes and the neat blue tail segments that were confined to S9 and S10 on the abdomen (the last two segments).

Red-eye Damselfly - note the blue is confined to S9 & S10
I soon spotted another Damselfly loafing around on a weed raft. This one had it's abdoment curved upwards as it rested which I knew from my swotting up this morning to be a characteristic of the Small Red-eyed Damselfly. What's more even through my bins I could see that there was more blue on the tail section. A quick snap with the super zoom soon confirmed my suspicions, it was indeed a Small - result! I managed to find another one or two and did my best to take some photos though sadly they were always rather distant.

Small Red-eyed Damselfly - note the upturned abdomen & the blue on the lower half of S8
Blown up view of Small Red-eyed Damselfly showing the blue on the lower half of S8 and also on S2
I worked my way around the far shore but all the Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed seemed to be confined to a relatively small area of shoreline at the beginning, after that it was all Commons and a few Emeralds. I flushed a couple of Common Sandpipers which flew off indignantly at having their haven disturbed. I retraced my steps and spent more time in the hot spot trying to improve on my photos of the Smalls though frustratingly they were always right on the far side of the weedy area that lined the shore. 

Small Red-eyed Damselfly
Small Red-eyed Damselfly

In the end it was time to head back home but on the way back I treated myself to a bonus plant which turned out to be a Musk-mallow.

I got back to the Gnome mobile and checked the time. It turned out that I'd spent nearly three hours there in end, I couldn't believe it! Still it had been worth it, I'd found my target Damselfly which I'd had to work for so it was a well-earned tick. Feeling rather thirsty now, I pointed the car in the direction of home and sped off, spurred on my way by the thought of a celebratory cup of tea and perhaps a scone waiting for me back at Chateau Gnome.


Camboy said...

Hi Gnome, Sorry I should have told you to go to the far side of the pit , although sometimes there are good Butterflies and Moths on the difficult terrain you first walked over.The meadow that runs from the pit side to the tip including the small copse has a wide variety of flora and is well worth exploring for this reason alone. This site is also special for the fossils that are to be found in some of the exposed strata.Glad you got your Damselfly.If you want more information about this site it has been the subject of a study by Mike & Gill Taylor for one of our 'Patchwork Booklets' and is available for just £1.50 although the main focus is the bird life.
The Oxon Feather.

Peter Law said...

Nice, succinct lesson in Small Red-eyed ID, Adam! On the BDS sightings page I have detected some confusion between this species and a petite form of Red-eyed, and so I wonder if all the unchecked reports there are accurate. Have yet to see Small Red-eyed myself so will have to follow you soon.