Sunday 23 June 2024

Dainty Damselflies in Kent

It's that time of year when there is not much bird activity and a naturalist's thoughts naturally turn to plants and insects. There had been a couple of orchid targets that I'd thought about going for: Greater Tongue and Slipper Orchids were a couple that I still needed but somehow the thought of slogging all that way just for a single Orchid target wasn't that appealing and I let the time window for seeing them slip by without making an attempt. However, for the main subject of this blog post there was no such chance of letting things slide. All the way back in March fellow county enthusiast PL had suggested  that we might go together on an organised walk in June to see the Dainty Damselflies in Kent and we had duly booked tickets, thereby committing ourselves to go. This species was the last remaining UK Damselfly that was needed for both of us and the dedicated tour, run by the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, seemed like the obvious option. 

Just the previous week the weather forecast for the day of our tour had been for torrential rain and we had been wondering how successful we might be. However, miraculously over the weekend it all changed to a settled high pressure system and the forecast couldn't have been better for our odonata hunt. We had booked on the afternoon walk, starting at 2:30 p.m. but we decided to head down early to explore the area a bit. PL had done some research and said that there were good number of Lizard Orchids and also Marsh Frogs, a local speciality, to be seen in the area. And so it was that we rendezvoused in our usual layby just off the M40 at 9:30 a.m. ready for the long slog down to Kent. After fighting our way around the horror that is the M25 we made good progress on the emptier Kent motorways and so arrived just after midday at the observatory car park with plenty of time in hand before our official tour. We made some enquiries at the Observatory about our various targets and were told that everything was pretty close by. So after a quick bite to eat we headed off across some fields towards the dunes and the sea to look for some Lizard Orchids.

Before we even got to the dunes, the first field we crossed turned up a clump of Southern Marsh Orchids and a single Common Spotted. Once into the dune system there were loads of flowers everywhere. Particularly striking were the Viper's Bugloss, whose stunning purple flowers lit up the scene in profusion. It wasn't long before we came across our first clump of half a dozen or so Lizards, all looking tall and healthy. However, as we progressed further it became clear that there weren't just a few of them about: they were everywhere! We counted over a 100 just in the short stretch that we walked and PL in particular was most pleased after some somewhat underwhelming visits in previous weeks to supposed Lizard hotspots.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Viper's Bugloss

One of the hundred's of Lizard Orchids

A Pyramidal Orchid

After taking all the shots that we needed we decided to retrace our steps to look for our second target, namely the Marsh Frogs. We'd been told that they frequently the ponds and ditches in the area and so headed a couple of hundred yards along the road to a small nature reserve area just off the road. Here we met a couple of odonata enthusiasts lingering by a pool. They turned out to be stragglers from the morning walk and we realised that we were actually at the Dainty Damselfly site itself. 

The Dainty Damselfly Pond

It only took us a moment to spot our Odonata quarry as there were a dozen or so tandem pairs frantically ovipositing in one area right by the bank. It was as easy as that! We chatted with the two stragglers who, in passing, pointed out a Marsh Frog in the same pond a yard or so from where we were standing. That was all three of our targets already acquired and we hadn't even started the walk! Our two companions left and we enjoyed some quality time alone with our star species.

Our first glimpse of Dainty Damselflies

Above and below, male Dainty Damselfly

Dainty Damselfly is superficially like many other blue Damselflies so ID does involve knowing what appears where along the thorax. The main dignostic feature is the extended area of black towards the end: there are two and a half segments which are entirely black apart from a smidgeon of blue at the segment joints. The S2 markings are similar to Azure and Variable in being a goblet shape though Dainty has a stem (like Variable) but the goblet is sloping rather than square shaped. In addition S9 has only a thin area of black along the bottom, again which distinguishes them from Variable and Azure.

Here is a male Variable Damselfly at the same pond for comparison.
Note the reduced black area (less than two segments) and the larger black area on S9

Our first Marsh Frog

Marsh Frogs are found throughout continental Europe though not naturally in the UK. They were introduced in the 1930's to a location in Kent from which they have now spread throughout the South East. They are about 50% larger than our Common Frog and more tied to water than the latter species, tending to stay in or around it at all times. Their mating call is a distinctive loud croaking sound which can be heard from some distance.

After a while I went back to the observatory for a cup of tea whereas PL lingered longer in order to try to take some better photos before joining me. Gradually fellow walk participants started to arrive and shortly before 2:30 our guide Steffan came out to talk to us. On our walk back down to the pond he told us how they'd been found by a keen group of visitors staying at the Observatory. They'd hopefully included Dainty Damselfly on their target wish list and Steffan had tried gently to point out that there was no chance of seeing them as there were none in the area. Undaunted they spent several days looking for various targets and before they left they submitted a list of everything they'd found. This had included Dainty Damselfly. "I thought we'd talked about this" was how Steffan phrased his initial response but they then produced photographic evidence proving their find. And so it was that the first colonisers were found. In the first year there were just a dozen or so but this has since grown to a few hundred with three new ponds now being dug to accomodate the increased numbers. 

Once we'd arrived it didn't take Steffan long to pick out some Dainties in the long grass on the short path leading up to the pond. There were plenty around the pond and still ovipositing in the same area as before. Having already got our fill PL and I were fairly chilled about it all but still took some photos when they were sufficiently good enough. The Marsh Frogs were still showing occasionally and it was pleasant to chat to the various walk attenders (about a dozen or so all told).

I tried to get a bit more impressionistic with this on

This very green Marsh Frog was very close to the bank

Steffan mentioned that at the nearby Restharrow Scrape Red-veined Darter and Lesser Emperor both bred though because of the rather unusual Odonata season that we are having, neither species had actually been confirmed yet this year. Still, this was tempting enough for PL and I to have a wander over to take a look. The scape was a very nice site, full of nesting Black-headed Gulls and some diving ducks. Over by the second hide I did manage to spot some distant Odonata flying low over the water but at that distance they were impossible to ID. 

There were loads of Southern Marsh Orchids in front of the first hide at the Restharrow Scrape

Eventually we decided to head back to the car; it was getting late and we still had a fair way to travel. We headed off on the long slog back home which went smoothly apart from the usual stop-start around certain areas of the M25. I arrived back at Casa Gnome for my usual celebratory cup of tea at around 8pm, basking in the warm glow of another successful outing and the last UK Damselfy safely under my belt.

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