I recently returned from Scotland, having fulfilled a five-year quest to photograph all of Britain’s native breeding butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Despite some truly atrocious weather I brought back the precious final pictures of the elusive northern species – the northern damselfly, the northern emerald dragonfly and the azure hawker dragonfly. I also brought back a bad case of Covid-19, which, being a generous type, I promptly gave to my wife. As you can imagine, nipping off for a private 10-day holiday while my wife worked and then bringing back a tin of Scottish shortbread and a really nasty illness means I’m in the doghouse for the foreseeable future.
But at least I’d completed my quest. When I finally felt well enough again to sit at a computer, I built the two photos below.
But my sense of triumph was short-lived. Very short-lived, as just a few days ago, someone in my town posted a picture of two “lesser emperor” dragonflies egg-laying at a nearby lake. First seen in Britain in 1996, the lesser emperor is not considered a British native, but rather a ‘vagrant’; a species which occasionally pops over from the continent. And very rarely, it has a go at breeding here. Aided by the recent plume of hot air driving up from from Europe, several of these lesser emperor dragonflies have arrived, and breeding has been seen this year on more than just my local lake. It remains to be seen if the breeding will be successful and the eggs hatch and survive, but there are suggestions that the lesser emperor may be trying harder to establish itself than in times past. This is how new species – at least, those which can fly – get started in Britain. It’s a sign of our changing climate that new species start to establish footholds in the south, just as our northern species, adapted to a colder climate, are losing their territory in the north. Who is to say what our wildlife may look like in a century’s time? Indeed, dragonfly enthusiasts in Scotland are enjoying themselves, as while I had to journey the length of the country to see their species, all they have to do is hang around and wait as many of the southern species march steadily northwards.
But the widespread breeding meant that the lesser emperor really belonged on my list. If there is something more galling than having the triumphal end of many years of hard work last just a few days, I don’t know what it is. So this weekend I went to the lake on a nature reserve where the lesser emperor had been seen. Although it wasn’t planned, I found myself in the company of the Wiltshire County recorder for dragonflies, the nature reserve manager, and one of Britain’s foremost dragonfly experts. It was sunny and my hopes were high that my quest might be successful again. We stood, watched, and waited. The lesser emperor is a large dragonfly best identified by the bright blue ‘saddle’ on the male’s second and third abdominal segments (the female is similar but the colours are more muted) and I kept swivelling my head from left to right, like a spectator at a tennis match, looking for any hint of it. I did manage one brief glimpse of the dragonfly, but then the sun went in, and so did the lesser emperor. As cold and grey weather swept in, the dragonflies all packed up and went home. So, in the end, did I.
The forecast for the following day was for thick cloud and heavy rain. But British weather forecasts being what they are, the afternoon became sunny. I persuaded my wife that she could do with some fresh air after being copped up for weeks with covid, and since we were both now testing negative for several days, bribed her with an offer of tea and cake to come out. We’ve been married some time and my wife immediately knew what I was up to, but agreed we could go. We arrived at the lake – and barely five seconds later, there it was: the lesser emperor, in all its blue-bottomed glory. It was a particularly feisty one, as well. It’s an article of faith amongst dragonfly enthusiasts (and most reference books) that the lesser emperor gets chased away by its slightly bigger and stronger cousin, the emperor. This lesser emperor clearly hadn’t read the book. It had probably hopped over the channel from central or Southern France, so it was Agincourt all over again as this French dragonfly rounded on its British rivals. But this time the French took the honours as the lesser emperor beat up everything in sight. And then, finally, after an exhausting hour watching it zip around without ever pausing to catch its breath, it settled – for all of ten seconds, right in front of me, gifting me the picture below. So there you have it. I have seen and photographed the lesser emperor, and my quest is now complete again.
Except I did hear a rumour about another dragonfly that may have started breeding in Cornwa- What was that, my love?
Does anyone have room on their sofa?
[Update: Thanks to those who pointed out that I’d managed to leave all the darters off my dragonfly photo. Welcome to covid ‘brain fog’! I have now added these. Still absent for some are the vagrant emperor and the yellow-winged darter, neither of which is established as a regular UK breeding species]