Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 25, 2021


It is the dragonflies and their kin – the Odonata (‘the toothed ones’, as taken from the Ancient Greek) – that wing their way forcibly onto these pages. A single pond (pictured above) within Hadleigh Country Park – a wonderfully rich repository of wildlife within the busy reaches of South-east Essex – plus a timely blaze of August sunshine; the result… a wondrous display of dragonfly and damselfly kind. A gleaming distillation of late summer within this stretch of diverse habitat that persists within the pressures of such a busy corner of our country, focussed into a few dozen square metres.

We approach with the cloud obscurring the sun and are a little underwhelmed to find the pond subdued. A moorhen chick called into cover by its mother and disappearing into the fringing vegetation is the only obvious sign of animal life. Then the sun returns and within moments small red-eyed damselfly (Erythromma viridulum) materialise across the water in tandem pairs, settling on floating blanket weed to resume their egg-laying. There are other damsels too, drifting in pairs around the pond plants and bushes at the pond edge. They are willow emerald damselfly (Lestes viridis), which before 2009 was a rare sight in the UK. They have been spreading across the South East of England since and this is the first sign I have seen of them breeding in the park. I manage a picture, hastily shot, hence the unfortunate result of chopping the top of male’s head head off…..

A tandem pair of willow emerald damselfly (Lestes viridis). Their eggs are laid into the bark of pond-side willow trees.

And then the dragons appear. First the darters, a mating pair of ruddy (Sympetrum sanguineum) and couple of common (S. striolatum), going quietly about their business at the pond edge. Then an emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) enters the scene, resplendent in his gleaming blues and greens, imperious indeed with his claim over the airspace above the pond. These are rights that are soon challenged. A couple of male southern migrant hawker (Aeshna affinis), themselves a stunning blue, issue their challenges. With a brief clattering of wings these are firmly rebuffed by the larger emperor. The hawkers are another rarity. Prior to 2006 it was nothing more than a scarce migrant. They have become a feature of the Park over the last few years and having seen them in tandems pairs here before, may well be breeding. It is a brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) that next has a say, a rusty winged beauty and one of few UK species that might rival the emperor (our largest) for size. Yet while we watch it is he with the initial claim who seems to hold sway, seeing off all comers.

From barely a ripple, in moments to a flurry, this little arena filled with all the dramas of possession and birthright. For some time we watch, transfixed with the performance.

A mating pair of southern migrant hawker (Aeshna affinis), photographed last year in Hadleigh County Park.

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