Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Ghost Under the Water

Having photographed a number of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs during the past few winters in my tanks indoors, I have learnt a lot about their otherwise rarely seen lives under the water. One of the many fascinating things I have witnessed is the moulting of their skins. Depending on the species, dragonflies can moult up to 15 times, each time, the slightly bigger nymph emerging from the old skin to continue its life before moulting again when the time is ready. I have often viewed the tanks early morning to see the complete dragonfly or damselfly nymph skin either floating or attached underwater to some weed. This is rarely seen in the wild I doubt. When a nymph has completed a moult, the pigmentation has yet to darken and so the nymph looks very ghost like and white and it also at this stage, pretty vulnerable. They often find a good place to hide and just sit while the skin darkens and hardens which can often take a number of hours. It was one evening when I was viewing photos of Hawker nymphs on the internet that I saw the ghost like photo of a newly moulted Brown Hawker nymph and how stunning it looked. Having seen a number of damselfly nymphs looking like this, I really wanted to be able to witness this for myself and capture some photos of the newly moulted nymph. I set about trying to collect a few Hairy Dragonfly nymphs of a good size and introduced them to one of the tanks where I could study them and hopefully witness this event. As ever, many days passed and I continued to check every morning before work and every evening was spent checking at convenient times until one evening, I went out and put the light on above the tank where I was stunned to see the ghost like shape of a newly moulted Hairy Dragonfly nymph. It must of only just finished moulting as the old skin was right next to it and for a few minutes, I watched in amazement at this often unseen moment of nature. Thankfully this had all taken place quite close to the glass of the tank and within a few minutes, I had the camera on the tripod and was taking a number of photos. It really did stand out like a sore thumb and after a while, headed deeper into cover to gain its deeper colour and harden up. I continued to check on it for a few days and it was probably after the second day, that it ventured out from cover looking completely different and no doubt, eager to catch some prey. Despite further checks, I was lucky to see this event as this must have been the last moult prior to emerging. We know so much about their short lives as adults but hardly ever witness events such as this which happen under the water. It does indeed help pass the winter months away until the season begins but really, the season never ends. It just moves under the water for a while waiting to be discovered.

'Newly Moulted' Hairy Dragonfly Nymph

'Newly Moulted' Hairy Dragonfly Nymph Skin

Friday, 20 January 2017

Variable/Azure Damselfly Nymph

I managed to collect a few damselfly nymphs last weekend including 3 obvious Azure Damselfly nymphs with their characteristic pointed tips to the caudal lamellae but one nymph showed well rounded tips to the caudal lamellae which is a feature of the Variable Damselfly nymph. This feature is not totally reliable but a few I have reared in the past few years which I suspected were this species have turned out to be Variable. I get just as much pleasure trying to find and identify the nymphs as I do photographing the adults and exuviae and thankfully over the past few years, my knowledge has continued to grow. A few other features noted in the photos were the dark spots behind the eyes which are shared by the Variable and Azure Damselfly nymphs but these are lacking in the Blue tailed and Common Blue Damselfly. Both the Variable and Azure Damselfly nymphs have 7 segments on the antennae whereas the Common Blue Damselfly has only 6 segments. So you can see, there is enough evidence to at least say that the nymph photographed is a Variable or Azure Damselfly nymph and I would like to believe that it is Variable. Both Azure and Variable Damselflies occur in the area where this one was collected but only time will tell when it emerges in the summer. Weather and time permitting, I will hopefully return over the weekend to see what else can be found, collected and hopefully photographed before the camera goes in to be fixed. 

Dark Spotting behind the Eyes 

More rounded Tip to the Caudal Lamellae 

'Probable' Variable Damselfly Nymph

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

First Dip of the Year

With a window of opportunity last Saturday afternoon, I made my first visit of the year to Westbere Lakes to see if I could find any dragonfly or damselfly nymphs to collect and photograph before returning them back to the wild. On arrival it was sunny but very cold as I made my way up to the dykes where in the summer the Norfolk Hawkers and Hairy Dragonflies fly along with a few species of damselfly. I spent an hour dipping in the dykes which I had hoped would have had some work carried out on them to clear some of the reed which is slowly choking the dyke but as of yet, nothing. I can only hope that this happens in the next few months otherwise these dykes could be lost to the dragonflies. I know there are many other dykes in the area which probably hold the Norfolk Hawker but its nice to see them at this location next to the footpath and they have been well maintained up until now. With the water temperature pretty cold to the touch, it wasn't surprising then that I only managed to catch 4 damselfly nymphs, 3 Azure Damselfly and 1 probable Variable Damselfly along with the highlight, a 10mm Hairy Dragonfly nymph. With my fingers getting more numb by the minute I returned home with a few nymphs where the next day, I prepared the tank and took some photos of the Hairy Dragonfly nymph along with the probable Variable Damselfly nymph which I shall post in due coarse. Although only 10mm long, I managed to capture some pleasing shots of the Hairy Dragonfly nymph but also noticed at this point, that my Sigma 150mm macro lens seemed to have a problem.

Hairy Dragonfly Nymph (10mm)

After c20 shots, the next shot in the viewfinder when much darker and the following shot, almost complete darkness. I played around with the aperture and took off the lens where the aperture was stuck on f22. After some playing around it opened up and I continued again where a few shots later, the same happened again. It would appear looking on forums that the aperture blades made need cleaning and have become stuck due to oil? Whatever the problem, its a pain as I will have to take it to get sorted and be without it for a number of weeks. This will probably cause an abrupt end to my indoor tank sessions with the nymphs. I suppose it could be worse, it could have happened in the middle of the flying season! Hopefully I will continue with some dipping sessions and carry on my education of learning to identify the different species and this may also be the excuse to post some unpublished nymph shots too.

Hairy Dragonfly Nymph (10mm)

Monday, 9 January 2017

Top 3 Dragonfly Photos of 2016

2016 was an excellent year for dragonfly photography for me with numerous visits to sites in Kent and a long awaited trip to Shropshire for the rare White faced Darter. I must of took thousands of photos throughout the year and to choose some favorite photos of the year was near on impossible. However, there are a few photos which I am very proud of and for me, stand out in a number of ways.

3rd Place - Norfolk Hawker in Flight

Norfolk Hawker (male)

I am very lucky in the the past few years, a growing colony of Norfolk Hawkers have been present at Westbere Lakes, east Kent. I have spent many hours watching, studying and photographing them during June and July with a number of pleasing efforts. During 2015, I decided that I would try for a few flight shots of this species. This is a good species to try with as the males often pause briefly to hover when they are on territory. My early attempts often resulted in blurred images and parts of a dragonfly in shot but after a while and learning their habits, I started to get a few usable images. I soon realised that they often follow the same flight path and using manual focus, I was almost able to get into position first before they arrived in shot. Eventually, I got a few shots I was really happy with and with this new information learnt, I couldn't wait for the next season. When the Norfolk Hawkers appeared again in 2016, I again spent a lot of time photographing them but also put in quite a bit of time practicing manually focusing on various items at speed. With time and practice, I started to get sharper images and also learnt about what settings were best in different lights. After a few weeks of the Hawkers being out, I returned on a few days and hoped I would find a male on territory which would give me the chance of 'that' shot. I found a few individuals to practice on with varying success and then on one session, all the factors worked in my favour. I found a male patrolling at a nice height and then moved into a position where I had a chance of capturing some shots with a pleasing background. I spent a while watching his movements and where he often paused to hover and pre focused on this rough area. I then started to fire off a number of shots with some degree of success as he flew up and down the dyke and eventually after much trying, I managed to capture this shot which I was very pleased with. To capture the Norfolk Hawker in flight and in focus with a nice background to contrast with was a very satisfying moment. I shall no doubt be back in 2017 to see if I can make any improvements. I think this may be a big challenge!

2nd Place - White faced Darter in Flight

White faced Darter (male)

For at least 4 years, I have wanted to make the long trip north to Whixall Moss in Shropshire to see the rare White faced Darter. I made plans last year with fellow enthusiast Paul Ritchie that in 2016, we would indeed make the trip and thankfully, the day we decided to go was hot, sunny and in the mid twenties. I had seen hundreds of photos on the internet and other than seeing them, really wanted a few photos to take back with me. I did note whilst looking that there were next to none of any in flight and so this shot was already in mind should the chance arise. We had an excellent time with the cameras and took many shots but later in the day, my mind turned to the flight shot challenge. I had noted that when the females were egg laying, they were often accompanied by a male who would briefly hover above her before moving off and repeating the act. I soon found a few likely candidates but the speed they move was incredible. I often ended up with blank, blurred or partial shots. I continued to try and after more frustrations, decided in the end that my best tactic was to try to get onto the darter as quick as I could and fire off shot after shot whilst slowly moving through the manual focus. I hoped in this way that I might get luck and get something in focus. After more trying, I finally rattled off more shots and on closer inspection on the camera, had one shot in particular that looked quite good. It was mostly in focus, just the tip of the abdomen was slightly out of focus but with a nice contrast with the background, I think I had my shot. Not only had I seen this stunning dragonfly but I was one of only a few that seemed to have a flight shot of them. A superb trip and a most memorable one which will hopefully repeated in the next few years.

1st Place - Willow Emerald Damselfly at Sunrise

Willow Emerald Damselfly at Sunrise

Anyone having followed my shots for the past couple of years will know that I have a particular liking for a sunrise shot and with a colony of the nationally rare Willow Emerald Damselfly only a few minutes from where I live in east Kent, I set about trying to capture this combination. I made a number of visits to see where the damselflies were going to roost and with open fields to the east, I had a good view of the sun rising. I spent a while on a few early mornings prior to getting the photos setting up the tripod, trying different settings and then as the sun rose, taking a number of tester shots. Anyone who has seen the sunrise will know that it rises pretty quickly and to capture the stunning colours, I would have to work quite quickly and hope my subject would stay still enough for while. It was also vital that the subject and grasses were perpendicular to the lens in order for me to get everything in focus. With my homework done, It was time to try to get some photos so a watch of the weather was crucial for this to happen. I made a visit one evening knowing there were a good number of damselflies around and hoped that a few would go to roost in an area where I had been practicing. As the temperature cooled, I watched a number go to the trees and some to the reeds on the waters edge while a few went into the long grasses next to the stream. There were two damselflies that chose a great area and I hoped that early morning they would still be in this area and with luck, if they climbed a little higher, I would have a great chance of some shots. I left for home and spent most of the evening thinking about them and hoped they wouldn't move. The next day looked good weather wise and I arrived at the site in the dark and with a light, I soon found both of my targets in position. I set up the camera and tripod and using a piece of grass as a marker, I knew exactly where the sun would rise. All looked good through the viewfinder and with no cloud and a bit of dew present adding to the effect, I eagerly awaited sunrise and hoped the damselfly would move a little up the grass. It all happened very quickly and soon the sky was turning a fantastic red and orange colour. The sun as it arrived was very bright and due to this, I actually wore sunglasses and took a number of shots before a quick break, just to make sure I wasn't damaging my eyes. Thankfully the damselfly moved a little higher as it sensed the warmth of the sun and into a brilliant position. I was now looking at the shot I visualised in my head and rattled off a good number of shots. It wasn't long until the sun rose high in the sky and the damselfly moved position but with the planning, time and a good number of shots taken, I ended up with one of my favorite shots I have taken. I have this shot framed on my wall at 16' x 12' and every time I see it, it brings back lovely memories of that day and the work I put into it to get the shot. I will hopefully be out this season and with a bit of luck and planning again, continue to obtain shots that both myself and others can look at and enjoy and appreciate.