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31 Jul 2018

In search of the azure

Written by Rob Dewar, Nature Conservation Advisor
White-faced Darter
‘Although the garden is a lovely place, was it worthy of so fine a guest?’ Just like Fleetwood Mac, many years ago I was also inspired by this ‘guest’ during a wildlife encounter that remains etched upon my memory – an azure hawker dragonfly landed and rested on my thigh for a few brief but special moments.

The azure hawker is one of the species that the ardent ‘twitcher’ ventures north for. It has no habitats in England, and although seen throughout Scotland, the north-west is its stronghold. I recently set out on a wonderfully calm, hot day on the Inverewe estate in search of this dazzling dragonfly.

On my way I encountered some old friends I first recorded back in the day – pearl-bordered fritillaries bobbed and weaved amongst the birch clearings as did the Argent & Sable day-flying moth, with its striking pied wing pattern. A buzzard hovered overhead and a cuckoo shot through the trees, followed by the angry chatter of a blackbird. On the slopes beside Loch Kernsary melancholy thistle, violets, fragrant orchids and mountain everlasting bore testament to the rich floral diversity in this part of the estate.

The azure hawker likes to breed in sphagnum-rich bog pools and Inverewe has some exceptional examples. These are some of my favourite haunts to spot dragonflies. However, this visit was not so typical. We’ve had a very dry spring – the ground crunched beneath my boots and the usually glistening patterned bogs were not looking that healthy. They had markedly shrunk, with exposed peat on the margins. The much-bemoaned wet climate is so important for wildlife such as damselflies and dragonflies. Large heath butterflies, a wetland species with weak flight, flitted amongst the cotton grass, but I was struggling to find some good patches of floating sphagnum moss.

Then I saw a deep bog pool, more worthy of Wester Ross, and my eyes scanned for the shiny wings of newly emerged dragonflies. A four-spotted chaser shot into view; the less frantic but more radiant large red damselfly appeared next, followed by a common blue damselfly and a blue-tailed damselfly. Four species already – and then my binoculars froze. Glaring back at me were bulbous red eyes with a white face mask: it was a white-faced darter. Like the azure hawker, this dragonfly is a specialist species of bog pools. Limited to only a handful of sites in the rest of the UK, there are significant populations in the boggy grounds of the Highlands. Given that the species is threatened by climate change, what effect may several dry springs in succession have on this vulnerable species, even in its regional strongholds?

white-faced darter
White-faced Darter

Inverewe is home to an impressive 11 species of dragonfly and damselfly, which is why the British Dragonfly Society held a training event here in May this year. It was well attended by a number of local people including staff and volunteers. I recorded seven adult species at this event, all in flight, with a northern emerald dragonfly being another highlight. I was lucky to get a close view after it had just emerged; its narrow waist, calliper-shaped appendages and emerald body were unmistakable. It was a special wildlife day, including close encounters with sea eagles and a black-throated diver. Even my cleg-bitten hands didn’t spoil the day!

Highland wildlife can be elusive; it’s not always the easiest to find but it can offer the most wonderful surprise encounters. On this glorious summer’s day my search for the azure hawker had not been fruitful, but there was still so much to enjoy. That’s the beauty of wildlife watching – some knowledge and intuition will help but the surprise encounter can often be the most rewarding. As I headed back across the crispy (rather than boggy) heath, another song entered my head – it was by the late Lou Reed. Can you guess it?

We’d love visitors to Inverewe to share their sightings with us. Please send your wildlife records (ideally with grid reference & locality) to Katie Dixon:

There’ll be special events taking place at Corrieshalloch Gorge NNR and Inverewe during July to support the British Dragonfly Society. Please look out for more information in the local press and on the Trust’s social media pages.