If you’ve walked beside a pond or river in the height of Summer, you’ll have likely heard the tell-tale rattle of burring wings as Dragonflies flit across the water. Propelled by four powerful wings, these vibrantly coloured insects might be seen hovering or darting above water, routinely patrolling a stretch of territory or returning to a preferred perch to watch for prey or intruding competitors. As the light lengthens and lush green vegetation springs up to line the banks, keep your eyes peeled for these beautiful insects resting amongst the undergrowth.
How to identify key differences
Dragonflies: Possess a robust, thicker body. Their front wings are differentiated from their back in shape and all will be open when the dragonfly is stationary for rest. Their flight directions are purposeful and rapid.
Damselflies: These insects appear far more delicate with thin bodies and symmetrical wings. Unlike dragonflies, their eyes do not touch at the front of their heads and their flight can appear weak and fluttering.
The Southern Damselfly
“Smaller than dragonflies, these four winged insects rely on their colouring and speed to evade predators. They will either blend in to their natural surroundings or display universal warning colours to act as a deterrent against threatening carnivores. Often seen holding their wings partly open when at rest, they are known as Spreadwings in North America.”
Flight Period: June to August, although they occasionally emerge as early as May.
Colouration: Primarily blue with black markings along the abdomen and thorax. Females are similarly coloured to males, the latter being distinguishable by a distinctive ‘mercury’ mark on Segment 2 of their abdomen.
Size: Southern Damselflies can grow between 29-31mm.
Habitat: Base-rich tunnels and streams within acid heathland areas are preferred habitat for this delicate insect. They can also be found amidst water meadows and along the flood plains of chalk rivers. Damselflies often breed where the water is shallow and slow-flowing and are most commonly distributed throughout the New Forest, Hampshire and the Preseli mountains, Pembrokeshire.
The Common Darter
“This narrow-bodied dragonfly is common throughout the Summer months and will breed in all sorts of water. They catch their prey by darting from a hovering position and clutching it in their jaw before retreating to a favoured perch. Carnivorous and predatory, the Common Darter’s prehistoric ancestors were recorded to boasted a wingspan of up to 2.5 feet.”
Flight Period: Generally July to October although sometimes also from May all the way through to December.
Colouration: Males deepen to a bright orange-red in maturity and black spots can be seen along S8 and S9. The females are paler, sporting a yellowish-brown abdomen and later developing red markings along the boundaries of their segments.
Size: Darters can grow to between 38-43mm.
Habitat: Darters reside around still water-ways such as stagnant or brackish pools. They can be seen around garden ponds and are often visible resting removed from the water, on top of plants in woodland rides. They are abundant throughout England, Wales and Ireland although less common throughout Scotland.
The Southern Hawker
“Territorial, aggressive and surprisingly inquisitive, male Southern Hawkers are likely to fly closer to their observer to better inspect them. Often seen hovering a short distance away, these dragonflies are the largest and fastest of their species. They will routinely patrol a patch of aquatic hunting ground before catching their prey mid-air. Previously distributed throughout England and Wales, these resilient insects are now also on the rise in Scotland.”
Flight Period: Primarily from June to October although some individuals have been known to emerge in May and last right through to November.
Colouration: The males are brightly coloured and display bright greens and blues along their bodies. The females are slightly less aesthetic, being largely brown with bright green markings.
Size: Hawkers can grow up to 70mm.
Habitat: Hawkers breed in water-line vegetation and will often be found populating small ponds or luscious woodland rides. As they emerge from their pupal stage, Hawkers are some of the few dragonflies to exit the water under the cover of night and not during daylight.