Four-spotted chaser

Watching at the dragon's den

There's more to garden wildlife, and RSPB reserves, than just birds. And the height of summer is the best time to keep your eyes peeled for a completely different master of the air.

Hunting for dragonflies

Dragonflies are stunning and amazing insects, reaching speeds of up to 36 km per hour. Watching the dramas of their world unfold can be breathtaking.

I've often passed dragonflies and damselflies when out walking on a summer's day and been distracted by their dazzling colours, but I'd never taken time out to stop and watch them before. So I asked naturalist and fellow Web Editor, Mark Ward, to tell me more about these magnificent insects.

We chose the sunniest part of the day to go dragon-hunting. As cold-blooded creatures they rely on the heat of the sun for energy and so are much more active and easier to see when the sun's out.

Here at The Lodge, the RSPB's UK headquarters, in the centre of the formal gardens is the old swimming pool - now a very large fish pond which houses a hundred or so koi carp (some of gargantuan proportions). 

The pond has a good mix of vegetation, with lilies, dead wood, irises and other plants providing plenty of perching and egg-laying sites for dragonflies. As we approached, we could see an array of brightly-coloured dragonflies and damselflies darting over the water. We sat ourselves at the water's edge and watched.

The first species we saw were four-spotted chasers - a thick-set brownish dragonfly with distinctive black dots on their wings. Careful not to cast a shadow and disturb them, we leant forward to see.

A male flew with its quick, jerky flight in a circuit over a vegetated part of the pond. Mark explained that this was typical male chaser behaviour. As with other dragonflies, they will hold and patrol a territory, keeping an eye out for intruding males, attractive females and for flies to eat.

The appropriately-named chaser dragonflies (there are three species in the UK) like to chase around, prowling on the wing for long periods.

But, if you wait long enough, they do tend to have a favourite perch and, sure enough, our chaser landed on a piece of dead wood only a metre from where we sat. With the naked eye we could see the thorax, its upper body, covered in small hairs - more like a bee than what I'd imagined a dragonfly would be like. Through binoculars, we saw the finest detail of the large, iridescent eyes and strong but incredibly delicate-looking wings.

On his perch, his body remained completely still - their legs aren't strong enough for walking - but his head moved independently, allowing him to keep a close eye on his territory in all directions.

By the scruff of the neck

Nearby, a pair of large red damselflies few by 'in tandem'. Damselflies are the dainty sisters of dragonflies, generally smaller in size and more delicate-looking. The easiest way to tell the two apart (if they sit still for long enough!) is that damselflies will always hold their wings closed when they land, whilst dragonflies hold theirs open, at right-angles to their body.

The pair were displaying typical damsel- and dragonfly mating behaviour, which is unique. The male will transfer sperm from near the tip of his abdomen to an area under the front of his body. He will then choose a female and, using the tip of his tail, grab her behind the neck.

This is known as 'flying in tandem' and there was an awful lot of it going on at the pond. If she's impressed, the female will curl her body under and mate with the male. 

After the deed is done, he will keep his hold on her until she has deposited her eggs in the water - it might seem a bit aggressive, but this way he can be sure she doesn't mate with another male. And sure enough, our pair landed on an iris leaf and she placed her abdomen in the water and began laying on the stem.

A regal visitor

Our attention was diverted by the arrival of the most regal and eye-catching dragonfly to the pond - an emperor. The males are vivid blue and green and can grow to nearly 8 cm long. They are also highly territorial. This one patrolled back and forth, following almost exactly the same route, like a security guard patrolling a premises. 

He was continually alert and surprisingly agile if he detected a threat to his territory or darted to catch a fly. Despite his size, he was so fast it was easy to lose him momentarily as he unexpectedly zipped off in a new direction.

As we watched, a new emperor arrived on the scene. It was a distraction too far for our dragonfly and he chased it away from the pond, over the flowering rhododendrons in the garden and out of sight. There wasn't time to see the colour of the intruder - was it another blue male, or a green female providing a different kind of distraction? We'll never know for sure, but shortly afterwards, a single emperor was back patrolling the pond again.

Well, our half hour was up, but just this short length of time by a pond completely changed the way I look at dragonflies. Observing their behaviour and personality is hugely rewarding.

Sitting quietly brought me close to the dramas of the pond. The battlefield, the hunting ground and the beginning of the next generation of dragonflies - all there to be seen if only I'd stopped and looked before! I don't think I'll ever walk past these graceful, agile hunters again without noticing what's going on in their world.

Flower borders in front of the Lodge RSPB reserve, Bedfordshire.

An emperor dragonfly emerging

Footage of an emperor dragonfly nymph emerging from its exuvia (shell) as an adult and laying its eggs in water.

Footage of an emperor dragonfly nymph emerging from its exuvia (shell) as an adult and laying its eggs in water.

Play video
An emperor dragonfly emerging video screenshot