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New Forest dragonflies and damselflies - an introduction

Beautiful demoiselle
Beautiful demoiselle

The New Forest is a wonderful place in which to find dragonflies and damselflies. In fact, it is one of the best in Britain - of the 36 or so, British species, around 75% can be found in the New Forest; including nationally scarce insects such as the appropriately named scarce blue-tailed damselfly, and also the southern and small red damselflies.

And with colours ranging from very pale blue, through red to black; transparent, delicately veined wings; and conspicuously varied behaviour; all are fascinating to watch for both casual interest and more serious study.

But first, what’s the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly?

Well, for a start, dragonflies are relatively large, robust insects, whilst damselflies are more dainty creatures. Then large, compound dragonfly eyes are positioned fairly centrally on the head, and meet in the middle, whilst damselfly eyes are smaller, widely separated and positioned on the sides of the head. And finally, dragonfly wings when at rest are usually held outstretched, often at 90 degrees to the abdomen, but damselflies usually fold their wings back along the line of the abdomen.

However, both dragonflies and damselflies are nowadays often referred to collectively simply as dragonflies.

Typically on the wing from April until October, or maybe November in mild autumns, flight periods vary from species to species. The first of these insects to be seen is often the large red damselfly, whilst the late fliers are typically the larger dragonflies.

All are cold bloodied creatures that, unlike humans, for example, cannot maintain a constant body temperature, but need reasonably warm weather to raise their temperature sufficiently for flight.

Individual winged insects can live for two or three months, although for many, this phase of life is considerably shorter. In Britain’s relatively cool climate, none survive the winter as adults.

Contrary to old fashioned traditions, they are harmless to humans, although in days-gone-by dragonflies were known as horse-stingers, and damselflies as devil’s darning needles. But all are ferocious predators, highly skilled hunters that survive by preying on other insects chased down in flight, killed and eaten.

Many dragon and damselflies are also strongly territorial, vigorously defending their own, often quite small patch, and aggressively driving off intruders of the same and sometimes different species.

In the early stages of life, all are aquatic – first as eggs, then prolarva and finally as larva, so watery habitats are typically the best places to see the greatest number of species.

One, the aptly named, almost butterfly-like, beautiful demoiselle, is particularly associated with the fast flowing, gravel-bottomed New Forest streams, where it flies in company with kingfishers and, sad-to-say, provides a source of food for grey wagtails.

Others prefer stretches of open, still water, places such as Eyeworth Pond, Cadman’s Pool and Hatchet Pond, whilst yet more - the small red damselfly is a good example - can be found primarily around the New Forest valley mires and other similar boggy areas.

Pale blue male and golden-yellow female keeled skimmers are frequently encountered around heathland drainage channels, whilst a number of species habitually stray well away from water, and can often be watched patrolling woodland rides or foraging on the heaths - golden-ringed dragonflies and southern hawkers are prominent members of this group.

Golden-ringed dragonfly
Golden-ringed dragonfly

Dragonflies and damselflies, though, are often assigned to the ‘too difficult to identify’ category of wildlife, and consequently are largely ignored. But some, in fact, can be readily recognised - look out, for example, for the distinctive golden-ringed dragonfly, the beautiful demoiselle, the closely related banded demoiselle, the large red damselfly and the broad-bodied chaser.

Getting to know these provides immediate entry to the dragonfly world, at least as a partially informed observer, and by process of elimination, makes easier the task of identifying some of the more difficult species.  

Confident identification, though, often requires good, close views and reference to a pocket-sized field guide – A Guide to the Dragonflies of Great Britain, written and illustrated by Dan Powell, is a particularly good example.

Find out more about New Forest dragonflies and damselflies

Getting started

Some notable New Forest dragonflies and damselflies, and a glimpse at their life cycles

Mating, egg laying and aquatic life - a look into a secret world
Emergence from the depths - one of the wonders of nature
Broad-bodied chaser - a distinctive creature often seen on heathland
Common darter - a particularly late flyer
Golden-ringed dragonfly - large and strikingly marked
Large red damselfly - common and widespread
Small red damselfly - nationally, a very scarce damselfly
Southern damselfly - the New Forest is one of its national strongholds
White-legged damselfly - very locally distributed


New Forest Insects - a photographic guide

If you have an interest in New Forest insects - butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, beetles, bugs or just about anything else - look out for the photographic guide (published in May 2011) produced by local expert Paul Brock.

Look out, also, for Paul's new book, A Comprehensive Guide to the Insects of Britain and Ireland, which was published in spring 2014.

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** New Forest ponies **
New Forest ponies in the road
Ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but during the first six months of 2018, 36 animals were killed or injured on Forest roads, compared with 26 in the same period in 2017, a shocking rise of 38%.
** Always take care when driving **
New Forest seasonal highlights
August
Heather blossom produces huge swathes of heathland colour, adding to the pinks and purples of earlier flowering cross-leaved heath and bell heather.
Fallow, red and sika deer antlers, when fully grown, are cleaned of velvet in preparation for the autumn rut.
New Forest pony drifts - the annual round-ups begin.
Marsh gentian blooms add splashes of blue to some of the wetter heathlands.

September
Dragonflies and damselflies remain on the wing and so do butterflies, but in ever decreasing numbers.
Hen harriers and other autumn and winter visiting birds begin to arrive in the Forest.
Mysterious New Forest fungi - mushrooms and toadstools increasingly appear in the woods.
Red deer start to noisily rut as stags roar songs of love across favoured heaths.
New Forest 'what's on' - a small
selection of local events and activities
August 2018
Thursday, 2nd - Wild About Ponies, Bolton's Bench, 1.00pm - 2.00pm.
Saturday, 4th - Burley Village Show, 1.00pm to 5.00pm.
Sunday, 5th - Hartwood House, Lyndhurst, Summer Fete, 2.00pm - 5.00pm.
Wednesday, 15th - Lyndhurst Community Centre, Table Top Sale, 10.00am - 3.00pm.
Sundays - 29th July and 5th, 12th and 19th August - Exbury Gardens, Summertime Family Fun.

September 2018
Saturday, 1st - Lyndhurst Community Centre, Hampshire Mineral and Fossil Show, 10.00am to 4.30pm.
Monday, 3rd - Burley Village Hall, Film Night.
Friday, 21st - Lyndhurst Community Centre, New Forest Memories - An Illustrated Talk by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Dr Manny Hinge, 7.30pm - 10.30pm.
For further details, view the full New Forest What's on programme.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley