Norfolk Dragonflies

It seems a bit like a lifetime ago already, but in June we had a fantastic holiday in Norfolk. Although the species we were most keen to see was the Swallowtail butterfly, we made the most of the opportunity to see as much other wildlife as we could. One of the groups that we saw in abundance was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. In total we saw 9 species, 6 of which were new to us. I’ve been very lucky to have help identifying them all from a very friendly and helpful group on Facebook called UK Dragonflies & Damselflies.

We lucked out with our holiday let – a lovely house in Wroxham on the banks of the River Bure. Our holiday garden ran right down to the river with its own inlet for mooring boats (with our complete lack of boating skills we weren’t brave enough to have our own boat!). The area was positively alive with dragonflies and damselflies, so we could just sit and enjoy them without having to go anywhere. We saw 5 species in the garden alone.

One we had seen before, but which is still a delight every time we see it, is the Banded Demoiselle.

demoiselle drakes

They’ve got a lovely way of flicking their wings open and shut when they are resting.

We’d also seen Common Blue Damselflies before, although they’re not a species we get in the garden at home, so it was nice to just chill and watch them.

common blue damselfly male drakes

Red-eyed Damselflies were new for us and were probably the most abundant species at our holiday let. The males, as the name suggests, have vivid red eyes, with a blue body and blue tip to the tail.

red eyed damselfly male

The females don’t have the eye colour and are also more of a greeny body colour

red eyed damselfly female drakes

The red-eyed damselflies were mating all over the place, but their favourite romantic rendezvous were the water lilies. They were literally queuing up for a turn on the lily flowers. If you look closely you can see that some pairs are actually submerged, seemingly undeterred in their eagerness!

red eyed mating

There was also a 3rd species of damselfly in the garden – the Blue-tailed Damselfly. The males have a light blue spot near the end of the abdomen, but somehow I didn’t manage to get a photo of a male. The females are more interesting though in that they have at least 5 different colour forms. There seemed to be at least 2 of these forms flitting around the garden – the top one below is the more typical colour and below that is the rather grandly named “rufescens obsoleta” form.

female blue tailed

female blue tailed damsel - rufescens obsoleta

There were quite a few of the larger dragonflies about the garden, but the only one we managed to photograph was the Black-tailed Skimmer. This immature male rested nicely on the bushes to get his photo taken.

Black tailed skimmer immature male drakes

The males start of the golden colour as above, but when mature they turn blue, with a blackened tip to the abdomen – like this one we saw at Hickling Broad.

black tailed skimmer male 2 hickling

Having the river on our doorstep meant that when we got up in the mornings, we were lucky enough on a couple of occasions to spot dragonflies emerging from their larval stage. This first one is another Black-tailed Skimmer – a male (thanks again to the FB dragonfly people for identifying this). We missed the initial breaking out of the exuvia, but got this sequence of photos.

Black tail skimmer emerging 1

Black tail skimmer emerging 2

Black Tail Skimmer emerging 3

We also managed to catch on video the moment he opened his wings for the very first time – quite a privilege to see!

We did catch another dragonfly actually bursting free. It never ceases to amaze me how they expand into such huge insects out of such relatively small larvae.

Dragonfly 1 emerging 3

Our adventures out and about in Norfolk took us to various nature reserves with more dragonfly delights. At Hickling Broad we glimpsed this Hairy Dragonfly. Not a great photo but another new one for us.

Hairy dragonfly Hickling

Also at Hickling Broad we saw this gorgeous Four-spotted Chaser – so named for the spots on his wings.

Four spotted chaser Hickling

At Strumpshaw Fen we were graced by the presence of a Scarce Chaser. They are as the name suggests “scarce” and in fact are classified as “near threatened”, so it was a lucky spot.

scarce chaser strumpshaw

Star of the show though was the Norfolk Hawker. We saw them at Hickling Broad, Horsey Mere and Strumpshaw Fen. The Scarce Chaser may have been scarce, but the Norfolk Hawker is actually considered to be endangered and one of the rarest dragonflies in the UK. They are stunning dragonflies with green eyes, brown bodies and a yellow triangular mark at the top of the abdomen.

Norfolk hawker horsey

We even caught this pair of Norfolks doing the best to ensure that they became just that little bit less rare!

Norfolk hawkers mating hickling

So that’s 9 species of dragon/damselfly seen in a week without really even trying! A few years ago we started on a quest to see all the British species of butterfly and only have 5 to go on those. I think we may just have found the next group to focus on – and Norfolk has given us a great start already.

Butterfly No. 53!

Thanks to Covid, butterfly no. 53 has been the longest in planning of all the butterflies we’ve seen so far. We had originally planned to go on holiday for a week in Norfolk last June and had booked the accommodation way back in 2019. But of course that all got postponed and then our original booking got cancelled as they sold the property, so we had to find an alternative. Fortunately we managed to book a fantastic house in the middle of the Norfolk Broads and finally got the chance to go in search of the Swallowtail butterflies.

The Swallowtail is the UK’s largest butterfly and an absolute stunner. It looks far too exotic to be found here, so it’s one we’ve wanted to see for a long time. Swallowtails can pretty much only be found in the UK in the Norfolk Broads, where their caterpillars’ food plant – milk parsley grows. We visited Hickling Broad on what turned out to be World Swallowtail Day (purely by chance had we booked our holiday to coincide with this) and went on a short guided boat tour. Our guide very kindly pointed out some of the milk parsley – a fairly non-descript, carrot-top like plant, which we would never have noticed otherwise.

milk parsley

We glimpsed a few swallowtails from the boat, but most of our sightings were on foot – staking out the reed beds and waiting. We were not alone – half a dozen other keen swallowtail watchers were also risking the baking mid-day heat to get a glimpse and hopefully a photo or two.

Photographing moving butterflies in reed beds is not an easy task. As with so many other wildlife photos we try to take, there is always a blade of grass or in this case a reed in the way. So we never got what I’d call a perfect shot, but we did at least get some recognisable ones. So amongst the hundreds of reedy photos we took, here are some of the best:

swallowtail

swallowtail (5)

swallowtail (4)

swallowtail (3)

swallowtail (2)

swallowtail (1)

They may not be award-winning snaps, but you can at least see the “tails” which give them their name. As we started to head back around the reserve, a couple of butterflies chose to fly up and perch on tall blades above the general reed bed. Unfortunately we were the wrong side really, but still got stunning views of the underside of the butterfly.

swallowtail on grass

Chris even managed to get a shot of one in flight – if photographing them in the reed beds was difficult, capturing them in flight was virtually impossible, so he did well to get even this fuzzy shot.

swallowtail in flight

Our trip to Hickling Broads was on the first full day of our holiday, so to see the Swallowtails then was great as it meant we could relax for the rest of the week and any further sightings were a bonus. It would have been nice to get some slightly better photos, but just seeing them was a delight. If it hadn’t been for the baking heat, we could happily have just sat for hours watching them glide about. Proof if ever any was needed that you don’t have to go abroad to see stunning wildlife.