The recent warm spell has encouraged dragonflies and their smaller relatives the damselflies to flex their fragile wings and explore new foraging areas far away from the watery places where they spent their larval days. This has brought much excitement to garden nature observation on the western edge of Otley, with several different species of Odonata – as this order of insects is collectively known – being seen alongside more familiar garden insects.
Our own garden has played host to some fine examples of these formidable insect predators. During one recent excursion into our ‘insect patch’ my attention was drawn to a large brown insect resting on the exposed leaves of a tall plant, looking poised for action. Closer inspection revealed it to be a brown hawker dragonfly, one of the most easily identified species thanks to its mainly brown body and golden-brown wings. Its slim body was almost as long as my mobile phone and its transparent wings glinted in the sunlight, giving them a watery quality.
As I crouched down for a closer look I brushed the plants below me with my knees, causing several delicate damselflies to detach themselves from their resting places. These were blue-tailed damselflies, a common species with intricately-patterned bodies and a prominent mark on their front wings.
Odonata are the true masters of low level flight, surveying suitable hunting areas with the efficiency of miniature helicopters and carrying out deadly capture and kill missions when prey are detected. They are recognised as some of the fastest-flying insects in the world.
During their larval stage dragonflies and damselflies are among the most voracious of aquatic denizens. They devour prey with their formidable mouthparts and can completely clear small pools of other insect life.
Nature’s hierarchy dictates that despite the formidable armoury and technical prowess of dragonflies and damselflies, they themselves are preyed on by still larger and more powerful creatures.
One summer’s evening my attention was drawn to a very active medium-sized bird that appeared to be catching insects above the houses on our street. I could scarcely believe my eyes when my binoculars revealed the tell-tale markings of a hobby, one of the scarcest of our birds of prey, which was gorging itself on high flying dragonflies. The stunning falcon undertook elaborate aerial manoeuvres in order to catch the agile insects, and then consumed the most nutritious parts on the wing.