Dragonflies, a photographic study in Essex
A photographic study by Daniel Bridge, in the summer of 2006
It was a warm, sunny day in early September and I was at ‘Warren Gorge’ in Chafford Gorges Nature Park, Thurrock. Building of the new Essex Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre was in full swing above me, and I’d just taken several photos that I hoped would be of use to the Trust, including the panoramic view from the Visitor Centre.
Time for a bite to eat, in the dappled shade of a Silver Birch. Around me birds sang, spiders dangled, bees buzzed. Just a mile from the hustle and bustle of Lakeside Shopping Centre, Chafford Gorges is in reality a world away; quiet and relaxed, peaceful and calm. Unless you happen to be a Fly, in which case you’d better keep your wits about you! Warren Gorge is home to a healthy population of the most fearsome predators you’re likely to come across on an Essex nature reserve - Dragonflies - and I was about to have a close encounter with one...
Dragonflies are large, colourful insects that, as adults, fly around with supreme power and skill, plucking their dinner from the sky - anything from Midges to Butterflies. Depending on the species, they either patrol an area, along hedgerows or over water, searching for food (the Hawkers), or settle on a perch and dart out to catch a passing fly (the Darters). The larvae spend their time underwater, where they are just as merciless; tadpoles and small fish fall prey to the fearsome juveniles. This is why Chafford is such a good area for Dragonflies - the large lakes in Warren Gorge are ideal breeding grounds, and the sheltered microclimate suits the adults, with lower winds and higher temperatures than at the top of the gorges, which means they can fly using less energy.
So there I was, bottle of water in hand, relaxing on a sunny afternoon, when I saw a Common Darter land on the fence rail. It sat still for a few seconds, basking in the sun, then shot off at high speed to catch a snack. Then back, a little further up the fence, to sunbathe again. It did this several times, sometimes returning to the same spot, sometimes somewhere new. And I was transfixed - by the speed and agility, by the sheer burst of energy, but also by the insect itself; the colour; the eyes - Dragonflies are amazing to look at. All of a sudden, this one changed its perch. No longer favouring the fence, it saw me as a suitable site and landed on the back of my hand. How can such a small thing cause such a big grin? So I sat on the ground, arm leaning on my knee, my new friend resting awhile, keeping a compound eye out for an airborne apéritif. Is it a bit daft to talk to insects? I don’t know, but I thought it only polite to say “hello”, and ask how he was. His head swivelled and he looked at me. Perhaps deciding I was a bit big for lunch, he turned his attention elsewhere, seconds later a twitch signalled he’d spotted something, and he was gone.
Later in the month I was in Snowdonia, staying in a cottage in the woods, with a small pond supplying all our water, thankfully filtered. Many an hour was spent by this pond, watching Crossbills flitting through the treetops, Goldcrests hanging about in the branches and Ravens wheeling overhead. And by the water, Dragonflies jostling for position, finding a mate, laying their eggs and patrolling the reeds. Male Common Hawkers, sparkling green, blue and yellow, would tirelessly work their way along the bank, wings rattling against the foliage. If another male were foolish enough to pop by, they would go spiralling high in an aerial duel, until the interloper turned and fled. Black Darters - small, sleek and speedy - would bask on the rocks by the poolside, but never chose me to land on. They were much more twitchy than their Common cousins, and I rarely got close enough for a photo before they would dart off across the pond. But scenes like this are the epitome of late summer for me - warm, lazy days, relaxing in the shade, watching the natural world go by. Maybe I’m joined once in a while by a marvel of nature, stopping off from its dashing flights for a well-earned break, or maybe they’ll just flit by, ceaselessly searching out the next morsel - one less midge to bite me!
So if, on a sunny summers day, you see someone of a hirsute persuasion seemingly pointing at nothing in particular, it may well be me. I’ll be waiting for a Dragonfly to land, so I can say “hello” again. Try it for yourself - you may look daft, but don’t let that stop you.
Words & Pictures by Daniel Bridge
Article first published in issue 3 (Summer 2006) of Healthy Life - Mind, Body & Soul Magazine
(see also the Healthy Life Essex article : "Dragonflies and Damselflies in Essex by Ross Gardner")