In Search of the White-face

OK, now to the main reason for our trip into the unknown this weekend. Whixall Moss in Shropshire is home to the UK’s southernmost colony of White-faced Darters (Leucorrhinia dubia). There used to be a colony at Thursley Common NNR in Surrey but the last reported sighting was in the 1980s and that colony has regrettably died out.

White-faced Darters require a very particular habitat. They like the acid waters of peat bogs where they lay their eggs in submerged and floating sphagnum moss. Their nymphs live and hunt in the sphagnum moss and do not do well when fish are present, being very susceptible to fish predation. Since we have destroyed 95% of our peat bogs, such habitats are increasingly rare and these delightful creatures are now described as rare and localized in the UK. The old peat diggings of the mosses in this part of the country suit them well, however. Whixall Moss is just 12 miles north of our campsite and I’d love to see one. Well, I’d love to see lots but one good picture would satisfy me. June, when we are usually out of the country, is the White-faced Darter’s main flight month. That’s why we’re here.

The Met Office had downgraded their original weather forecast to eclaircies [sunny spells] instead of the original plein soleil [clear skies] but it was still OK. Francine had discovered another moss, Wem Moss, nearby, that apparently is home all three of the UK’s species of Sundews. We set off at 10:00 AM intent on seeking Sundews first followed by White-faced Darters once the temperature had risen a little and they’d warmed up.

We bounced our way along a v. rough track to the entrance to Wem Moss, donned wellington boots [mosses are by definition boggy places] and set off. The access track leading in rapidly turned into something of a quagmire, rather than being boggy. As the bottom half of my wellington boots disappeared into peaty mud, the thought of more than half of Francine’s boots disappearing made us chicken out and we retraced our squelchy steps back to the car. We exchanged our now gooey wellington boots for shoes and headed to Whixall Moss a little earlier than originally intended.

An earlier arrival proved fortunate. Our first stop, the NR base, suggested as “the easiest way into the moss for first time visitors” proved difficult. We were faced with a base that was closed (weekend, presumably) and a gate chained shut across the track we needed to take. We could have climbed the gate but we felt somewhat discouraged, as though we should be somewhere else. We switched to plan B and followed the road signs pointing in another direction to Whixall Moss itself. These led us to a small car park beside an arm of the Llangollen Canal and an unobstructed route into the moss trails. It’s advisable to keep to the marked trails to avoid sinking into the very boggy pools that attract our main quarry. 🙂

_MG_0251Francine soon began spotting dark-looking darters on our first wooded trail – she’s got two good eyes to my one. In fact, she spotted a pair in-cop but we lost them over a fence. Very encouraging, though. The White-faces had been resting on the ground but were very jittery and easily scared up and off. I dislike ground shots, in truth, but needs must. There was apparently no shortage of our quarry and Francine did manage to snag a grounded female on pixels.

J01_2857 White-faced Darter male_MG_0258Continuing along the trail out of the trees, we came across the moss landscape proper, much of it covered in Cotton Grass. The pools aren’t obvious, hence the danger, but we found a pool beside the trail where there was a considerable amount of activity with White-faces zooming low over the water. Some were coupling and one female was ovipositing. The landscape made things difficult with grass stems frequently intervening. Snapping these dudes was definitely not easy but we did manage a few recognisable shots, including this one showing the reason for the name.

J01_2873 Four-spotted Chaser maleThe best photo opportunity of the day was provided by a particularly cooperative male Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata), perched on a stem beside the track a short distance from our White-faced pond.

J01_2883 White-faced Darter maleJust along the trail I spotted a chap, human I mean. Both he and his camera gear looked familiar. He was using what looked like a Sony 70-400mm silver lens which is quite distinctive. This lens/chap combination looked familiar. Then I spotted another guy that also looked familiar, though his lens looked wrong. I expected him, too, to be toting a Sony 70-400mm lens. Nonetheless, I was reasonably sure I’d seen these two – they administer the UKDragonflies website – together before looking for Club-tailed Dragonflies (Gomphus vulgatissimus) on the River Thames at Pangbourne last year. Eventually I raised the courage to call their names. A reunion ensued as we snapped away at another pool with White-faced Darters on it together.

What a small dragonfly world it is. My two acquaintances were up on a day trip from the Bristol area. We aren’t the only odo-nutters prepared to drive half way across the country for a sight of an unusual dragonfly. I feel better about that. 😉

Posted in 2013 Shropshire

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