How many times has this happened? We turn up to a new location in reasonably fine weather and look forward to our visit. Then morning dawns – well, almost – to the gentle drip of rain and cloud-laden skies, thus dampening ones enthusiasm a tad. I’ve lost count and whatever my lost count had been it just went up by one.
Mercifully the rain eased off as we were enjoying our traditional first-morning hearty (i.e. fried) breakfast. The solid cloud was still with us, though, and the temperature was a paltry 12C. This did not bode well for odonata hunting. We thought we could usefully go and scout the likely Northern Damselfly (Coenagrion hastulatum) – a.k.a. target #1 – locations around Loch Garten but prior to that, investigate Aviemore to see what it had to offer. That way we’d be ready if and when the conditions improved to favourable.
Aviemore had most of what we might need. We bought a few supplies in the modest but reasonably sized Tesco store and, unusually for me, I bought some additional warm clothing, the temperature being lower than I had anticipated. A Fatface sweatshirt appealed. Well, you’re never too old to slip on something trendy. [Oh yes you are!]
What Aviemore doesn’t currently have , as I mentioned previously, is a fuel station. I quizzed the very friendly assistant in Fatface and she informed me that the fuel station was being redeveloped and would return. The redevelopment, however, would take 3-4 months, much to the horror of the local inhabitants who now have a 30-mile round trip to get fuel every time their vehicle needs topping up. At least Aviemore is not permanently screwed, though. We got a couple of OS maps, too.
So, after shopping, here we were shortly after midday, two days before the longest day of the year, so-called midsummer’s day even though it is actually the start of summer, and the temperature in the Cairngorms was a blistering 12.5C, accompanied by some occasional drizzle. It’s Scotland; I was prepared for some rain. What I was not prepared for was rain at 12.5C. Brrr!
Even more staggering was the temperature gradient between here and back home. At home Francine’s sister was “suffering” 29C. With a temperature gradient like that you should be able to hook up a thermocouple and power the National Grid.
We arrived at the Loch Garten RSPB reserve. We approached the young lady at the welcome desk and what was lying on the desk beside her? The European Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies by Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra and Richard Lewington – the European bible. Promising. I explained our interest ans she helpfully pointed us at a couple of known dragonfly ponds.
Before heading off to find the ponds, we just had to go and see poor EJ who was still sitting on her now empty nest. EJ is a female Osprey in the public limelight. She made headlines this year when a heavy fall of snow in May all but buried her sitting on her eggs. She and her mate, Odin, have been together for about 9 years and have raised many chicks successfully. Having overcome the May snowfall this year, however, real disaster struck. Soon after the chicks hatched, Odin disappeared. His fate remains unknown. The most likely theory is that he died, for whatever reason, but today we overheard another idea that he may just have become “tired of it”. Hmmm? Either way, EJ couldn’t hunt for fish but had to remain on the nest to keep her chicks warm. A forlorn hope: with Odin, the provider, missing, the chicks didn’t get fed and they perished in the nest. The last chick to hatch had never been fed at all. Such is nature’s dark side. Hopefully, EJ will find another suitable mate next year.
The first dragonfly pond proved difficult to find, largely because we’d been directed to the wrong side of the road and because it was considerably smaller than I had expected, about 4m/13ft long. Eventually we did find it but “not a creature stirred, not even a mouse”. Given the current conditions, I was not surprised. It looked most suited to Whitefaced Darters (Leucorrhinia dubia) with its floating moss, though, rather than Northern Damselflies (Coenagrion hastulatum) which like sedges and horsetails of which there were none.
The second pond proved easier to find, largely because we spotted four bods, two with tripods and cameras aimed over the water from the boardwalk. We parked and added to the throng. The two tripods disappeared. Our remaining friends, also wildlife enthusiasts with top of the range Canon kit, said the tripods had been trying long exposure landscape shots. Boardwalks tend to shudder unless everyone remains motionless. I don’t think they were especially impressed.
The temperature was still only about 14C. Odos tend to remain motionless themselves in such conditions. Our friends had some binoculars and had spotted my first target species in the horsetails which surrounded part of the boardwalk. I got some shots – distant shots but shots. In the tangle of horsetail stems focusing proved tricky so I tried switching to manual a few times. In these conditions I was surprised to have seen anything. I was moderately satisfied.
We began heading back. Francine spotted an orchid in the verge at a corner so we stopped for her to snag that. It was a lonely-only Northern Marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella), a new one for Francine’s catalogue.
Passenger happy, we paused a second time to call into an old fashioned tea shop where we indulged in a pot of tea for two and a date and walnut scone each. The scones were excellent. As we sat feeling a little like Derby and Joan, breaks appeared in the cloud. What the heck; we headed back to try to improve on our initial Northern Damselfly encounter.
And improve we did. When the sun was out the temperature soared to ~17C and the Northern Damselflies were now active. We saw a couple of couples in cop – our first glimpse of a female – and I found a spot just before the beginning of the boardwalk where there were specimens I could get better access to. I played with those for quite some time and eventually a female posed all by herself. It’s nice to have the full set.
Now, on a day on which I expected nothing, I’d got my first target and was a very happy camper indeed.