As a textile artist with a global reputation as a colourist, I find the moorland flora immensely inspiring and take a keen interest in the colours that nature provides. I have a lifetime’s experience of observing such colours, but nevertheless I found myself literally gasping out loud as I constantly came across damsels and dragonflies in situations where their colours matched their surroundings in the most perfect harmony. It seemed obvious to me that they knew exactly where to go when they did not want to be seen, and the with which they did it forms the core of these observations.
The earth wakes up noticeably later in Lewis than on the mainland, but towards the end of March, weather permitting, there are little signs of hope and a general air of expectancy. I caught my first glimpse of odonatical events to come in the form of shooting around in little sphagnum hollows and old peatbank pools near the burn on the coastal moor. Between the clifftop loch and the burn there is which is quite unusual; most boggy pools are in flat open areas, but this pool is set in a hollow surrounded by a low bank which is edged with heather and woolly hair moss. Beyond the edges, the main surrounding vegetation is of red deer grass and sphagnum moss.
Even through April and into May, this little bog – sheltered and calm within its surrounding banks– gave away no hints of its true purpose. By the end of May, the bogbean had sprouted through the water surface and butterwort was blooming on a miniature island near its centre. In early June the first large red damsels appeared in my croft and garden, so I headed to the bog with high hopes. I was not disappointed. The air was humming and the bog and its banks were alive with large red and common blue damsels, courting, fighting and mating. Bog bean stems were decorated with delicate, transparent . Spiders were lurking in the bog bean leaves, and every now and then a great diving beetle would flash tantalisingly towards the surface. The were surprisingly well camouflaged in the heather and red grass stems, but also bold as brass, coming to bask on the warmth of my hands. They stared cheekily into the camera lens and paid me no heed as they went about their reproductive business. Though not much more than a mile separated them from the colony of these were markedly different: instead of having metallic gold panels on the thorax and mouthparts, they had opaque black panels on the thorax and their mouthparts were bright yellow. One pair of them, ovipositing from a bog bean stem, caught my attention as I had never before seen the female submerging completely. There was a wonderful few moments when her wings created a circle of tension in the water surface, which made me literally hold my breath. Another extraordinary moment was when she emerged again with water droplets hanging on her wings.
The were altogether more camera-shy, despite the bright blue “look at me” outfits of the males. In contrast, the females were extremely hard to spot in the heather and grasses and I had to keep my eyes ultra-peeled for movement in order to have a chance to get close look at them.
Then came the great surprise of the day in the form of a which stormed onto the scene and proceeded to pattern the still water with circles as it ostentatiously whacked its tail end on the surface of the bog. This was the first chaser I had ever seen in Lewis. It was swiftly followed by another and they had several mid-air clashes before one departed and headed over the slope towards the burn. Once the first had finished cooling off, it explored the bog, landing here and there, on the sphagnum edges of the pool and then the woolly hair moss on the bank. I was immediately struck by how extraordinarily well it blended in with the surrounding vegetation; it would have been very difficult to spot when still among the mosses, for its colours and patterns worked in tune with all the varied hues around it. A few days later I spotted in the deep heather by the burn, and once again I thought it remarkable how it seemed to merge into the colours and patterns of its surroundings.
By the end of June the common blue damsels held sway on the lochsides and bogs. The borders of Loch na Ramh and another loch nearby were edged in dancing waves of bright blue males. I photographed on heather just above a large area of yellow sphagnum moss and noticed that the yellow female matched the moss perfectly. I compared her to I had photographed the day before in deep heather along a burnside. She was a good distance away from any sphagnum and showed no trace of yellow. Her colours were completely in tune with the heather, just starting its summer growth. This led me to wonder if, as well as the changes in colour which occur with maturity, the colouring of some individuals was affected by their micro-environment.
At Loch na Ramh I discovered . They were confined to very small areas where long green grass and rushes grow at the water’s edge. On careful close inspection, I found yellow-brown females lurking in the similarly coloured dead grasses at ground and water level. Even in their mating dances, the blue-tails seemed reluctant to fly beyond these little grassy patches. One freshly emerged , still hanging on to its larval armour while patiently waiting for its wings to harden, shared the grasses with the tiny blue-tails – but not for long. It was off within the hour, no doubt to roam the wider range as has always been their way.
On the same day – June 29th – into view at Loch na Ramh. This is unusually early here for darters. Blood red and all alone, it lived up to its name as it darted at high speed around the red and blue damsels. I had seen a good many red darters at Achmore in the summer of 2006 – the first time I had ever seen red darters in Lewis. That had been a bounty year for odonata in general, and so I was delighted to see a red one again this year, and hoped this meant they might be planning to take up permanent residence. I got a closer look as it rested momentarily on a stone and noted that, like the ones I had seen the previous year, it appeared to have red veins on the upper areas of both sets of wings. It also appeared to have pale yellow longitudinal stripes on its legs.
As July wore on, the four-spotted chaser became a memory and the damsels diminished in number. It was the turn of the common hawker to preside over every loch, burn, river and peatbank. As I expected, they were in charge at all locations, including my garden where they systematically and relentlessly quartered the lawns bordering the stream and on a tall Jacobite rose. The hawkers were everywhere on the moor that I went; they truly are the wardens of the myriad moorland banks. On all but the windiest summer days you can see and hear them whirring by on the great open stretches, and on windy days they patrol the deader air at the sides of peaty banks, harvesting midges by the score. Steep, heathered slopes of fast-flowing burns are favourite haunts, though they have to keep their all-seeing eyes peeled for Merlin that fly as fast as the burns to hunt them. Perhaps by keeping still in the heather, like the female photographed, they can escape the little raptor’s sharp eyes.
During the last week in July the began its amazing colour transformation. The first stage saw its tips change from fresh green to a honey-gold. Walking through it, I could imagine what it feels like to be a gnat in the mane of a giant lion. The walk through deer grass to the bog on the coastal moor was a magical experience; clouds of flew up with every footstep, as though the glossy, gold grass itself was morphing into golden dragonflies. Up they flew on shining new wings, and then down again to hide out of my path. Only when they went way down into the green base of the grass could I spot them clearly, and I could not help but muse on the possibility that they had waited for the grass to turn gold before they launched their vulnerable new bodies into the upper world. At each location, black darter tenerals appeared suddenly in a big burst which coincided exactly with the deer grass turning gold. It really was a most beautiful sight.
Within the week the deer grass began to redden at the tips and the gradually turned black. There were still in mid-August but not nearly in such great numbers. The coastal moor and Loch na Ramh locations were now dominated by black darters. Achmore was now the only location where I found red darters, and here they equalled the blacks in number. The are exposed on the flat, open plain, and perhaps that is why major activity began later than in the more sheltered locations. Through my telescope I observed a black darter larva emerging onto an island in an Achmore bog pool in early July. In spite of bright sunshine, the wind was brisk and cold, and half way up a sprig of heather the larva had a change of heart. It backed down the stem then plodded purposefully over the moss and plopped back into the pool.
August is the peak month for rampant growth on Lewis and the weather became sunny and humid. On August 9th I found on warm stones along the track to Loch Achmore, as well as on the rocks and banks around the loch itself. They were fabulously camouflaged in their variable on the capifolium sphagnum at my old peatbanks, whilst they appeared pinky red which was now in bloom. One stood out spectacularly on a rock covered in cudbear lichen, revealing its yellow-veined wings. Perhaps this was a female. The precise identity of the red darters was proving to be a puzzle to me. They seemed to exist in perfect harmony with the black darters, often basking together on the same rocks, but the reds were the only species that I never saw mating or even attempting to do so.
Reproduction was the agenda at the coastal bog on August 11th. Since the bog has no official name, I christened it the Bordello in remembrance of that steamy day. Perhaps it is the low banks which afford enough shelter so that it is not necessary to spread out, or maybe these coastal dragons are especially shameless exhibitionists. At any rate, this was an odonatical orgy and probably not a good picnic spot for a Presbyterian maiden aunt. , fighting, ovipositing, and generally making a most vigorous display. In the midst of this, a arrived, ignoring all and intent on laying eggs in every square inch of the bog. She made her way around, spending a minute or two laying in each spot while darters whizzed around her. There was a tremendous sense of urgency about it all, as though they knew that time was of the essence and our short summer would soon be over.
Sure enough, that was the height of the humid spell. Though darters and hawkers were still around throughout August, the weather cooled markedly. By the beginning of September the hawkers were a spent force and the black darter males that remained were . I saw the last one at the Bordello on the September 29th. The deer grass had turned rusty brown and the bog bean had withered. However, I – and the great diving beetles – know that under the Bordello’s silent surface are millions of little time bombs ready to explode into extraordinary life.