As summer drifts into autumn, dragonfly activity in the UK is on the wane. One solution for this annual challenge – a way to stretch the season – is to spend some time in southern Europe. I had the privilege of visiting Extremadura in September and was treated to a late-season serving of my favourite insects.
Extremadura is a large patch of wild Spain, south-west of Madrid with Portugal immediately to its west. It covers over 16,000 square miles (over 41,000 square kilometres) which is about twice the size of Wales, or for readers with US wiring, bigger than Maryland but smaller than West Virginia. Its wildlife fame is rooted in its avifauna – which includes plenty of Old World vultures, Iberian Imperial Eagles (which are endemic to Spain and Portugal), Golden, Booted, Bonelli’s and Short-toed Eagles and other birds of prey, bustards and sandgrouse. Most wildlife tourists come for the birds but there are other winged things to draw them in – butterflies of course, as well as the objects of my particular passion, dragonflies and damselflies.
The British summer had been an unreliable one, so the prospect of some sun and heat in southern Europe was attractive. The prospect of some good dragonfly-watching was attractive too. Madrid is the best airport to head to – from there a drive of about two and a half hours will get you to Trujillo or thereabouts, in the heart of Extremadura. I took the 0825 flight from London’s Stansted airport on 9 Sept, and by about 1500 that afternoon I had donned my trusty hat (recommended if you’re out in the sun here – temperatures topped 30 degrees C) and was in Extremadura enjoying the dragons at Arrocampo.
Out of Africa
I’d done a bit of research on the plane, leafing through the ‘Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe’ to check out what I might be seeing. I’d made a list of potential species, some with question marks. The first dragon we saw, which came very quickly, was a ground-loving species with dark pigment patches on its outer wings. Those are probably the two most notable things about it. It’s no surprise then that it goes by the name of Banded Groundling Brachythemis leucosticta. The book did have a small distribution blob in the right general area but it was a species that I had question marked. To call it Spanish is a bit misguided. Banded Groundlings are extremely common in the African tropics – they hang around the watering holes, presumably dining out on small insects disturbed by large mammals that stop by for a drink. Over a few decades, Banded Groundlings have expanded their range to the north. They weren’t hard to see or identify. Mature males and some females have the wing patches, and as the male gets older his abdomen gets blacker and blacker.
The Spanish-African theme continued with another tropical African species that has found its way into parts of southern Europe – the Long Skimmer Orthetrum trinacria. With its stretched-out abdomen the Long Skimmer looks very different to its stouter namesakes that I am more familiar with. There were good numbers at Arrocampo, with dapper blue-grey males and gorgeous, well-marked females with lovely blue eyes. I looked at a male through my ‘scope, and pencilled ‘indigo eyes’ and ‘bulbous abdomen base’ into my notebook.
The blue-saddled Lesser Emperor Anax parthenope, redder-than-red Broad Scarlet Crocothemis erythraea, both of which are good Mediterranean species, and Iberian Bluetail Ischnura graellsii (which in Europe is largely confined to Spain and Portugal) completed our first session. None of these are beasts that I would expect to see in the UK. Birds had been the supporting cast rather than the stars of the show – with Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea and Iberian Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis in cameo roles, and a Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio providing a ridiculous trumpet accompaniment.
Searching high and low
We looked high and low for dragonflies, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. A reservoir up in the Grados mountains in La Vera, an area world-famous for its smoked paprika, was, for us, a dragonfly-free zone. But the mountains were impressive and we kept looking as we descended. Still no dragons, but the butterflies included a very nice Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus and a splendid Schreiber’s Green Lizard Lacerta schreiberi posed for pictures. The dragons came later, at a lower altitude along a mature Rio Tiétar.
Violet Dropwing Trithemis annulata is an iconic species – well-named, stunning, and another species with an African heartland that has made itself at home in the south of Europe. They were first recorded in Spain in the 1970s. The violet colour is pruinescence, a powdery bloom that overlays the dragon’s red body. If they are present and the sun is shining, they are easy enough to see. We saw around 20, and even my guide was impressed with that! One pair were mating in flight, sealing their membership of the metre-high club. One was chased by a hungry Hornet Vespa crabro, but thankfully, the Hornet stayed hungry.
The real star of the Tiétar show was the kind of dragonfly that you see in the book and want to see for real. With flaps towards the tip of its abdomen, it was easy to identify in flight. When it settled things got better – its scorpion-like hooked appendages, which it flexed to show them off, made its ID even more secure – we were looking at a Green Hooktail Paragomphus genei. This creature has a very limited European range but once again, is common in Africa. In a side-on view this magnificent beast appears to have a single, formidable hook at the tip of its abdomen. Actually, there are two hooks, one on each side and they are what the male uses to grab hold of the female for mating. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any females…!
The Tiétar was also home to good numbers of White Featherleg Platycnemis latipes – a pale damselfly with a bouncy flight, Western Demoiselles Calopteryx xanthostoma – the males with dipped-in-ink wingtips, Iberian Bluetail, Lesser Emperor, Blue Emperor Anax imperator, Broad Scarlet and Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii. The dragons were great, I’d had hot sand on my feet and the frogs were leaping – the Tiétar had come up with the goods.
River and rice
We started our exploration of the Rio Almonte at a lower altitude, walking its rocky riverbed, which had been revealed by a particularly hot summer, searching for dragons at several places along its course, and working upstream. The Odonate highlights were the skimmers, Keeled Orthetrum coerulescens, including a pair mating at leisure, and Epaulet O. chrysostigma, yet another species that is more African than Spanish. In fact, if you look carefully at the map in the field guide, this species doesn’t occur here. The book was clearly unintelligible to Epaulet Skimmers because they were here, and by sitting patiently for a while, I enjoyed a very close encounter with a male, powder-blue, with a slight constriction towards the top end of the abdomen, and a streak of yellow pigment on the inner edge of the hindwing. The sun shone through its wings, projecting that yellow onto its shadow on the rock beneath. Their name comes from a black-edged white epaulet on the sides of the thorax.
Looking for dragons is mostly about looking down, and looking out. This was a good day to look up too, with Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus aloft, Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, a light-phase Booted Eagle Aquila pennata looking tiny among its vulture companions, and a House Martin Delichon urbicum mobbing a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus.
Now for the rice. Extremadura grows a lot of it, and if you want to see Red-veined Darters en-masse, head to a rice field. We went to Moheda Alta, where rice is grown and there’s a substantial reservoir. There were hundreds of Red-veined Darters, including a small number of mature males. Epaulet Skimmers put in another appearance, one of which settled on the ground, chomping away on its insect dinner.
Romans and damsels
When the Romans were overseeing the building of the bridge at Merida, Extremadura’s capital, they must have noticed some dragonflies. The bridge is about 800 metres in length, making it the world’s longest surviving Roman bridge. This is a city that is worth visiting for its Roman and Moorish history alone, but there is good wildlife watching too. We looked for dragonflies on the western side of the Guadiana with the Roman bridge off to our left. The Erythromma genus is represented by three species in Europe. It’s a group that is also known as ‘brighteyes’ or ‘red-eyed damselflies’. Two Erythromma species occur in Extremadura and we saw both of them here – a single, distant Small Redeye E. viridulum, and about five Blue-eyes E. lindenii. As the name tells you, the males of this latter species have blue eyes… methinks ‘brighteyes’ is the better name for this group.
Of 79 dragonfly species that can be found on the Iberian peninsula, 55 occur in Extremadura. If the previous paragraphs haven’t whetted your appetite enough, imagine encountering Common Winter Damsel Sympecma fusca, Dainty Bluet Coenagrion scitulum, Western Spectre Boyeria Irene, Large Pincertail Onychogomphus uncatus, Small Pincertail O. forcipatus, Orange-spotted Emerald Oxygastra curtisii, or even that most iconic of species the Splendid Cruiser Macromia splendens. You can see these and more in Extremadura.
If you would be interested in joining a group visiting Extremadura in September 2016, looking primarily for dragonflies but with some great birds included in the programme too, contact David at [email protected].
With thanks to Vanesa Palacios at Extremedura Turismo, Jesus Ruiz Martinez at the Spanish Tourist Office and Martin Kelsey of birdingextremadura for making the trip possible. Thanks also to Claudia and Patrick Kelsey for looking after me so well.