A Dragonfly Tour of Extremadura, Spain

Large Pincertail © David Chandler

 

I first visited Extremadura specifically to look for dragonflies in September 2015. You can read about that visit here. I visited again in 2017, in the extreme heat of early August, a time most people would avoid, with the aim of seeing some different species.

Extremadura is a large patch of wild Spain, south-west of Madrid and rubbing up against Portugal. To use a standard measure of area, at least for us Brits, it’s about twice the size of Wales, and has a good variety of dragonfly habitat, from youthful mountain streams to ageing, meandering rivers, canalised waterways, ditches, boggy areas, ponds and reservoirs.

 

Obelisking, African colonists and more

For me, and I suspect for many Odonuts* abroad, Extremadura’s interest is primarily in the species that aren’t seen at home, or at least not very often, including a number that have colonised Europe from Africa. Home for me is the UK, where Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii is a red-letter species. That is certainly not true in Extremadura. They are no less wonderful, but here they are very, very common.

Red-veined Darter © David Chandler

If you have never experienced it before, their sheer numbers will amaze you. And if you like to point your camera at Odonate beauty, sometimes these demi-blue-eyed creatures allow a very close approach – the image of an obelisking Red-veined Darter was taken with a macro lens. In contrast, Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum was very thin on the ground and seen on just one of our four days.

Obelisking helps to avoid overheating. An obelisking dragon points its backend towards the sun. This drastically reduces the amount of surface area that is exposed to the full force of the sun. With Southern Europe in the grip of a heatwave, it wasn’t just Red-veined Darters that were obelisking. Perhaps I should have tried it myself but I wouldn’t have looked as stunning as the Violet Dropwings Trithemis annulata. At this time of year they aren’t difficult to see – we saw them on three days out of four, with over 20 on the Rio Tiétar, our first site on our first day. It’s hard to tire of such a gorgeous dragonfly, and it’s quite hard to stop taking pictures of them! Here are some extracts from my notes scribbled at the time:

V Dropwing obelisking… Green Hooktail Paragomphus genei – probable – up river, low fast, abdomen dipping, V Dropwing in pursuit… Male Western Demoiselle Calopteryx xanthostoma after female, V Dropwing nearby… V Dropwing flying in-cop, another male in hot pursuit… (I don’t normally include scientific names in my notebooks – I added them in to keep the editor happy!)

It’s not shown on the map in Dijkstra and Lewington (Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe), but Orange-winged Dropwing Trithemis kirbyi has also hopped across the sea from Africa into Spain. It’s a species that we were keen to see, and it was certainly possible, but alas, we failed on that one. Another time maybe… Other African dragons were easier to come by. Arrocampo is a reliable site for Long Skimmer Orthetrum trinacri, and Banded Groundling Brachythemis impartita seemed more widespread than two years ago. This year we saw reasonable numbers on the western side of the Rio Guadiana near the Roman bridge in Mérida for example. If you’re in Mérida, spend some time here. I saw six species from one spot – Iberian Bluetail Ischnura graellsii, Small Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma viridulum, Goblet-marked Damselfly E. lindenii, Banded Groundling, Scarlet Darter Crocothemis erythraea, and Violet Dropwing,– and all in about 30 seconds!

Black Percher Diplacodes lefebvrii, another African colonist, was one of our target species, and a dragonfly that I had never seen before. Our destination was Malpartida de Cáceres, a few pools well off the beaten track, which you’d never find without local knowledge.

Malpartida de Cáceres, Extremadura, Spain.

There were Bee-eaters Merops apiaster, Pallid Swifts Apus pallidus and a Booted Eagle Aquila pennata as avian distractions, but Diplacodes wasn’t easy to find. We did though, first, a female with small, pale marks on the sides of the abdomen, then, later, a male, with white appendages – in time, these should blacken too. Then another male, which appeared to have blue LEDs at the top of its frons! We saw about six in total, including two males.

With a largely European distribution and just one peculiar record in the UK, I can be pretty confident that most readers won’t have encountered Winter Damselfly Sympecma fusca at home.

Winter damselfly Sympecma fusca © David Chandler

Winter damselfly © David Chandler

I knew they were a possibility, but it’s an easy species to overlook and seeing them was a pleasant surprise. Unusually, this species survives the winter as an adult, hence the name. We were in a UNESCO Geopark, picking our way along the lovely rocky, Ibor river when we found the first one. There was Willow Emerald Chalcolestes viridis nearby and we were in classic Pincertail, or should I say Hooktail, habitat.

Small Pincertail in typical habitat. © David Chandler

Pincertails and Emeralds – a bit on ID

Pincertails (I prefer that to Hooktails) were high on my wishlist and I wasn’t disappointed. Large Pincertail Onychogomphus uncatus came first, and then, soon after, Small Pincertail O. forcipatus. The two species were within 20 metres of each other – they are often seen in the same places. ‘Small’ and ‘Large’ are not particularly helpful adjectives when it comes to identification. The pattern on the sides and top of the thorax, whether the yellow collar is broken by black or not, and wing venation are easier features to work with. You know you’ve got it bad when you’re looking at wing venation. We were doing just that, not after netting, but after photographing – just zoom in on an appropriate image and look at the anal triangle – it has four cells on a Large Pincertail and three on a Small. Or at least, normally it does…

Large Pincertail. © David Chandler

Small Pincertail on rock. © David Chandler

We found another Pincertail at Castaños de Calabazas later that day. The side and top of the thorax said Large, the yellow collar was broken by black, and the shape of the lower pincer looked good for Large too. But the anal triangle only had three cells – clearly, it’s a feature that shouldn’t be used in isolation, and in fairness, Dijkstra and Lewington do say ‘normally’. We saw a good few Pincertails that day, up close, flying around my feet and settled on a rock about one and a half metres away. For me, they were the highlights of my time in the Extremaduran oven.

We also hoped for Faded Pincertail O. costae, but hope faded. This is a small, washed-out, cryptic species that settles on gravel. We were by the Rio Guadiana, upstream from Merida. It was 31 degrees C with very little breeze. Sweat dripped off my nose. We saw Iberian Hares Lepus granatensis and Iberian Magpies Cyanopica cyanus. Golden Orioles Oriolus oriolus sang. Perhaps this Pincertail is just too cryptic, or perhaps it just wasn’t there. Another time maybe…

Aside from Willow Emerald, Extremadura hosts Scarce Emerald Lestes dryas, Small Emerald L. virens, and Southern Emerald L. barbarus. ID of the latter two can be more complex here than you might think. Dijkstra and Lewington says that virens has a bi-coloured pterostigma in parts of Iberia, that ‘some Iberian populations recall L. barbarus’, and that ‘these are part of a confusing and unresolved taxonomic situation’. Not simple then.

Small Emerald © David Chandler

Southern Emerald © David Chandler

There were Emerald damselflies at the Black Percher site. I saw my first Southern Emerald here as well as a beast that we concluded was a Small Emerald, with more pale on the pterostigmata than you would expect in other parts of its range.

Black Percher © David Chandler

Ecotourism

Extremadura is home to at least 55 species of dragonfly and damselfly. There are still more for me to see including Dainty Damselfly Coenagrion scitulum, Dusk Hawker Boyeria irene, Splendid Cruiser Macromia splendens, Pronged Clubtail Gomphus graslinii and Orange-spotted Emerald Oxygastra curtisii. During my August visit I gave a presentation that focussed on dragonflies and damselflies and what they could add to wildlife tourism in Extremadura. In that vein, I’m considering going back, probably in June 2018, building on some interest shown two years ago.

If you’d like to come with me, on a trip led by Martin Kelsey of birdingextremadura.com and myself please contact me at [email protected]. There will be dragons at a gentle pace (that’s the way I like it!), other wildlife, good food, and a bit of history, so you wouldn’t need to be a complete Odonut to enjoy it! Price and timing to be confirmed if there is sufficient interest, but we would avoid the very hottest part of the year.

We also saw:

  • Copper Demoiselle Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis
  • White Featherleg Platycnemis latipes
  • Emperor Anax imperator
  • Lesser Emperor Anax Parthenope
  • Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum
  • Keeled Skimmer O. coerulescens
  • Southern Skimmer O. brunneum
  • Epaulet Skimmer O. chrysostigma

With thanks to Vanesa Palacios at Extremedura Turismo, Luis Blanco at the Spanish Tourist Office and Martin Kelsey of birdingextremadura.com for making it possible. Thanks also to Claudia and Patrick Kelsey, and Samiya for looking after me so well.

For more information on the dragonflies of Extremadura see: http://extremambiente.gobex.es/files/biblioteca_digital/atlas_odonatos.pdf. But it is in Spanish!

*Odonut: a contraction of Odonate nut – a person who is passionate passionate about dragonflies and damselflies. Useful when ‘Odonatologist’ is just too serious.

For more information:

SPANISH TOURIST OFFICE

W: www.spain.info

E: [email protected]

EXTREMADURA TURISMO

W: www.turismoextremadura.com

E: [email protected]

 

BIRDING EXTREMADURA

W: www.birdingextremadura.com

E: [email protected]

 

 

David Chandler

David Chandler is a freelance writer and environmental educator. He is the author/co-author of 14 books including 100 Birds to See in your Lifetime, Barn Owl, and Dragonfly. David lives near Cambridge in the UK. Read More