A sublime emerald experience

Flanders Moss NNR

David McCulloch, photographer, Flanders Moss dragonfly counter and one of our fantastic volunteers, tells about how he finally caught up, after a lot of searching, with our rarest of dragonflies on Flanders:

Can you restore a damaged peat bog? Here’s proof that you can!

The Northern Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora arctica) is a rare example of a dragonfly that, in the UK, only occurs in Scotland. Its stronghold is the Northwest Highlands, and Flanders Moss appears to be the only known site where it breeds in the Lowlands, making our population rather special.

They were first recorded at Flanders Moss in 2007, across on the west side of the Moss. Since then, there have been very occasional sightings. However, the western side of the bog is rarely visited, and this must affect the number of records submitted. One interesting development was the first sighting at the boardwalk on the southeast side of the bog in 2019. Then, David Pickett, the Reserve Manager, spotted two in 2020 close to the boardwalk:

David’s sighting prompted me to put ‘See a Northern Emerald at Flanders’ at the top of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. David Pickett saw one on 15 June this year, then 16 June, and a pair on 28 June. The seasonal rangers, Amos and Polly, managed to find (and film) a mating pair the previous weekend. I was getting more than a little frustrated at hearing of all these sightings, but never being able to see one for myself. It was becoming a running joke. Maybe I was the joke?

However, my luck finally changed on 24 July. I had been out on a remote part of the bog trying to photograph sundews, and on my return I had to cross a wide ditch. A wide ditch full of sphagnum moss. Indeed, the habitat favoured by Northern Emeralds! As I approached the edge of the ditch, I saw one Northern Emerald, partly obscured by a birch sapling and grass, but clearly a Northern Emerald. Not only that, it was a female laying eggs into the sphagnum moss. Bingo! Possibly the first record of egg-laying at Flanders, and proof of breeding at a particular spot.

I didn’t manage to get any decent photos that day, so I returned to the same spot two days later. As I approached the ditch, I immediately saw a pair of Northern Emeralds flying in the mating ‘wheel’ position. I watched them land on a birch sapling, and followed them.

They stayed coupled together for 28 minutes before consciously uncoupling and going their separate ways. As I had been watching the mating pair, a solitary male flew in and began to patrol the ditch, up and down, repeatedly. In fact, I watched him for about 90 minutes, on and off, and managed to get some photos of him during brief stops on the vegetation, and also a few flight shots.

During that 90 minutes, I spent some time sitting on a dry tussock beside the ditch in a remote part of the bog watching these three dragonflies, and also a few other species including four-spotted chaser, common hawker and black darter. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that particular moment. It was a sublime experience.

The site on the Moss where I found ‘my’ Northern Emeralds has an interesting history. It’s in what NatureScot staff refer to as the “Plantation Site”. That’s actually a misleading name because there are no plantation trees. The conifers, which had been planted as a commercial crop, were felled in 1997/98, although it’s still shown as forest on the Ordnance Survey maps today. The ditch was blocked in the early 2000s, about 20 years ago. Further remedial work, including ‘stump flipping’ and grazing by sheep, started from 2010 onwards. Therefore, this is not pristine and untouched raised bog. It’s a site where trees had been planted on deep peat, a practice that is now considered to be environmentally-damaging.

It’s clearly a Good News story that a site with such a chequered past can be remediated, and within 20 years become a hotspot for a dragonfly that is very choosy about breeding only on peat bogs.

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3 Responses to A sublime emerald experience

  1. Marvellous blog. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that particular moment. It was a sublime experience.’ What a great adventure – on a wee piece of restored peat bog! Thankyou for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne says:

    How uplifting it is to read such a positive account!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Dragonfly Downturn…or is it a bit more complicated? | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

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