Words and pictures: Mat Bingham
In late June the opportunity for a day out exploring the River Soar with my camera came up so I decided to make the most of it. I spent the night before with my maps out, pencil, notebook and pint of cider. I decided to investigate Kingston Brook in the morning, a tributary of the Soar and to walk along the main river at Loughborough in the late afternoon and evening.
My alarm went off all too quickly and in the half light I dragged myself out of bed, made a fuss of the dog, stocked up on provisions and left the house making for the brook. The sky was cloudless and there was a chill in the air, it looked as if it was going to be a warm day.
The public footpath, parallel with the brook is not great for access as it has a barbwire fence alongside it to stop over enthusiastic cattle falling in. Having reconnoitered the site previously I had decided I would wade upstream avoiding the wire and the Friesians. I slowly eased myself into the cool water trying not to brush against too many nettles. Once in I slowly started to make my way along the brook scanning the bankside vegetation. I often think this is the best way to look for wildlife, it feels like you are more immersed in their world.
It wasn’t long before I found an Elephant Hawkmoth hanging from a nettle. It moved just as I looked along the bank giving away its presence. My eyes are used to looking for movement when out stalking. This is the first Elephant Hawk Moth I have found in the wild without using a moth trap. I stopped for a while to photograph it and look in detail at its magnificent wings. I made sure it had adequate cover from the sun before moving on.
Further along the brook I found the wings of a Male Banded Demoiselle in a spiders web, the only inedible parts left by the spider. I also noticed a female trapped in a web on the opposite bank. She was long dead, the spark gone from her emerald green body.
The sun was now high enough to light both banks of the brook. Out from their resting places male Banded Demoiselles started to patrol along the river, fighting over the best perches
Each time a female flew past they would chase her, all fighting for the chance to mate.
A male landed on the water to show a receptive female how strong he was but he didn’t seem able to break free of the waters grasp. He drifted along with the current, his wings waterlogged, at the mercy of the water. It wouldn’t be long before a fish picked him off. For a moment I agonised over whether I should interfere with the natural order of things. My mind made up, I raced ahead of him and scooped him up in my hand. He rested drying in the sun on my palm for a few moments before flying off.
I noticed a male and female Banded Demoiselle mating in the nettles, doing their best to hide from the other males. He clasped her behind her head, passing his sperm to her, both forming a heart shape with their bodies as they did so. Once the mating was complete he flew off. She rested for a few moments before fluttering down to the brook to lay her eggs in the aquatic plants swaying in the current.
Almost immediately she was spotted by several males who mobbed her. One male managed to clasp her behind her head and drag her from the water as another male joined in the melee followed by another, they all landed in the water, a metallic ball of legs and fluttering wings. I began to panic thinking she was going to drown but the first male managed to take flight pulling her free from the water. She never had a chance to lay her eggs before being attacked and this new suitor would remove any sperm from the previous male before replacing it with his own. I decided this was a very tough life these insects have. I left the brook and make my way to the main river.
I arrived at Loughborough Meadows in the late afternoon, it was hot but I didn’t mind, the meadows looked stunning in full bloom. I could hear Skylarks as I walked through the long grass, this site is a stronghold of theirs. I caught site of Swifts high up in the ultramarine sky and Swallows lower down hawking for insects. The Soar meanders through the meadows, the banks falling away steeply, an ideal nesting site for Kingfishers and then I heard the unmistakable call from the river. A Male Kingfisher was signaling to his mate from a perch opposite me.
There were hundreds of Butterflies on the wing, mainly Meadow Browns, Small Skippers and Ringlets. The thing that caught my attention the most was the hundreds of Banded Demoiselle I flushed into the air as I walked through the meadow. I have never seen so many, they took to the air like seeds dispersing from a dandelion in the breeze.
I found another male Banded Demoiselle trapped in a spiders web. I stopped and photographed him in the sunshine. He started to try and free himself, but only managed to entangle himself further. I decided to intervene again even though part of me thought that the spider probably needed the meal more. I couldn’t bear watching the spark of life wane and go out in such a beautiful creature. I carefully removed him from the web. Its amazing how strong silk is, I could almost feel it pulling against me unwilling to release the meal. I thought that maybe I had left it too late but I managed to un-entangle the demoiselle and almost immediately he flew off from my hand catching me by surprise.
I found it curious that although having seen hundreds if not thousands of demoiselles on my walk I had seen very few dragonflies. In the northwest where I lived until recently there seem to be more dragonflies on the rivers and less damselflies. I decided to head for home and ponder this further, my feet were aching, memory cards were full and I was looking forward to a pint of cider.