The 2020 Odonata in Sussex Challenge

, 13 May 2021
The 2020 Odonata in Sussex Challenge
Beautiful Demoiselle by Alan Martin

For many years I have been meaning to take more interest in Dragonflies and Damselflies, and the summer and autumn of 2020 provided the perfect opportunity as movements were restricted and holidays cancelled due to the Covid crisis. 

The wonderful ‘Dragonflies of Sussex’ book by Belden et al published in 2004 describes the 29 regular breeding species in Sussex, of which 24 can be found in the south-east corner of the county where I live, with the remaining 5 found either in the acid bogs of Ashdown Forest or in West Sussex around the River Arun. Added to that are the recent colonists Willow Emerald Damselfly and Southern Migrant Hawker which are both found in the south-east of the county, making a reasonable target of 26 species within easy reach, and 5 further afield if wanted. The added challenge, and necessary for a beginner to confirm the identification of some of the harder species, was to photograph all the species I found.

It soon became apparent that the commoner species such as Large Red, Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies, Brown Hawker, Emperor Dragonfly and Common Darter could be found almost anywhere there was a reasonable pond or small stream, and later in the season Migrant Hawkers could also be found almost anywhere, often some distance from water. Banded Demoiselles were easy to find on faster flowing streams up to larger rivers, often with Black-tailed Skimmers. 

There is little information on the internet regarding the best sites in Sussex to visit, even from the Sussex Dragonfly Society, but the Belden book does briefly describe a number of sites worth visiting.  Initially I concentrated on the local sites mentioned in the book, but gradually I realised that the most important thing was to find places where you could get close to the water’s edge in a variety of habitats, with ponds of various sizes, and streams and ditches of different sizes and salinity. All species of Odonata are more active in warm and fairly still conditions, but perversely it is sometimes easier to photograph them on windy days when they can be found resting in sheltered corners.

Most of my time was spent in my 4 local areas described below, plus I made 2 visits to the Old Lodge Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve in Ashdown Forest and one to the River Arun near Billingshurst. I also have a small pond in my garden (about 5 x 4 metres) and I was amazed to record 12 species there, including occasional records of White-legged and Willow Emerald Damselfly, both presumably wanderers as no suitable habitat occurs nearby.

The Brede Valley

About a mile south of Brede on the A28 is Brede Bridge, and from here there is an excellent public footpath going westwards along the southern side of the river, and easy parking close to the bridge. This was by far the most productive local place that I found for both Beautiful and Banded Demoiselles, but it was also good for the common damselflies such as Azure, Common Blue, Blue-tailed and Large Red, White-legged Damselfly and Emperor Dragonfly. 

Banded Demoiselle Alan Martin    Banded Demoiselle

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve 

 Access to much of the Rye Harbour reserve is restricted to protect the breeding birds from disturbance, but there are many ponds and ditches in the Castle Water area that are excellent for Odonata. The best route in is via the public footpath which is about half-way along Harbour Road and leads towards the viewpoint. That area and especially along the sides of the path that runs in a westerly direction parallel to the road is ideal for Willow Emerald Damselfly and other more common species. From there follow the path towards Camber Castle and explore the many ditches and water edges where Ruddy Darters are common and Southern Migrant Hawkers can be found. The most common damselflies seem to be Common Blue and Blue-tailed, and later in the season Migrant Hawkers can be abundant.

Southern Migrant Hawker Alan Martin    Southern Migrant Hawker

Pett Level and the Military Canal

This is another large area with easy access along the Military Canal from the Strand Bridge just east of Winchelsea or from the south at Cliff End. There are many small ditches that run from the canal towards the sea that are also worth investigating, and the area is good for Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed Damselfly, White-legged Damselfly and Broad-bodied Chaser. During the entire season I saw very few Southern Hawkers other than a few here along the canal, but Southern Migrant Hawker also occurs as does Willow Emerald Damselfly along the canal near to Strand Bridge.

Red eyed damselfly Alan Martin      Red-eyed Damselfly

Pevensey Levels

This huge area has a network of channels and ditches that can be explored from many directions, but I particularly liked the paths south from Boreham Bridge on the A269 (which has the easiest parking), the path north from the Lamb Inn on the B2095 near where it joins the A259 and the path north from the Star Inn on Sluice Lane. Perhaps the most important species to be found is Variable Damselfly which is widespread in this area, but there are many other species including Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed Damselflies, White-legged Damselfly and Four-spotted Chaser. This was the only place that I recorded Hairy Dragonfly, but as I only started my quest on the 31st May I suspect that I missed the main flight period for this species. In total I recorded 18 species here, but expected to also see Southern Hawker and Emerald Damselfly.

Variable damselfly Alan Martin    Variable Damselfly

Old Lodge SWT Reserve, Ashdown Forest

There are several species that require the acid water ponds and streams found on Ashdown Forest, and Old Lodge is a well-known and easily accessible place to see them. The areas to search are very limited with only a handful of small ponds and a narrow stream that runs across the reserve, and during my two visits in June and July it was easy to find good numbers of Golden-ringed Dragonfly and the prime target species of Keeled Skimmer and Small Red Damselfly. The third key species found there is Black Darter, but this occurs from mid-July to late October so my visits were too early.

Golden ringed dragonfly Alan Martin    Golden-ringed Dragonfly

The River Arun near Billingshurst

The main reason to travel to West Sussex was to find two species that are most often seen on the River Arun, and access is easiest from New Bridge on the A272 between Billingshurst and Wisborough Green. Club-tailed Dragonfly is a notoriously difficult species to see as it spends much of its time away from the water and it evaded me, but the other target species is Scarce Chaser and that was easy to find on the river bank along with numerous Banded Demoiselles, Red-eyed Damselflies and other more common species.

Scarce chaser Alan Martin   Scarce Chaser

 In total I managed to see and photograph 26 of the 31 target species in Sussex, a creditable effort and 2 of the missing species were found and photographed outside Sussex (Emerald Damselfly and Black Darter). The remaining 3 missing species are Club-tailed Dragonfly which has a very small but nationally important population on the River Arun, and the two Emerald Dragonflies (Downy and Brilliant) which are both scarce, difficult to separate and found mostly in the north of the county. A few other migrant species do occur occasionally in Sussex, mostly along the coast, such as Lesser Emperor and Red-veined Darter, but to my knowledge there were no local records of either in 2020.

 So the challenges for 2021, are to find those remaining 5 species in Sussex, and as always continue the search for that illusive perfect photo of each species.

words and photos by Alan Martin, volunteer at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

Broad bodied Chaser Alan Martin    Broad-bodied Chaser emerged 14th May 2021

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  • Robin Harris:

    Very interesting and informative piece, Alan. And some lovely photos. As you say, the Belden book is very helpful. Many years ago, when I was a regular at Darwell Res, I found a Golden-ringed Dragonfly at the point where the Darwell Stream goes under the service road for the conveyor belt.

    14 May 2021 16:45:00