This article, Dragonfly Identification Pt 1, is aimed at those folk who have an interest in nature, would love to be able to identify our colourful and enigmatic dragonflies, and could do with a little help. In this first instalment, I’ll look at the larger species that come under the umbrella of ‘hawkers’. The second will deal with the chasers, skimmers and darters. If they prove popular I might move onto the damselflies – but it takes an awful lot of time! I hope it will inspire people to want to get out and see these wonderful, and completely harmless (to humans) creatures, and find out more about them. In which case there are a number of excellent reference works available, some of which I’ve listed at the end of this article. It should be noted I have only included those species likely to be encountered within Norfolk, which is nearly all of them, and have not clouded the issue with reference to potential colonists or vagrants. If you know about them you don’t need this guide!
Dragonflies are insects and come under the scientific order Odonata. There are some 47 species of Odonata breeding in the UK, although several of these have low populations and/or very limited range. These split into two basic groups; damselflies, those more dainty and smaller creatures with weak, fluttery flight, of which there are 20 species, and 27 species of what would commonly be termed ‘dragonflies’, robust, speedy and generally much larger. Of course there is overlap, but a rule of thumb to distinguish which is which is that a damselfly will rest with its wings closed along its body, whereas a dragonfly will rest with its wings outstretched as illustrated in the images below.
Dragonflies are fascinating creatures with complex lifestyles, but can be very difficult to see properly. Most often they are simple blurs of colour as they swiftly move along a dyke edge or hawk insects from around low vegetation. However, with care and patience it is quite possible to find and approach them at rest when their true beauty and complexity can be fully appreciated. Using a pair of binoculars with close focus capability can effectively bring them closer to you, enabling better scrutiny without disturbance. Then it is possible to identify them to species level by looking for key features and applying the process of elimination. As with all things wildlife, keeping still and avoiding sudden movements will pay dividends. It is also possible to take advantage of a sudden cloudy spell on an otherwise sunny day to look for them temporarily resting up on dykeside vegetation or bushes. Likewise they can be found ‘roosting’ in the cooler air of evening. At these times stealthy approach can allow close observation.
Another way to get close is to look around pond margins for newly emerged insects early in the morning. During this time – maybe 2-3 hours – they will be quite still whilst they dry off next to their larval case, waiting for bodily fluids to pump into their wing veins allowing their first flight. At that stage they are very vulnerable to predation and will not have attained their adult colouration, so care will be needed with identification. Watching a dragonfly at this ‘teneral’ stage can be a fascinating experience and one that will make you fall in love with these creatures that have supreme eyesight and powers of flight.
The key points to look at in a dragonfly are:
- Abdomen Colours – base colour and colour of spots
- Abdomen Shape – pinched (male), uniform thickness (female)
- Wing Colour & Markings
- Thorax Markings – side stripes and shoulder stripes
- Eye Colour
Secondary points that will help are:
By using a combination of these points you should be able to clinch any identification. Taking a picture helps enormously and enables you to look at comparable images in reference works or online to confirm the sighting.
To make your sightings count you should visit the British Dragonfly Society website and download a records form enabling you to participate in the national recording scheme.
Norfolk records should be sent to Pam Taylor, the county recorder, at: email@example.com
The first dragonflies have recently emerged and will be visible from now until late summer, or even early autumn. Let’s begin…
This group comprises our largest dragonflies. For this guide we will deal with 7 species and compare similar species side by side.
Firstly our very own Norfolk hawker and the brown hawker. Both species are generally brown in colour and on that basis alone cannot be confused with any others except possibly the female migrant hawker which is much more heavily spotted and flies quite late in the season.
The Norfolk hawker has a restricted range being confined to the wetlands of East Anglia, primarily, as its name suggests, the Norfolk Broads. It needs clean, clear, unpolluted water which has a significant covering of water- soldier. This species has a relatively short flight season being on the wing from late May through to mid July. This helps because there is minimal overlap with the brown hawker.
The brown hawker is slightly larger than the Norfolk hawker and is much more widespread. It can be found in a wider variety of water bodies, such as lakes, ponds and gravel pits and will tolerate some pollution. This species can be seen from mid-June all the way through to early autumn, with a peak in August. Therefore a uniform brown dragonfly seen from late July onwards is almost certainly this species.
Norfolk hawker male. Overall brown appearance with:
1) a distinctive yellow triangular mark on the top of the abdomen. This marking gives the species its Latin name of Aeshna isosceles, 2) Pinched ‘waist’ , 3) Clear wings, and 4) Bright green eyes.
Brown hawker male. Overall chocolate brown colour with:
1) Small blue spots at top of abdomen, 2) Pinched ‘waist’, 3) Golden coloured wings, and 4) Brown/blue eyes.
Norfolk hawker female laying eggs into Water-soldier. There are subtle differences in abdominal segment marking but it is essentially similar to the male. The main difference is that the abdomen is of uniform thickness (no pinched ‘waist’). As a differential between it and the brown hawker female, there are no light spots on the side of the abdomen.
Brown hawker female. Similar to the male but note the absence of blue spots and the uniform thickness of the abdomen (no pinched ‘waist’). Unlike the Norfolk hawker there are a row of light blue spots on side of abdomen.
Norfolk hawker. Thorax has a pair of narrow subdued light green/pale yellow stripes
Brown hawker. Thorax has a pair of narrow, bright yellow stripes.
To simplify an ID from a brown dragonfly you see tazzing around: if it has golden coloured wings it is a brown hawker; if it has clear wings and bright green eyes it is a Norfolk hawker.
As an interesting aside, although we jealously guard Norfolk hawkers as being special to our region, they are widespread across continental Europe. They are predated by hobbies here, but we saw them being predated by bee eaters in Hungary. Our local guide laughed when I told him we called them Norfolk hawkers, ‘You English’ he said with a slow shake of his head!
Now we can move onto the rest of the hawkers which can be a confusing bunch to sort out. They are all large dragonflies, but all have unique features:
Let’s have a relatively easy one first, the Emperor Dragonfly. This is the largest UK species and can be found in a wide variety of wetland habitats; rivers, lakes, ponds, ditches and so on. It is brightly coloured, fast, ever busy and aggressive. Unlikely to be confused with any others. Their flight season commences in late May and extends into August with a peak in July.
Emperor male. Things to note:
1) Apple green thorax with no black markings, 2) No markings on top of thorax (antehumeral stripes – we’ll come on to them shortly), 3) Bright blue abdomen, and 4) Thick black line down the whole length of abdomen.
Emperor female. 1) Same apple green thorax, 2) Apple green and light blue abdomen with same broad black stripe, and 3) Green eyes (as per male also).
Ok so far? Good, but it’s getting a bit trickier now for the remaining 4 species in this group. A couple of factors may help to narrow down options: Hairy dragonfly is an early flyer with a flight season commencing in mid May and extending through June, whereas the other hawkers don’t really get going until late June onwards, and the Common hawker is not common in Norfolk and can only really be found in some eastern areas of the county. Therefore, any non-brown hawker seen before mid June is probably a hairy dragonfly and any seen from July onwards are likely to be either migrant or southern hawkers – by far the commonest and widespread of this group. Naturally there will always be overlap with warm years (such as this one, 2020) bucking all trends, but learn the basics and all will fall into place.
This is our smallest hawker and is an early flyer favouring clean bodies of water, particularly the drainage dykes crisscrossing our eastern marshes. It is never particularly numerous or widespread, and is most common in Broadland. As its name suggests this dragonfly is not bald like all others! Looking at the thorax of the male (top) we can see 1) the obviously hairy covering, and 2) quite prominent, yellow antehumeral (shoulder) stripes. The abdomen 3) is dark brown with twin rows of pear-shaped blue spots. Moving on to the female (bottom) we can see she shares 1) the obviously hairy thorax, but has reduced antehumeral stripes of yellow. The abdomen 2) is primarily black with small pairs of yellow spots on the top but larger yellow blotches along the sides. Quite distinctive if you get a good look. I’ve included a note on the eye colour 3) to illustrate the difference between female (brown) and male (blue).
This species has a limited distribution in Norfolk, mainly favouring acidic water associated with wet heathland in the eastern part of the county. It often hunts well away from water however. The male (left) as well as having a pinched ‘waist’ shows 1) a pair of bright yellow shoulder stripes, 2) a brown abdomen with pairs of bright blue spots and pairs of yellow dashes, and 3) blue eyes. The female (right) shows 1) an absence of, or much reduced, shoulder stripes, 2) a predominantly brown abdomen with pairs of small yellow spots, and 3) brown eyes.
A common late summer dragonfly, often visiting gardens as well as the more traditional wetland habitats. It breeds in non-acidic water in a variety of situations, from garden ponds to large lakes. I’ve watched a female laying eggs in wooden border edging close to my own pond which is a quite small affair, and regularly see them around the Broads. The pinched ‘waisted’ male is a colourful beast with 1) a pair of large yellow shoulder stripes, 2) a brown abdomen with pairs of bold apple green spots changing to bright blue at the tip which merge to form solid bands, and 3) blue eyes. The female is a little duller with 1) bold yellow shoulder stripes, 2) brown abdomen with pairs of apple green spots, which merge to 3) form solid bands at the tip. Both sexes have 4) a prominent yellow triangle at the top of the abdomen.
This can be a very common late summer dragonfly and will be on the wing hunting amongst bushes and around trees, sometimes well away from water. It also can be seen hunting late into dusk, and at times forms large groups. It will breed in a variety of locations but avoids acidic water. The male (left) shows 1) very small (sometimes absent) shoulder stripes, 2) very dark abdomen with pairs of blue spots interspersed with small yellow dashes, 3) a narrow yellow triangular mark at the top of the abdomen, and 4) blue eyes. The female (right) also exhibits 1) very small shoulder marks, 2) a largely brown abdomen with pairs of yellow spots, 3) the small yellow triangle at the top of the abdomen, and 4) brown eyes.
Comparison of Thorax Markings
Comparison of Antehumeral (shoulder) stripes
|Species||Abdominal Spots||Shoulder Stripes||Eyes||Peak Flight|
|Hairy (M)||Blue||Narrow Yellow||Blue||May/June|
|Hairy (F)||Small Yellow||Narrow Yellow -Reduced||Brown|
|Common Hawker (M)||Blue||Narrow Yellow||Blue||July – Sept|
|Common Hawker (F)||Small Yellow||Yellow -Reduced or Absent||Brown|
|Southern Hawker (M)||Large Apple Green and Blue||Large Yellow Blotch||Blue||July – Sept|
|Southern Hawker (F)||Large Apple Green||Large Yellow Blotch||Brown/Green|
|Migrant Hawker (M)||Large Blue||Very Small or Absent||Blue||Aug – Oct|
|Migrant Hawker (M)||Yellow||Very Small or Absent||Brown|
Britain’s Dragonflies (Smallshire/Swash) – Wildguides ISBN 978-0-691-18141-7
Dragonflies of Norfolk – Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society – Dr Pam Taylor
All images copyright the author except:
Hairy Dragonfly, Migrant Hawker and Emperor (male) – Liz Dack
Common Hawker – Allan Archer
I hope this all helps and isn’t too confusing. Let me know what you think. For other wildlife ID guides click here