Dragonflies and Wildlife of the Camargue

I have always had a fascination with Dragonflies and Damselflies known as the Odonata order of insects.

Damselflies can be differentiated from Dragonflies by their much slimmer bodies, with their wings folded back when resting and by being weak flyers.

Willow Spreadwing (Lestes viridis) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

Dragonflies in comparison are much more robust, very strong flyers keeping their wings extended outwards at rest, they are also by nature extremely predatory and territorial. To me they are the perfect aerial predator acting as miniature flying machines

It is important to help keep some wild water areas for Dragonflies as they are threatened by loss of habitat, pesticides and of course predators such as blackbirds, ants and collectors. These days as digital photography is so widely used there should be no need to collect these insects, as a few photographs at different angles is generally enough to identify them.

Dragonflies have compound eyes which allows them almost 360° field of vision, there is no central lens or retina which gives poor resolution, however they can detect movement and light change very efficiently. Therefore if you see one resting, you will need to approach very slowly; it also helps to crouch down to their level and avoid casting any shadows over them otherwise they will fly away.

I have watched Dragonflies for a few years in the UK as soon as the season begins from Spring when they begin to emerge through to as late as October where a few hardy Hawkers can still be spotted.

After building up a gallery of images for Dragonflies of the UK (please see www.amanda-king-akimages.com) I decided it was necessary to start gathering images from further afield, so booked a trip to the Camargue in the South of France in August 2009.

The Camargue in Provence, South of Arles an historic Roman town, boasts one of the most impressive Wetlands of Europe and these areas are prime spots for Dragonflies providing the sought after habitats that they need.

I was itching to get out there and photograph some Dragonflies so I packed my bags and finished work early setting off for my journey to Oxford>Luton>Nimes/Camargue France.

Once in Oxford I headed for the Old School House pub opposite the bus station and had a large glass of wine in the sunshine and a polite German waiter brought me out some Quavers, it was a good start to the trip.

Back at the Oxford Coach station, I had been waiting for ages then was told that the coach destined for Luton airport had broken down!!! It was to be a very long wait.

After 2 hours standing in a queue I went to the ticket office and asked to have my ticket changed and then was re-directed to Heathrow Airport to then change on to Luton, I set off at 2pm and arrived just after 9pm so it took 7 hours, which is crazy.

After a night at Luton I was up at 05:00am, re-packed and checked all my equipment and got a taxi to the airport. I had to buy a bigger bag at the airport and quickly re-pack my things as the one I had packed had a broken zip that morning. I only just made it to the check in gate but it was a great flight with a window seat.

After getting off the plane and collecting my luggage, I went out into the exit area and looked for a sign of the company I was going with, sure enough there was a man holding the sign.

I was the first to arrive by the look of it so went and introduced myself to him, his name was Fred and he is a French specialist on Raptors.

One by one members of the group started to join us, they all seemed friendly, then a chap wearing a cap and a T-shirt with a huge Dragonfly on it came over to us and introduced himself as Andy McGeeny. He has written books on Dragonflies and was once one of the main bodies at The British Dragonfly Society, both he and Fred were real experts on their subjects.

Once the group had all arrived we jumped into four-wheel drive jeeps and headed off to a rustic hotel where we were to stay for the duration of the trip.

The place was beautiful, set in tropical gardens which had numerous Dragonflies gliding about and the soothing sound of Cicadas chanted out. After checking into my room and flinging my bags untidily on the bed, I set up both cameras and ran outside to immediately start photographing everything that I could see in the blazing hot sun.

I also photographed a macro shot of a Cicada on some tree bark along with a Blue Dragonfly known as a Black Tailed Skimmer also on a tree, its body was powder blue and looked iridescent.

Black Tailed Skimmer (O cancellatum) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

Young and adult Black Tailed Skimmers have powder blue bodies and a black tail, whereas the females of the species look completely different with a yellow abdomen with black bands surrounding it, they later turn a darker brown in adulthood.

Fred and Andy had driven off to get water supplies and food in for the picnics and on returning called us over for lunch. They did us proud, we sat under the shade of trees with scented flowers creeping round the branches in the gardens of the hotel and ate a feast of olives, brie, edam, stilton, French bread, tomatoes, ham, eggs, etc. plus a glass of wine each, all very civilised.

Afterwards, we set off in the two vehicles to Valle des baux where we encountered hundreds of Dragonflies as well as Beautiful Banded Damoiselles flitting about over the water and huge webs with yellow and black striped Zebra Spiders.

Southern Banded Demoiselle (C splendens var caprai) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

The Banded Demoiselles live by slow running quiet riversides and is perhaps the most beautiful of all the Damselflies. Graceful in flight these Demoiselles flutter like fairies and are seen in areas of Europe and also China.

Further on we saw a lone white horse and a goat herder with his dog Amelie and a group of friendly goats. This goat herder adored his animals and was very proud of his job. We walked further up a wooded lane and saw tiny delicate white damselflies then headed back for the evening meal which was delicious; potted crayfish pie starter, followed by white fish cheese potato and Rose wine.

We then went through, identified and discussed all the species we had seen that day as it goes into a scientific report that helps researchers moniter the conservation of the area.

Next morning I got up at 6am, the night had been sticky and hot and the room was dotted with mosquitos, both live and of course some dead ones that had been swatted by myself. The morning was a welcome relief, cool and rainy with a sky full of storm clouds.

After breakfast, kit all packed I jumped into the jeep and got a front seat with an eccentric Parisian called Roland and Andy McGeeeny was to be the driver.

There were dramatic streaks of lightening on the way and Roland and I enjoyed some cloud spotting, something I now always take notice of, as the formations were quite extraordinary.

We stopped at an area lined with brambles with a small river and background fields full of baby bulls and white horses. Here we found tiny white moths, damselflies, honey ladybirds, shield bugs plus a huge Emperor Dragonfly resting on a branch, when it rains, they can often be found hanging under bridges or in small branches on trees and bushes sheltering.

We then drove on to La Crauz an arid area built up of concrete surrounded by an army base, This area was fantastic as it was full of insects, which of course attracted birds for the birders among the group, for me though it was the insects that were of special interest.

There were Dragonflies, ant nests, centipedes, crickets, katydids and butterflies, I enjoyed this habitat as it was rich in wildlife and could happily have spent the entire day in the area.

We headed off to a wetland area where we had to stop and get an authorised permit, as there is no public access to the area, it was a great privilege to explore these little known, often untouched areas.

We got access onto the private reed beds by a large river, the group split up and scattered into different directions. I went my own way through some reeds and grasses, carefully weaving my way through.There were hundreds of colourful Dragonflies in this area, I have never seen so many; they flew up lighting the sky like coloured jewels, just beautiful. There were Emperors, Scarlets Darters and Ruddy Darters everywhere.

We spotted a Coypu in the water, these shy semi aquatic rodents were introduced to a few areas of Europe from South America and are extremely graceful in the water to watch. Unfortunately due to their destructiveness of constant burrowing and disturbing the water vegetation they are generally considered to be a nuisance by locals. We also spotted Egrets, Herons and Squals and of course photographed the lot. The place was full of Dragonflies, they flew around you, landed on you, just hundreds and hundreds of them, I was so pleased it had no public access, at least here they are protected and the fields also remain un-sprayed, left wild as it should be.

Coypu (Myocastor coypus) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

We saw a Wild Boar bathing in the lake in the distance, but it was too far off to get a decent image of, still, it goes on the checklist for the project sightings.

We headed back to Madams for lunch of cheese and pepper quiche in balsamic vinegar, followed by a mushroom dish and chocolate mousse. We were given an hour off so I went to the pool to cool off, it was extremely hot in the afternoons here up in the high nineties.

We headed off again in the two jeeps, I quickly learnt that the group was splitting into an obvious divide; that of birders and bug hunters, I was of course in the bug hunters group with Andys gang and so tended to always jump into his jeep to be with that half of the group.

On a trip out I spotted a Praying Mantis at last as had been desperate to find one. It cruelly struck a young Dragonfly and proceeded to eat it, so I photographed the whole sequence.

We went on to a coastal area and saw a few flamingos, but disappointingly they were too far away to get any decent images of. Still there were photographic opportunities in the beauty of the area and we all enjoyed the scenery and reflections in the water.

The sky had a luminence about it as night time started to set in and the water was a lovely dark blue reflected by the sky.

Wood posts in water, Camergue 2009 by A.K.

At 21:30 we had a picnic by the sea in the dark with head torches, the mosquitoes came in droves and attacked those of us who are susceptible to their bites; I got covered in bites. We drove back in the dark and was lucky enough to see a barn owl fly out in the jeeps headlights, it was flying low then swooped up over us, got back at 23:00.

I had a bad night as the mosquito bites on my shoulders and ankles (bane of my life in hot climates) were itching like mad, none of the creams ever seem to work on these bites.

I got up at 06:00, still itching from my bites, however the morning was cool and overcast with a breeze, which was soothing when I opened the glass door of the room.

After breakfast we drove to another part of La Crauz with a military base running alongside, separated from us by high wire fences. Some soldiers came out on a truck and questioned why we were there, they were not too happy at this group of naturalists photographing so near to their base, however they agreed to let us stay for one hour.

The birders were pleased at spotting many Bustards, I however was as usual looking on the ground and under rocks and found resting Scarlet Darter Dragonflies and thousands of crickets hopping all over the place, scattering in random directions.

When on the ground still, they are perfectly camouflaged in dull neutral colours, however when they jump their wings open out to reveal a flash of bright red or blue, this confuses any predator as when they land and the wings close they seem to ‘disappear’ as they merge back into the ground.

We moved further up to a grassy area with hedgerows and here I was lucky to find a large green Katydid perched on a stalk, a zebra spider, tiny crab spider and another miniature praying mantis. We were lucky enough to see an Antlion on a stalk and in flight, an incredible and intriguing insect.

We then drove on to a beautiful green area, a sapphire blue lake with huge lily pad surrounded by green marshland, it was teaming with life and was my favourite place of all that we visited. Here there were hundreds of brightly coloured Tree Frogs, some pale green with blue, others were brown and yellow.

I also found a very large Praying Mantis; it was very tame and walked on my hand before I found a suitable plant to place it onto where it would be camouflaged.

Dwarf mantis (Ameles spallanzania) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

I then stumbled upon a huge Green Praying mantis eating a Red veined Darter Dragonfly and photographed the whole sequence in stages. Another mantis caught a darter, which fought bravely its savage predator who was attempting to eat it alive, luckily the mantis dropped its prey and I helped the stunned Dragonfly to escape and fly away.

I enjoyed looking for Dragonflies, Tree frogs and bugs, it was a glorious blue-sky day and a perfect couple of hours spent.

Later on whilst eating a picnic two Red Kites gave all of us some entertainment by circling and dive bombing smaller birds, it was a spectacular show of the gracefulness and skill of these birds of prey.

After the picnic we drove to a new site where there was a pond that you could walk around and at one end look down onto. Several Emperor Dragonflies were flying across it in territorial battles. I managed to photograph one of them in mid flight; a very tricky shot to get so was very pleased to get it.

Emperor in flight, Camargue 2009 by A.K.

We then moved on to a rubbish tip with a lake opposite and saw flamingos in flight and a group of storks on nests. I shot a few images of these then explored the area further up where it was a lane of hedgerow for bugs. I spotted a prickly way through the hedgerow to get closer to the water so picked my way through it and was rewarded with seeing a Coypu swimming about and a closer look at the storks on nests.

On the way home we stopped at a roadside where there were many fallen logs and looked for cicadas, crickets, dragonflies and butterflies, of which there were many, after the day of bug hunting we headed back to base where I dumped my gear and got into the pool to bathe my bites, which were itching like mad.

Next day we visited the Camargue Gimaux, Mas d’Agon and Etang de Scamondre.

Each stop was teaming with Dragonflies and Damselflies, despite the day starting off very windy it soon died down and once again grew intensely hot.

The first area was a stretch of green scrub land, where I noticed a Scarlet Darter, but on moving in closer to photograph it discovered that a huge praying mantis was eating it. The mantis was green and so well camouflaged I would not have spotted it had it not been for the flash of red of its meal, the dragonfly.

European Mantis (Mantis religiosa) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

I was mesmerised by the whole thing and took about 80 shots of it from differing angles.

We had refreshments of figs, almonds and orange juice then one of the group called me over to photograph a particularly beautiful butterfly she had spotted.

We later stopped at a road side ditch that was lined with reeds, most of the roads in this area of Camargue had these banks and they were rife with Dragonflies soaring up and down them keeping their territory.

We then went on to Etang de Scamandre, a large nature reserve where we sat under the shade of a large tree on two benches and ate a delicious picnic of fresh french stick, olives, tapianade, pickles, cheeses and fruit.

The area here is vast with various nature trails to follow around the reserve and we were given 2 hours to go and explore. I immediately shot off on my own down a trail by the river, lined with trees that glistened as Dragonflies flew through the branches and along the water line then back up into the trees.

Back at base a tiny praying mantis jumped right up onto the table to see what we were doing, I was so excited and carefully got out of my seat to get my camera, whereon it jumped back into the undergrowth and disappeared from view.It was now extremely hot and my water had run out so I was getting dehydrated, I walked a very long walk down a shrub path and finally got to the wooden steps we were told about that led to the view point where the colonies of Herons and Egrets nest. However there were very few there as June/July is their time and so we had just missed them, Fred was pacing the watch with his telescope, keen as ever to see any Raptors flying above. He gave me some of his water, which I was very grateful for.

After the evening meal and species identification, I went out into the dark night to creep about the grounds with my head torch and photographed more bugs, I found a fascinating spider weaving its web and a katydid wuth an egg.

Katydid with egg, Camargue 2009 by A.K.

I really enjoyed today as we went to the pine forests and hiked up loose shale to the summit for spectacular views of the surrounding area. We had a picture taken of all of us at the top where there were some strange hollow rocks and then spent time spotting Raptors.

Walking back through the pine forests there were strong scents of herbs dotted around, which were a real treat for the senses and the pine trees rustled in the breeze and kept us all refreshingly cool.

Later at 6pm I met up with the group and I sat at the front of a jeep, this time with Fred driving, we passed dozens of fields full of golden sunflowers and through some amazing limestone formations of castles, caves and turrets.

We then drove through vineyards and picturesque olive groves and Fred explained that this part of the Camargue has the largest olive production in the whole of France. Van Gogh lived in one of the villages Arles  that we passed through with its quaint little rustic buildings and dark green trees lining the roads.

We arrived in a vineyard surrounded by mountains where the only sound we could hear were the calls of Eagle Owls and cow bells. We had a picnic with wine and watched in silence as the moon appeared over the mountains, it was serene and stunning and we looked at the moon through Freds telescope.

We then had a late drive back, it was a magical evening and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it, as we drove back through the night a huge Barn Owl flew past the jeeps.

The next morning I got up at 07:00 and after breakfast left in Andys ‘bug’ jeep and we arrived at La Crau alongside a small river which was full of Copper and blue Damselflies. I took off my walking boots and jumped into the river walking slowly up the river photographing the damselflies as they perched on thin twigs, I also came across some beautiful lesser emperor dragonflies resting, lit up like coloured jewels again.

Lessor Emperor (A panthenope) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

I also found some black and red spotted beetles and shield bugs. We drove on to an area by a huge still lake and had a picnic under a lone tree and I found another praying mantis which crawled onto my hand. It was so hot this day (98.6 degrees) that after lunch I walked fully clothed straight into the lake through the reeds at the side and swam with my hat on around the lake. It occurred to me though that there were sea snakes in the area so I then got out, it had been lovely and cooling though.

I then walked with the group on a mass bug hunt along the bank side. We found a bright pale green Southern Tree Frog (Litoria nudidigitus) sitting on a reed leaf, these little frogs seem to be abundant in the Camargue.

Southern Tree Frog, Camargue 2009 by A.K.

We spent a pleasant afternoon exploring woods and trails and found a rare Winter Damselfly (Sympecma fusca) resting on a brittle branch.We went on to a new area where there was a strange wooden hideaway built by branches and lots of old fallen logs alongside huge trees next to water. I discovered a wasps nest and moved in close to photograph it managing to get some in flight.

The very last area was a small wild brook where I spotted a Viperine water snake that had a fish in its mouth, it swam very quickly across the narrow brook and I took three photographs of it. The snake moved gracefully and with ease through the water.

Viperine Snake with fish in mouth, Camargue 2009 by A.K.

The next day we had a good morning at a Roman Aquaduct and looked at an Olive Grove, the view at the end of the duct was like a painting over fields of sunflowers.

Roland, one of the group, became very unwell in the heat and decided to leave early and fly back to Paris, he left me a really nice map as he knew I collected them and he had very kindly marked out all the places where we had been.

Later the group drove to a river with fields of white horses and bulls, again the area was full of Dragonflies, also red and black striped shield bugs and the river full of Mullet Fish. Afterwards we went to a secret mountainous area, along a trail, silent to see an Egyptian Buzzards nest through the scope. I did not see the chick, but some members of the group did before it sank further down into the nest.

We walked back along the wooded route looking for Tree Frogs and insects before making our way back to base ready to pack and leave for the UK the next morning.

This trip was an excellent introduction to see new Dragonfly species and photograph them in their natural habitat. I would highly recommend the Camargue for its sheer numbers of Odonata as well as diversity.

As for British Odonata the BDF (British Dragonfly Society) are always looking for people to report any sightings in their local area and help to record numbers of species. They also occasionally grant funding to support small research and conservation projects, such as creating ponds within schools, etc. The website has a great deal of educational information on Odonata and can be found at: www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/

Amanda King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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