Recording and Publishing Data on our Wildlife




Dragonflies of Lancashire and North Merseyside

Lancashire lies on the north-western edge of the breeding range of several British dragonflies but, presumably driven largely by climate change, it has been colonised by six new species within the past 20 years during which period the ranges of several established species have also shown dramatic northward shifts. Of the 24 species recorded (8 damselflies and 16 dragonflies), 19 now breed annually with one other, Red-veined Darter, now apparently lost after breeding successfully for several years. The current distribution and breeding status of each species is mapped together with the progression of colonisation by the recently-arrived species. 
    In contrast to most other species groups in Lancashire, the county's dragonflies appear to be thriving, in part due to the creation of a number of large wetlands by the conservation bodies, but other environmental factors have also played a part.Climatic amelioration is undoubtedly the most important of these but improvements in water quality, due especially to the clean-up of industrial pollution, has also figured. The most dramatic example of this is the exponential spread of the Banded Demoiselle which expanded its breeding range from a single site in the mid-1990s to its present range covering 25% of the county; like several other species Banded Demoiselles have moved northwards but their main range change has been to the east along the previously polluted waterbodies of Lancashire's historic cotton-mill towns.
    Dates of annual first and last sightings have also changed significantly during the past 30 years with the flight period of several species increasing by three or more weeks. This is partly simply a result of the increased number of dragonfly recorders but there is little doubt that major changes in phenology have taken place. For example, the date when the first 25% of annual sightings of Common Darters have been recorded has advanced by a fortnight or more, while there is no evidence of a similar change at the other end of the year. Interestingly, these phenological changes appear to be confined to the lowlands - the flight periods of Lancashire's three predominantly upland species, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Common Hawker and Black Darter have remained stable. 
    The county supports a wide range of dragonfly habitats which are summarised in the book's introduction - from the sand-dunes of the Sefton Coast in Merseyside, the swathe of arable land in the south-west and pastures in the centre of the county, to the uplands of the Pennines and the Forest of Bowland. All contain important dragonfly sites, some perhaps warranting SSSI status, but, perhaps surprisingly, the county's premier site is located on the ex-industrial land of Heysham and Middleton near Lancaster, where all but three of the county's 24 species have been recorded with 16 breeding in recent years.

Dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) are among the most spectacular of insects. This, together with the recent publication of several excellent field guides and the fact that they can readily be observed and identified using binoculars, has made them increasingly popular with birdwatchers.

Of the 38 species that breed in Britain, only 20 have so far been seen in the Lancashire & North Merseyside recording area. However, five of these have been added to the list in the last decade and a glance at the most recently published distribution maps show that there are large gaps in the coverage of even quite common species. There are, therefore, opportunities for the keen observer to make important contributions to our knowledge of these fascinating insects.

Eighteen of the 20 recorded species breed in our region; one (Aeshna mixta) is a possible breeder and one (Sympetrum flaveolum) a rare vagrant. Nine species are widespread and often common, while 11 have a restricted distribution or are rare (Table 1). There follows a summary of the status of each species as currently known.


Steve White has been collating records of dragonflies and damselflies from throughout 'old Lancashire' (Lancashire, Greater Manchester and North Merseyside) for several years on behalf of the Lancashire and Cheshire Fauna Society. These are held on a database and anyone with a serious interest is welcome to request site, sub-regional or species information from him.

Perhaps inevitably, most data come from well-watched coastal sites and information from east Lancashire, for example, is particularly sparse. Steve would welcome records of all dragonflies and damselflies especially the more common ones - we know more about the distribution of Broad-bodied Chaser in east Lancs than we do Common Darter! Our knowledge of the distribution of the Golden-ringed Dragonfly is also particularly limited and records would be most welcome.

In order to make maximum use of the information records (past as well as present) should preferably include as many as possible of the following:

- date
- species
- site name (with brief description, e.g. small pond, canal etc.)
- six-figure grid reference
- number of insects (or approximations)
- sex of insects
- evidence of breeding (egg-laying, insects 'in tandem')
- observer's name
- any relevant comments, e.g. is this the first you've seen at this site? Are they regular here?

Records can be sent to Steve at

Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens
One of the largest and most colourful of the damselflies, this species has long been known from the River Lostock at Cuerden Valley Park. For many years this was thought to be its only Lancashire locality.
Banded Demoiselle male
Banded Demoiselle female

However, during the late 1990s a considerable expansion of its range has taken place. The insect reached Savick Brook, west of Preston, in 1997 and, by 1999, was well established there. In 1998, it was recorded on the Lancaster Canal north of Preston, on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Withnell Fold and on the River Wyre near Churchtown. A survey of the River Lostock in May/June 1999 found Banded Demoiselles on virtually every accessible stretch between Clayton-le-Woods and Wade Hall, a distance of about 9km. A long-established and flourishing colony is also present on the River Ribble just east of the M6 Motorway. Our only other records of the species are for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Parbold in 1995 and at Litherland in 1997.

Common Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa
Although one of the most widespread of British damselflies, this species seems surprisingly scarce in much of our recording area. It is quite common on the Sefton Coast sand-dunes and has been found at several sites around St. Helens and Heysham but at rather few places in between.
   This is an insect that could turn up almost anywhere, favouring water bodies with dense emergent vegetation, particularly of rushes Juncus and spike-rushes Eleocharis.

Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula
The only red damselfly likely to be seen in Lancashire, this species is widespread in the north and east of our region but notably scarce in the south and west, being largely absent from the coastal plain west of Ormskirk.
   Within its range, the Large Red Damselfly can be found on many different types of water-body from small ponds and lodges to ditches, canals and rivers, providing these are relatively unpolluted. However, it often occurs in smaller numbers than other common damselflies and may therefore take some finding, usually in tall, sheltered vegetation near its breeding site.

Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma najas
Until recently, the northernmost locality for this species on the west side of England was at Dunham Massey Park, Greater Manchester. Then, in 1998, a remarkable discovery was made of a sizeable population at Eccleston Dams, St. Helens. One of several Odonata moving northwards, this distinctive insect should be searched for on ponds supporting water-lilies, on whose leaves the males perch.

Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella
Very similar in appearance to the Common Blue Damselfly, this is a numerous and widespread species in our recording area, though it has only recently spread to most of the Sefton Coast ponds.
   It is particularly characteristic of small water-bodies and will be found in most field ponds, provided these are not polluted or heavily shaded. A rather weak flyer, the Azure Damselfly will usually be located among the tall stems of emergent water-plants around pond margins. The two slightly curved, narrow blue stripes on top of the thorax are perhaps the easiest distinguishing feature from the Common Blue Damselfly which has broader, straight stripes.

Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum
Living up to its name, this is one of our most ubiquitous species. It has been recorded throughout the region but generally favours larger water-bodies than the similar Azure Damselfly. It is also a rather stronger flyer and males can often be seen patrolling their territories far out from the water's edge. This behaviour is a useful pointer to its identity if the details of the markings cannot be seen.

Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans
Easily the commonest damselfly in the recording area, this distinctive species can be found in almost any type of freshwater habitat, even those that are somewhat polluted or brackish. Often, this insect will be found even where conditions are unsuitable for all other Odonata.

Common Hawker Aeshna juncea
This fine insect is scarce in the south and west of our region but becomes increasingly frequent in east Lancashire, favouring more acid waters. It breeds in a variety of water-bodies, including reservoirs, lodges, flashes and mossland pools. However, being a strong flyer, this species may be seen far from water, hawking along sheltered, sunny woodland edges and hedgerows. The clear wings and generally dark appearance with blue abdominal spots set it apart from other large, late summer dragonflies.

Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta
In 1990, the nearest Migrant Hawkers to our recording area were in South Yorkshire, but they are rapidly expanding north and west. The first records we have received for this small hawker were at Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve, Rufford, in September 1996; the next two years saw small numbers widely reported from Seaforth in the south to Heysham in the north. Probable breeding has been recorded near St. Helens, at Mere Sands Wood and, in 1999, at Heysham.

Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea
Though nowhere common, as befits its name, this large, late-summer dragonfly seems to be more frequent in the southern half of our region. However, it has been found breeding as far north as Silverdale. It favours neutral to alkaline waters and sometimes uses garden ponds. Notably tame, the males will often approach an observer when the apple-green markings with bright blue on the terminal abdominal segments can easily be seen.

Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis
With its tawny wings and brown body, this is the easiest large dragonfly to identify. It is also one of our commonest and most widespread species, breeding in a great variety of water-bodies throughout the region, including garden ponds.
Brown Hawker male

Quite likely to be seen in an urban or suburban setting, this species often seems to fall victim to domestic cats. The adults are powerful flyers and can be found patrolling hedgerows far from water.

Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator
Our largest dragonfly has a mainly southern and eastern British distribution. It first bred in our area in a recently excavated pond at Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR in 1976, establishing a small colony which survived until the late 1980s. The species was next seen at Birkdale in 1994, reappearing in good numbers during the glorious summer of 1995, especially on the Sefton Coast.
Emperor Dragonfly male

   It has since spread widely, being seen in St. Helens, Mere Sands Wood, near Marton Mere, the Heysham/Middleton area and as far east as Blackburn, as well as sporadically in central Lancashire, including Cuerden Valley Park and Withnell Fold LNR.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii
This is an upland specialist in our region, having been recorded sporadically in Bowland but also occasionally on lower ground towards the shores of Morecambe Bay.
Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Further exploration of small streams and peaty runnels in the northern part of our recording area could well be rewarded by further sightings of this elusive but magnificent insect.

Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
This species has a strangely disjunct distribution in the northwest, with many gaps between known localities. It is common on the Sefton Coast and occurs as far north as Heysham, Middleton and Hawes Water but only at about a dozen sites in between. No doubt many more remain to be discovered.
Four-spotted Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa
Another southern species on the limits of its range here, there are recent indications of a northwards expansion. In the last few years, breeding has been proved at Seaforth Nature Reserve, the nearby Brookvale LNR, at Sankey and near Charnock Richard, while sightings have been made as far north as Heysham and east to Burnley. Counts of up to seven adults on ponds at Birkdale in June 1999 provide further evidence of a welcome colonisation of our area by a particularly striking dragonfly.
Broad-bodied Chaser male

Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum
One of the events of the decade was the appearance in 1997 of Black-tailed Skimmers at Mere Sands Wood and the nearby Platts Lane Pits, Burscough, about 100km north-west of where they should have been. Breeding took place at Mere Sands Wood and, by 1999, the species was well-established here. A noted colonist of sand and gravel-pits in southern Britain, this species should now be looked for in appropriate habitat throughout our region.
Black-tailed Skimmer

Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum
This is easily the commonest of the true dragonflies (Anisoptera), occurring on a wide range of fresh-waters throughout the recording area. A small, orange-red darter will almost always be the male of this species.
Common Darter

Yellow-winged Darter Sympetrum flaveolum
Formerly unknown in our region, this migrant from continental Europe appeared here during a national influx in August 1995. We have records for Lifeboat Road and Birkdale Sandhills on the Sefton Coast and also Lytham St. Annes, Brinscall Lodge and Heysham but there were probably others not officially notified. Almost all were males.
   Remarkably, small numbers were found again at Middleton and Birkdale in August 1999.

Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum
First recorded in our area at Ainsdale NNR in 1989, this is yet another classic example of an insect invading from the south. Well-established on the Sefton Coast by the mid-1990s, the Ruddy Darter has spread north to Mere Sands Wood, Burscough, Cuerden Valley Park, Bamber Bridge and the Heysham/Middleton area and east to Rainford. There are also reports of its occurrence in the Fylde.
   There seems little doubt that this species awaits discovery on well-sheltered lowland ponds throughout the recording area. The blood-red, waisted abdomen, red face and black legs need to be well seen to separate the male of this species from the Common Darter. Females are tricky!

Black Darter Sympetrum danae
This is a peatland breeding specialist which is now known to have good powers of dispersal and may appear at almost any wetland during its late-summer flying season.
   Known breeding sites in our region include Lord Lot's Bog near Carnforth, Middleton and Bold Moss, St. Helens, but there must be many others waiting to be found, particularly in the uplands.

Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii
First recorded in 1999 at Middleton and then Seaforth, this species is rapidly becoming established at the former site.
Red-veined Darter male

There has never been a more exciting period for recording dragonflies in the northwest. We are right on the range limit of so many species apparently responding to global warming. One is almost tempted to use the old adage that "Anything can turn up" (within reason!). It is certainly worth keeping a look out for the Hairy Dragonfly Brachytron pratense moving north from Cheshire and could the rare Variable Damselfly Coenagrion pulchellum be hiding in a field pond somewhere in Lancashire? Vagrants from Europe, such as the Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii, are becoming increasingly regular in southern Britain and may spread north.

Then there are lots of gaps to be filled in the distributions of many common species. It is important to ensure that personal observations are recorded for posterity. This can be done on RA70 cards available from the Biological Records Centre at Monks Wood, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon PE17 2LS. The national recording scheme organiser for northern England is David Clarke, Burnfoot, Cumwhitton, Carlisle, Cumbria CA4 9EX.

Steve White and I are considering organising a Dragonfly Atlas Project for north Merseyside, Lancashire and Greater Manchester and would welcome discussion with others about how to achieve this.  Meanwhile, a database for the region has been established at Seaforth NR where all records can be held in one place. Groups or individuals are welcome to consult this. We would be pleased to receive Odonata records on an annual basis - either sent directly (Seaforth Nature Reserve, Port of Liverpool L21 1JD) or submitted in the normal way with bird records.

Ideally, these should take the form: date; site name & grid reference; species; status (i.e. number of individuals, male or female, any evidence of breeding).

As with bird-watching, a great deal can be achieved by regularly covering a "local patch". Visits should be made on sunny days, ideally two hours either side of solar noon, at regular intervals from May to September.

Recommended field guides are: Lewington & Brooks (1997) Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing; and Powell & Twist (1999) A Guide to the Dragonflies of Great Britain. Arlequin Press.

Philip H. Smith

ODONATA Found in Lancashire & North Merseyside up to 1999

Calopteryx splendens Banded Demoiselle B R
Lestes sponsa Emerald Damselfly B R
Pyrrhosoma nymphula Large Red Damselfly B
Ischnura elegans Blue-tailed Damselfly B
Enallagma cyathigerum Common Blue Damselfly B
Coenagrion puella Azure Damselfly B
Erythromma najas Red-eyed Damselfly B R
Anisoptera (true dragonflies)
Aeshna juncea Common Hawker B
Aeshna grandis Brown Hawker B
Aeshna cyanea Southern Hawker B
Aeshna mixta Migrant Hawker B? R
Anax imperator Emperor B R
Cordulegaster boltonii Golden-ringed Dragonfly R
Libellula depressa Broad-bodied Chaser B R
Libellula quadrimaculata Four-spotted Chaser B R
Orthetrum cancellatum Black-tailed Skimmer B R
Sympetrum striolatum Common Darter B
Sympetrum sanguineum Ruddy Darter B R
Sympetrum danae Black Darter B R
Sympetrum flaveolum Yellow-winged Darter V
B = breeding   R = restricted or rare  V= vagrant

Thanks to Phil Tomkinson, Margaret Breaks and Bill Apsin for permission to use some of their excellent images.


Bittern by Tony Disley
  Lancashire and Cheshire Fauna Society
Registered Charity No 500685