While planting an oak tree on behalf of Selsey Town Council earlier this month, in commemoration of the fallen dead in two world wars, I was buzzed by a squadron of hawker dragonflies. I was just reading to the assembled company of tree wardens and council members, from some of my father’s records of the Great War, when one of the hawkers landed on my head. I did not feel its feet and was unaware. But several people waited with bated breath to see if I should notice.
The sturdy young oak, from Arundel arboretum, a fine straight maiden as it will soon become, was planted in a warm southeast facing shrubby glade in Sensory Gardens, next to the Selsey Centre. The area is a most pleasant meadowland with masses of flowers such as common knapweed, catsear, and half a dozen species of wild grasses that I could see as I walked to the waiting tree.
The dragonflies may have flown in from across the waves from France, or hatched locally in ponds around Pagham or Church Norton of Selsey itself. Some may have been brown hawkers, one or two southern hawkers and others common hawkers. One lady said she was reminded of Hawker Hurricanes and Heinkels having a dust-up during the Battle of Britain when the skies hereabouts in August were in a continuous state of aerial excitement as Goering tried to smash our airfields and with it the RAF.
The hawker in this fine photo by Brian Henham of Chichester is not a hurricane but a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta. This one was photographed in Kingley Vale, another good place to see these noble insects. They gather in groups on the sunny side of the trees, near the reserve entrance, and there display like youths in fast cars, riding up and down, back and forth, all day in the hope of attracting a female to the best pitch where it is warm and safe to be.
This is a particularly good year for dragonflies because of the warm and moist ground and air during the final stages of the life and recent underwater life. But there could be a spy in the sky to take advantage of their fun. Hobby falcons are now on their way back to Africa and they like nothing better than a dragonfly.
I have watched them in years past hunting up and down a long narrow glade in the woods catching and eating one after another hawker. They snap one with yellow foot, zoom straight upwards like a climbing fighter plane and then glide serenely round at five hundred feet picking off the wings, which flutter down glinting in the sun, before cutting the body up in their beaks to swallow. Then down it would come again for another tally-ho.