Ashdown Forest in East Sussex is approximately between an hour and a half to two hours’ drive South from London. It occupies an area of over 6,500 hectares of mixed habitats with heathland comprising around two thirds. Its heathland habitat accounts for over two and half per cent of Britain’s total of this declining habitat. It’s set in a beautiful area. It is mildly hilly, not hilly enough to be a challenging walk, but enough to provide a topographical variation that is aesthetically pleasing. You can look down from one of the small hills into heather covered slopes converging onto a gurgling brook fringed by Silver Birch and Beech. Pockets of broad-leaved woodland are scattered about interspersed with belts of planted conifers. Ashdown Forest is served by many car parks which are used by people to access the reserve. Although it takes only an hour and a half or so to drive from London, it is not easy to access if you are solely dependent on public transport. I had come on a day trip by coach organised by the Marylebone Birdwatching Society (MBS). These birdwatching trips are relatively cheap as they are priced to primarily cover the hire of a coach. Non-members pay only an extra £2 and I often seen foreign birders who are visiting London joining these trips organised by the MBS and RSPB Central London Local Group.
It was the first day of June and it was a glorious summer’s day with temperatures in the mid twenties and a lot of sunshine. Ideal conditions for some of the most fearsome hunters on the heath; dragonflies. At the first of two stops for a nature walk, I was preoccupied photographing the sun filtering through the papery thin leaves of a Beech. I noticed how the leaves have filaments extending from the margins. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed some members of the group examining a small pool of water through a telescope. I hastily scurried over to be shown a male Four-spotted Chaser that was perched on a reed overhanging the water. Dragonflies are much loved by birders because they have some of the behavioural attributes of birds but also have other features that attract people to birdwatching.
The handsome male was not leisurely soaking up the sun as appearances may have it. It was engaged in the serious business of ‘owning’ the pond. It was a small pond and on a hot summer’s day it was a dragonfly city. Everywhere I looked there were Large Red Damselflies flying or perched in tandem. They will stay together until the female has laid the eggs which have been fertilised by the male. The males grip the females from the head. This is not a sign of strong affection. It is to ensure a competing male does not seize her, strip out the previous male’s sperm rendering the mating void, and mate afresh. Zoologists call this sperm competition and nowhere is it more advanced than in dragonflies and damselflies; an order of insects technically categorised as the Odonata. If I gloss over what molecular phylogenetics tell us about evolutionary relationships, for practical purposes for ‘dragonfly watchers’, they can be thought of as comprising two groups. One is the slenderly built and fragile looking damselflies which hold their wings along the body when at rest. The other group is the robustly built dragonflies which hold their two pairs of wings at right angles to the body when at rest. The latter are built like combat aircraft and can put on dizzying bursts of speed.
Their manoeuvrability is not matched even remotely by any machine built by humans. I watched the male patrol the pond to ward off any intruding rival males. Its mission; to completely secure access to visiting females to only itself. A fat brown dragonfly appeared, and I heard a ’thwack’ as two bodies at high speed made contact. A whirr of interfering wings is heard like a bicycle wheel that has caught something pliable that is being thrummed through the spokes. The fat one was a female Broad-bodied Chaser. The Four-spotted male cannot mate with it. The male of a species has the claspers at the end of the abdomen designed such that it can only grip a female of its own kind. I was not sure if the male Four-spotted was too fuelled up in testosterone to notice or whether it was driving away the female as it was of a size and shape to come up on the radar as an intruder. They careered across the pond at speed and lifted off into the sky disappearing from view over the conifers and beeches. The male returned to patrol and perch. The female Broad-bodied returned and was in a rush to lay its eggs on the water’s edge which it did by hovering and spraying the eggs into water in jerky movements. I looked around for a male that had fertilised this female but could not locate one. Female dragonflies are often furtive and stay in shaded forest patches coming to open water only when they are ready to mate and lay eggs almost immediately. A female visiting a pond with a male in residence will be intercepted within seconds of arrival.
A metallic glint caught my eye and I took in my breath sharply. Just a few feet away from me, a female Four-spotted Chaser had arrived, but the male was gone. The female was a velvety brown with a hint of metallic gold on the front veins of its wings. I could have stayed in all day, but I left to catch up with the group. I caught up with them as Andrew Peel, the leader was helping them to find a Tree Pipit, one of the heathland specialities. Later Andrew found a Dartford Warbler on the heath with a Common Cuckoo in the same field of view perched on a conifer.
Later, I had a special Tree Pipit encounter. Our second stop for the day was at the small but charming Ashford Forest visitor centre. A few minutes’ walk away, a few of us observed a displaying male singing loudly and flying from one vantage point to another. It would fly high and parachute down; a display to attract a mate and announce its ownership of a territory.
A number of groups in London organise a range of bird watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in central London are listed below.
The London Natural History Society has a number of active sections, which includes the London Bird Club. The LNHS organises around a hundred free events a year and is one of the most active nature societies of its kind in the world.