The Vagrant Emperor – Anax ephippiger (formerly Hemianax ephippiger) is a resident of the arid zones of the African continent, the Middle East & southwestern Asia where it’s larvae develop rapidly in temporary pools in a climate very different to our own here in the UK. However this remarkable insect is a prolific migrant and not only has it turned up in Britain in the depths of winter in the past but incredibly it has also reached Iceland where it remains the only dragonfly ever recorded.
In October 2010 after an absence of over 12 years the Vagrant Emperor returned to Cornwall, followed by a further sighting in February 2011, early tasters of a memorable 6 months in the history of this highly restless species in the Duchy. Much more was to follow!
The overall appearance of both sexes of the Vagrant Emperor is that of a golden sandy brown coloured insect, which can often look fairly pale from a distance. The upper part of the eyes are brown while both the hind margins and underside are yellow. Both the Emperor – Anax imperator, and the Lesser Emperor – Anax parthenope have blue/green eyes.
Like the similar Lesser Emperor the mature male Vagrant Emperor has a distinctive blue saddle which on the former extends over segments two & three of the abdomen, (where it meets the thorax), but on the latter is restricted to the second segment of the abdomen. The overall impression of the Vagrant Emperor is of a visibly shorter dragonfly (61 to 66mm long) than both the Emperor (73 to 84mm long) & the Lesser Emperor (66 to 75mm long). Many of the 17 or so confirmed British records prior to 1998 were noted during our winter months when a brown hawker type dragonfly on the wing can only really be of this species.
Prior to the latest influx of Vagrant Emperors I was lucky enough to find the last Cornish/British example when I came across a mature male on the Lizard peninsula at a private site on North Predannack Downs way back on the 21st June 1998, the last confirmed UK record. I had disturbed what appeared to be a small group of male Four Spot Chasers – Libellula quadrimaculata which flew low over the grassy vegetation for a short distance before putting down on the sheltered side of a tussock. As they flew away from me the insects all appeared superficially similar. From the rear they all seemed to be brown, however one of them appeared a little more sandy in colour, different enough to arouse my curiosity. As I cautiously edged my way around to where the sandy insect had landed I could immediately see the purplish blue markings on segment 2 of the abdomen. A series of strong black markings down the centre of the abdomen contrasted strongly with the sandy brown background colour. The thorax appeared to be a uniform darker brown and the eyes were a reddy brown with yellow margins, while many of the wing veins towards the leading edge appeared to be orange. After allowing me to take a few record shots for prosperity (film back in those days) the insect flew off and was not seen again despite a thorough search in better conditions the following day. My drawing of this 1998 insect can be seen above left.
This was the first ever record for West Cornwall (VC1) and at the time only the 18th confirmed record of the Vagrant Emperor in Britain since 1903. Examining the photographs later it was obvious that at some stage the insect had suffered considerable damage to it’s right eye, and perhaps a little to the second segment of the abdomen.
My evening visit to the Lizard peninsula had been prompted by a fall of “Sahara Dust” observed on parked cars a few days earlier following a period of winds from the southeast. The first confirmed Cornish record was a female found by Ian Berry at Mount Edgcumbe Country Park on the 9th November 1988. The arrival of that insect also coincided with storms which deposited “Sahara Dust”, and a series of Desert Locust – Scistocera gregaria sightings in the Caradon area of East Cornwall (VC2).
The first hint of the recent influx of Vagrant Emperors came as far back as the 14th October 2010 when Peter Maker was cycling home from a morning of bird watching at Dodman Point and noticed a hawker type dragonfly flying low along the lane near Penare Farm (SX000409). Fortunately the insect landed on the hedge row and Peter made the most of his opportunity to photograph the 19th British Vagrant Emperor, in this case a male, before it was disturbed by a van coming down the single track road, at which point the dragonfly flew off and was not relocated.
Moving into 2011 the next Vagrant Emperor to appear in Cornwall was observed on a coastal walk, along with a probable influx of Painted Lady Butterflies, at Kennack Sands on the 19th February by Tom & Anne Polglase. Tom & Anne also managed to get photographs which left the identification of this male Vagrant Emperor in no doubt.
This second Cornish sighting of the year came shortly after a record of a female Vagrant Emperor from along the coastal path, near St.Davids Pembrokeshire in West Wales, on the 10th January.
The Vagrant Emperor breeds in temporary pools in Morocco & Algeria where rapid larval development can be completed in under 3 months. After periods of high rainfall when there are plenty of temporary pools there can be an explosion of adults and that is exactly what appears to have happened during March/April 2011.
On the photo sharing website Flickr, Albano Soares reported seeing “about a thousand Anax ephippiger” heading north at Mira in Portugal on the 6th April (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/39280703@N08/5595868131/ ) counting 20 a minute as they passed him, while his friend Hugo Amador noted dozens flying past his window in Oporto.
Meanwhile Lucy Brzoska posted a photo of a dragonfly on the Iberianature Forum which she had taken from her balcony in Barcelona on the 7th April showing just the wings, the body being obscured by a window frame! (See: http://www.iberianatureforum.com/index.php?topic=3412.0 ) I later realized that from the pterostigmas that this was also a Vagrant Emperor and Lucy confirmed that on the day that she took the photo, and the following one, there were large numbers of dragonflies on the move along the coast. Interestingly they were of various sizes (perhaps Red-veined Darters – Sympetrum fonscolombei were amongst them) and gulls were taking them on the wing.
The arrival of this big movement of dragonflies was signaled in Cornwall by a sighting on Saturday 16th April at Rame (SW727340) near Penryn when Kevin Wilkes reported that his wife got a bit of a shock when she picked in the washing in the evening and unexpectedly discovered a female Vagrant Emperor roosting amongst the laundry! Kevin placed the insect in a safe place and before it flew off took a number of photographs which again left no doubt about the identification. A day earlier in Plymouth there had also been a confirmed report of a male Vagrant Emperor, by which time the wave had already reached the Faroe Islands where sightings on the 13th April are believed to be the first ever Odonata recorded there.
On Tuesday 19th April Laurie & Helen Oakes and their friend Fred Curry observed a “brown bodied dragonfly, approximately migrant hawker size fly past over fields of rough pasture (SW360288) near Nanjulian farm, half a mile from Nanquidno near Lands End airport. The insect was flying 4 to 5 feet above the vegetation and passed as close as 10 feet away. Laurie also reports that his friend Geof Littler came across a brown hawker type dragonfly, on the same day near Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula. While both records remain “unconfirmed” because of the fleeting nature of the encounters it would seem highly possible that both were Vagrant Emperors. A further possible Vagrant Emperor was noted by John Foster at Lands End, along the cycle track on the Friday 22nd April.
On Sunday 24th April I visited Windmill Farm and purely by chance came across Peter Maker who along with Steve Rogers had just found and photographed another male Vagrant Emperor at the site. On quite a windy but sunny day the dragonfly was hawking along the edge of the heath in the lee of the willow hedge, staying in the same general area for a couple of hours.
On Monday 25th April two additional Vagrant Emperors were found and photographed near Mullion over North Predannack Downs Nature Reserve (SW687174) by Steve Bury & Tony Blunden.
Over at Windmill Farm Andy Pay found two male Vagrant Emperors at Ruan Pool (SW696158) showing well throughout the morning and early afternoon, comprehensively documented with photographs by Tony Blunden and witnessed by Mark Tunmore & Dougy Wright. There were also as many as 6 Red-veined Darters, including a pair in tandem and an ovipositing female over the pool.
Meanwhile on the same day at the other end of the county while looking for butterflies in a clearing Dave & Mandy Allan spotted a male Vagrant Emperor feeding in flight at Seaton (SX303553). The insect didn’t settle but was seen well a number of times during the course of the afternoon through binoculars.
On Tuesday 26th April there was still a single male Vagrant Emperor patrolling low over the vegetation out in the middle of Ruan Pool, along with at least 4 Red-veined Darters, which I watched with Dave Conway & others until midday at which point I left to find a more photographable example. A quick trip to Croft Pascoe Pool proved fruitless before I then moved on to a private site on North Predannack Downs.
At about 3.00pm I spotted a pair of pale brown hawker type dragonflies in tandem! They were of course Vagrant Emperors! They went well out across the main pool flying low over the Common Spike Rush and disappeared. I of course followed them, and got a boot full for my trouble before seeing the male come up from the rushes in front of me, flying off to the shore. Obviously that left me wondering where the female had gone. A quick search revealed that she was still at the water ovipositing into the Common Spike Rush! Thankfully I managed to photograph this very significant event, the first ever attempted breeding in Britain by the Vagrant Emperor! (See photos below). Like the Lesser Emperor, the Vagrant Emperor usually oviposits in tandem, another useful feature in identifying them. After the female flew off the male continued to patrol sporadically until about 4.30pm as did a single Red-veined Darter. How many other local sites have played host to attempted breeding by the species during the April spate of sightings, unseen by anyone? Will there be a Cornish generation of Vagrant Emperors heading back to North Africa at the end of the summer?
Meanwhile in the east of the county there was another unconfirmed report of a male Vagrant Emperor seen briefly at Meadow Lakes Holiday Park, near St. Austell by Danny Cooper, also on 26 April.
On Thursday 28th April Andy Pay observed at least one male Vagrant Emperor, at the private site on North Predannack Downs during a short visit in the early afternoon, along with a brief glimpse of another possible female and at least one Red-veined Darter. Later in the day Paul Hopkin observed 10 Red-veined Darters along with a single male Vagrant Emperor at the site. After this the long period of warm settled weather began to break up, signalling an end to observations of this long distance traveller.
A truly remarkable event in a truly remarkable spring, one which may have interesting spin offs once July and August are with us.
My grateful thanks are due to Peter Maker & Kevin Wilkes for allowing the use of their Vagrant Emperor photographs in this article.
As a postscript to the Vagrant Emperor influx of 2010/11, an observation of a single male from the 11th May 2008, along the coastline of Mounts Bay between Rinsey Head & Trewavas Head has come to light. The insect was found and photographed by Paul Browning who hadn't realised the significance of his find at the time.