The magic of Thompson Common

Blog post by Barry Madden on 29 Aug, 2020
Dragonflies are pretty special creatures and pack an awful lot of technology into a small package. Amazing eyesight, superb powers of flight, effective predatory skills and a fascinating life cycle. To cap it all they are brightly coloured, easily watched and at times abundant. There are only about 50 breeding species in the UK, so over time it is quite possible to develop identification skills that allow you to give a name to that blur of colour tazzing along the edge of a pond. Their larvae can be netted out of ponds by excited children and studied at close quarters and they epitomise hot, sunny summer days strolling through lush meadows full of the season's vibrancy. No surprise then that more and more people are tuning in to the delights of dragonfly spotting.

Over the past couple of decades, the suite of dragonflies that can be encountered within Norfolk has swelled thanks to colonisation from the near continent and North Africa, assisted no doubt by subtle shifts in climate.

Wasp spider, by Barry Madden

Emerald damselfly, by Barry Madden

It was on the trail of one such new coloniser that I found myself at Thompson Common a few weeks ago. I was looking for a small number of Southern migrant hawkers that had been reported occupying territory over a dried up pingo at this wonderful Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve. Pingos, as I’m sure you know, are ice age remnants – depressions in the ground caused by cores of solid ice covered by soil. As the ice retreated, these lenses of ice melted to leave shallow depressions which have subsequently filled with water creating a mosaic of small ponds of varying depths. Superb for aquatic wildlife.

I undertook this mission on a sweltering August day when afternoon temperatures reached well in the 30s. Ideal for dragonflies, but not quite so good for humans. Undaunted, I took up position next to a small area of iris on the edge of the almost totally dry pond, where very soon I was watching a pair of ever vigilant males moving around. These insects were seriously alert, arrowing upwards to intercept any other moving object in the hope it would be a female with which to mate. I soon discovered these rather exquisitely patterned dragonflies were quite accommodating, for with patience (and a bit of luck) it was possible to take flight shots whilst they hovered for several seconds at a time. On these occasions I could fully admire their vivid bright blue markings, especially their eyes which gives the species its alternative name of blue-eyed dragonfly. Simply gorgeous.

It took 30 minutes or so of loitering before one eventually took a breather and perched on one of the iris leaves. Snap, snap, snap! Yes, the waiting was worthwhile. But hold on what’s that flying past? A pair in tandem. And they too have landed on a nearby stem. What great luck! Of course, I wasn’t alone in this venture, word tends to spread fast nowadays, and two other photographers joined me as we pressed camera shutters with big smiles on our faces.

Spurred on by this success, I returned a couple of days later in similarly scorching conditions. This time I was very fortunate to be able to watch another pair egg laying in a muddy depression, perhaps a footprint made by a photographer on an earlier visit. The eggs will hatch when seasonal rains once more fill the pingo, ensuring that the larva of a firmly established Norfolk generation of this hitherto rare vagrant will emerge.

There were other gems on show at this wonderfully quiet site. Easily overlooked scarce emerald damselflies went about their business slowly and discretely, hardly moving from the place they had emerged, shining iridescent green in the afternoon sun. Thompson Common is something of a stronghold for this species which was believed extinct in the UK until rediscovered in Norfolk in the early 1980s. The daintier, much more widespread emerald damselfly could also be found with a little searching clinging onto the stems of rushes by the water edge. Brown hawkers whizzed by on golden wings, whilst blood red ruddy darters basked from every bush or stand of vegetation, mating pairs floating through the grasses egg laying as they danced. A fitting tribute to this dragonfly summer.

Wasp spider, by Barry Madden

Wasp spider, by Barry Madden

To cap it all a stunning wasp spider could be found, sitting motionless in its web positioned low down within a screen of iris fronds. This species was new to me and a much sought-after tick.

It’s worth getting to know your dragonflies. Once the basic features of common species have been committed to memory you will then be able to recognise anything unusual. Make your records count by visiting the British Dragonfly Society website and downloading a records form. Norfolk records should be sent to the County Recorder at Happy hunting!

More of Barry’s wildlife blogs can be found at

Header image: Southern migrant hawker, by Barry Madden
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