Here be dragons! Dragonfly ID tips and where to see them in our region

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Forget Game of Thrones – you can spot real-life dragons right here in Lancashire!

From stunning mossland specialists to mighty emperors, learn more about the dragonflies on the wing in summer and the best places to spot them.

When can you see dragonflies in the UK?

The UKs dragonfly season can start as early as April and end as late as October, depending on how warm the weather is. The best time to see dragonflies in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is July to August, when these fearsome predators pull impressive aerial manoeuvres on the hunt for their prey. They can reach speeds of up to 36km per hour and gobble up flies, midges, butterflies, moths and even other smaller dragonflies!

Dragonflies are found in almost every habitat, but especially places near water. As cold-blooded creatures, the best time of day to spot them is whenever it’s sunniest or warmest and the dragons are at their most active.

What is the difference between dragonflies and damselflies?

The main difference between dragonflies and damselflies is their body-type. Damselflies are much skinnier and daintier, while dragons have a broad, chunky abdomen. Damselflies also hold their wings folded above their body, while dragonflies rest with their wings spread outwards.

How many dragonfly species are there in the UK?

There are around 23 resident species of dragonfly in the UK, with the occasional visitor from continental Europe. Many of these can be found across our region, humming around our nature reserves like miniature helicopters. Why not head out on a dragonfly walk to spot some of the amazing species in our list below?

Dragonfly identification guide

Emperor dragonfly

An emperor dragonfly flying over a body of water

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Our largest dragonfly is also one of our most distinctive and lives up to its regal name. Emperors can reach up to 78mm long and are a gorgeous mixture of apple-green on the thorax and bright blue (if male) or green (if female) on the tail. They can be spotted right across our region, including at Middleton Nature Reserve, Cadishead & Little Woolden Moss, Brockholes and Heysham Nature Reserve.

Broad-bodied chaser

A broad-bodied chaser dragonfly resting on a twig

Mike Snelle

It might be much smaller than the emperor dragonfly (up to 48mm), but the broad-bodied chaser is even easier to pick out in a crowd. As its name suggests, it has a broad, flattened body which is powder blue in males and brown in females, and edged with yellow. Lucky visitors recently spotted broad-bodied chasers at Middleton Nature Reserve and Lunt Meadows.

Four-spotted chaser

A four-spotted chaser dragonfly resting on a blade of grass

Fergus Gill

This pretty dragonfly is one of the earliest to emerge and latest to disappear in our region. If you think you’ve seen one, the best thing to look for is the dark spot halfway along the top edge of each wing. Both males and females are brown with an abdomen that tapers to a black tip. They also have the same yellow dashes along their abdomen as the broad-bodied chaser.

Four-spotted chasers range quite widely across Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, with them being recorded at Middleton Nature Reserve, Cadishead & Little Woolden Moss, Highfield Moss and Brockholes.

Black-tailed skimmer

A black-tailed skimmer dragonfly resting on wooden boards

Scott Petrek

Male black-tailed skimmers have the same powder-blue abdomen as broad-bodied chasers, but can be differentiated by their much narrower abdomen, which also has a black tip. Female black-tailed skimmers are a gorgeous golden-brown colour with two black stripes running the length of their body. Check bare waterside banks at Middleton Nature Reserve, Lunt Meadows, Seaforth, Brockholes and Cadishead & Little Woolden Moss, and you might see them basking in the sunshine.

Common darter

A common darter dragonfly flying through the air at high speed

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

These dragonflies have quite narrow bodies: red in males and brown or dull yellow in females. They’re quite unusual in that they sometimes rest with their tail up in the air, and they can be seen as late as November! We see them regularly at Cadishead & Little Woolden Moss and Brockholes.

Red-veined darter

A red-veined darter dragonfly resting on dead vegetation

Chris Lawrence

Isn’t he lovely? The male red-veined darter is bright red with gorgeous red veins on his wings. The female is no less beautiful – a stunning yellow-orange colour with yellow veins along the top edges of each wing.

The red-veined darter only recently started appearing in the UK as a long-distance migrant from southern Europe. Visitors have spotted them at Middleton Nature Reserve and Seaforth.

Black darter

The black darter is one of the most fascinating UK dragonflies. Not only is it our smallest species (reaching 29 – 34mm), but it’s the only species of black dragonfly in the UK! Males turn increasingly black with maturity and have completely black legs, and sometimes have contrasting yellow markings on the sides of their abdomen and thorax. Females have a yellow abdomen and brown thorax with a black triangle on top.

Black darters live on heathlands, moorlands and bogs, living up to their name by darting from a hovering position to catch their insect prey. Some of the best places to see them are two of our magnificent Manchester mosslands: Cadishead & Little Woolden Moss and Highfield Moss.

Common hawker

Many hawker dragonflies in the UK are quite hard to tell to tell apart, but the common hawker has a couple of distinguishing features. Look for paired spots on each abdominal segment, two broad stripes on the sides of the thorax and a thin yellow line along the top edge of each wing. Males’ paired spots are blue, while the females’ are yellow. This beautiful dragonfly traditionally lives in moorland habitats with acidic pools, like our Highfield Moss reserve, but unusually, in Lancashire it also breeds at Heysham Nature Reserve, away from its usual acidic haunts.

Brown hawker

A brown hawker dragonfly resting on vegetation in the sunshine

Richard Burkmar

While many hawker dragonflies can be easily confused with each other, the brown hawker is nice and distinctive. It has a chocolate-brown body, golden-orange wings and delicate yellow and blue markings. The brown hawker aggressively defends its territory from intruders and, like other hawkers, is incredibly fast flying; able to snatch prey from mid-air and even fly backwards! Two of the best places to one are Moston Fairway and Wigan Flashes.

The best places to spot dragonflies in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

A common darter dragonfly resting on vegetation

Common darter by Janet Packham

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