A Banded Darter near Trefil in south Wales in 1995, the first record for Britain

by Ian D. Smith

Wednesday 16th August 1995 was forecast to be very hot, and in need of altitudinal cooling I decided to visit the Trefil area, north of Tredegar (420m above sea level), which also offered an area of moorland I had not previously surveyed for Odonata. At the time, the area was visited by birders as the only reliable site in the county of Gwent for Ring Ouzel, in the huge limestone quarry. This overlooks bleak sheep-grazed moorland with tiny seepages that gradually coalesce into a stream that gained the status of ‘Nant Trefil’: not a place most would think suitable for Odonata, despite many birders having taken up an interest in the “birders’ summer insect”. The arrival of the late Wilf Nelson into South Wales had led many of us Glamorgan birders to take up dragonfly identification in 1978/79; I was immediately hooked and have followed an active interest ever since and always credit Wilf for starting that interest.

At Trefil, I parked up away from the quarry access road dust. With my wife Jill tucking into a good read, I followed a seepage and walked down towards the nearest ‘stream’. As I approached I disturbed a Sympetrum-sized dragon from a stone in a seepage, which then returned to the same stone. Seeing dark patches on the central part of the wings, I knew this was a species not on the British list!  I returned with haste to the car, informed Jill of the situation, grabbed my camera and in no time had returned to the stream and taken a couple of record shots. I knew these would be adequate to confirm the identification albeit not for a couple of weeks at least, as this was the normal delay with in-house Kodachrome colour slide processing!

The dragon then disappeared and I spent some considerable time wandering the area looking to find it again. During this time I realized that it had chosen to rest at the exact point where the seepage transitioned from having no discernable flow to just starting to flow. I followed the flow and eventually ended up in an area of soft ground that harboured taller robust vegetation surrounded by wide seepages and thus not accessible to grazing sheep. This was where the dragon had chosen to show itself again, a few hundred metres downstream of its first location. I took some more poor photos but then lost sight of it yet again. Further searches were fruitless and I noted the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius before we left for home.

That evening I left messages with Steve and Ann Coker (Steve was the Wales recorder for the British Dragonfly Society) and Chris Jones (the Gwent County Bird Recorder). Steve and Ann phoned for more information and I explained in great detail the last sighting location and made arrangements to meet the next day, should they decide to make the long journey from Pembrokeshire. I would be there regardless.

Thursday morning came and as I approached the site I could see ahead the Cokers exiting their car.  As I parked alongside, Ann was calling out that she had found the dragon. We caught it and photographed it, whilst identifying it as Sympetrum pedemontanum / Banded Darter.  Interestingly, as well as showing the thin waistline of a male, its abdomen also showed a slight compression mark as might be expected from a birds beak. We decided we would release it without further harm. It promptly flew off northward (uphill). I returned to site recently (in 2022) to check the precise grid reference: the initial sighting was in Grid Square SO1114, and after that it spent its time in Grid Square SO1113.

I informed Jill Silsby of the British Dragonfly Society and the sighting made it into the dragonfly sightings summary for the next edition of British Wildlife Magazine and as a joint note at the front of the first Atlas of UK Dragonflies, along with a Crocothemis erythraea / Scarlet Darter sighted in Cornwall that also made it onto the British list that same month. August 1995 was a remarkable time for UK Odonata and has yet to be repeated, with these two new species for Britain, and various species turning up in all sorts of habitats with which they are not normally associated.  For instance, I saw numbers of Sympetrum sanguineum / Ruddy Darter and Sympetrum flaveolum / Yellow-winged Darter appear on moorland and ‘colliery waste’ near Ebbw Vale; again at altitudes around 400 metres and never to be seen again.

Nant Trefil got an enormous amount of coverage on the two days I visited, and on a third day (Friday 18th August) by two visitors from Yorkshire who had received news from Mike Powell. The stream was populated with a wide diversity of species, in numbers that would not normally be expected. Aeshna cyanea / Southern Hawker ovipositing into the peaty banks of the Nant Trefil stream particularly stood out to me as unexpected, as this would normally be where Aeshna juncea /  Common Hawker would be active, and indeed they were also present. The list of species and numbers of each species seen on Nant Trefil varied very considerably between myself and the visitors from Yorkshire, both of us having repeatedly walked the same length of water, so it was obvious that this was more than just observer bias.  Major movements of Odonata were taking place.  At the time I heard of reports that observers in Continental Europe saw upwellings of insects, including dragonflies, taken aloft by the extreme hot air currents and that the general drift was westward. I was interested to note the nearest population of Sympetrum pedemontanum / Banded Darter to Wales was in the uplands of the southeast of the Netherlands.

In recent decades, a good number of species have colonised southern Britain, often through the southeast corner of England and many have then gone on to do very well in the mild climate of South Wales. At the time of writing (2022), though, only one Sympetrum pedemontanum / Banded Darter has been seen in Britain, in the uplands of Wales: an insect with impeccable taste!

[Banded Darter is a highly distinctive insect, and Ian remains the only person to have found one in Britain; his article above captures the excitement perfectly. Unfortunately, Ian has not yet been able to locate the photographs he mentions, but if they turn up, we’d be delighted to add them to the article. In preparing this account of his find, Ian revisited the site to confirm exactly where the Banded Darter was seen, and was able to provide more precise grid references than were present in the British Dragonfly Society’s database; these show that the dragonfly was only present in Breconshire, vice-county 42, rather than Monmouthshire, vice-county 35, (although the Monmouthshire vice-county recording boundary approximates to that of the then-county of Gwent, there are some differences and this area is one of them). So, unfortunately, Monmouthshire loses a species from its list, and our neighbours in Breconshire gain one on theirs. Steve Preddy]

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