Dragonfly and damselfly guide: common species in Britain, where to find and how to identify

Summer is a great time for spotting insects on the wing in the British countryside – our expert guides explains how to identify and where to find common dragonflies, damselflies and demoiselles species 

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No stroll by the lake is complete without the rattle of dragonfly wings across the reeds and rushes.These large colourful insects are both brazen and yet also flighty.

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They have superb all-round vision for hunting their flying insect prey, but are easily spooked – stand stock-still and you will often see them return to the same stem perch or resume their regular patrol up and down the hedgerow or stream bank.

Here are a few dragons, damsels and demoiselles to look out for on your next trip into the garden or countryside.

Emperor dragonfly
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Emperor dragonfly, Anax imperator ©Naturepl.com

Britain’s largest species, up to 78mm, is a brightly coloured dragon with an apple-green thorax and a continuous blue stripe along tail if male or green stripe if female. Very active, it flies with its tail slightly held down and rarely settles except in cool weather. Found across England and Wales, scattered in Scotland.

Southern hawker
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Southern hawker, Aeshna cyan ©naturepl.com

Large (length to 70mm) and brightly coloured, this hawker has broad green bars on its sides and thorax, and a distinctive pale golf-tee mark on its first tail segment. The male is dark with apple-green or blue dots down its body; the female is browner with green marks. Common throughout lowland Britain.

Brown hawker
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Brown hawker, Aeshna grands ©Naturepl.com

This huge hawker (length to 73mm) has dark, smokey-brown wings, visible even from afar across open water. It usually breeds in large lakes, but will fly many miles from water to hawk up and down woodland edges, rides and hedges. Common in England, it is scattered in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Broad-bodied chaser
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Broad-bodied chaser, Libellula depressa ©Naturepl.com

Medium-sized (length to 48mm) but highly distinctive, this has dark wing bases and a broad, flattened body – powdery blue in male, brown in female – edged with yellow spots. Common in gardens, it breeds in streams, ponds, ditches and lakes. Found across England and Wales, with inroads into southern Scotland.

Common darter
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Common darter, Sympetrum striolatum ©Naturepl.com

Medium size (to 43mm), the darter has a narrow body – red in male, brightening for days after emerging; brown or straw-yellow in female. It sometimes perches with its tail up in the air. Often the last species to be seen, well into November, it is found in all water bodies across Britain except the highest Highlands.

Banded demoiselle
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Banded demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens ©Naturepl.com

Medium (length to 45mm), this demoiselle has a fragile, narrow body, emphasised by its gentle fluttering flight. Metallic bluish body in male, green in female, it often settles on waterside vegetation along slow muddy-bottomed streams. It is found in England and Wales, scattered in Scotland and Ireland.

Blue-tailed damselfly
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Blue-tailed damselfly, Ischnura elegans ©Naturepl.com

Small (length to 31mm), narrow, fragile and delicate, this flies secretively through waterside vegetation. It is black with a pale blue thorax and bar across
its tail tip, while its pterostigma (lone wing-tip spot) is two-coloured on front wings. Found in any water body throughout Britain, scattered in Ireland.

Large red damselfly
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Large red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula ©Naturepl.com

This small damselfly (length to 36mm) is bright red with black wing-spots. The male’s abdomen is all red; the female’s is barred lighter or heavier with black. It is often found in large numbers around water bodies, including ponds, meadowland dykes and peat bogs. It is perhaps the most widespread species in Britain.

Find out more about UK dragonflies here.

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Main image ©Getty