What’s in a name? - The trouble with Hawkers


Let’s talk about the names of dragonflies.

While there are some romanticised names out there, such us Demoiselle or Emperor, most dragonflies are named for characteristics that seem stupidly obvious once get to know them.

Chasers defend an area and chase away anything that comes near. One of them has a noticeably wider body than most of the others, so in the UK we call it a Broad Bodied Chaser (Personally, I like the German name for this species: Flat Belly. It makes more sense of the Latin name, Libellula Depressa, which makes it sound drab and miserable – not so).

Others have a low bouncing flight, like a skimming stone on a lake. They’re the Skimmers. One of them has a black tail.

Yep, you’ve guessed it. Black Tailed Skimmer.

Generally speaking, this makes the identification into family groups quite simple.

Darters are small, indecisive and random. They’ll fly about, settling often, but frequently change their minds about where to settle.

Hawkers are huge and patrol up and down. One of them is brown all over, even to the tint of the wings. Boom. Brown Hawker.

Brown Hawker. Usually seen flying away from you at great speed if you carry a camera. D Pritchard

It’s in the specifics that things get a little more complicated.

The most frequently encountered true dragonfly at Old Moor is the Common Darter. They’re starting to appear now, and you’ll be quite familiar with them if you visit often

So the Common Hawker is probably ten-a-penny too, right?


Unfortunately, most of the UK Hawkers in the Aeshna genus (except for the Brown) are given names based on geography, which is confusing things slightly. Climate change is affecting the historic ranges of many of our species, and we’re seeing more vagrant species as occasional visitors from the Continent.

Southern Hawker. Often as likely to fly up and look at you as you are it. Probably our most vibrant dragonfly.

D Pritchard

For decades, the only place in the UK you’d see an Aeshna isosceles was in Norfolk. So it’s called the Norfolk Hawker, even though it’s now regularly seen in Cambridgeshire, Kent and beyond. The Southern Hawker is distributed over most of England, and increasing its range to the north. It helps to be wary. Many guide books show you what a thing is without telling you where to expect it.

Common Hawker. Apparently “Really Unlikely Hawker” wasn’t catchy enough.   D Pritchard

Common Hawkers get their name not for their population density (they’re actually quite un-common) but for their choice of habitats. They like flying over open commons. There’s another name for them which is gathering popularity, probably because it’s a bit more straightforward : the Moorland Hawker. You’ve actually got more chance of seeing them in the heathland of the Peak District. We may get the odd stray, but in most cases when people think that they’ve seen a Common Hawker at Old Moor, they’ve actually seen a Migrant Hawker. They’re slightly smaller, lighter in colour, and are a bit more likely to hover at the end of a strafing run of the reedbeds. We’ll start to see them as we enter August, and they are by far out most prolific Hawker species.

I’ve counted thousands of Hawkers over the last ten years at Old Moor, and photographed several hundred. Only one of them has turned out to be a Common Hawker. The easiest way to adopt them is to look at the front edge of the wings in flight. Common Hawkers have a really obvious yellow edge that Migrant Hawkers lack.

So what’s the moral of the story? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it’s worth knowing more about the habitats and habits of any wildlife to avoid confusion. Take a close look, using a camera or your binoculars, or look back over old photos that you may have taken. Treating ID like a game of spot-the-difference is a trick that’s served me well for years. Look out for the ones that stand out, and you’ll have them mastered in no time. I invite you to share your photos in the comments if you’re stuck.

Migrant Hawker. The most abundant Hawker species at RSPB Old Moor, from August to November. D Pritchard