Spotlight Species - Southern Hawkers

Banking Southern Hawker        D Pritchard

I’ve never seen more Southern Hawkers than I have at Old Moor this year. They are a fairly common species, but tend to disperse from their breeding ponds quite quickly, so it’s unusual to see them interacting regularly. However, there are several individuals to be seen around the visitor centre at the moment.

They have a presence about them that’s hard to ignore. Not only are they the most colourful dragonflies you can find in the UK, they’re famously curious about people and will often fly up to us for a closer look.

Although their bold colouring is similar to the Emperor dragonfly, the striped bodies are from a different family of dragonflies, the Mosaic Hawkers, and have a very different shape. They’re almost like a cartoon version of other dragons, with most of the defining features exaggerated. They are a great species to look at if you want to learn about dragonfly ID.

For example, in a Four Spotted Chaser you’ll be lucky to find two visible differences between males and females in the field. There are at least six ways to tell the difference between a male Southern Hawker and a female in the field, before even looking at the markings.

D Pritchard

These are

  • Males and females look very different from one another
  • Males have a “nipped-in waist”. Females have straight-sided abdomens and are a little stockier.
  • Wing shape. Males’ hindwings have a very sharp rear corner, which follows the shape of the waist. Females hindwings are rounded.
  • Males also have sharp spurs on the side of the abdomen below where the wings meet the body. Females lack these, and their abdomens look much stockier.
  • Females have two feather-shaped “tails”. Males have three appendages. The third is a triangular spike which sits below the other two, which look like birds from the side.
  • Females have a very obvious ovipositor under the tail end, while the males have a bump under the body near the thorax housing a second set of sexual organs.

D Pritchard

Southern Hawkers are easy to recognise from every angle, thanks to a few unique features shared by both males and females. If you look on the side of the thorax of each, you’ll see a pattern resembling an angry looking eye. On the front of the thorax is a pair of large oval spots, commonly called “headlights” and they’re really obvious when a Southern Hawker flies towards you.

At the end of the abdomen, the pairs of spots on each segment fuse, so the last two segments have an unbroken bar. No other dragonfly species in the UK has this, and to make matters clearer, it’s bright blue in the males. These are the “tail lights”.

Even the eyes are slightly different, with an extra spot of colour folding around to the back of the head. Their faces are large and flat, and often have unique markings which make it possible to tell one individual from another.

While there are a few to be found around the discovery trail, Southern Hawkers love shady woodland paths, so the Trans Pennine Trail is also a good place to see them. They will often patrol up and down a set route, two to three feet above the ground. Their flight period normally lasts from July to late September or early October.

Females love garden ponds for laying eggs, and you’d be amazed how many can appear even from a small pond. If you’d like to try for yourself, the RSPB has some great advice on building ponds of any size.

Build your Wildlife Pond

Follow David's other additions to 'The weird and Wonderful World of Dragonflies' here:

An introduction

Its all about Wings

Eye for an Eye

Whats in the Name?

Dragonfly behaviour

Jane Wilkinson's fabulous insight to the creation of RSPB Adwick Washland, a must read:

RSPB Adwick Washland