An introduction to Shetland lichen

I started this blog with a working title of ‘Diving into lichen’ but, on reflection, I realised this was a wildly inappropriate oversimplification. I’ve barely dipped my toe into the lichen shallows. And, if we’re to extend that metaphor a little further, it’s just enough to know that those shallows have dangerous rip-tides and fall away, precipitously, like a continental shelf-edge mere feet from the certainty of dry land.

Does this make lichen sound daunting? Well, they are… but at the same time, what a beautiful challenge they represent. Some years ago, aware that my Shetland home was festooned with lichen, from the shaggy greybeards that sprouted from old drystone walls, to the saffron crusts that smothered clifftop rocks and, tenaciously, the very roof of my old croft house, I did what I always do when I want to learn more about something – I bought a book.

If I’m honest, Shetland Lichens set me back a few pounds from the Shetland Times Bookshop, but also set my lichen-hunting back by a few years. I’d hoped for a field-guide that would help me to readily identify whatever I happened to find. What I got was a comprehensive monograph listing the lichens that had been found to date throughout Shetland, but with precious little information about how to set about actually identifying anything.

Life then got in the way of further progress. Researching and writing Orchid Summer ate into what precious little free time I had available to me. Then the cycle repeated itself with The Glitter in the Green… (Due to be published this year in the USA in April, and in the UK in June). Nonetheless, this past January, with lockdown keeping me at home, and spoilt by an uncharacteristically fine and prolonged spell of weather for Shetland at this time of year, I determined to try to get to grips with the lichens I could find close to home.

And this time I was, if not fully prepared, then certainly a little more confident than hitherto. I’d found Frank Dobson’s brilliant Lichens – An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species and, online, I’d found a helpful cadre of lichenologists on Twitter who kindly held my hand as I made my first baby steps and wild stabs in the dark identifying what I stumbling across on Whalsay’s shores, walls, moors and outbuildings. Two of them, Brian Eversham and Mark Powell, I owe particular thanks to for their patience and assistance. A new world, one that had been under my nose all these years, was opening up…

It all began with a couple of grey splats on the rocks at the shore – some with glistening black apoethecia (these are lichen fruiting bodies), and others with regular, sculptural disc-shaped apothecia, with neat rims around them like tiny jam tarts. These weren’t too hard to identify for myself – Tephromela atra and Ochrolechia parella respectively, both common lichens in these coastal parts.

A walk on the hill behind the house uncovered more unusual treasures – Sphaerophorus fragilis with delicate branches of filigree the colour of old ivory, and my first Cladonia species – the red matchsticks of Cladonia floerkeana and C. bellidiflora, and the green pixie cups of what may, or may not, be C. chlorophaea – the latter are needing further investigation. This, I was finding, is part of the joy of lichen-hunting – solving some identities isn’t straightforward, but nor should that be off-putting – it’s like solving a knotty riddle or crossword puzzle clue. There’s some satisfaction in a hard-earned resolution.

Nearby were some foliose lichens amongst the moss that blankets much of the hill – the wrinkled and somehow ancient ‘leaves’ of Peltigera membranacea, and the smoother, chestnut-apothecia bearing P. hymenina. The latter seems to be previously unrecorded on Whalsay – as were several more of the lichens I was finding. In the kirkyard were Whalsay’s first records of Physcia tenella, a fabulous grey lichen with corrugated, exuberant black apothecia, and the gorse-yellow branches of Xanthoria candelaria.

Another Xanthoria, X. parietina, covers rocks at the shore in a rich mustard crust. On the shaded walls of an old stone sheep dip I found it growing in more glaucous tones. Those sheep dips also yielded the gorgeous, subtle Caloplaca crenularia – a grey lichen with conker-coloured apothecia, easily overlooked but, on closer examination, a stunner.

Other Caloplaca lichens were more obvious – the yellow species found on the shore were unmissable, particularly the black and orange C. microthallina and deep orange C. marina. Amongst them was a prize – not a particularly rare lichen, but one that’s surely overlooked in Shetland – C. maritima, a lichen of lemon and lime tones that’s hitherto only recorded from Fair Isle.

Some of these lichens have English names but, while I’m usually a great fan of colourful and evocative language like that found amongst the English species names of moths and hummingbirds, in the case of lichens I’m sticking to the scientific names. That’s because the world of lichen has a language all of its own – a lichen lexicon. From apothecia to Zwackhiomyces (the latter a fungus found on Xanthoria parietina), I’m loving diving into a sea of new words.

I’ve come to realise that lichens are everywhere here – and that there are a wealth of discoveries to be made that help to add to our understanding of their distribution here in the islands. It’s like the scales have fallen from my eyes in the first few weeks of this year, and I can’t wait to see what else I can find. There’s an entirely new world out there on my doorstep waiting to be explored, and my voyage of discovery is only just beginning.

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2020 – a year of local wildlife (Part IV)

Throughout 2020 I spent a lot of time looking out to sea. That’s not hard to do where I live – my home sits on the rocky spine of a narrow, low peninsula, so there are sea views on three sides of the house. I can see five of Shetland’s inhabited islands in that sweeping vista and, were I to head straight out to sea between Fetlar and the Out Skerries, the next land I’d eventually hit would be Norway.

The view changes, constantly, depending on the light and time of day. Rainbows paint the near horizons almost daily; clouds coalesce and dissolve constantly; and some sunsets err on the apocalyptic. There’s always something different to see.

I could watch the weather all day, but the sea draws me like a magnet. Grey Seals haunt the coast around here, hanging in the water with dark, watchful eyes turned to land. The rocky shores echo with the shrill whickering and whistles of Otters and their cubs. Look for long enough at the right time of day and I’m almost certain I’ll eventually see a small head and the flick of a tail above water when one is fishing in the bay below the house. In the height of summer this year, when it never truly gets dark, they were hunting eelpouts and Butterfish shortly before midnight as the sun dipped, briefly, below the horizon.

During the height of lockdown, when I wasn’t going beyond the boundaries of my croft, I could at least walk down to the shore. There’s a small beach there, a pocket of shell-sand at the head of the noust, a passage through the rocks that long-gone men cleared so they could launch their boats from this jagged shore.

The beach throws up surprises from time to time. I idled away hours scouring the sand for cowries and other seashells, and watched the soap opera that was a pair of Starlings nesting in a drystone wall at the head of the beach. Behind me, in the bay, a Black-throated Diver spent the summer lurking offshore. They’re a rare visitor here – the seas in winter are the domain of the Great Northern Divers that leave, in the spring, to breed up in Iceland, leaving the coast clear for Red-throated Divers to breed on our freshwater lochs and feed in shallow bays. This diver ought not to have been here, but was a welcome sight for me.

I was looking for more than birds on the water, though. As the year unfolded I was treated to regular sightings of Minke Whales, rolling languorously at the surface for a breath of air before diving again to feed. Dolphins, White-sided and Risso’s, passed through on several occasions, while Harbour Porpoises gathered in energetic pods on still evenings.

All of those cetaceans were a little way offshore – but on a rare visit to Lerwick, I was treated to the closest views I’ve ever had of a Minke Whale in an urban setting, an animal that spent several hours feeding happily a handful of metres from the cliffs on which I sat, sharing the experience with a steady stream of folk who took a moment in their busy day to stop and admire this large, active wild animal in our midst.

There were also, of course, regular sightings throughout the summer of Killer Whales. A local Whatsapp group has transformed one’s chances of seeing these charismatic and mobile cetaceans – once a pod has been seen, news is usually shared quickly within the group, and regular updates allow folk to follow the pod as it hunts seals along a stretch of coast.

By and large, I’m usually away working when sightings of them peak in the summer – and this year, despite being at home, I preferred to wait for my path to cross theirs by serendipity rather than design. Eventually, that happened, on a morning I had set aside to photograph Purple Sandpipers in Shetland’s south mainland – a message appeared on my phone and, barely 20 minutes later, a pod of Killer Whales appeared in the waters of the shallow sandy bay before me.

There’s an undeniable frisson to an encounter with them and, while I love watching them, I’d be the first to say I find them a little unnerving and frightening – over the years I’ve witnessed enough incidents to reinforce the knowledge that they’re not only apex predators, but also able, determined and highly intelligent ones. It’s the little things – the times they investigate every nook and cranny of a rocky coast, hoping to winkle out a hiding seal at the foot of the cliffs; their omnivorous willingness to eat anything they encounter on the water, from ducklings to Guillemots, Otters to Grey Seals; and those unforgettable moments when one sees them problem-solving – a seal, hauled out in safety on a rock just above the water? Not a problem – the experienced Killer Whales rush towards it, creating a bow-wave that washes over the rock and the cowering seal. The seal hung on, but only twice – on the third attempt, it was swept into the sea, and those big black dorsal fins all surged underwater as one…

Back at home, I didn’t see any this year, but I could hardly complain given the almost daily cetacean sightings of other species besides them. And not just cetaceans – there were other, singular highlights. Mirror calm days in summer when the fin and tail tips of Basking Sharks could be seen from land; and wild, stormy days in the autumn when Sooty Shearwaters were blown close enough to land that I could see them, using a spotting scope, from my bedroom window.

Other storms brought visitors from far afield. In the late winter, rolls of birch bark washed onto my beach – once renowned here as potent firelighters, and known as Loki’s candles, they float across the Atlantic from the great forests of North America. A late summer storm washed an immense spar of wood high above the tideline, covered with a thick, clasping layer of Goose Barnacles – a pelagic species normally found on flotsam in the warm waters of the tropics rather than the chilly surroundings of the east side of Shetland.

With the sea, you just never know what you’re going to see here.

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2020 – a year of local wildlife (Part III)

Being at home as much as I was this year brought fresh perspective on some changing aspects of the natural world at the end of the island on which I live. Despite nothing having changed in the land use of any of the crofts here in the intervening period, there have been declines – and outright losses – in the breeding birds that were here in some numbers when first I moved to Shetland.

Back then, some 20 years ago, it was impossible for anyone to walk along the gravel airstrip behind the house during the summer without being divebombed by territorial Lapwings that were defending nests on the heath margins on either side of the airstrip. Their squeaky balloon calls and towering flights would alert me to the presence of people nearby – but this summer, when folk walked along the airstrip, there was silence. The Lapwings are gone – and I assume that probably means something has happened to their population as a whole rather than locally.

Similarly the Common Gulls that once nested, garrulously, on the hillside that faces the back of my house. There were, years ago, dozens of pairs of them dotted across the northwestern slopes – and again, they’re now gone altogether. I’ve plenty of questions about why these birds have vanished as local breeders, but no ready answers.

Certainly, this past year, I was more aware of their absence. On a positive note, being home meant I was also more conscious of the birds that thrive here to this day. The first Skylark song of the spring was a welcome tonic, though the local Wrens had maintained their usual compact of singing throughout the year, even in the dead of winter. Come the summer, they were boldly holding territory amidst the lichen-clad drystone walls that provide shelter to my vegetable yard.

So too, a little further from the house, were several pairs of Wheatears. I remember, as a boy, seeing my first ever Wheatear in Dorset – a migrant bird, heading north to some distant place, driven by zugunruhe to keep moving until it reached who knows where – the uplands of Wales, mainland Scotland, the Scottish islands, or maybe further afield still. Some Wheatears don’t stop until they reach Iceland, or Greenland; some of them are compelled to go further still, to northeast Canada and even Alaska.

I see some of those pioneering birds passing through here every year. They breed here in Shetland too, known locally as stanechackers, a name that runs like a thread through much of Scotland. They’re confident and obvious birds, perching in prominent places to monitor their territories. They seem universally popular. On the Scottish mainland, an old Galloway curse warns against interfering with them:

Deevil tak! / They wha hany my nest / Will never rest, / Will meet the pest! / De’il brack their lang back / Wha my eggs wad tak, tak!

Both Wrens and Wheatears alike seemed to be having a good breeding season this year, with many fledged young suddenly all around me as the summer wore on. Autumn, for birders, begins as early as July, when some shorebirds begin migrating south from their Arctic breeding grounds. By August, there’s a chance of passerine, or perching, birds on the move too which, with a following easterly wind, can be blown off course from Scandinavia to Shetland. As the autumn unfolds through September, October and November, passerines from much further afield can, if one’s very lucky, be found too – birds from Siberia, and beyond.

My autumn started well. When I first moved here, there was no garden surrounding my house, just fields. I fenced a small area, put in windbreaks, and planted trees. For years, they did very little – Shetland’s not an easy place in which to grow, if you’re a tree – but after a while they got established and now, while none are more than a handful of metres high, they’re big and thick enough to offer cover and the chance of somewhere to forage for tired migrant birds. Movement amongst them caught my eye one day in August, and proved to be the garden’s first Greenish Warbler.

Image c/o John Lowrie Irvine

In the weeks that followed, more warblers arrived in the garden – a huge fall of Blackcaps filled the garden for days and, with them, much rarer birds too made an appearance – a Radde’s Warbler, and then a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.

When, in 1856, Gustav Radde found “a skulking warbler in a kitchen garden in the heart of Central Asia” he’d stumbled across a hitherto undiscovered species – the warbler that was to bear his name for posterity. Having spent many long hours this autumn trying to get a decent view of the Radde’s Warbler that occasionally visited my croft, I can vouch that they’ve not changed their secretive ways in the intervening years.

It’s perhaps testament to just how skulky they are that Peter Pallas, one of the greatest naturalists of the 18th century, failed to find and describe one for himself. In his prolific career he described dozens of new species of bird, mammal, insect, fish and even fossil. One of those birds, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, also has a penchant for hiding in dense undergrowth. Unlike Radde’s Warbler, which are seen almost annually down the east coast of Britain, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler is something of a Shetland speciality with many of the past British records owing themselves to the archipelago.

One of those was near my house in 2003 – a bird I contrived to see through a spotting scope from the bedroom window, so desperate was I to add it to the house list… This year’ bird was much more obliging – it spent days in one of the fields of my croft, occasionally showing well for a steady stream of visitors and, in the quiet times, even made forays up into my garden.

Nearby, the birds just kept on coming. A Red-flanked Bluetail, once unthinkably rare in Britain, was found by local birder John Lowrie Irvine a few hundred metres down the road from the house. A Bluethroat, once a regular spring migrant in Shetland but now considerably scarcer, appeared in a neighbour’s vegetable yard. An invasion of Blue Tits from Scandinavia swarmed into the islands and, in the two birds I saw in the garden, were my first of their kind at my Shetland home.

As the autumn wore on, the last rarity of all appeared right outside the kitchen window one day – a fine Ortolan Bunting. It didn’t stick around for long, but was the perfect reminder that, in Shetland, you never quite know what’s around the corner where birds are concerned at that time of year.

Never was that more the case than on the neighbouring island of Yell in late September where local birder Dougie Preston stumbled across one of the rarest birds of all to be seen in Britain this past year – a Tennessee Warbler, freshly arrived from across the Atlantic Ocean. A wonderful bird to see, of course, but with hindsight for me it couldn’t hold a candle to the daily thrill of wondering what birds would blow in from hundreds of miles away to appear within walking distance of home. Every day felt like playing a birder’s lottery of the very best kind.

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2020 – a year of local wildlife (Part II)

During the stay-at-home phase of the early summer’s Covid-19 restrictions I mostly took my daily exercise pottering around on my Shetland croft – I knew I was blessed to have open space all around me and, as we’ve seen in Part I of my 2020 summary, it was an opportunity to look more carefully than hitherto at the wildflowers growing nearby. Amongst them were some pleasant surprises.

There are just a handful of other houses on the peninsula on which I live and we’re separated from the rest of the island by a large expanse of moorland or, as it’s known here in Shetland, hill. As a rule, I tend not to walk across much of it during the months of summer as I want to avoid disturbing the breeding upland waders that call it home for a few short weeks – amongst them a thriving population of Whimbrels, a bird that’s generally in sharp decline in Britain.

On one of my occasional daily walks off the croft I was skirting around the fringe of the hill, half-heartedly looking for late migrant birds. I was, perhaps, feeling a little frustrated that I couldn’t go further afield in Shetland to look for rarer flowers than those I was finding on the croft, and I wasn’t prepared to make tenuous excuses in order to bend the rules.

Looking at a small, sheltered area of the hill, I thought to myself that it looked like it ought to be good for Lesser Twayblades and, after just a few minutes searching, I found the first of what would prove to be many hundreds of flowering and non-flowering plants. This was a major discovery and represents, I think, the largest known colony of this diminutive orchid in Shetland.

Once lockdown eased, I was asked to survey potential sites for Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids on the Shetland Mainland. I found Shetland’s first record for the species a few years back, and we wanted to see if they existed in isolation. The existing small colony remained in good health, with some outliers found a little distance away and then, a few days later, I learned that more had been discovered up on Unst. This was tremendous news – it always felt likely there would be more just waiting to be found.

But back to my day out – having exhausted the potential sites marked on my map, I decided to treat myself to a wander along a burn that hosts Shetland’s only known population of Great Sundews. Round-leaved Sundew is ubiquitous across the islands, but Great Sundew is a rarer insectivorous proposition altogether. After weeks of mostly looking for wildflowers my eyes seemed to be in good plant-hunting condition – I found a number of satellite colonies that I was hitherto unaware of in the general area of the main, known colony, including one that for numbers and density far outweighed the original site. Not a good place to be a fly! Like those Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids, I’m quietly convinced there are other Great Sundews out there, somewhere in Shetland, waiting to be discovered in years to come…

A brief visit to the Central Mainland one morning was made to look for Bog Orchids – I’d heard a worrying report that the large colony found there by local biologist Rory Tallack some years back wasn’t doing well this year. Sure enough, numbers in the usually productive areas of the site were indeed a pale shadow of their former glories. As the site seems largely unchanged as a whole, it remains to be seen if this was a blip or represents a genuine decline. I suspected that sheep may have grazed a lot of the usual plants, as I certainly found some bitten off. This visit ended on a happy note, however, as I stumbled across almost 100 ‘new’ flowering plants in an adjacent area that had, hitherto, not been know to support any whatsoever.

Buoyed by that, I decided to make the most of being home in Shetland and started to look for some of the endemic hawkweeds that proliferate in some areas of the islands. Having never looked for them before, and with some of the literature rather vague on the precise flowering period for each species, I was to discover in fairly short order that, in 2020 at least, I was for the most part too late to the party – they’d almost all gone to seed.

Nonetheless, some plants were still in flower – Laxo Burn Hawkweed, arguably one of the rarest plants in Britain – only ever found on the banks of the lower stretches of one stream in the whole of Shetland and, even there, numbering just a few dozen plants. I know, hawkweeds look like straggly dandelions, but trust me – they’re special things…

In the meantime, while searching for flowering hawkweeds (and waiting for the delivery of another BSBI handbook that would help unlock their mysteries) I bumped into other, more familiar old friends – not least Grass-of-Parnassus, a delicate beauty that’s one of my all time favourite wildflowers. Their upheld, pearly white, complex flowers reward a closer look, and always seem to me to be a symbol of hope and promise. In this of all years, we could do with some of that.

With hindsight, I realise my botanising falls into some distinct categories: enjoying the plants I’m already familiar with; the serendipitous surprise of stumbling across something unexpectedly; and determined and focused plant-hunting, either to see something new or to survey existing populations. I enjoy all of those approaches, and am relieved that it’s not just the thrill of the chase or novelty that I find myself seeking – I’m happy too if I’m seeing common plants at their very best.

Shetland excelled itself in that regard this summer with the hills blanketed with snowy, billowing Bog Cotton and swathes of purple Heather, and latterly accented by patches of golden Bog Asphodel. As summer melted into autumn, those golden flowers gave way to coppery seedpods… and my mind began to turn back to birds, and the great autumn migration that lay ahead.

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2020 – a year of local wildlife (Part I)

I usually summarise the past year on this blog in one post but, as 2020 has been so very different to every year that’s gone before, it seems appropriate somehow to break it down into some broad themes instead.

What they mostly have in common is Shetland. Indeed, most of them are very much based on or very near to my croft. The Covid-19 pandemic meant, of course, that my usual wildlife tour-leading activities were completely torpedoed throughout the year – which meant I got to spend a lot more time at home than usual between March and the time of writing.

It was a reminder that I’ve chosen to make my home in a wonderful place for naturalists – in an archipelago that boasts incredible breeding birdlife as well as being a dream location in which to witness migration; where sightings of marine mammals are a daily occurrence, ranging from the Otters that breed metres from my house to the regular visits of varied species of dolphins and whales; and a place that is home to a rich and varied flora.

Throughout the months of strict lockdown, I made a point of looking at the wildflowers on my croft with more care and attention than in any preceding year. I thought, at first, that this was just an opportunity to get better images of some species than I’d previously taken…

…but whilst I did just that, there were surprises along the way. Some were about simply realising just how good the croft is for wildflowers – much of it hasn’t had any lime or fertiliser applied to it for many years, if ever – certainly not since I’ve been here, and very likely not for decades before that. I knew that Marsh Violets occurred in one area – but had previously only noticed a handful of flowering plants. This spring, I realised there were hundreds of them!

That wasn’t all. There were new things entirely I’d not noticed before. I knew there was plenty of Creeping Buttercup that paints the grazing pastures gold in midsummer, but found an outpost of Meadow Buttercups on a well-drained knoll and, in damp ditches, Lesser Spearwort too.

Down where the croft meets the sea, Sea Pinks are unmissable on the low cliffs – I picked a foggy day to don my climbing shoes and scramble up to a lichen-encrusted outcrop to take some images from a different perspective to usual. It was fun to find the old bouldering skills weren’t entirely lost! But I also found Buck’s-horn Plantain and Common Scurvygrass on those cliffs – again, I’d looked straight past them in previous years.

Some finds were more colourful – and it’s with a little shame I have to admit to never noticing a small patch of Water Avens before now…

Likewise, the eyebrights that stud the croft as the summer wears on. For the most part, they’re a challenge for another year – eyebright identification is a dark art, and one I’ll approach with more confidence now I’ve got a copy of the BSBI Eyebrights Handbook. That came too late for the flowering season this year, so the only plant I’m reasonably confident to pin a name to was a patch of statuesque Common Slender Eyebright.

I was on safer ground with the croft’s orchids! Curiously, Heath Spotted Orchids didn’t have a particularly good flowering season, but I was pleased to see that the small outpost of pulchella Early Marsh Orchids were enduring, and that Northern Marsh Orchids were spreading in the damper places.

On the subject of the rarer things, my Autumn Gentians also didn’t fare especially well – I’m hoping for better things from them in 2021 – but Moonwort and Small Adder’s-tongue remained prolific in their favoured corner of maritime heath.

By the end of the summer, I’d identified a number of species that, surely, had been here all along but I’d never noticed on the croft before. I felt prouder than ever to live in this wonderful place. And, by this point in the year, lockdown restrictions had eased sufficiently to allow some judicious local travel within Shetland – I set out to see what I could find, hoping for some entirely new species to me, and maybe some chance discoveries all of my own. And that’s the subject of the next 2020 blog…

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Got those Whalsay blues

When I was a keen young birder, on the cusp of leaving school and heading off to university, I spent a week in October on the Isles of Scilly. It was a taste of freedom to come. It was also the beginning of a love affair with islands that was to shape my life. There was something incredibly right about being in an island setting, with sea boundaries all around me. That feeling of having found my place was ill-formed, then, but what I could say for certain straight away was that I loved birding on islands. The potential for the next bird to be something extraordinary, something other, something from hundreds or thousands of miles away – that was thrilling, a sense of anticipation like a drug in my system.

Whilst on Scilly that year, I saw some good birds, birds from the USA I had only dreamed of hitherto. As was the way, back then, in the evenings in the Porthcressa photographers would have tables laid out with 6×4 glossy photos of the rarities seen on the island that day or week. I would carefully choose the best, part with a couple of pounds, and there was a memory to stick in my birding journal alongside my notes. Sometimes there would be a table laid out with books for sale too… and I was drawn to one book like a moth to a candle flame.

Fair Isle’s Garden Birds, written and illustrated by John Holloway, described the author’s six years of life on Fair Isle, at Shetland’s southernmost extremity. The book was packed with accounts of amazing birds. I knew my next island destination, the following year, had to be Fair Isle, to stay at the world-famous bird observatory.

There were certain species, amongst the constellation of stars John Holloway described and painted, that had a mythical status amongst birders at the time. One in particular grabbed me like no other – Red-flanked Bluetail had it all going on… Not only was it achingly rare – at the time, a mere dozen birds had been recorded in Britain – but it was also strikingly beautiful, a compact chat that, in first-year birds, had sullied white underparts and mink upperparts offset by pale apricot flanks, a cream eye-ring, and a cerulean blue tail. Like pretty much every birder of the day, I wanted to see one very badly indeed.

I stayed on Fair Isle in 1992 and, while I didn’t see a Red-flanked Bluetail, the birding on the famous island, and the welcome there and in Shetland as a whole, made a powerful impression upon me. This, I knew, was where I wanted to be, one day, as soon as possible. Having said that, in 1993 I decided to venture for a week on North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s answer to Fair Isle. North Ron had had a brilliant autumn in 1992, and it had caught my attention. Perhaps I would enjoy similar good fortune?

My timing was dreadful. North Ronaldsay was stubbornly quiet, while Fair Isle was consistently firing on all cylinders where birds were concerned. Bad enough that I could see Fair Isle on the near, northern horizon… worse still when news broke of a Red-flanked Bluetail on there on 16th September. We were disconsolate on North Ron, but determined too. A bluetail had missed us by a few miles, but was almost within touching distance. Someone, I forget who, though it may have been North Ronaldsay’s resident rarity-finding god, Martin Gray, got in touch with an Orcadian fishing boat – for the sum of £50 a head, they would take us north to Fair Isle.

We needed no bidding, and piled onto the small open vessel. It would be touch and go if we’d get to Fair Isle before dark, so we would spend the night at the Obs and then head back to North Ron later the following day, hopefully a Red-flanked Bluetail the richer. That was the plan. In the event, we arrived just after dark, clambering ashore on a still, cold, and ominously clear night.

The following morning found us, having spent the evening in the company of euphoric birders who had seen their Red-flanked Bluetail, staring into an empty, frosty garden. The bird had either continued its wayward migration, or died overnight in the cold. One way or another, we had dipped, or missed the bird.

Some weeks later, back in Kent at university, frankly incredible news broke late in the afternoon of 30th October. A Red-flanked Bluetail had been found in the depths of Winspit Valley on the Dorset coast. Two of us piled into a car, drove to London, gathered more passengers, and headed to Dorset, arriving at Winspit in the dead of night. I slept outside the car, stretched out in a sleeping bag pressed against the tyres. My sleep was fitful, interrupted by the periodic arrival of more vehicles throughout the small hours. A nation’s keenest birders wanted a Red-flanked Bluetail just as badly as I did. Gravel pattered against the shell of the sleeping bag as cars slewed to a halt close around me.

Perhaps the less said about the following morning, the better. Viewing conditions in the confines of the valley weren’t ideal, let alone for several hundred jostling birders trying to catch a glimpse of a small, elusive bird. I saw my first Red-flanked Bluetail, but it wasn’t how I had dared to hope the experience might be. The euphoria was tempered by my island yearnings.

Years later, I moved to Shetland for good, to a small croft on the north-eastern extremity of the island of Whalsay. The croft had some pedigree where birds were concerned. Britain’s first Collared Flycatcher had been shot there on 11th May 1947, while later that same year what was, at the time, believed to be Britain’s first Red-flanked Bluetail was also shot, nearby, on 7th October (an earlier record, from Lincolnshire in 1903, subsequently stole Whalsay’s laurels).

I couldn’t wait to see what I might find for myself and, just a few years later, the unthinkable happened – I walked to the byre late one evening in October to shut away my hens for the night, and found myself staring eye to eye with Whalsay’s second, and Britain’s 40th, Red-flanked Bluetail. They had, after the Fair Isle and Winspit birds of 1993, started to be found in Britain a little more often – but were still pretty rare. This, this was how I had always dared to dream my Red-flanked Bluetail would be. Just me and the bird, and a few mere yards from my back door.

Since then, I’ve seen two more on Whalsay – they have become significantly more regular in Britain, annual scarce arrivals each autumn – but they’ve not lost their lustre. Any day with a Red-flanked Bluetail in it is a Good Day.

Yesterday, by any standards, was a very good day indeed. Resident Whalsay birder John Lowrie Irvine found a Red-flanked Bluetail a couple of hundred yards from my home early in the morning. By the evening, when I’d finally had a chance to see the bird for myself, it was the third species of bird I’d bumped into in the surrounding area with ‘blue’ in its English name – coming hot on the heels of a nearby Bluethroat, and two roving Blue Tits.

Remarkably, the latter were the rarest birds of all. Rarer, in a Whalsay context for me, than hitherto dream bird Red-flanked Bluetail. These were my first Blue Tits at my end of Whalsay… They’re not resident in Shetland, and are seen only infrequently in Shetland as a whole, and certainly not often on Whalsay.

Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that I didn’t spare the Blue Tits in my southern English garden more than a passing glance when my dreams were consumed with Red-flanked Bluetails. It was good, yesterday, to look at them afresh, and appreciate them anew – they really are spectacularly good-looking creatures, and aesthetically blow even a Red-flanked Bluetail clean out of the water.

A friend told me how he saw them afresh after returning from his first birding trip to South America – a continent where colourful passerine birds are de rigeur, rather than the exception to the norm. We can feel blessed to have them as a common breeding British bird and, while the two I saw yesterday probably hatched in Finland or Sweden, I feel blessed to have finally seen them in my corner of Shetland.

And the bluetail? Yes, still brilliant, and still giving that massive adrenaline rush…

Postscript – the world-famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory was tragically destroyed by fire in early 2019. The Trust that operates the bird observatory is currently fund-raising to help to rebuild the facility to be better than ever before. The observatory is the beating heart of the island, and when it’s rebuilt I would urge readers to go and stay there, whether it’s to see firsthand the hard work the staff undertake monitoring breeding bird populations or migrating bird numbers, or in the hope of bumping into a rare bird or two… maybe even a Red-flanked Bluetail of your own…

So, if you’ve ever enjoyed a bluetail, or dare to dream about seeing a bird that’s captured your imagination, please consider making a donation towards the rebuild costs. Every little will make a huge difference. Thank you.

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Lockdown wildflower photography

Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. I have, I know, been blessed in the past six months to live where I do – during the very strictest weeks of lockdown, I could at least wander outside on my croft safe in the knowledge I wouldn’t meet, or even see, another living soul.

When restrictions eased a little, I still stayed close to home, albeit spreading my wings a little further afield on the island I live upon and, later, into mainland Shetland too. What I’ve not been able to do, of course, is earn a living leading wildlife tours for the two companies I’m proud to guide for, Greenwings and Shetland Nature.

While that’s not been easy in so many ways, it has meant I’ve enjoyed more time at home during the Shetland summer than I’ve known for many a long year. The house has never been better cared for, gleaming in a new white coat of masonry paint ready for the worst the winter storms can throw at it. Drystone walls have been repaired and, in one instance, built from scratch – I now have a smart new sheltered area to plant with fruit bushes.

I’ve also been fortunate to have a lot more time to spend leaning heavily into wildlife photography – it’s always been a passion, but it’s not often I get time entirely to myself to indulge in it, let alone in the height of a summer as glorious as that we’ve just enjoyed here in the far north of Britain.

Everyone here has noticed the profusion of wildflowers this year – it seems to have been an exceptional summer for them. That’s never been so evident as with the heather – in some years, only the warmest, south-facing slopes of the heather-clad hills actually flower. This year, however, most of Shetland seems to be swathed in a blanket of honey-scented royal purple.

Of all wildlife photography, I think it’s wildflower photography I enjoy the most. With subjects that don’t fly or run or swim away, there’s more time and scope to compose a pleasing image, to experiment. Of course, light levels and the weather are still to be contended with… but a subject that can’t see you coming is a good start!

So, while this summer has been marked with some minor local triumphs – discovering what’s almost certainly Shetland’s largest known colony of Lesser Twayblades being a significant one, but also new stations for Bog Orchid and Great Sundew – the main joy has been spending a lot of time working with the local wildflowers throughout the long, light days and weeks of a Shetland summer as it unfolds.

I’ve chosen just a few of my favourite recent images to accompany this blog, but there are many more besides to sift through and edit in the dark evenings of the winter ahead – a source of solace and a reminder of brighter times to come.

I’m looking forward to returning to leading wildlife tours next year and, at the start of the season, there’s one to particularly look forward to – an orchid (and other wildflower) photography week on the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes. It’ll be a chance to share some of the techniques and tricks I’ve been practicing lately. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

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Lesser Twayblades

AP6I9836 edit blogsizeA few years ago, I set out to find Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids in Shetland. They’d never been recorded here before, but it seemed there was a reasonable chance they had, at least once upon a time, occurred here given their range extends up the west side of Ireland and Scotland. I looked for suitable habitat and, after a few sites had drawn a blank, I hit the jackpot – a small colony of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids in a fenced off flush in the corner of an otherwise unremarkable grassy field.

AP6I9864 edit blogsizeOf course, it’s not always that simple… usually, one can’t just decide to go and look for something in a place it’s never been seen before and have any hope of actually finding it. Just sometimes, though, it does work… and yesterday, the planets aligned and it happened again.

A few minutes walk away from my home is a good-looking area of enclosed land – fenced off from the common grazing, and untouched by sheep for decades now. It’s a fairly well-drained plot of land, supporting most of the usual Shetland hill suspects – lots of lichen and moss, some heather, Crowberry, various flowering plants like Heath Milkwort and Tormentil. I was walking past it today, as I have for years, gave it more of a calculating look, and said to myself, “that looks like it should have Lesser Twayblades in it…”

IMG_0406 edit twelve flowering plantsFive minutes later, I found my first flowering plant and, around it, many more flowering and non-flowering examples. Once I got my eye in, I kept seeing more and more plants. Slowly and carefully walking a 10 metre transect, I counted 250 plants. To put that in perspective, Lesser Twayblade is known from just a handful of sites in Shetland, and I’ve never found more than 40 plants at the best site I know on Unst. I ran home for my camera and, on returning, promptly found another patch of 50 more plants, including a dozen growing side by side in one small mossy area. Can you see them all?

AP6I9878 edit blogsizeThey’re undoubtedly overlooked throughout Shetland – they’re tiny, barely two centimetres tall, and I’m sure my newly found colony will number many more than the 300 plants I counted in the space of an hour.

Four years ago a visiting locum doctor with sharp eyes found Whalsay’s first ever record of Lesser Twayblade at the other end of the island, three small and unhappy plants on the edge of a bog. I saw them then, but they’ve never reappeared there since – I even looked for them in the past couple of days, fruitlessly. It turns out what’s almost certainly Shetland’s largest known colony of Lesser Twayblades was on my doorstep all along…

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Orchid Photography in Rhodes

AP6I9933 edit Lady Orchid tweetsizeThis past weekend should have seen me hosting a series of orchid-hunting days in Kent for Greenwings – a chance to share my beloved orchids with a gathering of friends old and new. By now we should have been surrounded by Lady Orchids and even rarer things besides… Circumstances, of course, have sadly intervened and dictated otherwise – the latest disruption to my program of anticipated tours in Britain and Europe this year.

Lady's Slipper OrchidThat’s a terrible shame, of course, but there’s a silver lining to that particular cloud – it’s allowed time for planning a rather special new Greenwings orchid-hunting tour for next year – one with a significant difference.

I love taking photos of all manner of wildlife, orchids in particular, and was delighted last year that one of my recent orchid images was shortlisted in the Close Up Photographer of the Year competition. That said, I’m a nature writer and wildlife tour leader as well as a photographer – I’m not a full-time, professional plant photographer. They’re a different, rarer breed altogether.

Anemonella thalictroides 'Amelia' a2It’s with a huge sense of anticipation, then, that I’m looking forward to the Rhodes Orchid Photography tour next March, which I’ll be co-leading alongside acclaimed professional garden and plant photographer Sarah Cuttle. Sarah’s images are a delight for the eye, and feature regularly in a host of publications –  BBC Gardener’s World, RHS The GardenThe English GardenGardens IllustratedHouse & Garden and Country Living. She provided the images for the sumptuously illustrated Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, and if all that weren’t enough, she’s an Associate Photographer for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

TulipPortrait a2_I’m pretty sure that I’m going to learn a thing or two from her!

Better still, you can too – we’ve designed a tour that will introduce our guests to one of the most botanically diverse and colourful islands of the eastern Mediterranean, at a time of year when it is abounding with spectacular wildflowers – with orchids a particularly diverse and abundant feature of the island’s flora.

Foxgloves a2_With a week at our disposal, we’ll explore the island’s varied habitats, spending full days in montane and lowland locations, in lush meadows, dry garrigue, and shady olive groves, both inland and near the blue waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

This will be a gentle-paced introduction to orchid photography, with an emphasis on our guests coming away with images they will cherish and techniques that will stand them in good stead nearer to home.

AP6I1239 edit tweetsizeSarah and I will be on hand throughout to offer practical advice on how to capture intimate and interesting portraits of orchids in their natural habitats, combining the eyes and sensibilities of a pair of professional plant and wildlife photographers for your exclusive benefit – we’re delighted to say that nobody else is offering a plant photography holiday with such a unique perspective.

AP6I6105 Ophrys umbilicata edit tweetsizeThe kind of techniques that will be covered include the basics of plant photography; working with natural light, and tools to help optimise it; working with off-camera supplementary lighting; and composition of shots and digital workflow with Photoshop.

The tour will run from 20th-27th March 2021 – prime time for some mouth-watering orchid photography opportunities, not least with the bewildering, diverse array of Ophrys bee orchid species to be found on Rhodes. I can’t wait to return there, and maybe you’ll join us there too…



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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (vi)

AP6I8215 edit O rheinholdii crop blogsizeOur final full day on Rhodes began, for the guides, with a pre-breakfast expedition a few miles out of the village following up a rumour of a colony of yet another delectable Ophrys, Ophrys lucis. The directions we’d been given seemed specific enough, but despite Yiannis and I spending over an hour covering a lot of ground, we couldn’t find any orchids, let alone our target. Something, clearly, was amiss. I resolved to resume the search in the evening.

AP6I8178 Ophrys lucis tree pollen dusted edit tweetsizeFirst, though, we had an outing to Profitis Ilias, a renowned orchid-hunting site on the island. Renowned does not necessarily translate to well-known – it takes either excellent gen or prior experience to know where the most fruitful hunting grounds are on the slopes of this towering mass. A generous slab of luck never hurts either, as any orchid hunter would attest.

AP6I8229 Orchis provincialis edit tweetsizeOur luck today was emphatically in, for all we knew where we were going and what we were hoping to see – for we found more besides. Inevitably, there were plenty more Ophrys rheinholdii from the very moment we set foot outside the vehicles – these had been almost constant companions this past week.

AP6I8261 Ophrys cinereophila edit tweetsizeAmongst them, as if scripted, were two examples of O.lucis, pale beauties compared to their dark velvety brethren. Both were dusted thickly with a coating of tree pollen that hung in the air like clouds of icing sugar.

AP6I8195 Ophrys persephone edit crop blogsizeNearby were more examples of Neotinea maculata, and the pale primrose yellow forms of Orchis provincialis. Within just minutes of arrival, in the form of the latter and O.lucis, we had two new orchids for our list, and stood on the cusp of a mightily impressive 40 species recorded for the week.

AP6I8314 edit peony blogsizeYiannis proved to be on fire this morning, and his sharp eyes found first one and then another new Ophrys species in quick succession – O.cinereophila rapidly followed by the equally rather unassuming O.persephone. Throw in more O.dodekanensis and we were on something of an Ophrys roll by this point – but could not move on without seeing the endemic Rhodes Peony Paeonia clusii ssp.rhodia sporting large, lush white flowers that glowed beneath the overarching tree canopy.

IMG_3707Later in the morning we headed uphill, to a site where I knew there should be a colony of Anacamptis picta, a very close relative of the Green-winged Orchids A.morio some of our guests were familiar with back home. The previous year this site, clinging to a rocky crag on the side of the mountain, had harboured a sea of wildflowers and, amongst them, several dozen A.picta and O.rhodia too.

AP6I1724 edit crop goats at a picta siteAs our group enjoyed that bonanza the tolling of goat bells announced the arrival of a herd of goats scrambling up the cliffs beneath us, and one of the guests joked that there would be no orchids for me to see next year…

AP6I8336 anacamptis picta edit blogsizeThis proved, unfortunately, to be darkly prophetic, for the sea of wildflowers was no more – just a closely grazed grassy ledge where once they bloomed. Distraught, I searched amongst the shattered rocks that lay around the cliff edge and, fortunately, found a couple of flowering A.picta after all. Not the display I’d hoped to share, but good-looking flowers nonetheless and yet another new species for everyone.

AP6I8375 Ophrys mammosa edit tweetsizeTaking our leave of Profitis Ilias for the afternoon, we headed towards our regular site for Ophrys mammosa – an orchid that, as the scientific name suggests, is said to have a hint of breasts about it! I’m not quite sure why this particular Ophrys was singled out for this distinction, but it’s now saddled with that name for perpetuity.

AP6I1239 edit tweetsizeNone of which takes away from the fact that it’s a beautiful, rather architectural and statuesque orchid. We found several dozen where we’d hoped they would be and, nearby, while the guests enjoyed a picnic lunch and some showy Scarce Swallowtails, I found one more Violet Limodore Limodorum abortivum coming into flower.

This suggested that a nearby site might be worth a visit – a riverside woodland where the limodores abound and, amongst them, some scarce ruby red variants may sometimes be seen. The river in question was running high after all the recent rain so, while the group enjoyed more O.cornutula and O.sicula to a soundtrack of courting Karpathos Frogs, I took off my walking boots and socks to wade across to check on the state of the limodores.

AP6I8451 Ophrys lucis edit crop tweetsizeSadly that dedication wasn’t to be repaid with any in flower, but I had clearly appeased the orchid-hunting gods for, when we returned to the hotel in the late afternoon and I tried once more to find the vaunted colony of nearby O.lucis, on this occasion I got lucky – much further away from the village than I expected them to be, but a loose colony of over twenty examples of this pretty flower – rather darker than the flowers we had seen earlier in the day on Profitis Ilia, and in fresher condition too.

There wasn’t time to collect my guests to see them before a final, delicious dinner – we had a lot to celebrate, having found 43 species of orchids in the space of six days – but made sure that we built in a little time the following morning to pay our respects to them on our way to the airport. An orchid odyssey on an island like Rhodes doesn’t stop until the moment the wheels of the plane lift from the tarmac…

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoyed them.

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