Autumn birding and the butcher bird

rb-flyShetland’s currently enjoying something of an Indian summer – warm, mostly sunny days continue to be the norm rather than the exception. The last summer to be this protracted was the infamous ‘barbecue summer’ of 2009 – while the rest of Britain endured ceaseless rain, Shetland basked in long, balmy months that bled seamlessly into autumn. So too this year.

barred-warbBirding around home last weekend was therefore a thoroughly pleasant endeavour: t-shirt weather and, this late in the year, no midges to impede my progress. What there were however were some good scarce migrant birds. Saturday kicked off with a Barred Warbler gorging itself on flies (and the apples I’d put there to attract insects) in my garden. These large warblers have genuine presence and don’t tolerate other birds in their temporary territories – I watched this individual harass and chase away a female Blackcap, a Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits.

Yesterday was a peach of a day. My first walk around the Skaw peninsula in the morning soon yielded a gorgeous, delicate Red-breasted Flycatcher – initially heard only in deep cover, chacking quietly to itself like a distracted Wren, it soon came to the edge of some rose bushes in order to live up to its name, flycatching actively in the warm sunshine.

shrike-mice-img_8036This was followed by my first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn, an unusually unapproachable and flighty individual that wouldn’t allow a close approach. It was almost as if it had been spooked by something… and maybe that something was the day’s final quality bird, a smart and actively hunting Red-backed Shrike that, given half a chance, wouldn’t think twice about predating a tired Asian warbler that wasn’t paying close attention to imminent threats.

shrike-bees-img_8030The warbler may have avoided falling foul of the shrike, but other prey items were less fortunate. In nearby bushes I found an extensive larder – 8 bumblebees (comprising mainly the Shetland subspecies of Moss Carder with just two Northern White-tailed) and two mice. Shetland’s mice are, technically, the Wood Mouse found across the rest of the UK, though ours live out in the fields and hills and the synonym Long-tailed Field Mouse probably better suits them. We’re a little short on woods here…

shrike-mice-img_8041All of these unfortunates had been impaled on sharp twigs – the bumblebees in no particular manner, but the mice had each been skewered through their napes. This was a vivid demonstration of the behaviour that earned the Red-backed Shrike, when once it was a common British breeding bird, its colloquial country name of butcher bird.

shrike-bees-img_8027Did anyone else read “The Animals of Farthing Wood” by Colin Dann when they were growing up? It was one of my favourite novels as a young boy, though the chapter in which the mice and voles from Farthing Wood succumb to the butcher bird was never an easy read for one as squeamish as me. Latterly I was aware that the shrikes the author described were dying out as a breeding bird in Britain. That made me feel sad too.

Back in the present and I was delighted to watch this bird actively and successfully hunting, and stocking a temporary larder. Later in the afternoon one of the mice had been consumed, leaving just a scrap of velvet fur and a smear of blood on the twig upon which it had been stored. Our butcher bird is just a temporary visitor blown in from Scandinavia, but it’s welcome to pause a while, to rest and to gather strength before migrating onwards.

More than that – it’s a welcome sight for me too.



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All my lady’s-tresses

img_7168-tweetsizeMy orchid odyssey is drawing towards a close now we’re into the early days of autumn. It’s been alternately wonderful, inspiring and, very occasionally, a little bit scary. The penultimate act of this drama were the helleborines, as colourful, enticing and varied as a Woolworths pick and mix. They’ve been followed by orchids that supplant helleborine exoticism with a graceful, subtle charm – the lady’s-tresses.

One of our native species is extinct – Summer Lady’s-tresses hasn’t been seen in its former southern English haunts for decades. Despite remaining locally common in northern France, it’s long gone from our shores – while occasionally it’s rumoured that well-intentioned orchidophiles have reintroduced them, those whispers have never come to anything substantial – and their habitat is probably lost now anyway.

img_5885-edit-tweetsizeThat leaves three species: Creeping, Irish and Autumn Lady’s-tresses. Irish is something of a misnomer – those particular tresses are found in Ireland, granted, and also in a few areas of western Scotland – but they’re originally from North America. How did they get to Britain and Ireland? Some suggest they could be wind-borne colonists, their dust-like seeds blown across to pastures new by the prevailing westerly winds of autumn. Others surmise their seeds may have been carried on the feet of migrating wildfowl. Either theory is plausible, though we’ll never know for sure – but the flowers themselves are undeniably gorgeous, creamy-coloured and with strongly arched, long, green-veined lips.

img_56341-blogsizeI saw mine in Scotland on the wonderful islands of Colonsay and Oronsay – new islands to me, and ones I’ll be drawn back to in years to come. Beautiful orchids, stunning scenery, and Choughs, Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles? Yes please. Also in Scotland were many Creeping Lady’s-tresses, as hairy and reclusive as an old gillie. Found lurking in deep Caledonian pine forests with enticing orange chanterelle mushrooms all around, their avian accompaniments were family parties of calling Crested Tits overhead in the conifer depths.

img_6950-tweetsizeFor the last of the tresses I headed back to the south-west – and from the Isles of Scilly to Dorset I found Autumn Lady’s-tresses gracing short coastal turf at every turn. Beloved of bumblebees and botanists alike they are, barring the unlikely but yearned for discovery of a Ghost Orchid, the last orchids I’ll see this year. The adventure’s far from over though – I have a book to write now and, next year…?

There are orchids, places and new friends I’ve discovered this summer that I simply have to go back and see again. I think I’ll be returning to some of them for many years to come.

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Epipactis heaven and helleborine

IMG_4481 Gloucs rosea edit tweetsizeI’m back in Shetland after a busy spell of criss-crossing the country in search of what may be our most enigmatic group of native orchids, the Epipactis helleborines. It seems every field of natural history attracts a subculture of particular obsession and, where European orchids are concerned, it’s these helleborines that have the most ardent followers – self-dubbed Epipactophiles.

IMG_2987[1] blogsizeMost are friendly and helpful; some are clannish and secretive; and a very few are downright rude and arrogant. It’s been quite an insight into what orchids can do to a man – and it seems it’s always men who fall into the latter category…

IMG_3827[1] blogsizeI’ve met a fair few of all these characters in recent weeks while I’ve immersed myself in the orchids that consume them. I’ve found myself falling under the helleborines’ spell too. At first glance, there are a mere eight species of Epipactis found in Britain. Once you factor in myriad varieties and a scattering of hybrids you’ve got a witch’s brew of possibilities.

And not a little magic.

IMG_3361 blogsize2Compared to the orchids that went before this summer, the helleborines at first glance seem fairly understated. (Well, most of them – Dark Red Helleborines and Marsh Helleborines are as flamboyant as they come). Look closely at all of them though and there’s subtle beauty to be seen – glorious sculpted flowers with frills, cups and tense arching curves; jewel faceted highlights of colour; and many with the delicious seasoning of scarcity or downright rarity.

IMG_3647[1] blogsizeThere are so many stories attached to what I’ve seen, where I’ve been, and who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way. I’ve unscrewed deer ticks from my legs after exploring limestone pavements looking for hybrid helleborines, been taken to see Dune Helleborines in a landscape blurring Subaru Impreza Cosworth, and have sought Narrow-lipped Helleborines in deep beech woodland by torchlight.

IMG_4403 blogsizeI’ve laid amongst Dark Red Helleborines whilst Northern Brown Argus butterflies dogfight, court and bask all around me. I’ve had whistled conversations with curious Bullfinches, and I’ve stumbled across illicit affairs while looking for Violet Helleborines.

IMG_2748 blogsizeFor sheer rarity it’s hard to beat Lindisfarne Helleborine, found only on the eponymous island in the dune slacks of the western peninsula that flanks the tidal causeway that links it to the mainland.

Dark Red x Broad-leaved blogsizeFor sheer drama, what can possibly better a Violet Helleborine lacking all chlorophyll, a shockingly pink wraith in the woods? For perplexing intrigue, one need look little further than the various hybrids and curious varieties of helleborine up on the remote Cumbrian steadfast of Hutton Roof.

IMG_3965[1] blogsizeFrom limestone pavements and cathedral like beech woodlands, to heavy metal infused riverine spinneys and salty dune slacks. Helleborines are everywhere, if only one looks hard enough. I’ve explored, I’ve looked in places I’ve never heard of let alone dreamt of botanising in and, above all, I’ve made good new friends and I’ve seen some remarkable flowers. The stories of my travels will need to keep for another day. For now, you’ll have to make do with an amuse bouche of photos…

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Orchids of the Highlands and islands

IMG_6846This is a rare weekend at home for me in the midst of my summer of incessant orchid-hunting. It’s been a chance to catch up with chores around the croft… though I’ve found myself wandering around my fields looking at ‘my’ Dactylorhiza orchids. This year’s recent habits die hard.

Last weekend was a long and busy one. I began with a speculative look at Lindisfarne’s dune slacks to see how the endemic Lindisfarne Helleborine Epipactis sancta were coming along – they’re a little late this year and, sure enough, they weren’t out yet. I’ll be heading back there shortly for them. Meanwhile, there were the first of the Marsh Helleborines and many iterations of Early Marsh Orchid to enjoy – with a handful of Common Twayblade and Pyramidal Orchids for good measure.

IMG_6720From Lindisfarne to Rum, via Speyside and what was undoubtedly the most impressive orchid site I’ve seen yet this year – a field jammed with over 1,000 Small White Orchids, 5,000 Lesser Butterfy Orchids and 5,000 Heath Fragrant Orchids. This was a nationally significant aggregation.

IMG_1848 blogsizeI had really hoped to find the unusual intergeneric hybrid between Small White and Heath Fragrant Orchid at a site such as this, but could only manage a suggestively pale Heath Fragrant in the final reckoning. I wasn’t complaining though – this small field made me smile and laugh aloud – a really special and spectacular place absolutely bursting with brilliant plants.

IMG_6741Staying with a good friend, we spent the afternoon catching up with the first Creeping Lady’s-tresses in the pine woods and, for a little non-orchid variety, impossibly delicate and rare Twinflower Linnaea borealis, an Arctic-Alpine beauty restricted to Scotland in the UK in the wake of the last Ice Age.

FullSizeRenderRum was hard work – a 17 mile round trip, cross-country and on foot with all of my camera and camping gear on my back. The rain barely let up for a moment for the 24 hours I was on the island, and I ended up having to ford rivers and burns in full spate. The ground was utterly saturated – small wonder bog-loving carnivorous plants were so abundant here, with luxuriant stands of Butterwort, Great and Round-leaved Sundew all commonplace. All this looking for Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid, last reliably seen there in 1998 – for how that search went, you’ll need to wait for the book…

IMG_6892The long weekend ended on North Uist’s botanically rich machair coastal fringes. I spent happy hours wandering flower-studded fields boiling with breeding birds. My main target was Hebridean Marsh Orchid and, after some nervous times while I thought they’d all finished flowering and gone to seed, I finally found some flowering plants in good condition. Amongst carpets of bubblegum pink Common Centaury there were many more Early Marsh Orchids, with plenty of rich carmine Early Marsh Orchids of the scarcer subspecies coccinea and deep burgundy Frog Orchids.

IMG_2543 blogsizeI’d heard of past records of the unusual hybrid between Frog Orchid and Northern Marsh Orchid from North Uist, so I elected to spend my last hour on the machair searching for these on the fringes of a dense colony of Frog Orchid. I was delighted to find not one but two of them in the end – a particularly satisfying conclusion to the latest orchid expedition, one that had involved particularly rare plants, spectacularly beautiful locations, mild discomfort and, for the first time this year, a real sense of danger and risk.

I felt I’d earned my spurs last weekend.


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To Bee or not too Bee

IMG_7629 Normal Bee blogsizeI’ve continued my orchid odyssey these past few weeks, finding my travels taking me to the rocky west coast of Ireland, the shingly shore of East Anglia and all points in between. The flowers have been brilliant, a kaleidoscope of shapes, colours and forms.

IMG_9031 chlorantha edit blogsizeNone more so than the Ophrys family, the insect-mimicking masters of deception and allure. With flowers of grotesque insect form and compelling pheromone scent they’re the sexy, surrealist masterpieces of the orchid world.

The best-known of their number in the British Isles are Bee Orchids. Brasher than Early Spider or Fly Orchids, much commoner than Late Spider Orchids – these are the ones that pop up on roadsides, in school playing fields and in the lawns of a lucky few households.

IMG_9600 atrofuscus blogsizeThey’re marvellously mutable and plastic – their genes throw up all sorts of variations on the standard flower. For my money the most beautiful of all are those that have dispensed altogether with garish colours – var.chlorantha is a masterpiece of subtle cold whites and mossy greens.

IMG_9762 trollii blogsizeVar.fulvofusca sees the rich chocolate brown tones dominate the body of the ‘bee’ to the exclusion of all others. There was just one of this particular variety to be seen this year in Dorset, an appointment I shared with singing Cetti’s Warblers and bemused early morning dog walkers.

IMG_0082 blogsizeVar.trollii is spectacularly deformed – indeed, for years it was believed to be a species in its own right, the elongated, thin flowers leading botanists to know it as the Wasp Orchid. I saw these a couple of metres away from speeding traffic in the Midlands.

IMG_0111 belgarum blogsizeVar.bicolor is a subtle affair, looking as if each flower has been half-dipped in chocolate. Almost good enough to eat – and indeed, the damp humid weather of late has been playing havoc with my orchid-hunting as legions of slugs and snails have been ravaging juicy orchids wherever they find them.

IMG_0357 flavescens blogsizeThere are several named varieties – and myriad other forms that differ to one extent or another from the standard Bee Orchid. Var.belgarum is pretty close to the original, as is var.flavescens.

Some forms aren’t formally recognised, and some botanists can be a little dismissive of these oddities – but I, like many others, am content to revel in their variability and their beauty, and enjoy them for their own sake. What’s in a name? Not a great deal when a Bee Orchid is as stunning as any of these.


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Lady, Man, Monkey and chimaera orchids

IMG_2482 Lady Orchid blogsizeIt’s been quite a while since the last blog post – weeks filled with orchid hunting the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, looking for plants of all species, collecting colourful photos and stories wherever I went.

I’ve so much to tell, but must keep a lot of it to myself for now. If I share everything at this stage, my book will be a shadow of what I hope it will come to be…

IMG_2502 LAdy Orchid blogsizeIt’s hard to pick favourites – no, it’s impossible to do so – but I’ve long had a soft spot for Lady Orchids. I’d seen a few orchid species by the time I moved to Kent in the early 1990s, but I vividly remember the moment I saw my first Lady Orchid. My friend, Steph, found it while we were walking near the Devil’s Kneading Trough on the edge of the Wye NNR. With hindsight it was an atypical sighting – this is a woodland species, for the most part – and this particular flower towered above us in rank grass above a sunken path through the chalk.

IMG_2639 Lady Orchid blogsizeTowered is the operative word – Lady Orchids have real presence. They have architecture; thick, sturdy stems hold large sculpted flowerheads high above the ground – often more than a foot high. A close look reveals the ladies from which the flower takes its name – blousy white petticoats speckled with burgundy counterpoints, capped with a burgundy bonnet. Look more closely still, and those freckles are revealed as minute spikes like those found on a fritillary caterpillar.

IMG_2709 Lady Orchid blogsizeImmerse yourself in a Kentish woodland glade full of them and you begin to see they’re more variable than they at first appear en masse. For some, there are more or less freckles. Some replace the burgundy with pale, watermelon-flesh pink tones. Others are all white with lime sherbet green bonnets. Some mix the two extremes. Some have culottes instead of skirts.

IMG_3333 Lady Orchid blogsizeJust occasionally, some are more extreme still. In the Chilterns I came across a colony of hybrids, the offspring of Lady Orchids and one of Britain’s three colonies of Monkey Orchid. Bigger and more lavishly coloured than either parent, their hybrid vigour was readily apparent and they covered an area of warm hillside in a sprawling, lusty horde.

IMG_3372 Lady x Monkey Orchid blogsizeBack in Kent this spring was something even more unusual. Known only in Britain from a plant that flowered back in the 1980s at another of those three Monkey Orchid colonies, in May this year a local orchid enthusiast found a solitary Man Orchid x Monkey Orchid hybrid. Known by some as ‘the missing link orchid’, this was a must-see for me. It didn’t disappoint…

IMG_1848 Man x Monkey Orchid blogsizeMonkey Orchids are pretty funky things in their own right. Man Orchids have an understated beauty all their own. Their chimaera offspring was utterly beguiling.

IMG_1341 Man Orchid blogsizeThese hybrids are quirks, unexpected and for the most part happy accidents. I loved seeing them as much as the next orchid hunter, but it was revisiting the pure Lady Orchids that really moved me. In a woodland clearing with several hundred all around me, with Duke of Burgundy butterflies* buzzing through the sunshine, I was transported back twenty years to my student days.

IMG_3121 Monkey Orchid blogsizeMuch of Kent has changed in the interim period. Some for the better – there are areas of habitat much improved with the passage of time and better management – and some for the worse. Every day in Kent felt a little like a disconcerting dream – the ones where you’re somewhere you know well, but everything is ever so slightly different to how it should be. Away from man-made change – new roads, changed villages and towns, more people, more cars – I found solace in the wild places and the Lady Orchids.

IMG_3229 Lady Orchid spider in rain blogsizeWhen it rained – and of course it rained, this being an English spring – I found a spider on one of them. As the rainfall intensified she deliberately moved beneath a floret and sheltered there until the downpour passed.

I knew how she felt – when life throws you, it’s good for the soul to shelter somewhere beautiful in the countryside. These are safe places – more so now we appear to appreciate their rarity and their fragility.

*I originally wrote “Duke of Burgundy Fritillaries” here, being sufficiently old-fashioned to remember when they were known as such despite not technically being fritillaries. I’ll bow to convention and merely call them Duke of Burgundy… While tempted to quietly mourn the change of name, I shouldn’t succumb to that – Lady Orchids were once known as Brown-winged Orchid, a much less attractive name altogether. Progress is sometimes a good thing, even when it involves changing English species names.

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Early Spiders

IMG_9418editedI’ve spent the last few weeks catching up with the vanguard of our native orchids – Early Purple sharing woodland floors with carpets of Bluebells and Primroses, Green-winged nosing up through the dew-spangled grass of water meadows, and Early Spider Orchids on the coasts of Dorset and Kent.

The Early Spiders have a special place in my heart – they’re the first of the Ophrys orchids I ever saw in 1993, a small colony in the heart of the Crown landscape art installed on the chalk downs above Wye in Kent in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII.

IMG_0649edited(I checked on the colony recently, and found the entire hillside sadly choked with thick, rank grass and encroaching shrub – many pioneer saplings of Hawthorn, Sycamore and Dog-rose – but no sign of the Early Spider Orchids, nor the Green-winged that clung to the slopes below; and precious little hope for the later-flowering Bee, Burnt, Fragrant and Man Orchids that used to stud the short herb-rich sward that once characterised the hillside).

IMG_8887 ESO funky lat petHappily Early Spiders are still relatively abundant elsewhere along the south coast of England from Kent west to Dorset. Those on Dorset’s Purbeck coastline represent colonies decades old, but those found on the reclaimed land at Samphire Hoe in Kent are relative newcomers.

IMG_0901editedIf you’ve never visited, Samphire Hoe is well worth making the effort to reach – comprising 30 hectares beneath the famous white cliffs of Dover, the land was created from the spoil quarried from beneath the English Channel during the construction of the eponymous tunnel. Nothing quite prepares you for the botanical treat that’s in store as you drive down the dramatic, steep tunnel bored through the cliff to emerge blinking into the sunshine below. (Though it’s not all about the plants – Peregrine Falcons, Stonechats and Ravens are your constant companions while you hunt for orchids here…)

IMG_0994editedGiven the presence of Early Spider Orchids on the clifftop sward above and the vertiginous vegetated slopes of the cliffs that plunge down to Samphire Hoe it was perhaps not so surprising that they started to appear on the latest addition to Britain’s landmass – but nobody was quite ready for the sheer numbers that began to emerge as the years rolled by – in excess of 10,000 plants in a good year.

We tend to think of orchids as delicate, fussy and precious flowering plants – but the Early Spiders at Samphire Hoe give the lie to this – they emerge literally everywhere – from bare chalky soil, in short grass, at the edge of the car-park and in the gravel of the footpaths – even from cracks in the tarmac!

IMG_1046editedThey’re not only tenacious – they’re also marvellously plastic and variable, with all manner of variations in the markings and colouration of their flowers displayed. This weekend I devoted hours to wandering slowly around looking for oddities, the quirks and oddballs that their genes occasionally throw up. Var.flavescens is a well-known example, with the rich chocolate-ruby tones of the labellum replaced with muted tones of subtle green…

IMG_0775edited…but my favourite was, by a long chalk, this pretty plant where the conventionally green petals and sepals had been replaced with, respectively, delicate coral pink and snow white with the merest tracery of green veining, and the lavishly marked labellum had a rosy pink fringe. This was an orchid to rival, in miniature, any of the flamboyant tropical species.

The orchid season is only just getting under way, and already I have one plant that’s going to take a lot of beating as my favourite individual of the year!




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