Snowy

5f2227a9-aa0c-41dd-aa49-2e97965d9b3b (1)I think many naturalists have something they’d really, really like to see. One species in particular that they yearn for above all others, a holy grail. For some, that might be a flower that goes decades between sightings – the enigmatic Ghost Orchid Epipogium aphyllum has consumed its would-be admirers in Britain ever since it was first discovered here in the mid 1800s and, to this day, there are amateur botanists who obsess over this one orchid above all others.

For butterfly enthusiasts, it might be seeing a Purple Emperor Apatura iris for the first time. They are compellingly beautiful, after all, with wings of the deepest, richest, velvetiest purple – and they seem, when one finally does meet one, to be possessed of a depth of character unusual in an insect. They investigate intruders of all sizes and species in their wooded realms and, once initial curiosity is satisfied, are wont to perch out of reach and… well, it seems like they’re keeping a watchful compound eye on their besotted human admirers.

And then there are birders. As Mark Cocker memorably recounted in his Birders: Tales of a Tribe, birders are particularly prone to obsession. Their relationship with the objects of their desire transcends mere appreciation of a pretty bird. Entire lives are dedicated to the pursuit of birds. Sacrifices are made along the way – time, money, relationships and even, rarely, lives are lost. Mark puts it like this – “It is, in short, about the way the human heart can be shaped by the image of a bird”.

IMG_7308I’ve been a birder for decades, and I think I know a thing or two about how all-consuming this birding business can be. I’ve scaled mountains in South America in near darkness to see parakeets at first light, swum with phalaropes in glacial melt-water in Iceland, and I’ve been beaten up by a horny grouse one snowy morning in Colorado. I’ve also spent the past 30 years trying to see a wild Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus

It had not been for want of trying that by 2018 I’d not seen one. From the first I failed to see, in Lincolnshire in the winter of 1990, to one here in the south mainland of Shetland earlier this year, I missed every single Snowy Owl I went to look for. I even managed to not see a breeding pair on territory in Iceland in 2009. They assumed a mythical status for me.

I came to dread hearing one had been found nearby. I naturally assumed I would not see it, after all. So it was with a sense of due, grim, resignation that I went to Fetlar in early October to search for the latest bird to have been discovered in Britain. By this stage, the twelfth time I had looked for a Snowy Owl since that first missing bird in 1991, I knew the script all too well.

IMG_7310Fetlar is an island here in Shetland redolent with Snowy Owl history for it was there that, between 1967 and 1975, Snowy Owls bred for the one and only confirmed period in British history. Nesting in habitat closely resembling the tundra on which they’re found in the far north, their story was chronicled by the late Shetland naturalist Bobby Tulloch and it was he who, famously, joined local birder and photographer Dennis Coutts in a pantomime horse costume in an attempt to approach the breeding birds closely enough, without disturbing them, to secure some photos. This doomed initiative was said to have been abandoned when a male Shetland pony began to display a keen interest in the back end of the pantomime horse…

I visited, in the company of my friend and Fetlar native, Maurice, the day after the latest owl had last been seen. The weather had broken down, badly, and we found ourselves searching for a white owl in fog so thick we could barely seen fifty yards ahead of us. With a keen wind blowing, dramatically reduced visibility, and my jinx at work, we didn’t stand a chance. Sure enough, despite covering some six miles of Fetlar hill, we didn’t see a thing. A few migrant thrushes and some local Starlings were the extent of the birdlife that emerged, briefly, from the soupy murk, before flying back into the enveloping clouds.

IMG_7303This didn’t really matter, as this was still a fine day out. I know no better storyteller than Maurice – in a place where the ability to spin a yarn is appreciated, he tells tales rich with folklore, history and humour. Our walk took us past the former home of one of Fetlar’s witches, Maggie o’ Grü; we found one of the likeliest trow holes I’ve ever seen; and somewhere out there, unseen in the swathed landscape, we passed by Haltadans, an ancient stone circle said to be the petrified forms of a fiddler and his wife surrounded by dancing trows, cast forever in stone when the sun rose upon them. (Haltadans is also the name of local group of Shetland musicians, one of whom is Maurice, who play compelling and irresistible tunes).

There was no danger of us being sun-struck that day. After hours of fruitless searching we retreated to Maurice’s family home on the island for a welcome feed of pies hot from the oven and mugs of sweet black tea. The curse of the Snowy Owl had struck again.

58f7f8b8-ad9d-4dfd-ac4d-1a150e765d45We didn’t like to give up though and, with a better day forecast, and inspired by fresh news from my good friend and Shetland Nature colleague, Brydon Thomason, we headed back up to Fetlar. While the rest of Scotland was sitting under a lump of rain coming off the Atlantic, Shetland was spared that morning. We’d no sooner arrived at the high ground the owl was said to favour than there it was, a white form on the hillside with watchful, golden yellow eyes. One might think that there would be a sense of anti-climax after decades of waiting for this moment, but no –  I was euphoric. All of those dismal failures, those hours spent scouring hills and moors, fields and – on no fewer than four occasions – the depressing surrounds of the docks at Felixstowe, all of those disappointments – they were worth it for this moment.

(Even the time a friend and I spent a good hour stalking a distant Snowy Owl high in the Cairngorms, only to find it was a bleached white Tesco bag wrapped tightly by the wind around a rock – even that moment of bathos was worth enduring now I had a Snowy before me.)

AP6I9310 edit crop2We spent the next few hours watching the owl as it hunted birds on the hill. Snowy Owls are adaptable predators, as happy taking rabbits or starlings in Shetland as they are lemmings in the Arctic. Our Snowy made short work of the local starlings – chasing them down in flight and, when they tried to hide in the low vegetation, bounding after them on the ground. We watched him make a kill in this way, the unfortunate starling quickly consumed before the hunt resumed.

In the distance, I could see my home island of Whalsay on the skyline. I’d come a long way to see a Snowy Owl that day – but I’d come much further still from the first bird I missed on a cold, bleak day in Lincolnshire. It felt fitting that this long-awaited owl should be on the same area of Shetland where once they felt so at home they’d become residents too. My journey mirrored theirs.

 

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Monkey business

IMG_1848 Man x Monkey Orchid blogsizeOne of the highlights of the great orchid hunt I undertook in 2016 as part of my research for Orchid Summer was seeing the so-called missing link orchid in Kent – the hybrid orchid formed of a union between Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and Monkey Orchid O. simia. Given the official, snappy Latin title O. x bergonii, this plant was discovered at a known Monkey Orchid colony in Kent by a local orchid-hunter – a find that animated the British native orchid world in the days that followed, as news of his discovery spread, like wildfire, via social media.

In Britain this particular hybrid is startlingly rare – a consequence of both parents’ respective rarity. Man Orchids are fairly uncommon in southern England, while Monkey Orchids are decidedly rare – the latter are known from only three locations, one in Oxfordshire and two in Kent. Their hybrid progeny is said to be more frequently encountered in mainland Europe though, from personal experience in France, I tend to think that’s fairly relative – I have found many examples of the closely related Lady O. purpurea x Military O. militaris Orchid hybrids, smaller numbers of Lady x Monkey Orchid, a single Man x Military Orchid, and just a handful of O. x bergonii.

Orchis x bergonii-6 tweetsizeStill, the 2016 Kentish example was not the first of its kind. Britain’s first recorded record, a single plant, was found in the 1980s at the same site as the later 2016 example, flowering twice between 1985 and 1989. Back then, of course, in those pre-Internet days, news spread more slowly and organically by word of mouth. Nevertheless, word did get around – one of the wardens at the site recently shared with me his experiences of guarding the precious Monkey Orchids and their unusual offspring, and recalled that only a very few folk came to see it.

Photos of this historic plant are few and far between – it was, of course, not only the pre-Internet era but also back in the days of 35mm film photography. The images here were taken by the warden at the time, and are reproduced with his kind permission. Our correspondence also clarified that the two plants, separated by decades, were growing at different locations on the site – so we can say, with certainty, that they were different plants.

Orchis x bergonii-4 tweetsizeHow had these hybrids come to pass? That such hybrids occur naturally is a matter of record – as noted beforehand, various hybrid permutations of the Orchis family can be found across their European range. The 1980s plant was subject to some speculation, however, that the hand of man had been involved. The Monkey Orchids at the site were regularly hand-pollinated between 1958 and the mid 1980s in an attempt to bolster their numbers. This initiative appeared to be successful, for the colony grew.

The site also boasts a modest number of Man Orchids. In 1985, amongst this mixed colony, single examples of both species were noted by the colony’s original finder, Hector Wilks, growing and flowering just a few centimetres apart – so it’s entirely possible that an insect may have cross-pollinated the two species. However, rumours have persisted that, either accidentally or even deliberately, the cross-pollination may have been done by man.

Orchis x bergonii-5 blogsizeWhy one would deliberately cross-pollinate Man and Monkey Orchids at a site devoted to conservation of the latter rare species is a question that’s long intrigued me, and seems inherently unlikely given the integrity and determination displayed for decades by Wilks in his efforts to conserve Kent’s precious few Monkey Orchids… I’ve always assumed that, if it happened, it would have been simple curiosity on the part of a third party but, as we’ll see, this is a hybrid that in a British context seems prone to mystery surrounding its origin.

The second plant to flower at the Kent site, in 2016, appears to be a smaller and less grandiose specimen than its predecessor. It was, however, still a fabulously attractive orchid, a confection of raspberry sorbet pink and lemony yellow flowers (see first picture, above, at the top of the blog). Sadly, however, 2016 appeared to be its one and only performance for, in the past two flowering seasons, there’s been no further sign of it.

Orchis x bergonii-7 blogsizeThe hybrids, while beautiful, are of course less important from a conservation perspective than the rare Monkey Orchids, and numbers of the latter have plummeted in recent years. I’ve visited the site, off and on, for a number of years now, and can bear witness to the decline of the Monkey Orchids there – the site seems a shadow of its former glories. In 1985, when the first hybrid appeared, between 30-50 Monkey Orchids and a similar quantity of Man Orchids were present – but in 2016, I found just five flowering Monkey Orchids some distance away from the new hybrid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe story of Britain’s Orchis x bergonii does not, however, quite end here. A further plant was discovered in 2013 in Hampshire, with two flowering plants present in 2014, one of which appears to have flowered again in 2018. This O. x bergonii record was, from the outset, considerably more contentious than either of its Kentish counterparts. Those plants were found at a site that contained both Monkey and Man Orchids. These plants, however, were found at a site at which Man Orchids are incredibly rare, numbering just a handful of examples, and Monkey Orchids are entirely absent. Indeed, the nearest wild Monkey Orchids are many miles away in Oxfordshire; and the finder himself, in his account of the circumstances of the discovery in the excellent BSBI News, concluded that “after much consideration, the occurrence of this hybrid being natural is doubtful” (sic).

Note the deliberate “wild” prefixing those Oxfordshire Monkey Orchids… for rumour has it that there is an orchid enthusiast living some five miles away from the Hampshire site who has a colony of introduced Monkey Orchids, depending on which version of the tale one is to believe, growing either on his lawn or in his greenhouse. This, the theory goes, might account for the Monkey Orchid element of the hybrids’ origin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe orchid world does love a good rumour, but it is also partial to some scientific rigour. The hybrids were subjected to genetic scrutiny, revealing that the maternal parent was a Man Orchid, and the paternal parent a Monkey Orchid. In other words, the pollen came from a Monkey Orchid – which is not, we understand, how O. x bergonii in France at least are generally formed, as there they usually have Monkey Orchids as their maternal parents. It’s also worth noting the difference between the appearance of the Hampshire plant (images taken in 2018) and the two different, but visually fairly consistent, Kentish examples (making, of course, allowance for the different tones displayed in the scanned and originally film-derived 1980s plant).

So we’re to believe an insect, after visiting the fabled local captive Monkey colony in Hampshire, or perhaps the even further afield Oxfordshire colony, then happened across the isolated, tiny colony of Man Orchids on the Hampshire downs, fertilised one, and the resulting seed produced the hybrid plants. Alternatively, perhaps viable hybrid-generating seed blew in from mainland Europe and just happened to lodge near the small Man Orchid colony? Neither theory seems very likely. The only alternative, then, would be that there was direct human intervention…

…which would be either in the form of transplanting hybrid stock dug up from mainland Europe, or bringing Monkey Orchid pollen to the site from elsewhere and manually fertilising a Man Orchid before allowing it to set seed. All of which brings us back to the delicious speculation about the psychology of why anyone would go to such lengths – simply curiosity, or perhaps something a little more complex?

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With all three British O. x bergonii records the only certainty is their very uncertainty. We’ll never know if any of them occurred without some degree of human intervention, either deliberate or inadvertent, nor the motives, if any, that might have spurred those creative hands.

Whatever their origins, they’re all three of them good-looking orchids, and I am grateful to the photographers of both the 1980s Kent and the Hampshire examples for kindly agreeing to let me reproduce their images here alongside my images of the 2016 plant in, perhaps, the first occasion all three British plants have been shown together.

 

(You can read more about the 2016 plant, and many more colourful orchid stories besides, in my book Orchid Summer – published earlier this year by Bloomsbury. Reviewers have said some kind things about it, and I’d love you to pick up a copy and join me on exploration of the world of British and Irish orchids, the places in which they grow, and the folk past and present involved with plants and places alike).

 

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Orchids in Rhodes

AP6I1239 edit tweetsizeThis blog post is long overdue – indeed, to the point where I’ve actively shied away from logging in and writing it, which should tell you just how ashamed I am of my tardiness! I do have an excuse, though… which is, of course, the publication earlier this year of my new book, Orchid Summer. More on that in due course, but needless to say, since it was published I’ve been pretty busy…

I’ve enjoyed all sorts of appearances in places I’ve hitherto only enjoyed as a visitor – speaking at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, the Smithsonian in the USA, and even appearing on BBC Gardener’s World – the latter experience, working with a professional film crew in the lovely surroundings of the Kent countryside, being right up there with the very best of life events.

AP6I1809 edit tweetsizeI’ve also been travelling, leading wildlife tours for the lovely folk at Greenwings – both close to home, in Kent, and much further afield – in Rhodes, mainland Greece, and Estonia. The latter two tours had a predominantly butterfly focus, and I’ll blog about those in due course, but all three tours featured orchids to one extent or another, not least the Rhodes tour, which was exclusively all about them. (Though we did see some pretty brilliant birds too, but we’ll skip over those for now!)

AP6I9301 edit tweetsize2Starting then, in Rhodes… This was a week-long, uninhibited orchid bonanza. Greenwings call it their Orchid Odyssey, and I can see why – dozens of species were seen, in beautiful countryside, in balmy, sunny conditions, and in enormous profusion. Orchid taxonomy is currently in more flux than ever before, so actually quantifying what is and isn’t a valid species is becoming increasingly contentious, but that didn’t bother us in the least. No matter whether a given Ophrys orchid is genetically more or less identical to another Ophrys orchid, if they look strikingly different and are simply gorgeous in their own right… well, it would be churlish not to just enjoy them for what they are, spectacular examples of orchid diversity.

AP6I8355 edit tweetsizeGreece is justly famous for the range of shapes, colours and forms of Ophrys orchids that grow there – and you wouldn’t have to push me too hard to declare a serious soft spot for them – but that’s far from the whole picture. Rhodes boasts other orchids besides, so we were spoiled for choice every single day, with double figures of species recorded daily, and new species added on a daily basis to our expanding trip list and bulging camera memory cards.

AP6I0499 edit tweetsizeThis was my first time orchid-hunting on Rhodes, so a good number of the orchids there were new for me as well as for the guests who’d joined me. I was like a kid in a particularly well-stocked sweet shop… As an islander myself, I was also delighted to spend time exploring a new island’s culture – away from the usual coastal holiday hotspots (which we avoided) Rhodes proved to be a constant delight – friendly people, delicious food, and glorious scenery were all a given.

AP6I1076 edit (slightly atypical - Profitis Ilias) tweetszie cropI left Rhodes at the end of the week with the greatest of reluctance indeed – this had been a fabulous trip spent in great company, in the form of a group of friendly guests and my co-leader, the talented and genial botanist Yiannis Christofides. The good news is that Yiannis and I are leading the Orchid Odyssey for Greenwings once more in April 2019 – so I will be back in my element, in my happy place – on Rhodes, immersed in pursuit of orchids.

And you could join me! There are still some places available on the trip, though they’re going fast, and the trip is now a guaranteed departure. Come what may, I’ll be there – and maybe you will be too…

 

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The Ophrys question

AP6I7268 FBWhen I set out to see all of Britain and Ireland’s orchid species in the course of researching Orchid Summer, seeing all of our native Ophrys orchids did not appear to offer an enormous challenge – we have, after all, just four species, namely Bee, Fly, Early and Late Spider Orchids. Of course, the reality was somewhat different as, in addition to seeing those four beautiful species I also searched for their myriad, jewel-like variations… and moreover, there was also the small matter of finding Britain’s sole, controversial, Sawfly Orchid.

AP6I7348 FBIt’s a very different story indeed in the rest of Europe, where there are – depending on which taxonomist’s views one subscribes to – over a dozen or closer to one hundred further species to be found. One taxonomist’s subspecies is another orchid fanatic’s full species…

I’ve spent a little time recently in the Aude department of France. Towards the end of my stay the first Ophrys orchids were beginning to come into flower – and which species these variable flowers could be ascribed to is a perfect metaphor for the flux and confusion that this particular family of orchids generates.

AP6I7072 blogsizeTo a British orchid-hunter, they look fairly similar to our Early Spider Orchids. So far, so good and, like our Early Spiders, the orchid flowers I found in Aude varied considerably in their appearance both in structure and patterning. So what were they?

Pierre Delforge’s monster European orchid field guide calls them Ophrys arachnitiformis, known colloquially as False Spider Orchid. The latter name is a handy one, as the Latin varies considerably between authorities – other botanists refer to them as Ophrys exaltata subspecies marzuola; while Henrik Pedersen, author of a monograph devoted to European Ophrys orchids, recognises them as Ophrys x arachnitiformis.

AP6I7138 blogsizeThat ‘x’ is telling – it indicates a hybrid origin. Pedersen contends that Ophrys x arachnitiformis is a “partially stabilised hybrid complex” – one born long ago, at least in part, from Early Spider and Late Spider Orchid parents… but with other subspecies of both of those species probably contributing their genes at some point or another. This is, by any standards, pretty vague stuff!

AP6I7154 blogsizeI find this sort of intractable orchid esoterica fascinating, though I appreciate that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but what I couldn’t ignore were just how lovely these, my first Ophrys orchids of 2018, actually were. I seemed to find them wherever I looked – both in the tranquil surroundings of earth tracks meandering through vineyards and, less salubriously, on roadside verges, beside abandoned industrial units and even growing alongside a rubbish bin outside a McDonalds.

AP6I7211 FBTheir variability is, if we’re following Pedersen’s lead, testament to their complicated heritage as well as part of their considerable charm. Delforge could, on a good day, probably make a handful of species out of them!

AP6I6835[1] edit O arachnitiformis pseudocopulation Quillan tweetsizeI was simply delighted to begin to immerse myself, once more, in orchids. Best of all, I finally got to witness one of the most remarkable facets of orchid biology – a male bee attempting to mate with an orchid flower, fooled into an act of sexual folly (known as pseudocopulation, kindly featured as a Word of the Day last week by Robert Macfarlane) both by the flower’s resemblance to an insect and by it creating scents that mimic the pheromones released by a virgin female bee. Seeing that for myself would have been good enough – but getting to photograph it too was just fabulous.

In just a few days time, however, I’ll be heading for the Eastern Mediterranean and an absolutely dizzying array of Ophrys species, subspecies and hybrids. I shall need to do my homework in advance of this, my first outing as a tour leader on the Greenwings Orchid Odyssey to Rhodes. Ophrys heaven awaits me…

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Giant orchids in wintery France

AP6I5683[1] edited blogsizeThe first week of March, in rural France, feels like an unlikely time and place in which to be orchid-hunting. The village in which I’ve been staying is still firmly in thrall to winter, with chimneys spooling thin tendrils of wood-smoke into an aching blue sky from early in the morning, and faded shutters for the most part remaining firmly closed except on the sunward side of the houses. The perfume of beech and oak hangs in the air.

AP6I5783[1] edited cropped blogsizeI have been exploring the village surrounds a little as the days have gone by. The trees remain in bud, and there are no wildflowers to be seen. This may only be the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, but winter still grips the village and the countryside around it. Yet the signs of spring are there, if I look closely enough – there is a promise of orchids at my feet. On the riverbanks, alongside the surging white water of the river that rushes from a gorge into the valley in which the village huddles, I find glossy green rosettes of leaves. They are, I think, Lady Orchids, though I cannot be sure. Some of the leaves seem too narrow and straplike. Perhaps there are other species here too. I will need to be patient, to wait and see.

AP6I6020[1] edited blogsizeIf I hope to find orchids in flower at this early juncture of the year, I need to head southeast to the coast. A northerly wind buffets my car as I drive, making it difficult to chart a straight course. High-sided vehicles weave dangerously on the autoroute ahead of me. My destination is a small patch of undeveloped land on the edge of a large tidal lagoon, sandwiched between a sprawl of weather-beaten, neglected chalets, and saline flats on which Greater Flamingos, incongruously, sweep the water in a loose, pink, feeding huddle.

AP6I6311[1] edited blogsizeThe objects of this expedition are barely less unexpected – for here, rising magnificently from the scoured and bleached grass, are hundreds upon hundreds of Giant Orchids, Himantoglossum robertianum. Some flowerspikes are knee high, set upon thick, fleshy stems; others have snapped under the weight of their flowers and the strength of the ceaseless wind. Most have flowers of pale, glaucous pink – like a number of European orchids, each individual floret has an anthropomorphic, vaguely humanoid quality – though these are rounded and thickset, as if cast from melted candlewax or clay. Compared to the delicacy of Lady or Military Orchids, the Giant Orchids are golems.

AP6I5891[1] edited blogsizeYet not all are pink – some flowers are deepest purple; others are much paler, almost entirely white; and a very few of them sport shocking, vivid gooseberry-green fringes. They are simply magnificent, colossi by the standards of terrestrial orchids, pharos on the very edge of the Mediterranean.

I spend hours with them, battling the conditions. The sun is unremittingly bright, and the flowers themselves are in constant motion, vibrating and swaying as the wind thrums around us. It’s hard to tear myself away, but leave I must. I need to get home, to ply the fire with logs and put some heat in the fabric of the building and my bones.

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2017 – a review of a naturalist’s year

coverSomehow I find myself on the cusp of a new year and realise that, if I’m not quick, it’ll be too late to look back on the past twelve months as I’ll be too busy looking forward to the year to come… so I’d better get a move on, then.

Personally, there’s been a sense of a clock half-struck for much of 2017 – the manuscript for Orchid Summer was completed almost a year ago now, and has been passing through the various hoops and hurdles of the publishing process. Bloomsbury have been a joy to work with throughout and, while the most obvious manifestation of this is the gorgeous, Arts & Crafts-esque cover their talented designer Holly Ovenden has created for it, there has been plenty of other activity behind the scenes that has taken my raw material and wrought something I’m quietly proud of.

IMG_6415 Dorset Fly x Woodcock editThere’s not long now to wait until publication day – 8th March 2018 – so the waiting is almost over. While I’ve held bound, uncorrected proofs of Orchid Summer in my hands and had a little disbelieving I-did-this shiver, I can’t wait to see the finished hardback in the flesh. I only hope people enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Meanwhile, there have been some fabulous orchid moments for me in the field again this year. The year began with some detective work on my part, marrying my local knowledge of the west Dorset with some online sleuthing to work out where a colony of Woodcock x Fly Orchid hybrids were to be found – they’d been reported in the BSBI’s excellent journal, BSBI News, but the location was withheld. I couldn’t miss seeing this new plant for Britain, and happily my intuition as to their whereabouts proved correct. Spring was off to a flying start.

IMG_8125 Aude N conica editMy first foray into the countryside near my new French base in the Aude was all-too-brief, but promised enormous potential in the years to come. The sheer numbers of Lady Orchids were astounding – they grow on the roadside verges there, commoner than dandelions – and off the beaten track I found myself lost in a plethora of novel species and hybrids. The milky subtlety of Neotina conica makes it a new favourite of mine.

IMG_9487[1] purple shot editI led my first wildlife tours for two companies this summer – a week of butterfly watching in Estonia for Greenwings, and closer to home here in Shetland a trip for Shetland Nature. Both companies make such a pleasant change, and are genuinely friendly, lovely wildlife tour operators to represent. Estonia was a new country for me, and that meant a host of new butterflies – and some new orchids too, including the incredibly localised Estonian endemic, Saaremaa Marsh Orchid, found only in a tiny corner of that lovely island. The fritillaries were particularly gorgeous and numerous, and it was terrific to renew my acquaintance with the improbably iridescent Purple-shot Copper.

I’ll be leading several tours for Greenwings in the coming months, starting with a week-long Orchid Odyssey in Rhodes in early April. I’m particularly looking forward to this one, as it promises 40-50 species of orchid (and many other wildflowers, freshly emerged butterflies, and migrant birds) in a sun-kissed and friendly island setting. The perfect way to emerge from a cold, northern European winter…

latirellaMuch closer to home, I made a handful of orchid discoveries in Shetland as the past summer wore on: a new, small colony of the coccinea subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid; the rare and spectacular hybrid between Early and Northern Marsh Orchid; and, thrillingly, an entirely new orchid species for Shetland – an isolated, small colony of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids.

IMG_0200 edit n crop tweetsizeAs the flowering season closed, the autumn bird migration began in earnest. While this was far from a classic autumn for Shetland, we had our moments… Personally, seeing my first ever Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain was completely overshadowed by the discovery of an American Golden Plover in the fields surrounding my home and, later on in the autumn, the first Steppe Grey Shrike for Whalsay in the vicinity too. After a few quiet years, Whalsay at least had enjoyed a golden spell.

171021 Steppe Grey Shrike Vevoe Whalsay edit IMG_1620[1] crop tweetsize2018 will doubtless hold a few more surprises – I’ve laid some plans for more overseas orchid-hunting, and will keep you posted as I explore some of the outer fringes of the Western Palearctic region. This blog has been shamefully neglected in recent months, but Twitter remains a good place to see what’s happening – I find it’s a tremendous place to keep abreast of all manner of natural history news around the world. It’d be remiss of me not to thank everyone who’s followed my Twitter account ( @dunnjons ) in the past couple of years since I started tweeting in my own right – thank you all! Stay posted, as there’ll be plenty more news about Orchid Summer and more besides in the coming year.

And for now… wishing you all a happy, peaceful and wildlife-filled new year!

 

 

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The UK’s favourite book about nature

watership downI wrote, some time ago, a piece on the subject of books I’d take with me were I stranded on a desert island. Happily, this was a metaphorical encrusoement, so none of my eight choices were forced upon me by circumstance – survival guides had no place on my shortlist.

A project launched a few weeks ago by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) gave me a convenient excuse to look once more at the groaning bookshelves in my study… and bedrooms, lounge and bathroom, as my books are still multiplying and spreading, incrementally, like lichen throughout the house. The Landlines project has set out to find the UK’s favourite book about nature – in the first instance, by inviting public nominations. The deadline for this is November 30th 2017 – there’s an online form for your nomination, and the process is quick, free, and easy to complete.

hollowaySadly, actually choosing one’s favourite book may prove a lot harder… My natural history library alone now stretches into several hundred books and, while some of them are arid reference volumes and easily discounted from my deliberations for all their practical usefulness, many others have a place in my affections for one reason or another. How to winnow my selection down to one, singular choice?

Robert Macfarlane (author of many lovely books including a particular favourite of mine, Holloway) weighed the impact books can have on us in one concise statement: “Books, like landscapes, leave their mark in us.”

Taking this as my starting point, I revisited my bookshelves and picked books that, at various points in my forty something years, had spoken to me and helped shape me as a naturalist. Looking back to my childhood, I was a voracious consumer of books – to the point that, after the bulb had been removed from my bedside light, and my torch confiscated, I contrived to read by the anaemic orange light cast by my bedside clock…

my familyBooks in which animals spoke to one another appealed enormously to me, so Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood was a much-loved favourite. Richard Adams’ Watership Down meanwhile was darker, more robust stuff and, unfortunately for me, tainted at the time by the trauma induced as a five year old being taken to see the animated feature film!

Years later I revisited and loved Watership Down unconditionally, not least for Adams’ startling invocation of spirituality and folklore in an animal context. This, with hindsight, was also an appealing aspect of another late childhood favourite, Duncton Wood by William Horwood. Both are books I’ve returned to in adulthood and enjoyed anew.

One book, above all, inspired me as an adolescent – this was, of course, My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s golden account of a childhood turned loose in the Corfu countryside. While it was only later that I, critically, realised that Durrell’s very freedom and location owed itself to a background of relative affluence and privilege compared with most of his peers, at the time I read it (over and over again) I simply enjoyed the notion that a boy could spend his adolescence studying the creatures he found nearby. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell very badly indeed…

TheSnowLeopardIn my twenties, having left home, and burdened with a mortgage, I found myself feeding my natural history book habit in the local library. There were classics to hunt out, three of which make my shortlist for Landlines – Nan Shepherd’s vivid Cairngorm homage, The Living Mountain; Peter Matthiessen’s heartfelt The Snow Leopard, a crystalline exploration of the role the natural world can play in the wake of grief that precedes Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk by some four decades; and, of course, The Peregrine by J A Baker.

No shortlist of this kind would be complete without The Peregrine. Like Macdonald, Baker is so connected with the subject of his study that he longs to become one with them, a humanhawk trapped in the leaden, earthly bounds of a humanity he would eschew if only he could. But his prose soars, and is uncompromisingly, prismatically brilliant: “[five thousand dunlin] rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”.

theperegrineI’m privately convinced The Peregrine will eventually triumph in the Landlines search for the UK’s favourite book about nature. If it does, it’s an eminently deserving winner. It is not, however, where my eventual vote lay…

For that we spool forwards to more contemporary natural history writing that has touched me in one way or another in recent years. For very personal reasons I will always carry a torch for Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles – a wonderful travelogue that I enjoyed immensely, and was a source of inspiration for a lost, dear friend of mine at the time.

I’ve already mentioned  Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards, illustrated by Stanley Dorwood – this slim, hauntingly beautiful volume is the perfect evocation of the sunken lanes and droves in Dorset that I explored on foot when I should have been at school. It is also a tribute to the late Roger Deakin, and it is one of Deakin’s books – his last, before his untimely death – that I turn to repeatedly for its luminous, evocative prose and a love for his subject that shines throughout it like the burr in polished walnut.

wildwoodPerhaps I knew in my heart, all along, that Wildwood would be my nomination for Landlines, as it is a marvellous thing, a journey through trees that spans continents and lives. I now call my home a part of the UK that is largely devoid of trees, and I think that my compulsion to return, again and again, to Wildwood‘s pages may be a manifestation of an inchoate longing for their presence in my life. Books leave their mark in us – but trees root us in our landscape.

I’d urge you to vote for your favourite book about nature before the 30th November deadline – and if you want to follow Landline’s progress, the AHRC has set up a dedicated Twitter account (@LandLinesNature) and hashtag (#favnaturebook). While you’re there, do please follow me too (@dunnjons) as there will be plenty of news unfolding soon about my very own imminent book, Orchid Summer. Watch this space!

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