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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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (v)

AP6I7875 edit O tenthred blogszieI think we all felt we’d earned a day of wall to wall sunshine by this point, and our fifth day on Rhodes certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It was, in stark contrast to the previous day, proper T-shirt weather. If we were noticing that change, so too were the Painted Lady butterflies – the previous day seemed to have caused a backlog in their migration, for today they were flooding through in greater numbers than ever before.

AP6I7882 Ophrys tenthred edit crop tweetsizeNowhere was that more apparent than on the top of a mountain in the south of the island – here, whilst wading through thickets of orchids (well, almost), we could see the butterflies streaming up the mountainside, flying strongly past us, and down the other side. All heading northwest, grimly determined to migrate.

AP6I7782 edit O oreas blogsizeAnd those orchids? Well… this particular mountain is always kind to us, but the strange flowering season meant we were in for a particular treat today, with an abundance of flowers and species I’d not seen up here before. We’d no sooner arrived than we found our first, slightly faded Sawfly Orchids Ophrys tenthredinifera – an ophrys that is almost too colourful, if such a thing could ever be said. Climbing higher up the mountain we found fresher examples, lysergic combinations of acid pink, lemon yellow and rich chestnut.

AP6I7670 edit O bombyliflora blogsizeAmongst them we stumbled across one flower that was subtly, but distinctly different – what would prove to be our one and only definitive Ophrys oreas – further plants that were almost certainly this species had flowers that were just too faded to be sure.

AP6I7552 Ophrys phrygana edit blogsizeIf those two species were obvious, there were more subtle pleasures to be found all around us – Ophrys bombyliflora was not under water here, and we began to find discrete colonies of it scattered across the mountainside.

AP6I7915 edit O sitiaca blogsizeOnly a little more easily found were Ophrys phyrganae and Ophrys sitiaca. The sulphurous yellow tones of O.phryganae meant the flowers were readily seen – but the intricacies of their identification stretched everybody’s credulity. Apparently the upturned lip of their flowers helps differentiate them from Ophrys sicula… a distinction that seems almost laughably subtle.

AP6I7865 Orchis anatolica and Anacamptis papilionacea blogsizeWere that not enough of a headache, the presence of the very similar O.omegaifera on the slopes helped to cloud the issue where the O.sitiaca were concerned. To say that we were grateful to have a botanist of the calibre of Yiannis alongside us would be something of an understatement…

Some orchids were a different kettle of fish altogether – numerous, and mercifully straightforward – carpets of Orchis anatolica and Anacamptis papilionacea, sometimes flowering cheek by jowl besides one another. Our progress across the mountaintop was extremely slow indeed as we paused time and again for particularly attractive stands of flowers while, below us, keen eyes picked out Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Green-underside Blues for good measure.

AP6I9126 edit blogsizeWe couldn’t leave the mountain without one, final, subtle Ophrys – though at least this one wasn’t too challenging – the cute-as-a-button little O.parvula was rearing its tiny head once more. Throw in yet more sumptuous O.ferrum-equinum and some bonus Fritillaria rhodia and we were in something approaching botanical heaven.

AP6I8035 edit Fritillaria etc blogsizeThe last hours of the afternoon were, inevitably, going to struggle to match what had gone before – we checked a site for Anacamptis sancta, though more in hope than any expectation as this late-flowering species was surely not going to be out just yet, and so it was to prove. A final flush of horny O.cornutula were welcome, but massively overshadowed by a pair of courting Short-toed Eagles overhead, one carrying a snake in its talons as a gift to woo his partner. As Yiannis dryly remarked,

“Who said romance is dead?”

We might not have found love – or snakes – in the field today, but we had amassed thousands of orchids, of 18 species, bringing our week’s grand total up to a very respectable 37 species. And we still had a full day ahead of us…

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 enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (iv)

AP6I6143 edit regis-ferdinandii blogsizeIf our preoccupation with the weather had, hitherto, seemed stereotypically British, that had not been without good cause – our destinations on the preceding two days had been determined wholly by reading the forecast auguries and, with a degree of good judgement, dodging the worst of what the turbulent weather was throwing at the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.

IMG_2105Today was to prove something of an exception to this, for the entire island was taking a beating, with relentless bands of rain marching across Rhodes throughout the day. We made a brief pit-stop just outside the village for second helpings of Ophrys ferrum-equinum and regis-ferdinandii before braving the weather to drive to Lindos for a spot of sightseeing for those who wanted to see the acropolis there.

AP6I7320 Orchis italica edit tweetsize(A number of the group were more ambivalent, but the prospect of Lesser Kestrels was, perhaps, a little more enticing. In the event, those of us who made the climb up to the castle also enjoyed distant views of a soggy Nightingale and Sardinian Warblers in the bushes far below us.)

AP6I7326 edit lavendar blogsizeThe journey across the island was nothing if not eventful – not least for the discovery of a fine roadside stand of Naked Man Orchids Orchis italica. We made the most of these, and the surrounding bushes of aromatic French Lavender Lavandula stoechas, though the cool temperature and dampness in the air felt decidedly un-Mediterranean.

AP6I1660 edit A laxiflora blogsizeA roadside grove of trees is normally a reliable and pleasant site at which to see both Loose-flowered Orchid Anacamptis laxiflora and the decidedly less showy Ophrys bombyliflora. The latter, presumably present, were completely submerged beneath a large pool of water that surrounded the trees; and the Loose-flowered Orchids were surrounded by water that precluded an approach any closer than from the road itself. (I’ve cheated here, and used a Loose-flowered Orchid image from a dryer day the previous year…)

AP6I7375 edit O rheinholdii crop blogsizeFloodwater was becoming something of a theme of the day for, on our return towards our home village, we found a ford that had previously been merely tyre-deep was now a surging torrent rushing across the road. We paused, eyed it nervously, and decided discretion was the better part of valour – turning around, and taking a longer, but safer, route back home.

AP6I7336 edit Ornithagulum nutans crop blogsizeWith some daylight left to play with once back in the village, and with the blue sky finally reasserting itself over the island, we decided to explore the terraces near to the hotel. Whilst we found nothing new, this was a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Ophrys rheinholdii, sicula and omegaifera, more Giant Orchids Himantoglossum robertianum, and the delicate purple flowers of Orchis anatolica – not to mention the gorgeous, subtle flowers of Drooping Star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum nutans.

To say the day had been something of a washout would be to disguise the fact that we’d still managed to see no fewer than 13 species of orchid – which is none too shabby! That said, the challenging conditions meant we had only added two new species to the trip list. Tomorrow, we would have to try a little harder…

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 enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (iii)

AP6I9754 edit Ophrys colossaea blogsizeAnother wet day dawned in Rhodes though, with a weather eye firmly on the local forecasts, we would not find our orchid hunting too badly impaired by the elements. We made the decision to swap coasts today, and struck east for an olive grove that harbours a scattered population of the simply magnificent Ophrys colossaea.

AP6I6711 Ophrys colossea var flavescens edit tweetsizeThe rain was still falling persistently when we arrived, so while the guests waited for it to ease I started to scout the grove beneath the shelter of my trusty travel umbrella, a piece of essential equipment that’s done me sterling service in Amazonian rain-forests and now, more incongruously, in the Mediterranean. I was pleased to find some good examples of O.colossaea in bloom, including one plant in particular – a pale and unusual variety that abhored the usual warm chocolate and pink tones of its kind.

AP6I1809 edit tweetsizeMany Serapias bergonii tongue orchids were to be found beneath the olive trees and, here and there, more spikes of the chequerboard-flowered O.rhodia, a species we’d last seen in the evening of our first day on the island. I had anticipated many more Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis here too, including white-flowered plants, as these had been numerous the previous year, but this year they were all still in tight bud.

AP6I6729 edit O calypso blogsizeWhile Yiannis and the group searched for other flowering plants at the head of the nearby beach I was a little distracted by Crested Larks at the edge of the sandy track that led to the shore, and whilst watching them I noticed the familiar form of Ophrys flower spikes growing in the verge at the edge of a vast puddle. Some careful footwork avoided wet feet and, once I was a little closer, I found more O.rhodia and a single flowering Ophrys calypso.

AP6I6769 Serapias bergonii drowned in floodwater edit tweetsizeThe tracks to our usual riverside site for the latter species were too muddy and slippery to risk taking the vehicles down, so we elected to walk in, picking our way carefully along them. The last time I’d visited this site the river was almost entirely absent, leaving a large stony plain just beneath the flat riverbank on which the orchids flourished. This year was a very different proposition indeed.

AP6I6923 Turkish Buttercup Ranunculus asiaticus edit tweetsizeThe river was a sheet of briskly flowing water that overlapped much of the riverbank itself, the abnormally high water level revealed by the sight of several S.bergonii forlornly rising from the water itself. I wondered what such prolonged submersion could possibly mean for their tubers – the strange weather of the past weeks and months was wreaking havoc with the flowering season.

AP6I6844 Serapias carica cream edit crop tweetsizeThe sun, by this point, had burned off the cloud that started the day, and we had no further use of waterproofs and umbrellas for the rest of the day. Lunch was taken at a site we visit annually – a junction of tracks in an otherwise unremarkable area of countryside, a mosaic of surrounding fields and groves of fruit trees. Appearances can be deceiving, though, as the immediate surroundings are bursting with orchids – and other flowers besides, including the poppy-red Persian buttercup Ranunculus asiaticus.

AP6I7035 edit Pink Butterfly Orchid tweetszieAmongst a scattered population of S.carica was another unusual variety, a single plant that eschewed the usual burgundy tones for a rich, creamy ivory colour instead. Nearby were many flowering O.heldreichii and, amongst them, single Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and a clump of Pink Butterfly Orchid A.papilionacea.

ap6i7028-serapias-carica-edit-tweetsizeA nearby olive grove looked promising, with many stands of S.carica growing lushly amongst the trees. I was, if I was honest, hoping to find another white example, but instead stumbled across a small population of a new Serapias for the week, Serapias parviflora, a diminutive and shy species that nestled deep within the surrounding grass.

AP6I7069 edit S parviflora blogsizeOlive groves were to be our final destination of the day, albeit one that was neither easy to approach nor, at first glance, remotely promising. The stony tracks that crisscrossed the area sported many large puddles we had to weave our way around but, in the end, deep water that swallowed our path entirely meant we had to abandon the vehicles at the roadside and continue the last approach on foot.

AP6I7119 edit O attaviria blogsizeThe olive grove in question had, to our horror, been ploughed, the earth around the trees completely turned over with only the very bases of the trees themselves remaining, in some instances, untouched. Where, the previous year, we had found swathes of orchids, this year there was just raw, churned soil. We persevered, having come this far, and in due course that diligence was rewarded with the discovery of first Ophrys attaviria and then many Ophrys blitopertha.

AP6I7165 Ophrys blitopertha edit tweetsizeBoth species were as plain as the earlier O.colossea and O.calypso had been gaudy and colourful but, when examined closely, they had a subtle and pleasing charm nonetheless. We stayed here for a good while, searching for more examples of their kind, bringing our daily tally of species to a respectable 14, with a good haul of new species amongst them.

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 enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (ii)

IMG_2059 - CopyWe were up early in the morning of our second day on Rhodes, keen to make the best we could of our time on the island, and fired up by the previous day’s strong start to our orchid hunting. It had rained heavily again overnight, and I walked out of my room to find the oranges on the trees that shaded the windows dripping with water. Some fruit had been knocked to the floor – I took those for a mid-morning snack.

AP6I6242 regis ferdinandii edit blogsizeOur first stop was just outside the village, at the site I’d checked the previous evening. The main target here was a hybrid orchid, the hairy lovechild of two Ophrys orchids – Mirror O.speculum and King Ferdinand’s O.regis-ferdinandii. Many orchid hybrids are strikingly beautiful things, combining the best elements of both parents.

IMG_2038 - CopyWith the best will in the world, this ugly bug was not one of those hybrids! We preferred the relative elegance of the many King Ferdinand’s Orchids we found in the area – some growing at the very roadside. O.rheinholdii was numerous here too, also growing at the edge of the road where no other flowers dared tread.

AP6I6249 edit Ophrys heldreichii ssp polyxo blogsizeWe explored the immediate surroundings, mainly searching for a Mirror Orchid in good condition, or Ophrys mammosa – Matt reported having seen these here in the past. We could find neither, but more O.ferrum-equinum were a delight on the scree-like hillside, and I found our first lush examples of Ophrys heldreichii ssp.polyxo.

AP6I6575 edit Ophrys iricolor blogsizeWe headed towards the coast, altering our plans according to the weather forecast – it was due to be dry there today, if not later in the week, so we needed to make the most of the weather window. The journey was through clouds of Painted Lady butterflies, migrating north-west across the island into Europe, and crossing the road in vast clouds of hundreds per minute. It was a remarkable sight, and distracted us from sporadic roadside Black-headed Buntings and Woodchat Shrikes.

AP6I6267 Campanula rhodensis edit tweetsizeAn area of sand dune habitat was not particularly productive for orchids, with just Ophrys iricolor to show for our efforts, but abounded with wildflowers – Yiannis was in his element here, calling out new species after species. I had been looking forward to the site for the endemic Campanula rhodia I remembered carpeting the sandy ground and, sure enough, it was in full bloom again this year.

AP6I6297 edit Pyramidal Orchid blogsizeA nearby hillside covered in prickly, scratchy garrigue habitat was more productive for orchids, with more O.heldreichii scattered amongst many Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis and a handful of Pink Butterfly Orchids A.papilionacea. The latter were new for several of our group, whilst everyone was surprised by how pale the former were compared to their dark pink British counterparts.

AP6I6394 Ophrys cretica ssp beloniae edit tweetsizeWe had lunch at a nearby old chapel, sitting on the low walls in the warm sunshine to enjoy another buffet of delicious Greek cold snacks. I was delighted to return here as, the previous year, our visit had coincided with a torrential rainstorm that made orchid-hunting a fleeting experience for the guides only while our guests sheltered in the vehicles… an orchid hunt that revealed that the main target, Ophrys cretica ssp.beloniae, had finished flowering before we arrived. This year was a very different story indeed.

AP6I6427 edit Serapias carica crop blogsizeMany plants of O.cretica were in full bloom, sporting petals and sepals the colour of a ripe bruise and marvellous dark chocolate brown and silver lips. Amongst them were more King Ferdinand’s Orchids and our first tongue orchids of the tour, Serapias candica, with lascivious pointed burgundy tongues hanging from their blooms.

AP6I6367 edit Ophrys cornutula blogsizeNearby, underneath the shelter of a stand of bushes we discovered a colony of Ophrys cornutula, each flower with long, pointed horns rearing from the sides of the lip. If that weren’t enough for one lunch break, there was also another Anacamptis species, A.coriophora ssp.fragrans,  a beautiful wildflower with the unlovely English name of Bug Orchid.

AP6I7798 edit blogsizeOur final destination, where we would spend much of the afternoon exploring, was a favourite hillside of ours near to the coastal settlement of Prasonisi. If it had been productive in 2018 on my first visit to the island, it was an orchid wonderland the following year and, during our time quartering the hill, the discoveries came thick and fast.

AP6I2105 Violet Limodore edit tweetsizeMost unexpected of these were some Violet Limodores Limodorum abortivum growing in most atypical habitat – we normally associate them with woodland, yet here they were growing on an exposed hillside. More typical fare for this sort of garrigue habitat were the many Ophrys species we encountered. At the roadside we found more O.iricolor but, as we headed uphill, we found countless Ophrys parvula, a very subtle and small species indeed, and easily overlooked until one got one’s eye in.

AP6I6483 Fritillaria rhodia edit crop tweetsizeTo everyone’s delight, there were more O.cretica growing here, amongst nodding stands of the delightful small, chartreuse endemic fritillaries Fritillaria rhodia. These were not, however, what I was looking for. During the previous year I had found an isolated colony of a dramatic, large-flowered and colourful Ophrys on an otherwise unremarkable area of the hill, and it was these I hoped to re-find for my guests.

AP6I6542 Ophrys halia edit tweetsizeI’d taken the precaution of recording a GPS location for them, so was able to use my phone to direct me within 25 metres of them – the phone signal was dismally poor, so I could only rely on an approximate leg-up from technology! It was enough, though – a little scouring of the immediate area revealed first one and then a dozen more Ophrys halia, much to the delight of the group once they’d made the long walk up to my isolated perch high above the road.

AP6I6527 Ophrys cretica ssp beloniae edit tweetsizeWe’d recorded 14 species of orchid today, bringing our overall score up to 23 species in the space of two gentle-paced days. We could rush around and chase more numbers, but where would the fun be in that? We’d got time on our hands and wanted to appreciate what we were seeing, allowing time for photography and searching for more plants – everyone was finding something, to our collective delight.

It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but those O.cretica today took some beating…

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 enjoy them.







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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (i)

AP6I5887 Ophrys rheinholdii edit tweetsizeOur arrival on Rhodes was tumultuous, to say the least – we flew in on the wings of a violent storm that closed airports across the eastern Mediterranean, descending through black clouds towards the island before, to our dismay, being told our final approach to land had been aborted and we would be making, instead, for Athens. After some chaotic hours in the airport there courtesy of a disorganised and disinterested Ryanair, we finally boarded an overnight ferry to Rhodes – an island in the far eastern Mediterranean region that’s an orchid wonderland.

If we had lost an afternoon in the field, it was an afternoon that would have been deeply unpleasant – the island was lashed with wind and rain, the latest manifestation of a confused winter in the region that had delivered deeply unseasonable weather patterns playing out for weeks on end. Sunshine greeted us on the quayside and, with our vehicles awaiting our arrival, we were soon on the road and making up for lost time.

AP6I5906 edit Ophrys rheinholdii white wings edit tweetsizeWe made our way to Mount Attaviros, an orchidaceous destination only a short distance away from our hotel for the coming week. This is a favourite site of mine on the island, and it never fails to deliver good orchids – though no two visits are ever quite the same. A meadow on the lower elevations that was, in 2018, bursting at the seams with flowering plants was, in 2019, a pale shadow of its former self, appearing to have been heavily grazed. Any disappointment was completely outweighed by the abundance of orchids on the verges, where they were noticeably more abundant than hitherto. And what plants they were – drifts of Ophrys rheinholdii, dozens of plants, with velvety, fresh flowers in Guinness tones.

AP6I5743 Ophrys dodekanensis edit tweetsizeAmongst those ravishing hordes we found Ophrys dodekanensis, a more subtle bee orchid species that would normally have finished flowering by this point in the spring, with sepals of both cool white and bubblegum pink.

AP6I5818 Ophrys dodekanensis edit tweetsizeThese were a welcome surprise, and an early clue that the flowering season might be somewhat delayed – an impression reinforced by the asparagus-like appearance of Violet Limodores Limodorum abortivum – where in 2018 we found stands of glorious flowers, this year we could only see purple, spiky shoots bursting from the forest floor. We could however perhaps expect to see some species in the coming week that we might not normally encounter…

AP6I5967 Orchis anatolica edit crop tweetsizeThe banks of the road were carpeted with the sky blue of Lithodora hispidula and the snow white of the endemic Cyclamen rhodium, wildflowers that, whilst not orchids, were impossible to ignore. As we walked slowly up the mountainside the orchid flora changed, imperceptibly, those exotic O.rheinholdii giving way to the primitive flowers of Ophrys omegaifera. Rocky outcrops were dotted with many fine, delicately flowered Orchis anatolica.

AP6I5989 edit Neotinea maculata crop tweetsizeIn the forest understory were yet another orchid that should have finished flowering by now – the subtle, freckled forms of Dense-flowered Orchid Neotinea maculata. For a while it was hard to know which way to point the cameras, as a showy Eastern Festoon butterfly came and posed obligingly amongst us. This was spring-time nature watching at its Rhodian best.

AP6I2242 Eastern Festoon tweetsizeWe paused for a picnic lunch halfway up the mountain – the Greenwings founder, Matt, lives on the island so we were treated to delicious homemade Greek food courtesy of his mother in law, a welcome treat and fuel for the afternoon. We took our vehicles to where the tarmac ended, and a gravelled track continued up into the higher elevations of the mountain, pausing to assess the state of the unmade road. The previous day’s rain had left large puddles and there was evidence of some considerable passage of water – deeply eroded channels in the road surface here and there. We would go as high as we safely could, but would take no chances or risks.

IMG_3635Nor did we need to, for we climbed to a likely-looking area of habitat and, upon leaving the vehicles for a wander, began to find plenty more Orchis anatolica and, here and there, dramatic fossils on the occasional exposed rocky outcrops. Neither of these were, however, what we were hunting for here – that was a locally rarer orchid altogether, Neotinea lactea, and in time we found first one and then a second fine example of this compact and subtly beautiful orchid, with crisp, milky white flowers stippled with fine black cherry highlights.

AP6I6030 Orchis lactea edit tweetsizeWith a couple of hours remaining available to us in the afternoon, we decided to head back to the peaceful village on the outskirts of which our hotel rested. Yiannis (the other Greenwings guide) and I knew there ought to be a good selection of new orchids to be found nearby.

AP6I6105 Ophrys umbilicata edit tweetsizeIt was here, in 2018, that we found our first Ophrys candica, but once again the fickle seasons were to play tricks on us – O.candica was nowhere to be seen, apparently not yet in flower – though other familiars were exactly where we expected to find them, and in fabulous fresh condition – Ophrys rhodia, Ophrys umbilicata, and Ophrys ferrum-equinuum. The latter is always popular, with colourful flowers each sporting a shiny, metallic horseshoe. “Juicy…” as one of us was heard to murmur appreciatively.

AP6I6064 Ophrys ferrum equinuum edit tweetszieHigher up, we found another clue that suggested a confused flowering season – a fine example of the Giant Orchid, Himantoglossum robertianum, a very early-flowering species that had no business still being in bloom in early April – in 2018 the plants we found were mostly well on their way to setting seed. Some of the group were familiar with the Lizard Orchids Himantoglossum hircinum found (mainly) in Kent back home in the UK – these relatives of the Lizards look very different indeed to them, with richly patterned flowers that look a little like they’re wrought of melted wax.

AP6I7347 Himantoglossum robertianum edit blogsizeWe slowly headed back downhill towards the hotel, the prospect of a warm welcome, a cold beer for some, and a delicious evening meal now calling strongly. The orchids weren’t quite done with us though – on the very edges of the road, growing from the banks above a wheely bin in the village, we found the delicate chocolate brown and yellow flowers of Ophrys sicula, our eleventh species of orchid in a splendid first full day on the island.

AP6I9301 edit Ophrys sicula blogsizeWhile the guests settled in to their rooms before dinner, I headed out to the other side of the village for a little recce before the morning. I’d heard a rumour of a hybrid orchid on a hillside I’d not visited before, and wanted to see if I could find it and, furthermore, whether the site was worth visiting the following morning with the group for more orchids besides.

IMG_2013 - CopyAnd what did I find? You’ll have to wait for tomorrow morning, just like my guests…


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 enjoy them.

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