A blog post is long overdue here – I’ve been busy writing and tour leading lately, leading trips to Estonia for Greenwings and, closer to home, here in Shetland for Shetland Nature. In and amongst that I’ve seen some spectacular north-eastern European butterflies, scores of tremendous birds and, in the past few days, have enjoyed more close encounters with Killer Whales. It’s been a rich and varied summer so far.
Naturally, there have been some moments with orchids here and abroad. One family in particular has featured highly – a favourite of mine too, the Dactylorhiza clan. Here in Shetland we have two widespread species – Heath Spotted D. maculata and Northern Marsh Orchid D. purpurella – and two considerably more uncommon species, Early Marsh Orchid D.incarnata and Common Spotted Orchid D.fuchsii.
Hybrids between Heath Spotted and Northern Marsh are commonplace here, to the point where the unwary visitor (and even some wildlife tour guides!) often misidentify the ‘purple orchids’ as Northern Marshes. They bear close and careful scrutiny…
I was delighted when, in June, I found a hitherto unknown colony of several hundred Early Marsh Orchids of the incarnata subspecies – this alone would have been joy enough, as besides being fairly scarce here they’re also beautiful things, with flowers of the most delicate, crisp rose pink. Amongst them, however, was something much rarer still – towering above them, fully three times the height of all the surrounding flowers, was a giant orchid of a darker hue, with subtle differences to both flowers and leaves.
The size alone made me suspect a hybrid – they often display so-called hybrid vigour, outgrowing either neighbouring parent species. In this instance, the nearby orchids were conventional Early Marsh and Northern Marsh Orchids and this plant, once I had done a little research, appears to be a textbook hybrid between the two – known as Dactylorhiza x latirella.
That was a new one for me, and one that was all the sweeter for having been a serendipitous discovery. A few weeks later, before I headed off to Estonia, I came across something rarer still – though in this instance it was a more calculated discovery as I had set out with the express intention of finding that very species.
Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid D. traunsteinerioides is a British and Irish endemic species, found sparingly north and west of the line drawn between the Severn and the Humber. It occurs in even the very northernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides… but had not, hitherto, been recorded from Shetland. I set out this summer to see if I could change that orthodoxy…
I narrowed my search down to an area of mainland Shetland that, geologically, looked promising – Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids like alkaline flushes, a relative rarity in the largely acidic Shetland landscape – and enjoyed a track record of supporting a number of other plant species that were scarce or absent altogether elsewhere in the archipelago. And, a few evenings of dedicated searches later, I found a small, isolated colony of what appear to be Shetland’s first record of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid!
This was on the very cusp of my departure for Estonia – I was there primarily looking for butterflies, but I couldn’t fail to notice the orchids too. I stumbled across a number of colonies of a relatively recent colonist of the country, Baltic Marsh Orchid D. baltica, before heading to the island of Saaremaa and my first keenly anticipated sight of the island’s endemic Dactylorhiza, Saaremaa Marsh Orchid D. osiliensis.
But first, more Early Marsh Orchids in a large bog on the north coast – of two subspecies, incarnata and ochroleuca. (In Estonia, these are considered separate species in their own right). Ochroleuca’s flowers are, at first glance, pure ivory white – but a closer look reveals each has a pale lemon yellow wash at the top of their lips.
Both subspecies readily hybridise with one another, a combination I had never seen before – ochroleuca being vanishingly rare in Britain – and produce offspring of startling appearance, with the pinks of incarnata and the yellows of ochroleuca combining to produce flowers with soft apricot tones I’d not encountered before in their kind.
Once on Saaremaa I was fortunate to be shown Saaremaa Marsh Orchid by their original finder, Tarmo Pikner. Tarmo was a warm and engaging host, and I was delighted to spend a short while in his company. ‘His’ orchids favour wet woodlands in the northwest of the island and, without his guidance, I might have lost a great deal of time casting around before finding any plants. As it was, he led me straight to them – a really elegant, stately orchid sporting heavily suffused flowers with which to finish my Dactylorhiza days of summer.
I will be heading back to Estonia – and to warmer climes too – orchid-hunting for Greenwings in 2018. (Though I make no excuses for us also seeing myriad superb butterflies and birds besides!) You’d be welcome to join me… Just pop along to their website to see where they travel or, if you’re at the Birdfair at Rutland Water in a few days time, head along for a chat with them at their stand (42) in marquee 7.