I 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.
Nowhere 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.
And 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.
Amongst 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.
If 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.
Only 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.
Were 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.
We 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.
The 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.