The Dactylorhiza days of summer

140617 Heath Spotted Orchid FetlarA 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.

140603 Northern Marsh Orchid YellNaturally, 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…

140618 Early Marsh Orchid UnstI 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.

170611 EMO x NMO D x latirella IMG_8683[1] edit tweetsizeThe 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.

170626 IMG_8815[1] edit putative Pugsleys blogsizePugsley’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!

IMG_9455[1] baltica blogsizeThis 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.

IMG_9709But 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.

IMG_9707Both 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.

IMG_9760Once 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.

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Orchid huntings in Dorset and the Aude

IMG_8014 bugarach edit tweetsizeAfter last year’s rainbow immersion into the world of British and Irish native orchids whilst researching my next book, it was always going to be hard to kick the orchid habit as the new flowering season began to unfold. I watched, jealously, from afar in Shetland whilst photos of the first orchids of 2017 began bursting onto social media – at first from southern Europe and then, as spring swept rapidly north, from the south coast of England.

IMG_6882 Dorset Green-winged DL editMy very own case of orchidelirium shows no signs of abating – as bewitched as the Victorians who built vast orchid ‘ovens’, or heated glasshouses, in which to house their imported tropical orchids, I couldn’t resist the temptation for very long. It was time to dive back in… but this time I would explore pastures news, in the orchid-rich Aude département of France.

IMG_6347 edit tweetsizeMy journey to France was via Dorset where, after wandering coastal fields carpeted with Early Spider Orchids Ophrys sphegodes and a small colony of unusually candy-striped Green-winged Orchids Anacamptis morio, I stopped to see some extraordinary hybrid orchids that were discovered last year on a roadside in the county. There were precious few clues revealed at the time as to the precise location but, fortunately, more than enough for me to solve the riddle – an embankment just a stone’s throw from where I once lived in the 1990s.

Fly Orchid portraitThese unusual hybrids are believed to be the offspring of Fly Ophrys insectifera and Woodcock Ophrys scolopax Orchids – the former a relatively scarce native of Dorset; the latter hitherto unknown from the British Isles, albeit a species that’s fairly commonplace in mainland Europe.

IMG_6646[1] tweetsizeNobody knows how these hybrids came to be here – there’s no sign of a parent Woodcock Orchid nearby, though presumably there may once have been at least one plant there.

Was this original parent plant a natural colonist, or one inadvertently introduced when the embankment was reseeded by the local council with an imported wildflower mix? Or were the viable hybrid seeds in that mix? Was there ever an imported wildflower mix? Nobody knows. The waters are muddied still further by the nearby presence of hybrid Fly and Bee Ophrys apifera Orchids…

IMG_7939 Bugarach edit tweetsizeWhat is certain, however, is that the Fly x Woodcock hybrids that endure there to this day are delicate, beautiful things. I simply had to see them… Their embankment home is an exposed, public place and, in the hour I photographed and studied them, a succession of curious locals stopped to ask me what I was looking at – a passing tree surgeon, the head keeper from the local estate, and a policeman! I showed them all the orchids, and we had a chat about what they were and why they were so unusual.

IMG_7783 bugarach edit tweetsizeOnce I arrived in the Aude I found plenty more Woodcock Orchids, in a spectrum of colour combinations that would put a Fabergé egg to shame. One particular mountainside meadow boasted dozens of them, with no fewer than eight other different orchid species all in flower around them at the same time. The Aude’s reputation as an orchid mecca was clearly well-deserved…

Aude orchisLady Orchids Orchis purpurea, a rare species in Britain mostly restricted to the woodlands of Kent, were ubiquituous – every roadside verge seemed to sport their large, deep burgundy and white conical flower spikes. With so many of them – and plenty of their close relatives, Man Orchis anthropophora and Military Orchis militaris Orchids in close attendance – it was no surprise that I found a number of their searingly colourful, variable hybrid offspring in the course of my short initial stay in the département.

IMG_8125 Aude N conica editMy time there was all too brief, though I’m happy to say I’ll have plenty more opportunities to explore the area properly in future, but was more than long enough to thoroughly whet my appetite for my next visit. One particular orchid, however, was at the very top of my wanted list for this particular trip – Neotinea conica is a small, beautiful, milky-white and rose-pink spotted orchid found mainly on the Iberian peninsula and known from only a handful of sites in France. One of these was near Bugarach, a few minutes from where I was staying – I dearly wanted to see these special plants.

IMG_8033 Aude N conica x ustulata editHappily, in a large sloping field studded with Green-winged Orchids and Burnt Orchids Neotinea ustulata, I readily found my first Neotinea conica – and they were every bit as gorgeous as I’d hoped they would be, nestling in the lush grass like tiny, flecked snowballs, unseen until one was almost on top of them. Nearby were the rare hybrids between them and N.ustulata – known, appropriately given their location, as Neotinea ×bugarachensis, their flowers intermediate between both parents.

IMG_7888 Aude N ustulata editMy first orchid expedition of 2017 had started with a rare hybrid orchid on England’s south coast, and ended with a rare hybrid orchid in the foothills of the Pyrenees – a tremendous start to the year’s botanising – and had been punctuated with other marvellous sightings en route. I had been serenaded by Nightingales, startled by a close encounter with an unperturbed Wildcat in broad daylight, and buzzed by aerobatic Crag Martins.

I can’t wait to return.





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Bluebell time

IMG_7166 Kent English bluebell edit2Here on my Shetland croft I have a few clumps of bluebells scattered around the place, at the foot of walls in damp nooks and corners. For all our days are getting much longer – it’s still light enough to go for a walk at 10pm – spring advances incrementally here. Some of my daffodils have yet to flower, and the bluebells are only now starting to think about it.

Perhaps their reticence owes something to their origin – these are Spanish bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanica, so maybe they’re not finding this northerly clime particularly comfortable. Certainly they’re not spreading, as the clumps remain static year after year.

IMG_7224 Kent EB editThe same can’t be said down on the British mainland – commonly found in gardens, Spanish bluebells are said to be spreading into the wild too, where they readily hybridise with our native bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Introduced by the Victorians, the Spanish interlopers have a matador confidence, upright and brash – our native bluebell is a more delicate, drooping affair, a Jane Austen heroine’s shy, anonymous sister by comparison.

Now is the prime time to visit a woodland on the British mainland and see native bluebells in full bloom, forming swathes of blue beneath acid-green, freshly popped leaves. I passed through Kent briefly last week, and spent a couple of happy hours exploring a couple of woods that used to be a short walk from my home when I lived there.

IMG_7211 Kent English Bluebell woodland editMy cottage used to be surrounded by orchards, and would sit amidst a froth of apple blossom at this time of year. The orchards have all been grubbed out now, and it was sad to see my old home cringing beside a field of lurid yellow oil-seed rape, and labouring under a new name – after 150 years of being Holly Cottage, owing to the holly trees in the front garden, it’s been awkwardly renamed Brambledown. The holly trees are gone too.

The changes saddened me, and I carried them with me into the woods where their effect gradually diminished. It’s hard to stay feeling blue when you’re surrounded by bluebells. Photos often depict them as an unbroken azure sea but, when one looks closely, they’re a waxy confusion, a riot of twisted and braided stems, leaves and flowers.

IMG_7190 Kent EB editWhen I was a child my mother refused to let me pick them. At first she told me it was wrong to pick wildflowers, but in time I realised her reticence was more selfish – she firmly believed it to be bad luck to bring them into the house. Snowdrops and hawthorn blossom were equally inauspicious and, I now realise, these were commonly held beliefs across rural England. I wonder why all these spring flowers should be considered unfit and unlucky to bring indoors? I also wonder whether the superstitions persist or whether, like the hapless orchards in East Kent, they are mostly a thing of the past nowadays.

I’ve heard it said that hawthorn was tainted by its association to Christ’s crown of thorns – other purported traces of the crucifixion are found in many bluebell woods themselves, for the purple-spotted leaves of Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula are said to represent the blood that fell from Christ on the cross. Unsurprisingly, I now know that bringing their flowers into the house was widely ill-thought of in the past – another spring flower damned by country superstition.

IMG_7310 edit EPO and English BluebellI walked through the bluebells following badger tracks that meandered along the contours of the sloping woodlands, pausing at a sett to marvel at the mounds of chalk and flint they had excavated and looking, half-heartedly, for any artefacts they might have brought to the surface. Badgers are not respectful of archaeology and sometimes bring treasure, or pottery shards, back up into the world from where they have laid undisturbed for centuries.

My treasure, however, lay all around me for amongst the bluebells were many Early Purple Orchids – the perfect lilac counterpoint to the blue tide in which they swam.


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Britain’s Mammals

britains-mammalsIt’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I wrote the text for Britain’s Sea Mammals – so much has happened in the meantime, not least in the past couple of years with my writing appearing in so many more places than I hitherto had ever dreamed it might. I’ve my first small piece in BBC Wildlife magazine this month, and things are ticking along nicely on the orchid front…

Meanwhile, something else has been brewing away in the background – the creation of another book in the WildGuides series of field guides published by Princeton University Press – the long-awaited Britain’s Mammals. I’m delighted to have been asked to be involved with this and, at long last, it is now in print!

The level of detail involved in this latest field guide is phenomenal – and it’s lavishly illustrated with a wealth of brilliant photographs by a host of talented photographers from far and wide. A couple of my own photos have even snuck in there…

IMG_0667 Grey SealsMy particular interest was, broadly speaking, the cetaceans and pinnipeds – but I’ve taken a keen interest in the text as a whole. Now, with the book on my desk beside me, I’m still learning so much – not least, for example, about bat identification. We don’t get so many bats here in Shetland (Nathusius’s Pipistrelle being about the extent of our semi-regular migrants) but there are many species to be regularly found on mainland Britain. But how to tell them apart? There are ways and means – all lovingly detailed in Britain’s Mammals – some of which even involve penises. You have been warned!

150403 IMG_0451 Mountain Hare blogsizeThis is a reference book I would have loved to have had years ago – but am delighted to have on my bookshelf henceforth. I’m feeling inspired to look for mammals I haven’t seen yet, and to revisit some old favourites, not least Mountain Hares – happily un-persecuted here in Shetland, unlike in mainland Scotland – and top of my furry to-do list in the coming year…

Meanwhile, however, Britain’s Mammals is out there for everyone to share in the opportunity to learn more about our native mammal fauna – their lives, how to identify them and, not least, how and where to stand a good chance of seeing them. It’s astonishingly good value too, with an RRP of only £17.95 but currently available with a good discount from a number of outlets – though one I must particularly commend as it involves a 60p donation to a worthy conservation charity, Birdlife International – until 30th April 2017 any bought via Rare Bird Alert (for just £11.95!) will generate a donation to a great cause).

pg126-127Meanwhile, this coming Easter I have a copy available to be won by one lucky naturalist – and all you have to do is hop, Easter Bunny-like, onto Twitter, follow my account (@dunnjons) if you’re not already doing so, and re-tweet the competition tweet you’ll find pinned to the top of my Twitter feed before midnight on Easter Monday (17th April). It’s that easy! The lucky winner will drawn like a rabbit from a hat, and announced on Twitter next week.

Good luck!



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Butterflies of Estonia


Scarce Fritillary (by N.Peace)

It’s been a while since I last blogged – an inexcusably long absence from the ether, though my Twitter account (@dunnjons) has been ticking over in the meantime. (If you’re not already following that, do please give it a go – it’s been active for a year now, and it’s all going on over there!) That’s not to say I haven’t been busy laying plans for the coming year, and writing… Weaving words is always fun, and I’ve a few irons in the fire on that front at the moment. More on them in due course…


Woodland Brown (by J. Maddocks)

However, for now, as you’ve probably gathered from both blog post title and photos alike, I’ve news of another kind to share. I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’m going to lead a wildlife tour for Greenwings this summer to explore the spectacular meadows, forests, bogs and heaths of beautiful Estonia.


The main focus of our week-long exploration of this gem of a country will be butterflies, but as we’re exploring such a mosaic of habitat there will be a lot more besides to see – our journey through the country will also provide superb opportunities to see damsel- and dragonflies, birds and mammals. And there will, of course, be orchids…


Purple-shot Copper (by J.Maddocks)

Reading last year’s trip report makes for a mouth-watering, tempting prospect. With no fewer than 72 species of butterfly (including some particularly gorgeous blues, coppers and fritillaries) and 20 species of damsel and dragonfly seen on the last trip, I absolutely cannot wait to get out there this year! The first week of July seems ages away… like a kid waiting for Christmas, I’m counting down the days.


Titania’s Fritillary (by A.Borrows)

If you fancy joining me looking for a kaleidoscope of butterflies in beautiful, friendly Estonia this summer, there are still a few places left available, though I think they’re going fast! You can bob along to Greenwings’ website to have a look at the itinerary for our week – 30th June – 7th July 2017 – and to read all about Greenwings’ commitment to conservation. I absolutely love this – they donate to the very wonderful Butterfly Conservation, making a practical, science-led difference to our beleaguered native butterflies in the UK and beyond.

I really hope to see you there!



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A Boxing Day storm on Shetland

161226-weather-vane-broughBad weather in Shetland is a funny thing. No laughing matter, of course, but it’s a source of wry amusement that what qualifies as bad weather in the rest of the UK is unremarkable here – and that when we get really bad weather it invariably either goes unremarked nationally or else is reported with inappropriate hyperbole. Shetland folk, meanwhile, just get on with Shetland life.

161226-west-loch-of-skawWe’ve been blessed with a peach of a year for fine weather in Shetland in 2016, but two of the first named storms of winter 2016/17 have made landfall here. Storm Barbara was moderately disruptive in the run-up to Christmas Eve while, in the small hours of this morning, Storm Conor made himself felt – and is a much feistier proposition than his predecessor. Gusts approaching 100mph have been measured here in the islands today.

161226-smoking-seas-pelagic-boats-symbisterThe wind is easing off now, but a couple of hours ago I went for a wander around the island to see how things looked. Pretty bleak, in summary! The wind was making waves on freshwater lochs, while the sea was smoking with salt water vapour seething off the waves.

161226-ferries-cancelled-signage-symbisterOur regular ferries on and off Whalsay have been cancelled, and all our fishing boats are safely tied up in Symbister harbour. There were, of course, precious few people out and about – and even the island’s sheep were keeping a low profile, tucked behind whatever shelter they could find. I took a leaf from their book and headed for home, a warm house and a cuppa.


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And so this is Christmas…

IMG_1848 Man x Monkey Orchid blogsizeAs is traditional in the blogosphere, it’s time for the annual introspective round-uppery blog post. This past year has been an unusual one for me – none of the dedicated foreign birding or botany trips that have been a feature of the past decade – but it’s been immensely personally fulfilling in other regards.

IMG_0775editedMy time has mostly been taken up researching the orchid book I’m writing for Bloomsbury – from April to September hardly a weekend went by when I wasn’t away from home, busily orchid-hunting for all I was worth.

Without getting too far ahead of myself, that will continue to be a theme of the coming year, though my horizons will soon be expanding rather further afield… the montane meadows of the Pyrenees and the their foothills in France and Spain will be calling me shortly. There are orchids aplenty there, but also some spectacular birds and butterflies to vie for my attention. Watch this space…

britains-mammalsIt’s hard to believe that it’s four years since Britain’s Sea Mammals was published. It seems like only yesterday that I was writing that. I’m delighted that I’ve contributed to its sister publication, Britain’s Mammals, due to be published in the spring of 2017. And, meanwhile, it’s been a treat to have my essays included in the Seasons anthologies of natural history writing, edited by Melissa Harrison and published by Elliot & Thompson – and included in the Guardian and Telegraph’s top book choices of 2016. Seeing my Otter essay in particular commended by a number of reviewers was a good moment.

Autumn cover.inddBeing away as much as I have been this year has, inevitably, rather curtailed my local wildlife-watching opportunities. Shetland’s had a tremendous year for rare birds and cetacean sightings alike – the latter, especially Killer Whales hunting seals close inshore, were a daily occurrence for weeks this summer. They came past my office window more than once and, on one memorable lunchtime, I was privileged to sit on the rocks with a bull Killer Whale surfacing just a few feet away from me as it methodically worked its way along the coast. The Grey Seals and the Otter that had been in the water moments before made themselves scarce pretty quickly…

161009-siberian-accentor-img_90921-tweetsizeOf late years have gone by without my seeing any ‘new’ birds – species I’ve not seen before in the UK – it’s a birder’s lot that, with time, the law of diminishing returns applies in that regard. This year was a good one though for me, with a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in my friends’ garden on Burra in the spring and, in the autumn, Britain’s first Siberian Accentor found by another pal, Judd Hunt, in a quarry in the south mainland. Unusually for rare birds in the UK they were both as colourful and charismatic as they were unusual and highly sought after. Time alone will tell whether the Dalmatian Pelican I saw in Cornwall whilst orchid-hunting there in the summer passes muster with those who adjudicate on the provenance of rare British birds…

161009-blyths-reed-skaw-our-garden-img_87651-tweetsizeAt home all was not completely lost, for all Whalsay didn’t host anything of such rare calibre. A Hoopoe in my garden was a colourful treat – though chased repeatedly by my hens, who took grave exception to the gaudy interloper! – and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler I found in the garden was a new species for the house list, dragging it incrementally another step closer to the magic 200 species mark. 177 species… at the current rate I might, if I’m lucky, make 200 by 2050. As it stands, that’s 177 species that doesn’t include common garden birds on the British mainland like Great Tit or Blue Tit!

161024-hoopoe-skaw-garden-img_96381-tweetI’ve further writing projects in the pipeline for later next year once the dust has settled on the current major piece, but of those, more in due course. In the meantime, if you’re not already following me on Twitter, please do consider it! I’m a latecomer to social media, only starting with it in late February this year – but it’s been a lot of fun, has brought me work and made me new friends, and is a great way to share photos of and words about the wildlife I’m seeing with the wider world. The immediacy of it is really gratifying. My account is @dunnjons.

For now though I’ll leave you with a jolly “Happy Christmas!” and wish you all the best for a wildlife-filled new year. See you in 2017.





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