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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On all things green


img_42713-blogsizeI’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks working on my orchid manuscript. It’s beginning to take form, and a pleasing life of its own – it draws me in, won’t let me go, and demands feeding. Actually finding the orchids in the wild this year was only the beginning – in some ways, the easy bit.

The really challenging part and, in many ways, the most rewarding aspect of writing this book, has been following the faint clues, pulling at threads until the concealing shrouds unravel, finding the stories hidden in the past that demand telling, and putting together unconnected, obscure fragments that form compelling new tales all their own.

img_9031-chlorantha-edit-blogsizeThis research has been online, in books and journals, in museums and herbariums, in person and via correspondence, in Britain and Ireland and much, much further afield in North and South America, mainland Europe and the Middle East… even in Japan and New Zealand. My travels, both in person and virtually, have taken me around the world. Hunting for orchids in the green fragments of overgrown lots in New York wasn’t on the agenda at the start of the year… but I found myself there too, botanising to the soundtrack of the city. I love how the year evolved.

img_4674-chlorantha-blogsizeThe next few weeks and months will see the writing and editing intensify further still. My desk is awash with notes, books with their page corners turned over and annotations scribbled in the margins. My journal is crammed with descriptions of people I have met, conversations I’ve had. And those people… the orchid world has more than its fair share of characters every bit as colourful as the flowers that consume them. It’s been a rollercoaster ride through this kaleidoscope world.

img_02371-blogsizeI love orchids as much as the next orchidophile – that’s no secret by now – but I’m a birder too, and that inevitably means I have a soft spot for not only the extravagantly colourful, but the subtle too. (Birders are infamous for their love of little brown jobs, or LBJs).

Britain has a small but select band of green-flowered orchids, and these naturally featured amongst all the other flowers I saw this year. For some they might have played second fiddle to the more ostentatious, flamboyant orchids. But not for me – I wanted to see and enjoy them all.

img_92121-blogsizeFrom Musk Orchids on the open tops of Iron Age hillforts, via Fen Orchids in mires threaded with Grass Snakes and quartered by harriers, to Green-flowered Helleborines in the sun-baked dunes of the coastal north-west where families played heedless of the orchids in their midst.

I’ve scoured wet seeps in remote corners of Scotland for diminutive Bog Orchids, and walked through drifts of Common Twayblades ever playing the bridesmaids to the sun-dappled and colourful Lady Orchids of the woodlands of Kent.

IMG_1046editedAnd I’ve hunted for scarce green variations of Broad-leaved Helleborine and Early Spider, Fly and Bee Orchids – all less colourful than their peers… but maybe all the better for that.

I mustn’t lose sight of the impulse that initially drove me to start this grand tour. There are stories to be told that surround all these plants, the people who seek them and the places in which they’re found. But, ultimately, it’s the plants themselves that beguile.

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Autumn and Winter – Tarantino otters and flaming skies

Autumn cover.inddIt’s been a while since I last wrote. Though, technically, that’s not entirely true – I’ve done very little but write lately, though that’s for publication another day, and more of which in due course. What I really mean is that it’s been a while since I blogged.

Bad, bad Jon… So by way of making good that deficiency, here’s a short blog post about a project I’ve been involved with this year.

I was absolutely thrilled earlier this summer to be asked to contribute essays for the Seasons natural history anthologies, edited by Melissa Harrison, and published in support of the Wildlife Trusts by Elliot & Thompson. They’ve each come out synchronously with the turning of the seasons this year, and are beautiful things packed with lovely writing – prose and poetry, from writers past and present. There are famous names and pieces you’ll surely recognise, and then there’s the joy of discovering new contemporary writers who do wonderful things with words.

I came to the party midway through, so I have essays in Autumn and Winter. Both are Shetland-based – it’s been good to fly the flag for my adopted home, though with that comes the great responsibility of wishing to do these spectacular islands justice…

My Autumn essay was all about Otters – or rather, one animal in particular. We’ve all seen them on Springwatch, and I’m as guilty as the next naturalist of eulogising them to the point of cliché – so I wanted this essay to be a somewhat more unusual perspective on them, an insight into their lives that, perhaps, sheds some fresh light on how they coexist with man in the islands. A less Tales of the Riverbank and more Reservoir Dogs angle…

Winter cover.inddFor Winter my thoughts turned to Up Helly Aa and the unpredictable but magnificent aurora borealis, or mirrie dancers as they’re known here. Both are lightshows you should head north to see at least once in your lifetime. I’m blessed that, living in the islands, I can see either or both annually – and have tried to share some of the magic with the reader. Really though, seeing is believing – so you’ll just have to come to Shetland!

In the meantime, both books (and their predecessors, Spring and Summer) are available from all good booksellers. Money raised from their sales will be going to support the fabulous work done nationwide by the Wildlife Trusts – also supported this year by John Lewis. (Have you seen their TV advert?!) There’s a boxset of all four volumes coming out any day soon – it’s got Christmas present for the nature lover in your life written all over it.


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Autumn birding and the butcher bird

rb-flyShetland’s currently enjoying something of an Indian summer – warm, mostly sunny days continue to be the norm rather than the exception. The last summer to be this protracted was the infamous ‘barbecue summer’ of 2009 – while the rest of Britain endured ceaseless rain, Shetland basked in long, balmy months that bled seamlessly into autumn. So too this year.

barred-warbBirding around home last weekend was therefore a thoroughly pleasant endeavour: t-shirt weather and, this late in the year, no midges to impede my progress. What there were however were some good scarce migrant birds. Saturday kicked off with a Barred Warbler gorging itself on flies (and the apples I’d put there to attract insects) in my garden. These large warblers have genuine presence and don’t tolerate other birds in their temporary territories – I watched this individual harass and chase away a female Blackcap, a Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits.

Yesterday was a peach of a day. My first walk around the Skaw peninsula in the morning soon yielded a gorgeous, delicate Red-breasted Flycatcher – initially heard only in deep cover, chacking quietly to itself like a distracted Wren, it soon came to the edge of some rose bushes in order to live up to its name, flycatching actively in the warm sunshine.

shrike-mice-img_8036This was followed by my first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn, an unusually unapproachable and flighty individual that wouldn’t allow a close approach. It was almost as if it had been spooked by something… and maybe that something was the day’s final quality bird, a smart and actively hunting Red-backed Shrike that, given half a chance, wouldn’t think twice about predating a tired Asian warbler that wasn’t paying close attention to imminent threats.

shrike-bees-img_8030The warbler may have avoided falling foul of the shrike, but other prey items were less fortunate. In nearby bushes I found an extensive larder – 8 bumblebees (comprising mainly the Shetland subspecies of Moss Carder with just two Northern White-tailed) and two mice. Shetland’s mice are, technically, the Wood Mouse found across the rest of the UK, though ours live out in the fields and hills and the synonym Long-tailed Field Mouse probably better suits them. We’re a little short on woods here…

shrike-mice-img_8041All of these unfortunates had been impaled on sharp twigs – the bumblebees in no particular manner, but the mice had each been skewered through their napes. This was a vivid demonstration of the behaviour that earned the Red-backed Shrike, when once it was a common British breeding bird, its colloquial country name of butcher bird.

shrike-bees-img_8027Did anyone else read “The Animals of Farthing Wood” by Colin Dann when they were growing up? It was one of my favourite novels as a young boy, though the chapter in which the mice and voles from Farthing Wood succumb to the butcher bird was never an easy read for one as squeamish as me. Latterly I was aware that the shrikes the author described were dying out as a breeding bird in Britain. That made me feel sad too.

Back in the present and I was delighted to watch this bird actively and successfully hunting, and stocking a temporary larder. Later in the afternoon one of the mice had been consumed, leaving just a scrap of velvet fur and a smear of blood on the twig upon which it had been stored. Our butcher bird is just a temporary visitor blown in from Scandinavia, but it’s welcome to pause a while, to rest and to gather strength before migrating onwards.

More than that – it’s a welcome sight for me too.



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All my lady’s-tresses

img_7168-tweetsizeMy orchid odyssey is drawing towards a close now we’re into the early days of autumn. It’s been alternately wonderful, inspiring and, very occasionally, a little bit scary. The penultimate act of this drama were the helleborines, as colourful, enticing and varied as a Woolworths pick and mix. They’ve been followed by orchids that supplant helleborine exoticism with a graceful, subtle charm – the lady’s-tresses.

One of our native species is extinct – Summer Lady’s-tresses hasn’t been seen in its former southern English haunts for decades. Despite remaining locally common in northern France, it’s long gone from our shores – while occasionally it’s rumoured that well-intentioned orchidophiles have reintroduced them, those whispers have never come to anything substantial – and their habitat is probably lost now anyway.

img_5885-edit-tweetsizeThat leaves three species: Creeping, Irish and Autumn Lady’s-tresses. Irish is something of a misnomer – those particular tresses are found in Ireland, granted, and also in a few areas of western Scotland – but they’re originally from North America. How did they get to Britain and Ireland? Some suggest they could be wind-borne colonists, their dust-like seeds blown across to pastures new by the prevailing westerly winds of autumn. Others surmise their seeds may have been carried on the feet of migrating wildfowl. Either theory is plausible, though we’ll never know for sure – but the flowers themselves are undeniably gorgeous, creamy-coloured and with strongly arched, long, green-veined lips.

img_56341-blogsizeI saw mine in Scotland on the wonderful islands of Colonsay and Oronsay – new islands to me, and ones I’ll be drawn back to in years to come. Beautiful orchids, stunning scenery, and Choughs, Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles? Yes please. Also in Scotland were many Creeping Lady’s-tresses, as hairy and reclusive as an old gillie. Found lurking in deep Caledonian pine forests with enticing orange chanterelle mushrooms all around, their avian accompaniments were family parties of calling Crested Tits overhead in the conifer depths.

img_6950-tweetsizeFor the last of the tresses I headed back to the south-west – and from the Isles of Scilly to Dorset I found Autumn Lady’s-tresses gracing short coastal turf at every turn. Beloved of bumblebees and botanists alike they are, barring the unlikely but yearned for discovery of a Ghost Orchid, the last orchids I’ll see this year. The adventure’s far from over though – I have a book to write now and, next year…?

There are orchids, places and new friends I’ve discovered this summer that I simply have to go back and see again. I think I’ll be returning to some of them for many years to come.

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Epipactis heaven and helleborine

IMG_4481 Gloucs rosea edit tweetsizeI’m back in Shetland after a busy spell of criss-crossing the country in search of what may be our most enigmatic group of native orchids, the Epipactis helleborines. It seems every field of natural history attracts a subculture of particular obsession and, where European orchids are concerned, it’s these helleborines that have the most ardent followers – self-dubbed Epipactophiles.

IMG_2987[1] blogsizeMost are friendly and helpful; some are clannish and secretive; and a very few are downright rude and arrogant. It’s been quite an insight into what orchids can do to a man – and it seems it’s always men who fall into the latter category…

IMG_3827[1] blogsizeI’ve met a fair few of all these characters in recent weeks while I’ve immersed myself in the orchids that consume them. I’ve found myself falling under the helleborines’ spell too. At first glance, there are a mere eight species of Epipactis found in Britain. Once you factor in myriad varieties and a scattering of hybrids you’ve got a witch’s brew of possibilities.

And not a little magic.

IMG_3361 blogsize2Compared to the orchids that went before this summer, the helleborines at first glance seem fairly understated. (Well, most of them – Dark Red Helleborines and Marsh Helleborines are as flamboyant as they come). Look closely at all of them though and there’s subtle beauty to be seen – glorious sculpted flowers with frills, cups and tense arching curves; jewel faceted highlights of colour; and many with the delicious seasoning of scarcity or downright rarity.

IMG_3647[1] blogsizeThere are so many stories attached to what I’ve seen, where I’ve been, and who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way. I’ve unscrewed deer ticks from my legs after exploring limestone pavements looking for hybrid helleborines, been taken to see Dune Helleborines in a landscape blurring Subaru Impreza Cosworth, and have sought Narrow-lipped Helleborines in deep beech woodland by torchlight.

IMG_4403 blogsizeI’ve laid amongst Dark Red Helleborines whilst Northern Brown Argus butterflies dogfight, court and bask all around me. I’ve had whistled conversations with curious Bullfinches, and I’ve stumbled across illicit affairs while looking for Violet Helleborines.

IMG_2748 blogsizeFor sheer rarity it’s hard to beat Lindisfarne Helleborine, found only on the eponymous island in the dune slacks of the western peninsula that flanks the tidal causeway that links it to the mainland.

Dark Red x Broad-leaved blogsizeFor sheer drama, what can possibly better a Violet Helleborine lacking all chlorophyll, a shockingly pink wraith in the woods? For perplexing intrigue, one need look little further than the various hybrids and curious varieties of helleborine up on the remote Cumbrian steadfast of Hutton Roof.

IMG_3965[1] blogsizeFrom limestone pavements and cathedral like beech woodlands, to heavy metal infused riverine spinneys and salty dune slacks. Helleborines are everywhere, if only one looks hard enough. I’ve explored, I’ve looked in places I’ve never heard of let alone dreamt of botanising in and, above all, I’ve made good new friends and I’ve seen some remarkable flowers. The stories of my travels will need to keep for another day. For now, you’ll have to make do with an amuse bouche of photos…

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