Cooba libre (or here’s lookin’ at coo, kid)

AP6I5878 edit Blue-headed Quail-dove blogsizeIt’s not exactly a secret that I’m busy researching and writing a new book – something on a larger, grander and more sparkly scale than Orchid Summer. My subject matter, this time around, are the hummingbirds of the Americas – arguably the most remarkably colourful and dynamic bird family in all the world.

They’re found throughout North, Central and South America, from Alaska in the north to the shore of the Beagle Passage in Tierra del Fuego, in the very far south. They’ve evolved to endure in almost every habitat the Americas can throw at them; and their plumage is nothing short of jewel-like. They’re bewildering and beguiling in equal measure – adjectives that we would not, offhand, use for members of the pigeon family.

When we think of pigeons, it’s hard not to think of those grey birds that stutter around our feet scavenging fallen fast food in railway stations, that sit on the guano-encrusted ledges of Victorian railway bridges, so ubiquitous in our towns and cities that they’re (almost) invisible to us. And those who do notice them have barely a kind word to say. “Flying rats” goes the tired, thoughtless refrain.

AP6I5800 edit Grey-headed Quail-dove blogsizeThose birds came to mind recently when I was in Cuba spending time looking for Bee Hummingbirds. I spent a while exploring the Zapata peninsula and there I found myself face to face with pigeons quite unlike any back home in Europe – although, as an aside, our beleaguered, persecuted Turtle Doves give them a run for their money where good looks are concerned.

I visited a feeding station where, every morning, scraps of leftover rice are scattered on the forest floor. It’s just a few metres from a busy road where rainbow-hued 1950s Oldsmobile and Plymouth cars cruise by taking children to school and families to work but, with the low morning sun barely penetrating the thick trees that surround and arch over us, we might as well be in another, remoter world. At first there is nothing to see… and then, shyly to begin with, but then more brazenly as they perceive no threat, the quail-doves emerge from the surrounding undergrowth.

AP6I6100 edit Ruddy Quail-dove crop twtsizeBlue-headed Quail-doves make up most of the feeding party – nine bold birds walked around me, right up to and then even between my feet, too close most of the time to focus my camera upon their eponymous cobalt blue crowns. Shyer still, a grey form slipped out into the ride leading to the clearing in which I stood. A Grey-fronted Quail-dove, like a ghost on the edge of vision. It finally crept a little closer, revealing a rich violet saddle and back. Not such a shrinking violet after all.

Later in the morning, walking through forest at the edge of a swampy area looking for roosting nightjars and owls, we found a familiar form standing motionless on the forest floor nearby – hoping its muted colours would act as camouflage. A Ruddy Quail-dove – unlike the two previous species, not an endemic to Cuba, but all the same, another striking bird.

AP6I6367 edit crop Common Ground Dove crop2 blogsizeThe day seemed to deliver more and more pigeons and doves – rich cinnamon Zenaida Doves haunted the forest margins, barrel-chested White-crowned Pigeons streamed overhead as the light bled from the sky in late afternoon, and of course, there were feral pigeons too – those selfsame descendants of Rock Doves that we know from British city centres are in Cuba too. My last bird of the day was altogether more special, though. Common Ground Dove is, as the name suggests, not the rarest of its tribe – but they’re tiny, compact doves of immense character, with delicate scaly plumage about their breasts and heads and an iridescence about their crown and nape that makes them look as if they’ve been dipped in opals.

No, none of them can hover, they can’t fly backwards, they’re generally plain and rather drab compared to hummingbirds. And yes, they belong to a family of birds that we tend to look beyond. They’re all just pigeons.

Except they’re not.

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Not remotely spooky

180715 Ghost Orchid RC 1985 tweetsize CMy next blog post was meant to be all about a summer that’s been largely spent working with butterflies in France, Greece and Spain – a sun-drenched, joyous examination of a strand of my developing life as a wildlife tour leader alongside the nature writing irons I keep in the fire.

However, that’s not how these things work out. I’ve spent the past few days exploring the French side of the Pyrenees, half-heartedly looking for ghosts. Those elusive phantoms are, of course, Ghost Orchids, the holy grail of European orchid hunters, the wraiths of the deepest, darkest corners of our woods and forests. And the half-hearted bit of this tale? Well, I’m meant to be having a little break before the tumult that’s an autumn spent writing and birding, in Shetland and further afield… but when there’s the remotest possibility of seeing a Ghost Orchid, I could hardly sit by and not at least try to find one.

thumbnail_IMG_5280But who am I fooling? This hasn’t been that half-hearted a search. I’ve been scrambling up and down steep mountainsides clad in deep, mossy forest, and have pushed my way through overgrown thickets following the tracks carved in the understory by wild boar. Parts of rural France have the feeling of full-blooded wildwood.

AP6I5062 edit Monotropa hypopitys Dutchman's Pipe twtsizeResearching and writing the Ghost Orchid chapter of Orchid Summer was one of the highlights of the year I spent immersed in all things orchidaceous. Perhaps no other orchid found in Britain has such a redolent, colourful history as Epipogium aphyllum. I spent a lot of time dwelling upon that in the past few days as I nursed my scratched arms and carefully made my way through the shadowy recesses of the Pyrenees.

AP6I5126 edit mushroom sp twtsizeSad to say, I didn’t find a Ghost Orchid on this occasion. I am, perhaps, a week or two too late this summer for this area of France. What I did find was, on the one hand, promising – woodland floors thick with Dutchman’s Pipe Monotropa hypopitys and an abundance of fungal bodies that hints at a rich myccorhizal network beneath my feet – just the sort of place a Ghost Orchid might favour.

Other orchids were present, past flowering this late in the summer – Small-leaved Helleborine Epipactis microphylla and Sword-leaved Helleborine Cephalanthera longifolia both suggesting that the woods are orchid-friendly.

thumbnail_IMG_5259Spending so much time in dark, remote places provides time for the mind to explore darker recesses of one’s fears. It’s fashionable in contemporary nature writing to speak of woods in warm, affectionate tones, but that’s not always how they make us feel. Or, at least, not me. An eroded cross marks the path up into the trees. Brown bones strewn on the dead leaves at one’s feet are an unsubtle clue to the cycles of life that have played out in times past, but give no hint of what end befell the animal that passed that way before me.

AP6I5091 edit Sparassis sp twtsizeThose extravagant fungi are flourishing on decaying matter. And when low clouds sweep in and envelop the mountains, the birdsong suddenly stops, and all one can hear is the shocking report of a shot ringing out nearby, and the ringing bell-tones of a hunter’s dogs giving voice… then it is becomes hard to leave the dubious sanctuary of the trees and expose oneself to unseen eyes in open ground.

thumbnail_IMG_5261I found myself torn by my time alone in the montane forests. Pulled by the irresistible urge to discover unseen gatherings of pallid, otherworldly orchids… and repelled by the fears with which my imagination painted the landscape.

We do not belong in these dark, owly places…





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Bog orchids, home and away

IMG_4471Once again, it’s been way too long since I last took a moment to write a personal blog post – though, lately, I’ve started to write for the lovely folk at Promote Shetland about two of my favourite things in the world: Shetland, and the marvellous wildlife that’s to be found in and around the islands. I’m delighted to be working with Promote Shetland, and there’ll be more blog posts to look out for on their site in the coming year. I’m also proud to say I’m now working with Leica, and have written a blog post for them all about orchid-hunting in Rhodes this spring.

So what else have I been up to? The last few months have been intense, a combination of leading wildlife tours for Greenwings, and stepping up the research for my next book. On the latter front I recently spent some time in Alaska – a part of the USA I’d not visited hitherto, and in an area of the state that shares some parallels with my Shetland home.

AP6I0993 edit White Bog Orchid Platanthera dilatata twtsizeThe small town of Cordova sits near the 60° north circle of latitude on which, coincidentally, Shetland also rests; both communities are historically heavily dependent on fishing for their livelihoods; and both have, in the past, experienced the horror of an oil tanker running aground in their midst. In Alaska, that was the Exxon Valdez; and in Shetland, the Braer.

On land, Cordova is surrounded by glaciers, mountains and forests. Shetland can boast none of those, but what we do have in common are areas of boggy ground and, in them, there are species of plant we both share. Whilst walking through the Alaskan bogs, or muskeg, I was surprised to find flowering plants that are on my very doorstep here in Shetland – not least the carnivorous Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris and Round-leaved Sundews Drosera rotundifolia. The former, whilst said to be the same species, seemed to me to have paler, larger and laxer flowers than their Shetland equivalents; but the Round-leaved Sundews were indistinguishable from those that stud the damper areas of Shetland.

AP6I1037 edit twtsizeWhilst it wasn’t orchids I was looking for in Alaska, I couldn’t help but notice those that grew alongside the sundews in the muskeg – White Bog Orchid Platanthera dilatata was fairly commonplace, throwing up spires of white, waxy, strongly perfumed flowers. With much evidence of recent bear activity in the area, I have never felt more self-conscious and vulnerable than when I lost myself in my camera’s viewfinder to take some wildflower photos…

AP6I1146 edit Slender Bog Orchid Platanthera stricta twtsizeLater on, with a spare day remaining to me before I made my way home to Shetland, I went searching for another orchid, Keyflower Dactylorhiza aristata, a native of Japan, Korea and the far east of Russia – a plant with a small foothold in Alaska too. Unfortunately, poor weather limited how far up Mount Eyak I could climb in the limited time available to me, so this orchid evaded me – but I found another species, instead, by way of compensation, in an alpine meadow alongside more White Bog Orchids. A close relative of the latter species, Slender Bog Orchid Platanthera stricta is a more subtle affair, with pale green flowers.

AP6I1156 edit both Platanthera side by side twtsizeThey grew in loose, mixed colonies – try as I might though, I couldn’t find a flowering plant that suggested any sort of hybridisation between the two. I had ample distraction with a range of other flowering plants, not least yellow-flowered Oeder’s Lousewort Pedicularis oederi and a mouth-watering fritillary – Chocolate Lily Fritillaria camschatcensis was not commonplace at this elevation, but those I found were all the more appreciated for their comparative rarity there as much as for their understated good looks.

AP6I1183 edit twtsizeNo sooner had I returned to Shetland this past week than I was immediately reminded of the circumstances in which I had found both of these North American bog-loving orchids – I’ve spent some time this week with wet feet in a Schoenus flush on the east side of Shetland, surrounded by arguably one of Britain’s finest colonies of Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa. Our native Bog Orchids are the very antithesis of their American cousins, for all they share a love of a wet, waterlogged habitat. All they have in common with Slender Bog Orchid is the green colour of their flowers; but in some instances a single Slender Bog Orchid flower was the same size as an entire Bog Orchid plant. Our Bog Orchids are tiny delicate plants, most barely topping an inch in height.

AP6I1697 edit twtsizeAs such, they’re hard to find, and great care must be exercised when walking into their habitats to avoid inadvertently damaging unseen plants. I was dismayed, in recent days, to find evidence that someone had been there before me – one stand of three flower spikes had been heavily ‘gardened’, with surrounding vegetation stripped away by the hand of an unknown photographer. (Personally, I prefer to compose my photos through the surrounding vegetation and, hence, minimise any impact of my visit). Whoever the photographer was had also left a large, flattened and trampled area of vegetation in front of the orchids, with a crushed Bog Orchid amongst the damage – a chastening and sad end to my orchid-hunting experiences this summer.

I’d rather not dwell on that and, instead, prefer to think more on the pleasant parallels between the wildflowers of Alaska and Shetland – two places thousands of miles apart, but with some species in common that speak of a more ancient, shared time.


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A walk in the Aude

AP6I9994 edit Fly Orchid tweetsizeIt’s been a while since last I blogged, and it’s been a busy while at that. A time of hummingbirds and orchids, largely – mainly laying down foundations for new writing projects, but with the happy one year anniversary of the publication of Orchid Summer, marked by Bloomsbury releasing it afresh in paperback, clad in a fresh cover as green as a newly minted oak leaf and a new review appearing in one of the national newspapers – many thanks to Peter Smith at The Guardian for his kind words.

AP6I0068 edit Man Orchid tweetsizeWhen I’m not writing, or researching the next piece of writing, these days I’m mostly leading wildlife tours. So far this year that’s involved some travel in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Greece – I’ll be returning to the latter shortly, and moving my centre of operations into the western Mediterranean as the summer unfolds.

AP6I9990 edit Woodcock Orchid crop tweetsizeFor now, I am briefly back in one of my favourite regions of France, the beautiful and varied Aude department. Home to Cathar castles, some delicious food and wine… and orchids. This visit is a short one – I’ll be back here for a longer spell as the year progresses – but for now it’s largely all about exploring and seeing what I can find off the beaten track.

AP6I9941 edit SLH tweetsize(The Aude is a well-established destination for European orchid-hunters, and certain locations are well-explored and well-known – I want to find some new stations for myself. This is easier than one might think, as the Aude is simply bursting with orchids wherever one looks – roadside verges are in a far better, more biodiverse state than we’ve become inured to seeing in the UK, and it’s even possible to find orchids as one drives through the countryside).

AP6I9861 edit Military Orchid tweetsizeFar better, though, to explore on foot. Yesterday was a case in point – a walk up into the foothills of the Pyrenees along a winding track yielded 13 species of orchid in the space of just a couple of miles. Some weren’t in flower yet – Lizard Orchids and Pyramidal Orchids remained in bud, while Lesser Butterfly Orchids were on the very cusp of coming into bloom – but many others were, and gloriously.

AP6I9933 edit Lady Orchid tweetsizeI could never get bored of Lady Orchids – they will always have the glamour of rarity for me, having first seen them in Kent where they have their English stronghold. Yet in France they are commonplace – but I find myself unable to pass any of them by without at least a second glance. They acted as a sea anchor on my voyage into the hills, present every few yards, distractingly so.


Follow me on Twitter – @dunnjons





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Hummingbirds and humpbacks


AP6I0508 edit blogsizeMy bedroom floor is, currently, a sea of gear of one kind or another. Camera lenses form stacks behind a tide of travel documents, notebooks, field guides and hastily scribbled lists on the back of old envelopes. At least some of the latter are actually helpful – a few of them, however, are baffling weeks and months after they were written. For now, I daren’t discard any of them lest they suddenly make sense again. My walking boots sit on top of a pile of Paramo outdoor clothing. Old camera film cases are labelled with the various types of pills they’re to keep dry – anti-malarials, altitude sickness, seasickness, painkillers, antibiotics.

AP6I0504 edit blogsizeWhat could all of this portend? Shortly, I’ll be hitting the road to begin, in earnest, the research for my next book, more of which in due course. As I’ve been threatening to write a blog post for as long as I can remember, I’m trying to put that right now before I’m incommunicado for a while. Well, relatively incommunicado – I’ll be keeping my Twitter feed @dunnjons going whenever I have a phone signal, but don’t fancy trying to write a blog post on an iPhone. The laptop will stay safely at home…

I’m only now back from the first short foray of 2019 – a trip to Mexico primarily in search of some hummingbird stories, but with the added bonus of some birding opportunities, time spent with hatchling turtles, and Humpback Whales almost within touching distance. Breaching, flipper-slapping, spy-hopping, lob-tailing whales? There’s no ignoring an opportunity like that.

AP6I0497 edit blogsizeThe hummingbirds were fairly muted – a brief foray to Mexico City chasing a dark, sad story was counterbalanced by a day in the Pacific hills searching for Mexican Hermit, a relatively recently recognised species that I wanted to see for myself. I found one, but like many of his hermit-kind he wasn’t particularly cooperative and proved camera-shy, preferring to lurk in the dense undergrowth and make only the briefest, lightning fast forays into the light. I could hear his wings beating far more than I could see him. Even the much commoner Cinnamon Hummingbirds feeding on flowering cacti were unusually unapproachable.

Those Humpback Whales though… they were exuberantly , extravagantly extrovert. The first whale I met, out on the Pacific, was a solitary, younger animal. Solitary insofar as it wasn’t with any of its own kind – but it had company of another kind, a pod of bothersome, boisterous Bottlenose Dolphins that frolicked around it on the water’s surface, their high pitched squeaking and whistling betraying their excitement.

AP6I0600 edit tweetsizeThe whale had clearly had enough of their attentions – it thrashed its tail repeatedly at them and, for the first time, I heard a whale’s voice – a deep, primal groan that sounded exasperated with all the attention it was receiving from its small distant cousins. Whenever it dived the dolphins would mill around the surface before excitedly rushing back to join the whale when it reappeared, to its evident frustration.

AP6I0489 edit portrait blogsizeFurther offshore we found a party of five adult whales interacting with one another. One animal in particular was the focus of much close attention from the others – was this a female? What followed was a remarkable sequence of behaviour, with several whales jostling one another at the surface, and much demonstrative action – slapping their tail flukes and pectoral flippers on the water to loud, cannon-like effect and occasionally, spectacularly, breaching fully out of the water to land in an immense flurry of waves and spray.

AP6I0636 edit tweetsizeThese breaches were predictable only insofar as they were prefaced by the whale in question diving with a characteristically exposed tail above the water that suggested a deeper dive was taking place. When and where the whale would emerge, explosively and improbably, one couldn’t tell. 25 tons of marine mammal would suddenly rise, and rise, towering out of the water, hanging in the air for split seconds before falling sideways back to the sea’s surface with immense effect.

AP6I0568 edit tweetsizeI’ve spent plenty of time watching Humpback Whales before, but this was easily the best encounter I’ve enjoyed to date. I’ve a few writing projects on the go at the moment, one of which is a new marine mammals book, so this Mexican adventure was a research trip that ticked a few boxes at once. That statement sounds so dry and clinical – the reality, of course, was that spending time with some of the smallest, most highly evolved birds and some of the largest mammals on the planet was both humbling and incredibly inspiring. The perfect appetiser for the incredible adventure I’m diving into in the weeks and months to come…



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5f2227a9-aa0c-41dd-aa49-2e97965d9b3b (1)I think many naturalists have something they’d really, really like to see. One species in particular that they yearn for above all others, a holy grail. For some, that might be a flower that goes decades between sightings – the enigmatic Ghost Orchid Epipogium aphyllum has consumed its would-be admirers in Britain ever since it was first discovered here in the mid 1800s and, to this day, there are amateur botanists who obsess over this one orchid above all others.

For butterfly enthusiasts, it might be seeing a Purple Emperor Apatura iris for the first time. They are compellingly beautiful, after all, with wings of the deepest, richest, velvetiest purple – and they seem, when one finally does meet one, to be possessed of a depth of character unusual in an insect. They investigate intruders of all sizes and species in their wooded realms and, once initial curiosity is satisfied, are wont to perch out of reach and… well, it seems like they’re keeping a watchful compound eye on their besotted human admirers.

And then there are birders. As Mark Cocker memorably recounted in his Birders: Tales of a Tribe, birders are particularly prone to obsession. Their relationship with the objects of their desire transcends mere appreciation of a pretty bird. Entire lives are dedicated to the pursuit of birds. Sacrifices are made along the way – time, money, relationships and even, rarely, lives are lost. Mark puts it like this – “It is, in short, about the way the human heart can be shaped by the image of a bird”.

IMG_7308I’ve been a birder for decades, and I think I know a thing or two about how all-consuming this birding business can be. I’ve scaled mountains in South America in near darkness to see parakeets at first light, swum with phalaropes in glacial melt-water in Iceland, and I’ve been beaten up by a horny grouse one snowy morning in Colorado. I’ve also spent the past 30 years trying to see a wild Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus

It had not been for want of trying that by 2018 I’d not seen one. From the first I failed to see, in Lincolnshire in the winter of 1990, to one here in the south mainland of Shetland earlier this year, I missed every single Snowy Owl I went to look for. I even managed to not see a breeding pair on territory in Iceland in 2009. They assumed a mythical status for me.

I came to dread hearing one had been found nearby. I naturally assumed I would not see it, after all. So it was with a sense of due, grim, resignation that I went to Fetlar in early October to search for the latest bird to have been discovered in Britain. By this stage, the twelfth time I had looked for a Snowy Owl since that first missing bird in 1991, I knew the script all too well.

IMG_7310Fetlar is an island here in Shetland redolent with Snowy Owl history for it was there that, between 1967 and 1975, Snowy Owls bred for the one and only confirmed period in British history. Nesting in habitat closely resembling the tundra on which they’re found in the far north, their story was chronicled by the late Shetland naturalist Bobby Tulloch and it was he who, famously, joined local birder and photographer Dennis Coutts in a pantomime horse costume in an attempt to approach the breeding birds closely enough, without disturbing them, to secure some photos. This doomed initiative was said to have been abandoned when a male Shetland pony began to display a keen interest in the back end of the pantomime horse…

I visited, in the company of my friend and Fetlar native, Maurice, the day after the latest owl had last been seen. The weather had broken down, badly, and we found ourselves searching for a white owl in fog so thick we could barely seen fifty yards ahead of us. With a keen wind blowing, dramatically reduced visibility, and my jinx at work, we didn’t stand a chance. Sure enough, despite covering some six miles of Fetlar hill, we didn’t see a thing. A few migrant thrushes and some local Starlings were the extent of the birdlife that emerged, briefly, from the soupy murk, before flying back into the enveloping clouds.

IMG_7303This didn’t really matter, as this was still a fine day out. I know no better storyteller than Maurice – in a place where the ability to spin a yarn is appreciated, he tells tales rich with folklore, history and humour. Our walk took us past the former home of one of Fetlar’s witches, Maggie o’ Grü; we found one of the likeliest trow holes I’ve ever seen; and somewhere out there, unseen in the swathed landscape, we passed by Haltadans, an ancient stone circle said to be the petrified forms of a fiddler and his wife surrounded by dancing trows, cast forever in stone when the sun rose upon them. (Haltadans is also the name of local group of Shetland musicians, one of whom is Maurice, who play compelling and irresistible tunes).

There was no danger of us being sun-struck that day. After hours of fruitless searching we retreated to Maurice’s family home on the island for a welcome feed of pies hot from the oven and mugs of sweet black tea. The curse of the Snowy Owl had struck again.

58f7f8b8-ad9d-4dfd-ac4d-1a150e765d45We didn’t like to give up though and, with a better day forecast, and inspired by fresh news from my good friend and Shetland Nature colleague, Brydon Thomason, we headed back up to Fetlar. While the rest of Scotland was sitting under a lump of rain coming off the Atlantic, Shetland was spared that morning. We’d no sooner arrived at the high ground the owl was said to favour than there it was, a white form on the hillside with watchful, golden yellow eyes. One might think that there would be a sense of anti-climax after decades of waiting for this moment, but no –  I was euphoric. All of those dismal failures, those hours spent scouring hills and moors, fields and – on no fewer than four occasions – the depressing surrounds of the docks at Felixstowe, all of those disappointments – they were worth it for this moment.

(Even the time a friend and I spent a good hour stalking a distant Snowy Owl high in the Cairngorms, only to find it was a bleached white Tesco bag wrapped tightly by the wind around a rock – even that moment of bathos was worth enduring now I had a Snowy before me.)

AP6I9310 edit crop2We spent the next few hours watching the owl as it hunted birds on the hill. Snowy Owls are adaptable predators, as happy taking rabbits or starlings in Shetland as they are lemmings in the Arctic. Our Snowy made short work of the local starlings – chasing them down in flight and, when they tried to hide in the low vegetation, bounding after them on the ground. We watched him make a kill in this way, the unfortunate starling quickly consumed before the hunt resumed.

In the distance, I could see my home island of Whalsay on the skyline. I’d come a long way to see a Snowy Owl that day – but I’d come much further still from the first bird I missed on a cold, bleak day in Lincolnshire. It felt fitting that this long-awaited owl should be on the same area of Shetland where once they felt so at home they’d become residents too. My journey mirrored theirs.


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Monkey business

IMG_1848 Man x Monkey Orchid blogsizeOne of the highlights of the great orchid hunt I undertook in 2016 as part of my research for Orchid Summer was seeing the so-called missing link orchid in Kent – the hybrid orchid formed of a union between Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and Monkey Orchid O. simia. Given the official, snappy Latin title O. x bergonii, this plant was discovered at a known Monkey Orchid colony in Kent by a local orchid-hunter – a find that animated the British native orchid world in the days that followed, as news of his discovery spread, like wildfire, via social media.

In Britain this particular hybrid is startlingly rare – a consequence of both parents’ respective rarity. Man Orchids are fairly uncommon in southern England, while Monkey Orchids are decidedly rare – the latter are known from only three locations, one in Oxfordshire and two in Kent. Their hybrid progeny is said to be more frequently encountered in mainland Europe though, from personal experience in France, I tend to think that’s fairly relative – I have found many examples of the closely related Lady O. purpurea x Military O. militaris Orchid hybrids, smaller numbers of Lady x Monkey Orchid, a single Man x Military Orchid, and just a handful of O. x bergonii.

Orchis x bergonii-6 tweetsizeStill, the 2016 Kentish example was not the first of its kind. Britain’s first recorded record, a single plant, was found in the 1980s at the same site as the later 2016 example, flowering twice between 1985 and 1989. Back then, of course, in those pre-Internet days, news spread more slowly and organically by word of mouth. Nevertheless, word did get around – one of the wardens at the site recently shared with me his experiences of guarding the precious Monkey Orchids and their unusual offspring, and recalled that only a very few folk came to see it.

Photos of this historic plant are few and far between – it was, of course, not only the pre-Internet era but also back in the days of 35mm film photography. The images here were taken by the warden at the time, and are reproduced with his kind permission. Our correspondence also clarified that the two plants, separated by decades, were growing at different locations on the site – so we can say, with certainty, that they were different plants.

Orchis x bergonii-4 tweetsizeHow had these hybrids come to pass? That such hybrids occur naturally is a matter of record – as noted beforehand, various hybrid permutations of the Orchis family can be found across their European range. The 1980s plant was subject to some speculation, however, that the hand of man had been involved. The Monkey Orchids at the site were regularly hand-pollinated between 1958 and the mid 1980s in an attempt to bolster their numbers. This initiative appeared to be successful, for the colony grew.

The site also boasts a modest number of Man Orchids. In 1985, amongst this mixed colony, single examples of both species were noted by the colony’s original finder, Hector Wilks, growing and flowering just a few centimetres apart – so it’s entirely possible that an insect may have cross-pollinated the two species. However, rumours have persisted that, either accidentally or even deliberately, the cross-pollination may have been done by man.

Orchis x bergonii-5 blogsizeWhy one would deliberately cross-pollinate Man and Monkey Orchids at a site devoted to conservation of the latter rare species is a question that’s long intrigued me, and seems inherently unlikely given the integrity and determination displayed for decades by Wilks in his efforts to conserve Kent’s precious few Monkey Orchids… I’ve always assumed that, if it happened, it would have been simple curiosity on the part of a third party but, as we’ll see, this is a hybrid that in a British context seems prone to mystery surrounding its origin.

The second plant to flower at the Kent site, in 2016, appears to be a smaller and less grandiose specimen than its predecessor. It was, however, still a fabulously attractive orchid, a confection of raspberry sorbet pink and lemony yellow flowers (see first picture, above, at the top of the blog). Sadly, however, 2016 appeared to be its one and only performance for, in the past two flowering seasons, there’s been no further sign of it.

Orchis x bergonii-7 blogsizeThe hybrids, while beautiful, are of course less important from a conservation perspective than the rare Monkey Orchids, and numbers of the latter have plummeted in recent years. I’ve visited the site, off and on, for a number of years now, and can bear witness to the decline of the Monkey Orchids there – the site seems a shadow of its former glories. In 1985, when the first hybrid appeared, between 30-50 Monkey Orchids and a similar quantity of Man Orchids were present – but in 2016, I found just five flowering Monkey Orchids some distance away from the new hybrid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe story of Britain’s Orchis x bergonii does not, however, quite end here. A further plant was discovered in 2013 in Hampshire, with two flowering plants present in 2014, one of which appears to have flowered again in 2018. This O. x bergonii record was, from the outset, considerably more contentious than either of its Kentish counterparts. Those plants were found at a site that contained both Monkey and Man Orchids. These plants, however, were found at a site at which Man Orchids are incredibly rare, numbering just a handful of examples, and Monkey Orchids are entirely absent. Indeed, the nearest wild Monkey Orchids are many miles away in Oxfordshire; and the finder himself, in his account of the circumstances of the discovery in the excellent BSBI News, concluded that “after much consideration, the occurrence of this hybrid being natural is doubtful” (sic).

Note the deliberate “wild” prefixing those Oxfordshire Monkey Orchids… for rumour has it that there is an orchid enthusiast living some five miles away from the Hampshire site who has a colony of introduced Monkey Orchids, depending on which version of the tale one is to believe, growing either on his lawn or in his greenhouse. This, the theory goes, might account for the Monkey Orchid element of the hybrids’ origin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe orchid world does love a good rumour, but it is also partial to some scientific rigour. The hybrids were subjected to genetic scrutiny, revealing that the maternal parent was a Man Orchid, and the paternal parent a Monkey Orchid. In other words, the pollen came from a Monkey Orchid – which is not, we understand, how O. x bergonii in France at least are generally formed, as there they usually have Monkey Orchids as their maternal parents. It’s also worth noting the difference between the appearance of the Hampshire plant (images taken in 2018) and the two different, but visually fairly consistent, Kentish examples (making, of course, allowance for the different tones displayed in the scanned and originally film-derived 1980s plant).

So we’re to believe an insect, after visiting the fabled local captive Monkey colony in Hampshire, or perhaps the even further afield Oxfordshire colony, then happened across the isolated, tiny colony of Man Orchids on the Hampshire downs, fertilised one, and the resulting seed produced the hybrid plants. Alternatively, perhaps viable hybrid-generating seed blew in from mainland Europe and just happened to lodge near the small Man Orchid colony? Neither theory seems very likely. The only alternative, then, would be that there was direct human intervention…

…which would be either in the form of transplanting hybrid stock dug up from mainland Europe, or bringing Monkey Orchid pollen to the site from elsewhere and manually fertilising a Man Orchid before allowing it to set seed. All of which brings us back to the delicious speculation about the psychology of why anyone would go to such lengths – simply curiosity, or perhaps something a little more complex?

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With all three British O. x bergonii records the only certainty is their very uncertainty. We’ll never know if any of them occurred without some degree of human intervention, either deliberate or inadvertent, nor the motives, if any, that might have spurred those creative hands.

Whatever their origins, they’re all three of them good-looking orchids, and I am grateful to the photographers of both the 1980s Kent and the Hampshire examples for kindly agreeing to let me reproduce their images here alongside my images of the 2016 plant in, perhaps, the first occasion all three British plants have been shown together.


(You can read more about the 2016 plant, and many more colourful orchid stories besides, in my book Orchid Summer – published earlier this year by Bloomsbury. Reviewers have said some kind things about it, and I’d love you to pick up a copy and join me on exploration of the world of British and Irish orchids, the places in which they grow, and the folk past and present involved with plants and places alike).


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Orchids in Rhodes

AP6I1239 edit tweetsizeThis blog post is long overdue – indeed, to the point where I’ve actively shied away from logging in and writing it, which should tell you just how ashamed I am of my tardiness! I do have an excuse, though… which is, of course, the publication earlier this year of my new book, Orchid Summer. More on that in due course, but needless to say, since it was published I’ve been pretty busy…

I’ve enjoyed all sorts of appearances in places I’ve hitherto only enjoyed as a visitor – speaking at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, the Smithsonian in the USA, and even appearing on BBC Gardener’s World – the latter experience, working with a professional film crew in the lovely surroundings of the Kent countryside, being right up there with the very best of life events.

AP6I1809 edit tweetsizeI’ve also been travelling, leading wildlife tours for the lovely folk at Greenwings – both close to home, in Kent, and much further afield – in Rhodes, mainland Greece, and Estonia. The latter two tours had a predominantly butterfly focus, and I’ll blog about those in due course, but all three tours featured orchids to one extent or another, not least the Rhodes tour, which was exclusively all about them. (Though we did see some pretty brilliant birds too, but we’ll skip over those for now!)

AP6I9301 edit tweetsize2Starting then, in Rhodes… This was a week-long, uninhibited orchid bonanza. Greenwings call it their Orchid Odyssey, and I can see why – dozens of species were seen, in beautiful countryside, in balmy, sunny conditions, and in enormous profusion. Orchid taxonomy is currently in more flux than ever before, so actually quantifying what is and isn’t a valid species is becoming increasingly contentious, but that didn’t bother us in the least. No matter whether a given Ophrys orchid is genetically more or less identical to another Ophrys orchid, if they look strikingly different and are simply gorgeous in their own right… well, it would be churlish not to just enjoy them for what they are, spectacular examples of orchid diversity.

AP6I8355 edit tweetsizeGreece is justly famous for the range of shapes, colours and forms of Ophrys orchids that grow there – and you wouldn’t have to push me too hard to declare a serious soft spot for them – but that’s far from the whole picture. Rhodes boasts other orchids besides, so we were spoiled for choice every single day, with double figures of species recorded daily, and new species added on a daily basis to our expanding trip list and bulging camera memory cards.

AP6I0499 edit tweetsizeThis was my first time orchid-hunting on Rhodes, so a good number of the orchids there were new for me as well as for the guests who’d joined me. I was like a kid in a particularly well-stocked sweet shop… As an islander myself, I was also delighted to spend time exploring a new island’s culture – away from the usual coastal holiday hotspots (which we avoided) Rhodes proved to be a constant delight – friendly people, delicious food, and glorious scenery were all a given.

AP6I1076 edit (slightly atypical - Profitis Ilias) tweetszie cropI left Rhodes at the end of the week with the greatest of reluctance indeed – this had been a fabulous trip spent in great company, in the form of a group of friendly guests and my co-leader, the talented and genial botanist Yiannis Christofides. The good news is that Yiannis and I are leading the Orchid Odyssey for Greenwings once more in April 2019 – so I will be back in my element, in my happy place – on Rhodes, immersed in pursuit of orchids.

And you could join me! There are still some places available on the trip, though they’re going fast, and the trip is now a guaranteed departure. Come what may, I’ll be there – and maybe you will be too…


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The Ophrys question

AP6I7268 FBWhen I set out to see all of Britain and Ireland’s orchid species in the course of researching Orchid Summer, seeing all of our native Ophrys orchids did not appear to offer an enormous challenge – we have, after all, just four species, namely Bee, Fly, Early and Late Spider Orchids. Of course, the reality was somewhat different as, in addition to seeing those four beautiful species I also searched for their myriad, jewel-like variations… and moreover, there was also the small matter of finding Britain’s sole, controversial, Sawfly Orchid.

AP6I7348 FBIt’s a very different story indeed in the rest of Europe, where there are – depending on which taxonomist’s views one subscribes to – over a dozen or closer to one hundred further species to be found. One taxonomist’s subspecies is another orchid fanatic’s full species…

I’ve spent a little time recently in the Aude department of France. Towards the end of my stay the first Ophrys orchids were beginning to come into flower – and which species these variable flowers could be ascribed to is a perfect metaphor for the flux and confusion that this particular family of orchids generates.

AP6I7072 blogsizeTo a British orchid-hunter, they look fairly similar to our Early Spider Orchids. So far, so good and, like our Early Spiders, the orchid flowers I found in Aude varied considerably in their appearance both in structure and patterning. So what were they?

Pierre Delforge’s monster European orchid field guide calls them Ophrys arachnitiformis, known colloquially as False Spider Orchid. The latter name is a handy one, as the Latin varies considerably between authorities – other botanists refer to them as Ophrys exaltata subspecies marzuola; while Henrik Pedersen, author of a monograph devoted to European Ophrys orchids, recognises them as Ophrys x arachnitiformis.

AP6I7138 blogsizeThat ‘x’ is telling – it indicates a hybrid origin. Pedersen contends that Ophrys x arachnitiformis is a “partially stabilised hybrid complex” – one born long ago, at least in part, from Early Spider and Late Spider Orchid parents… but with other subspecies of both of those species probably contributing their genes at some point or another. This is, by any standards, pretty vague stuff!

AP6I7154 blogsizeI find this sort of intractable orchid esoterica fascinating, though I appreciate that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but what I couldn’t ignore were just how lovely these, my first Ophrys orchids of 2018, actually were. I seemed to find them wherever I looked – both in the tranquil surroundings of earth tracks meandering through vineyards and, less salubriously, on roadside verges, beside abandoned industrial units and even growing alongside a rubbish bin outside a McDonalds.

AP6I7211 FBTheir variability is, if we’re following Pedersen’s lead, testament to their complicated heritage as well as part of their considerable charm. Delforge could, on a good day, probably make a handful of species out of them!

AP6I6835[1] edit O arachnitiformis pseudocopulation Quillan tweetsizeI was simply delighted to begin to immerse myself, once more, in orchids. Best of all, I finally got to witness one of the most remarkable facets of orchid biology – a male bee attempting to mate with an orchid flower, fooled into an act of sexual folly (known as pseudocopulation, kindly featured as a Word of the Day last week by Robert Macfarlane) both by the flower’s resemblance to an insect and by it creating scents that mimic the pheromones released by a virgin female bee. Seeing that for myself would have been good enough – but getting to photograph it too was just fabulous.

In just a few days time, however, I’ll be heading for the Eastern Mediterranean and an absolutely dizzying array of Ophrys species, subspecies and hybrids. I shall need to do my homework in advance of this, my first outing as a tour leader on the Greenwings Orchid Odyssey to Rhodes. Ophrys heaven awaits me…

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Giant orchids in wintery France

AP6I5683[1] edited blogsizeThe first week of March, in rural France, feels like an unlikely time and place in which to be orchid-hunting. The village in which I’ve been staying is still firmly in thrall to winter, with chimneys spooling thin tendrils of wood-smoke into an aching blue sky from early in the morning, and faded shutters for the most part remaining firmly closed except on the sunward side of the houses. The perfume of beech and oak hangs in the air.

AP6I5783[1] edited cropped blogsizeI have been exploring the village surrounds a little as the days have gone by. The trees remain in bud, and there are no wildflowers to be seen. This may only be the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, but winter still grips the village and the countryside around it. Yet the signs of spring are there, if I look closely enough – there is a promise of orchids at my feet. On the riverbanks, alongside the surging white water of the river that rushes from a gorge into the valley in which the village huddles, I find glossy green rosettes of leaves. They are, I think, Lady Orchids, though I cannot be sure. Some of the leaves seem too narrow and straplike. Perhaps there are other species here too. I will need to be patient, to wait and see.

AP6I6020[1] edited blogsizeIf I hope to find orchids in flower at this early juncture of the year, I need to head southeast to the coast. A northerly wind buffets my car as I drive, making it difficult to chart a straight course. High-sided vehicles weave dangerously on the autoroute ahead of me. My destination is a small patch of undeveloped land on the edge of a large tidal lagoon, sandwiched between a sprawl of weather-beaten, neglected chalets, and saline flats on which Greater Flamingos, incongruously, sweep the water in a loose, pink, feeding huddle.

AP6I6311[1] edited blogsizeThe objects of this expedition are barely less unexpected – for here, rising magnificently from the scoured and bleached grass, are hundreds upon hundreds of Giant Orchids, Himantoglossum robertianum. Some flowerspikes are knee high, set upon thick, fleshy stems; others have snapped under the weight of their flowers and the strength of the ceaseless wind. Most have flowers of pale, glaucous pink – like a number of European orchids, each individual floret has an anthropomorphic, vaguely humanoid quality – though these are rounded and thickset, as if cast from melted candlewax or clay. Compared to the delicacy of Lady or Military Orchids, the Giant Orchids are golems.

AP6I5891[1] edited blogsizeYet not all are pink – some flowers are deepest purple; others are much paler, almost entirely white; and a very few of them sport shocking, vivid gooseberry-green fringes. They are simply magnificent, colossi by the standards of terrestrial orchids, pharos on the very edge of the Mediterranean.

I spend hours with them, battling the conditions. The sun is unremittingly bright, and the flowers themselves are in constant motion, vibrating and swaying as the wind thrums around us. It’s hard to tear myself away, but leave I must. I need to get home, to ply the fire with logs and put some heat in the fabric of the building and my bones.

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