A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (v)

AP6I7875 edit O tenthred blogszieI think we all felt we’d earned a day of wall to wall sunshine by this point, and our fifth day on Rhodes certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It was, in stark contrast to the previous day, proper T-shirt weather. If we were noticing that change, so too were the Painted Lady butterflies – the previous day seemed to have caused a backlog in their migration, for today they were flooding through in greater numbers than ever before.

AP6I7882 Ophrys tenthred edit crop tweetsizeNowhere was that more apparent than on the top of a mountain in the south of the island – here, whilst wading through thickets of orchids (well, almost), we could see the butterflies streaming up the mountainside, flying strongly past us, and down the other side. All heading northwest, grimly determined to migrate.

AP6I7782 edit O oreas blogsizeAnd those orchids? Well… this particular mountain is always kind to us, but the strange flowering season meant we were in for a particular treat today, with an abundance of flowers and species I’d not seen up here before. We’d no sooner arrived than we found our first, slightly faded Sawfly Orchids Ophrys tenthredinifera – an ophrys that is almost too colourful, if such a thing could ever be said. Climbing higher up the mountain we found fresher examples, lysergic combinations of acid pink, lemon yellow and rich chestnut.

AP6I7670 edit O bombyliflora blogsizeAmongst them we stumbled across one flower that was subtly, but distinctly different – what would prove to be our one and only definitive Ophrys oreas – further plants that were almost certainly this species had flowers that were just too faded to be sure.

AP6I7552 Ophrys phrygana edit blogsizeIf those two species were obvious, there were more subtle pleasures to be found all around us – Ophrys bombyliflora was not under water here, and we began to find discrete colonies of it scattered across the mountainside.

AP6I7915 edit O sitiaca blogsizeOnly a little more easily found were Ophrys phyrganae and Ophrys sitiaca. The sulphurous yellow tones of O.phryganae meant the flowers were readily seen – but the intricacies of their identification stretched everybody’s credulity. Apparently the upturned lip of their flowers helps differentiate them from Ophrys sicula… a distinction that seems almost laughably subtle.

AP6I7865 Orchis anatolica and Anacamptis papilionacea blogsizeWere that not enough of a headache, the presence of the very similar O.omegaifera on the slopes helped to cloud the issue where the O.sitiaca were concerned. To say that we were grateful to have a botanist of the calibre of Yiannis alongside us would be something of an understatement…

Some orchids were a different kettle of fish altogether – numerous, and mercifully straightforward – carpets of Orchis anatolica and Anacamptis papilionacea, sometimes flowering cheek by jowl besides one another. Our progress across the mountaintop was extremely slow indeed as we paused time and again for particularly attractive stands of flowers while, below us, keen eyes picked out Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Green-underside Blues for good measure.

AP6I9126 edit blogsizeWe couldn’t leave the mountain without one, final, subtle Ophrys – though at least this one wasn’t too challenging – the cute-as-a-button little O.parvula was rearing its tiny head once more. Throw in yet more sumptuous O.ferrum-equinum and some bonus Fritillaria rhodia and we were in something approaching botanical heaven.

AP6I8035 edit Fritillaria etc blogsizeThe last hours of the afternoon were, inevitably, going to struggle to match what had gone before – we checked a site for Anacamptis sancta, though more in hope than any expectation as this late-flowering species was surely not going to be out just yet, and so it was to prove. A final flush of horny O.cornutula were welcome, but massively overshadowed by a pair of courting Short-toed Eagles overhead, one carrying a snake in its talons as a gift to woo his partner. As Yiannis dryly remarked,

“Who said romance is dead?”

We might not have found love – or snakes – in the field today, but we had amassed thousands of orchids, of 18 species, bringing our week’s grand total up to a very respectable 37 species. And we still had a full day ahead of us…

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (iv)

AP6I6143 edit regis-ferdinandii blogsizeIf our preoccupation with the weather had, hitherto, seemed stereotypically British, that had not been without good cause – our destinations on the preceding two days had been determined wholly by reading the forecast auguries and, with a degree of good judgement, dodging the worst of what the turbulent weather was throwing at the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.

IMG_2105Today was to prove something of an exception to this, for the entire island was taking a beating, with relentless bands of rain marching across Rhodes throughout the day. We made a brief pit-stop just outside the village for second helpings of Ophrys ferrum-equinum and regis-ferdinandii before braving the weather to drive to Lindos for a spot of sightseeing for those who wanted to see the acropolis there.

AP6I7320 Orchis italica edit tweetsize(A number of the group were more ambivalent, but the prospect of Lesser Kestrels was, perhaps, a little more enticing. In the event, those of us who made the climb up to the castle also enjoyed distant views of a soggy Nightingale and Sardinian Warblers in the bushes far below us.)

AP6I7326 edit lavendar blogsizeThe journey across the island was nothing if not eventful – not least for the discovery of a fine roadside stand of Naked Man Orchids Orchis italica. We made the most of these, and the surrounding bushes of aromatic French Lavender Lavandula stoechas, though the cool temperature and dampness in the air felt decidedly un-Mediterranean.

AP6I1660 edit A laxiflora blogsizeA roadside grove of trees is normally a reliable and pleasant site at which to see both Loose-flowered Orchid Anacamptis laxiflora and the decidedly less showy Ophrys bombyliflora. The latter, presumably present, were completely submerged beneath a large pool of water that surrounded the trees; and the Loose-flowered Orchids were surrounded by water that precluded an approach any closer than from the road itself. (I’ve cheated here, and used a Loose-flowered Orchid image from a dryer day the previous year…)

AP6I7375 edit O rheinholdii crop blogsizeFloodwater was becoming something of a theme of the day for, on our return towards our home village, we found a ford that had previously been merely tyre-deep was now a surging torrent rushing across the road. We paused, eyed it nervously, and decided discretion was the better part of valour – turning around, and taking a longer, but safer, route back home.

AP6I7336 edit Ornithagulum nutans crop blogsizeWith some daylight left to play with once back in the village, and with the blue sky finally reasserting itself over the island, we decided to explore the terraces near to the hotel. Whilst we found nothing new, this was a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Ophrys rheinholdii, sicula and omegaifera, more Giant Orchids Himantoglossum robertianum, and the delicate purple flowers of Orchis anatolica – not to mention the gorgeous, subtle flowers of Drooping Star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum nutans.

To say the day had been something of a washout would be to disguise the fact that we’d still managed to see no fewer than 13 species of orchid – which is none too shabby! That said, the challenging conditions meant we had only added two new species to the trip list. Tomorrow, we would have to try a little harder…

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (iii)

AP6I9754 edit Ophrys colossaea blogsizeAnother wet day dawned in Rhodes though, with a weather eye firmly on the local forecasts, we would not find our orchid hunting too badly impaired by the elements. We made the decision to swap coasts today, and struck east for an olive grove that harbours a scattered population of the simply magnificent Ophrys colossaea.

AP6I6711 Ophrys colossea var flavescens edit tweetsizeThe rain was still falling persistently when we arrived, so while the guests waited for it to ease I started to scout the grove beneath the shelter of my trusty travel umbrella, a piece of essential equipment that’s done me sterling service in Amazonian rain-forests and now, more incongruously, in the Mediterranean. I was pleased to find some good examples of O.colossaea in bloom, including one plant in particular – a pale and unusual variety that abhored the usual warm chocolate and pink tones of its kind.

AP6I1809 edit tweetsizeMany Serapias bergonii tongue orchids were to be found beneath the olive trees and, here and there, more spikes of the chequerboard-flowered O.rhodia, a species we’d last seen in the evening of our first day on the island. I had anticipated many more Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis here too, including white-flowered plants, as these had been numerous the previous year, but this year they were all still in tight bud.

AP6I6729 edit O calypso blogsizeWhile Yiannis and the group searched for other flowering plants at the head of the nearby beach I was a little distracted by Crested Larks at the edge of the sandy track that led to the shore, and whilst watching them I noticed the familiar form of Ophrys flower spikes growing in the verge at the edge of a vast puddle. Some careful footwork avoided wet feet and, once I was a little closer, I found more O.rhodia and a single flowering Ophrys calypso.

AP6I6769 Serapias bergonii drowned in floodwater edit tweetsizeThe tracks to our usual riverside site for the latter species were too muddy and slippery to risk taking the vehicles down, so we elected to walk in, picking our way carefully along them. The last time I’d visited this site the river was almost entirely absent, leaving a large stony plain just beneath the flat riverbank on which the orchids flourished. This year was a very different proposition indeed.

AP6I6923 Turkish Buttercup Ranunculus asiaticus edit tweetsizeThe river was a sheet of briskly flowing water that overlapped much of the riverbank itself, the abnormally high water level revealed by the sight of several S.bergonii forlornly rising from the water itself. I wondered what such prolonged submersion could possibly mean for their tubers – the strange weather of the past weeks and months was wreaking havoc with the flowering season.

AP6I6844 Serapias carica cream edit crop tweetsizeThe sun, by this point, had burned off the cloud that started the day, and we had no further use of waterproofs and umbrellas for the rest of the day. Lunch was taken at a site we visit annually – a junction of tracks in an otherwise unremarkable area of countryside, a mosaic of surrounding fields and groves of fruit trees. Appearances can be deceiving, though, as the immediate surroundings are bursting with orchids – and other flowers besides, including the poppy-red Persian buttercup Ranunculus asiaticus.

AP6I7035 edit Pink Butterfly Orchid tweetszieAmongst a scattered population of S.carica was another unusual variety, a single plant that eschewed the usual burgundy tones for a rich, creamy ivory colour instead. Nearby were many flowering O.heldreichii and, amongst them, single Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and a clump of Pink Butterfly Orchid A.papilionacea.

ap6i7028-serapias-carica-edit-tweetsizeA nearby olive grove looked promising, with many stands of S.carica growing lushly amongst the trees. I was, if I was honest, hoping to find another white example, but instead stumbled across a small population of a new Serapias for the week, Serapias parviflora, a diminutive and shy species that nestled deep within the surrounding grass.

AP6I7069 edit S parviflora blogsizeOlive groves were to be our final destination of the day, albeit one that was neither easy to approach nor, at first glance, remotely promising. The stony tracks that crisscrossed the area sported many large puddles we had to weave our way around but, in the end, deep water that swallowed our path entirely meant we had to abandon the vehicles at the roadside and continue the last approach on foot.

AP6I7119 edit O attaviria blogsizeThe olive grove in question had, to our horror, been ploughed, the earth around the trees completely turned over with only the very bases of the trees themselves remaining, in some instances, untouched. Where, the previous year, we had found swathes of orchids, this year there was just raw, churned soil. We persevered, having come this far, and in due course that diligence was rewarded with the discovery of first Ophrys attaviria and then many Ophrys blitopertha.

AP6I7165 Ophrys blitopertha edit tweetsizeBoth species were as plain as the earlier O.colossea and O.calypso had been gaudy and colourful but, when examined closely, they had a subtle and pleasing charm nonetheless. We stayed here for a good while, searching for more examples of their kind, bringing our daily tally of species to a respectable 14, with a good haul of new species amongst them.

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (ii)

IMG_2059 - CopyWe were up early in the morning of our second day on Rhodes, keen to make the best we could of our time on the island, and fired up by the previous day’s strong start to our orchid hunting. It had rained heavily again overnight, and I walked out of my room to find the oranges on the trees that shaded the windows dripping with water. Some fruit had been knocked to the floor – I took those for a mid-morning snack.

AP6I6242 regis ferdinandii edit blogsizeOur first stop was just outside the village, at the site I’d checked the previous evening. The main target here was a hybrid orchid, the hairy lovechild of two Ophrys orchids – Mirror O.speculum and King Ferdinand’s O.regis-ferdinandii. Many orchid hybrids are strikingly beautiful things, combining the best elements of both parents.

IMG_2038 - CopyWith the best will in the world, this ugly bug was not one of those hybrids! We preferred the relative elegance of the many King Ferdinand’s Orchids we found in the area – some growing at the very roadside. O.rheinholdii was numerous here too, also growing at the edge of the road where no other flowers dared tread.

AP6I6249 edit Ophrys heldreichii ssp polyxo blogsizeWe explored the immediate surroundings, mainly searching for a Mirror Orchid in good condition, or Ophrys mammosa – Matt reported having seen these here in the past. We could find neither, but more O.ferrum-equinum were a delight on the scree-like hillside, and I found our first lush examples of Ophrys heldreichii ssp.polyxo.

AP6I6575 edit Ophrys iricolor blogsizeWe headed towards the coast, altering our plans according to the weather forecast – it was due to be dry there today, if not later in the week, so we needed to make the most of the weather window. The journey was through clouds of Painted Lady butterflies, migrating north-west across the island into Europe, and crossing the road in vast clouds of hundreds per minute. It was a remarkable sight, and distracted us from sporadic roadside Black-headed Buntings and Woodchat Shrikes.

AP6I6267 Campanula rhodensis edit tweetsizeAn area of sand dune habitat was not particularly productive for orchids, with just Ophrys iricolor to show for our efforts, but abounded with wildflowers – Yiannis was in his element here, calling out new species after species. I had been looking forward to the site for the endemic Campanula rhodia I remembered carpeting the sandy ground and, sure enough, it was in full bloom again this year.

AP6I6297 edit Pyramidal Orchid blogsizeA nearby hillside covered in prickly, scratchy garrigue habitat was more productive for orchids, with more O.heldreichii scattered amongst many Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis and a handful of Pink Butterfly Orchids A.papilionacea. The latter were new for several of our group, whilst everyone was surprised by how pale the former were compared to their dark pink British counterparts.

AP6I6394 Ophrys cretica ssp beloniae edit tweetsizeWe had lunch at a nearby old chapel, sitting on the low walls in the warm sunshine to enjoy another buffet of delicious Greek cold snacks. I was delighted to return here as, the previous year, our visit had coincided with a torrential rainstorm that made orchid-hunting a fleeting experience for the guides only while our guests sheltered in the vehicles… an orchid hunt that revealed that the main target, Ophrys cretica ssp.beloniae, had finished flowering before we arrived. This year was a very different story indeed.

AP6I6427 edit Serapias carica crop blogsizeMany plants of O.cretica were in full bloom, sporting petals and sepals the colour of a ripe bruise and marvellous dark chocolate brown and silver lips. Amongst them were more King Ferdinand’s Orchids and our first tongue orchids of the tour, Serapias candica, with lascivious pointed burgundy tongues hanging from their blooms.

AP6I6367 edit Ophrys cornutula blogsizeNearby, underneath the shelter of a stand of bushes we discovered a colony of Ophrys cornutula, each flower with long, pointed horns rearing from the sides of the lip. If that weren’t enough for one lunch break, there was also another Anacamptis species, A.coriophora ssp.fragrans,  a beautiful wildflower with the unlovely English name of Bug Orchid.

AP6I7798 edit blogsizeOur final destination, where we would spend much of the afternoon exploring, was a favourite hillside of ours near to the coastal settlement of Prasonisi. If it had been productive in 2018 on my first visit to the island, it was an orchid wonderland the following year and, during our time quartering the hill, the discoveries came thick and fast.

AP6I2105 Violet Limodore edit tweetsizeMost unexpected of these were some Violet Limodores Limodorum abortivum growing in most atypical habitat – we normally associate them with woodland, yet here they were growing on an exposed hillside. More typical fare for this sort of garrigue habitat were the many Ophrys species we encountered. At the roadside we found more O.iricolor but, as we headed uphill, we found countless Ophrys parvula, a very subtle and small species indeed, and easily overlooked until one got one’s eye in.

AP6I6483 Fritillaria rhodia edit crop tweetsizeTo everyone’s delight, there were more O.cretica growing here, amongst nodding stands of the delightful small, chartreuse endemic fritillaries Fritillaria rhodia. These were not, however, what I was looking for. During the previous year I had found an isolated colony of a dramatic, large-flowered and colourful Ophrys on an otherwise unremarkable area of the hill, and it was these I hoped to re-find for my guests.

AP6I6542 Ophrys halia edit tweetsizeI’d taken the precaution of recording a GPS location for them, so was able to use my phone to direct me within 25 metres of them – the phone signal was dismally poor, so I could only rely on an approximate leg-up from technology! It was enough, though – a little scouring of the immediate area revealed first one and then a dozen more Ophrys halia, much to the delight of the group once they’d made the long walk up to my isolated perch high above the road.

AP6I6527 Ophrys cretica ssp beloniae edit tweetsizeWe’d recorded 14 species of orchid today, bringing our overall score up to 23 species in the space of two gentle-paced days. We could rush around and chase more numbers, but where would the fun be in that? We’d got time on our hands and wanted to appreciate what we were seeing, allowing time for photography and searching for more plants – everyone was finding something, to our collective delight.

It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but those O.cretica today took some beating…

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Rhodes Orchid Odyssey (i)

AP6I5887 Ophrys rheinholdii edit tweetsizeOur arrival on Rhodes was tumultuous, to say the least – we flew in on the wings of a violent storm that closed airports across the eastern Mediterranean, descending through black clouds towards the island before, to our dismay, being told our final approach to land had been aborted and we would be making, instead, for Athens. After some chaotic hours in the airport there courtesy of a disorganised and disinterested Ryanair, we finally boarded an overnight ferry to Rhodes – an island in the far eastern Mediterranean region that’s an orchid wonderland.

If we had lost an afternoon in the field, it was an afternoon that would have been deeply unpleasant – the island was lashed with wind and rain, the latest manifestation of a confused winter in the region that had delivered deeply unseasonable weather patterns playing out for weeks on end. Sunshine greeted us on the quayside and, with our vehicles awaiting our arrival, we were soon on the road and making up for lost time.

AP6I5906 edit Ophrys rheinholdii white wings edit tweetsizeWe made our way to Mount Attaviros, an orchidaceous destination only a short distance away from our hotel for the coming week. This is a favourite site of mine on the island, and it never fails to deliver good orchids – though no two visits are ever quite the same. A meadow on the lower elevations that was, in 2018, bursting at the seams with flowering plants was, in 2019, a pale shadow of its former self, appearing to have been heavily grazed. Any disappointment was completely outweighed by the abundance of orchids on the verges, where they were noticeably more abundant than hitherto. And what plants they were – drifts of Ophrys rheinholdii, dozens of plants, with velvety, fresh flowers in Guinness tones.

AP6I5743 Ophrys dodekanensis edit tweetsizeAmongst those ravishing hordes we found Ophrys dodekanensis, a more subtle bee orchid species that would normally have finished flowering by this point in the spring, with sepals of both cool white and bubblegum pink.

AP6I5818 Ophrys dodekanensis edit tweetsizeThese were a welcome surprise, and an early clue that the flowering season might be somewhat delayed – an impression reinforced by the asparagus-like appearance of Violet Limodores Limodorum abortivum – where in 2018 we found stands of glorious flowers, this year we could only see purple, spiky shoots bursting from the forest floor. We could however perhaps expect to see some species in the coming week that we might not normally encounter…

AP6I5967 Orchis anatolica edit crop tweetsizeThe banks of the road were carpeted with the sky blue of Lithodora hispidula and the snow white of the endemic Cyclamen rhodium, wildflowers that, whilst not orchids, were impossible to ignore. As we walked slowly up the mountainside the orchid flora changed, imperceptibly, those exotic O.rheinholdii giving way to the primitive flowers of Ophrys omegaifera. Rocky outcrops were dotted with many fine, delicately flowered Orchis anatolica.

AP6I5989 edit Neotinea maculata crop tweetsizeIn the forest understory were yet another orchid that should have finished flowering by now – the subtle, freckled forms of Dense-flowered Orchid Neotinea maculata. For a while it was hard to know which way to point the cameras, as a showy Eastern Festoon butterfly came and posed obligingly amongst us. This was spring-time nature watching at its Rhodian best.

AP6I2242 Eastern Festoon tweetsizeWe paused for a picnic lunch halfway up the mountain – the Greenwings founder, Matt, lives on the island so we were treated to delicious homemade Greek food courtesy of his mother in law, a welcome treat and fuel for the afternoon. We took our vehicles to where the tarmac ended, and a gravelled track continued up into the higher elevations of the mountain, pausing to assess the state of the unmade road. The previous day’s rain had left large puddles and there was evidence of some considerable passage of water – deeply eroded channels in the road surface here and there. We would go as high as we safely could, but would take no chances or risks.

IMG_3635Nor did we need to, for we climbed to a likely-looking area of habitat and, upon leaving the vehicles for a wander, began to find plenty more Orchis anatolica and, here and there, dramatic fossils on the occasional exposed rocky outcrops. Neither of these were, however, what we were hunting for here – that was a locally rarer orchid altogether, Neotinea lactea, and in time we found first one and then a second fine example of this compact and subtly beautiful orchid, with crisp, milky white flowers stippled with fine black cherry highlights.

AP6I6030 Orchis lactea edit tweetsizeWith a couple of hours remaining available to us in the afternoon, we decided to head back to the peaceful village on the outskirts of which our hotel rested. Yiannis (the other Greenwings guide) and I knew there ought to be a good selection of new orchids to be found nearby.

AP6I6105 Ophrys umbilicata edit tweetsizeIt was here, in 2018, that we found our first Ophrys candica, but once again the fickle seasons were to play tricks on us – O.candica was nowhere to be seen, apparently not yet in flower – though other familiars were exactly where we expected to find them, and in fabulous fresh condition – Ophrys rhodia, Ophrys umbilicata, and Ophrys ferrum-equinuum. The latter is always popular, with colourful flowers each sporting a shiny, metallic horseshoe. “Juicy…” as one of us was heard to murmur appreciatively.

AP6I6064 Ophrys ferrum equinuum edit tweetszieHigher up, we found another clue that suggested a confused flowering season – a fine example of the Giant Orchid, Himantoglossum robertianum, a very early-flowering species that had no business still being in bloom in early April – in 2018 the plants we found were mostly well on their way to setting seed. Some of the group were familiar with the Lizard Orchids Himantoglossum hircinum found (mainly) in Kent back home in the UK – these relatives of the Lizards look very different indeed to them, with richly patterned flowers that look a little like they’re wrought of melted wax.

AP6I7347 Himantoglossum robertianum edit blogsizeWe slowly headed back downhill towards the hotel, the prospect of a warm welcome, a cold beer for some, and a delicious evening meal now calling strongly. The orchids weren’t quite done with us though – on the very edges of the road, growing from the banks above a wheely bin in the village, we found the delicate chocolate brown and yellow flowers of Ophrys sicula, our eleventh species of orchid in a splendid first full day on the island.

AP6I9301 edit Ophrys sicula blogsizeWhile the guests settled in to their rooms before dinner, I headed out to the other side of the village for a little recce before the morning. I’d heard a rumour of a hybrid orchid on a hillside I’d not visited before, and wanted to see if I could find it and, furthermore, whether the site was worth visiting the following morning with the group for more orchids besides.

IMG_2013 - CopyAnd what did I find? You’ll have to wait for tomorrow morning, just like my guests…

 

NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak, that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.

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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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