Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Local Botanising

I've been on various relatively local trips over the last few weeks looking for one flower or another so I thought that I'd write them all up under one post. The first one was a few weeks back now at the start of July when I went to Bald Hill, near Aston Rowant, to look for Frog Orchids. Never having been there before, I started off looking in the wrong field until a call to my go-to orchid guru Wayne put me straight. I found one almost immediately but try as I might I couldn't find any more and later on couldn't even re-find my original one though I think that by that time I'd gone grass-blind from staring at all the greenery for so long!

My one Frog Orchid
The Yellow-wort was just coming into flower...
...whereas this Chalk Fragrant Orchid was just going over

My next trip was just over the border to the ancient hill fort at Ladle Hill in Hants. This was supposed to be a good site for Burnt-tip Orchid and even though it was rather late for this species, having been told that at this location they were the late flowering July variety I thought that I'd give it a punt. It was a very interesting location and covered in flowers of all varieties but try as I might I couldn't find any Burnt-tips at all. I did manage to find a few other things of interest and it was good to acquaint myself with a new location so I was happy enough.

Clustered Bellflower.
Not Autumn Gentian as I mistakenly posted - thanks to Ian Elkins & Steve Gale for the correction
Dwarf Thistle
There were plenty of Pyramidal Orchids
My last trip was a sortie to a location north of Oxford. Having had a tip-off from Wayne I ventured forth one eventing with the family in tow. I dropped most of them off at Sainsbury's for a shop whilst our son L and I headed off to a remarkably non-descript farmland area to pay homage to the rare Downy Woundwort that was now in flower. The actual location itself was full of all sorts of wild flowers and I would have loved to have spent some time rummaging around but as we had to return to pick up the others from their shopping expedition, in the end it was a very quick visit.

Nettle-leaved Bellflower
Wild Basil
Woolly Thistle
The Downy Woundwort - very downy indeed but already past its best
There was a little small one as well which was even more downy
I'm just starting to appreciate how Oxon, whilst being rather poorly located for birds, its actually quite well situated for plants. So expect a few few more of these local botany posts to come.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Durham Run, Summer 2017

It was time for the second university run of the summer, this time up to Durham to fetch Daughter Number One back down. This year both daughters had lingered for a week or more at their respective universities and whilst this has meant that I was too late for the Fen Orchids at Kenfig, it did also means that I was going to be a bit later up to the North East. Now, a couple of years ago at this time I'd visited Bishop Middleham quarry to look for Northern Brown Argus (see write-up here) and in passing had found some yet to flower Dark Red Helleborines. Now with my new found interest in orchids I was keen to pay another visit and this extra couple of weeks meant that this time it was more likely that they would actually be in flower. So that was my main target for the trip but there was also the small matter of the flock of up to 7 European Bee-eaters that had turned up in the Midlands near Loughborough. This was very much en route by anyone's standards so it seemed rude not to pop in and pay my respects on the way. I'd also made note of another stop-off, namely a first summer Sabine's Gull that was lingering up in Yorkshire at Nosterfield reservoir which was also just off the main route north. So with my itinerary planned, on Thursday last week I sallied forth on my way up north. 

Things didn't start too well, I left at some time after 9 a.m. only to find a huge set of roadworks out of Oxford which took a good twenty minutes to get through. I then nipped into the petrol station to buy a sandwich for lunch only to discover that I'd left my wallet behind so it was back home through the roadworks once more and then back again so it was getting on for an hour later by the time that I finally left Oxford behind me. I'd made a mental note of the turn-off for the Bee-easter and it wasn't until I'd reached Junction 24 that I switched on the Sat Nav. It was only about 15 minutes or so from there to the large RSPB-manned field that had been set aside for parking and I was soon turning in, parking and tooling up. I paid my £5 fee and walked along the busy road to the start of the bridleway where in the distance I could soon see the lone Ash tree that the birds favoured as well as the twitch line.

The Quarry. You can see the lone Ash tree on the left, and just make out the twitchers on the right
Five minutes walk found me at the end of the path where a modest throng of upwards of fifty people were assembled.

The crowd
Not long after I arrived the birds were seen low down in a hedgerow in front of us. It was very difficult to see the birds due to their low elevation and various people's heads kept getting in the way but I managed some record shots of them in the gloomy conditions before they flew off.

First views were rather distant

The birds were first discovered a few days ago and what's more had been seen mating so, given their location, there was some speculation that they may well stay and breed. Historically quarries have been the preferred breeding location for this species in the UK and in fact in 2002 they had bred successfully at Bishop Middleham Quarry where I was heading later on in the day. I'd first seen this species in this country on the Isle of Wight in 2014 (see here) though the views then had been frankly piss poor and lack lustre so I was keen to get better views of this colourful species.

In the crowd I soon bumped into Peter Law and Jim Hutchins from Oxon and we nattered away whilst waiting for the return of the birds. After perhaps half an hour or so a single bird was spotted, this time to their favoured tree, a lone Ash tree. From this vantage point the bird would fly up and pluck some hapless bee out of the air before returning to its perch to eat the insect at its leisure. Despite the gloomy conditions it seemed to have no difficulty finding prey.

Digiscoped Bee Eater
After a while a second bird appeared and it too caught insects regularly and easily.

Two Bee-eaters

The birds were still on show when I decided that I should head off. I had a long way to go still and after my delayed start I wanted to crack on. So I headed back to the Gnome mobile and retraced my way to the M1 and continued on north.

Time passed and the miles slipped slowly by. As I got to Yorkshire I started to think about whether I wanted to stop off at Nosterfield for the Sabine's Gull. Due to my late start time was marching on so in the end I decided not to bother and instead headed on to Junction 60 where my turn-off for my second quarry of the day was. It was only ten minutes or so off the motorway and I was pulling in at the familiar layby next to the small gem of a reserve that is Bishop Middleham Quarry.

It had clearly just finished raining quite heavily as everything was coated in rain drops and quite a few of the flowers, especially the numerous Common Rock Rose, appeared to have taken a battering. The reserve was as beautiful as I remember it and I wandered about taking it all in. When I'd first visited a couple of years ago I was only just starting to get into Botany whereas now I was more familiar with what I was looking at though I still very much consider myself a beginner. There were loads of Common Spotted Orchids dotted about the place and Wild Thyme was everywhere you looked. I soon found my first Dark Red Helleborine though it was still tightly in bud and I began to wonder if I was still a week or so too early. Over in the butterfly hotspot that I remembered from last time, I did chance upon a roosting butterfly that appeared from it's underwing pattern to be a Northern Brown Argus.

roosting Northern Brown Argus
After a while I wandered down to the quarry floor itself where I soon found a lot more Helleborines. In fact this seemed to be the main area for them and fortunately some of them were just about fully out in flower.

The quarry floor
Common Spotted Orchid


Common Twayblades

Dark Red Helleborine

Dark Red Helleborine

Dark Red Helleborine

Fragrant Orchid species, perhaps Marsh?
Northern Marsh Orchid
Pyramidal Orchid
After I felt that I'd covered the whole of the quarry floor area I nipped over to where I'd seen the Moonwort last time though despite reasonably extensive searching I couldn't find any this time. 

With time marching on now and having pretty much seen all I wanted to, I headed back to the car. Whilst I'd made some provisional plans to visit some of the other nearby DWT reserves as well, it was getting rather late so I gave my daughter a call and then headed back towards the motorway, arriving in Durham itself some half an hour later. Then it was a chance to catch up on my daughter's news as well as to catch up on cups of tea that I'd missed during the drive up north. She had a friend's graduation dinner to attend so I ordered a take-away and caught up on some of this year's Glastonbury acts on the iPlayer. She was back reasonably early and with a spare bed in her room we soon settled down for the evening.

The next day was just a case of packing the car and heading off home. As we were both Gluten-free now, we found a new café which did GF sandwiches (and rather nice GF cup-cakes as well!) to take with us for the journey home. The journey itself was uneventful and we arrived back at Casa Gnome mid-afternoon with the whole Gnome family back together again for the first time in a while. It had been a productive trip up north with some nice things to see to make the long slog worthwhile.

Bedraggled Meadow Crane's-Bill

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Kenfig Orchids

June is the month for fetching my two daughters back from University though it is of course also often a rather poor month for birding so I am rather thankful that my relatively new found interest in botany gives me something to do in the summer months. Daughter Number 2 was ready to come back last week from Swansea so I hunted around for things to look at en route and soon came up with Kenfig Nature Reserve, which is one of only two sites in the country where you can see Fen Orchids. That made for a great trip target and I made some on-line enquiries and a helpful gent told me exactly where to go to find the main dune slack where the orchids were located. So on Friday 23rd I set off on the familiar route west towards Wales.

The weather got steadily worse as I headed westwards and as I pulled into the car park of the reserve the rain started to come down. This was a real shock to the system after the prolonged period of really hot sunny weather that we'd been having and I was thankful that I'd brought my waterproofs and fleece with me. I got kitted up and then carefully headed off, following the mental map in my head of where to go. Without instructions it would be very easy to get lost in such a big area of dunes and I didn't want to spend ages blundering around not knowing where to look for the orchids.

Along the path I soon started coming across some Southern Marsh Orchids as well as various other interesting plants. After less than ten minutes walk I turned off the main path to the main dune slack area. For those who aren't familiar with this geographical term, a dune slack is a low lying depression within a dune system between the dune ridges, where water accumulates. This damp area is ideal for orchids and as soon as I found it I was confronted with a vast area that was just covered with orchids and wild flowers of all kinds. It was wonderful!

The main dune slack, about the size of two football pitches
The grass was full of orchids and flowers of all kinds
Southern Marsh Orchid
Common Spotted Orchid

Marsh Fragrant Orchid - now considered to be a full species rather than just a sub-species of Fragrant Orchid
Marsh Helleborines were everywhere

The bright red "coccinea" subspecies of Southern Marsh Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid
My main target of course was the Fen Orchid and I diligently started searching through all the other plants. I knew that these were a rather small colourless orchid and so would be hard to find. It was also rather late in the season and I did wonder if the extreme heat wave that we'd been having the previous week might have finished them all off for the year but unfortunately this was when my daughter had needed picking up so I hadn't been able to come any earlier. I searched long and hard through all the flowers and did get quite excited when I finally found this colourless orchid:

Just a Common Twayblades!
However, I soon realised that it was actually just a Common Twayblades (the only one that I found). In the end I had to give up and admit defeat. Either I just didn't have my eye in, or I was looking in the wrong place (I don't think so though) or they'd all gone over already but try as I might I just couldn't find any. Oh well, there's always next year! I wasn't too disappointed as I'd seen a great variety of wonderful orchids in a very interesting habitat that I didn't get to explore too often. With time marching on I headed back to the car, admiring the flora as I went.

Viper's Bugloss
Meadow Thistle - sorry about my hand but the wind meant that it was impossible to take a photo otherwise
Bog Pimpernel

The rest of the trip was rather mundane. I picked up my daughter, we packed the car, bought some sandwiches for the journey back and the return leg was uneventful. Still I'd discovered a great new nature reserve which was just a short distance off the motorway to Swansea and so now had yet another great piece of habitat to visit on my welsh visits. Maybe next year I'll also get to see the Fen Orchids!

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Windsor Hill Red Helleborine

Any serious orchid hunter at some point has to go on an organised trip to see Red Helleborine. This plant, whilst relatively common on the continent, is right at the northern edge of its range in this country and there are only three sites where it grows here. The nearest one to me is Windsor Hill Nature Reserve, a permit-only BBOWT reserve where this species is still just hanging on. Having learnt about it earlier in the year I sent an e-mail asking if I could be informed of the next open day there. I was told that whether an open day would happen at all would depend on if there was actually a flowering spike but fortunately a few weeks later I got back news that there was one flower on show so a visit was on. Initially arranged for the 7th July, the date was brought forward some two and a half weeks as the sunny weather had brought it into flower earlier than expected. Thus it was that on Tuesday of last week I made my way into deepest darkest Buckinghamshire to rendezvous at 2 p.m. with a small band of orchid enthusiasts. There were a little more than a dozen people there and it was interesting to see the contrast with the people whom one would normally meet on a birding trip. In general there was less of a variation in age (I was actually one of the youngest people there!) and there were far more women than you'd expect on a typical bird twitch. They were quite a chatty bunch and I was soon talking plant ID's and orchid hunting with a couple of them whilst waiting for our guide to start things off. The guide was a relatively young chap called Mark who knew his stuff and seemed to be as obsessed with nature as I am. He guided us along the track until we came to a halt in the middle of a wooded section. It seemed that we were going to go severely "off piste" as the next bit involved a scramble up a rather steep bank with no obvious path at all. Mark explained that it was deliberately kept like this to stop orchid stealers finding the spot too easily. There was a rather elderly lady in our party who needed quite a bit of help in getting up the slope but somehow she managed it. We then skirted along the slope for a short distance until we came to a fenced off area which was where the orchid was located. Here we split up into two groups: one half walking a few yards down the steep slope to photograph the Red Helleborine, whilst the others stayed a bit higher up listening to the guide talk about it. After a while we swapped over though there was no real issue with viewing at all and everyone had plenty of time. The Helleborine was just about the only flower on view in the enclosure apart from a single Nettle-leaved Bellflower. It was a few metres from the fence edge but thankfully with my superzoom camera I was able to get some reasonable shots though it was a bit of a balancing act keeping upright on the steep slope whilst trying to take a photograph.

The Red Helleborine

We were told that this was actually the only Red Helleborine flower in the entire country this year with the Gloucestershire site not having any flowering spikes and the Hants one not having produced any plants for a few years now. BBOWT were still trying to work out what conditions the plants ideally like and were experimenting with shade and cutting back the surrounding foliage. With just one flower in the entire country it was a definite rear-guard battle though I hope that they manage to get it sorted in the end.

Trying to photograph the orchid on a steep slope

The view

After a while we moved on to some unimproved grassland in a more open area and spent a while doing some botanising there. It was full of the usual plants and had I been on my own I'd have spent some time there rummaging around but all too soon it was time to head back to where we'd parked.

On the way back our guide pointed out some Hairy Rock-cress

Back by the roadside there was a Common Spotted Orchid, tucked in amongst some tall grasses
Back at the cars we said our goodbyes and headed off. On the way home I nipped into Sydlings Copse as I'd been told that morning that the Lizard Orchid was now in full flower. A quick yomp across the fields brought me back to what is fast becoming one of my favourite places to visit. The Lizard Orchid was indeed in full flower and very striking it looked too!

As time was marching on I didn't linger but just did a lighting tour of the grassy area before heading back to the car and home for a celebratory cup of tea.

A rather striking Sainfoin, just starting to go over