Friday, 26 May 2017

Orchids On Parade

With there still being no birding action in the county or indeed anywhere within my twitching distance radius I once more resorted to orchids to dictate where I might go on my next nature trip. Homefield Wood nature reserve near Marlow in Bucks caught my eye as one of only three sites in the country to see the rare Military Orchid. Being only three quarters of an hour away this seemed like an ideal bijou tripette so it was that late morning on a hot and sunny Thursday I set off. I was expecting to be taken along the M40 all the way to High Wycombe by the Sat Nav but in the event she decided to bring me off early and to navigate me along the back roads of Buckinghamshire, which was an area that I didn't really know at all and which was surprisingly pleasant. The roads got narrower and narrower until eventually I was winding my way down a single track route through some Beech wood and then a short while later pulling up at the Homefield Wood parking area. 

Having done my pre-trip research I more or less knew where I was going and after a short walk of a couple of hundred yards or so I was turning off to a surprisingly small open area of unimproved grassland that was stuffed full of the usual flowers as well as dotted liberally about with orchids of various types. Many of the Militaries were within wire cages to prevent deer munching but some were unprotected, making for better photographic subjects. There were also quite a few Common Spotted and as well as Common Twayblades though these were tough to pick out amidst all the greenery. Over in the far corner and protected by plastic cages were a couple of Greater Butterfly Orchids. I wandered around in a contented manner, rummaging through the various flowers and taking periodic photos.

Military Orchids, so called because the flower looks like a man with top part supposedly being a knight's helmet

Greater Butterfly Orchid - distinguished from Lesser by the diverging pollen masses

The subtle Common Twayblades

Common Spotted Orchid
There was a path through the woodland on the far side down which I explored a bit, having been told that there were Fly Orchids down there. I couldn't find them myself but I did hear and even see a nice male Firecrest for my troubles. After about an hour and a half of wandering around I headed back to the car and chose to return via the same picturesque route. It had been an enjoyable trip to what was a new BBOWT reserve for me. I must say that I'm enjoying my orchid quest: it's giving me plenty to do during the normally quiet summer months, especially since I've now more or less "done" butterflies and dragonflies.

Friday, 19 May 2017

More Orchids at Parsonage Moor

Regular birder readers of this blog may well be getting a little fed up with the recent trend of botany posts but sadly for them, this is going to continue with this latest offering. The truth is that actually there's not much happening on the bird front for me a present: my local patch is all but dried up and birdless but with my new found interest in Orchids this is giving me an excuse to visit new locations and rummage around in the floral offerings. Actually this particular trip is a re-vist to Parsonage Moor as I came here a few years ago to catch up with the speciality Odonata including Southern and Small Red Damselfly and Keeled Skimmer. This time however it was Orchids that were on my mind, in particular the uncommon Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid which can be found at this location. So with the weather rather rainy this week, I seized on the one nice day to make a sortie out to Cothill where I was soon wandering along the track, armed with my wellies and entering the tiny reserve of Parsonage Moor. This is quite a unique reserve, especially for Oxon, offering as it does fenland habitat as well as some reedbeds and woodland. It's in fact like a whole series of different habitats in miniature and one can pass from one area to another in just a few strides. 

When I arrived I was fortunate enough to find a young woman there who was doing a plant survey for her masters degree and she quickly pointed me in the right area for the Orchids as well as identifying some of the local specialites for me - most helpful! She said that it was probably a bit early for the Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchids but in the end I found a couple in the main area. Wandering further afield I managed to turn up an Early Marsh-orchid as well but that was it on the Orchid front.

Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid
Early Marsh-orchid

There was lots of Marsh Lousewort about everywhere
Common Butterwort with distinctive pale starfish-shaped basal leaves

Marsh Valerian

Brooklime - I recognised this plant from Port Meadow where it is everywhere
There were apparently a few speciality grasses there as well and though I'm particularly crap at these, somehow I managed to pick them out without even knowing what I was looking for with some later internet identifications confirming that I'd found the right ones.

Black Bog-rush
The rare Long-stalked Yellow-sedge

Spike Rush agg
All in all I spent about an hour there rummaging around but as it was only twenty minutes from home it made a prefect little break from work. I shall certainly be back again to see what others plants I can find in this gem of a reserve.

Wayne Bull has directed my attention to this post here by Pixie Birder Stef Leese which states that actually these days all "Narrow-leaved" south of a line from the Wash to the Severn are now considered to be a sub-species of Southern Marsh. Oh well, I'm clearly going to have to make a visit to somewhere like Anglesy at some point to complete my Orchid list but for now this local one will make for a nice "place holder".

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Four Orchids and a Funeral

On Monday I had a funeral to attend to down in Southampton. Now, it wasn't someone that I was particularly close to - in fact I'd only met him a couple of times but I still felt that I ought to pay my respects. The night before I got to wondering if there was anything worthwhile to see on the way back home after the service so I started to do a bit of last minute research. There was no obvious birdage and with the rather dodgy weather forecast there wasn't going to be much in the way of insects to look at so that left plants. This was more weather independent and I soon came across a beech wood nature reserve called Chappetts Copse that was not too far away that was a very good spot for some interesting Orchid species. I did a bit of research and programmed the location into my Sat Nav. for the next day.

It was a rather fraught journey down where despite allowing a good margin for error I only arrived ten minutes before the service was due to start. Still he had a good send-off and it was actually quite interesting to learn all about his life during the various speeches. Afterwards I had time for a brief catch-up with the rest of my family before heading off. So it was that on a still-rainy afternoon I found myself navigating my way down increasingly narrow Hampshire country lanes to park up by a small track at the south end of the Chappetts Copse reserve. One nice thing about a beech wood is that it shelters you very nicely from the elements so whilst the weather did its worst outside, I was nicely cocooned in  a beautiful and magical twilight green world.

Chappetts Copse
Right from the beginning there were interesting woodland plants to see with Sanicle and Wood Ruff dotted about the place in amongst the ground cover.


Wood Ruff
As I walked along, keeping my eyes peeled for Orchids, I did rather wonder how easy they might be to find but I needn't have worried as I soon came to a clearing where there was loads of them. The speciality species here is Narrow-leaved Helleborine which turned out to be a gorgeously understated simple white flower - really beautiful and elegant with long fine leaves.

Narrow-leaved Helleborines
There were actually some White Helleborines in amongst the Narrow-leaved ones. You can tell them apart by the fact that the leaves on the Whites lie in one plane whereas the Narrow-leaved have leaves radiating in all directions. Also the Narrow-leaved leaves are of course much narrower and the bracts are much smaller than on the Whites where they come up past the base of the flowers

White Helleborine
White Helleborine
Another speciality of this location was Fly Orchid and fortunately each individual plant was marked with a yellow wooden post to avoid people treading on them which made them very easy to find.

Fly Orchid - the detail on the flower is absolutely amazing!
I was just busy photographing the Fly's when when I heard the distinctive song of a male Firecrest. Whilst this is quite a rare bird in Oxon, apparently in Hants there are around 2000 breeding pairs. I spent a few minutes trying to see it but it was well hidden in the canopy. Nevertheless, it's song accompanied me on a fair bit of my wanderings about the wood.

I'd now found three out of the four Orchid species already but the fourth, Bird's-nest Orchid, I was expecting to have more trouble with as they are such an inconspicuous colour. After wandering about the most likely area several times I was just stopping for a rest when I glanced down and there were half a dozen right by my feet!

The rather creepy Birds-nest Orchid
I could easily have passed several more hours in this wonderful other-worldly green-tinted place but sadly time was marching on so after one more circuit around the most productive area, I bade farewell to the Orchids and headed back to the car. I then retraced my route back to the A34 and onward back towards Casa Gnome. It had been a very pleasant little detour to a magical little reserve.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Orchids for Biggles

OK, I know it's a stupid title for a blog post but it's the title of a book that I read back when I was a boy. Biggles was a pilot who got up to all sorts of adventures with his friends Ginger and Algy and I really enjoyed the series back then. I do remember when I read this particular book that I didn't even know what an Orchid was, though I eventually worked out from the plot that it was some kind of flower. Fast forward to the present day and I realise that, whetted by my trip to Hartslock earlier this year, I'm starting to develop a taste for Orchids and can see why people list them. The thing about plants in general is that there are just so many of them it's quite overwhelming to think of starting a list for them (not that it's stopped me clocking up my first 500 or so). Orchids on the other hand are more manageable: there are fifty odd species apparently (so similar to butterflies) so it's more a question of logistics and going at the right time of year to each location. Now, I'm not formerly committing myself to doing the whole list but I thought that I'd at least try to see all the fairly local ones. Therefore I made some enquiries from local wildlife expert Wayne Bull (see his excellent blog here) and he pointed me in the right direction for a couple of early season ones, namely Early Purple Orchid and Green-winged Orchid. So this week I made a couple of trips to see them, carefully picking out the days with gorgeous sunny weather and on both occasions a great time was had.

The first location was to Sydlings Copse, just near Stanton St. John outside Oxford, a place that I'd heard of regularly but hitherto had never actually visited. The walk to the reserve itself was through open fields and I kept a keen eye out for arable-weed flora and managed to find a few flowers of interest tucked away in the corner of the fields. A Yellowhammer was singing in the hedgerow and Red Kites soared overhead and in the warm sunshine it was good to be out and about in the countryside. As I neared the reserve itself I heard a pheasant-like call that sounded a bit odd and I wondered idly whether it might be a Reeve's Pheasant which I knew could be found in the woods around this area.

There was lots of Bugloss about
I found just one specimen of this Charlock
A tiny Corn Spurrey

Field Pansy
The reserve itself turned out to be a fascinating mix of different habitats. To start with there was open broadleaved woodland which had me thinking of Wood Warblers though I suspect that the area was a bit small. Indeed that could be said for all the habitat areas: they were great but not very extensive. Then there was an area of unimproved grassland (where the Orchids were), an area of sandy heathland (a very rare habitat in Oxon that had me thinking of Tree Pipits) and in the bottom of the valley was a bog (a "Medieval Mire" apparently) which again is apparently a very rare habitat. All good stuff and I wandered around taking in all the sights and sounds with great enjoyment. I soon found the Early Purple Orchids which were perhaps past their best but still looking great in the sunshine.

Early Purple Orchids
Towards the bottom of the valley I came across a huge expanse of Ramsoms (or Bear Garlic)

There was lots of Yellow Archangel tucked away in the shadier places
There were a few Warblers singing away, mostly Garden Warblers and Whithroats from what I could hear, but apart from that it was fairly quiet though as it was mid afternoon this was probably to be expected. With time marching on I reluctantly tore myself away from what was a fascinating collection of miniature habitats and headed back towards the car. On the way back my suspicions about the Reeve's Pheasant were proved correct when this splendid chap turned up.

Reeve's Pheasant


My second trip was a few days later to Bernwood Meadows nature reserve, another BBOWT reserve that adjoins Bernwood Forest which I have often visited for butterflies. This consisted of a couple of open Meadows, surrounded by Blackthorn hedges where Black and Brown Hairstreaks can apparently both be found at the right time of year. In the warm sunshine there were Garden Warblers, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats singing everywhere and the gentle hum of early season insects. I passed a very pleasant hour or so wandering about, photographing the Orchids and looking out for any other wildlife of interest. 

Bernwood Meadows

The poetically-named Adder's Tongue Fern

Green-winged Orchids

Green-winged Orchids
A European Corn-borer Moth
Early Marsh Orchid
I'm starting to realise that there are lots of hidden gems in the form of the various local BBOWT reserves and it's most enjoyable getting to know them all. I wonder which one I'll visit next.