Aquatic Warbler at Beeding Brooks in the Adur Valley, West Sussex – 12th Sep

Some bird content at last! This was in conventional birding parlance a “blocker removed”, or in my own particular speak a fallen long-term straggler. By the idiosyncratic criteria by which I judge such things the much sought lifer of this post was until now one of a group of seven most likely British list additions within my preferred travel range. But converting Aquatic Warbler is not that simple.

How so? Formerly an expected item of any national autumn passage, the potential to experience Aquatic Warbler (see here) has shrunk in parallel with its more recent status as Europe’s rarest migratory and only globally threatened passerine. This medium-sized Acrocephalus winters only in Senegal and arrives on it’s European breeding grounds in April. Those are largely confined to Poland and Belarus that hold around 70% of breeders, and there is a fragment population in Lithuania. The global population is now no more than 21,000 pairs. The species reverted from BBRC scarcity to rarity description level in 2014, since when the annual handful of English records have almost all been trapped and ringed individuals that were not seen again upon release.

Aquatic Warbler © Hamlyn Publishing

It is dependence on a rather specialised and vulnerable wetland breeding habitat, prone to loss through drainage that has caused AW’s decline. This bird favours open, wet marshland with scattered bushes or trees, and has a requirement for sedge fen mires with a water depth of 5-10 cm. Conversion of coastal marshes to nature reserves, with habitat restructuring that does not suit AW, is said to have similarly contributed to reduced British sightings in recent times. Return passage begins in June with movement of juveniles such as today’s bird, south-west along the English coast peaking in late August and early September. In contrast with recent years the last two weeks have produced two twitchable items in south-east England. The first, also a juvenile at Landguard NNR in Suffolk on 30th Aug, stuck around for less than four hours in the afternoon and early evening.

When the second bird was reported inland in Sussex, to the north of Shoreham and the village of Upper Beeding (BN44 3WN – TQ 190113) on Sunday (10th), I assumed it’s stay would be similarly brief. But I really should have checked RBA on Monday morning. Instead I kicked myself after remembering to do so in the early afternoon, and found this must-see was still present and had been viewed at intervals to 12:40pm. That carelessness showed how out of the twitching habit I had become this year, but probably also that I must have been doing too much wildlife stuff alone again recently. And so I sought company for this venture, if it could be rescued.

As things transpired I was not the only Oxon birder to have been a little slow off the mark. Regular colleagues Adam and Ewan both said they were planning to go for the Aquatic on Tuesday’s first news, so we agreed to rendezvous near M40 Oxford services. Our quest was reported twice more through the afternoon and early evening, then again at dusk. With that my gut feeling grew that this was THE lifetime opportunity to convert an almost mythical straggler, and I was quietly confident of success.

Setting off at around 08:40 on 12th, we were re-assured by further RBA, Bird Guides and WhatsApp alerts at intervals through our 110 mile journey; then arrived on-site around 11 am. The location was a sloping bank of the River Adur below a narrow footpath through long grass and sedge (pictured below), along which up to 30 birders were spread out at intervals. Adam called the Aquatic Warbler soon after we arrived and I too noticed the brief movement into deep cover he was referring to.

It’s in there somewhere … today’s river side site

At that everyone present converged upon the spot and almost total silence ensued for around 20 minutes as the gathering waited for the renowned skulker to re-emerge. When it did I saw clearly a second movement, then a thrill coursed through me upon picking out the Aquatic’s distinctive head pattern as it crept about low down in the habitat. That was mission accomplished personally, and as the bird flew up and away again everybody saw it so all the tension evaporated from the situation. Such to-ings and fro-ings continued for the rest of the morning and I was pleased with the repeated views gained.

Today’s Aquatic Warbler (juv) © and courtesy of Joe Tobias

I had expected a typical warbler twitch of staring for long periods at dense vegetation waiting for the quest to come out. But this bird was quite mobile around its adopted patch, though always fast moving. The stand out features of Aquatic Warbler are a quite bright yellowish-buff toning and the very strong head pattern with a thick, pale supercilium and whitish crown-stripe. Both were readily apparent as our bird moved around today. A flattened forehead and strong, pointed bill also mark the species out, while the upper parts are more heavily streaked than the familiar Sedge Warbler. Juvenile AW do not display streaking on the breast.

After an hour of activity on the bird’s part it went to deep cover again and was not seen for a similar period of time. So all three of us being satisfied with our experience we decided to leave. Neither myself or Adam, for whom this rarity was also a lifer, could quite believe how easily we had added it to our career lists in the end. But this instance was testimony to something I have faith in that sooner or later these things will turn up within range. It is just a matter of waiting, in this case for many years and I now feel hugely relieved and content to have converted such a prime target today. Aquatic Warbler is my 380th British bird.

The fickle Frog Orchid finally falls + Autumn and Chiltern Gentians at Aston Rowant NNR, Oxon – 21st Aug

This debut season’s most difficult even frustrating subject is by some distance the miniature and inconspicuous Frog Orchid, that for the sharper-eyed may be found along the Chiltern escarpment on both sides of Aston Rowant NNR and also at NT Watlington Hill. I had seen one on a single previous occasion at the first site in 2021, and so possessed a picture to refer to, but my basic reference the Creed & Hudson Berks, Bucks & Oxon guide (see here) recommends the second as the best place to find them from June to August.

Starting at the latter in early July, I was advised they are tricky little things that blend in with even short-sward surrounding vegetation, and rarely appear in the same place year upon year. Sightings online all seemed to stress how difficult they are to pick out, but that once spotted the observer may soon be rewarded with more. Cue those early evening stomps around Watlington Hill, without success that produced the rather more visible fungi of two posts ago. Oxon wildlife colleague Wayne at this point suggested I transfer attention to Bald Hill (SU722960) on the south side of Aston Rowant NNR, where especially small 3 – 7cm specimens may occur right through August.

Two searches there on 15th and 17th left me none the wiser, though a person who follows this blog contacted me to say they were present. It was time to enlist expert assistance and so I arranged to meet Wayne on site this morning (21st). He enjoys a certain reputation for Orchid finding in county wildlife circles. Sure enough he had turned up four specimens by the time I arrived, and 19 were counted before we left, the best being pictured above.

All were indeed small but I nonetheless felt I should have picked out some of the better ones on those earlier visits, even allowing for my companion’s prowess. The tone of the 5 – 25 flowers on stems up to 20 cm (in other places), varies from yellowish-green through pink to reddish brown, and these are said to suggest the hind legs of a frog. Sources I have consulted agree that a resemblance to those amphibians is a stretch of the imagination, but the left hand image (above) is possibly the most frog-like overall of those observed today. Here (below) are a few more.

This is a widespread but patchily distributed plant across the British Isles and mainland Europe, but in steep decline due to habitat loss from conversion of pasture to arable land, possibly more so than any other Orchid. Though tuberous it propagates almost entirely from seed with little vegetative spread, so the drought of a year ago would not have helped their cause. In southern England they favour chalk and limestone habitats, such as today’s location. As I was told at the start of their season it is a short-lived species of which many plants die out after just one year above ground. So all in all it is indeed a tricky, perhaps fickle little number and one I now feel very pleased to have recorded in my home county.

On the second visit my attention was caught by numbers of Gentian at the western end of the south-facing hillside here. My Seek app ID’d these variously as Field and Autumn Gentian, then failed to distinguish some scarce and much sought Chiltern Gentian further east along the slope. On reading things up I learned the paler Field Gentian is unlikely either this far south or in the habitat, and in any case has four petals per flower to the other two’s five. Erring on the side of caution I at first assumed all the plants I had seen were the commoner Autumn species, thinking the differences between it and Chiltern (see here) were subtler than they actually are.

With Wayne’s guidance I have now gained a proper education on these iconic plants that bring many wild flower enthusiasts to Aston Rowant NNR. Rather than go into detailed dissection of flower components I will let the above two pictures (taken on 17th) illustrate the difference as they clearly do. Surveying the hillside back from the Frog Orchid end on 21st we found good numbers more Chiltern Gentian, the highly localised county flower of Bucks, the blooms of which stand out as being larger and wider when open. In bud the brown and cream tones of Chiltern is also quite distinctive, as in the last two images of the following sequence. This wet summer is clearly a good season for both species.

The overdue conversion of Frog Orchid pretty much concludes this journal’s first serious Orchid hunting season. They really aren’t that much to look at, are they? But the satisfaction from such a difficult result is possibly in inverse proportion, so there’s another slippery slope! My year’s tally in approximate order of appearance is:

  1. Giant Orchid – undisclosed site (Oxon)
  2. Green-winged Orchid – Bernwood Meadows (Bucks), Asham Meads (Oxon), Wendlebury Meads (Oxon)
  3. Early Purple Orchid – Sydlings Copse (Oxon)
  4. Heath Spotted Orchid – Woodside Meadows (Oxon)
  5. Early Marsh Orchid – Lye Valley (Oxon), Parsonage Moor (Oxon)
  6. Military Orchid – Homefield Wood (Bucks)
  7. Fly Orchid – Homefield Wood (Bucks), Warburg Reserve (Oxon)
  8. Greater Butterfly Orchid – Homefield Wood (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks), Warburg Reserve (Oxon), Hornleasow Roughs (Glos)
  9. White Helleborine – Homefield Wood (Bucks), Grangelands (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks)
  10. Common Twayblade – Homefield Wood (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks)
  11. Common Spotted Orchid – Homefield Wood (Bucks), Grangelands (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks), Clattinger Farm (Wilts), Tuckmill Meadow (Oxon), Woodside Meadows (Oxon), Lye Valley (Oxon), Hornleasow Roughs (Glos), Parsonage Moor (Oxon), Sydlings Copse (Oxon), Dry Sandford Pit (Oxon), Watlington Hill (Oxon)
  12. Chalk Fragrant Orchid – Grangelands (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks), Woodside Meadows (Oxon)
  13. Bird’s Nest Orchid – Warburg Reserve (Oxon), Pulpit Hill (Bucks)
  14. Burnt Orchid – Clattinger Farm (Wilts)
  15. Southern Marsh Orchid – Clattinger Farm (Wilts), Tuckmill Meadow (Oxon), Parsonage Moor (Oxon)
  16. Pyramidal Orchid – Hornleasow Roughs (Glos), Grangelands (Bucks), Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks), Sydlings Copse (Oxon), Watlington Hill (Oxon)
  17. Lizard Orchid – undisclosed site (Oxon)
  18. Bee Orchid – Farmoor Reservoir (Oxon)
  19. Marsh Helleborine – Lye Valley (Oxon), Dry Sandford Pit (Oxon)
  20. Musk Orchid (gone over) – Grangelands (Bucks)
  21. Broad-leaved Helleborine – Aston Clinton Ragpits (Bucks), Warburg Reserve (Oxon)
  22. Violet Helleborine – Warburg Reserve (Oxon)
  23. Autumn Lady’s-tresses – Greenham Common (Berks)
  24. Frog Orchid – Bald Hill (Oxon)

Not found:

  • Marsh Fragrant Orchid – Lye Valley (Oxon), Dry Sandford Pit, Parsonage Moor and Cothill Fen (Oxon)
  • Lesser Butterfly Orchid – Warburg Reserve (Oxon)
  • Narrow-lipped Helleborine – Grangelands (Bucks), Warburg Reserve (Oxon), Aston Rowant NNR (Oxon)
  • Green-flowered Helleborine – Lambridge Wood (Oxon)

The Autumn Lady’s-tresses of Greenham Common, Berks + late season Oxon and Bucks Helleborines: 27th June – 15th Aug

The last Orchid to bloom in any season, just when most others have gone over is the diminutive and delicate Autumn Lady’s-tresses. After pictures of them began to appear on Facebook, I went to check out what is reputedly England’s largest colony at Greenham Common in neighbouring Berkshire on 15th, in company with Ewan. BBOWT directs visitors to an area 100 metres east of the site’s control tower car park (RG19 8DB – SU 499650), where upon our arrival these plants were not difficult to locate. Once our eyes were in there just seemed to be more and more of them, all around.

A sea of Autumn Lady’s-tresses

Thousands of this fascinating little number might erupt across short-sward areas of the former military airfield if conditions are right in August and September, but this Orchid is also prone to dormancy for seasons on end before re-appearing in even greater numbers. 2023 is as I expected in a wet high summer a prolific year, following on from the drought of 12 months ago. The sheer quantity of emergent plants here today matched my experiences earlier this year of Heath Spotted Orchid at Woodside Common, Oxon (see here) and Chalk Fragrant Orchid at Aston Clinton Ragpits, Bucks (here). Great care was required in selecting best items to take pictures of without trampling upon nearby, less photogenic subjects.

The tuberous Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) is characterised by up to 25 tiny bell-shaped white flowers splashed with pale-greenish yellow, growing spirally around 10 – 20 cm grey-green stems. The petals are covered in short white hairs. It is a resemblance upon close inspection to braids of plaited hair that gives the plant its name. This was the first British Orchid to be recorded in the 16th century, actually 1548 when braiding of men’s hair would no doubt have been less known than today.

Autumn Lady’s-tresses

ALT grows mostly in southern England, sporadically elsewhere in open, neither too dry or moist locations such as short-grazed meadows, heaths, dunes, cliff tops or calcareous grassland. The single, upright flowering stem appears from the side of a flattened rosette of pointed, bluish-green leaves. Those wither before flowering time, when the blooms’ delicate fragrance attracts pollinating, night-flying insects. The species also occurs across much of continental Europe and adjacent areas of north Africa and Asia.

The subtle, under-stated beauty of this old-fashioned plant, unchanged or hybridised over eight centuries since those earliest English records, possibly needs to be beheld to appreciate properly. It is the spiral nature of the blooms and likeness to braided hair that is perhaps most alluring. Autumn Lady’s-tresses: what an evocative name! Such an enduring proliferation here and now on the site of a former cold-war military facility that will forever be associated with potential for mass destruction in the not so distant past, may be testimony that nature in the end and whatever the setbacks will prevail. And that is something I have faith in very firmly!

After my spring ramblings around local Orchid-filled, ancient flower meadows this year and the enlightenment that such places exist, I rather lost enthusiasm for searching out the residual species to record as June progressed. Most of those locally comprised five of the nine British Epipactis Helleborines that bloom from July into August. These subtly different Orchids grow in open spaces in woodland on calcareous soils and are often found in damp environments. All are characterised by long, skinny stems of small, subtly-toned flowers.

Marsh Helleborine

The first to announce themselves were Marsh Helleborine (pictured above) that I observed at both of Oxford’s calcareous fenland sites: the alkaline spring-fed Lye Valley LNR on 27th June, then BBOWT Dry Sandford Pit on 4th July. This plant, as the name suggests favours such wet, marshy habitats that may be flooded during winter and retain high moisture levels through summer. Described as scarce in the British Isles, they grow from 30 to 50cm tall with loose clusters of up to 20 whitish and pink or purple flowers facing mostly to one side suspended on reddish stems.

Broad-leaved Helleborine

After returning from my mid-July trip to Provence I saw on Facebook that Broad-leaved Helleborine (pictured above) was viewable at Aston Clinton Ragpits (HP22 5NF – SP888107). Having already recorded that favourite site of the season’s seven other Orchid species this one would complete the set. It is the most common and widespread member of the epipactis group, growing in and around deciduous woodland particularly of Beech. Individual stems can grow up to a metre tall with as many as 100 flowers that might range in colour between pink, shades of purple and pale green. I located them at the far edge of the wooded area adjacent to the site entrance, and finding the first-time sighting more interesting than I had imagined my motivation for this project became restored.

Violet Helleborine

It still remained to experience three more new Helleborines, of which Violet and Narrow-lipped have occurred historically at BBOWT’s Warburg Reserve (RG9 6BJ – SU721 878) near Henley, and the smaller Green-flowered at nearby Lambridge Wood (SU731843). I visited both sites on 7th Aug and several Violet Helleborine (pictured above) at the first one were impressive plants indeed. Closely related to Broad-leaved, these deep shade lovers may also grow to a metre high though the greenish-white flowers are less variable in colour. The stems and leaves may both be tinted purple, giving the plant its name. This once widespread, notably long-lived Orchid has undergone serious national decline over the past 160 years and now only survives in ancient woodland such as this.

The acting Warburg warden advised that though the reserve is still cited for Narrow-lipped Helleborine, few if any remain. Another site speciality, Lesser Butterfly Orchid has also not been recorded in 2023. And on 7th I also failed to find Green-flowered Helleborine where I had been advised to look in Lambridge Wood, though that last item is said to appear until early October. Finding these less profuse things in the field is clearly an imprecise art.

A scarce Amanita spectacle and some Rock Rose associated Boletes on NT Watlington Hill, Oxon: 3rd – 11th Aug

After such a wet July the fungi season may have started early this year. I include posts on the fascinating “fifth order” sparingly herein, since mycology is such a highly complex and scientific field involving continuous discussion and expert re-classification of so many similar species. Hence I limit coverage to more stand-out items, and this discovery at one of my favourite local stomping grounds fits the bill.

In the first week of August, while making a final failed attempt to find Frog Orchid on Watlington Hill (SU705934) my attention was caught by groups of large and rather stately, creamy-toned mushrooms that my Seek app ID’d either as Grisette (Amanita vaginata) or the unrelated Stubble Rosegill. But the former is normally a woodland species, while the latter though a good match visually is described as occurring on arable stubbles after harvesting, muck piles or heavily fertilised grassland. Why should either be present so significantly on a calcareous hill-top?

Amanita malleata

Consulting an informed local source I was directed to Amanita malleata that has been reported in England only here and at one other site in the Derbyshire Peak District, though it could be undiscovered elsewhere. I visited twice in two days, having gone out minus a SD-card on the first, exploring more widely on the second day when the scarcity announced itself more and more in all stages of its fruiting cycle (pictured below). The epithet malleata comes from the Latin meaning hammered, arising from indentations in the crown that are evident in the first two images. To my mind this approaches the Oxon Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) spectacle at North Leigh Common (see here), though not on quite the same scale.

Amanita malleata

My understanding is the then unknown Amanita came to the attention of local mycologists in 2006, though it had first been described at the site in 1988 / 89. Consultation with experts abroad eventually led to the mystery item being named as A malleata some five years later, after much deliberation. Data on what is a member of the A vaginata group has been published from Italy, France and Spain, and it is not thought to occur beyond continental Europe. The published references I have consulted (see here, pages 30-32 and here, pages 24-5) date from 12-13 years ago, since when this mushroom has clearly proliferated further at the Chiltern escarpment site.

The reason for the speciality Amanita being here is because it occurs in or amongst a dwarf woody perennial plant Helianthemum or Rock Rose, with which Watlington Hill is clothed by extensive carpets. Various other less visually striking fungi share that close relationship or “symbiosis” at the site, the most frequent groups being Cortinarius (Webcaps) and Inocybe (Fibrecaps). These are examples of “ectomycorrhizal fungi” that form mutually beneficial associations with the root systems of particular plants from which they draw nutrients. In return the mushrooms contribute to their hosts’ growth and survival in various ways. Two rather more colourful participants are Lurid and Rooting Bolete, that I located in good numbers here and there within the Amanitae eruptions.

I have a particular liking for the Boletes, an 80-strong family nationally of stout, pored not gilled mushrooms with fleshy caps and thick, bulbous stems. Some of these occur widely within the Chilterns AONB, both in woodland where they have mycorrhizal relationships with Beech, Lime, Oak and Pine trees; and on chalk downland in association with woody plants. The generic name Boletus comes from the Greek bolos, meaning lump or clod. Their convex, cushion-shaped caps are normally dry or slightly viscid in wet conditions, never glutinous. Spores are produced in long tubes or pores under the caps. Most are edible and some very choice in that regard, commanding good prices from restaurants for savvy foragers. They are reputedly richer in protein than any other food except nuts.

Lurid Bolete (Boletus luridus), one of multiple reddish species, is distinguished by mesh patterning on the stem as the above pictures show. It is fairly frequent in the British Isles and continental Europe in late summer and autumn, mostly on alkaline chalk soils. The epithet luridus means sallow – an “indefinite but unhealthy colour”. The cap (typically 8 -14cm, exceptionally to 20cm) is downy and pale yellow in young specimens, becoming dull yellow-brown as the fruiting body matures, and the flesh turns blue-black if bruised or cut. Beneath the cap, yellow spore tubes terminate in tiny circular pores that are at first yellow but eventually turn orange-red. The underlying surface of the stem, beneath the netting is also yellow. This is said to be a tasty mushroom and almost all of those I found on visit one had been gathered a day later.

The second Rock Rose associate at Watlington Hill is Rooting Bolete (Boletus radicans), the smoky-grey caps (5 – 20cm) of which are usually dented and misshapen, particularly in more mature specimens such as those pictured above. The pores are an especially attractive yellow, turning blue if touched or cut. The yellow, cylindrical or swollen stems are quite variable in form, also displaying fine reticulation (netting) and sometimes a reddish zone at the base. This species is not considered fit for human consumption, having a bitter taste and unpleasant odour. Three large specimens I found here (pictured above) on the second visit nonetheless appeared to have been tucked into by less picky small furries.

More Amanita malleata (scaly specimens)

When I went back on 11th many of the Amanita malleata had withered, more had been removed and some that remained displayed a scaled appearance reminiscent of Parasols (pictured above). The spectacle that had enthralled me so a week earlier was now past its best. This has been an intriguing and informative exercise, as well as an education to myself, a relative novice on the symbiotic interaction between fungi and host plants. The treasure that is this little known Amanita in such familiar local surroundings will soon lie dormant again for another season. It should be well worth enjoying next year or whenever weather conditions might once more be favourable.

2023 Provence butterflies 2: More Apollo and Esper’s Marbled White on Montagne de Bergiès: 18 & 19th July

It had bugged me ever since 2019 that I couldn’t find my way up to this peak (1364 m) back then, and doing so now was a further prime motivation for repeating this tripette. I had devoted some effort to looking for the regional scarcity Esper’s Marbled White at different sites through those five previous days in Provence and understood Bergiès to be a prime location, as well as another good one for observing Apollo.

What were the chances of losing my way again? Well I did, and that was partially due to having been under a wrong assumption as to which mountain Bergiès is. Google Maps going into ever decreasing circles mode after I took another wrong turning on Tuesday (18th) didn’t help. So the upshot was the loss of over two hours prime morning butterfly time. Nonetheless, the outcome over two days rather compensated for all that.

The summit of Mt Bergiès (with observatory) viewed from the ascent.

On eventually finding at past midday the sought, metalled access road, signed Chemin de Bergiès from the end of Col de l’Homme Mort, I at once began to see butterflies and drove up stopping at promising looking places. Along the higher part of this ascent (pictured above) the roadside was lined with wild flowers, especially Lavender which attracted a typical array of frequent regional species such as Graylings, Marbled Whites and Swallowtails. But in amongst them were rather more Apollo than I had encountered on Montagne de Lure, and these would settle to nectar for long enough to offer this collage.

Beautiful, fresh, translucent-winged Apollo in all their magnificence

If converting Apollo had been uplifting at that first location, this was just superb. Time and again the giant, floppy white forms would settle on the Lavender, holding on fast in quite strong wind and largely unconcerned by my attentions. After visiting the summit, which is crowned by an astronomical observatory, I repeated the exercise again. As throughout this tripette I paid little attention to those butterflies I had done full justice to herein back in 2019. But I made an exception for my third self-found connect with a Hermit (pictured below, right), a less frequent Grayling for which I seem to have a special knack of crossing paths with in remote places.

On Wednesday morning (19th), as in the previous post I came back in the morning with bearings gained to commune with butterflies as they warm up with the day. Now my attention turned to the top trip target, Esper’s Marbled White (Melanargia larissa) that I opted to search for lower down. The French sub-species r cleanthe occurs only in the northern Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and some neighbouring localities such as this post’s. Esper’s core region is in northern Spain, and there are outlier populations of another race in Italy and the Balkans. All three varieties are single brooded in June and July. The clearest diagnostics (as illustrated below from Collins) are an extra medial black cell bar in the middle of the forewing, and grey, sausage shaped markings on the unh wings. Having failed to find them in 2019 I was determined to succeed now.

Esper’s Marbled White © Richard Lewington and M galathea (right) for comparison

The best strategy suggested itself as taking pictures of any Marbled White perched with wings closed, then matching those to outsourced images I had brought along for the purpose. Most turned out to be regular or dark-form M galathea and f procida, but on approaching the individual pictured below it just seemed different in a brighter and whiter way, as well as being quite confiding. Already with a gut feel that mission had been accomplished I was fortunate enough to obtain a positive ID from the illustrator himself later in the day, and that was job done. I am very pleased to have captured an image that highlights both of the cited top and under-side diagnostics in one composition. The clean, clearly defined, black and white appearance of this slightly larger item than galathea is also readily apparent. The specimen looks browner in the edited image than it did in the field.

Today’s Esper’s Marbled White

I encountered nothing else that was new or different on this repeat day on Bergiès, and no more Apollo in a presentable condition. The day before I was quite gloriously the only person on the mountain, but now there was hang gliding at the summit and a certain amount of traffic up and down. The next sequence presents the most interesting species and pictures from these two days both here and at nearby sites.

The Gatekeeper (bottom left) is of a regional form decolorata, but not the separate species Southern or Spanish both of which I have recorded in Provence previously. On Wednesday afternoon I checked out Gorges d’Aulan for Odo, hoping as in la Brenne for Orange or Yellow-Spotted Emeralds and Western Spectre, but finding only Small Pincertail (again!) and Southern Skimmer. But along the stream bed there were several Cinquefoil Skipper, of which I gained my first ever underside study (bottom, right)

Car hire costs in the south of France in July and August are horrendous, around twice what I normally would expect and that is for the smallest class of vehicle. Petrol prices have not fallen from spring 2022 levels as in Great Britain, and though I self-catered at the same farmhouse B&B as in 2019, supermarket food prices also seemed high. So this was by some way the most expensive of the five tripettes I have undertaken this year, and I would think twice about doing another one in high summer.

With the completion of this agenda for 2023 I have now done all the wildlife travel I had planned prior to the interruption of those Covid years, and this was the most fulfilling exercise of the five. What next … who knows? Some national birding, given available British list additions within my preferred range, in the upcoming passage season would be very welcome indeed.

2023 Provence butterflies 1: Apollo, Fritillaries, Arran Brown and Scarce Copper on Montagne de Lure + Ladder Grasshopper – 17th and 21st July

My prime motivation in re-visiting this high peak (1826 m) site was to connect properly with the magnificent Apollo that I had observed here only at distance previously. I also wished to further experience the good range of resident Fritillaries, and had just liked the place sufficiently in July 2019 (see here) to come back for more.

Monday 17th began disappointingly when upon completing the long, winding climb by road up the mountain’s south side, a recalled profusion of large, Fritillary-laden Thistles below the car park at the closed Station de Lure just wasn’t there. The habitat looked like it had been recently cut and the plants also cleared during the interval since my first visit … why? And so I drove on to explore the deep gullies that run down from the mountain’s summit.


Parking beside the lower of two such features I at first walked the mountain side above the road, where butterflies seemed quite sporadic except in one warm spot. The most frequent flyer, as it was throughout both days, was False Heath Fritillary (pictured below), a small species found mostly at altitude across much of continental Europe that I had observed for the first time here in 2019. This always hyper item flies in two broods in southern France from May to July, then August and September. So many of the highly variable, dark suffused subjects I continuously encountered were quite worn, though others surprisingly fresh. The flight pattern is very light and fluttery as these little butterflies buzz around endlessly without ever settling for long.

False Heath Fritillary

By midday I decided not to waste further time hanging around where I was and opted to probe into the deep gully below the road (pictured below). It soon became apparent this was a natural heat hollow: warm, wild flower rich and hence hosting plentiful butterflies. Big, floppy Apollo were gliding effortlessly around the scree-laden slopes as I progressed, settling always briefly to nectar and only once close to me, but the only pictures gained were too clutter filled. Onward and downward I moved amongst a teeming medley of Fritillaries, Heaths, Graylings, Skippers, Marbled Whites and Blues; and numbers of Arran Brown that I had encountered for the first time here in 2019.

Locations like this where such varied concentrations of butterflies occur just have to be found, and usually at random. Their natural warmth is detectable as soon as I walk into them, whether it is chalk downland at home or montane habitat abroad. On this occasion it had taken all morning to do so and the butterflies were by now fully fuelled up in the 30 plus degree early afternoon sunlight, the glare of which also impacted badly on the quality of images I could attain. Fritillaries in particular would zoom up and down without settling, as is usual in the full heat of the day. But two larger species Cardinal (below left) and High Brown Fritillary (right) both posed briefly if not satisfactorily for the camera.

Little attention was paid to the Graylings, including Satyrs that were covered thoroughly in my 2019 Provence posts. I found just one Arran Brown then which was a lifer at the time. Today several were active around me and quite inclined to nectar for some time on the same flower, or bask. The chocolate-toned species may be distinguished from similar Ringlets by the chequered wing fringes and white streak on the unh, as the pictures (below) show. It occurs here at the western edge of its south and central European range, flying in a single brood from mid-July to late August. They favour woodland rides and sheltered, grassy clearings, often with bramble or bracken, at moderate altitude.

Arran Brown

Further down the gully, where it became wooded I gained a rather colourful lifer in the form of a territorial male Scarce Copper. The bright little denizen of montane flower meadows remained faithful to a 50-metre stretch in which it relocated constantly, challenging any and often much larger fly pasts that might invade its space. I would walk up and down waiting for it to re-appear in a variety of poses as it always did after a short interval. I was now enjoying one of the most strikingly coloured Coppers, with a vivid red-orange upper-side framed by jet black margins. The underside, captured below on this bright, sunny afternoon is also quite distinctive, with rows of black-centred white spots of varying size in the unh wings. Contrary to the name these jewels can be quite common in montane areas across southern Europe where they fly from June to September, peaking in July.

When things are like this – just me and butterflies in some remote location – I do not have another care in the world. Added interest was provided by regional species forms that I noted here. As in 2019 this site’s Turquoise Blue (below left) were of a localised variation showing delicate, pale orange marginal underwing spots with white chevron borders. Pearly and Small Heath were both represented in the gully, the latter being the southern European and north-west African Lyllus form that I had observed previously only in southern Portugal in 2014. But what of my day’s prime target, the magnificent Apollo?

Later in the afternoon I moved further up towards the summit where a tributary gulley runs down into the one described above. Once again the fast flying forms of several Apollo were immediately visible and the issue was getting close enough to them to take acceptable pictures. Different Fritillaries were still far too warm and equally tricky. I only had time now for one walk down the gully then back up again, and as I went I wondered how many days it might take to gain the images I sought. Then, about two-thirds of the way back up, a fresh Apollo (pictured below) landed right beside me to nectar on Scabious then Thistle, and after these results the air was punched in excitement and relief.


The body size, wing shape, hairiness and markings all make this iconic Alpine butterfly a spectacular encounter. The markings, especially the red spots can be very variable between different populations, with many local forms, and females are usually larger sometimes with a greyish suffusion. As with the related species Clouded and False Apollo that I had experienced previously in Greece, the waxy wing edges become translucent as the butterflies age and their furry scales wear off. When this one eventually flew off again its place was at once taken by a High Brown Fritillary (below right) to round off my now very satisfactory day.

I returned here on Friday (21st) with the aim of recording the same butterflies and especially the Fritillaries in pictures as they warmed up with the day. Needing to return my hire car to Marseilles by 3pm (four hours ahead of the return flight) to avoid paying another full day’s rental, that gave me around three hours on site from 10am, and the plan worked very well. But the day before at an unproductive site I had finally suffered the trauma of losing my phone in the field, and was hence feeling distinctly out of sorts. Small wonder this has never happened before.

I can of course remember when we didn’t have these tiny hand-held computers that cater for so many needs. Then we had got on perfectly well without the dependency they create but now like anyone else thus rendered suddenly naked I felt lost, anxious and insecure; and the prospect of getting to the airport sans satnav hardly appealed. It is only now, five days later and re-equipped with a replacement phone that I am beginning to feel properly human again. Concentrating on the winged treasures in the lower gully on this final morning of the trip effectively kept my disagreeable condition in check.

Scarce Copper (male)

The Scarce Copper (above) was faithful to exactly the same patch as four days earlier, and as then I kept walking up and down to dislodge it again then try to get close. It didn’t ever fly far but could display an uncanny knack of disappearing upon landing before flying up to challenge the next insect passer by. My modus operandi worked especially well with the fritillaries that like others of their genus at home are generally more approachable at this cooler time of day. These (below) are those that I now ID’d, while no more Apollo in presentable condition were encountered.

Top row: Marbled Fritillary – Bottom: Spotted, High Brown and Silver-washed

Of the above the most interesting was Marbled Fritillary, a largish orange-toned species with broad, rounded wings. I had recorded it before only at Station de Lure in 2019 but without satisfactory pictures. The top left upper-side study will now do nicely. This normally hyperactive butterfly is widespread and not uncommon through much of southern and central Europe. It favours woodland and bushy places where it is said to be seen rarely far from brambles, the larval food plant upon which it also nectars. One more item to mention is Large Wall Brown that was actually the first butterfly I crossed paths with on this Friday, gaining a first ever underside study (below right).

Whilst here I also gained a pleasing Orthoptera lifer, that unusually for this order I was able to identify. I believe these (below) are Ladder (or Large Mountain)) Grasshopper that occurs across the Eurasian land mass in sub-Alpine and montane regions from July to September, especially in high-altitude meadows. Males of this medium-sized species grow up to 20mm long while females can reach 24 – 27mm, and like all grasshoppers the basic colouration shows considerable variation.

The full (recalled) butterfly list for these two days was: Scarce Swallowtail, Apollo, Black-veined White, Large White, Green-veined White, Clouded Yellow, Brimstone, Small Copper, Scarce Copper, Brown Argus, Turquoise Blue, Common Blue, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Queen of Spain, Cardinal, Silver-washed Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary, Marbled Fritillary, False Heath Fritillary, Spotted Fritillary, Marbled White, Rock Grayling, Grayling, Great Sooty Satyr, Great Banded Grayling, Arran Brown, Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Pearly Heath, Large Wall Brown, Dingy Skipper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper – 34

Blue-eyed (or Southern Migrant) Hawker extends its Oxon range: 5 – 7th July

The self-found stuff is always the best. On 23rd June a teneral Blue-eyed Hawker was recorded at a BBOWT woodland reserve to the immediate east of RSPB Otmoor (see here). This was the first Oxon record away from the latter site where the recent county colonist had first been discovered three seasons ago (see here). I have simply not been able to face the prospect of Bernwood Forest for butterflies yet again in 2023, so with a sunny weather window this week and time on my hands I opted for nearby Whitecross Green Wood (SP 600150) instead, with the added incentive of some evolved odo interest.

I ended up visiting on three consecutive days from Wednesday to Friday, since on the first two of those dark grey stuff was sitting over the wood while the sun shone further afield, just as it so often does at both Bernwood and Otmoor. I nonetheless enjoyed catching up with Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral when the golden orb broke through, together with many Marbled White and brown Skippers. This woodland was teeming with seasonal butterflies. Ewan messaged on Thursday to say there were three Purple Emperor in the Bernwood car park, but I stuck with my resolve not to go there.

Blue-eyed Hawker (adult male)

Friday (7th) was a wall to wall sunshine day and I arrived back on site mid-morning. With such heat butterflies seemed less in evidence than in the intermittent sunlight of the previous two days. I stopped to talk to Trish, a Bernwood dog walker, wildlife person and character whom I run into in most seasons. She poured out how she has abandoned her traditional stomping ground for WGW and other places, due to the former’s popularity amongst other dog walkers of the van load variety, with whom she falls out frequently. I knew the feeling, and responded with how I currently am less motivated by local butterflies and also now struggling with wild plants as an alternative.

I have always visited WGW sparingly, as the difficulty of finding things there and especially Brown Hairstreak served to depress me eventually. But now things were poised to transform and the timing of this diversion played its part. Walking on and reaching the cross roads in the middle of the wood, I decided it would be novel to explore the ride to the left. Almost back at the centre I noted a medium-sized dragonfly with a reddish tinge in the wings patrolling at head height before settling in Blackthorn to one side (pictured below).

I approached carefully, trained my bins on the now perched subject and … “YES, it has bright blue eyes” … an adult male Blue-eyed Hawker. This item was noticeably smaller than Migrant Hawker for which it is still too early. The insect kept completely still for 11 minutes, during which I also managed to inform the county odo and bird recorders of my good fortune, before it flew off to challenge an offending fly-past. Having searched in vain for this species several times around Otmoor in the past two summers I was now rewarded with a picture opportunity just above my head, though in glary light with a shadow cast over the head and thorax. Sooner or later you just get lucky and today was my turn.

Having enjoyed this communion I realised I had seen possibly two more individuals with the same jizz and red-tinge as I walked down to this spot, but those could also have been one and the same. Males such as this have a noticeably brighter blue look to them than other Hawkers, with vivid blue eyes and green sides to the thorax. The ochre-coloured pterostigma (wing tags) are relatively long, diagnostic twin blue and black markings on segment 2 are said to resemble masks, and the veining in the wings glows noticeably when caught by the light in a particular way.

By now there was a certain amount of company, most of which didn’t appreciate the significance of my own purpose here. As so often at this site, those visitors seemed to still be looking for Black Hairstreak, that even if located would have been very worn by now. And so I wandered on to the hot-spot near the end of the main ride, before making a cursory check then watching an array of common dragonflies at a newly opened-up pond. Stately Brown Hawker and Blue Emperor would glide by at intervals, showing their usual disinclination to settle, and Darters hovered here and there in the trackside long grass. Conditions were by now very hot and I sensed the best time of day for crossing paths with BEH might have passed.

At 1:20 pm, 50 metres from the car park another adult male flew out then hovered in front of me. This was the spot from which the previous teneral record was reported. BEH / SMH sightings having also come from Oddington in the Otmoor basin recently, I had originally intended to check out both sites on this day. But given new and different success at WGW I opted against trying to match the ace patch worker who has produced most Otmoor records since that first season, and went home to watch the tennis instead.

Since it’s arrival nationally along the Thames estuary in 2010, Blue-eyed (or Southern Migrant) Hawker has colonised England south of the Humber widely and rapidly. The species has spread through much of coastal East Anglia and southern counties as far as Dorset, with outlying records from Cornwall, the Bristol Channel and the Lancashire and Yorkshire coasts. The small Oxon population has proved quite difficult to record, with individuals usually encountered fleetingly by single observers. So I feel very satisfied now to have played some part in monitoring the anticipated local range expansion.

Footnote: Since my publication of this record on Oxon Dragonflies, the great and good of the county Odo community have in turn visited Whitecross Green Wood, gaining multiple sightings (see here, here and here). Up to seven adult males were also reported from the Oddington site on 17th, so the Oxon BEH population appears to be in good health.

Two days with a rain break at Pinail NNR and la Brenne Parc Naturel, France: 21st – 23rd June

My interest in this region of France arose out of reading, at some time during the Covid years Naturetrek trip reports from an annual tour that comes here. Those quoted a plentiful range of Odonata being resident in the department of la Vienne and la Brenne Parc Naturel, lying broadly east of the city of Poitiers, a little over half-way between Paris and Bordeaux. Back then I decided I might relish the challenge of looking into it under my own steam.

Hence I included a three-day exploratory tripette in my agenda for 2023, subject to suitable weather conditions prompting another spontaneous departure. The expectation had been to travel by rail via Eurostar and Paris, that turned out to be worth almost £150. But finding that Poitiers has an airport to which conveniently timed Ryanairs from Stansted go for a walk on fare of £36, the whole thing seemed meant. And so I jumped on one of the latter.

The logistics turned out to be just as favourable. A 3km walk from the airport, there being as things turned out no buses, brought me to Poitiers’ TGV station opposite which was my suitable stop-over hotel for £42; and the car hire offices are in the same boulevard. Hence on the summer solstice morning of Wednesday 21st I collected my vehicle and set out upon the 20 km drive north-east to the Réserve Naturelle Nationale du Pinail, a 142 ha (350 acre) peat bog containing more than 3000 water-filled hollows created by past millstone quarrying.

Small Pincertail (male – top right) and Broad Scarlet (female – bottom right)

I made a number of circuits of the visitor trail (marked orange then white, above left) through the day. If you come here yourself start at the second, lower parking area in the illustration. The location is favoured by outlier populations of the Whiteface dragonflies, that France hosts five species of compared to Great Britain’s one. I was prioritising twin lifers Yellow-spotted (or Large) and Lilypad Whiteface but found neither. The Naturetrek group had double-connected for the first time here in 2022.

This was outstanding Odo habitat but vast and seriously off-piste, with limited opportunity to get down amongst the bog pools without heavy duty waterproof clothing such as angling waders. So as in Nestos Gorge in Greece last month I more or less had to rely upon what might perch close to the track. Every so often something did so, a token duo of which are presented above right. Whiteface emergence times vary season upon season to complicate the equation. Ultimately one day visiting solo proved an insufficient window in which to gain the desired results.

The butterfly highlight was a lifer, Large Chequered Skipper. The individual pictured below left was the only one to pose for the camera, but on reading up on the species back at home I realised I had crossed paths with several more. This insect has a highly distinctive, bouncy flight pattern which is described as resembling pogo-sticking on an invisible band of elastic, with little sense of direction. I noticed this in fly-bys over and again, but all bar one were not inclined to settle. The drab upper-side is rarely seen since LCS perches with wings closed. At rest the black-ringed, oval white under-wing spots on a yellow background identify this item unmistakeably; giving it the name le Mirroir in France from the suggestion of beads of condensation on a looking glass.

This most remarkable Skipper occurs across much of central and eastern Europe, though is absent from large areas and often localised. There are outlier populations elsewhere, including south-west France. The food plants are various grasses, on which the larvae feed then hibernate in a tube made from a folded blade. Adults fly in a single generation in late June and July. LCS mostly inhabits damp woodland clearings or sheltered hillsides, but is also a Pinail speciality. So having read that before visiting I was very glad to have come here at the right time to convert it.

I was also pleased to gain first ever pictures of Short-tailed Blue (above, centre). Though widespread across continental Europe in two broods from late April to August, I had encountered the species far less often in the past than the Lang’s variety. The patchily distributed former frequents flowery grassland and clearings amongst bushes and trees, often flying low and inconspicuously amongst vegetation as was my experience here. By far the most frequent butterfly in this location today was Pearly Heath (above right), most of which were rather past their best.

Edible Frog

Being in France I appreciated having caught up with Edible Frog (above), an amphibian I had not recorded previously. These occur across much of Europe from here to western Russia, Estonia and Sweden, and northern Italy. Like other water frogs (Marsh and Pool) these are often active by day and like to bask in the sun. Males are usually green, paler in the breeding season, with dark brown or black spotting. Despite the name, this species is not alone in being a food for humans in different regions.

Common Wall Lizard

Common Wall Lizard (above) was a frequent encounter. There are 17 very similar, regional European species in this genus of reptiles, of which I had observed seven previously, and I assume this one is the “default”. It has a larger head and limbs than the British Viviparous (or Common) Lizard, and as with all small Lacertae exhibits very variable patterning. Most individuals are brownish or grey, often with black and white bars on the sides of the tail.

Unfortunately the next day, 22nd was washed out completely, which is always frustrating. So after calling in at visitor centres in la Brenne Parc Naturel to enquire about the best Odo locations I filled the time in any way possible. Later in the afternoon I reconnoitred a third site Étang de Plaisance that is said to host several species not found in the British Isles. But I encountered just two dragonflies there in heavily overcast conditions that persisted once the rain stopped.

That is where I started on Friday 23rd, a humid sunny day once more. The only dragonfly on the wing, though in good numbers was White-tailed Skimmer (above) that I had observed previously at Lake Kerkini, Greece in 2017. This patchily distributed species gets the name from its white anal appendages that stand out very clearly in flight. It has a generally sleeker build and jizz than the familiar Black-tailed Skimmers at home. From this region of France WTS ranges across much of south-eastern and central Europe then onward as far as China and Japan.

I had expected this location to be much wilder, but it was actually recreational in character and populated by not very welcoming anglers. It would probably have repaid more thorough inspection but I didn’t want to remain for too long before making the hour’s drive north to the Parc naturel régional de la Brenne. The vast 166,000 ha (410,195 acre),1672 sq km complex of marshland, reed beds, moors, prairies and woods contains 47 separate communes, more NNRs and over 2000 lakes and ponds

Arriving in the late morning I set about exploring the places recommended a day earlier. The first was an area designated la Réserve naturelle nationale de Chérine (above). This contains a 3 ha (7.4 acre) prime odonata site Terres de Picadon where I spent an hour making two circuits of the visitor trail which leads through several small to medium ponds, some specially created and each with a character of its own. As at Pinail actually walking around the water’s edge was not possible, and from the fenced-off access points no species of note were encountered. But my attention was caught by very fresh Great Banded Grayling (pictured below), that like all of their genus had a penchant for perching prominently on posts.

Great Banded Grayling

Next I moved on to Terres de Renard, a large étang around two sides of which runs a visitor trail that seemed to go on for ever. Once again I felt dependent on what might actually show itself close by the path and there was an array of common butterflies and other insects, but no real opportunity to observe dragonflies at close quarters. I kept hoping for Orange-spotted Emerald suspended within the track-side vegetation, or the enigmatic Western Spectre, but was not successful. Then after turning back things became a little bizarre.

I have never come face to face with a Crayfish before, but now a strange creature almost erupted out of the ground in the middle of the track as I walked. It seemed to display a similar lack of cohesion to the aforementioned Large Chequered Skippers, twisting round and round with limbs flailing in all directions. This was not just any but a north American Red Swamp Crayfish, which is classed as an invasive alien pest. Clearly they are well established here, as I had already noted a carcass, several severed claws and a cut in two Slow Worm along the trail; evidence I expect of their predatory habits.

A close encounter of the Crayfish kind

Wondering if my assailant’s odd posture was due to being half out of a burrow I gave it a little encouragement with a stick. Back at home I learned these crustaceans are indeed great burrowers. Now it rose up to face me head on and upon training the camera on it I could feel the dark, sharp little eyes glaring straight back at me. I am not sure if this (above right) is the threat posture or whether the Crayfish just liked having its picture taken.

At the parking area I had time for one more site visit before another hour’s drive back to Poitiers and the airport, and so transferred a short distance to Massé-Foucalt (no 2 on the map above). Parking in le Blizon I walked an interesting trail through more étangs and it was here that I at last gained two tripette odo lifers. Common Winter Damselfly (pictured below) as the name suggests is widespread throughout continental Europe south of the Baltic and has a season-long flight period. They occur around all kinds of well-vegetated standing waters. But we don’t have them in Blighty, and upon realising when compiling this post I had indeed self-found something new my little heart leaped.

Common Winter Damselfly

That sense of satisfaction grew when I matched the item below to female Small Spreadwing (or Emerald). This is the most delicate of the European Spreadwings of which I have now observed all but one. For me the clearest diagnostics are the whitish sides to the brown ptreostigma (wing tags), and yellow back of head that just about shows in the image. Like CWD the species also has a wide continental distribution, and flies from April to November, its exact season varying from region to region. Neither of the two damselflies featured here were trip targets, I just self-found them at random which is what these off-beat, wandering exercises are all about.

Small Spreadwing

In the time I had allowed and with the lost rain day it was possible only to carry out an interesting if not over-productive reconnoitre in the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” as La Brenne is known. But this pleasant, unhurried region of rural France passed the always tricky test of what works or not in solo travel. There is huge potential for future visits here, especially given the convenient and affordable flights to Poitiers, and I now have an evolved alternative to re-working the British insect lists each summer if I wish.

A four hour search for Burnt Orchid at Clattinger Farm, Wilts + Southern Marsh Orchids: 7 – 12th June

The first part of this was the proverbial needle in a haystack. In planning my current wild Orchid agenda I especially wanted to experience the highly attractive Burnt (or Burnt-tip) rarity. In my home area it occurs only in a few non-disclosed locations on the South Oxon Downs, so this would entail a day tripette to the Cotswold Water Park in neighbouring Wilts.

Clattinger Farm (SN16 9TW – SU014932) is part of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Lower Moor (see here) complex of farms managed by traditional practices. Historical records show that its SSSI-designated hay meadows have never been subjected to artificial fertilisers and agricultural chemicals, the only such lowland farm in Great Britain. Hence it is considered the country’s finest remaining example of enclosed lowland grassland, and of international importance for wild flowers. 

Burnt Orchid (left and right) and Southern Marsh X Common Spotted Orchids with guest

The question was exactly where to look. There was no specific information at the visitor centre and none of the volunteers could tell me either, so I set off to search at random. Prior to visiting I had no idea of just how large this 60 ha (150 acre) site is, there being 14 separate meadows in which I lost my sense of direction easily and a number of times. No other people I met walking around were serious Orchid hunters, which seemed surprising when this is an oft-cited location for the much-sought Burnt Orchid. Eventually I engaged with a local frequent visitor who gave me some vague directions, but still I drew blank.

As Bernwood Meadows, Asham and Wendover Meads were for Green-winged Orchid in May, so this site is for Southern Marsh Orchid. There are thousands of them here, a significant portion of which must be hybrids with Common Spotted Orchid. In amongst them were the fading forms of many gone over Green-winged Orchid. The first of those three varies considerably both in colour tone and the speckle and dash markings on its petals, all of which makes accurate identification of the species difficult. Preferring as I do to minimise scientific detail in this journal I will merely present the following sequence of purer and possibly more hybridised plants.

Southern Marsh Orchids or hybrids at Clattinger Farm

Round and round I trudged, always keeping to trodden paths and enjoying as at those local sites another “time capsule” from bygone years in which wild plants abound. The Burnt Orchids could be anywhere. Tiring by mid-afternoon, I decided to check-out that earlier advice again then leave, and this time walked on a little further. Now, in the far south-eastern meadow named Bridge Field on the reserve plan, that is considered the reserve’s best for wild flowers, I noticed a well trampled patch to one side of a trodden path … and there was my quest! It had taken four hours to locate them, cue celebratory WhatsApps to contacts who “keep me company” in the field.

Burnt Orchid (above) has 5 – 10 broad, erect leaves at the base of 10 – 50 cm tall stems. The initially dense inflorescence gets looser as the flowers open. The buds are dark red and as blooming advances the oval spike becomes bi-coloured – white at the bottom and dark red at the top – giving the whole a scorched appearance, hence the name. The species grows more usually on short turf and alkaline chalk or limestone soils, but much more rarely in meadows such as here.

Counting eight specimens at this spot, some of which looked emergent, I resolved to return in the hope of finding more. Later at home I matched this day’s wanderings to Google Earth and picked out the exact location of my success. The trampled patch is even visible in the aerial picture. The bottom line here is I achieved this largely unassisted, and the self-found things are always the best.

I re-visited five days later on Monday 13th in company with Ewan, this time taking the short route out and re-locating the Burnt Orchids straight away. Some of the previously featured specimens were already going over but there were now a total of 13 in the cluster. From what my more experienced companion and two other observers who joined us said these were all rather petite plants compared to what might be found here and elsewhere. Those pictured above were the more photogenic new ones. I was notified on Sunday 18th that six more good specimens had been found in “11 acres field” immediately to the west of where we had been successful.

Heading home on 7th I visited Tuckmill Meadow in Shrivenham, Oxon (SN6 8TB – SU240900) that has a colony of around 80 Southern Marsh Orchid. This gem of a LNR (see here) is managed by VoWH District Council and BBOWT in conjunction with volunteers, one of whom met me in the parking area and directed me to the plants. These were in the boggy bottom of the damp grassland site’s stream valley. They were much larger and more robust than the younger ones around Clattinger Farm, and all of the pure form (below).

Pure Southern Marsh Orchids at Tuckmill Meadow LNR

This Orchid is widely distributed in southern England, occurring in wet alkaline marsh and meadows especially on chalk soils, at road and river sides and also in former quarries and coastal dune systems. It flowers from late May to the end of July, with crowded cylindrical spikes on strong stems from 30 to 50 but sometimes up to 70cm. But the species is now lost from 20 per cent of its historic range due to drainage, ploughing and development.

Research had suggested I was in the best Oxon place to observe them, in preference to the frequently mentioned Parsonage Moor, and I wasn’t disappointed. Two days later on 9th I checked out that site and Oxford’s Lye Valley LNR, finding just five pure specimens between them and more hybrids at the latter.

Early summer Orchids around the Chilterns AONB: 29th May – 14th June

Things begin to get serious at this stage of the season as more sought after wild Orchids enter the mix. The species experienced in Oxon so far are pretty widespread, but on the other side of the Chiltern escarpment to the east lie sites of renown offering specialities that draw enthusiasts each year in numbers, and those I now set out to explore.

I began at Homefield Wood (SL7 2HL – SU814867) early on a bank holiday Monday (29th), having been briefed that the Orchid season was well under way there. The site is renowned as one of only three nationally to host Military Orchid, and they certainly thrive here on today’s evidence. There are around 500 plants, some across a south-facing slope just inside the BBOWT reserve entrance, but mainly in an enclosed meadow away to the left that may or may not be publically accessible at the Trust’s discretion.

This mid-May to mid-June flowering species (pictured above) is well-distributed around central and northern Europe but one of Great Britain’s rarest. The flowers, clustered in a conical spike on a robust stem up to 60 cm tall, resemble human figures with outstretched arms, big feet and wearing a soldier’s dress helmet. The name also arises from vertical lines of dots on the petal below that hood which suggest buttons on a military tunic. This item grows on chalk grassland in the shelter of broad-leaved woods, and thrives especially in shaded old pasture with light scrub such as the enclosure here.

A second site stand-out was the rather intriguing Fly Orchid that offers a prime example of insect mimicry in plants to assist pollination. The well-spaced flowers on slender spikes resemble perched flies, complete with eyes and antennae. The cleverest bit is this Orchid does not produce nectar but a scent of female Digger Wasps’ sexual pheromones, so what would any passing male do? And thus the plant is pollinated. Uncommon in the Chilterns, these are plants of Beech wood edges and scrub on chalk and limestone soils.

I will admit to feeling a little underwhelmed by these seriously skinny items, that due to the minuteness of the flowers were difficult to gain sharp images of, but the left and centre ones in this sequence were the best I could manage (click to enlarge). Other new (for me) Orchids encountered on the day were two of the shade-loving White Helleborine (right, above), and a good-sized clump of Common Twayblade.

I encountered more White Helleborine three days later (1st) on a first visit to BBOWT Grangelands (HP27 0NB – SP828050) where good numbers grow along the edge of neighbouring Pulpit Wood (pictured below). One of the commoner of the Helleborine group of Orchids, this is a Beech wood specialist that occurs on calcareous soils through May and June, growing to 60cm in height. Since this plant is self-pollinating the creamy-white, egg-shaped blooms rarely open fully, so the specimen in the right hand picture was a bit of a find. Only common in southern English chalk and limestone regions, they take around 10 years to develop fully from seed. So I assume the larger items in these pictures were the more mature amongst my haul. Most at all four of this post’s sites had between three to six flowers at the top of the stem. I rather like them and enjoyed their elegance and simplicity.

Aston Clinton Ragpits

Masses of Common Spotted Orchid were getting going here, but it seemed too early for Chalk Fragrant. I nonetheless moved on seven miles to BBOWT Aston Clinton Ragpits (HP22 5NF – SP888107) which is renowned for a profusion of the latter. There young Chalk Fragrant Orchid were indeed erupting from the ground in abundance, together with Common Spotted across the former quarry site.

The first-named is the more delicate looking of the two and occurs from mid-May to July in dry and open chalk and limestone grassland such as this. The 20 – 50 flowers on densely packed, cylindrical spikes may range in tone from pink through mauve to reddish-purple, and occasionally white. They typically grow to 30 cm tall but can reach 50 cm or more. As the name suggests a quite intense sweet perfume is emitted, especially at dusk to attract butterfly and moth pollinators.

Young Chalk Fragrant Orchids

For me the stand-out in this location was numbers of Greater Butterfly Orchid (pictured below). I had observed these twice before in the region but enclosed in protective wire cages. Not so here and in an unfettered state I could appreciate properly their subtle and delicate beauty. This plant prefers light shade and is often found along woodland edges or in clearings, but it also occurs on chalk grassland. The greenish-white, rather waxy-looking flowers are loosely clustered on pale stems to 40 cm. As the name suggests they resemble hovering butterflies. At night a sweet scent of vanilla is omitted to attract the Hawkmoth pollinators that have suitably long probosci to enter the particular structure of the flowers.

An irony here was how after habitual frustration at grey conditions while butterflying I was now cursing the afternoon sun for making things too bright and glary for taking pictures of wild plants. So on 2nd I returned early in the morning to attempt images in a more suitable light. It should be apparent which of the above sequence were gained on each day. The duller light was more suitable for gaining adequate studies of Common Twayblade that grows in profusion across the Ragpits.

This inconspicuous plant is widespread though localised from May to July in a wide range of habitats: chalk downland, open woodland, fens, quarries; along disused railway lines and at arable field edges. It emits a musk-like odour to attract insect pollinators. The name refers to the pair of broad oval leaves at the base of the stem. The minuteness of the yellow-green flowers on long and wispy stems (pictured below) makes them difficult to capture detailed pictures of, but the following are my better results. Shorter specimens best conveyed their blooms’ resemblance to clusters of tiny people, but the great majority were much taller and often in extensive clumps.

Common Twayblade

On Monday 5th I visited the Warburg Reserve near Henley (see here) that is said to boast BBOWT’s richest array of Orchids, comprising 15 species. My impression from this day was apart from the more frequent wild flower meadow varieties these may take a bit of searching out. Fortunately there is a visitor centre at the main entrance (RG9 6BJ – SU721 878) to assist, where sightings are posted on a poster-sized site plan, and I was also briefed by the warden.

I especially wanted to experience the yet to be seen Bird’s-nest Orchid, a honey-coloured shade lover of Beech woods on limestone soils. These are said to be quite widespread in such habitat, but I located just one today (pictured below). It displayed the species’ special feature of the flowers being clustered towards the top of the stem with just a few spaced more widely lower down. I thought it looked a little past its best but now read this plant typically resembles withered stems from the previous season.

Nearby I also found a single Fly Orchid (above) in the area I was advised to look in, before moving on to seek out more Greater Butterfly Orchid (below) at a field edge to one side of the reserve’s northern access point from Maidensgrove. In between the two locations I walked through some of Warburg’s wild flower meadows, where as at Grangelands young Common Spotted and no doubt other frequent Orchids were emerging from the ground ahead of their annual grand displays.

On 14th I paid another visit to Grangelands to experience the Chalk Fragrant and Common Spotted Orchids in full cry. In amongst them, here and there rather more vivid Pyramidal Orchid (pictured below, left) had now entered the mix. One of the more familiar encounters from my casual interest of the past, this is a widespread species of calcareous grassland, flowering from June to August. The clean, bright blooms vary from deep cerise to violet or purple, and as they open the spikes’ shape changes from pyramid to globe. They are pollinated by butterflies, day and night flying moths and become strongly scented in the evening to attract the last of those.

I had been told on the earlier visits here where to locate both Musk and Bird’s-nest Orchid. Though there had been a thundery breakdown in the current heat-wave over the weekend, the former had still not emerged. But I did find one of the latter on a steep Beech wood slope below Pulpit Hill fort and above the reserve’s Rifle Range area. It was much smaller and had an even more gone over look to it (above right) than that earlier Warburg item.

Aston Clinton Ragpits

The display of Chalk Fragrant, Common Spotted and other Orchids at Aston Clinton Ragpits on this day was simply incredible, though difficult to capture adequately in pictures in the glaring sunlight. Of all the sites I have visited in 2023 this is undoubtedly the richest. But I noticed plants were going over quickly in the continued hot, dry conditions of this post. Amongst the Pyramidal Orchids (pictured below) I was pleased to locate a few of the white variant. This is a scarcity in Great Britain but has established some stable colonies, and enquiry revealed it is regular here.

Footnote: Through the second half of June, Pyramidal Orchid was the stand-out interest as I re-visited various Oxon and Bucks sites. It was a very hot weather month that served to cause the big displays of Common Spotted and Chalk Fragrant Orchids to go over quite quickly while the first-named of these three frequent species thrived. Those weather conditions did not suit the Grangelands Musk Orchids that I sought a number of times, eventually finding just three plants that had already gone over soon after my previous attempt. It now remained to cover some late summer Orchids, particularly Helleborines and hence my attention turned elsewhere.