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.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Botanising on the Gower

As I mentioned in my previous post I've had a couple of trips still to write-up from my two outings to Swansea where Daughter 2 is studying. Now during the first trip at the start of April there was absolutely nothing worth stopping off for on the bird front and I was all set to give up and not bother stopping anywhere at all when I discovered that there is some rather good botanising to be had on the Gower peninsula. There's even a plant, Yellow Whitlow Grass, which in this country is only found along a ten mile stretch of the Gower coast line. What's more, Yellow Whitlow Grass flowers early, from March through to the end of April, so it would seem to be an ideal target for my trip. I'd only learnt about it at the last minute so I hadn't had time to do much research but it seemed to like Limestone cliffs and as (according to some last minute Googling) there'd been a guided walk to see it at Port Eynon on the peninsula I thought that I'd start there. I asked my daughter whether she wanted to be picked up first and come with me or whether she'd prefer to be picked up afterwards and she opted to tag along with me.

The weather was gorgeously sunny as we made our way along the roads leading to the Point. As I had no real idea where to go, I parked up at the main car park and then we just ambled along the shoreline as we headed south, looking for things of interest. We had our packed lunch on the beach before decided to head off towards the cliffs themselves. I had a hunch from what little I knew of Yellow Whitlow Grass that it might favour the cliff area and we even did some scrambling along the rather steep cliff face in our search for it but to no avail.

The Limestone cliffs at Port-Eynon Point

The Gorse-covered slopes
To be honest it didn't really matter too much that we couldn't find it. After all, I'd never even heard of this plant until the day before and there would be other opportunities to look for it after I'd had a chance to do more background research first. In the mean time there were lots of other plants to look at: nothing too out of the ordinary but I was just enjoying the beautiful weather and the great coastal scenery.


Common Dog Violet

Danish Scurygrass

Kidney Vetch

Marsham's Nomad Bee
Portland Spurge
Spring Squill
White Stonecrop
We spent quite some time rummaging around the plants in the area but eventually it was time to go so we headed back to the car, picking up ice creams at the local café before we drove back to Swansea and then onward toward home.


The return leg was at the end of April and in the mean time I'd had a chance to do some research. It turned out that Yellow Whitlow Grass was most easily found at Pennard Castle, an old ruin on a spectacular cliff view-point, where it grew on the castle walls itself. In the days leading up to the trip there had actually been some bird action en route with, for example, some Black-winged Stilts at Slimbridge. However, all possible target birds had gone by the time my trip was scheduled so in the end I decided just to concentrate on going to Pennard Castle itself to see if I could find any of this plant still in flower.

This time my daughter wasn't interested in coming along so I dropped her off at her student house and then drove the relatively short distance to Parkmill. Here I turned off down a very bumpy single track road where I parked up near to the sandy dunes that make up the golf course and then walked the relatively short distance over to where the castle was located, taking snaps of any interesting flora on the way.

Wild Fennel

An old World War 2 water tower that's still standing at the side of the dunes
I think that this is actually a hybrid between Common and Sticky Storksbill

The ruins of Pennard Castle

The view from the castle was stunning - this photo doesn't really do it justice
There were loads of plants nestled in amongst the old castle stones. There were all the usual wall-loving plants apart from one which I realised from my research had to be the Yellow Whitlow Grass though it was no longer in flower

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Navelwort, just coming into flower
Rusty-back Fern

Yellow Whitlow Grass, sadly no longer in flower
I spent some time rummage through all the plants that were growing in the walls. Finally on the last wall that I searched, a directly south-facing one, I found a couple of specimens of Yellow Whitlow Grass that were actually still in flower.

Yellow Whitlow Grass, still just in flower
Pleased with having found my target species I sat down to have my packed lunch and to enjoy the scenery though the weather was a bit more iffy than my last visit and it soon started to rain. This was my cue to leave so I headed back to the car and then back along the familiar M4 route towards Oxford.

Despite my prior misgivings, my two trips to the Gower had turned out to be rather enjoyable. No doubt as I get more clued up on the botany front I'll start to learn more what the local specialities are but at present I'm happy to wander around in a rather haphazard fashion, stumbling across various plants as I go. It's rather nice to have this botanical interest as another strand to my fascination in the natural world. It gives me yet another excuse to explore different parts of the country and to marvel at nature in all its forms. On a practical note, it also gives me something to do when there's no birdage to be had. There's a benefit to diversification!