A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Monday, 26 June 2017

Man Orchids at Copper Hill, Lincolnshire!

Man Orchids are one of my favourite species of British orchid, and having last seen them flowering nearly ten years ago, I thought it was time I made a trip back to take another look and get some improved photos of these fantastic plants.
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
With Man Orchids enjoying a decidedly southerly bias in terms of distribution in Britain, I returned to the same site I visited in 2009 to see them – the botanically rich roadside verges of the Copper Hill reserve in Lincolnshire and the most northerly site in Britain where Man Orchid occurs. 
Copper Hill - Lincolnshire
The Copper Hill roadside verge
Situated just outside Ancaster, the roadside verges that fall under the reserve’s boundary are protected under Lincolnshire’s Protected Roadside Verge Scheme, and as such a particularly rich and diverse mixture of limestone flora is allowed to thrive, including the endangered in Britain Man Orchid.
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Benefitting from an escape from the vastly overused council lawnmowers, the Man Orchids, along with a whole smorgasbord of other wildflowers, seem to be doing exceptionally well here, and we counted at least 34 spikes of these unusual orchids along the short stretch of the eastern verge (although the Wildlife Trust volunteers counted an exceptional 50 spikes a few days earlier!). 
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchids are one of the most fascinating species of orchid in Britain (along with the rest of the often-extravagantly decorated Orchis genus) and a closer inspection of the flower spike reveals a column of delicate banana coloured human shaped flowers washed with a delightful rich red and bronze hue, each one impressively mimicking a tiny little man. 
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Apparently the flowers also give off the scent of fried onions, although I didn’t sniff them to confirm whether or not this is just a rumour! 
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchids are one of the taller species of orchid in Britain, often growing to around 30cm high
With our native wildflowers in decline over here in the UK, it would certainly be good practice to allow all of our roadside verges to flourish like is the case at Copper Hill, instead of the current trend for our councils to be obsessed with neat and tidy short-mown grass, completely bare and devoid of any floral character at all. 
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchid in situ!
Copper Hill Reserve - Lincolnshire
The tank the Man Orchids are next to
Man Orchid - Copper Hill, Lincolnshire
Man Orchids in situ!
Copper Hill Reserve - Lincolnshire
Parking at Copper Hill reserve is off King Street (NG32 3PY), and the end of May/beginning of June is the best time to visit.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Mega!! Elegant Tern at Pagham Harbour, West Sussex!

After a relatively poor spring in terms of mega migrants, we thought a trip up to Glasgow so Alex could attend a concert would hopefully not result in us missing anything major on the birding scene…. We should really have known better, as right on cue with just 3 days to go after a spring of silence, it seemed the fates were against us and the birding Gods were punishing our naivety as the mega alerts wailed in to action **MEGA – Elegant Tern in Hampshire!!**
Elegant Tern in Hampshire
Pulses racing, our excitement was short lived as in the brief hour the Elegant Tern was present on the sandy spit at Hayling Island, only 6 observers managed to connect with it before it flew off out to sea, with nothing further until the Friday night when it was seen flying off towards West Sussex late afternoon after a 10 minute visit to Sandy Point.

Thinking it was unlikely to be pinned down to a site and with many of the Sandwich Tern colonies along the Hampshire coast situated in inaccessible locations, the fact that the mega alerts went off once more signalling the Elegant Tern had been refound at Pagham Harbour in West Sussex 10 minutes before we were due to set off for Glasgow didn’t cause too much alarm, as it surely wouldn’t hang about long enough for the twitching masses to connect with, its departure 20 minutes later adding weight to our misplaced hopes. 

How wrong we were, as the entire journey up to Glasgow and the evening therein after consisted of a constant stream of mega alerts telling us the tern was still present and showing well to its steadily increasing crowd of admirers, all happily ticking this potential first accepted record for Britain. 
Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
The Elegant Tern was a definite crowd bringer!
Colour ringed and DNA confirmed as a pure Elegant Tern in France where it usually hangs out, this was the best chance in history to get this species on our British lists – and we were heading off in the opposite direction up to Scotland!

There was only one thing for it, and with alarms set for 3:40am after a short snatch of sleep after the concert had finished, we were soon on our way back down a deserted M6 and heading for the south coast – a trip from Glasgow to Cheshire with the small matter of a diversion to West Sussex well underway!

465 miles and 8 hours later we arrived at the RSPB Pagham Harbour car park, the parking attendant’s walkie-talkie crackling in to life as he directed us to a parking spot informing us that the tern had just this second flown off – horrendous timing. However, with the Elegant Tern having developed a pattern of heading out to sea to fish for periods of time before returning to “Tern Island” to rest, we set off on the 30 minute walk to where the bird was spending its time hopeful that it would soon return.
Pagham Harbour - West Sussex
Blue skies over Pagham Harbour
3 hours later we were still hoping - there was still no sign of the Elegant Tern coming in to the harbour despite religiously checking every single Sandwich Tern that sped past us. With the sun having long since departed there was also now a definite chill in the air, bringing up goosebumps on a number of short-sleeved bare arms in the crowd of waiting birders. 
Sandwich Tern
Plenty of Sandwich Terns..but no Elegants amongst them!
Our morale at this point was decidedly low, surely, after our mammoth effort the tern hadn’t done the dirty and moved on after seeming so settled? With our hopes slowly diminishing, eventually the cry went up that we were hoping for – someone had just seen the Elegant Tern in flight over the island! Hurrying over to the point of the muttering and the source of the cry amongst a jumble of birders and scopes, a hectic few minutes followed, as directions were bandied around and I just couldn’t get on the single orange billed individual amongst a hovering mass of swirling Sandwich Terns. Having only the one scope between us proved particularly difficult; binoculars useless in being able to distinguish the bill colours in the fast moving and distant tern flock and I was definitely starting to panic that our tern would get flushed or hunker down unseen in the vegetation.
Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
The patch of vegetation the Elegant Tern favours - in-between the two bungalows
Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
"Tern Island"
Eventually however, after a good ten minutes of mental anguish, the cry went up that it was hovering over the island again, and getting my eye to the scope I was finally able to clasp eyes on a huge orange billed tern hovering over the coastal vegetation, facing towards us before turning and showing off the monster carrot coloured bill in all its glory, a pale orange in shade and with a slight curve to the tip. Success, relief and Elegant Tern and a British mega safely in the bag!

Proving exceptionally elusive in the afternoon we were there and with Alex wanting better views, we only saw the Elegant Tern once more in the next two hours, only realising that a small group of birders were watching it from the top path above the steps as we were leaving the site. Peering through their scopes revealed the Elegant Tern settled happily amongst the vegetation on the island, partially obscured behind the foliage but displaying its large orange bill on occasion as it preened and raised it in to the air. 
Elegant Tern - Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
Perhaps the worst record shot ever seen. The orange bill is noticeable though! 
With time marching on and the prospect of a long drive back ahead of us after such an early start, with the tern once more disappearing into the green we decided to call it a day (our hope of only being on site for a couple of hours a distant memory after being at Pagham for around 5 hours!), making the long walk back to the car park and pleased that our efforts of driving from one end of the country to the other in pursuit of this mega tern had paid off! 
Pagham Harbour, West Sussex

Elegant Terns in Britain and the Western Pal:

Elegant Terns have danced with acceptance onto the British List for a number of years now, with presumed individuals seen in Devon and Wales in 2002, along with another bird found in Dorset back in May 2005. An orange-billed tern species fitting the profile for Elegant Tern was also photographed off New Quay in Ceredigion in 2015.

However, despite 5 birds being accepted in Ireland from 1982 onwards, none have been officially recognised on the British list due to apprehensions of them possibly being the result of hybridisation with Sandwich Terns, which has so far been impossible to rule out on visual appearance alone. Recent studies in France however have well and truly disproved this theory after 3 individual Elegant Terns found breeding in Sandwich Tern colonies along the French coast were caught, rung and had their DNA analysed, with the results proving beyond doubt that the 3 birds concerned were indeed 100% Elegant Tern. As opposed to Mitochondrial DNA analysis which incorporates genes from the maternal parental lineage (and in turn wouldn’t be able to rule out a Sandwich Tern father) multilocus barcoding from nuclear DNA was used in the French studies, meaning genes from both the mother and father birds were taken in to account and thus establishing a definite species parentage. A fantastic article by Birdguides looks at this study in depth, as well as the full occurrence of Elegant Tern in Western Palearctic waters. 

Coupled with an additional two unringed birds also seen off the French and Spanish coasts in recent times, there is the distinct possibility that an impressive 5 Elegant Terns (at least) could be frequenting our Western Palearctic waters. This is made even more remarkable by the fact that two of these birds have paired up to breed since 2009 at L’Albufera (one of these birds is a rung and DNA assured pure Elegant Tern), signalling that there could well be a pure pair of Elegant Terns breeding in Europe. 
Elegant Tern distribution in Europe
Distribution of Elegant Terns in Europe
Usually inhabiting the Pacific coastline of Western America and enjoying quite a limited breeding range, it is fascinating as to how 5 Elegant Terns all ended up in Western Pal waters, even going so far as to breed together. It’s possible that the birds were blown off course from the Central Americas or while travelling around the South Atlantic Ocean, ending up in South African waters before heading up north to Europe each breeding season. Indeed, sightings of ringed birds off Cape Town and Namibia during the winter months indicate that the European Elegant Terns do overwinter there.

Sightings of each of the three ringed birds are well recorded, along with their breeding successes each season, and any hybrid chicks are ringed and monitored. As the hybrid young don’t visually display Elegant Tern characteristics (instead having black bills with a small yellow blob on the end) the chances are that if any orange-billed Tern seen in British and Irish waters looks like an Elegant Tern, then it most probably is an Elegant Tern.

The Pagham Harbour bird has thankfully been identified from its colour ring combination as one of the DNA tested pure Elegant Terns (known as bird C), removing any possible doubt as to its parental credentials and hopefully assuring it a safe passage straight on to Category A of the British list. The recent DNA analysis should hopefully also allow the previous records in Britain in 2002 and 2005 to be reviewed with a view to acceptance, based on the fact that they are highly unlikely to be hybrids.

Residing in France during the breeding season at Banc d’Arguin, Bird C – a male – was first seen in 2002 and was rung a year later, breeding in subsequent years intermittently from 2005 to 2013 with a Sandwich Tern. Bird C was also seen down in France up until mid-May, before it ventured north up into British waters. Whether it now stays to breed amongst the Sandwich Terns at Pagham Harbour is another matter, although it was reportedly seen to engage in courtship behaviour with a Sandwich Tern on several occasions. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Bird's-nest Orchids on the Great Orme, Llandudno!

Having last seen Bird’s-nest Orchids once before way back in 2010, I was keen to catch up with several plants in bloom on the Great Orme in Llandudno, handily just over an hour away from home. Not being able to get over there to see them last year, late May saw us take a trip over to this botanically rich hotspot to explore the woodlands around the base of the Orme in an effort to try and find them.
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
Parking up at the Happy Valley car park area and taking one of the small trails into the trees, expecting a lengthy search I was surprised at just how quickly we stumbled across our orchids – looking up the slope we were met with two distinctive caramel-brown flower spikes nestled among the Dog’s Mercury and looming out of the dark understorey gloom. 
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
At first glance perhaps appearing dead to the untrained eye, on closer inspection they were flowering to perfection, tiny golden florets adorning tall leafless stems in the deep shade of the woodland floor.
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
A quick exploration of the surrounding area also revealed a third spike hidden a little bit further up into the trees, but we were unable to spot any additional plants in the immediate vicinity. With just three spikes (there were apparently only three plants last year too) this looks to be a very small population, but with extensive woodland carrying on further up the slope it’s highly likely there could well be more in the area.

Although Bird’s-nest Orchids can often be perceived as drab, uninteresting and plain looking due to their uniform brown flowers and stems (especially compared to some of the other more extravagant orchid species), there is actually a subtle beauty to these unusual orchids, with each petal looking as if it has been brushed with a delicious coating of sticky golden honey and almost looking good enough to eat. 
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
Their lack of leaves and chlorophyll (hence the brown colouration) also adds to their interest, mystery and allure, going against the grain of how plants are traditionally perceived and creating an air of botanical charisma. Completely lacking the ability to photosynthesise from the sun and instead obtaining all the nutrients they need from their fungal hosts deep in the soil, this allows them to tolerate the extensive shade and darkness that other flowers simply can’t manage. 
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
The Bird’s-nest Orchid has a tangled mass of roots, shaped, unsurprisingly, like a bird’s nest and indicating how it gets its name
With a scattered distribution across the UK and classed as Near-threatened in Britain on the Red Data list, there are only a handful of sites for the Bird’s-nest Orchid in the North West, although the north-east Welsh woodlands appear to be a bit of a local stronghold with occurrences around Wrexham, Mold and Ruthin all in recent years. Notably, 25 plants were also recorded in a small wood just south of Abergele hospital in 2005, as well as another record in 2006 near Bryn-y-maen, south of Colwyn Bay.

Looking back at the historical records it seems Bird’s-nest Orchid was present on the Great Orme back in the 1970’s and up to 1986, but a lack of reports after this time indicates they may have disappeared at the site until recently (I’m aware they’ve been occurring here for the past three years though at least).
Bird's-nest Orchid - Great Orme, Llandudno
Bird's nest Orchid photography in action!
With at least 7 species of orchid present on this botanically rich limestone headland, hopefully the Bird’s-nest Orchids will continue to thrive here in the coming years, expanding their population and continuing to add a sparkle to the jewel in the botanical crown that is the Great Orme. 

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