Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Cowden, Kent 27th May 2016

I didn't have a lot of time to explore this area which was a shame. It's a lovely part of the countryside bordering East Sussex and the reason I travelled here this day was to see Marsh Orchids.

As we walked through a meadow there were patches of Thyme-leaved Sandworts in among the Buttercups.

Being small and thin, they are very difficult to photograph in the field. In addition the petals are a reflective white and easily bleach out. One day I might get a perfect photo!

Veronica serpyllifolia

We then came to where the orchids should be. It was quite boggy, or should I say Fenny! I'm told bogs are on acidic soils and fens are on alkaline soils such as here.

There were numerous Brooklime flowering in the rushes of the fen

Veronica beccabunga

Dotted here and there were Bog Stitchwort (suppose it should be renamed Fen Stitchwort?) with its sharply pointed sepals longer than the petals.

Stellaria alsine

I then found many of these beautiful rushes that I hadn't seen before. In dense stands, they looked like white petals of flowers, like a Parsley. It's a Wood Club Rush.

Scirpus sylvatica

These aren't Marsh Orchids, but welcome all the same, Common Spotted Orchids, just a tiny bit too early for the flowers.

Dactylorhiza fuschii

Then dotted in the grasses and rushes were many Southern Marsh Orchids, always a delight to see. I lost count at around 100 or so with many more coming up in bud.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa

The lower lobe is split into three with a dotted pattern around them and a strong raised ridge along the centre. Sometimes the dots are absent or partly joined up.

As ever, I looked for different colour forms and hybrids, but this was the only variant I could find, a lovely pale pink, almost white version of the Southern Marsh Orchid.

Early Marsh Orchids are also found here but none were up yet. Maybe some of the budding orchids I saw were those. It would be nice to return and explore more in a couple of weeks, but I doubt I'll have time.

On the way home we stopped off at Fordcombe and Ashurst on the River Medway.

Here I found some Medium-flowered Wintercress. To identify these you need to look closely at the stem leaves and basal leaves. The main differences are the upper stem leaves though.

Barbarea intermedia

Ashurst weir on the River Medway just into East Sussex.

That was it, a short trip, but a lovely morning nonetheless.

Take care

Monday, 30 May 2016

Darent Valley Hills nr Sevenoaks 22nd May 2016

The walk I had planned was on chalk and involved open grassland and thick woodland on steep slopes above the River Darent. I was on the lookout for any orchids really, but as ever, I kept an eye out for any wildflower or wildlife.

In and around Sevenoaks itself, the soil is acidic, so don't bother looking for Kent orchids in that soil type (Hothfield being the exception).

I started off clambering through woods on a steep hill with no discernable path through it! It did mean that I expored areas off the path though.
Wood Speedwell was abundant now, along with left over Bluebell, Yellow Archangel and a few Lesser Celandines.

Veronica montana

This tiny flower is Three Nerved Sandwort, petals shorter than sepals and 3 prominent veins on the leaves.
It's quite common in Kent but easily overlooked.

Moehringia trinervia

In more open areas (and back on a path), common wildflowers were abundant. Cow Parsley, Red Campion and Creeping Buttercup add nice colour to this scene.

Sanicle is a typical chalk woodland species, but it is declining rapidly, so has been entered onto the Kent Rare Plant Register (RPR) so when and where it declines over time can be measured.

Sanicula europaea

This is White Bryony, a climber with small flowers and big leaves. Often found on woodland edges and hedgerows. It has no petals but beautifully detailed sepals instead.

Bryonia dioica

I had been walking a while now and being a warm day I had worked up a bit of a sweat, so attracting midges! I must remember to put the Deet on before I go out into woods or marshes now. It's been cold enough all through Spring so as not to have to worry about insect bites, but that's all changing now.

Anyway, I rounded a bend and a small break in the canopy came about where plenty of light got to the woodland floor.

I then had this wonderful sight in front of me.

It was possibly the most majestic Lady Orchid I had ever seen, and I've seen over a thousand in the last three years or so. It was a good two and a half feet tall in full flower. Fantastic!

The Lady Orchid is on the RPR and is only found in a few places in the SE with most sites being in East Kent. I did know that historically a single Lady Orchid had been found in this area, which was probably why I chose to explore it if I'm honest!

As I looked around this area, I found a total of 10 Lady Orchids, wow! Most had gone or were going over and past their best but a few were still beautiful.

Orchis purpurea

There was a fallen tree nearby and I just sat down and took it all in for about 30 minutes with only the birds chirping away, the odd butterfly flitting past and these stunning orchids to keep me company - Bliss!

Looking at them more closely, I was struck at how much variation there was in their petals. In most populations they are all pretty much the same. My favourite is the left one with the purple fringe.

Anyway, enough of orchids. The woodland soon ended and I came out onto a chalk grassland slope with superb views over the Darent Valley. Surprisingly, some of this grassland was in pristine condition with many chalk species present in good numbers. Much of the hills are over grazed meaning not a lot to see!

There are 4 species of Plantain inland, Ribwort, Greater, Buckshorn and Hoary.

Only Hoary plantain is rare though and was another RPR find. It's leaves are round oval and hairy. The only other Plantain with similar leaves is Greater, but that has hairless leaves and a completely different shaped flower head.

Plantago media

This was a day of flower combination photos, quite by chance, but I do keep an eye out for a photo opportunity that nature provides me with.

Here were Salad Burnet (on the left) and Horseshoe Vetch (right)

Poterium sanguisorba
Hippocrepis comosa

As I rounded a hillside I came across over a hundred Early Purple Orchids. I was too late to see them at their best, but it was great to see so many in a small area. So much for moving onto other flowers instead of orchids.

I did find one in excellent condition, though in an unusual form, in that it was almost completely devoid of spots in the white bit of the petals.

Orchis mascula

In amongst all these I found a single Chalk Fragrant Orchid about to flower. The long spur is distictive in this species, so there's no doubt as to what orchid it was. There was also a budding Bee Orchid, but no flowers yet.

Gymnadenia conopsea

The final plant I photographed here was a grass, but a very distinctive one as it shivers or quakes in the slightest breeze. In a week or so it will open up and put forth yellow/white stamens to disperse its pollen, They look even better then.
Of course, it's called Quaking Grass, common but declining and on the RPR as well.

Briza media

As I headed up the hill the plants grew more vigourous and dense. In this photo are Germander Speedwell (blue ones) and Common Vetch (pink ones)

Veronica chamaedrys (blue ones)

Vicia sativa (pink ones)

My final photograph was another lovely combination of Common Vetch and Crosswort (another RPR plant).

Vicia sativa
Cruciata laevipes

So ended a wonder filled walk not far from home either, always a bonus. From now until mid June is peak time for most UK wild orchids. Nearly everywhere in the UK has some species, so go out there and find some soon, but don't forget to admire everything else nature is displaying now as well.

Take care


Friday, 27 May 2016

The Hunt for Burnt Orchids in East Sussex 21st May 2016

2013 was the first year I became interested in wildflowers and wild orchids. Prior to this I didn't even know Burnt Orchids existed and by the time I did, any chance of seeing any had passed. So in the Winter of 2013 we did some research and found they were to be found in the vicinity of Mount Caburn in East Sussex near Lewes. By May of 2014 we made the journey down to Lewes and began the long haul up the very steep hill of Mount Caburn.

We were heading to the hill on the left of the fence and it's much steeper than it looks, 146m up in fact.

There's an iron age hill fort on top, have a read from Wikipedia here:

Mount Caburn History

At the summit were far reaching views, quite spectacular, but often quite windy being so exposed.

We searched all around the summit and found hundreds of Chalk Fragrant Orchids, an enormous brilliant display, on the steep slopes.

Gymnadenia conopsea

However, no Burnt Orchids were to be found.

I later discovered I was a few weeks too late in any case and all the Burnt Orchids had gone over by then. I was given another area on Mount Caburn where I was told they were, so would return again next year, hopefully at the right time.

By May 2015 we had discovered that there were two types of Burnt Orchid. The Early Flowering and the Late Flowering variants with the former being very small and the latter double their size or bigger.

We did the long trek uphill again to Mount Caburn to check out the site given to me the previous year. This time I was told they were on the South West facing slopes of the Mount. Wrong again! After a couple of hours of strenuous up and down the slopes searching I gave up again!

However, I had also been given a site for the Late Flowering Burnt Orchid, so a couple of weeks later (June 2015) we visited this site near High and Over, East Sussex. This time the information was spot on and we photographed the late flowering form.

Aren't they superb!

Like miniature Lady Orchids, but different. This form has a much darker red/purple "Burnt" head of unopened flowers and is a lot taller than the early form.

Neotina ustulata var aestivalis

The views here were pretty good too and the white horse carved into the chalk hill was nearby at the National Trust car park.

There was another fantastic flower here I'd not seen before as well.

This is Round-headed Rampion, also known as the Pride of Sussex, being the county flower.

It's a rare plant but common in places on the South Downs.

Plenty of information on it here:

Round-Headed Rampion

Phyteuma orbiculare

We then left the area, at last we had seen one of the Burnt Orchids, albeit not the one we had first heard of back in 2013.

The story is not yet over though! May I bring you back to the present, or at least to the 21st May 2016 when we visited Mount Caburn for the third year running, with some more research done as to where to find them.

Not only was it a dismal cold day for this time of year but the skies were laden with clouds. Knowing we'd work up a sweat on the climb I only wore a hooded (Winter) sweatshirt.

On the way I up I saw Crosswort flowering, they stand out like bright beacons in green grasses.

Cruciata laevipes

Once at the top I crossed over towards Lewes and got lost! Not lost lost, but couldn't determine exactly where I was on the map. As a result I walked about a kilometre too far, but on the way back I finally found the place where tthey should be.

Common Milkwort was abundant. This pink colour form in particular, which made things difficult. They were about the same height as these orchids I was looking for and a superficially similar colour!

Polygala vulgaris

About now, the heavens opened and it poured down soaking me. I struggled to keep the camera dry, but my thick sweatshirt did the trick.

I had trudged up and down the slopes in this area for an hour and hadn't found the Burnt Orchids, I was getting rather despondent and thinking of calling it a day for a third year on the trot.

I noticed a few near white Common Milkworts along the way, along with an abundance of the usual blue form.

Polygala vulgaris

Some small white flowers caught my eye which were Hairy Rockcress which has stalkless leaves tight to the stem and of course hairy.

Arabis hirsuta

This was the area I was searching, it's steep from left to right and I was getting wet and tired. The wind had picked up and was driving rain into my face, most unpleasant.

I really was about to give up when I noticed some flattened grasses!

This is often an indication that someone has taken a photo there.

Sure enough someone had!

At last I was in the right area and I then found around 25 more soon after, every one after this was about half the size, this one is a giant for the Early Flowering form of Burnt Orchid!

A local couple came along who knew the area well. They said come back in a couple of weeks and the whole area would be covered in them and that the cold Spring had delayed them by about 2 weeks.

So I was very lucky to see any at all.

 Neotinea ustulata var ustulata

This one was next to a Cowslip which should be in seed by late May but is still going strong, a sure sign of delayed flowering.

Primula veris

Of course, I took a lot of photos, but even at a few inches tall they were swaying in the howling wind making things very difficult. At least the low light levels reduced the over exposure on the pure white parts of the petals.

And so we descended back to the village of Glynde where the car was parked.

We had planned to visit the National Nature Reserve at Castle Hill near Brighton for Early Spider Orchids which number thousands there and flower later than those on the Kent coast.

Unfortunately the rain set in and when we got there it was still pouring down and no-one felt much like getting soaked all over again, so we left that reserve for another year. So ended a three year search for the elusive Burnt Orchid. I'll leave you with a comparison of the early and late flowering forms.

Take care

Thursday, 26 May 2016

KWT Holborough Marshes & McDonalds Strood! 10th May 2016

It's an odd title for a blog, but it will become clear later on!
Kent Wildlife Trust manage a marsh near Holborough, a small part of which has Southern and Early Marsh orchids. I didn't expect to find any flowering as it was a couple of weeks too early given the cold snaps we keep having here in Kent. The reserve has been subject to heavy grazing by horses to try and control shrubs over the last 18 months or so and last year was a disappointment compared to 2014. You can see from the photo below, we did find an orchid, but look at those shrubs completely taking over. These shrubs were hardly noticable in 2014.

The orchid was the only Southern Marsh Orchid we found in flower in the whole reserve, still a nice find though.

No Early Marsh Orchids had come up at all, maybe in 2-3 weeks they will?

Southern Marsh Orchids are quite attractive and have a distinctive pleat down the lower petals, leaves are nearly always unspotted.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa

There were other damp loving species, like this natural native, Marsh Marigold, a favourite planting in garden ponds and council owned lakes.

Caltha palustris

Ragged Robin also likes it wet and it was very boggy underfoot where it grew. You can see how its ragged leaves gave it its common name.

Silene flos-cuculi

There were lots of Damselflies around and dragonflies will be here soon as well. This is an Azure  Damselfly.

Coenagrion puella

In a ditch at the back of the meadow were Yellow Flag, another Spring favourite with gardeners, but quite native.

Iris pseudacorus

It seems there were lots of yellow flowering plants here! This is Yellow Rattle, semi parasitical on grasses, so weakening them and allowing other species (like orchids) to grow.
They have big heavy seeds that rattle in the pod as you walk through them, hence the name.

Rhinanthus minor

Tiny blue flowers on the ground caught my eye and I was pleased to find another species of the Speedwell family, Brooklime. It has small flowers like Germander Speedwell, but the large fleshy leaves means you can't really mistake it for another Speedwell. It also has a great sounding botanical name!

Veronica beccabunga

We then came across several orchid rosettes with heavily spotted and barred leaves with flower spikes coming up. These are the hybrid between Southern Marsh and Common Spotted Orchid, well known at this venue. However, this year they are coming up in a completely different area. It will be fantastic to see these when in full flower.

The flower spikes go up to 3 feet tall full of heavily spotted flowers. Presently I could only find a single floret open, but it shows you the Common Spotted pattern in its genes! In its botanical name, D stands for Dactylorhiza.
Both parents can be found here, though Marsh Orchids outnumber the Common Spotted fifty to one.

D. x grandis

We left the meadow and headed off on drier ground towards the tidal Medway. By the path was a large stand of Greater Celandine, which is completely unrelated to Lesser Celandine and is in fact in the Poppy family!
Their big well rounded lobed leaves and 4 yellow petals are unmistakable. But if still in doubt, cut a stem and it will bleed orange sap.

Chelidonium majus

Houndstongue was on a dry part of the path, a chalk loving species it is often found in Kent, but it is declining. To monitor this, it has been placed on the Kent Rare Plant Register. We don't want to lose any plants from Kent let alone one as attractive as this with its silvery looking leaves (caused by hairs) and their blood red flowers.

Cynoglossum officinale

At first I thought this was a Changing Forget-me-not due to the different coloured flowers. However, the flowers were way too big and further study showed it to be the mundane Field Forget-me-not, but lovely to see anyway.

Myosotis arvensis

I found this spider running across water! I wondered if it were a Water Spider but it seems it's a common Wolf Spider species carrying its load of eggs somewhere safe.

We then came to the tidal Medway and the tide was up. I found some English Scurvygrass in the edges, but the base of the plants were already covered in sea water. They thrive where most other plants would be killed.

Cochlearia anglica

On the way back to the car I photographed some Sycamore in flower. These raggy looking flowers will have big bunches of those helicopter seeds in a few months. I still remember my mates and I throwing them as high as we could and seeing whose helicopter flew the best!

Sycamore are so common you'd think they were native, but they've only been around since 1632 when they escaped into the wild, no doubt from some royal garden or park of the time. Imagine being alive back then and seeing those Sycamore seeds for the very first time!

Acer pseudoplatanus

We then left the reserve and felt rather hungry, which is where McDonalds comes in at Strood nearby. This restaurant is on the riverfront and a chalk bank was created when the complex was built around 10 years or so ago. This chalk bank which extends for several hundred yards is now full of wildflowers.

Though there were some naturalised plants as well, such as Pink Sorrel and this lovely Rosy Garlic, which I've only ever seen before on the dunes at Sandwich, though they seem to be spreading around the County quite quickly.

Allium roseum

The first Common Knapweed were out here, with their lovely thistle like flowers glowing in the sunlight.
Insects love them as well, such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies.
The "agg" in the botanical name means aggregate, a collection of sub-species all lumped into one name, usually because they are extremely hard to tell apart without a laboratory!

Centaurea nigra agg.

Talking of which, there were several Common Blue butterflies flitting from flower to flower, or in this case, to a leaf!

Polyommatus icarus

Viper's Bugloss was flowering as well, an impressive plant with blue and lilac flowers (sometimes all white), they are more common around coastal areas in Kent, though chalky fields have their fair share inland.

Here's a close up of the flowers where you can see the delicate pastel hues, beautiful!

Echium vulgare

This is a Poppy but not a Common Poppy which are deep pillar box red. That's the first clue it's different, the second is finding a seed head which I did to confirm it as a Long-Headed Poppy. It's quite common but subtly different from the Common variety. Obviously it has an elongated seed head form where it gets its name.

Papaver dubium

This is Hoary Plantain. There are a few Plantain plants in the family and all are common in Kent except this one which, again is declining fast.

It has big fat heavily veined basal leaves in a rosette with fine hairs on the leaves. The only other Plantain that looks like it when not in flower, is Greater Plantain, but these have hairless leaves and are longer stalked.

Plantago media

There were more Yellow Rattle here as well, so this time I've included a whole plant shot and not just a photo of the flowers.

Rhinanthus minor

These seeds in the dying off yellow florets are key to determining what species this is. It's a Cornsalad and they are impossible to determine the species until the seed appears. Each seed is only 1-2mm long as well!
On the lower left you can see a deep groove in the seed, so this has to be a Keel-Fruited Cornsalad.

Valerianella carinata

There were a few Field Scabious out, flowering about a month early, a real topsy turvy Spring, with some species late and others early. This once common plant is also on the decline and added to the rare plant list as a result.

Knautia arvensis

To finish off I photographed the very common White Clover to show that it isn't a single flower, but made up of many multiple florets, each a tiny flower of its own.

Trifolium repens

So we had a great morning out and saw a lot of special plants, and in case you were wondering, yes we did eat at McDs!

Take Care