Thursday, 31 March 2016

An orchid odyssey

Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea) Martin Kelsey
Derek and Zena, Phyllis, John and Peter had asked me for a holiday focused on orchids in Extremadura and thinking about spectacle as well as diversity I recommended late March as the best time. In previous years they had challenged me on butterflies and dragonflies, as well as birds, so I was eagerly looking forward to this new odyssey. However, with the mild winter that we had experienced with some orchids already in flower in late January, I started to get rather anxious that the peculiarities of this year's weather might mean that the best was already over when Derek's group arrived.  I could not have been more wrong.  We have just completed an exhilarating and exciting exploration of our early spring orchids.

Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) Martin Kelsey
We started gently, combining birding on the plains west of Trujillo with a walk along a medieval drovers' trail. Here we encountered our first orchids of the holiday: Sawfly Orchids (Ophrys tenthredinifera), some Champagne Orchids (Orchis champagneuxii) and a single Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea), a species that would subsequently figure highly in our memories.

Champagne Orchids (Orchis champagneuxii) Martin Kelsey

Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea) Martin Kelsey
But it was our second day when things really took off with our visit to the Cerro de Almaráz, the orchid hotspot in Cáceres province and a zone of higher pH soils amidst generally more acidic conditions. Here as well as the Sawfly and Champagne Orchids that we had already seen, we added the exquisite looking Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum), Conical Orchids (Orchis conica), Early Spider (Ophrys incubacea) and the gaudy Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax).

Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum) Martin Kelsey

 Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys incubacea) Martin Kelsey

Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax) Martin Kelsey
The Ophrys species are to me the most intriguing. The flowers have evolved extraordinary designs that mimic supremely attractive female bees or wasps, with pheremones produced as well, to entice desperate males to attempt to mate with the flower. No nectar is offered as a reward, but the lusty male insect passes from the lips of one flower to the next, bearing pollen on his body, thus ensuring cross-pollination. The closer one looked at the flower, the more weird and bizarre its structures and colours became.

Conical Orchid (Orchis conica) Martin Kelsey

Tongue Orchid (Serapias lingua) Martin Kelsey

Here we also found an early Tongue Orchid (Serapias lingua), which achieves its insect pollination by a different route, by offering a microclimate refuge inside the flower where the temperature is slightly higher at night than the ambient one.

Naked Man Orchids (Orchis italica) Martin Kelsey
But the most spectacular at Almaráz were the Naked Man Orchids (Orchis italica), tall and sturdy plants with hundreds of the pale pink flowering spikes on show.

Sombre Orchid (Ophrys fusca) Martin Kelsey

Two days later we headed south to the pockets of limestone substrate near the town of Zafra. At one site, we added Sombre Orchid (Ophrys fusca) to our species list, but what remained with us as a lasting memory for the extraordinary sight of tens of thousands of Pink Butterfly Orchids in flower across a belt of rough grassland. It was a sight that became both breathtaking and overwhelming and which none of us had ever experienced before.

Pink Butterfly Orchids (Orchis papilionacea) Martin Kelsey
In another area nearby, we added the early flowering Giant Orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) and Hill Orchid (Orchis colina), both species that I feared we might have missed this week.

 Giant Orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) Martin Kelsey

Hill Orchid (Orchis colina) Martin Kelsey

The following day, in a area of damper ground, we found more Tongue Orchids in flower and also added Green-winged Orchid (Orchis morio).

Green-winged Orchid (Orchis morio) Martin Kelsey

On our penultimate day, we explored the area south of Mérida where in an area of old olive groves, we found a wonderful  selection of species, including Mirror, Naked Man, Conical, Pink Butterfly and Woodcock, and added the sublimely beautiful Yellow Bee Orchid (Ophrys lutea) and the highly localised Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora).

Yellow Bee Orchid (Ophrys lutea) Martin Kelsey

Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora) Martin Kelsey
But that day's spectacle still awaited us, in the Sierra de Utrera, where amongst thousands of flowering Iberian Fritilleries, were almost as many Green-winged and Champagne Orchids as well as the very stout and sturdy Heart-flowered Serapias (Serapias cordigera).

Heart-flowered Serapias (Serapias cordigera) Martin Kelsey

Early spring in Extremadura had reached its climax with 16 different species orchids, and the promise of more to come over the next few days, as rosettes of basal leaves of other species teased us, as their flowers would subsequently tease a generation of insect visitors.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Craggy corks

Cork Oak woodland (Martin Kelsey)
A hush descended on us as we made the gentle descent, provoked partly by an instinctive response to help our ability to pick-up even the slightest brief bird call, but also I think by the shared sense of reverence. Entering this hidden cork oak glade was like walking into an ancient building, from sunshine into a dappled shade with a pull of heritage. Indeed the very structure of the woodland gave a sense of depth as we looked between the trunks enclosed by a vaulted canopy and the architecture strongly reminded me of a cathedral's crypt. This had resonance with an awareness that the trees' trunks were moulded by generations of men. Like two-toned pillars, the trunks were dusky and even-textured up to the reach of the corking blade, and then as the trunks forked and branches spread, they set a contrast, being deeply fissured and greyed by countless lichens. These trees were in the latter stages of the nine-year cork harvesting cycle, witnessed by the evidence that the new cork was now approaching the thickness of that on the uncut upper reaches of the tree.

Angel's Tears Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

Despite the spacing of the trees on this slope, which gave this woodland an open feel, with natural clearings, there was enough shade to have slowed the progress of spring. On the woodland floor stood freshly opened Angel's Tears Narcissus, which I had first seen flowering this year a full two-months previously in sunny sheltered locations. Now in late March, such shady aspects provided the last remaining refugia for this herald of spring. Littering the ground were old fallen branches which showed the toughness of the remarkable material that is cork. The older of these boughs were completely hollow, where the wood had rotted away, leaving a perfecly formed tube of cork. The resilience of the cork was matched by its lightness: I could easily lift a two-metre long cork pipe with just one hand.

The textured cork and differential rotting rates of broken branches and snags help to explain the richness of the cork oak woodlands for small birds. There is a substrate for them filled with places where insect food can be found and nests can be excavated. As we stood, Short-toed Treecreepers sang and we watched one ascend a tree, initially showing up well against the smoother, dark harvested section of the tree, and then becoming extraordinarily cryptic as it crossed the line into the textured upper reaches. The stronger, firmer two-note call of Nuthatch rang out from some hidden perch, whilst equally distantly came a rapid series of notes from a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Barely audible were the whispered squeaks of Long-tailed Tits, followed by the soft trilling of a Crested Tit. Checking a movement in amongst the outer branches of a rogue holm oak on the hill slope, a Firecrest emerged, garlanded as it were by lichen.

Firecrest (Martin Kelsey)
Then our attention was drawn to a more urgent, whinnying sound from above. Looking up through a gap in the canopy, we could watch two Black Storks embarking on a slow circular flight. They were beautifully synchronised in motion, alternating glides with slow almost stereotyped flaps. The leading bird had its elegant and slender neck held stiffly in a crooked downward arch, its bill open as it gave its bonding ceremonial call to its mate. In the context of this cathedral-like woodland, this display had an almost sacramental ritual, but in truth was a more primordial rite, the rising sap of spring running in the veins of all life here.