Hybrid Orchid – an analysis

During our recent trip to Scotland, Mike Waller and I visited a site for Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid – Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. We were particularly keen to see the “lapponica” form of this species, as we had never had the pleasure previously. I believe this is more recently renamed ssp “francis-drucei”

Such a mouthful. From now I will refer to them as “PMO” for ease.

The colony we visited was on a hillside alkaline flush with surrounding acid heath. This is supposedly a typical habitat. the lapponica at this colony were approximately 60-70 strong, and confined to a relatively small area.

They were quite consistent in appearance florally, with a lip that is longer than wide with three clear lobes, the side ones usually shorter than the central one. Whilst flowers were typically deep maroon and purple in colour, some had a paler background. Consistently, however, they were strongly marked with thick dark purple loops, with in particular a thick one curving round the side lobes, parallel to the edge.

The leaves weren’t particularly narrow (this species is also known as “Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid”), but all were spotted. However, the spotting, whilst sometimes very heavy, did vary down to light markings. The amount of spotting on the leaves did not correlate with the amount of pigment in the flowers.

A couple of examples which were fairly typical of the population are shown below.

Other species close to the PMO were: Heath Fragrant Orchid – good numbers, in fine flower; Heath Spotted Orchid – smaller numbers, mostly in bud with the odd flower out; Early Marsh Orchid – two or three, pretty much over (form incarnata); Northern Marsh Orchid – a single plant, going over.

Close to the centre of the colony was a stand-out single plant which looked ostensibly like a Heath Spotted Orchid – certainly in terms of flower shape at least. However, it had the base colour and stronger patterning of Pugsley’s Marsh. Add to that it was in full flower, and was the second tallest plant on the hillside, and we considered that it must be a hybrid between PMO and Heath Spotted.

We took photographs, and both Mike and I pointed out that if we had seen photos on the internet in isolation, we would have doubted it was anything other than just a richly-coloured Heath Spotted (HSO). However, in the field, its colour tone (almost impossible to get a real impression of from photos alone) was distinctly PMO. The height of the plant indicated hybrid vigour. Compared to all the Heath Spotted we had seen over the last four days – and especially the ones nearby in this colony – it was twice as tall. As I said earlier, all the HSO here were in quite tight bud, yet this one was a week to ten days more advanced. HSO can have quite heavily spotted leaves (as we had discovered the previous day when we visited a supposed PMO site to discover HSO’s with heavily spotted leaves), therefore the leaf pattern is probably of no value in identifying this plant.

Note finally the heavy inside border loops of dark purple on the hybrid, and the shape of the inflorescence. HSO has a generally crowded and untidy inflorescence, with a round, flat top. The flowers start at the bottom singly often, and then overlap each other as they open. Whilst they can often have quite heavy loops, I am unable to find one where they are as thick and solid as on the hybrid. From the perspective of flower colour, HSO can also be quite a deep pink, but never with the PMO tone. And whilst a small sample, at the two colonies we saw HMO in Scotland (this one and the one at Corrimony the day before), when they are in damp flushes they seemed to be smaller than average, not twice the size.

In terms of parentage, with the two predominant species being HSO and PMO, with only a single example of Northern MO and two Early MO (no Common Spotted), added to the features described above, we conclude that this is indeed Pugsley’s Marsh X Heath Spotted. This hybrid has been recorded from Skye too. Of course, Pugsley’s is uncommon so the hybrid will be too. As more populations get checked, maybe more of these will be discovered and features can then be described.

Here are a couple of pictures of the hybrid, then some of both Heath Spotted and Pugsley’s Marsh.

Heath Spotteds from another colony earlier in the week and much further south – and also on a drier heath

The ones below were taken the day before, in a similar habitat at another site not far away. Note the leaves and the puny plants.

And some Pugsley’s for comparison:

There was another rather unusual plant in the colony, which unfortunately was still in tight bud.

It looked again like a Heath Spotted Orchid, and in fact was in bud, and apparently of a standard flower colour for that species.

However, it was over 30cm tall with very long, intensely spotted narrow leaves. Few-flowered and heavily bracted, there was little else to identify it. But if hybrid vigour is classed as an identification feature, then this plant had it and was one. Beyond this we cannot say, but of course would welcome comment from anyone better qualified than us.


Highland Orchid Trip

It was a privilege to spend four days in the company of Mr Orchid/Leptochila himself, the Right Honourable Mike Waller.

Mike and I are co-writing the forthcoming WildGuides “Britain’s Orchids”. Our aim is to make it the most comprehensive field guide to British Orchids. But less of the adverts for now. This was the main reason for the Scottish trip. We aimed to get reference photos of several species, especially of plants as rosettes, in bud or having gone over/to seed.

In addition, there were two key places we wanted to visit for pure enjoyment – the first a site in the borders where some pure-white Coralroot Orchids had been found in 2016. If only I could find the photo to share with you. If I do, I will add it later. They are absolute stunners. EDIT: here it is!


The second key site was a garden in the Highlands that hosted  large populations of Small White, Lesser Butterfly, Heath Fragrant and Heath Spotted Orchids. Thousands of each. The best site in the whole of the UK for the first two. This had to be seen.

Our trip began on Thursday 22nd with some Northern Marsh Orchids at Tebay. These were followed by more roadside Dactylorhizas just over the border, then a visit to the White Coralroot site. None were found, but a good selection was in there, including almost 50 normal Coralroots and tens of Lesser Twayblade. Thousands of Heath Spotted of all colours were on the moorland approach.

All photos on here were taken with my new Samsung Galaxy S7 phone, which has transformed Orchid trips given the quality of picture it takes.

Day 2, Friday 23rd, saw us leaving our Hotel in Kingussie and heading north to Boat of Garten. We had contacted the owner of the Orchid meadow and he had kindly allowed us to roam free in his garden. Ace photographer Iain Leach had joined us too.

It is no understatement to say that this place is incredible. This year’s count produced 2830 Lesser Butterfly and 1182 Small White Orchids. Add to that the thousands of Heath Fragrants, as well as hybrid between that and Heath Spotted, and a single hybrid Small White X Heath Spotted – the rarest Orchid on the site – and it was truly stunning.

Afterwards we went off to Carrbridge to get some fuel and lunch, then rejoined Iain, first stopping in a bit of old Forest where Mike found his first ever Crested Tits. Stopping at a little Lochan we found our first ever British Northern Damsels, difficult in the strong wind, then went up the road to peruse a nice colony of several hundred Lesser Twayblade. Further on another Coralroot colony, with numbers reduced due to the dry year so far – but these plants much fresher than yesterday’s. Finally a stop to look at a small number of Serrated Wintergreen, then to dip on Black Grouse nearby.

We drove to Aviemore too late to eat, and Mike camped tonight while I wimped it in another hotel. A quick stop at a Slavonian Grebe site produced the goods though.

Day 3, 24th June: We began by visiting a site for Twinflower which was a beautiful Caledonian Pine Forest – including a small flock of what were probably Parrot Crossbills. As with other forests like this, we also found a number of Creeping Lady’s Tresses, all of which were in bud.

Next, a site for One-flowered Wintergreen, where we met the recorder, Michelle Green, in the process of counting them. We found more Lesser Twayblade and Creeping Lady’s Tresses, as well as Twinflower.

Then on to a Black-throated Diver breeding Loch, where we saw a lovely colony of Common Gulls and a couple of families of Red Grouse. Unfortunately the Diver was pushed away from the shore by a reckless and illegal photographer who, despite his long lens, decided to walk right to the shoreline.

Onwards and west now to leave the Highlands via one of the most beautiful routes I’ve ever travelled in the UK. We headed for Corrimony RSPB, where we understood there was a colony of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids – both of the Lapponica and normal types.

A long, hot and uncomfortable walk through a stream, uphill and through forest, and finally struggling through damp moorland, got us to the spot. Unfortunately the record was erroneous, with the only plants found being heavily spotted-leaved Heath Spotted Orchids.

The trudge back was followed by a drive to Fort Augustus to spend the night camping. We failed also to find the Loch Ness Monster following a quick check at Urqhart Castle.

By the time our tents were up we were too late for sit-in food again!! Chips it was sat outside in the rain, followed by beer in the pub. We both slept like logs to the sound of driving rain.

Our final day required some research and a punt at an unplanned Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid site. We wanted to find one relatively local, so plumped for a recently discovered one at Dundeggan. This time we had photos of the plants so we knew at least they were correct. What we didn’t have was specific directions, but the ones on the website Mike had found seemed good enough, and there was a very useful habitat shot. Anyway, we were supposed experts so this shouldn’t be difficult….

The trek to the site was taxing for an old ‘un like me. It was steep uphill through Birch forest, up a slippery stream/waterfall, through bracken and finally onto moorland once clear of the wood. A couple of gone-over Small White Orchids were a nice bonus.

Finally, with the relevant hills in view and looking close to the photograph, I spotted two Pugsley’s in the flush. Marvellous! Further searches around the hillside revealed 60+ more plants, along with Heath Spotted Orchids and the hybrid between the two – a first for me. Also present were Heath Fragrant, Northern and Early Marsh Orchids. It was a lovely site, and Pugsley’s is a truly wonderful species to behold – well worth the effort.

As it was now mid afternoon we had to return to Fort Augustus to get lunch and do a bit of gift shopping before the 450 mile return journey down the glorious west coast of Scotland. Tortuous in terms of traffic, but at least the slow travel rate meant we got to enjoy the wonderful scenery.



To Do Ron, Run

LESSON TO ALL TWITCHERS: If you procrastinate, aren’t sure whether to go for a rare bird, can find every excuse not to, think it may not get accepted, etc etc. GO FOR IT.

You will always regret not going afterwards, and you will never forget that you could’ve gone, that you were offered a lift, if in the long distant future, you didn’t get a second chance.

That mentality is what finally got me off my arse to go for Europe’s first Red-winged Blackbird. I missed the first wave of plane seats, spent a week at work getting less interested in the bird, but more bothered about not having seen it, then Chris Bromley offered me a possible place on a plane on the Thursday, which didn’t come off. Subsequent conversations with Dan the Man Pointon and Ashley Howe produced the option of a day return ferry coupled with a charter boat, at relatively low cost. Add to that the promise by N Ron Bird Obs that they would check for the bird before the ferry departed, and give us a lift to it, this seemed ideal.

Matt Wilmott, Ash and I hit the road Friday evening, and after an incident involving Ash, a Tebay Services Sandwich and a Sock in the Highlands, we arrived at John ‘O Groats at 6am, the first there. We were soon joined by Andrew Kinghorn, Chris Bell, Mark Rayment, Andrew Lawson etc, all taking the ferry on, but some taking flights from thereon.

The area around John O’ Groats was alive with birds, including the ubiquitous Oystercatchers, as well as a flock of Twite and a lovely Sand Martin Colony on a small sandy cliff by the beach next to the ferry terminal.

News came that the bird was still present, so we boarded the Foot ferry for the 40-minute smooth journey to Burwick, on South Ronaldsay. From there we joined one of three coaches due to take us onwards to Kirkwall for our charter. Us and 300 American tourists that was. The 40-minute drive to Kirkwall was part of a guided tour of the islands, so we suffered a barrage of historical facts and terrible jokes, stopped at the top of a hill to give us the chance to photograph some rocks, but not at the Summer Plumaged White-billed Diver that we passed close inshore. Ah well, at least we saw some furry pigs.

The “Agricola” was waiting for us on Kirkwall Harbour, and we were soon crashing through the waves northbound, at 26 knots (about 35mph). The sea was flat calm and the mist and murk turning to sunshine, but some of the tides and currents meant a slightly bouncy ride. Feeling both feet leave the ground for about two seconds whilst ploughing through the sea at speed is quite an experience!

We arrived at North Ronaldsay at about 11.45, and were duly taxi’d to the spot by Simon, Warden and finder. It was a glorious sunny day by now and we were the only birders there. Within two minutes the bird voluntarily left the iris bed it had been in for most of the week, and flew onto a wall in a nearby garden, did a circuit of perches there, then flew back towards us and onto wires above our heads. Over the next hour it came out two or three more times, often flying right past or next to us, landing on fences, walls, houses and wires, and flycatching actively, completely unconcerned by our presence.

It was a really nice bird actually, and seemed to be behaving perfectly naturally – it called regularly as it flew around, a gentle chipping sound – surely not the behaviour of an ex cage bird, more that of a wild ship-assisted one?

After getting provisions we rejoined the charter boat and took a much easier journey back, with the wind behind us, arriving back in Kirkwall about 3.30pm. A taxi was waiting for us this time, so we could go to the White-billed Diver and actually stop to have a look. This was done – most successfully, with the bird staying very close inshore at the north end of South Ronaldsay. An absolutely stunning bird, one I had always wanted to see looking like this. Unfortunately, my camera and phone batteries were now dead, so I had to use the work mobile through the scope. This is the best I got.

The ferry back to John O’ Groats was equally eventless, and then began the seemingly eternal drive back to Worcestershire, with us all completely knackered. Fuelled purely by Ardenaline, we made it back, having shared the driving three ways, and without further need for a sock, at 4am on Sunday morning.

Now it is just the wait to see what the BOU think of its origins…..


2017 Winter Stickers

The winter of 2017 played host to a number of hangover birds from the amazing autumn of 2016, including newly found birds that had presumably been around a while, as well as some beauties that appeared and disappeared unexpectedly.

Some birds proved difficult, like the two male Pine Buntings, but others showed really well, like the stunning Eastern Black Redstart at Skinningrove and the White-billed Diver in Lincolnshire.

Here are some of my photo’s and videos of the birds I saw between January and the beginning of March.

The Dunnington (York) Pine Bunting showed very briefly on 30th January, then much better on 1st March – but on the latter date, although it sat in a tree for a whole minute and I had my camera, I spent more time getting another birder onto the bird and watching it, than preparing to photograph it, so failed to get a picture. Here is one taken by John Pringle.Pine Bunting John Pringle

The Licnolnshire White-billed Diver showed well on 30th January, although the photo’s and video, taken in late afternoon winter light, do not do it justice.

Look at that beak!!


On the 1st of February, I got lucky with the Beeley Dusky Thrush, now settled in a field at the end of the village, and on the day I went, feeding with a Redwing below a big tree, and very difficult to find for the five birders present. I managed to get a fellow birder a new bird, though, so I was as happy as he was.

Managed a couple of reasonable comparison shots, given the distance.

A wintering Yellow-browed Warbler four miles from home and just into Staffordshire, proved quite difficult to see, and took two attempts to get photos.

Finally, a visit to an Orchid site in the Cotswolds to get photographs of rosettes, found me only 8 miles from Stow-on-the-Wold, so it would have been rude not to go there for some lunch – oh and the cage-hopping Blue Rock Thrush, which showed well for all of a minute as it popped up out of the garden in Fisher Close and onto the fence, before popping back down again, Enough was enough, and some photos and video were obtained, so time to depart as the rain started.



Blue Rock Thrush and Stonechats updates

More evidence has emerged on the Stow BRT and the Richmond and Dungeness Stonechats, thanks to Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University running DNA checks on material collected from all three birds.

Blue Rock Thrush

The bird would appear to be from the Western Europe/North African populations, making its credentials much better for natural vagrancy. Apparently, most (but not all) captive birds could be of the eastern populations, where of course, there is more trapping and a bigger cagebird trade. Whilst there weren’t many  other notable rarities from that area in the autumn of 2016, there was a Western Orphean Warbler in Shetland, so the Rock Thrush wasn’t alone.

With regard to the bill, there is still mixed opinion on this, and I didn’t notice anything untoward in the field (but wasn’t really looking that closely, as it was only on photo’s afterwards I noticed anything odd), I have since looked at a lot of photographs, and there doesn’t actually seem to be anything wrong with it. On some photo’s, the bill is fractionally open, and this combined with the angle, makes the tip look odd.

Steve Gantlett posted some pictures on his website that apparently showed some kind of fine thread around one leg, but it was very difficult to make out, and even if it was there and not a photographic artefact, it didn’t look like anything that was – or would have been – put there by humans.

As for the drooping wing, it still has that, and although it seemed to add to the suspicion on the wildness of the bird, it is hard to decide whether that is significant. People also mentioned gapeworm, and I’m not sure exactly what that is or how you tell a bird has it – or what significance it might have.

The only other factor against it as a wild vagrant is its age, and it has to be said, that is still the biggest problem for me – when added to its location and time of year.

Given there will not be any proof either way, everyone has their own opinion, and every pro and con can be argued strongly either way, I guess the best way forward is to have an amnesty on this bird and let it on.

On one condition: the same applies to other birds with equal measures of doubt. In this I would include from the top of my head: Demoiselle Crane, 1993, Booted Eagle, 1999, Falcated Duck, 1987, Dalmatian Pelican 2016. There really does have to be an “all or nothing” approach – balanced with pragmatism of course. A Budgie in the next garden in Stow would have a different level of probability!

At the end of the day, what is the difference between this bird and the wintering Rock Thrush in Kent in 1983, the Baltimore Orioles wintering in Gardens in 1989 and 2003, etc etc etc?


The initial DNA result from the Dungeness bird proved to be erroneous as a result of a lab error. A mix-up of samples meant the wrong bird was assigned to Stejneger’s. That sample was from another bird, at Spurn, and the Dungeness one was re-tested and proven to be a Common Stonechat. It matched the Richmond one in appearance, and the DNA on that bird also proved to be the same. This is good news in a way, as it means the field features for identifying these birds are upheld strongly, giving birders peace of mind that if there is no DNA, at least they should still be identifiable.

Stejneger’s is due to be countable as a British tick when the IOC taxonomy is adopted by the BOURC on 1st January 2018, so another one to go for in the future.



Stonechat conundrum

Stejneger’s Stonechat, the most easterly subspecies of Stonechat, has been accepted onto the British list recently. I missed one at Portland by a day in 2012, and basically couldn’t be bothered to go for any of the birds that had turned up during the mega Sibe autumn of 2016. But now, in January, with one last day off before a return to work, I had two options. The question was: do I go to Richmond Park, 130 miles away and just off the M4, or to Dungeness, an extra one and a half hours’ drive? The former had a possible Siberian Stonechat, maybe a Stejneger’s, the latter had a bird confirmed as Stejneger’s by DNA.

One major problem: neither bird actually looked like a Stejneger’s. The DNA is to be re-run on the Dungeness bird as a result.

So, I took the easy option and went for the closest bird. At least if that was not one, but the Dungeness one turned out to be a definite one, I could go later – chances are, both would be there much longer and last out the winter.

On the way, I stopped to check the Waxwings at Chaddesely Corbett on the way to the M42. Yep, still there next to the Fox Pub.


Arriving at Richmond Park after a very smooth journey, I tried to find the correct spot in the Park, having rough directions but not being familiar with the place. It was a frosty morning. Ring-necked Parakeets were the dominant birds. How do the locals put up with that terrible, constant noise? Good to see, but yuk to listen to.

One bird seemed to be biting at the bark on the trunk of a tree next to what looked like a nest hole. Beautiful!


Eventually, I saw the Stonechat pop up onto the top of some grass. Definitely the correct bird, lovely and pale.

Over the next hour or so I watched it at close range and managed to get some pictures, which came out okay due to the excellent winter light.

In my opinion this bird is not a Siberian Stonechat of any type. It should have a clean pale rump and dark “armpits”, niether of which it has. As such, I guess it has to be a funny-coloured Common Stonechat.

Hopefully I just may get proven wrong, but either way it was a really stunning little bird.


Blue Rock Thrush conundrum

As has been the pattern of late, a mystery garden bird posted onto the internet produced a mass twitch for a mega rarity.

The housing estate just south of Stow-on-the-Wold was probably less able to cope with a large number of hapless wanderers than the villages of Camrose or Beeley. And so it proved, especially as the location was broadcast without prior access arrangements being made.

This was home to the Blue Rock Thrush, the 7th record for Britain, and the first twitchable one since May 2000 – so a very popular bird, given its discovery during the Christmas holiday period in the midlands.

Incongruously, it sat on house roofs watching its admirers, before dropping down into gardens to eat pork pie (apparently).

This is just about as bad as it gets going for a rarity to be honest. A bird that doesn’t do much, on houses, and questionable in origin to boot. But, we had spent a couple of days in Bath, and Stow was only a slight detour. Luckily, I had seen the previous bird, a female of unquestionable provenance that snapped up insects from large boulders on cliffs in West Cornwall, on a sunny spring day. Prior to that, a bird sat on a concrete tower block in Hemel Hemstead had missing toes and broken beak, but was proof that BRT is kept in captivity. Hence the concerns over this bird.

The trouble with a bird like this is, if you need it, that you have to go, just in case. And of course if you do need it, you are much more likely to see the positives. If you don’t, you are perhaps more likely to be more objective over its origins and likelihood of acceptance as a wild bird. So what are the positives and negatives?

On the plus side:

  • If it is of one of the eastern races (and it appears that this is virtually impossible to prove due to  clinal variation and much overlap between races), then it has an unquestionably solid supporting cast of birds of similar origins.
  • Its preference for gardens and roofs doesn’t go against it – they winter in gardens and on buildings across their range
  • It shows no obvious damage to its plumage, beak or feet/claws, or other signs of captivity. (The upper mandible tip may possibly be blunted and it droops its right wing, but see below)
  • It isn’t tame, and is behaving very much like birds I’ve seen in many other countries.

On the negative side:

  • It is an adult male. For me the most problematic thing. Autumn vagrants are rarely adults. VERY rarely adults.If you add to this the fact that it is quite a pretty male, that adds to the possibility of it being an escaped cagebird. And as we have seen above, they are kept in captivity, and when they escape, they can fly.
  • It does droop one wing, which may be indicative of disease or a past injury. Thing is, either could be perfectly natural or contracted in the wild. But you don’t see many injured wild birds for long – they get predated or succumb quite quickly. Add this to the possibility that its upper mandible might be blunted (it usually hooks slightly over the lower mandible, but doesn’t on this bird), and do we have circumstantial evidence of captive origin?
  • If it is not one of the eastern races, it is difficult to assess how and/or when it might have arrived, with no supporting cast or weather conditions to support natural vagrancy.

But of course, with so many unprovable variables, it is going to be down to benefit of the doubt with this bird. Luckily, we have a committee that makes decisions on such things, so birders can keep a list with impunity. But I suspect that many who saw this bird as their first British one, will be going for the next one…….

Pics below taken using the excellent camera support that is Trudy’s head. She gamely stood there and risked ridicule – or plaudits – while I snapped away, tripodless. Unfortunately by the time we got there, the sun was behind the bird most of the time, so its colour and subtlety could not be fully appreciated. But if I put decent photos on here you’d be disappointed!