Tuesday 29 May 2018

Lady's Slipper Orchids 26th May 2018

The Lady's Slipper Orchid is very, very rare. Currently there is only one place in Britain that is publicised, where you can go to see it, and that is Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve which is near Morecambe Bay in north Lancashire.

Gait Barrows NNR lies in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is one of Britain's most important limestone landscapes and is home to a large variety of interesting and often rare plants and wildlife. 

The Lady's Slipper Orchid is possibly the jewel in the crown of Gait Barrows NNR and many people come to see this rarest of all Britain's wildflowers. The Lady's Slipper Orchid likes to grow in open woodland on calcareous soils and such a habitat is provided at Gait Barrows.

Although very rare in Britain the Lady's Slipper Orchid has a widespread distribution, ranging from Europe east through Asia all the way to the Pacific. It is declining in mainland Europe and is now a protected plant in many European countries.

In Britain it was formerly quite widely distributed, although thinly spread, across northern England particularly in limestone areas in the Yorkshire Dales. However the Victorian mania for collecting and the plant's exotic appearance resulted in gardeners and collectors virtually extirpating it from its natural haunts. Even as early as 1888 eminent botanists were concerned about its future and in 1917 it was declared extinct in Britain. However, in 1930 a single plant, which somehow had evaded the specimen hunters and collectors was re-discovered and this plant was forthwith protected by a select number of dedicated amateurs and its location kept top secret. Sadly not secret enough, as a plant thief idiotically cut the plant in half, generously leaving one half in the ground for posterity whilst making off with the other half! The single plant survived this outrageous assault and struggled on for another thirty years, still protected by its faithful guardians, until more formal site protection could be put in place. In 1983 a large donation from Sir Robert and Lady Salisbury resulted in the founding of The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project at Kew and the future of this wonderful orchid in Britain became a lot more secure.

Seed collected from the one remaining plant was grown under laboratory conditions and after some difficulty in ascertaining the right conditions to germinate the seed, since 1989 seedlings have been introduced to sixteen suitable sites in Britain, where it had formerly grown. It is still to this day a highly endangered species with many re-introduced plants succumbing to natural depredations from slugs, voles, rabbits, deer, fungi and bacteria as well as drought and encroaching vegetation. Yet by 2003 the re-introduction programme had resulted in establishing a population of hundreds of this orchid, at mainly secret sites, through Natural England's National Species Recovery Programme and Gait Barrows NNR is now home to a thriving population of these orchids and where you can freely go and see them growing naturally.

I was driving home from seeing Wally the Walrus in Caithness and a short detour from the M6 near Carnforth would bring me to Gait Barrows NNR, and although tired and keen to get home, I made the short diversion off the Motorway as it was too good an opportunity to pass up. 

I had waited a year to see these orchids, as last year I miscalculated the time to go and see them and found I was too late. The directions to the reserve were none too precise and no one I asked, once on the country lanes I assumed led to the reserve, knew of it but eventually I found a discreetly hidden  sign in a hedge and a gate which you could open and then drive down a short track to a small car park.

I duly did this but then had no idea where to go to find the orchids.There were half a dozen cars in the car park but no sign of anyone to ask. I consulted a map I had downloaded from the Gait Barrows NNR web site and ascertained I needed to take something called The Yew Trail, on which the orchids were to be found. But where exactly?

I commenced walking the trail and thankfully soon encountered some people coming the other way who knew exactly where to go and gave me precise directions. It was not far and following a narrow track through some bushes and trees off to my right I came out onto an open area comprising the remains of some limestone pavement, and found the Lady's Slipper Orchids growing in some grass between the limestone and some bushes, their large striking heads nodding gently in the wind.

I was not disappointed with my first ever sight of a Lady's Slipper Orchid as these superb orchids were in absolutely peak condition. Fortuitously I had come at exactly the right time to see them at their very best. They are large, from 30-50cms tall, very beautiful and quite distinctive. I can well understand why they were so sought after and collected in those now distant and more unenlightened times. The flowers look almost too exotic to be wild, more like something cultivated and to be found in a Garden Centre, but wild they are and still extremely rare, so I felt privileged to see them. The bract is large and stands erect and slightly twisted behind the flower and like the similarly twisted and pointed petals is a reddish brown, almost maroon colour. The name comes from the large, pale yellow slipper like pouch or clog that protrudes from the bract and petals.

There was a warm and reviving breeze blowing through the trees and bushes and tired from my seven hour car journey from northern Scotland I sat on a handy bench and enjoyed the sun and this pleasant little area of Gait Barrows NNR.

I would have preferred to spend a day here just exploring the reserve but I needed to be heading for home, another four hours of Motorway driving nightmare away. There was just time to walk down a nearby track looking for Duke of Burgundy butterflies, although I found no sign of them but I did come across a woodpile across which ran, back and fore, under and over the piled logs, several Wasp Beetles. Looking extremely smart in their yellow and black colours they scuttled about, busily inspecting the logs and were yet another first for me.

So, all in all, not a bad couple of days. Such a contrast from the huge Walrus on Friday to the tiny Wasp Beetle on Saturday with the very rare Lady's Slipper Orchid in between.

There is so much to enjoy in the natural world apart from birds and here were three prime examples.

Please click on any image to view a larger version

Sunday 27 May 2018

The Walrus at Wick 25th May 2018

I was watching a Rugby League game on the television in our kitchen on Thursday evening. At half time, as is my custom and to ignore the adverts and all the half time blather from the commentators, I consulted my Twitter feed and was astounded to see that Wally the Walrus had come ashore on a stony beach at Wick, which is in Caithness, Scotland and is situated some twenty miles south of John O'Groats, almost the northernmost point on Britain's mainland. 

Wally was first encountered in Orkney on the 9th March this year when  he visited both North Ronaldsay  and Sanday before  being seen at the islands of Skye, Lewis and Harris in The Western Isles, or Hebrides as they are also called.

He disappeared only to be re-found on a beach near Kinlochbervie on 16th May which is in Sutherland on the mainland of  northwest Scotland. He then swam out to sea the next day from Kinlochbervie, only to haul out on a beach further north at Wick on Thursday afternoon.

Wally is presumed to be an Atlantic Walrus, one of the three sub species of walrus recognised in the world, inhabiting an area incorporating Hudson Bay in Canada, eastern Greenland, Svalbard in Norway and the eastern Barents Sea east to the Kara Sea in Novaya Zemlya. Vagrant walruses such as Wally have occasionally been reported from the coast of Europe as far south as the Bay of Biscay. The last walrus recorded in Britain was in 2013 in Orkney.

I had followed Wally's progress with much interest as I have always wanted to see a real live walrus. His arrival in Scotland, and specifically at Wick, was going to be my slim and possibly only chance at seeing a walrus, as it was impracticable to have tried to see him in either Orkney or the Hebrides. When, however, he arrived on the mainland at Kinlochbervie I was all set to make an overnight drive to go there but decided to wait and see if he was still present the next day. Thankfully it was a fortuitous decision on my part to wait, but not for others I knew who did make the long journey that night, only to discover there was no sign of Wally the next day.  

I forgot about Wally but a few days later he arrived at Wick. I had noted that Wally, on his travels, had developed a semi routine that wherever he arrived on a beach he remained for the rest of that day and usually for most of the next day. He had arrived at Wick mid afternoon on Thursday so there was a chance he might still be there on Friday.

So back to Thursday evening. It was now or never. Decision time. The usual heightened anxieties kicked in and the adrenalin started flowing, fast and furious, through my body. Here unexpectedly, in the prosaic environment of our farmhouse kitchen with a cup of tea to hand and the television on, my world was suddenly cartwheeling with that heady amalgam of  trepidation and excitement as another opportunity for a tilt at the extraordinary presented itself but demanded an instant reaction. No time for rationalisation, no time to think.

My wife was watching a film in the living room and I walked through and informed her that Wally had been sighted again  and I was going to Wick to try and see him. Well used to this kind of news she resignedly enquired what time I would be leaving in the morning. 

'No, I am going right now. It's now or never as he will probably be gone later tomorrow.'  

'You're mad but good luck.'  

'Thanks. See you on Saturday.'

In fifteen minutes I had an overnight bag packed, scope, bins and camera stowed in the car and was heading down the drive. I looked at the clock on  the car's dashboard. It was 9.35pm. I hardly dared look at the Satnav but it told me the hard incontravertible truth. The drive to Wick was going to be twelve hours. If all went well the earliest I would be at Wick was 8.37am tomorrow morning. At this time of year it gets light in northern Scotland around 2.30am. Would Wally remain on his beach or swim out to sea at first light? If he did it was a lost cause. This and several other anxieties ran through my head as I drove away from my house. Up to now I had taken no time to really think about what I was doing. Everything had been done in an initial rush of excitement but now the reality of what I was attempting began to feel ever more daunting.

Forty five minutes later I reached the traffic lights controlling access to the M40 motorway northbound to Birmingham and my resolve faltered. The lights were red. A familiar voice in my head seemed to speak. 

'Turn back. It's easy. Back in bed, blessed sleep and forget all about walruses'

The lights turned green. The inner voice enquired. 'Yes or No?'  

Me.  'Yes!!! Let's go for it!!!'

I headed north, joining the Birmingham Toll Road. I began to calm down, feeling easier about things once I was beyond Birmingham and embarked on the long and tedious, almost attritional drive northwards. An interminable passage of 'Average Speed Check' on the M6 did my heightened anxieties no good at all but once clear of this I made good time. Night had fallen and the darkness was somehow comforting as the harsh reality of the passing topography was shut away from my enclosed world in the faithful Audi listening to the BBC's World Service, 

Once past Manchester the traffic thinned out and I was in a familiar late night world of processional heavy lorries and just a few private cars . I would need to stop somewhere and refuel the car and calculated I could do this at Tebay, just south of Carlisle. They had nice services there, discreet and peaceful with none of the tat and mindless muzak that is prevalent at other such places but I would inevitably get ripped off by the motorway fuel prices. Needs must. I had no choice as there was not time to leave the motorway and go in search of a less expensive garage even if I could find one open at this time of night.

I got to Tebay at one thirty am, refuelled the car and also got myself a coffee to keep me going through the wee hours. I was the only person in the place apart from the cheery lady who served me. Should I drink the coffee here or take it with me? There was no time to delay as I still had a very long way to go so it was back into the car and I rejoined the empty motorway leading up and over the wilds of Shap Fell. Approaching the Scottish border at around two thirty am, the sky began visibly to lighten in the East. I circumvented a still comatose Glasgow and then Stirling, the huge castle dominating the pale dawn sky off to my right. It was fully daylight as I came upon the outskirts of Perth. I approached  a huge roundabout and now felt, this far north, that I was getting somewhere but the dreaded A9 was still to come. The road is a nightmare of alternating dual and single carriageways, all controlled by an Average Speed Check, so you just have to sit there keeping an eye on your speed. Marge the Satnav intoned, with words of doom, the dreaded information 

'At the roundabout  take the first exit and follow the signs for Inverness for the next one hundred and twenty six miles' and lapsed into silence

I felt very alone. My heart sank but there was no choice. On and on I went through the spectacular scenery of The Grampians, rising up over the Drumochter Pass, the wild moorland tamed and scarred into a mosaic of heather patches to create grouse moors for the rich and privileged. How do they get away with this? Money and influence is the answer. Further on and another high mountain pass was reached, The Slochd, which once I had crossed it, sent me down in a long sweeping curve of road to Inverness. It was now five am and the earliest signs of commuter traffic were commencing as I passed Inverness to my left, crossing the Moray Firth on a high bridge and noting it was going to be a beautiful sunny day. The sun had already risen well above the horizon and I needed sunglasses as I drove east into its glare. Sunshine, even when inconvenient, always helps my mood. I was tired now but was driven on by adrenalin and the ambition to complete my marathon mission and hopefully see Wally.

A road sign told me there was only another one hundred and twenty miles to get to Wick! The Satnav showed no mercy and still gave my time of arrival in Wick as 8.37am.

Tiredness plays tricks and makes you anxious, irrational, even depressed and I was now worrying how I would find the precise location where Wally had been seen at Wick. According to my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. he was on a stone beach just east of The Old Lifeboat Station  at Wick. It should be easy really as Wick is hardly a huge place and I should be able to find the location but I was in no ordinary state of mind, so consequently the worries became magnified and out of proportion due to my tiredness. 

I passed my ancestral home in Ross and Cromarty and crossed into Sutherland. The sun was now shining brilliantly from a virtually cloudless sky and illuminated the prolific gorse that lined either side of the road and surrounding fields and hillsides. Not just any gorse bushes but huge clumps of them, the dense, massed golden yellow blooms creating undulating waves of bright lurid colour along the roadside and other blanket like swathes across the hillsides. I have never seen anything like it. All the way through Sutherland this golden landscape accompanied my progress.

It was seven am when I reached Caithness, a very different county to Sutherland, comprised of wide and open, flat countryside and little else. I noticed that a strong northeast wind was blowing across the land with very little to stop it as far as I could see.

I was reluctant to consult RBA fearing the worst. This was crunch time. My anxiety levels reached critical. My stomach churned. Was Wally still on his beach or not? I had fifty miles to go. I checked RBA but there was nothing. No news of birds or Wally. Seven thirty and I checked RBA again and there, half way down, on a small list of bird sightings was the one word Walrus.

I hardly dared look further. Yes or No?


He was still there and 'showing well.'  

At least he was at 0704.

A huge surge of relief enveloped me. The monumental driving effort was looking to be worth it. The huge gamble had paid off and I had done it. I really had. I could hardly believe what was happening. My world suddenly became a much happier and contented place and all my doubts were dispelled in an instant.

But hold on, I was still thirty miles away from Wick. Mild paranoia took over and the usual doubts that come in these situations now assailed me. What if Wally swam off before I could get there? What if I could not find the beach when I got to Wick? The report of him was half an hour ago. What had happened since?

It is silly I know  but this is what happens to your sensibilities at times like this or at least to mine. Everything distorts and becomes irrational. I would not achieve true peace of mind or rest until I was physically looking at Wally

To get so close and not see him by minutes would be too awful a failure to contemplate or live with.

The only road leading to Wick was empty or if there was any traffic it was heading the other way and so I was not unduly delayed as I passed through a huge, sometimes bleak landscape of sky, sea and moor that I had no time to appreciate but maybe could on the way back. Remote villages with strange names came and went as I got ever closer to Wick. It seemed to take forever but finally I was on the outskirts of Wick or so a sign told me. I drove past a small shopping mall and into the town proper.

Where do I go from here? I knew the coast was to my right. I needed to ask someone in a garage maybe, but  I could not see one and there were precious few people about to ask but then a lady walking a couple of dogs crossed the road in front of me.

I stopped and lowered the car window. 

'Excuse me can you tell me how to get to The Old Lifeboat Station?' 

She looked at me blankly. 

I tried volunteering some more information. 

'I have come to see the walrus'. 

Comprehension immediately dawned on her face and she gave me directions to the harbour which seemed a bit complicated in my tired state but I just about managed to absorb them.

In fact it was quite easy to find the harbour and, having taken only one wrong turning in the harbour area and been re-directed by some workmen, I found myself circumnavigating the south side of the harbour with yachts, small craft, and indeed a lifeboat moored within, and there before me was the Old Lifeboat Station and even better, just beyond, a few people standing on some rocks obviously looking down onto a stony beach below.

I drove up and parked the car on the side of a dusty track under a low cliff. The dashboard display told me I had driven 603.7 miles. I turned off the engine and with relief got out of the car, my transient home for the last twelve hours. I walked across the track to some very large rocks perched on the top of a seawall and found Steve Gantlett of Birding World fame sat on one of the rocks. I looked down from the seawall and some fifteen feet below on the stones was Wally the Walrus. I had done it. I could hardly believe it.

Wally the Walrus in front of The Old Lifeboat Station. The
above three images give you some idea of his size and bulk

I have never seen a Walrus, dead or alive and was none too sure what to expect. Sure they are famous for having a pair of big tusks but of the rest I was totally ignorant.  I have seen sea lions and seals, so in my mind was expecting something similar but I was in for a huge shock. Wally was very big, in fact he was enormous. The size of a small cow in fact. He was flat out, stretched across the grey stones on the small sloping beach, a mound of light tan coloured fur and blubber. It made me gasp as I got my first sight of this monstrous sized mammal not fifteen feet below me and from what I could see completely oblivious of me or anyone else.

I just stood and gawped at this huge presence that seemed so incongruous on the small shelving beach of stones. Wally, it is fair to say totally dominated his chosen surroundings.

Wally the Walrus was a creature of so many excesses and with an appearance that only his mother could love. Rudyard Kipling's description of a walrus in his story 'The White Seal' in The Jungle Book, as the 'old Sea Vitch-the big, ugly, bloated, pimpled, fat-necked, long tusked walrus, who has no manners except when he is asleep,'  seemed just about the most accurate description one could apply to Wally.

He was fast asleep, lying on his side in the sun with his face towards us like some giant slug. His small eyes were firmly shut and the iconic tusks shone yellowish white in the bright sun. His head looked too small in proportion to the huge bulk of his neck and body. The upper lip to his curiously shaped suction like mouth was prominently covered in short stiff bristles.

Drawing my eyes away from his face I noted the huge, broad, webbed, fore flippers and the similar hind flippers drawn in under his body. On one occasion he endearingly placed a huge flipper over his eye and kept it there as if to shield it from the bright sun.

Wally is apparently a young male but even so you could see he was weighing in at around a tonne.

He just lay on the beach, uncaring and untroubled by all the fuss his presence was causing. Every so often his mouth would twitch as if dreaming of shellfish and crustaceans, his main food, and his bristly snout would quiver with emotion. A lazy yawn every so often would be a prelude to his raising his domed head and shifting his huge bulk slightly and occasionally his tiny eyes, almost lost in the thick folds of wrinkled skin would briefly open before he slumped back down to sleep. His body was covered in short sparse fur and the folds of skin were wrinkled all over, just as happens to your fingers when you have been in a bath for too long.There were pinkish marks around his neck, a sign I learned, of adulthood.

For the first hour and a half Wally lay on his bed of stones as slowly more people, local and visitors, arrived to see him and everyone, without exception, were taken by surprise at his sheer size and bulk. Events such as this often become a bit of a social occasion which is one of the nicer aspects of my hobby. Geoff, a fellow Oxonbirder arrived and we had a short chat. I met Sandy from Inverness and as can happen we teamed up and shared the experience, comparing our photos and chatting away.

Steve Gantlett came over and asked me if I could do him a favour. He was communicating with a car load of walrus twitchers en route from Nottingham and wanted me to continue giving them updates  on Wally's presence or otherwise, as he had to leave. I agreed to update them every hour but did not feel they would get here in time. They estimated they would not get to Wick before mid afternoon which is when Wally was likely to leave. In fact Wally left at four that afternoon and they missed seeing him. Whilst feeling for them I felt a bit better about my mad dash the night before as if I too had left it until later I would have suffered the same disappointment.

The crowd was never large, maybe twenty five or thirty at its maximum, no one misbehaved and everyone kept a respectful distance from Wally, whilst most people just took a few pictures and left, leaving a hardcore of twitchers and photographers to mount a vigil over Wally. Looking at Wally I found myself musing on some words from 'The Walrus and The Carpenter' in Lewis Carroll's  Alice in Wonderland

                                            The time has come the walrus said
                                            To talk of other things
                                            Of shoes and ships and sealing wax
                                            Of cabbages and Kings...............

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be reciting them to myself whilst looking at a real live Walrus and in Britain at that.

It had been a long drive and it was far from unpleasant sitting here in the sun, relaxing after my extraordinary journey to get here, looking down on Wally and chatting to people. In fact it was fast becoming quite a celebration. Even the local primary school mounted an expedition with the teachers bringing a crocodile of very excited children, suitably dressed in high visibility clothing to come and see Wally. They lined up and looked over the wall and shouted in excitement on seeing Wally, flat out on the beach below.

What a tremendous experience for them as the blue sea beyond glittered in the sun and a red dredger hoovered up the silt from the harbour entrance.

A couple of Arctic Terns patrolled the seashore and an Oystercatcher piped plaintively from the rocks as the white surf  rattled the stones of the beach below Wally's prostrate form.

After about an hour and a half Wally stirred, rolling over onto his back so his tusks pointed up in the air. He rolled over some more, down the shelving beach so he was nearer the surf. He raised his head and then rolled over again. A complete slow roll. I realised he was intent on rolling himself into the sea and that was precisely what he did. It was becoming all too apparent that this was a mammal not at all at home on land and when it was out of its natural element, the sea., moved laboriously and with some difficulty,  

Possibly Wally was getting too warm, lying in the sun and fancied cooling off. He blubbered his way into the surf and swam out into deeper water his back, rising whale like and appearing as a pale hump above the surface. Could this be the end and he was now departing?

The answer was no, as he soon turned and came back to the shore. Raising his huge bulk, not without some difficulty, on his broad fore flippers, he made an attempt to get out of the water but giving up the unequal contest slumped full length, half in and half out of the water. Stretching his neck and head forwards to their full extent he used his tusks to lever himself up the beach, wedging the tusks between the stones to give him leverage.This went on for a little while as he used his tusks several times to advance up the beach and finally found a position he was happy with and collapsed on his side to return to sleep.

This use of their tusks is what they regularly do to lever themselves onto the ice floes where they congregate in their more natural habitat  in the Arctic. Contrary to popular opinion the tusks are rarely used for feeding.

I sat some more, chatting to Sandy and watching Wally but realised I was now very tired as the adrenalin ceased to run through my veins and the initial excitement began to wane. I needed to find somewhere to sleep tonight, get some food and refuel the car for the journey home tomorrow.

By now I had been sitting here for over three hours just enjoying this, probably unique experience, and being out of the car, in fresh sea air on a gloriously sunny day. I rang my wife to give her the good news and then bade farewell to Sandy after arranging to meet him later in the afternoon on nearby Duncansby Head to look for passing Orcas and admire the seabird colonies on the cliffs.

I went in search of  bed and breakfast accommodation and found a very nice place overlooking the harbour at Wick called Seaview and soon, courtesy of June, the owner, was ensconced in a very pleasant room. There was no way I could drive back without a good night's sleep and this would be ideal.

Once I was sorted out with a place to stay for the night there were a couple of things I needed to do in the town, the first of which was to make a pilgrimage to the Old Pulteney Distillery, home of my favourite malt whisky and Scotland's northernmost mainland distillery. 

This done it was then off to find a bank to obtain some money and finally a visit to Tesco's to get some food as I had not eaten anything since six pm yesterday.

This achieved I then drove fifteen miles to Duncansby Head to rejoin Sandy who was looking for the  Orcas from the car park at the top of the cliffs. We did not find any but it was wonderfully relaxing looking out to the clearly visible  Orkney Islands, sat in a haze of blue across the Pentland Firth, whilst above us countless Fulmars and Kittiwakes and some very close Bonxies flew along the cliff top. Far below on the sea were hundreds of Guillemots and Razorbills grouped in small congregations. On the grassed cliff sides, dotted with clumps of pink thrift, many Fulmars sat, conversing in guttural chuckles, each secure on their own particular little cliff ledge, sitting cosy and content in their pristine white and grey plumage whilst others swooped and glided in the updrafts of wind currents. Below them terraces of Kittiwakes called, the distinctive cries echoing eerily from the cavernous openings in the cliffs. There is nothing like an active seabird colony. The sound and constant activity stimulating and yet relaxing. It was absolute bliss and the ideal antidote to the last hectic twenty four hours.

Fulmar Petrel
Admiring the attractive Fulmar's I compared them to Wally's complete opposite in appearance but you know, in a strange sort of way I found Wally the Walrus just as beguiling, if not more so.