Friday, 28 January 2022

Hunting for fly orchids and what other amazing discoveries we make

Hunting for fly orchids and what other amazing discoveries we make

FROM Middle Assendon, it is an interesting two-mile journey to Bix Bottom.

We are heading to Warburg nature reserve that we have not visited since May last year. It is run by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust.

Turning left after passing the Rainbow pub, Rosemary drives through a narrow, sunken lane reminiscent of those that I recall seeing in Cornwall.

We twist and turn through high, immaculate, flower-strewn hedgerows in a valley with sweeping hills to either side illuminated by a clear blue sky, such a relief after all the rain that we endured in May.

We pass the ruins of diminutive St James’s Church and after a somewhat bumpy ride, we skirt Freedom Wood and Pages Farm before parking in a small car park opposite the reserve’s temporarily closed Interpretation Centre.

I’m on a mission to see if I can find some fly orchids (Ophrys insectifera). They are notoriously hard to spot as they blend in with associated low-level vegetation, such as dog’s mercury, but once you get your eye in you are home and dry.

The leaves are somewhat nondescript and floppy, the stem narrow. The flowers closely resemble insects. The lip is a dark mahogany-brown with an alluring, shining, blue band accompanied by what appear to be a pair of eyes at the top.

The flowers release pheromones that are irresistible to male digger wasps (Sphecidae) that pseudocopulate with the flowers. In doing so, they end up with pollinia stuck to their heads that are then transferred to other plants to propagate the species.

We walk uphill to the side of Range Bottom where Rosemary spots some interesting trees, including small-leaved limes (Tilia cordata).

Emerging are some common twayblades (Neottia ovata), a green-flowered, curious orchid named after its two broad basal leaves. It’s always great to see as it’s a sign of a healthy environment.

A beech tree and field maple seem to be having a tussle, roots engaged.

We stride into Great Hill Ride, where cowslips (Primula veris) are growing in abundance, as are bugle (Ajuga reptans), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), wood spurge (Euphorbia amydgaloides), sanicle (Sanicula europaea), germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) and dog violet (Viola canina). The speedwells seem particularly fond of anthills.

I listen to the tinkling cadence of a willow warbler. I’m overjoyed as it has been such a long time since I’ve heard one but in this setting it is unsurprising. Whitethroats, blackcaps and chiffchaffs chip in.

Towards the end of the ride we meet a couple sitting on a sun-drenched bench. They enquire whether we’ve seen any orchids. I tell them about the twayblades and my hunt for the fly.

They head off down the ride, scanning the ground as they go. We head towards Hatch Lane into a more wooded area where I found some tall fly orchids some years back. At the time my camera’s battery was flat so I could not record them, alas.

Today, Rosemary’s excellent bridge camera is primed and, being sensible, she carries a spare battery just in case.

As I examine the woodland floor, I spot some diagnostic leaves and also those of some helleborines. The flys should be flowering right now so I guess the weather has held them back by a week or two.

Rosemary indicates a plant that she initially thinks is a spent bluebell. It is not. A small specimen, it only bears two flowers. Covered with intricate cobwebs, my target is found, a little beauty. Rosemary dutifully records it.

Almost immediately the couple that we spoke to earlier turn up and ask if we’ve found anything. We are only too happy to indicate the plant, which sends them into paroxysms of delight. The woman tells us that she has only seen the plant in books previously.

We part company and cross rugged Hatch Lane to enter Big Ashes Ride. Once again, we are greeted by a sea of flowers, white, yellow and blue.

To the north Upper Big Ashes retains some handsome conifers that are favoured by crossbills (Loxia curvirostra). As their name suggests, they have the strangest shaped beaks. Spruce-cone specialists, the male is red, the female a mossy green.

We take a left turn after an up-and-down spell into Lower Big Ashes. The sudden change in the environment is a surprise. From a ride full of butterflies to a woodland and then a fern-filled, cool masterpiece. Hawthorns are in full bloom. We both love it.

At the very bottom of the reserve we look upwards to Kitesgrove (there has to be some meaning in the name) and then wander uphill into Pages Bottom Wood.

I want to see if we can find more fly orchids hereabouts. We don’t but I believe that they will announce their presence soon.

We do come across many wired cages to protect what I presume from the leaf shapes to be helleborines from deer predation.

We drop down eastwards along a public right of way towards our entry point. It is all rather lovely. The sky is blue, all the plants are coming back to life, the overall scent of the place is reassuring and, most importantly, I’m sharing it with my wife.

It gets a little muddy when we reach the bottom so we veer off to our left to enter the old rifle range. Once again I hear the dear little willow warbler that I’ve missed for so long.

Our path back to our car is memorable. It is only the start of summer but there is so much to look forward to see, smell and hear in this treasure of a nature reserve.

A peacock butterfly deigns to pose and Rosemary accepts the invitation as she snaps a photo.

After lunch, she expresses a desire to visit Hurley Chalk Pit, another BBOWT-owned nature reserve, so we do.

There are many special wild plants to be seen at this time of year, so I’m keen. June is a major orchid month.

Crossing the road by the now defunct Black Boy Inn can be a major problem and you have to be very careful. We manage to step into an incredible bridleway, so narrow it is hardly believable.

To either side cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) and fool’s parsley (Aethusa cynapium) are in full flower with the scent of early summer love.

Underneath, red campion (Silene dioica), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and the rare creeping forget-me-not (Myosotis secunda) flourish amid woodland grasses.

To our right there is a great variety of trees that include a massive old oak, large buckthorns (Rhamnus cathartica), wayfaring-trees (Viburnum lantana) and horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), the last obviously planted deliberately.

There is a vast amount of airborne insects present, which is reassuring. With insects you get birds and here we have both in abundance.

A pill woodlouse with its seven pairs of legs and tank-like scales scuttles across our path on a mission (perhaps in search of 14 shoes!) As usual, we hear chiffchaffs, whitethroats, blackbirds, song thrushes, dunnocks, wrens and blackcaps. Simply joyous.

After about half a mile and passing some superb views across the undulating contours of the Cayton Park Estate, we meet the entrance to the nature reserve.

An astounding stone sign indicates the way to Honey Lane and, of course, the Dew Drop Inn, tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

We are having so much fun with busy bees and butterflies. A young great spotted woodpecker screams for food from a neatly engineered hole in a beech. It’s good to be alive, as the young, hungry bird will attest.

We turn left towards Warren Row. We could have gone right and ended up in the same place as all paths here are tangled.

After a dreamy walk, we eventually meet the old pit. Splendid in isolation and steep-sided with warning signs, it is home to a rare variety of plants.

Bee (ophrys apifera), chalk-fragrant (Gymnadenia conopsea) and white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) orchids thrive here, as does wild candytuft (Iberis amara), all scarce, local plants. The last that I found were on a hillside between the final beech woodlands facing the Berkshire Downs. Verified but not accredited.

We come across an extensive spread of white helleborines growing under a canopy of beech. Such a sight to behold and only to be witnessed in the south of England.

It is a thrill to find so many rarities in such a small space. We will have to return in a few weeks to see what else pops up.

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