Awkward Orchids: Unst, Shetland, 26th June to 6th July 2020

This summer I have been lured into the murky world of the Dactylorhiza orchids. Shetlanders have the right idea. they call them all curly-dodies and don’t worry about whether they’re heath or marsh or early or spotted or northern or whatever.

It all started in the winter when I got an e-mail from Mike Waller, who said he was working on a new orchid guide and had come across one of my photos on the Geograph site. I had labelled it Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata, but he thought it looked like a hybrid with Frog Orchid Coeloglossum (=Dactylorhiza) viride, a hybrid not recorded in Britain before. On the ship’s wifi I couldn’t even see the photo, so it was several weeks before I looked at it.

I actually remember taking the photo on the Keen of Hamar on Unst in June 2017, because it was a particularly stout individual (for Shetland) and I did ponder its identification before labelling it. Some of my evidence was circumstantial. It was growing in the area where I knew that Early Marsh Orchid grew, a small colony of the subspecies pulcehella, in its only site in Shetland, and I had seen and found the colony several times with such eminent botanist as David Slingsby, who worked for many years on the Keen, and Walter Scott, the county recorder and author of the county flora.

Looking at the photo afresh, I could see the tinge of green in the mouth of the flower which gave away its Frog Orchid parentage. Frog Orchid doesn’t look anything like any of the Dactylorhiza orchids and despite DNA work suggesting that it does belong in that genus, the current situation is regarded as unconfirmed and most authorities retain it in its own genus. Nevertheless, Frog Orchid has been known to hybridise with several Dactylorhiza and photographs of some of these other hybrids looked very similar to the 2017 plant.

I resolved to return to the Keen this summer in the hope of relocating the hybrid. The first visit on 8th June seemed fairly straightforward, although there was no sign of the hybrid. Few orchids in flower, apart from Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula, fewer than ten Early Marsh Orchids (EMO – no, not that emo) in their usual spot and just two Heath Spotted Orchids Dactylorhiza maculata. This seemed to confirm EMO as the most likely Dactylorhiza parent of the hybrid. Well, assuming what I saw were EMO. If these were subspecies pulchella they really did look very different to the other subspecies and why did they never seem to have the characteristic folded-back sides on the lower lip?

An orchid in the vicinity of the EMO colony on 8th June

My next visit on 22nd June confused the issue. There were about 80 flowering spikes of orchids in the area of the EMO colony, far more than I thought there should be if they were all EMO, but I couldn’t really see any differences amongst them, part from one which seemed to have a lot of Heath Spotted Orchid in it. There were plenty of Heath Spotted Orchids in flower now, all over the Keen, and a patch of orchids near the stiles which were superficially similar to the EMO colony orchids, but had a longer central lobe in the lower lip.

A little confused, I posted some photos on a Facebook group (Native Orchids of Britain and Ireland) and got some interesting feedback. The group by the stiles were Northern Marsh Orchids Dactylorhiza purpurella, and the others around the EMO colony were … well, less typical but closer to Northern Marsh as well. Indeed, the presence of EMO on the Keen at all was called into question. Has it died out? Hybridised out? Indeed, was it ever there at all? At some stage I will have to search through my old photos and see what they look like.

Northern Marsh Orchids
An orchid in the vicinity of the EMO colony, 22nd June
Presumed Heath Spotted x Northern Marsh Orchid

At least this seemed to narrow down the options of the probable parentage of the 2017 hybrid. It now looks like Northern Marsh Orchid x Frog Orchid was the most likely parentage, but I am sure that there may be more to that story yet.

The 2017 hybrid

Inspired by my newfound interest in actually trying to identify Dactlyorhiza orchids I startd looking at colonies to see if I could find anything else of interest, especially as there seem to be quite a few new sites for Early Marsh Orchid found recently. So for, example, on Sunday 29th June it was beached birds survey day so we went to the Easting to carry out the task. On our way back I decided to check out the Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii colony that grows here, one of just two on Unst and the only Shetland colonies outside south Mainland. I was especially keen to look as I had found it difficult to find any pure-bred individuals here last time I looked, several years ago. There were two or three Common Spotted in amongst the many Northern Marsh and occasional Heath Spotted Orchids (and no doubt, every genetic shade in between).

Common Spotted Orchid

A few days later, Brydon T. found an orchid near Helliers Water which looked interesting. With a little advice we decided must be Early Marsh Orchid of the subspecies pulchella. I went back with him to get some more photos and we found just four spikes but it is a new site. It is only known with certainty form the Keen (but see above) and on Whalsay.

Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp. pulchella

In amongst all this orchid hunting though, I found a real surprise. While searching through one patch of orchids, my eye was drawn to four plants with a quite distinctive colour which were just going over. My first thought was that they were Early Marsh Orchids, especially as they had the folded back lower lip on the flower. So, I posted some more photos on the Facebook group and it was suggested that they might be Narrow-leaved (aka Pugsley’s) Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. This species has only been discovered in Shetland very recently, when Jon Dunn located a small and vulnerable colony in north Mainland in 2018. To add to the confusion, no-one is really sure what traunsteinerioides is! Some say it is a subspecies of Traunsteiner’s Orchid D. traunsteineri, which is otherwise not found in Britain, some say it is a subspecies of Broad-leaved Marsh Orchid D. majalis and some, including most British authorities at the moment, say it is a species in its own right!

Paul Harvey sent the photo to Richard Bateman at Kew Gardens, the authority on orchids, who thought that they looked good for traunsteinioides but neither the condition of the plant nor the quality of the image were quite good enough and we may have to wait to rediscover it next June. I returned to the site to try and get better photos a few days later. I could still only find four five spikes, and they were going over, but at least I had a better lens on, so maybe the photos would be better. They were, within hours of sending new photos to Kew the confirmation came through, that we can ‘safely record’ a population of D. traunsteinerioides subsp. francis-drucei. So the species now has two sites in Shetland, although this makes us wonder if there is anywhere else suitable on Unst.

Dactylorhiza traunsteineroides ssp. francis-drucei

This is also the first native species of plant that I have found which is new to Unst. I have found a few casuals over the year (plants, usually weeds or garden plants, brought by man, which don’t usually persist for more than a few years) – Pale Toadflax, Fiddleneck, Chicory, Common Figwort, Holly – and a few new sites for some scarce species, but this is my best botanical find so far.

Migrant birds are becoming scarce, as they should be in midsummer, although South Mainland’s endless spring has continued. A few Common Crossbills are around, not that expected in summer, and three Siskins seems to have summered but not bred.

Common Crossbill at Baltasound on 1st
Male Siskin at Baltasound on 1st

Migrant insects have been commoner, although it has been a bit blustery on Unst to pick out anything out too unusual. A couple of Syritta pipiens hoverflies at SHE in Baltasound were my first of the year. It is a species I associate with migration on Unst, although apparently with some periods of temporary residence, but it seems less clear-cut on Mainland. I’ve even got the net out to look for insects on a couple of occasions.

Syritta pipiens
A female of the Mirid bug Leptopterna ferrugata

There was an extraordinary photograph posted on the Nature in Shetland Photos Facebook group by Nicola Bowie, of a tideline of dead hoverflies on the shoreline at Gulberwick. Rebecca Nason went down the next day and collected over 200 hoverflies (mainly Episyrphus balteatus, Eupeodes corollae, and Syrphus sp.), a dozen ladybirds of three species and 50 Birch Shieldbugs. Extraordinary.

Image may contain: plant, outdoor, nature and water
Hoverfly tideline at Gulberwick (photo by Nicola Bowie)

Some easier plants were seen as well as the orchids. The very dry spring has brought on an impressive bloom of Yellow Flag, while I went for a search around the Setters Hill Quarry in the hope that something interesting might be growing in the ungrazed areas, but was unsuccessful. Nice views though, as I was tempted to go to the summit of Little Heog.

Yellow Flag at Easting
Slender St John’s Wort at Setters Hill
Mountain Everlasting at Setters Hill
Wild Thyme at Setters Hill

With tourism restricted due to coronavirus the planned space theme for Bobby’s Bus Stop is low-key but the now resident Unstfest Puffin has details of Galilei Galileo. A ‘Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter’ poster is in the bus stop as this was the distribution point for leaflets on the day of the Shetland walk. A new, and extremely posh, egg box is beside the bus stop; it also contains homebakes.

So, what are you doing in my field? The ‘perils’ of orchid-hunting.

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