Michael Walters' latest report:

In the plant world, the flowers with the greatest charisma, panache and pizzazz are undoubtedly the orchids.  While we can’t boast the dramatic epiphytic orchids that grow on trees in the tropics, there are about fifty species to be found on these islands, and we can even claim five of them at Blean Woods, although two (pyramidal and southern marsh) were only ever present as single specimens and haven’t been seen for many years.  I have also found early purple orchids within the wood, but not actually on the reserve, so they don’t count!  Our commonest orchid, the common spotted, occurs on a number of the wood’s open rides and glades, and has increased dramatically over the past thirty years or so, though not doing quite so well at present.  That leaves two more species, which are the wallflowers of the orchid world:  common twayblades occur mainly in one glade and are rather fun with their two large, almost circular leaves, but massively let down by a weedy stem of small green flowers.  Finally, we have broad-leaved helleborine, the most enigmatic of the five Blean orchids.  It chooses to grow singly or in very small groups, and in all my years working in the wood I only ever found about four clumps, until this year, that is, when, totally unexpectedly, my random glance at the track verge alighted on a cluster of eight individuals.  This was in early August, so the flowers were rapidly going over, not that you would really notice, because it has to be admitted that they are amongst the dingiest of flowers growing in Blean Woods.  I can best describe them as a dull purplish-brown, the sort of insipid colour that children concoct when mixing up all the paints in their palette, and definitely not a hue to set the world alight.  Partly for this reason it is undoubtedly overlooked, being apparently quite scarce though widely scattered in Kent.

 

I’ve written before about the virtual demise of brimstone butterflies at Blean Woods, followed by a resurgence in the past six years.  This year is already the best ever for this large yellow species, and the season isn’t over yet.  On one of my recent counts it was an absolute delight to see no fewer  than eight of them (sulphur-yellow males and palest primrose females) on one small patch of rideside betony.  The contrast of vivid magenta flowers and yellow insect wings was breathtaking.

 

Relatively few of our larger moths are day-flying and so likely to attract our attention, but some are migrants, arriving on our shores in variable numbers each year, though this has been a poor summer for the silver Y which occasionally invades the countryside.  Another migrant is the rather spectacular, though not particularly large, hummingbird hawk moth.  It hasn’t been a bumper year for this species either, but it did turn up in Blean Woods the other week, utterly unmistakable in the way it hovers in front of flowers, extracting nectar through its long proboscis, but never landing, a blur of orange wing just about discernible.  Even during invasion summers it never seems to be frequent in the wood, perhaps because the flowers it particularly favours, such as red valerian, jasmine, escallonia and buddleia don’t occur here.

 

Gilbert White famously sorted out the three similar leaf warblers – willow, wood and chiffchaff – in the 18th century, but failed to separate willow and marsh tit, which weren’t recognised as different species until 1897.  Both used to occur in Blean Woods, but willow tit, always scarce here, died out around 1995, apparently becoming extinct in Kent in 2006.  Now it seems that the marsh tit is spiralling down the same route to extinction;  formerly a little commoner than the willow tit, it has all but vanished in the past four years.  Both tits favour damp woodland, so their decline may be linked to increasingly dry winters and hot summers.

 

Michael Walter

michaelwalter434@gmail.com

01227 462491

Broad-leaved helleborine in Blean Woods

Marsh tit courtesy of Dave Smith

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