Also present was a swarm of more typical Dactylorhiza orchids, most if not all probably hybrids, with genes ranging from Common Spotted to Northern Marsh to Heath Spotted - and probably beyond. These things baffle me. They make my eyes bleed. I leave them alone. Until Sean and Mike's book comes out, at least...
My highest priority for the trip was to see my last remaining British dragonfly, Azure Hawker. If we saw nothing else, I wanted to see this. And see it we did. At Allt Mhuic (along the east side of the river) we had two male Azure Hawkers and a probable female. Unfortunately none stopped for photos, although one male stopped ON Phil, perching on his hand for what must have been a few mesmerising seconds. Get in! Phil and I were particularly delighted as seeing Azure (plus several Common Hawkers) meant that we had both seen all the British hawkers (bar Migrant which isn't yet on the wing) within a week; this following our Southern Migrant Hawkers in Essexon the way back from the Sussex 'Royal Show'. Photographically, we made a better fist with some of the other northern targets - although, that said, cluttered backgrounds and excessively bright light throughout did not make for a particularly good photographic experience. We had 5-6 Northern Emerald at Allt Mhuic, plus presumed Northern (on range) at two sites near Loch Garten.
A couple of other plants I wanted to catch up in Speyside with were (the seriously rare) One-flowered Wintergreen and Twinflower. And again Sean came to the rescue with a site. What absolute crackers. We had One-flowered Wintergreen commonly at one site, and Twinflower abundantly there in what is apparently a good year for it (plus a few 'Tripletflowers'). Plus Intermediateand Round-leaved Wintergreens at two sites. And Mountain Everlasting at one.
My two other main targets for the trip were Chequered Skipper and Mountain Ringlet. We knew from Jon Mercer that the former was over, but still gave it a reasonable crack at Allt Mhuic and (mildly) at Glen Loy. The latter was a jam and a half. Jon advised that we were probably a little early for it, but with all the hot weather, we reckoned we stood a chance. Nevertheless, when we arrived at Ben Lawers, I was bricking it - really knackered ahead of what might be a big old walk. We hadn't even crossed the road from the car park by the time we spotted our first chocolate-brown winged one hurtling around. Mountain Ringlet! Get in! We watched it well, then saw another before we even reached the reserve area at Erdnamucky Burn. Then.... not a thing. No further sign, there or above the reservoir. It was too hot. What luck. Had we arrived 30 minutes later, we would have had a long, sweaty walk... and dipped.
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were on the wing at most sites. Most were fresh, but some were tatty. Their age (and apparently longer wings) got us thinking that they might be Pearl-bordered, but close examination suggested that they were all Small. Plenty of very fresh Dark Green Fritillaries were also on the wing. My favourite encounter with these was two individuals spiralling upwards into the ether, out of site. Large Heath (of the subspecies scotcica) was another quality butterfly to be enjoyed. These favoured boggy sites (so Allt Mhuic, Glen Loy, Tulloch Moor and above the reservoir at Ben Lawers. The last time I saw these was 1991 - so it was good to see so many, so easily! Small Heath favoured grassland sites, so an orchid meadow in Speyside, Insh Marshes, the lower slopes at Ben Lawers, and an orchid site near Inverness.
Quite a trip!
That is quite enough orchid species. But what about orchid hybrids? One of the most remarkable features of this trip were several astonishing hybrids, including two particularly rare examples. These plants seem to bonk anything that doesn't move - whether closely related or not. First up, Small White x Heath Spotted Orchid and about 15 Heath Fragrant x Heath Spotted Orchids at a private site in Speyside. The former has flowered for the second year running, and we were ecstatic to see it.
With all the dragonflies, butterflies and moths, I didn't have any brain space to contemplate other invertebrates. So just as well that Phil Saunders did - so had got a bit of gen, which we complemented with useful intel from Sean Cole, Stewart Taylor and Jon/Angela Mercer. And what unexpected joy these invertebrates brought us. These mini beasts were the unsung heroes of the trip. The highlights were: a glimpsed Aspen Hoverfly (near Grantown; Phil got proper views, then I messed things up by spotting and photographing a lookalike fly of a different genus), Ladder-marked Longhorn Beetle (Loch Bran), Bumblebee Robberfly (Glenmore Lodge) and Bee Beetle (near Newtonmore), all of which have restricted ranges. A true bumblebee in Speyside divided opinions: I think Bilberry Bumblebee, Phil thinks Heath Bumblebee. Phil usually knows best... Two young Raft Spiders were excellent (though not a patch on the massive adults we saw last year at the same place). Phil also got us excited by several hoverflies, notably Xylota jakutorum, Dasysyrphus bicinctus, Chrysotoxum arcuatum and Sericomyia lappona.
Phil and Will thought they glimpsed a Downy Emerald at Allt Mhuic, and we certainly missed that species at Loch Bran, where another couple saw it shortly after we left. Loch Bran was full of dragonflies. A really special place. The star, of course, was Brilliant Emerald, and we had at least three males patrolling the water's edge. Will netted one, allowing close examination of that orange mark on its frons. I managed some reasonably pleasing flight shots too.
There were plenty of decent micros around too. Thank goodness Will had the patience to identify them - and then even physically add the names to the photos below.
As some of you may have detected on Twitter, Phil Saunders, Will Soar and I had an amazing trip to Scotland during 24-27 June. It has taken me until now to process the photos and find time to write up the trip. We spent the 24th at Allt Mhuic and Glen Loy (near Fort William). On 25th, we started at Glenloy Lodge, checked Glen Loy and went to Loch Bran and a roadside site near Inverness before reaching Speyside around lunchtime. We spent the rest of that day and until late morning on 27th in Speyside, before heading to Ben Lawers in Perthshire. We broke the drive home with a late-evening roadside stop in Cumbria. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow account of each time, I'll summarise the excitement in each group of fauna and flora. The weather was amazing throughout: record-breaking baking hot sun (hence Hotland, rather than Scotland, if you hadn't twigged) hat was too much even for insects by mid-afternoon.There is little doubt, though, that this was the main factor behind our success. That and amazing gen - with massive thanks to Sean Cole, Keith Langdon, Chris Lansdell, Tom Lowe, and Jon and Angela Mercer.
Effectively new - but a bit of a tart - was Heath Fragrant Orchid. I have seen this species before and after flowering, but not whilee actually flowering. We made amends, with thousands upon thousands strewn across several sites - from Allt Mhuic and Glen Loy to Insh Marshes and an Inverness roadside. Heath Spotted Orchids also abounded, including some rather nice white examples. And Lesser Butterfly Orchids were at three sites: Insh Marshes, Allt Mhuic and the private Speyside site, where 7,700 have been counted this year. Astonishing stuff. We had Northern Marsh Orchids at a couple of Speyside sites too. We had a single Lesser Twayblade at two sites. One was a typical dwarf, the other (at Loch Garten) a giant, stretching 15cm upwards. Talking of triffids, we were astonished by the size of the recently discovered Speyside colony of Coralroot Orchids. Some plants were fully a foot tall. And the numbers were amazing. We counters 563, although all bar a handful had gone over. Finally, we had a score or so Frog Orchids and many huuuuge Common Twayblades at a roadside site in Cumbria.
Another target for Will and Phil was Northern Brown Argus. I was happy to see this too, as the only ones I had seen before were a couple of years ago at Bishop Middleham in Durham. And the Scottish ones are a different subspecies. Will and I had one at a private Speyside site, Phil has seven at Insh Marshes, but then we all got cracking views at a roadside site southwest of Newtonmore.
My favourite flowers were monstrous, largely thanks to gen from Sean Cole (but also Keith Langdon and Tom Lowe). The only tick available was Small White Orchid, which was my penultimate British orchid species. We ticked it at Allt Mhuic, then had two at a roadside site south of Inverness, followed by an astonishing 1,600 (yes, you did read that correctly) at a private site in Speyside.
Common ('Highland'?) Darters were on the wing here. So too Common Hawkers and Golden-ringed Dragonflies, which we saw at several locations.
In Cumbria, another hybrid awaited us: Frog x Northern Marsh Orchid. The first example in England for 65 or so years, found by Sean Cole, Chris Lansdell and Mike Waller a few days earlier.
At the larger pool, a similar number of male Northern Damselflies were fluttering around. They rarely allowed close approach, however. Even with the 100-400 II and 1.4xTC, the images needed quite some cropping. But check out those green undersides to the eyes!
I wasn't really on this trip for the birds, although Phil was as he needed the Scottish specialities for his UK list. Late June is hardly the best time of year, of course, so expectations were low. We managed several Crested Tits. Three Slavonian Grebes at Loch Ruthven were nice, though they stayed a bit distant. Phil heard a female Capercaillie at Bagauish and we found poo there. A couple of half-hearted attempts for Black Grouse were unsuccessful, and we didn't have time to give Ptarmigan a bash. A Golden Eagle was spotted when it photobombed Will's portrait of Highland cows at Allt Mhuic. We had a number of encounters with crossbill sp. Most were of birds flying over - and all those that Will or I taped were identified by Chris Batty as Common (or 'Phantom') - but Phil managed to get good views of large-billed birds that satisfied him as Scottish Crossbill. I have lost the plot on Loxia in Scotland nowadays. When I first went up in 1991, it was straightforward: see a Crossbill, tick Scottish. Nowadays, this pin badge is as close as I let myself get.
Loch Garten's two special dragonflies both performed admirably. We had at least 20 White-faced Darters cavorting and bonking around the usual tiny pool. Rock-star insects, indeed. Shame about the nasty backgrounds.
In terms of other mammals, Phil had a surprise Mountain Hare on a forest track near the reception at Badaguish in Speyside (where we stayed in a sauna-like camping pod for two nights), Bank Vole was (as usual) at Loch Garten visitor Centre, and we have four Red Squirrels on the feeders at Glen Loy Lodge plus one at Glenmore Lodge (Speyside).
We did rather less well on moths than we had hoped - and this despite running a portable actinic on three nights. Nevertheless I had quite a few new macros, and passed 500 macros for Britain with a Pretty Pinion at Ben Lawers. Highlights among the big moths were: 8 Clouded Buff at Allt Mhuic, Northern Eggar, several Map-winged Swifts around the place, several Beautiful Golden Y, Red and Grey Mountain Carpets at Ben Lawers, Small Dotted Buff at Glen Loy and Bagauish, numerous Smoky Wave (especially at Allt Mhuic), several Rannoch Looper (at Loch Bran and another site) Silver Y, Pretty Pinion, a few Purple Bar, plus Green & Grey Arches at Glenloy Lodge, courtesy of Jon Mercer's trap.
One of the surefire highlights of the trip - one that we were guaranteed - was Pine Marten at Glenloy Lodge. This mustelid has been visiting Jon and Angela Mercer's property for 40+ years, a custom presumably handed down the generations. I had stayed here while researching A Summer of British Wildlife in 2013, and enjoyed brilliant views of Pine Marten then. The tardy arrival of a Dutch film crew (cute but noisy) delayed the evening arrival of the Pine Martens, but shortly before 22h00, a female and a kit arrived from different directions and proceeded to guzzle peanut-butter sandwiches a few inches from the window.