I’m not a botanist but…… (part two)

Lady’s slipper orchid

In Part One I described the background to my hunt for the lady’s slipper orchid, but some detailed research was required for its actual location. A “re-introduced” plant at Gait Barrows would be fine but when would they be flowering? One local naturalist told me via email that, despite the cold spring, they were already flowering by mid-May, and this was confirmed a few days later by someone at Natural England ; not on the limestone pavement itself but “at the bottom of the field with the bird’s-eye primroses”. This sounded promising!

It was a five-hour drive to the camp site at Silverdale where we had booked a three-night stay. We spent the first morning at the nearby Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, and then headed off to Gait Barrows. We were a fair way into the NNR on a public footpath when we came across some birds-eye primroses on the other side of a fence. Entering the enclosure I followed a path as far it went without finding anything. I began to search a little harder and found four rosettes of orchid leaves bursting through the leaf litter but which species they were I had no idea.

Birds eye primroses

The primroses are a delight in themselves and I began to photograph them. Then I heard voices. Jane had been resting nearby and was now talking to another visitor. They came over and found me lying on the ground lining up the primroses. Had we come to see the orchids? You bet! I retraced my steps with him and there they were ……….. one clump withered and brown and another with two flowers in perfect condition. I think you will agree they are extraordinary; I don’t know how I could have missed them! On closer examination you could see that each plant and each stem was surrounded by copper rings, presumably to deter slugs. It was a straightforward task to photograph them and I then returned to the bird’s eye primroses.

The orchid enthusiast also mentioned fly orchids and I was keen to see that species as well. Following his instructions the next day I found myself on a grass verge beside a main road a few miles away. There could not be more of a contrast between two related species than between the fly and the lady’s slipper. One is showy and exotic and the other subtle and understated – but no less exquisite for that.

Fly orchid

Photographing the fly orchids proved much more difficult than I expected. In his book “The Orchid Hunter” Leif Bersweden says of them –

“[Fly orchids are] ……. true masters of stealth and camouflage. They appear slowly and softly, shifting in and out of focus. …….. You’ll see one three meters away yet remain unaware that one has crept right up to your knee. Over the years I’ve realised that looking for fly orchids is a futile activity; their ability to vanish right in front of your eyes is unprecedented.”

Several plants were already marked by sticks but I found an unmarked one, and mentally noted its location before I went to fetch my camera bag. On my return it was impossible to re-locate it. When I tried to photograph one of the marked plants, my lens refused to auto-focus, I worried about cars going past, about my van parked across the road in the quarry entrance next to the “No Parking” sign, and if I was crushing unseen plants in my attempt to get down to fly orchid level in the vegetation. All very frustrating but it was eventually “job done”.

Later I returned to Gait Barrows to see if I could find the lady’s slipper on the limestone pavement where they were originally planted. Most naturalists are happy to help and I asked several for directions, but with no joy. Either they weren’t interested in orchids or I was told variously that “they had all died or been picked”, “they have all been re-located”, “they are still in leaf”, and “the new warden isn’t watering them, so they’re late flowering” . But with photographs of the lady’s slipper already in the can I could relax; and it was a bonus to see a stunning little butterfly called the Duke of Burgundy in a clearing on the reserve specially created for them.

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Photography on the fly.

Fly agaric, near Betws-y-coed

We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!

By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year;  some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.

Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:

1)  Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and

2)  Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.

To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.

Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!

Llyn Crafnant

The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!

Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….

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