• Christopher Mounsey

How to find a Ghost Orchid with a Brown Bear

Updated: May 8, 2020

Have a look at the short video, or enjoy the full blog post below

In late July I was cycling through the beech forests of Prespa. Starting from 1,000m a.s.l. (about 3,000ft), it’s a favourite route of mine, with a long but gentle climb up above 1,700m, which then rewards the rider with unparalleled views of Lesser Prespa and the mountains of Albania to the west, Mt Vitsi to the south and, if your legs have it in them, views to Mt Kaimaktsalan in the east.

Looking over Great Prespa to the eastern shore, with it's predominately beech forest

On the descent I stopped by a favourite fir tree of mine. Not that I have many favourite fir trees, but this one is special. A couple of years ago I was visited by Bledi Hoxha, an ecologist at PPNEA in Tirana, who are part of the Balkan Lynx Recovery Programme with MES. Bledi spends winter and spring checking trail cameras in Albania, and he came down to stay with me for a few days to teach me more about setting trail cameras, theoretically to record lynx. I say theoretically because, whilst lynx were once present throughout most of mainland Greece, from Prespa down to the Peloponnese, there hasn’t been a scientifically confirmed sighting in the country for decades. Even in their current range they are estimated to number 40-50 in fYR* of Macedonia and maybe only 6-8 in Albania). But, for a bit of fun, Bledi said he’d hike round Prespa with us and we’d set our cameras as if he was hoping for lynx. In simple terms, that’s on tracks or dirt roads approximately between 1,300m and 1,600m, in which scientists have found is the range where Eurasian lynx spend most of their time.

Lynx caught on a trail camera in Albania (c) PPNEA/BLRP

Hiking at such altitude in the beech forest, Bledi suddenly stops at a random fir tree, right next to the road. He darts towards it and pulls bear hair off from the bark. “Forget about lynx. Put it opposite this tree!” Bears, he explained, will have sought out this tree because its bark is rougher than that of the smooth beech that dominates the forest. The bears will then come along to scratch, remove some of their winter coat and leave their scent to mark territory, or alert others during mating season.

Bledi wasn’t wrong. Sure enough the camera (Ltl Acorn 6210) quickly recorded some fantastic footage of various bears sniffing and scratching. The following year I bought another camera (Bushnell NatureView HD with close focus lens) and placed it above the tree, looking down, with the first camera in its original place, opposite the tree. The idea of the new camera being to record a bird's eye view of the bears’ heads as they bob up and down. Within a matter of weeks it was successful, which you can see in the video below.

So where do Ghost orchids come in? Well we don’t have cameras on the tree this year, but when I'm on my bike I like to stop there from time to time and see if there’s fresh bear hair in the bark. As it so happened there was, which is always a lovely feeling, moving one's fingers along the hair and over the bark, as a bear may have done only hours before.

Propping the bike against the bear tree

After an hour in the saddle it was also time to visit the bathroom. By some sort of miracle, as I stepped a few metres to the side of the tree, I stopped my foot just as I was about to stand on something pink and yellow. “Odd plant”, thought I. Clearly one without chlorophyll, looking parasitic, but not like any broomrape I’d seen before. I snapped a photo with my phone and cycled on home, not thinking anything about it.

Unknown plant taken with my phone

Once showered and fed, I got out my Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean book, but struggled to find anything like what I'd seen. I emailed the photo to a good friend of Prespa, and Greek Flora as a whole, Prof. Arne Strid, who recently released the Atlas of the Aegean Flora, the definite book on the plants of Greece.

“By jingo!”, he replied, “this is the rare Ghost orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which has only a few localities in Greece.”

The rarest of the rare. And a plant many professional botanists have never seen. Whilst it’s range is huge, from the UK to the Himalayas, it is exceptionally difficult to find given that it doesn’t appear above ground every year. As a mycotrophic plant and not relying on chlorophyll, it needs perfect weather conditions over the proceeding winter and during the spring and summer to balance the fungi that it feeds on. If everything’s right, then and only then, will it pop above ground. Even if conditions are perfect, it could appear anytime between June and October, so it'd be a fool's errand trying to see it in the same spot the next year.

And whilst it doesn't need chlorophyll, my first guess of parasitic was wrong too. What's the difference between this and mycotrophic? By definition a parasite obtains its nutrients from a living organism. The ghost orchid and other mycotrophic plants live in symbiosis with fungi and take their nutrients from decaying organic matter.

As bathroom stops go, it was rather lucky. And even luckier that I didn’t stand on it. A once in a lifetime occurrence.

Useless fact of the week

The word lynx comes from the ancient Greek, ‘λυγξ’ (roughly pronounced as lingx). In Slavic languages, and also modern Albanian, the word for lynx is a variation of ‘ris’. Interestingly, as Slavic people moved through the Balkan peninsula over a thousand years ago, through to the southern tip of the Peloponnese, they brought their word with them, and some Greek sources still refer to lynx as rissos, ritsos or aritsos.

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