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Final task for ALL Orchid Observers volunteers…

We are so grateful for your contributions to the project and have one last, very important task for you. We need all Orchid Observers participants to complete a short survey about your level of experience at plant identification and online transcription/classification before taking part, to understand how knowledge and information was shared amongst volunteers within the project. We’d be really grateful if you would spare 10 minutes to complete the survey by 31st July 2016.

It is part of our ongoing research into citizen science as a tool for scientific research but also for skills development and knowledge exchange. Orchid Observers was a new and innovative type of project combining outdoor recording and online transcription activities – it was the first of its kind. We hoped to attract both amateur naturalists who previously recorded plants or other wildlife outdoors, and also online volunteers who are experienced at classifying and transcribing data online. We, and our funders the Arts and Humanities Research Council, want to understand whether and how these two ‘types’ of citizen scientists took part and interacted within Orchid Observers.

We would be enormously grateful if you would take part in the survey. Your answers will be analysed anonymously, but as a thank you for your time you can enter a prize draw to win a wall print of the 2010 Wildlife Photographer of the Year image Orchid in a flush of garlic or a copy of Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guide by Harrap and Harrap.

Last chance to work on Orchid Observers

The Orchid Observers project is closing at the end of July (so if you can help us out with the last few classifications then you have just two weeks left!). We’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the volunteers who photographed orchids, identified photos online or transcribed and classified our museum specimens. Your time, expertise and enthusiasm is really valued by the team.

Thanks so much for your time,

The Orchid Observers Team

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Orchid Observers: the results so far…

The Orchid Observers project is closing at the end of July (so if you can help us out with the last few classifications then you have just two weeks left!). We’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the volunteers who photographed orchids, identified photos online or transcribed and classified our museum specimens. Your time, expertise and enthusiasm is really valued, so thanks for being part of the Orchid Observers team.

Smiley orchid thank you

The project had two main research questions:

Firstly, the climate science research: Are orchid flowering times being affected by climate change?

Secondly, the social science research: How do volunteers interact and share ideas and knowledge with one another, within a project that combines both outdoor and online activities?

The second question was of particular interest to our funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are asking all Orchid Observers volunteers to answer a short survey to help us address the second question, so keep an eye out for that coming soon.

Here I’ll update you on the science research outcomes and how we are analysing the data you’ve collected.

With your help, the photos of orchids taken in 2015 have been identified and combined with the classifications and transcriptions you made from the historical museum specimens. This is a fantastic achievement and means that we can now start to analyse the dataset as a whole, exploring how flowering times for the 29 orchid species included in the project vary in relation to key climate variables. It is an extremely exciting stage of the project for us, as we begin to see what the data analysis will reveal!

Results at a glance

  • Over 2000 volunteers taking part
  • More than 1800 new observations of wild orchids
  • Around 200 new locations, where particular species of orchid hadn’t been recorded before
  • 50,948 classifications on the Orchid Observers online platform
  • Orchid photographs taken all over the UK, from the Shetland Islands in the far North, to the Isles of Scilly in the far Southwest.

New locations for rare orchids

Orchid Observers volunteers photographed the Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) and White helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) in several previously unknown locations. These orchids are classified as ‘near threatened’ and ‘vulnerable’ to extinction in the UK respectively, so discovering new populations is really encouraging. We look forward to working with colleagues at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) to double-check and then further explore these valuable finds! It just goes to show that even well-studied groups like orchids can still surprise us and citizen scientists can make exciting new discoveries.

White Helleborine, GarethKnass

White helleborine, photographed in a car park by an Orchid Observers volunteer

 

Understanding flowering times of UK orchids

The wide geographical spread of observations is vital to the climate change research question. Geographical variation in flowering time may be expected, and a wide spread of data allows us to factor this in when analysing the results.

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Orchids were photographed all over the UK!

We are about to start the full analysis of the data, but an initial scoping study has been completed for one species, the Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio). This analysis combined the flowering time data extracted from historical Museum specimens with recent biological records from the BSBI’s database and the 2015 Orchid Observers field observations. Initial results show that the median date of last year’s flowering was at least 10 days earlier than that shown in the museum data (which mainly covers the years 1830 to 1970). We can also see that peak flowering time for this species advances by just over four days for every 1 degree Celsius rise in mean February to April temperature.

Green winged box plot cropped

The yellow box represents flowering dates of Green-winged orchids in the museum’s collections, and the red box represents flowering dates of the same species but from the photographs taken in 2015. It shows a shift of at least 10 days in median flowering date.

Initial indications are that different orchid species may differ significantly in their response to climate change, something that we look forward to investigating in more detail. These preliminary results should of course be treated with care, however, they are certainly very promising!

 Do you know your Common twayblade from your Lesser twayblade?

We asked Orchid Observers volunteers to identify the photographs uploaded to the site. But we know orchids can be a tricky group to identify, and lots of people might not be familiar with the different species. We made a handy ID guide to help, and we know some volunteers are expert botanists, but we wanted to find out how accurate the identifications were to ensure they were research quality. The great news is, the majority of them were!

We took a sub-sample of 163 images and checked whether the identification the Orchid Observers volunteers gave was correct (more than one person looked at each photo, and sometimes you agreed with one another’s identifications and sometimes you disagreed!). 19 of the 29 species of orchids have quite distinctive features, and for these the ID accuracy was close to 100% – great news! As we anticipated, a couple of trickier species groups such as the spotted-orchids and marsh-orchids (Dactylorhiza species) and the fragrant-orchids (Gymnadenia species) presented problems as they hybridise easily, so can have features that are a blend of two different species. Even so, between 70% and 90% of identifications were correct, and for a couple, even the orchid experts couldn’t agree!

We also asked you to record the flowering stage (in bud, in flower etc). In the test sample, all of the flowering stage tags were correct across all species.

Museum collections online

The museum is still quite new to crowdsourcing projects, so it’s great for us to get an understanding of how difficult a task we can challenge you guys with! Here you’ve proven that you’re absolutely up to the task of identifying some pretty difficult organisms and transcribing hard-to-read handwriting, so watch this space for more projects!

We are currently working with the Notes from Nature project on the Zooniverse to develop new projects to transcribe more of our museum collections. We have over 80 million specimens in all, so there’s plenty to be getting on with!  The Museum is committed to making its collections and the information they hold more accessible, for science and environmental research, but also for everyone to enjoy. We look forward to working with you on this in future!

What happens next?

We are currently in the process of ‘getting to know’ the data that you have helped to gather and classify, including learning about any biases within the dataset. For example, there are far more observations for some species than others, something that we will need to factor into our analyses. This will be completed by the end of the summer, when our statistician Angela will begin the full data analysis. We hope to write the results up for publication in a scientific journal early next year, and of course we’ll give regular updates here as well. Once we know how the orchids are responding to changes in our climate, we can then consider what this means in ecological and conservation terms

We will also make the data gathered through this project freely available to others, making best use of the data for research and conservation. Photographic records of orchids in 2015 will be shared with the BSBI and the National Biodiversity Network, and the collections data will be available on the Museum’s Data Portal where you can see all our digitised collections and their associated information.

Thanks again for your contribution to the project. With very best wishes from the Orchid Observers team.

Orchid Observers Team

The Orchid Observers team, from left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer) Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey

 

Visiteering with Orchid Observers at the Natural History Museum

We’ve already had a fantastic response from the amateur naturalist and professional botanical community, alongside nature loving citizen scientists, who went out all over the country to photograph orchids flowering in 2015, and submit their images and records to the project – thank you. Many of you have also been engaged in the online identification of species and tagging flowering stages in the uploaded images, as well as transcribing data from our extensive Museum herbarium collection, but with around10,000 historical orchid specimens in our collection there is still a lot of useful data to extract.

In October, to help us speed up our goal to annotate all the specimen data for the Orchid Observers research, we invited anyone interested in volunteering a day of their time to work alongside a scientist from the Orchid Observers research team here in the Museum to help with this task!

visiteer logo

Visiteering is a new strand to the volunteer offer at the Natural History Museum which invites small groups of volunteers into the Museum for a day to for a genuine collections-based experience and a chance to support the Museum’s work. Visiteers are set a challenge relating to the collections and work along museum scientists.

We piloted the first ever Visiteer day in October with the Orchid Observers project and challenged each visiteer to verify or transcribe data for 50 or more museum orchid specimens  on the Orchid Observers website.

Since October we have offered 7 Visiteering days for up to 10 people. Over 300 people registered their interest to get involved and a total of 56 volunteers have taken part in checking and transcribing data for our orchid specimens; collectively they succeeded in annotating 3,424 specimens!

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Liberating the data: some examples of our historical orchid specimen sheets which our visiteer groups helped to annotate

 

Some highlights from Visiteering with Orchid Observers:

  • On a scale of 1-10, participants were either likely (8) to extremely likely (9-10) to continue verifying/transcribing from home.
  • All participants understood the value of their contribution and the ambitions of Orchid observers.
  • Practical skills gained ranged from: transcribing herbarium sheets, to deciphering handwriting and investigation skills, cross referencing and information searches.
  • New knowledge gained: identifying UK wild orchid species and their Latin names, knowledge of UK places, Vice counties and geography, impact of climate change on UK orchid species, plant and specimen preparation, data sorting

Feedback from visiteers: What did you most enjoy about your visiteer day?

‘I found it very satisfying to complete a transcription’ 


‘…the feeling that my time has been used for a worthwhile cause’

 

 ‘I’ve learned about the way scientific data is collected and collated. Visiting the NHM behind the scenes fulfils a lifelong dream…’


‘…feeling we were part of the whole scientific process…’

 

‘Joyful organizers, loads of background information, feeling useful J

 

‘..meeting and spending the day with awesome people!’

 

‘Everything’

Orchid Observers visiteers

Some of our many lovely visiteers with Orchid Observers

A giant THANK YOU to all our visiteers who came into the Natural History Museum to offer their time to the Orchid Observers project, and for your valuable and lasting contribution to the Museum and our research.

And a special big thank you to Ali Thomas, Volunteer Manager extraordinaire! And to all the Museum teams who made Visiteering possible.

visiteers

 

 

 

Wild Orchids Gallery

A massive THANK YOU to everyone who has contributed their photographs and records to the project throughout the spring and summer! We’ve selected just some of over 2,250 amazing photographs of our native orchids which have been contributed by our participants – watch the slide show here:

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And you’ve still got time to upload any 2015 field records and photographs – we need these by mid-October for inclusion in our analysis. Don’t forget to keep identifying species and flowering stage on the Identify page, and also to try your hand at verifying and transcribing our museum specimen labels on the Transcribe page.

Thanks again!

September update

As we near the end of the orchid flowering season 2015 there are still Spiranthes spiralis to be found flowering, probably up until late September, so please keep looking out for them and uploading your records. Here is one of these little beauties I found and photographed in Essex at the weekend!

Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) Photo: Kath Castillo

Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)
Photo: Kath Castillo

Almost 1800 field records have been uploaded to the website from across the UK – a truly wonderful effort, so a big thank you to all who have participated! Many of these are new records and locations for some species which we are very excited about. We aim to start analysing the data you have collected soon, so if you have any orchid photos you have not yet uploaded please could we ask you to submit these by the beginning of October so we can include all of these valuable records in our analyses. If you’ve already submitted all your photographs, and if you’ve identified all of the uploaded field photos, then please click on the ‘transcribe’ tab and help us to extract data on flowering times from our beautiful Museum specimens, like these below.

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Coming soon: we’ve been selecting some of your best field photos from the season and will be posting them here in our next blog!

A blog on the Frog and the Bog

Written by Mike Waller

Continuing with an update on some of this season’s orchid hunts, this post will focus on two of our less colourful species – the Frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) and the Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa).

Readers will be unsurprised to hear that, like most species described in the previous post, the Bog and the Frog have declined dramatically across their range over the last century. For the latter, this loss is particularly stark in Wales where only a few remnant populations remain in small patches of suitable pasture. For example, in Ceredigion (Mid Wales), the Frog orchid has dwindled to only one privately owned meadow near Llanfair Clydogau. Unfortunately, over the last two years I have surveyed the site, no plants were found and I suspect the species is now extinct in the county.

Recently however, a sizeable population of Frog orchids has been discovered in a disused limestone quarry in Denbighshire. Naturally I had to make a visit and so in late June I made the arduous journey to North Wales to see what I could find.

Unusually, the Frog orchids I found growing in the quarry were not only huge (>35cm) but they grew in large clumps of up to 8 flowering spikes. Even stranger was the habitat – a hedgerow! Typically Frog orchids favour open calcareous grassland and scrub with plenty of light. We even found some plants growing inside an area of secondary woodland amongst leaf litter. Clearly the Frog orchid has a wider habitat tolerance than previously thought.

Alongside the Frog orchids we came across large numbers of Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata), Common Spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and Chalk Fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea).

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A gigantic multi-stemmed Frog orchid hiding in a hedgerow. Photo by Mike Waller.

During the latter half of July, myself and the other trainees (Katy Potts, Sally Hyslop, Chloe Rose and Anthony Roach) joined lead Orchid Observers scientist Mark Spencer and AMC botanist Fred Rumsey for a couple of days of botanising and collecting on the local wet heaths. With the availability of a willing workforce, Fred took the opportunity to enlist our services to survey one of the few sites for Bog orchid not far from Studland.

The Bog orchid is Britain’s smallest orchid species, usually standing no more than 8cm in height and entirely green making it very hard to find. Sadly, the species has declined by 61% with losses being particularly acute in lowland Britain where it is now only found in the New Forest, Dorset heaths and Cornwall. More recently, the Bog orchid has disappeared from Norfolk – the very last location for the species in the entirety of eastern England.

Previous population counts at our target survey site appeared to be indicating a general decline from hundreds to a mere 18 flowering spikes seen in 2013. As with any localised population, it is vital that repeated surveying takes place in order to track environmental change. Of course, orchids are famously ephemeral in their appearance so flowering numbers are hard to predict.

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The Bog orchid is pale yellowish green all over making it difficult to spot. Photo by Mike Waller.

After reaching the area, using specially drawn maps given to us by the county recorder, Mark and Fred quickly found 5 large plants at the edge of some rush tussocks and as we moved on, we gradually found more and more plants clinging to the mud amongst sundews and bladderworts. Fred methodically recorded each individual plant and its location as we combed the 100m stretch of sopping bog.

By the end of the day, we waited in anticipation for Fred’s final count which stood at a fantastic 102 – far surpassing the previous count and suggesting that a decline was not necessarily occurring here. Let’s hope these fascinating little plants continue to thrive here for many more years to come.

Don’t forget – now is the time to get out and look for our last orchid species of the year – the Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis). Search for this species amongst short turf on limestone, chalk or fixed dunes. They can even be found on lawns and old grass tennis courts!

The Wild West

Written by Mike Waller

The pace of the Orchid Observers project has really accelerated through the summer. Alongside an overwhelming quantity of records, we’ve seen people from all corners of country getting involved. Records from far flung areas like northern Scotland have not been uncommon whilst some species have been recorded in entirely new locations.

But it’s not just the public who’ve been out photographing orchids.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve criss-crossed the country in search of some of our rarest and most enigmatic species. This year has been no different only this time, I’ve been able to use my photographs of the 29 specially selected species to feed directly into the Orchid Observers project.

Working full time here at the Angela Marmont Centre means I have a 2 day per week window through the orchid ‘season’ to catch certain species at the optimum moment and snag the perfect photo. Here I’ll give a brief overview of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.

The last weekend in May was the first major excursion I made with Saturday devoted to a tour of some ancient limestone grassland and woodland sites around Gloucestershire. It began with a visit to the beautiful Selsley Common where, despite it being quite late in the year, Green Winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) were scattered across the upper slopes, just clinging on in the afternoon heat. Further on I came across my true target – the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera). I counted around 20 plants on the open download just coming into flower. Their shiny blue speculums, designed to lure male digger wasps, were iridescent against the velvet chocolate surface that makes up the labellum. It was also in this area that I observed my very first Chalk Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea) of the year, just beginning to open alongside a few Common Twayblades (Neottia ovata).

The unique flowers of the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) in Gloucestershire. Photo by Mike Waller.

The unique flowers of the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) in Gloucestershire. Photo by Mike Waller.

The next stop was a short one and only a mile from Selsley. A small lane passing through some ancient Beech woodland where White Helleborines (Cephalanthera damasonium) hide in the gloom, protruding as widely spaced individuals from the crispy leaf litter. The flowers barely open in this species and are mostly self-pollinated.

My final destination was a mysterious and little-known location for the Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) deep in the heart of Gloucestershire. Despite reports of only 3 plants, I eventually came across several small groups scattered across the rough grassland bringing the total up to 24. Rafts of Early Purple orchids (Orchis mascula) were looking quite tired but a single Greater Butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) was still in tight bud beside the main path.

A group of Burnt orchids is now a rare sight in the British countryside. Photo by Mike Waller.

A group of Burnt orchids (Neotinea ustulata) is now a rare sight in the British countryside. Photo by Mike Waller.

The Burnt orchid has suffered one of the most catastrophic declines of any orchid in the UK with a 79% loss from its past historical range. The causes for this are complex but primarily stem from agricultural changes. This particular location represents a relic from a time when it was far more widespread.

Then came Sunday and a race up to Sandscale Haws in Cumbria for the diminutive Coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) with fellow orchid enthusiast, Sean Cole – AKA ‘Mr. Orchid’!

Sandscale Haws is a vast duneland reserve managed by the National Trust with many rare species such as Natterjack toads. This year was, however, shaping up to be a special one for Sandscale. A few days previously, volunteers had recorded the highest number of Coralroot orchids since 1991 – the year I was born! Well over 1000 spikes in just a hand-full of slacks (read more about it here: http://sandscalehaws.blogspot.co.uk/).

Each individual flower of the Coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) is few millimetres across. Photo by Mike Waller.

Each individual flower of the Coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) is few millimetres across. Photo by Mike Waller.

The Coralroot orchid is an arctic-montane species that really belongs in the open shrubby tundra and pine woods of Scandinavia. Curiously, it is leafless and relies on parasitising it’s fungal ‘partner’ for nutriment. It is also miniscule and rarely attains a height of more than 15cm which makes it doubly hard to spot amongst the extensive mats of Creeping Willow under which it hides.

Alongside the Coralroots were several Bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) in bud and the odd Early Marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata) just preparing to flower.

Fast forward a month to the last weekend in June. Reports of a newly discovered location for the equally diminutive Lesser Twayblade (Neottia cordata), just inside Herefordshire, prompted a visit. The remote Olchon Valley, running parallel to the Welsh border, was said to be the place and I quickly came across several large plants (>10cm!) nestled amongst the heather on domed platforms of Sphagnum moss. Mom had been dragged along for this day and also helped find several more in the general area.

The Lesser Twayblade (Neottia cordata) is a montane species that thrives under heather on damp moorland. Photo by Mike Waller.

The Lesser Twayblade (Neottia cordata) is a montane species that thrives under heather on damp moorland. Photo by Mike Waller.

From there, we struck out across the border into Breconshire to a tiny Wildlife Trust reserve that holds Wales’ last reliable site for the increasingly rare Small White orchid (Pseudorchis albida). Only 2 were seen amongst a thronging mass of other hay meadow flowers. A stunning display of Heath Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia borealis) and Heath Spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) was a real treat alongside 6 Greater Butterfly orchids (Platanthera chlorantha).

The Small White orchid (Pseudorchis albida) is now critically endangered in Wales. Photo by Mike Waller.

The Small White orchid (Pseudorchis albida) is now critically endangered in Wales. Photo by Mike Waller.

Being able to observe these stunning little plants out in the wild is always a real privilege. The opportunity to be able to use their phenology as a proxy for climate change research makes finding them just that little bit more exciting. Don’t forget to keep uploading your records to the website!