What have the Orchid Observers team been up to?

It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers! The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April and the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one! A week in, and we recorded almost 300 people participating in the online activities and an increasing number of people uploading images from the field.

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

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

At the time of writing this blog we now have over 700 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed 17,589 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for 1507 photographic records submitted by participants so far. The field records collected span the country, from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and from Pembrokeshire across to Norfolk. So far, for early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) approximately 9% of the records are from new/unknown sites (as measured by 2 km square/tetrad); this is valuable information, particularly for green-winged orchid which is considered at risk of extinction in the UK.


Whilst we have not as yet been able to fully compare the Orchid Observers phenology data with our museum records (the relevant, verified, 2015 UK weather data has not been released) we have already been able to see that the median date of this year’s flowering of two species (early-purple and green-winged) is at least 10 days earlier than the museum data (which mainly covers 1830 to 1970). These are early figures only, and the full data set will be analysed later this year.

A herbarium sheet of green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio); one of around 10,000 historical specimens available online for data verification or transcription

A herbarium sheet of green-winged orchid; one of around 10,000 historical specimens available online for data verification or transcription

We are immensely grateful for the time and good will of all our participants – without this effort we would not have been able to collect these data. And we’ve still got the rest of the summer to collect more data for all our 29 species in the survey!

As well as showcasing the project at public events throughout May and June, some of us in the team have also managed to get out to various sites to record and photograph orchids ourselves to add to the fantastic field photo effort of our many participants!  We’ve visited sites across the Southeast, and further afield in Dorset, Somerset, Wales and Cumbria


Mark recording man orchids in Kent

Mark recording man orchids in Kent

Kath photographing green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) in Dorset

Kath photographing green-winged orchids in Dorset

Lucy, Jade and Mike collecting photographic records for common spotted-orchid in Surrey.

Lucy, Jade and Mike collecting photographic records for common spotted-orchid in Surrey

The coralroot orchid photographed by Mike Waller in Cumbria

The coralroot orchid photographed by Mike Waller in Cumbria

A rare green form of the fly orchid photographed in Hampshire by Fred Rumsey

A rare green form of the fly orchid photographed in Hampshire by Fred Rumsey

Orchid Observers on film

Written by Kath Castillo

We’ve been busy filming some promotional videos about the Orchid Observers project – take a look!

Mark Spencer and I travelled to Kent early one morning to meet BBC reporter Charlie Rose to film a piece on the project for South East News Today. We went to Darland Banks, south-facing chalk grassland slopes which were abundant with Orchis anthropophora, the Man orchid.

Man Orchid_Darland_19_05_15KCastillo

The Man orchid, Orchis anthropophora, at Darland Banks.

You can see the BBC news film here

I also organised with the Museum’s Broadcast Unit team to film a short piece to explain the research behind the project. So, mid-May saw myself, together with film crew Emma Davis and Hannah Wise, setting off early one morning with two carloads of film equipment, a group of Museum volunteers and lead researcher on the project Mark Spencer, to Oxfordshire for a day of orchids filming at a couple of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s (BBOWT) finest nature reserves. We are very grateful to BBOWT’s Giles Alder and Laura Parker for hosting us.

Watch the film to hear Mark explain the importance of the Orchid Observers project:

A very busy month!

Written by Mike Waller

The last month has been very busy one for the Orchid Observers team. In between filming, field recording and running the now flourishing website, we’ve been showcasing the project to the public with our debut publicity events at Lyme Regis Fossil Festival followed by Big Nature Day at the Natural History Museum. Both were opportunities to engage members of the public with the project, its importance in the wider study of biological responses to climate change, and how their contributions will expand and enrich the project’s research.

lyme NHM stand

Over 30 museum staff and volunteers head to Lyme Regis every year for the Fossil Festival

To draw in the unsuspecting, we erected a 50 inch plasma-screen TV with a rolling slideshow of Fred, Chris and my finest and most colourful orchid images from across the country. We then lavishly adorned our tables with a selection of some of our oldest orchid specimens from deep within the Museum’s herbarium – some dating back to the 1850s! To aid with any queries, we also propped up a variety of UK orchid guides to show the breadth of orchid diversity on our shores. This, alongside our endless reservoir of passion and enthusiasm, resulted in some really enlightening and inspiring conversations.

Mike at LymeOur Orchid Observers display at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival ran over three days from May 1st -3rd giving us a good period of time to engage a wide range of people from all over the country. This was key as it broadened our ability to spread the message of the project to areas that are less frequently recorded by observers. In order to gain a clear understanding of the orchid response to climate change, we need to be getting data from all corners of the country and so this was a real boost.
We had countless inquires about where to find orchids both close to Lyme Regis and near to people’s homes – I was able to help with the latter with my reasonable knowledge of the key orchid sites in most counties. However, we were all amazed by the sheer quantity of people who were already well aware of their local orchid populations and even conduct their own flowering counts! It seems many have a particular affection for ‘their’ local Bee orchids.


The beautiful sea of Green-winged orchids on Stonebarrow Hill

Thanks to Chris we also managed to squeeze in a spot of observing ourselves! During the afternoon on Friday, Kath, Chris and I drove out to look for Green-winged orchids 10 minutes from Lyme on the National Trust’s reserve of Stonebarrow Hill. What greeted us was a purple haze of Green-winged orchids in a huge variety of colour forms carpeting two ancient hay meadows. Kath was largely overcome by the experience as it has been a long-held ambition for her to see Green-winged orchids; the sight was indeed a true spectacle.


A beautiful white variety of the Green-winged orchid

Just a few weeks after that, Big Nature Day took place on the 23rd of May here at the Museum with Fred and Mark also getting stuck in this time. Like Lyme, we were able to speak to plenty of keen members of the public with a good proportion of families showing interest. Our lovely colourful project cards seemed to be very popular with the children! Hopefully they’ll be inspired to go out and take some pictures.


The Orchid Observers stand at Big Nature Day

In the coming months, we’re looking to expand our publicity efforts and attend more wildlife-orientated events elsewhere in the UK so look out for us!

BND orchid teamFrom left to right, Kath Castillo, Fred Rumsey, Mark Spencer and me (Mike Waller)

Join us at Big Nature Day on Saturday 23rd May

The beautiful sunny weather we’ve had over the past week or two has been fantastic for orchids and we’ve had lots of great photographs uploaded to the site. You can view and classify the uploaded photos by clicking on Identify. Great weather also makes for fabulous public events and we’ve been attending or organising a number of events where the Orchid Observers team have been talking about the project and encouraging people to get involved.

On the first bank holiday weekend in May we attended the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (more about that in a later post) and yesterday was the third International Fascination of Plants Day where we showcased botanical specimens and projects all over the Natural History Museum.

This Saturday 23rd May is one of our biggest events of the year – Big Nature Day.


Big Nature Day is a celebration of the diversity of life in the UK and we have 40 different nature groups and wildlife recording schemes coming to the Museum to showcase their work and talk about the groups of organisms they study. In marquees in the Museum’s Darwin Centre courtyard and Wildlife Garden, groups will have stands and activities suitable for families and it’s a great opportunity for nature-loving adults to meet like-minded people. It’s the Museum’s annual celebration of the variety of nature, in recognition of the UN International Day of Biological Diversity.

The event is free to attend, so come along and meet naturalists from across the UK. The Orchid Observers team will be there with a display of orchids from the museum’s collections, so you can see some of the specimens you’ve been working on and find out more about the project.

We hope to see some of you there!

Event details:

  • Natural History Museum, London
  • Saturday 23rd May 2015
  • 11:00 – 17:00
  • Free

Get orchid spotting this weekend!

Mike Waller is one of five new  trainees working at the Natural History Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. As part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme, Mike is working alongside the Orchid Observers team to build his experience in developing and delivering citizen science projects. His passion lies in botany and ornithology with a particular specialism in European orchids, so this is a match made in heaven! Read more about Mike on the Museum’s news blog.

Mike in field

Mike photographing an orchid 

Here Mike describes in a bit more detail what’s involved in the Orchid Observers project…

A new and exciting citizen science project began last week – Orchid Observers. This research project, in partnership with Oxford University’s Zooniverse platform, aims to examine the flowering times of British orchids in relation to climate change. In order to achieve this, we are inviting the amateur naturalist and professional botanical community, alongside nature loving citizens from across the country, to help us collect and sort orchid data.

We want you to go out in the field and photograph any of 29 selected UK orchid species (the ID guide tells you which we’re studying) and upload your images on the Orchid Observers website. Flowering times from each of your records will then be collated and compared with the extensive Museum herbarium collection, and data from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), totaling a 180 year time series of orchid records.

Pyramidal orchid

The Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) adds a splash of colour to the alkaline grasslands of high summer. Keep an eye out for it in June and July.

The primary aim is to further our understanding of the impacts of climate change on the UK’s flora using orchids as a model group. The extensive dataset that you will be contributing to will tell us how different species of orchids are responding to changes in temperature and rainfall across the UK.

Field work: We are asking observers, like you, to record orchids by simply photographing the flower spike and uploading the image to this website, with a location and a date. An instruction sheet explains how to take the best photos for this research project, and to aid you with identifying the orchids, we have painstakingly produced a beautiful ID guide complete with images, descriptions and distribution maps.

Online work: We have over 10,000 herbarium orchid specimens (pressed plants) collected from around the UK stretching back nearly two centuries. In order to calculate any change in flowering times, we need you to help us sort through images of our herbarium sheets and copy across key handwritten or typewritten information such as species, location and flowering stage into text boxes. This makes the data searchable and easy to use for a wide variety of research purposes.

If you would like to get involved with the project either online, or in the field, then simply visit the homepage and follow the links to Transcribe, Identify or Upload photos. The orchid season runs from April until the end of September so the first species are starting to flower right now – time to get your camera out! We’ve already had around 70 photographs submitted in just the first few days!

screenshot 30-04-2015

Screenshot of one of the photos that has already been uploaded to Orchid Observers

Welcome to Orchid Observers!

We’re really excited to be launching this new project today – it’s the culmination of many months of hard work and planning for the team here at the Natural History Museum in London and for our colleagues at the Zooniverse.

Orchid Observers brings together photography, biological recording and the online analysis of museum specimens to better understand the effects that climate change is having on orchids in the UK. More on the research question and how this fits into wider Museum climate change research will come in later blog posts.

For now, grab your camera and head outdoors to look for the early-purple orchid. It’s the first orchid species to flower and should be coming into flower right now.

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Early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) Copyright Mike Waller / Natural History Museum

The great thing about orchids (aside from their stunning colours and beautifully ornate flowers!) is that new species will be coming into flower every few weeks between now and September. We’ll be writing more about our study species and highlighting which orchids are about to flower in future blog posts so keep checking back over the coming weeks.

Thanks for reading and we hope you like the project!