Heather season

Here at Forvie, August is a month which has a lot going for it. Not least because it’s the time when the coastal heath, at times bleak and foreboding, bursts into vibrant colour with the blooming of the heather. It’s as if somebody has taken a paintbrush to the landscape and given it a fresh coat of purple. If there’s ever a time for a slow, leisurely walk over the heath to take in the sights and smells, that time is surely now.

It’s heather time!

Of the three species of heather to occur at Forvie, far the commonest is Ling (or Calluna for all the gardeners out there). While the other two species (the Ericas – Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heath) tend to grow in a more dispersed fashion, it’s the Ling that forms the majority of the purple carpet at Forvie, as well as in the wider landscape of the Scottish hills in late summer. It also provides that honey-sweet smell, intense and delicious, which hangs heavy in the air on a fine August morning on the heath.

Ling, or Common Heather

Like many plants, Ling occasionally occurs as a white variety, lacking the pink or purple tones usually present in the flowers. Once considered to bring good luck, it’s always a treat to find some white heather. However, with the benefit of local knowledge, there are certain spots on the Reserve where it’s easy to find, year after year – if you know where to look, that is!

Lucky white heather

On the coastal heathland of the Reserve, the purples and pinks (and occasional whites) of the heathers form a pleasing contrast with the light blue-greens of the lichens. It’s a unique colour combination, found only where heathland has been left undisturbed for a very long time. Thereby providing us with another reminder of how fortunate we are to have such a special environment right here on our collective doorstep – rare, fragile and beautiful.

A patchwork of heathers and lichens

In places on the heath, the patchwork is supplemented by other species, both beautiful and curious. One such example is Stag’s-horn Club-moss, which grows near the Heath Trail footpath in a handful of locations. Its odd structure reminds me of the giant cacti you used to see in cowboy films, but many hundreds of times smaller. Kneel down and get your eyes right down to ground level, and you could almost be in Arizona in miniature. OK, maybe it’s just me then.

Stag’s-horn Club-moss among the lichens and heather
Miniature Saguaro cacti, perhaps?

A characteristic flower of late summer at Forvie is Devil’s-bit Scabious. Its odd name is derived from the fact that it was once used to treat the disease scabies (among other things), hence Scabious. The other part of its name arises, so to speak, from the plant’s remarkably short roots. Apparently the Devil was so annoyed about its efficacy in curing ailments that he bit off the plant’s roots from underground – hence ‘Devil’s-bit’.

Devil’s-bit Scabious

Regular readers will be well aware that this blog is stuffed full of recurring themes, and in keeping with this, we found a white version of Devil’s-bit Scabious as opposed to the usual blue. In the past we’ve also seen a pink version of the flower for good measure, but we think this is the first time that any of us have seen a white one. So it joins the ever-growing list of plants to have occurred at Forvie in a white form.

White Devil’s-bit Scabious – a new one on me!

This could, in theory, be easily confused with its close relative, Field Scabious. This is generally a taller plant, bearing flowers of a delicate whitish-mauve, but with an obvious family resemblance to its usually-blue-flowered cousin. Field Scabious can be found in the grassland outside the Forvie Centre, while Devil’s-bit Scabious tends to occur along the path-sides out on the Reserve.

Field Scabious at the Forvie Centre
Field Scabious flower

Both Scabious species are favourites of our butterflies, and probably the most obvious species on the wing right now is the Red Admiral. Boldly-coloured, showy and familiar, these can be seen more or less anywhere there are flowers on show just now. However, they can be remarkably inconspicuous at rest, when the bright colours of the upperwings are hidden, as the two photos below demonstrate. The resting Admiral was obvious only by virtue of having chosen a cream-painted wall on which to roost! But against a natural background, that mottled underside provides perfect camouflage against would-be predators like birds.

Red Admiral – showy and bold
At rest, with the bright colours hidden away

Speaking of birds, the exodus at the ternery is almost complete, with just a handful of birds remaining now. The vast majority of these are Common Terns – usually our tardiest breeders – with just a couple of Arctic Terns remaining among them. Quite a few fledglings are still hanging around on the estuary, preparing for the monumental travels that lie ahead of them. But we’re very much hoping to get the electric fence dismantled next week, marking the end of what’s been a very successful season. We’ll no doubt publish a ‘ternery retrospective’ on these pages once the job is complete.

The last few terns
Juvenile Arctic Tern – next stop where?

Thankfully, the electric fence did a great job for us this season in terms of keeping ground predators out – Foxes and Badgers, as ever, being the main concerns. Sure enough, this week we spotted this Fox outside the electric fence, on the lookout for an easy lunch. It’s reckoned that if we didn’t go to such extreme lengths to fence the ternery each year, we probably wouldn’t have a ternery at all.

Who’s for a quick tern supper?

Apart from being the heather season, August is also notable for migration. As we have previously reported, wading birds have been on the move for more than a month already, and now the passerines – songbirds if you like – are beginning to get in on the act. Last Monday we logged our first Wheatear of the autumn on the Reserve – hopefully the first of many to pass through our area over the course of the autumn.

Wheatear – first of the autumn

Of course, migration isn’t just the preserve of birds, and many insects also cover vast distances too. Moths are among the more obvious invertebrate migrants, and August can sometimes offer the opportunity to catch up with long-haul travellers from the south and east. A prime example is the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, and this past week has seen no fewer than three records of this scarce migrant in our garden adjacent to the Reserve. One of them stuck around long enough for Catriona to grab a photo – the moth’s wings appearing as a blur, and the long proboscis tapping into the nectar from a Honeysuckle flower. A great capture of a very difficult subject to photograph!

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

As we all know, the heather season is over all too quickly, as the year continues to turn apace. Now is the time to get out and savour the best that August has to offer, both at Forvie and beyond.