A week after the day in Glen Strathfarrar that I wrote about in my last blog, I returned to the glen for another visit. Unlike the first trip, this time I went by myself and I stopped at different parts of the glen, to experience and photograph different sections of the forest there. In the week between these two visits, spring had advanced considerably, and just as I got to the entrance to the glen I saw a large expanse of bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in flower, where none had been visible seven days earlier.
I was really pleased to see these bluebells, as they are one of my favourite flowers in the forest, and my casual observation is that in recent years they seem to have spread significantly in the Highlands and occur in much denser patches than I remember from say 20 years ago. I’m not sure if this is due to a reduction of grazing pressure, or to the milder climate providing better conditions for the bluebells to spread more readily. Perhaps it’s a combination of those factors, but whatever the cause it’s wonderful to see these beautiful flowers filling more of the woodlands in the Highlands.
As it turned out, seeing the bluebells in bloom was a harbinger for the rest of the day, as there was an abundance of flowers out in the forest, and I spent much of the day photographing them. I hadn’t gone much further into the glen when I reached a place where there were flowers both on the ground and on some of the trees. Stepping out of the car, there were a number of wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) in blossom on the forest floor immediately in front of me. These are quite common in the Caledonian Forest, and they were at the peak of their blooming, with the flowers in perfect condition on this day.
Wood anemones attract a variety of insects that pollinate their flowers, especially hoverflies. However, as a species it spreads mainly by underground rhizomes, and this often creates large patches in woodlands.
Beyond the wood anemones on the forest floor, and overhanging the Farrar River, was a bird cherry (Prunus padus) that was also at the peak of its flowering. This tree flowers slightly later than its close relative, the wild cherry or gean (Prunus avium), and produces white blossoms on upright stems known as racemes. The racemes have up to 35 individual flowers on them, which are very fragrant and attract insect pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and beetles.
Pollinated flowers go on to develop into spherical fruits about 8 mm in diameter that ripen from red to black in August. The cherries are quite bitter to a human palate, but are eaten readily by birds, which then distribute the seeds in their droppings. Bird cherry is a relatively scarce species in many of the native pinewood areas, but in the past it would have been more numerous, especially on the south-facing slopes of the glens, along with other trees such as sessile oak (Quercus petraea) and hazel (Corylus avellana).
Nearby there was a rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) also growing out over the Farrar River, but its creamy white flowers weren’t open yet. The flower buds looked ready to burst though, and were surrounded by the tree’s newly-opened leaves, which were a fresh, slightly pale green colour. Rowan, along with aspen (Populus tremula), is the most palatable of all tree species to red deer (Cervus elaphus), so there aren’t that many mature rowans now in the pinewood remnants such as Strathfarrar.
This one had obviously flourished by growing out over the water, where it was beyond the reach of the deer.
To me there is something very aesthetically pleasing about how rowan leaves and flower buds unfold in spring. Their opening is almost like a ballerina who has her hands touching above her head, then gradually lowering her arms to a horizontal position stretching out to each side. The rowan has a similar elegance and grace at this time in the spring that seems to express a joyous celebration of this special time of the year, when life returns after the dormancy of winter.
While I was looking at the rowan, a movement caught my eye when a bird landed on one of its branches. It was a blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), one of the more colourful small birds in the forest, and it had a bright green caterpillar in its beak, no doubt as food for the chicks in its nest.
The blue tit hopped from branch to branch, still with the caterpillar in its beak, and I realised that its nest must be very close. It didn’t want to go to the nest and give away its location to me, so after a few quick photographs I moved on, so that the bird could deliver its catch to the chicks that would no doubt be hungry for food. In a tree a few metres away, I saw another bird, and this was a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), which is the commonest bird in the Caledonian Forest. Chaffinches are quite fearless, and approach very close to visitors in places such as Glen Affric, hoping for a handout of food.
Moving a little further west in the glen, I stopped again when some more colour on the forest floor caught my eye. This time it was some dog violets (Viola riviniana) that were in flower, and their purplish-blue flowers stood out amongst the grass near the edge of the road. It was a wind-still day, so I was able to set up the camera on my tripod and get some sharp macro images of the blossoms, without any blurring caused by any movement of the flowers in a breeze. The interesting part of the dog violet flower in visual terms is the centre of the blossom, and here’s a couple of images that show that in detail.
While I was looking at the dog violets, I noticed that the leaves on one plant were slightly odd in appearance. The leaves are distinctive in being heart-shaped, and in this case there was a visibly distorted and discoloured section in the middle of one of them.
This was immediately of interest to me, as I recognised this unusual growth as being an indicator of something on the underside of the leaf. Turning the leaf over confirmed my intuition as there was a fungus on the leaf. It was something I’d not seen on dog violets before, but it looked very similar to a rust fungus (Puccinia urticata) that I’ve photographed previously on nettles (Urtica dioica) at Dundreggan, and I assumed that it was likely to be a related species.
That evening a quick search on the Internet confirmed this, when I was able to identify the fungus as being violet rust (Puccinia violae).
The fungus is quite bizarre in its appearance, but when viewed up close has a special beauty about it, consisting of a series of raised circular shapes that are red in their centres and each surrounded by a cream-coloured, slightly spiky fringe. It’s another example of the wonder that can be observed in even the smallest and seemingly inconsequential things in Nature …
There were quite a lot of dog violets in this part of the forest, interspersed with more wood anemones, and I was able to get a photograph of the two species flowering right next to each other.
While most of the wood anemones were in the prime of their flowering period, I came across one plant that was a little more advanced. The stamens had almost all fallen off, with their role in pollination having been fulfilled, and the ovaries at the centre of the flower were beginning to develop into capsules that contain the plant’s seeds. The seeds have a fat body known as an elaiosome attached to them, and this attracts the attention of ants, who help with he dispersal of the seeds.
Just a few metres away from the violets and anemones I spotted an eared willow (Salix aurita) that was just coming in to leaf. This species gets its new leaves slightly later than the closely-related goat willow (Salix caprea), which featured in a blog I wrote earlier this year. It also had some flowers opening up, so I could see that it was a male plant – eared willow is a dioecious species, meaning that an individual bush is either male or female, in contrast to many trees such as oak and birch where male and female flowers occur on the same individual.
Other flowers on this eared willow were already fully open, and had attracted pollinating insects – willows in general are a very good source of nectar and pollen for a whole range of insects.
There were several different species of beetles on the flowers and I able to photograph some of those and also collect the specimens, which I sent off to Sholto Holdsworth, who very kindly helps me with the identification of beetles.
Some of the individual flowers of the eared willow were teeming with beetles, and different species were feeding together, sometimes clambering over each other as they sought out the nectar that the flowers provided. It was very easy to see from this that willows are indeed one of the best genera of trees for supporting insects in the UK. They rival oaks for the sheer diversity of insect species that they are host to, and it was clear that beetles in particular are especially drawn to the flowers.
In addition to the beetles, there were also a number of flies on the eared willow flowers, and some of them were completely covered in pollen. Again, I was able to photograph these and also collect some specimens, which I sent to Peter Chandler, an expert in Diptera, or two-winged flies, for identification.
By this stage it was late in the afternoon and time to leave, but I headed for home very satisfied with my day with the flowers in Strathfarrar. My sincere thanks to Sholto Holdsworth and Peter Chandler for their help with identifications of the beetles and flies featured in this blog.
Here’s some video footage from the day to finish this blog with: