Country diary: A late red grouse chick makes a dash for its mother’s wing

Pikestone Fell, Weardale: The year’s first great pulse of moorland energy, the upland bird breeding season, is all but over

It’s uncomfortably warm on this rare, windless morning and the horizon wobbles in the heat haze. It’s uncannily quiet too: the loudest sound is an irritating squeak that comes with every step, from leather chafing in one of my boots.

Six weeks ago, when I walked this path, I was accompanied by a cacophony of dive-bombing lapwings, hysterical oystercatchers and circling, scolding curlews, all anxious for the safety of fledglings. They’ve almost all gone now, after heading back down the Wear Valley, towards the coast.

Red grouse remain, including a young, very late chick that hunkers down in the middle of the sandy path, dashing into the heather at the last moment. Through a gap, I can see it creep under the wing of its mother, who hides, motionless, relying on mottled brown plumage that blends perfectly with gnarled old heather stems. It’s a display of fearless, protective maternal instinct. She’s so close that I could – but don’t – reach out and touch her.

A bumblebee taking nectar through a hole chewed in the side of a bell heather flower
A bumblebee taking nectar through a hole chewed in the side of a bell heather flower. Photograph: Phil Gates

The year’s first great pulse of moorland energy, the upland bird breeding season, is all but over. In this hiatus the second – the flowering of the heather moor – is beginning. In another month, billions of Calluna vulgaris flowers, still tight buds, will open and flood the landscape with purple. In synchrony, thousands of heather mining bees will hatch from tunnels in the sandy soil. Stand here then and the moor will hum, as they collect pollen to provision underground nests.

On the edge of the fell, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn a hollow-way down to bare rock, I pass a sheltered bank where bell heather, Erica cinerea, has been flowering for several weeks. Most of its narrow-necked, goblet-shaped purple flowers have a small hole in their side, chewed by bumblebees whose tongues are too short to reach the nectar via the legitimate entrance. The nectar-thieving pollinators have found an easier route to their reward.

Walking on, I see emerald green tiger beetles take flight then land again just ahead of my squeaky footfall. I’ll come back again in early August, to listen to the hum of heather bees, as the annual pulse of purple sweeps across the moor.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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