On Sunday I spent the day in Glen Strathfarrar, which contains one of the least-known, but also one of the best large remnants, of the old native pinewoods of the Caledonian Forest. Situated two glens north of Affric, it is much less-visited than that more iconic site, which gained its National Nature Reserve in the same review that led Strathfarrar to lose its previous NNR status. However, the quality of the pinewood habitat in the two glens is comparable, and both are outstanding not only for their conservation value, but also for their scenic beauty.
Over the past 25 years I’ve visited Strathfarrar regularly, and although I’ve been there a couple of times in the past year to look at a potential forest regeneration project, it had been several years since my last dedicated photo trip to the glen. My main reason for going there now therefore was to photograph the autumn colours of the trees.
However, when I arrived in the glen I was surprised to see that most of the trees at the eastern end at least were still green. Because I had seen birch trees on Dundreggan beginning to turn yellow in early September, and quite a few bright yellow birches in Glen Affric the previous week-end, I had expected the autumn colour change to be quite well-advanced, but that was not the case in Strathfarrar.
What’s more, in contradiction to the weather forecast, the day was very windy, which would make any photography of the trees difficult, because of the movement of their branches and leaves. Determined to make the most of the day nonetheless, I decided to visit some aspen trees I knew in the glen, thinking that as they often lose their leaves before birches, they might be more advanced in their autumnal colour change.
However, when I reached the aspen stand I discovered that the trees were already completely bare, and what’s more, all their fallen leaves were already black, rather than yellow – they’d obviously been off the trees for quite a while. As I looked around though, I began to discover that there was plenty of life still out and about – I saw a slug on a mossy rock, and then the slightest motion on the bark of a Scots pine caught my eye – it was a harvestman that had changed its position. I also spotted a caterpillar of the poplar grey moth (Acronicta megacephala), a species that feeds on aspen in northern Scotland, and it had probably fallen to the ground when the aspen leaf it was on got blown off the tree by the recent high winds we’d had.
With the wind continuing unabated, I decided to focus on things that I could see and photograph without worrying about them blowing all over the place, so I kept looking at all the small details in the forest around me. On a standing dead alder, tiny specks of bright orange drew my attention, and looking at them through my hand lens I observed a fungus that I was unfamiliar with. Visually, it was very attractive, and I’m currently seeking to get it identified.
I spent quite a while looking at and photographing some lichens (Cladonia squamosa) that I saw on a rock nearby. This was one of the species that produce cup-shaped fruiting bodies, and on the cups of this clump the dark pycnidia, or spore-bearing structures, were clearly visible, rising up from the rim of each cup. It was a challenge to get some good images of these tiny but beautiful forms, and it put my 5x life size macro lens to the full test of its abilities.
Nearby, on a log I spotted another interesting-looking lichen – one I wasn’t familiar with. Its surface was covered with brown discs – like the Cladonia it was fruiting and these discs, or apothecia as they are called in scientific parlance, are the parts that release the spores. Fortunately, I was able to send the image to a lichenologist who identified the species for me - Protopannaria pezizoides.
Still hoping to find some good autumn colours, I moved further up the glen, to a section of the Farrar River where I knew there were some more aspen trees growing. As aspens generally change the colour of their leaves before birches, it seemed they would be the best bet to get a nice colour display. Additionally, that section of the river is in a narrow gorge, so I expected it to be somewhat sheltered from the wind, and therefore to at least offer some possibilities for photography, without the leaves getting blurred by being blown about.
As I walked towards the area I passed through a beautiful section of woodland, in which the trees were all festooned by mosses and lichens. Because of the sheltered location afford by the gorge, and the high humidity in the air from the spray given off by the cascades on the river, it was a little pocket of temperate rainforest. Many of the glens where we work have special little areas like this, and I suspect they were more widespread in the past, when the forest covered a much larger area in the Highlands.
As I walked I could see the aspen trees ahead of me and I was delighted to find that they were brilliant yellow, just at the peak of their autumnal colours. Aspen turn a much brighter and more vibrant shade of yellow than birches, so autumn is the easiest time of year to spot them, especially as they tend to change colour before the birches. In years gone by both I and some of my colleagues have done a lot of surveying for aspen stands in the autumn because of this. I had also been right in my thinking that there would be some shelter from the wind in the gorge, and I was able to get some photographs of the trees with their leaves motionless. This is surprisingly difficult in the case of aspen, because its leaves quiver or shake in the slightest breeze, thereby giving rise to the second part of its binomial scientific name, Populus tremula. Finding these aspens seemed like a fitting finale to what was a great day out in the forest in Strathfarrar, when I was touched again by the beauty and wonder of all the life it contains.