This blog is written by Abernethy staff throughout the changing seasons here on the reserve.
During summer it's likely there'll be more frequent blogs as the ospreys return to breed at the Loch Garten nest and the drama unfolds.
We hope you enjoy following life at Abernethy reserve.
Thanks for reading!
I worked late last night. That’s not unusual for me (or many others!), as doing a combination of long and short work-days means I can spend more time at home when I need to. It’s just how my life has to work. The last thing I did before I shutdown my computer at 10 o’ clock, was make a “To do” list. I’ve not been sleeping that well recently, and as soon as I stir into consciousness in the middle of the night, my thoughts automatically turn to work and everything I have to do. The list-making, late last night, was an attempt to ward off those rising feelings of anxiousness which always seem so much less manageable in the wee small hours. So, it kind of worked, but even so, when my alarm went off at 7.00am this morning I didn’t particularly feel as if I’d had a great night, so I decided to have a walk in the forest before I tackled the tasks of the working day.
It wasn’t a particularly pleasant morning to be out walking – grey, a bit misty, with light drizzle - commonly known as “dreich” up here. I started off on one of the tracks through the trees and then on a whim, turned off and roughed it through the forest. Had it been spring or summer, I wouldn’t have done this, as leaving the forest tracks and walking through the forest, even on a trail, can lead to disturbing breeding birds, in particular, of course, capercaillie. But that’s when my walk became a wander. Or perhaps, more accurately, a wonder.
Here’s a question for you: “What is your natural habitat?” I’m pretty sure the majority of you haven’t just said “the pub” or even “my home”, but have instead called to mind your favourite wild space; the place where you feel most alive, most energised, most stimulated, but also most relaxed.
My place to play and pray (though I’m not religious) has to be the ancient Caledonian pineforest here at RSPB Abernethy. A walk in the forest has an immediate calming effect on my body and mind, yet inspires and invigorates me too. When life and work get a little too full-on, I escape into the forest and drink in the trees’ good-tidings as if they were some sort of drug. Hence this morning’s foray into the world of ancient Scots pines, straggly junipers, vital deadwood and heather hummocks. As I’ve already said, it was dreich, so please excuse the quality of the photos.
There have been many well-publicised and moderately successful exhortations to get away from the hustle, bustle and stresses of modern day living, and escape to our natural habitats to lead happier, healthier, freer lives. As long ago as 1854, Henry David Thoreau prescribed a woodland existence as a remedy to civilization and its dissatisfactions, in his essay Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.
And, of course, the many and oft recited wise words of the Scottish father of the National Parks, John Muir, extol the countless virtues of immersing oneself in the natural world. Google “John Muir quotes”, and you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of pithy and inspirational snippets, (like the one entitling this blog) so many, in fact, that I have trouble selecting the most appropriate, and indeed this whole blog could just be an anthology of “Muir-isms”, but here are a couple for starters:
“Everybody needs beauty...places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
Now, if you’re like me, and a bit of a hippy at heart, these words resonate with truth. But even if you’re a bit of a cynic, there’s no getting away from the fact that modern-life is full of modern-life pressures – we all feel them, even if our individual experience differs from that of our neighbour. The pressure to succeed at school and at work; to earn more; to be happy; to have accomplished, talented children; to have a show-home; to prepare healthy, wholesome meals for your loved ones; to drive a smart car; to go on fabulous holidays; to post photos of your perfect life on social media; to look beautiful and to be skinny…the list goes on and on, it’s never-ending. And we’re not helped by the well-documented disconnect from nature felt by the majority of the western world. We’ve forgotten our roots. We’ve forgotten what it is to be at one with the natural world. We’ve forgotten that the human nervous system is both of nature and attuned to it. In short, we’ve forgotten that we ARE nature.
So it’s no wonder, that there’s a growing movement within science, health practitioners and nature conservationists, which aims to promote the essential, life-affirming power of nature. For example, researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest.
In Japan, this has manifested itself in the form of “Shinrin-yoku”, which means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." It was developed as long ago as the 1980s by government officials at the Forest Agency of Japan and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. The theory? If a person simply spends time surrounded by trees, there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved, and not just psychological and spiritual, but physiological too.
The trick is to allow yourself to just be. Do nothing, and gain illumination. Just be with trees! It’s that simple. No hiking, no counting steps, no focus on a particular destination (unless that destination is improved physical and mental well-being!). You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything. If you like, be a human being, rather than a human doing.
But it’s not all hippy, mumbo-jumbo. From 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent about $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing. As part of this research, the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods was measured. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumour formation, and are therefore associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. Subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods. Researchers claim this is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better—inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function. In other words, being in nature made subjects, physiologically, less wired.
Trees soothe the spirit too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. The subjects were more rested and less inclined to stress after a forest bath. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.” Forest bathing can even promote better sleep.
And you don’t even need to access wild forests - city dwellers can benefit from the effects of trees with just a visit to the park. Brief exposure to greenery in urban environments can relieve stress levels, and experts have recommended “doses of nature” as part of treatment of attention disorders in children. What all of this evidence suggests is we don’t seem to need a lot of exposure to gain from nature—but regular contact appears to improve our immune system function and our wellbeing.
We have always known this intuitively, as Mr Muir so eloquently states “There is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.” And whilst it’s a shame that the state of human-kind in the “civilised” west has got to the point where we need this spelling out to us, this growing “nature as therapy” movement is surely something to be applauded and supported.
Still unconvinced? Well, maybe Mr Muir, the master of human psychology and the benefits nature can bring, will convince you at last, with this gem which leaves a tingle down my spine and a smile in my heart:
“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fibre and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”
The pine forest here at Abernethy is amazing. It's a truly magical place, housing trees that are hundreds of years old, regularly revealing new and previously unrecorded species and providing habitat for thousands of species of plants, animals and fungi. Scots pine trees are beautiful to behold - from the very upright youngsters, with their thin, straight trunks to the twisted and gnarled Granny pines, the OAP's of the forest who have been standing silently for decades. And all of them covered in bushy fingers of green needles contrasting delightfully with their reddish-brown trunks. A wander through the Caledonian pine forest is a magical and awe-inspiring experience.
But, at this time of year, the stars of the show at Abernethy aren't the pine trees (although we love them no less than usual). As autumn draws on we are treated to a spectacular display courtesy of the broad-leaved trees that are interspersed among the more abundant pines. These trees, including birch, rowan and willow are a vital part of the ecology of the Caledonian pine forest, providing nesting habitat for birds and mammals and acting as a vital food source for many insects. While, for most of the year, these trees are easily overlooked (there's almost a joke about not seeing the wood for the trees here but I can't quite get there...), in autumn their leaves undergo an incredible alteration from green, green and more green to a kaleidoscope of bright yellows, fierce oranges and, in some cases, deep reds. It's like hundreds of paint bombs have been set off along the trails, splattering the forest with mini explosions of colour.
"But what is the reason for this astonishing arboreal artistry", I hear you ask, "We know that leaves change colour in autumn but we want to know why". Well, despite your pushiness, which is quite uncalled for, I will do my best to explain this phenomenon. The classic green colour of leaves is due to the presence of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a special chemical that allows plants to turn sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis (imagine that...if every time the sun shined, you could produce a three-course meal out of nothing! In Scotland, we'd all starve...).
During the spring and summer, when the days are long and sunlight is plentiful, trees and other plants put lots of energy into producing leaves filled with chlorophyll, ensuring they catch as much light as possible and are therefore as productive as they can be. Because of this abundance of chlorophyll, the other pigments in the leaves, important for many vital processes, are covered up by the green and therefore don't show their colours of yellow or orange (even though they are still there).
When autumn rolls around, as it tends to do, just after summer, the days begin to get shorter and darker. This stimulates the trees to ready themselves for the cold, dark winter ahead, when they spend months in a state known as "dormancy", a sort of hibernation where trees shut down and do pretty much nothing (like a Friday afternoon at work or school). This period is when sunlight is in short supply and any energy put into leaf production and maintenance would probably see little or no return. It's now that the tree starts to get rid of its existing leaves, however, before the leaves actually fall from the branches, we are treated to the magical colour change. All that chlorophyll which was so important in producing food is not really needed while the plant is dormant, and yet to let it simply fall to the ground along with the leaves would be incredibly wasteful - trees work hard to create that chlorophyll in the spring. So, instead, it is broken down into smaller molecules and reabsorbed by the tree, to be stored in the roots and re-used again next spring! Genius.
And because all of that greenness is now gone, the yellows, oranges and even reds start to shine out. Gradually, as the autumn becomes winter, the leaves will drop off the trees (itself an important process as nutrients then filter back into the ground) but not before we are treated to our Caledonian crescendo of colour.
And it isn't just trees that will change colour in autumn, many other plants will do the same.
While the leaves are busy changing colour, we have also been busy planning some events for the winter. I hope you are all coming along to the Goose Roost event tomorrow (Saturday 21st October)...our Community Ranger Alison has been busy counting the geese on the loch and although I won't reveal exactly how many she's seen (you'll have to find out for yourselves tomorrow...), it is much, much higher than the paltry 500 I thought there were! A spectacle not to be missed. We'll be on the loch shore from about 4pm so see you there.
We've also got an event planned for the Big Garden Birdwatch in January and a special "Show the Love" event around Valentines Day in February. Keep an eye on our website and Facebook page for more details coming soon. The events will be at or around the Osprey Centre, but why wait til then? The crested tits have been positively queuing up at the feeder over the past couple of weeks, jostling for position with red squirrels, coal tits, chaffinches and the occasional jay! Come and have a look for yourself...but don't forget, if you're tempted to attract the birds to your hand or to a certain perch, peanut butter isn't great - normal peanuts or a regular seed mix are much better. And, on that note, for any RSPB staff you happen to meet, chocolate cake is definitely the best...
See you soon!
Good morning everyone and hello from a very autumnal Abernethy!
This morning I was delighted to receive this postcard from a very confused looking postman...
Incredible! Not only does EJ appear to have very neat writing (another use for that amazing reversible toe) but her spelling and grammar is impeccable. Not bad for someone whose first language consists of high-pitched whistles and repetitive one-note calls. As many of you will know, we are not absolutely sure where EJ spends her winters (many UK breeding ospreys will travel to West Africa but some are known to stop in Southern Europe) and unfortunately this postcard does nothing to solve the mystery. The picture on the front shows a capercaillie in full display, leading me to believe EJ bought the postcard from the Loch Garten shop before she left. I must ask our shop team if they remember serving a short, feathery woman with a very hooked nose...
Now that the Osprey Centre is all closed up and the team have departed for the next stage of their careers, this time of year can feel a bit quiet around Loch Garten. However, if you're willing to look for it, there's still lots going on in the forest and, although quite a different feeling to summer, wildlife is still abundant. Indeed, in many cases, autumn and winter provide much better mammal and bird viewing opportunities. This is certainly true of some of the smaller bird species in the forest. As their natural food sources become more scarce, they spend a lot of time on the peanut feeders and birds such as coal tits, chaffinches, great tits, great-spotted woodpeckers and even crested tits will happily feed right in front of an audience (as long as the audience is relatively quiet). In fact, many braver individuals will readily come and take seed right out of your hand! It's a really exhilarating experience when a coal tit (or even a crested tit) perches on your fingers and plucks some seed from your palm. Interestingly, if you stand quietly outside the Osprey Centre holding a cake or some chocolate, there's every chance that a Visitor Experience Manager will appear and take it right out of your hand. I suggest you all go and try that ASAP...
The Loch Garten picnic tables are used year-round...
...although some prefer to eat using hands!
Autumn also sees the arrival to Scotland of huge numbers of pink-footed and greylag geese, overwintering from Iceland and Greenland. These birds spend their days foraging on fields and their nights roosting in the middle of lochs and ponds, enjoying the safety that the water provides. Loch Garten hosts around 500 roosting geese over the winter and it's definitely worth spending an hour or two standing on the loch shore, listening to the geese as they fly in to land on the water each evening. As the light slowly fades and the forest begins to go to sleep around you, there is something quite magical about hearing the heavy wing beats, splash landings and low honking as the birds reconvene for their communal slumber party. If you're interested in seeing this spectacle for yourself, we are holding a Goose Roost event on Saturday 21st October. Join our Community Ranger, Alison, for hot drinks, soup and shortbread on the loch shore as the geese fly in overhead. The event will run from 4:30pm until 6:30pm and more information can be found on our website or Facebook page. I'll definitely be there as I love to see the geese reesting!
If you go down to the woods today (no, there's no Teddy Bears picnic), you might also be treated to the impressive sound of red deer stags as they begin their seasonal rut. At this time of year, males compete with each other for breeding rights to females, displaying their dominance through parallel walking displays, vegetation thrashing and spine-tingling roars. These roars, accompanied by snorting and grunting, can be heard for miles around and sound like they are coming from a much scarier creature, especially if you've never heard them before. The larger, dominant stag will generally prevail and build up a harem of females with whom only he will mate. Occasionally, if two very evenly matched males find that neither is willing to back down from the challenge, the displays evolve into violent fights, often resulting in serious injuries and death!
Red deer in the forest
Have an awesome autumn and hopefully see you at the Goose roost! I'll leave you with a recent beautiful sunset over Loch Garten...
Loch Garten in all her glory!