After some relatively mild weather in February, winter returned quite suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly to the Highlands in early March. We had just started running this year’s version of our annual focaliser training programme, for people learning to lead our volunteer Conservation Weeks, and I was scheduled to spend the first morning with them, carrying out our introductory walk at Coille Ruigh na Cuileige in Glen Affric, when the wintry weather arrived in full force.
I arrived in the glen shortly before the group of trainees, and there was already a light covering of snow on the ground, with more falling as I waited for them. I took the opportunity to do some photography in the area around the Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin picnic site, where we were scheduled to meet, and was immediately entranced by the beauty of the white landscape and the magical quality of the increasingly heavy snowfall.
By the time the group arrived, there was a lot more snow on the ground, and as we walked up the hill the conditions alternated between bright sunshine and a full-on blizzard.
After about 3 hours, during which I explained various features of the forest and its ecology, we returned to our vehicles and had a quick lunch. The group then departed for Dundreggan, for the next session of their training programme, and I had planned to return to Findhorn, to work in our office there for the rest of the day. However, because it was continuing to snow quite heavily, it was a unique opportunity to be out in the forest in the fresh snow, so I opted to spend the rest of the day in the glen instead.
The depth of snow had increased considerably while we’d been up the hill, and there were further intermittent heavy snow showers, which were constantly adding to the white blanket covering all the vegetation.
It became something of a challenge for photography, as my camera lens was frequently getting covered in snow flakes, so I was constantly having to clean and dry it. Because the snow was intermittent, I alternated between shooting some video when the snow was falling, and taking still photographs during the lulls between the blizzards.
I was close to the Allt na Imrich, the watercourse that flows down into Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin immediately to the east of Coille Ruigh na Cuileige, so I spent some time there, appreciating the contrast between the flowing water and the pristine, still snow – two different forms of the same element.
I was reminded of the famous quote from Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, who wrote about water, and its gradual sculpting of rocks into rounded organic forms, in these poetic terms: “What is of all things most yielding can overcome that which is most hard…”
I often stop at this point to look at the Allt na Imrich, and it is a different experience every time. The water level in the burn fluctuates considerably, depending on how much rain there has been, and the surrounding trees and vegetation obviously change in appearance throughout the seasons. This day was particularly special though, with the fresh snow accumulating on the rocks bordering the water as I watched.
After watching the water for a while, I turned my attention back to the trees in the forest nearby. Many of the birches (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens) in this area are draped in lichens, particularly beard lichens (Usnea spp.), due to the constant high humidity caused by the spray given off by the cascading waters of the burn. Today the lichens seemed especially prominent as they were all capped in snow, making them appear larger than usual.
The snow also created very even illumination in the landscape, with the layer on the ground reflecting the light back up to the underside of the branches of the trees. Thus, instead of there being dark, shadowed areas on the bottom of the tree limbs as on most days, the undersides were almost as bright as the tops of the branches. As a result, in the photo here, the lichens below are as well-lit as those above them (where they are visible under the snow!).
There’s one tree in this area which is a particular favourite of mine. It has a large burl (or burr) on its trunk, which looks rather like a heart in shape, when it’s viewed from one direction. As with the lichens, it seemed more prominent than usual, with the darker area of its underside contrasting vividly with the white landscape all around. I’ve written in a recent blog from Glen Cannich about burls like this occurring on pines.
In this case, the burl was larger relative to the size of the trunk it was on than those on the pines I’d seen in Glen Cannich. However, the cause of the burl was the same as on the pines. When the tree undergoes some form of stress, such as an injury due to storm damage or fungal attack, dormant buds (that would normally create new side shoots or branches) grow bunched together to produce the distorted shape of the burl.
The snow was still falling quite heavily, and was piling up on the ground and the branches of the trees, almost as I watched.
Wanting to get a view out over the forest, I climbed up to the top of a small knoll nearby that overlooks Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin. The snow let up for a few minutes and in the clearing air I could see across the loch to the stands of pinewoods on a promontory on the other shore, with the low hills behind them. Everything was coated by the fresh snow, and the trunks and branches of all the trees were highlighted in white, as though by some immense and elemental landscape artist.
It’s a relatively rare treat to see a whole forest landscape like this in Scotland with the trees all covered in fresh snow. Because there are frequent windy days in the Highlands, the snow usually doesn’t remain on the trees for long at all, so I savoured the opportunity of being out in this pristine, snow-dusted forest. The stillness in the landscape in between the snow showers contrasted vividly with the intense blizzard-like squalls, when the visibility dropped to just a few metres, because of the almost horizontal snow.
There are a few Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) on this knoll overlooking the loch, and the snowy conditions seemed to highlight and accentuate the reddish colour of the bark on the upper branches of the trees. I spent a while there, enjoying the view, and experiencing a couple of further snow showers – there seemed to be no let up, as more and more accumulated on the ground vegetation. However, daylight was drawing to a close, so I left, somewhat reluctantly, and headed for home.
On my way down out of the glen, though, my attention was caught by another of my favourite trees, beside the road and above Badger Falls. It’s a silver birch whose trunk is almost entirely covered in a bright yellow lichen (Chrysothrix candelaris), and it stood out dramatically against the white snowy background in the fading light. I stopped to take a few more photos, although it was a challenge, not only due to the low light levels, but also because it began snowing heavily again. I managed to take a few images, however, including some which showed the falling snow as white blurs, capturing the motion of the wind. All in all it was a fitting climax to a beautiful day in the winter wonderland created by the snow…
Along with the photographs, I’d been shooting some video footage during the day, so here’s a brief compilation of that to finish this blog with, beginning with the focaliser trainee group that I’d spent the morning with at Coille Ruigh na Cuileige.