Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, writes about his experiences out in the Caledonian Forest, and about his work for the charity.

A walk along the lower Red Burn

Cascades on the lower Red Burn on Dundreggan, amongst birch and alder trees.

It was my first dedicated photography day at Dundreggan for a couple of months last Sunday, so I decided to take a walk along the Red Burn, the main watercourse on the western half of the estate. It’s easy to access, being just a couple of hundred metres west of the buildings at Dundreggan at its nearest point, and as it was an overcast grey day, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do some photography in amongst the trees on the lower section of the burn.

A larger cascade on the lower section of the Red Burn.

Boulder covered in moss (mainly Hylcomium splendens) overlooking some cascades on the Red Burn.








I reached the burn at a place where there’s a bit of an elevation drop, with some nice cascades tumbling over the rocks in the stream bed. This provided me with the first opportunity of the day to get my camera out, and I spent some time photographing the cascades using long exposures, to get the blurred effect of the water in motion that I sometimes liken to ‘angel hair’.

Detail of one of the cascades.

Portrait format version of the same scene.







I always find the contrast between the soft flowing fluidity of the water and the seemingly immutable hardness of the rocks to be aesthetically and visually pleasing, and this day was no exception.

Another view of the moss-covered boulder overlooking the cascades.

Closer in still to one of the cascades.







While I was photographing the flowing water I noticed a patch of sphagnum moss underneath some of the alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) that were growing beside the burn. They were quite vivid in colour in the damp and overcast conditions, so I changed lenses to take some macro photographs of them.

Blunt-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum palustre) beside the Red Burn.

Blunt-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum palustre) and glittering wood-moss (Hylcomium splendens) growing beside each other.







Another image of the blunt-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum palustre) and glittering wood-moss (Hylocomium splendens).




Here, the blunt-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum palustre) looks particularly vibrant and the water content of its leaves is almost palpable in the photograph.








Lichen-covered rock beside some cascades on the Red Burn.

My original intention for the day had been to head upstream on the burn, but now that I was beside it, I could see some more cascades just downstream from where I was, so I decided to have a look at those first.

Cascades on the Red Burn beside a lichen-covered rock.







A wider angle view of the same section of the burn.

As is often the case, this proved to be a decision that determined the rest of my day, as I spent the next few hours in the 100 metres or so downstream from there, and never made it upstream at all! My experience is increasingly that when I spend some time in a small area, I find more and more things of interest, so that I can easily spend a whole day in just a couple of hundred square metres of land! So it was this day, and I find this particularly notable, given that it is winter, and that most of Nature is dormant. There’s nothing like the diversity of life to see that there is in summer, but in fact there was still more than enough to keep me fascinated and engaged for the whole day, as I hope these photographs demonstrate!

Hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) at the base of a birch tree beside cascades on the Red Burn.


This is one of the most beautiful sections of the lower Red Burn.








Just beside some other cascades, there was a small cluster of hard ferns (Blechnum spicant). This is an evergreen species, and it brings a welcome splash of vibrant green colour to the forest floor in winter.

Detail of the hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) growing at the base of a birch tree beside some cascades on the burn.

A portrait format version of the same scene.







Hard fern has an unusual ‘interrupted circumboreal’ distribution, as it occurs in Europe and also in the Pacific Northwest of North America, where it is known as deer fern. I’ve photographed it before in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State in the USA.

Five-ranked bog-moss (Sphagnum quinquefarium) with some red-stemmed feather-moss (Pleurozium schreberi) growing through it.

There were some more patches of sphagnum moss nearby, but of different species to the one I’d already photographed, so I decided it was going to be a ‘sphagnum day’ in terms of my imagery!

Close up of some of the five-ranked bog-moss (Sphagnum quinquefarium).







The bright red moss here is acute-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum capillifolium), and the green moss is common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune).


I’m not very good at identifying mosses like these, especially sphagnums, which are hard to tell apart, so I sent these images to Gordon Rothero, a consultant bryologist who carried out a survey of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) for us at Dundreggan, and he very kindly provided his best guesses for the species – it’s hard even for an expert to be sure about the species of Sphagnum from just a photograph.

Lichen (Cladonia sp.) on a rock near the Red Burn.

In his survey of Dundreggan, Gordon identified 22 different species of Sphagnum, so the three I’ve photographed here just a small sampling of those!

Lichen (Cladonia sp.) on a rock near the Red Burn.








Closer view of the lichen above (Cladonia sp.).

Close to the patch of acute-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum capillifolium), there was a rock with some interesting lichens growing on it, so I spent some time photographing them too. There were patches of two different species of Cladonia lichen near each other on the same rock, but again I’ll have to get an expert opinion to confirm which species they are. We’ve had a couple of lichen surveys done at Dundreggan as well, and as a result we have records of 30 different species of Cladonia on the estate – it is one of the largest genera of lichens. For these lichens I took a number of photographs, varying the plane of focus slightly, and then ‘stacked’ them together, using the Helicon Focus software that I’ve written about in a previous blog, to get the resulting images here.

Moss-covered alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) beside the lower Red Burn.

Continuing downstream, my eye was caught by the bright green moss-covered trunks of a couple of alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) growing at the edge of the burn, which contrasted with the white cascades and the dark colour of the water.

This section of the Red Burn is mostly flat, so the cascades there are only small ones like this.






Another variation on the same scene.



At this point I was just about 50 metres from where the Red Burn flows south off Dundreggan on to neighbouring land, and I knew there was a tree with an interesting feature on it about 10 metres downstream from me. I’d noted that tree a couple of years ago, but it was before I started this blog, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity now to take some photographs of it, to include them here.

The tree in question is a downy birch (Betula pubescens), and it’s growing in such a way that it leans slightly over the burn. However, that’s not its most notable feature, as it has a distinctive, irregularly-shaped black growth on its trunk. This is the sterile conk of the chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – the black mass is not the fungal fruiting body, but instead is a mass of the fungus’ mycelium, which is coloured black by melanin.

Sterile conk of the chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus) beside broomfork moss (Dicranum scoparium) on the trunk of a downy birch (Betula pubescens) beside the Red Burn.

Another view of the chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus) on the birch turnk.








The chaga fungus is another circumboreal species, occurring in the north of North America, in northern and eastern Europe, and in Russia and the Korean peninsula. It has long been utilised for medicinal purposes, and is reputed to be effective in the treatment of some cancers. There are several birches on Dundreggan that have these distinctive sterile conks growing on them.

Lichen-covered trunk of an aspen tree (Populus tremula) (left) beside the Red Burn.

Near the birch with the chaga fungus there’s a stand of aspen trees (Populus tremula), and some of those are growing by the edge of the burn too. Because the bark of aspen has a different PH to that of birch, there’s a different group of lichens that occur on them, and one of the large aspens in particular was covered by lichens.

Lichen-covered trunks of an aspen tree (Populus tremula) (left) and birches beside the Red Burn.






Detail of one of the lichens (Pannaria rubiginosa) on the aspen trunk.



One of the most distinctive lichens that was on the aspen (and commonly occurs on aspens in our area) is grey and grows outwards in a radial pattern, with brown disc-shaped apothecia prominent on it. This is Pannaria rubiginosa, and the apothecia are the part of the lichen that release the spores from the fungal partner in the symbiotic partnership between fungus and alga that forms the lichen.

There are two patches of the lichen (Pannaria rubiginosa) on this section of the aspen trunk – at the centre top, and on the right hand side – as well as several other lichen species.




Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) growing on the moss-covered trunk of a fallen birch tree beside the Red Burn.




Birch trees beside the lower Red Burn.








By this stage it was time for me to head for home, so as I mentioned above, I never got an opportunity to walk upstream on the Red Burn – that will have to wait for another day and a different blog. I’ll finish this one now though with some video footage that I shot along the way, which provides a different experience of the flowing water from the still images.


6 Responses to A walk along the lower Red Burn

  1. Gary Samer says:

    G’day Alan

    Love your blogs. They give me a unique, beautiful experience of Nature through your aware eyes/Spirit. Is this on a “natural”part of the estate? Also, is the water drinkable or are there pollution sources( chemicals, animals etc) upstream? Lots of love from me & Karen.

    • alan says:

      Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your comment on my blogs, and it’s great to hear from you again after so many years! yes, the Red Burn flows through a part of ancient woodland on Dundreggan, so it is as natural as it gets. I’ve never actually drunk the water from the burn, but there are no pollution sources, although there are some sheep upstream that belong to the man who has crofters’ grazing rights to part of the estate.

      With best wishes, Alan

  2. Christopher Wilke says:

    Hi Alan,

    Sometimes I come to your page to see this nice photos. I really really like them they give me a little bit back what I experienced in Scotland. In 2010 and 2011 I joined a workweek at Dundreggan Lodge. It was a very nice time and quite the most peaceful place I’ve ever been so far. Our Group also was honored by your visit. You telled us a lot of things about TFL how you fund it and why.. that was inspiring to me! Thank you for that..

    • alan says:

      Hi Christopher,

      Thanks for your comment, and also the feedback about your work weeks with us. This year’s programme of weeks is starting soon, and there’s still space on many of them, so if you feel like coming back, please sign up for another one!

      With best wishes, Alan

  3. David Whyte says:

    Fantastic photography as always Alan!

    I am doing all I can to spread the word of the good work all you folk at TFL and the dedicated volunteers do.

    The blogs are great and very inspiring.

    All the best,

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