When I went away on holiday for three weeks at the end of last month, I knew that returning to the UK would mean very short daylight hours, the first frosts and the end of what's been a tremendous year of insect encounters. Basically, I knew winter would have arrived.
I had quite a surprise then, when taking my first back around The Lodge to find dragonflies still around the newly created natterjack ponds on the new heath. This was on Monday 16 November and temperatures were hovering around the 10 degrees mark with the sun shining strongly. A single migrant hawker and three common darters were at large. No doubt among the very last of the 2015 generation.
When the skies suddenly cleared on Friday 20th and the sun came through I wondered if they were still alive. Frosts (the first, I presumed, of the winter) were forecast over the weekend, so I was pretty sure this would be my last chance of the year to see a dragonfly. Would they still be around?
Common darter by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com). When did you see your last of 2015?
It took a while but eventually a common darter lifted into the air and landed on the fence railing to bask in what is one of the sunniest spots on the reserve. This was a male, but a female appeared and was even ovipositing (laying eggs) in one of the ponds as a third male watched on. There was no sign of the hawker, but these were easily my latest ever dragonflies.
The record though for The Lodge’s latest ever common darter is 1st December, so incredibly as it seemed to see these insects still active in late November, I’ll have to try harder next year!
I often get intense cravings for practical work. Loading up a 4x4 with saws, hammers, cables and strops gives me a special kind of thrill. I want to hear the rev of an engine, the snap of a tree, the grunts of exhaustion, and the click of a thermos opening for a tea break. So, staring at my computer screen one weekday morning it seemed obvious to me that I needed to get out on a reserve, and get hands on with some outdoor work.
“A bit of Scotland’s what I need,” I thought to myself as I stared blankly at an invoice. “Surely there I’ll find that hit of aching muscles, dirtied clothes, and bruised and battered hands I’m looking for.” So, train tickets booked for Aviemore, and accommodation sorted at the rather grand Hunting Lodge, RSPB Abernethy was firmly in my sights.
I decided to go two days before my week of practical work was set to start. The sole reason for this was to fulfil a childhood dream: an obsession I had for seeing a golden eagle. I arrived late on the Saturday, but managed to haul myself out of bed on Sunday morning. I was rewarded with the most stunning, sunshine saturated morning I’ve seen this year.
Twists and turns through the forest, up along a ridge, and out into a clearing. “Nothing yet, but my patience will pay off,” I thought. And upon turning a corner past an old croft building, there it was. The sight I had dreamed of since I was 7 or 8: a golden eagle tearing at some carrion, not more than 10 metres away. It took off right in front of me, in what felt like complete silence apart from the hollow bellowing of its wings. It circled up and up exactly how I’d seen it in documentaries – marvellous.
The following morning I got kitted up in my boots, hat, and ragged RSPB jumper (and other less interesting clothes, in case you were wondering). It was a crisp morning and the cables, winches and strops were piled into the Land Rover. Assistant Warden Alice Macmillan led the day’s activity: pulling down trees. I couldn’t think of anything more appealing in that moment, and was eager to start.
The semi natural forest in the area we were working was the stage for much of the winter work at Abernethy. Pulling the trees over instead of cutting them meant that a root base became exposed, and this in turn created not only fallen deadwood, but a dusty hollow for capercaillies to shelter and ‘bathe’ in. The rain on that day only added to my enjoyment (as you can see from my expression in the video). Without some unfavourable weather conditions thrown in it just wouldn’t have been the same – plus it kept the midges away.
Tree after tree fell at my feet, as the winch creaked and the trees cracked. This formed the majority of my week, apart from one morning I spent with the Operations Team Manager Ross Watson. Deer stalking was the endeavour, and after a pre-dawn start we headed off. Parked up at the edge of the forest we began to scan the horizon with binoculars. At least four red deer could be seen so we disembarked.
“Follow me closely, and do whatever I do,” Ross explained calmly. “We’ll stay down-wind, and silhouetted against the sunrise. If I drop to a prone position, do the same and keep your head down.” We set off in silence at a reasonable pace, checking and re-checking to see if the deer were still there. The terrain was tough to say the least: knee-high heather made an obstacle course look tame, and the concealed burns resulted in my feet getting more than one ice cold bath. We broke cover to run a couple of times, and crawled over the tops of each hill and tussock to avoid being seen. It was exhausting, but we made it to a good position without alerting the deer to our presence.
A burst of speed took us over and onto the last summit. Ross dived to the floor, unfolded the gun rest, and fired two shots. Two deer were instantly killed, no doubt due to the professionalism and experience of the gunman. There was no suffering caused and this essential piece of conservation work concluded as a resounding success.
We dragged the carcasses back the way we came towards where the Argo 8x8 semi-amphibious vehicle was parked up, and loaded them in. After transporting the two deer back, they were prepared for sale. Disembowelment, skinning and weighing, and one sold immediately to a local farmer for his freezer – a tidy £90 for the RSPB. From start to finish it was an extremely memorable experience, and getting to be so involved with the entire process was quite frankly humbling.
Abernethy is beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed my week of volunteering, and would urge anyone thinking of doing something like it to just go for it. You’re well looked after by the wonderful reserve staff, and you’ll certainly leave with the feeling of having experienced something special. You’ll have made a real difference, too.