There’s a feeling I get..

I had to start with that old Zep line after hearing it (including ‘When I look to the west..’) said by friend T today!

Back at my John Muir Award, things may be drawing to a close – or maybe not.  I had committed to do this project from April to September and as I write it’s the 30th September.  However,  as the earth’s journey round the sun continues past the equinox I know the changes will keep on coming, although I’m not so sure I can commit as much time to my ‘seasons’ project now that the daylight hours are diminishing and other obligations are crowding in. I’d love to follow all my plants and special spots along the West Highland Way over the autumn and winter, so I expect I’ll try to do that while declaring the project complete for JMA purposes at some stage soon. The project has fitted in well with volunteering at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I would say it has changed the way I see some of my volunteering: while from a nature-connectedness viewpoint I’ve been exploring more detail, for volunteering, I’ve been more aware of the big picture, why certain tasks are being done, listening to the story of why we’re doing what we’re doing to fit into larger plans, for example, Wild Park 2020. I’ve not managed  everything in my plan, although the project  sort of took me along its own road.


Nostalgia, wistfulness, just getting old(er)? I do get a feeling of anticipation when the mist takes a while to clear in the morning, when the leaves take on different colours – this from the person who complained that it was all very green during July and August!  – and when brambles are at last gatherable.  The first frost really is special as the smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air.

Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) – September
Northern Bedstraw ( Galium boreale)  – September

Still learning, adding new plants that I have photographed and identified – often with a great deal of help from patient friends – thanks!

I am planning another visit to my special JMA place between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay next week (I hope) to see what wonders are on show, to take some photos and to visit my oak tree, even though the season for Track a Tree lies well in the past.

Today I took part in a session with trainers from Opal (Open Air Laboratories) and TCV. The Opal project is about Citizen Science and the training, arranged by Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, was brilliant, very interactive (oops! forgot to use that word in my evaluation) and a great way to learn.  We tried the Soils (and Earthworms) materials and also looked at Lichens (part of Air Quality materials) and Tree Health as well.  The resources are colourful and clear.  It was lovely to be encouraged today to personally relate to trees: something I’ve enjoyed lots of on my JMA project! And the session met my JMA criteria in supporting my own exploration and enjoyment of the natural world; of course, it offered ideas and materials for sharing with others in all sorts of contexts.

Today’s  presenter, Matt,  used the Hand, Heart, Head model (see below) to review our experience of the session: it’s a model used in the JMA materials as well and is based on the work of Patrick Geddesa thinker active across many realms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Credited variously with giving birth to town planning and eco-politics, to my mind, one of his major achievements was trying to get teachers and learners  out of subject silos, perhaps to get a better view!  As a former teacher myself, I can relate to an integrative approach that engages the ‘learning domains’ of participants through taking practical actionexploring their feelings and gaining understanding.  Geddes was a bit of a polymath and I like to think of him as a geographer (well, I would, wouldn’t I?), seeing the big picture and making a difference – promoting transformative learning.

Patrick Geddes HHH Model

The last time I looked at ‘my’ Guelder-rose (last weekend) on its sunny outcrop by the WHW, I was pleased to see that the berries were, at last, red.  Here is a photo from 12th August and one from 27th September:


guelder rose

The Alder at Manse Bay that I’ve visited over the months (and I am so pleased to be able to use that expression!) is one of my favourites.  Here it is on 20th May and 3rd September:



So, when you look at the tree, it’s all green, but I like the change from see-through to screening.

It looks like the shorter days, something I seem to go back to time and again, are making me think about endings more than beginnings: so far, pursuing the JMA has definitely helped me connect more explicitly and meaningfully with nature. The strong sense of place I’ve felt for a long time in relation to this beautiful area – its uniqueness, familiarity, ability to surprise and lead you in –  is probably rooted more in the larger landscape than in the smaller detail that makes it up and gives it new and changing life.   This growing season, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about the smaller, component parts of the natural world from the well informed people I am privileged to know.  Slowing down and looking, listening, learning  remains both the ultimate goal and also an achievement of my project on an ongoing basis!  And September has been sunny, hopefully in time to give we west of Scotland folks a boost of Vitamin D before the great darkness sets in.  Yep, this is sounding like an ending!

I’ve still to write a wee bit about values and the outdoors – or I should say, some explicit things about values and the outdoors, since I sincerely hope ‘values’ such as  accepting responsibility for the future (and thus the benefit of planning for it?),  choosing to try to conserve the natural world because it is a choice for  justice, fairness and health are part of my efforts most of the time.


I was wondering about the road that lies ahead,

in my mind I heard the wisdom of the master….

“Every leaf seems to speak”   – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938).   This last couple of weeks I’ve made visits to my special spots on Loch Lomondside (selected for my John Muir Award focusing on the seasons) and found myself again greeting familiar plants; none has answered back, so John Muir probably didn’t mean this literally!  But the leaves do speak in their own way.  They attest to changes in the amount of  daylight they receive and to the changes taking place inside maturing plants as they prepare to set seed, and changes inside trees as they respond to a drop in green surface area from which to synthesise food, that reduction caused by caterpillar damage. At least that’s how it seems to me… it appears that the oaks have experienced Lammas growth. It’s quite exciting to see this after spotting the numbers of busy caterpillars in early June. I don’t know what the science says to that, though. These photos were taken on 21st July.


Spring has definitely given way to something else, but July has been a little disappointing as a summer month!  It’s made me wonder what lies ahead in August. The beautiful woodland along the West Highland Way between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay is brilliant green with yellow patches – so many of the flowers I’ve seen in bloom are yellow – look how they shine for you.  There’s still the carpet of low growing Common Cow-wheat, and now there’s Honeysuckle and Nipplewort and Slender St John’s-wort and Creeping Yellow-cress.

Ian McCalllum     G62 8HL



Creeping yellow cress Rorippa sylvestrisThe non-yellow plants are pretty in July: purple and pink flowers are out, with Self-heal, Common Spotted-orchid, Hedge Woundwort, Common Knapweed, Yarrow and Tufted Vetch.

self heal


hedge woundwort  Stachys sylvatica

common knapweed



The small band of wildflowers that I recognise is growing by means of trying to learn new ones while retaining  a handle on the ones I think I learned previously!  Using iSpot has been a great help, as people consider  your identifications, offering agreement or not.  Some contributors remind me of important distinguishing features!  I know, though, that I can be a bit blinkered  continuing to be convinced of an ID even when evidence against it is mounting…. and keying out each one is challenging as I don’t always have the vocabulary for that.  Wildflowers and how they change over the weeks has been one of the revelations so far of my JMA efforts, it’s such rich habitat  around the trees of the oak woodland.  I hope these IDs are correct – time will tell. I have no regrets about the focus being a relatively short stretch/small area along the WHW – getting to know it better is brilliant.

My photo points continue to provide amusement for passers-by and some frustration for me!  July has been green, green, green. I remember so vividly being delighted by the spring signs here on 16th April: but each individual plant had grown and greened up hugely by 15th July! And look, two sunny days, though not in a row, of course.



The little island keeps changing too, not least because of the way the water level varies. Vegetation change is prominent when you compare these images from 20th May and 15th July.


FP 5

I’m delighted  to have enough photos of my chosen points to see real differences across the growing season so far.

I took a walk with a friend up the track at Cashel one afternoon.  It always surprises me that it is so calm and quiet up there, we talked for a while about what we saw and what was growing.  The mountain bog environment is represented by cotton grass, bog moss, bog myrtle and bog asphodel, to name some of the easy ones to see.  How close to my Balmaha to Milarrochy Bay area this is, yet it’s such a different habitat.  Both are important though, figuring in plans to protect and retain their biodiversity.

On one of my visits round my photo points, I took along the little video lapse camera (on a stick) and had great fun taking short movies under water in the loch – the waterproof case worked well.  I want to use to show some features of the woodland, to show a walk along the WHW path.  I tried that but found the position of the stick wasn’t quite right that time! The search for the best method of showing little videos on this blog – eight shots of a photo point, say, stitched together – continues and I think I’m getting somewhere, so more on that soon.

Reading recently has taken in Biodiversity Action Plans – BAPs: the international and European agreements that fostered these plans and the identification of priority species, and the steps local authorities have taken to develop and implement their plans.  My John Muir Award  area is  part of  Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park  and the NP BAP for the current period is called Wild Park 2020 – see  More on that later.

Magnificent; And all shining through


The bad weather stopped for long enough to give me a peaceful couple of hours walking between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay along the West Highland Way on beautiful Loch Lomondside, looking at the spots and the plants I’m monitoring.  Spring definitely suffered some slowing. I’m writing this paragraph on 1st  June and it’s a bit on the cool side!

Exploring seasons and seasonal change for my John Muir Award,  ‘unseasonal’ seems a better word for what’s been happening in the last few weeks. There was a sprinkle of fresh snow on the mountain tops this morning.  And right now, hail showers and very strong winds….

In recent days I could see masses of different wildflowers because so many of the early spring ones and the late spring ones were  out at the same time.  The bluebell is wonderful, lighting up the woodlands now as we go into June.  I spotted a lovely little white bluebell amongst its more typical peers.


Red campion is looking great beside the bluebell and stitchwort near Manse Bay.

ed campion

Resplendent, light-reflecting globeflower, part of lovely big patch beside Loch Lomond.

DSCF0128And I like this picture of cuckooflower, still in full bloom as May came to an end.


Water avens was a new find for me; it’s a lovely plant but my photos don’t seem to do it justice!

water avens

I’m getting more tuned in to wildflowers –  part of the  plan  that’s guiding  me in my John Muir Award tasks. Still lots and lots to do.

My oak tree, being monitored for the Track a Tree project as part of my JMA efforts, is causing a bit of anxiety: some of the easily visible leaves look a bit unwell/damaged.  I wonder what the culprit is?  I have asked some knowledgable friends and will try to investigate for myself as well.  Oak trees support lots of other life forms – maybe a caterpillar has eaten this leaf, so that a bird can eat the caterpillar, so that a sparrow hawk can eat the bird…Here’s a picture of the damage.  The tree is not absolutely fully in leaf – so probably one more visit before I can tick that box on the Track a Tree website.


But the tree looks magnificent now, all greenness against the bright sky.                                      Oak giant


These two photos to show a big change in the tree between 1st May and 20th May.

On my lovely last visit  I recorded more ambient sounds as well as images of my ‘fixed points’ as I walked from one to another.  It’s quite special to get to know an area a wee bit better and to enjoy greeting each place and plant!

One of my regular photo points is a little promontory of sorts, just north of Manse Bay.  With five photos taken over eight weeks, I’m pleased to see the changes but I’m really looking forward to having a lot more photos over the coming months: I’m thinking about how I can create a short movie of these stills (and of other points in sets) and upload it here, complete with ambient sounds from the site. But nothing is as simple as it sounds! The limitations of my photos will be clear to all I would think.  The three photos here are from 3rd April, 1st May and 20th May. The fluctuating level of Loch Lomond is as much a feature as the emerging leaves on the trees.

FP 4



What of the other plants?  The guelder-rose has really come into leaf now.  Here it is on 20th May compared with just three weeks before.

guelder rose

Blinding light through fading grey, ‘Cause even this shall pass away

It’s been a while since the last post and spring has slowed down in some respects – it’s been cooler.  But leaves are fully developed on so many trees.  Weather lore: ‘ash before oak, we’re in for a soak; oak before ash, we’re in for a splash’…. so it rains either way!   ‘Peak bluebell’ 07062013609is still in the future (picture from June 2013) and the globeflowers are starting to show, so there’s lots of spring change to look forward to. I’m still on the case of recording some ambient sounds to add here (alone or as part of slide show) and now have a phone app; struggling with transferring the files to this blog, I suspect I may have to upgrade.  I really need to make another visit to my photo points and monitored plants, whether it’s pouring with rain or not!

Some recent wildflower photos: wild garlic, marsh marigolds, a speedwell (common? germander?), as I continue to try to improve ID skills and recording efforts, in line with my plans for the John Muir Award (see JMA mind map), with its four challenges explore, discover, conserve and share.




Another bit of weather lore:  ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May is out’.  This one suits Scotland whatever interpretation you put on it.  My understanding is that it refers to mayflowers, the flower of the hawthorn.  But even it you take it to mean the month of May, it’s still a cautionary saying, advising us not to remove layers of clothing too early!  Here’s some hawthorn a few days ago, the little white flowers yet to appear.


Conservation has a special place within the John Muir Award (JMA), and this year the organisation wants to audit the amount of conservation undertaken by those on the scheme. Part of my JMA plan to conserve is to keep doing volunteer tasks in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park; monitoring plant and animal populations supports their conservation.  I went on a Wetland Bird count in April, always a great day of learning and this one was no different. The figures are sent off to the British Trust for Ornithology.  Experts/volunteers AN and SC as well as experts/Rangers MD and SK were on board – what a team!  As always,  the birds were brilliant.  We saw an oyster catcher perched on a tree branch, that looked unusual to most of us.

The chance to learn about and monitor water voles, an important local conservation story, came up again and at last it was on a day when I could attend the training – for some reason it’s always been on my busy days in the past!!

WP_000548 WP_000555 WP_000552

We learners  were  helped by a  team of friendly experts.  Entrances to burrows, latrines and runways were all in evidence.  The regular surveys are carried out by the  Trossachs Watervole Project, as part of which I had signed up to monitor mink raft(s) on the Blane/ Endrick system but the initiative has been put on hold for the moment.  In preparation though, the helpful Water Vole Project Officer had taken me on a round of some of his mink rafts, an enjoyable few hours.  Thanks to friend LM for her photos of the water vole monitoring training day.

The Wildlife Site at Aberfoyle is bounded by the River Forth, a tributary stream and the cycle path, part of NCR7.  One of the NP Rangers organised a volunteer day to review aspects of the site’s biodiversity  and  tackle practical conservation tasks.  We started by walking quite slowly round the site which the Ranger plans to work on over the coming months.  One of the volunteers, L, has very good botanical knowledge which I tried resolutely to soak up while she ticked off plants that were on a list from a previous thorough survey.  Later, we removed some plant stems overhanging paths, tidied up growth around benches, removed an old fence and created habitat piles. IMG_2036Another outcome from the day was identifying future conservation tasks, including some that must wait for the end of the nesting and growing seasons.   While working, we uncovered this toad but very quickly replaced the covering material! It was a day that really fitted into the JMA ethos: taking time to get involved in exploring, discovering and conserving. And now I’m sharing this, too.

Seasonal changes on my favourite woodland walk from Balmaha to Milarrochy Bay along the West Highland Way: as part of the ‘share’ part of my JMA on the theme of seasons, I gathered together photos I’d taken of 10 of the spring flowers you find along the way.  Helpful folks have agreed to display the sheet for walkers to see as they pass by. See  Spring wildflowers and Spring_wildflowers2; no ecology or plant lore, just the pictures!

Take a little sunshine, spread it all around

Along came a sunny evening, so another visit to the lovely woodland unfolded.   Binoculars, camera, tripod, notebook….  ready for a May Day tour round my John Muir Award photo points, trees and wildflowers along the path from Balmaha to Milarrochy Bay. 

oakoak bud

The ‘Track a Tree’ oak tree news: many leaves were visible on my oak, though some bud burst was still on show.  The area around the tree was checked again as the Track a Tree site asks you to complete details of flowering plants in the vicinity.  The project gathers information about the timing of seasonal changes, so it seemed a logical addition to my John Muir Award project about seasons.  To do a John Muir Award, you write up a proposal showing how you intend to meet the four challenges – discover, explore, conserve and share.  See my JMA mind map, made to help me with my project.

Oak giant

new leaves

The spring flowers were  more abundant than during the previous week; at one spot I could see primroses, dog violets, wood anemones, bluebells, greater stitchwort and wood sorrel within a short distance of each other. Marsh marigolds are out too. The bluebells are not yet dominant, of course.  This woodland  is so special for spring flowers because of its varied underlying geology and soils – the wildflowers add to the already high levels of biodiversity associated with the Atlantic oak woodland.

wood sorrel

wood anemonegreater stitchwortvioletThe other trees I’m observing are progressing into leaf; one is a guelder-rose on a sunny bank beside the woodland path (aka the West Highland Way).  Friend Mark was the first person to point out this particular plant to me, sometime in summer 2011 or even 2010, I think! Thank you!  Here are some pictures of it:

IMG_0382  guelder rose


The first photo was on a cool day – 3rd April.  Husband’s finger is in the picture to try to keep the little branch still!  Tiny buds. The second was on 16th April, already the leaves are bursting out, and by 1st May, the third photo, there was a mass of developing leaf clusters on this lovely shrub. I’m looking forward to seeing the guelder-rose go through its paces in the months ahead.

I’m learning more about the challenges of attempting fixed point photography – and the output might be improving – more on that later. It’s tempting to crop them all to match but I could be left with postage stamps!  I’ve got a wee device to fix to my rucksack straps to record time lapse photos or videos – maybe a couple of these films across the seasons would help show how much things change? I’m still investigating how to do ambient sound recording.  Not having the right equipment didn’t stop us from quietly listening to some great background sounds: all the ones I expected to hear – birdsong, lapping waves on the loch shore after a boat passed by, a dog running through the leaves, distant snippets of walkers’ conversations.

East Side Story

Part of my John Muir Award (JMA) journey – see my mind map – is to enjoy a walk in the woods (pace Bill Bryson), exploring the changes of the seasons.  Walks on the lovely east side of Loch Lomond  are plentiful and varied and they don’t all involve major mountains or large chunks of  the West Highland Way.  Helpful people in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Visitor Centre at Balmaha (not too far from Drymen) can point out local walks, their location and duration.

These are some short notes on most of the walks in this part of LLTNP; making these notes some time ago helped me to explore the area more fully:

East Loch Lomond Walks

And in French: Balades à pied autour de Balmaha

And in German:  Wanderwege in der Nähe von Balmaha

Thanks to the friends who helped me, especially with the German version.

This was on 21st February: IMG_1889

12th April:                               IMG_1940

With a variety of landscape types on east Loch Lomond, there is plenty of biodiversity to spot. Better ID skills is a continuing target for me but there’s a long way to go: I’m using/have used TCV courses, books and some phone apps.   Getting out and about with very knowledgable and patient people (you know who you are!) really helps. The pictures are of a willow (yes, anyone who read this earlier knows I got it wrong!) near the beach at Milarrochy Bay; it’s one of the plants I’ll try to photograph regularly as the seasons progress. The image quality varies quite a bit I am afraid, but I’ll try hard to improve this as well. Exploring, but in fairly undramatic fashion!