DeeWatch December 2019
Welcome to the December edition of DeeWatch, a month-by-month guide to nature-spotting across our diverse and beautiful catchment. Brought to you by the rangers who take care of Deeside’s nature reserves, our DeeWatch diary includes sightings from the field as well as suggestions on what to look out for at a given time of year.
Although December brings the shortest day of the year, they begin to lengthen again after the winter solstice on the 22nd. Snow often falls across the whole catchment this month, right down to Aberdeen. Our wildlife face challenges with the arrival of the snow – food is harder to find, and they’re less camouflaged. But for wildlife watchers, snow can be a great help - like mud, it keeps a record of the wildlife that has walked across it, or landed on it from above.
You might spot more birds and animals in your garden this month, as the scarcity of food in the countryside draws them closer to houses. But it also brings them closer to the hazards of traffic, cats and dogs - and for those that travel down to the mouth of the river, winter storms can make it difficult to find food. We can help by putting out feeders, and delaying the garden tidying so wildlife can pick over any rotting plants in search of insects to feed on.
December's shorter days can bring more opportunities to spot wildlife
Look out and listen for:
High in the hills of the catchment, you may be lucky enough to spot a ptarmigan this month, in a speckled mix of colours to match the grasses, lichens and mosses – or with a newly-white plumage if snow arrives, blending in with the colour of its mountain-top home.
December is a good time to see birds lower down too, when they’re hungry and more confiding. Put kitchen scraps and water out for them – you may attract a thrush, a woodpecker, a goldfinch or even a late waxwing. These ‘winter visitors’ don’t come every year, and attract a lot of interest amongst birdwatchers when they do! Wildfowl may head for the coast if they are frozen off inland waters, as frozen lakes and rivers make life difficult for birds such as woodcock, as well as heron and kingfishers.
A chaffinch patiently waiting its turn
Goldfinches love niger seeds
Not many birds sing in the winter – but there are a few exceptions. Crossbills have been heard and spotted at Dinnet, singing to attract a mate, and could be on eggs at Christmas. Thanks to their diet of pinecones – the seeds of which are available for most of the year - they can breed throughout the year. When their chicks hatch they are fed regurgitated seed mulch. On the river itself, you might also be lucky enough to hear a dipper, with a song that can lift the spirits on the dullest of winter days. Look out for a dumpy, short-tailed bird flying low and fast over fast-flowing sections of the Dee and in tributaries. Listen for this sweet song, which they sing throughout the year, to keep rivals off their patch: https://www.birdguides.com/articles/species-profiles/dipper/
Dipper on the icy Dee
Look out for the spectacular sight of a starling murmuration, especially at dusk. They tend to peak in December and January, when more birds fly over from Europe to join our resident birds.
Butterflies and moths
Few moths are hardy enough to be active in December, but on milder nights the small ghostly forms of male Winter & Northern Winter Moths are commonly attracted to light, distracted from their duty to seek out flightless females that aren't much more than a bag of eggs on legs. The females attract the males with pheromones - each species has its own special scent mix, undetectable to human noses. Winter Moth caterpillars are sometimes considered garden pests on various trees and shrubs, but they’re among many moths that are an important food source for birds feeding hungry broods come springtime. Studies have shown they can form an important part of the diet of young Capercaillie chicks, which search for them among blaeberry leaves.
The aptly-named December Moth is also around, though in our northern climes they first appear in October and usually peak in November. This moth has quite a thick 'fur coat' of hairs covering its body and legs, and, like all moths and butterflies, its wings are covered with tiny overlapping scales that rub off like dust with wear and tear. The male has feathery antennae to help him find a female.
The aptly-named December moth
Deer are quietening down this month, and heading to lower ground for their grazing as winter snow arrives higher in the catchment. The brownish coat of the stoat turns fully white apart from a black tip on its tail, and the greyish mountain hare turns white to make it less visible to its eagle-eyed predator.
Winter can be a good time to see otters - active at dawn and dusk. They have been spotted on the southern shore of Loch Davan on the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve, and on the River Dee around Crathes, Park and Drum. Foxes and badgers extend their ranges to forage for food through winter. Tracks in the snow or wet mud in the winter are a great way to identify the mammals that may be going around - you could even download the Mammal Mapper app, which allows you to map tracks on a ‘survey’:
A snowy path or muddy river bank can reveal who's been out and about
Trees, flowers, fruits and fungi
With leaves fully shed, winter trees can display a striking silhouette in December – so carry your camera. Beautiful, crooked old oaks, purple-tinged birch and orange-trunked Scots pine, lit by the low winter sun. With fewer leaves around it’s also a good time to focus on the beautiful green cushions of moss and miniature forests of lichens, while underfoot - perhaps beneath a layer of snow and fallen leaves - you may glimpse hazel catkins and daffodil buds, a sure sign that spring is already preparing to emerge.
Look out for the beautiful phenomenon of ‘hair ice’, also known as ‘ice wool’ or ‘frost beard’. This remarkable ice formation takes the shape of fine, silky hair, and forms on dead wood containing a certain type of fungus, at temperatures just under freezing.
On the River
November brought a few frozen days, and December may bring more! The River Dee can be just as stunningly beautiful in frozen form as it is as rushing water, as these spinning ice disks show, captured last winter on Clunie Water, one of the Dee’s tributaries near Braemar:
Winter stargazing: Glen Tanar Nature Reserve is now a ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’ – one of a national network of locations that provide great views of the stars and are accessible to all, as nominated by local groups. See https://www.darkskydiscovery.org.uk/dark-sky-discovery-sites/map.html for more information, and check out the following site so you know what to look out for https://earthsky.org/tonight?offset=2
Christmas at the Wildlife Hide: Crathes Castle, Sunday 8th December 11-2pm, aimed at 5-11 year olds. Join our rangers for an alternative Christmas event and give something back to wildlife. Collect a free trail quiz from the shop and follow the clues down to the new wildlife hide - the dark winter woods will be lit by candlelight as you approach the hide. Join us to make bird food, badger bites and squirrel snacks, and help us decorate a Christmas tree for the animals! Make your own wooden decoration to take home then finish your walk by following the trail back up to the car park. Wrap up well and enjoy the warm feeling of helping wildlife this Christmas. Free event but donations are welcome to help feed our wildlife. For more information please call 01330 844810 or visit www.nts.org.uk.