Discover the Dee

DeeWatch May 2020

Welcome to the May edition of DeeWatch, a month-by-month guide to nature-spotting across our diverse and beautiful catchment. Brought to you by the rangers and other local wildlife enthusiasts who take care of Deeside’s nature reserves and countryside, our DeeWatch diary includes sightings from the field as well as suggestions on what to look out for at any given time of year.

In May…

April was colder than usual and many trees are still without their leaves, but species like gean (wild cherry) are coming to full flower this month. April was also unusually dry so water levels in ponds and burns are quite low.  As always, look carefully and closelytosee what our wildlife is doing.  Even with social isolation and distancing still in place, we can keep making the most of our gardens, our nearby green spaces, and our daily excursions.

You can check out the following websites for more information on what’s going on in nature, and consider helping to make a valuable contribution to our wildlife records with any of your sightings, at this website.

Aberdeenshire Council Ranger Service Facebook page

Aberdeen City Council Ranger Service Facebook page

Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve Facebook page

Mar Lodge Estate Facebook page

North East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership Facebook page


Look out and listen for:


Many summer visiting birds that flew south for the winter are returning this month.  The earliest swallows started appearing around mid April and the earliest arrivals will be prospecting for nesting sites or may even have started building.  Blackcaps and whitethroats are also starting to appear and it won’t be too long before we start hearing the unmistakable call of the cuckoo.  Resident birds like blackbirds and house sparrows are busy feeding young and even the more secretive ones like dunnock and wren are in the early stages of producing the next generation.  One of our smallest birds, an adult wren weighs about the same as a £1 coin. 

Wrens - Ewen Cameron

Look out for sand martins flying low over the Dee in the Cults area, looking for nesting spots.  You’ll spot them in Aberdeen too, flying in and out of their burrows in the cliff at the mouth of the Dee in Torry– they’ve arrived just in time for many insects hatching and are making the most of longer days to hunt them. To the east of Inchgarth reservoir in Cults, black caps and willow warblers can be heard singing in the trees along the riverbanks, and the first swallows and common sandpipers are appearing on and over the river. Willow warblers look very similar to chiff-chaffs, but have a completely different song.

Helen Rowe, our contributor from Aberdeenshire Council’s Ranger Service, has recorded nesting blue tits in her bird box – look out for live streaming here . Blue tits usually lay 8-10 eggs, and will start incubating them, for around two weeks, once the penultimate egg is laid. When the eggs hatch it’s all systems go as both parents find insect food for the chicks - up to 10,000 caterpillars may be needed to rear the brood! If successful, the chicks will fledge around three weeks after hatching.

This female capercaillie was spotted on a popular track in Glen Tanar last week.

Capercaillie hen - Dylan Meinan

She’s looking for the increasingly elusive male and is very vulnerable. If she’s successful, and lays eggs, she’s at high risk as a ground-nesting bird – please remember to keep dogs on leads at all times in this area. Any newly hatched chicks will also be susceptible to predation until they can fly. From oystercatchers and common sandpipers to tawny owls and wrens, ground-nesting birds are especially vulnerable to predation, so let’s help them as best we can.

Butterflies, moths & insects

Some of our most colourful butterflies start to appear this month.  Orange tip butterflies can often be found in damper habitats where they lay eggs on lady’s smock (or cuckoo flower), the favoured food plant of their caterpillars.

Orange tip butterfly on lady's smock - Ewen Cameron

Many of the common names of plants show their historical connections.  Cuckooflower is so called because it usually flowers at the same time of year as we hear the first cuckoos. One butterfly that was unknown in the northeast until relatively recently is the comma, but they’re now much more common and on the wing just now.  Climate change may be drawing them further north.

Other butterflies to look for this month include the small copper. Butterfly Conservation Scotland is running a survey to find out more about where this species occurs.

Green Hairstreaks are also on the wing – you might spot them near patches of blueberry, their usual larval foodplant in this area, though their colour makes them hard to spot until they move. Territorial males will fly up from favoured perches to counter any intruders to their patch.

Green hairstreak butterfly - Helen Rowe

Speckled Woods should also be appearing - like the comma, they were rare here until recently, but are now spreading and can be found in woodlands, especially along mid-Deeside.

Speckled wood butterfly - Helen Rowe

By mid-May, the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly should be emerging:

Pearl bordered fritillary butterfly - Helen Rowe

They are a speciality of Deeside from the Potarch area all the way up to Mar Lodge Estate, and can occur in large numbers. They are quite a fussy species however, favouring sheltered, south facing slopes, with bare ground and/or leaf litter, often bracken, for the caterpillars to bask on in early spring to warm up, which aids their digestion! They only eat violets and the adults need nectar plants such as bugle and dandelion, so all these ingredients are needed to support a colony. 

By day, you might spot a male emperor moth, with its feathery antennae, whizzing around moorland and open woodland to detect the trails of female scent. Their caterpillars eat various plants, but are often on heather in the highlands. 

Male emperor moth - Helen Rowe

Another mainly diurnal moth out now is the Ruby Tiger - as well as having reddish wings, its body and parts of its legs are red underneath as an 'I taste nasty' warning to would-be predators.

Ruby tiger moth - Helen Rowe

The early thorn moth is a nocturnal species you may also spot this month. Camouflaged like a dead leaf, they are so-called because their caterpillars have spiky protuberances to look like the twigs of the trees they feed on.

Early thorn moth - Helen Rowe

With so many pollinating insects about now, you might want to try this simple survey that can be done almost anywhere that flowers grow.

Suddenly everywhere is buzzing with the soundof bumblebees!  Along with hoverflies, our wild bumblebees are fantastic pollinators that are crucial for giving farmers good yields of the crops we all depend on - despite all the sophisticated technology of modern farming! From peas and beans to tomatoes and a whole host of fruits, without the pollinators, very little of this would be available.  Look out especially for the tree bumblebee, a recent arrival to north east Scotland. One of the easiest species to identify with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, this bumblebee nests in tree cavities, but queens will also use holes in buildings or unoccupied bird boxes. 

Tree bumblebee - Helen Rowe

Any garden ponds will be teeming with life just now - tadpoles growing, whirligig beetles whirling, caddisflies creeping, dragonfly and diving beetle larvae lurking.  There is a whole universe of life in a garden pond, or even a quiet puddle – these palmate newts were spotted in a puddle on the footpaths around Craigmore, by Potarch:

Palmate newts - Roger Coombs

Larger animals

Roe deer usually have their young this month –the females usually give birth to twins, but sometimes to single kids or triplets. Newborn fawns suckle within a few hours of birth. They are regularly left alone, lying still amongst vegetation. Their dappled coats last for around six weeks, helping to camouflage them. If there are twins they are left separately. Roe deer are the only hoofed animal in which delayed implantation occurs - although the egg is fertilised at the time of mating it doesn’t begin to develop inside the female's uterus until several months later, in early January. 

Trees, flowers, fruits & fungi

At this time of year it sometimes seems as though plants are in a race - and in a way they are.  They need to grow above the surrounding vegetation to allow their leaves to get enough sunlight so that pollinating insects sees their flowers, giving them time to produce enough seeds for next year.  If your daily walk is in woodland you will enjoy the mats of primroses, wood anemones and wood sorrel carpeting the ground.  

In Cults, the fresh green leaves of water crowfoot in the river look striking in the sunlight. Willow catkins are coming out and look equally stunning. The less welcome, non-native invasive species, American Skunk Cabbageis also flowering now, easy to spot with its distinctive yellow leaves. 

For a truly Spring-like display, look out for the wild cherry blossom at the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve:

Gean in blossom - Catriona Reid

On the River

Certain species of mayfly emerge as adults this month, as their name suggests, though many appear later in the year. The larvae or nymphs feed on algae in rivers for up to two years, then have only a few hours as adults to reproduce before they die, depending on the species.

Sweet Cicely is coming into flower along some riverbanks – this edible plant has a distinct aniseed scent, but beware of lookalikes that may be poisonous. 

What's on

Aberdeenshire Council Ranger Service is holding a Back Garden Beastie Hunt via Facebook on 20th May 11am-12noon.