Discover the Dee

Welcome to DeeWatch, a month-by-month guide to nature-spotting across our diverse and beautiful catchment.

Nature is thriving on Deeside. With a little planning, time and luck, your nature-spotting efforts can be rewarded with sightings of some of Scotland’s rarest animals. Pine marten, red squirrel and otter are found throughout the catchment, and some of nature’s great spectacles, like geese gathering to roost in their thousands, happen right here on our doorstep.

Some great places to start are our National Nature Reserves at Glen Tanar, Muir of Dinnet or Mar Lodge, or National Trust properties like Crathes and Old Wood of Drum.  But remember that wildlife doesn’t recognise the lines we draw on maps and can pop up anywhere at any time.  You can see dolphins in Aberdeen, red kites around Echt, red squirrels in Banchory, and dippers in Ballater.

Everyone hopes to spot photogenic animals like the elusive pine marten. Although these animals can be secretive, with time, practice and experience, the variety of the wildlife you see will grow and rare species will become easier to spot.   The more common species like frogs, dragonflies and blackbirds are equally beautiful and fascinating – and much easier to photograph. And remember - our amazing plants like ladies smock or meadowsweet, and our fabulous fungi like fly agaric and chanterelles don’t run away!  

Remember to look and listen – you’ll often hear the call of a buzzard or a roaring stag before you see it.  If you’re walking through trees or woodland and come to a clearing, stop before you leave the cover of the trees as a roe deer could be grazing out in the open.  Look all around and especially well ahead of you – you may catch a glimpse of something disappearing in the distance, perched up in a tree or the remains of their dinner lying at the side of the path.  Bear in mind that loud voices and wandering dogs will certainly scare lots of wildlife away before you get a chance to see it. And keep your nose open too - some wildlife may have crossed your path, but their smell may have lingered - once sniffed, the smell of a fox is hard to forget.

Check out our monthly DeeWatch diary for suggestions on what to look out for throughout the year. Rangers who take care of Deeside’s nature reserves are contributing their expertise and reporting sightings from on the ground to help us showcase Deeside’s wildlife. Many of the nature reserves have their own great blogs and Facebook sites that let you know what’s been spotted and run events and courses throughout the year to help you hone your skills as a wildlife detective.

Whether you’re out walking or working, please share your sightings and photos on our Facebook page. Please do report your sightings (common or rare) to NESBReC and you will be contributing to an ever-growing database of over 1.5 million wildlife sightings that is vital to conservationists, land managers, developers and many others.

Photo: Ronald Mitchell

In October…

The clocks go back this month, bringing shorter days and longer nights. We may even catch glimpses of the first snows on the hilltops. At 1,220m, where the Dee rises at its source high on the Cairngorm plateau, frosts are already common, and snow may arrive any day. Heading eighty miles east across the catchment towards the coast we see a very different scene though - spectacular leafy displays of red, orange, russet and gold across the lower catchment’s woodlands, that may not see snow before December.

Look out and listen for:


Redwings and fieldfares are blown in from Scandinavia this month, and will feed voraciously on rowan berries and apples. You can encourage them into your garden with apples – and the blackbirds will thank you for it as well.  They’re called “windthrushes” in Orkney, as they blow in on the first winds of autumn. With luck and a little patience, you may catch sight of a grey heron on the river itself (see ‘On the River’).

Jays are collecting acorns, and other small birds are all stocking up for winter. Swallows will disappear for the winter – though it’s always harder to notice something leave than arrive! You may just realise, in late October, you’ve not seen one for a while. Geese are still arriving this month – several flocks of pinkfoots have been sighted over Mar Lodge, near Braemar in the upper catchment.

Photo: Adam Caird

Bats, butterflies and moths

Fox moth caterpillars are plentiful in moorland areas, where they bask in any available sun before overwintering. The smaller, ginger or black-haired caterpillars of the Ruby Tiger moth are also found sunbathing on sunny days. Butterflies like Peacock and Common Tortoiseshell hibernate as adults so now is the time you often find them inside your shed or garage, probably looking for “winter quarters”. If you do find a butterfly resting indoors in a room that will be heated, gently move it to a more suitable location now if you can, such as a shed or outhouse, where it hopefully won't stir until spring.

Herald Moths are fully entering hibernation this month, opting for cool, slightly damp, dark places like culverts, icehouses and souterrains. They are one of the UK's longest-living moths in the adult stage, lasting from August until the following June - but are dormant for about 6 months of this time, conserving energy to mate in Spring.

Another moth on the wing this month is the beautiful, lichen-camouflaged Merveille du Jour - loosely translates as 'the best thing I've seen all day' - if you manage to spot one! The caterpillars eat oak leaves, so if you live near any Deeside oak woods, you may be lucky to spy some. Like many other pollinating insects in Autumn, they feed on over-ripe berries and ivy blossom.

Photo: Andy Wilson

Bugs and beasties

One beastie we should happily begin to see less of this month is the midge, with the arrival of the first frosts. As long as there are flowers - look out for late corn marigolds - there will always be hoverflies and other insects.  Often mistaken for wasps, hoverflies are entirely harmless and very important pollinators of crops, particularly as more soft fruit is grown across North East Scotland. There are around 200 species of hoverfly in the UK but the one to look out for here has yellow legs (look on its right side), so should be easy to identify!

Larger animals

The Roar of the Reds – the red deer rut – is in full swing this month. With new antlers grown and soft coating shed, the rutting deer are a dramatic sight – and sound – to behold, roaring out their challenges to each other in a bid for the position of dominant male. The UK’s largest native land mammal, the red deer can weigh up to 190kg. Head to Glen Muick or Glen Clunie to be in with a chance of seeing them, and hearing their unforgettable roar. October is a great time to spot red squirrels, busy stashing food for the winter.

Photo: Ewen Cameron

Trees, flowers, fruits and fungi

Trees are at their best in October, and with Deeside’s fantastic range of forests and woodlands we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to getting out and enjoying them. The contrast in Autumn colours can be staggeringly beautiful – silver birches, oaks, larch and scots pines - with their dropped leaves and needles providing a layer of nutrient-rich leaf litter invaluable for the entire ecosystem. Birch catkins are now ripe in the upper catchment areas around Mar Lodge, and releasing their seed, and juniper and rowan berries are ripening and providing a vital food source to birds and other species.

Yarrow, with its carrot-like leaves and clusters of tiny flowers, can flower as late as November.  Although usually white, pink flowered specimens are often seen in grassy areas such as rough pasture, road verges and riverbanks.  The plant has been used for centuries to stem the blood flow from wounds with common names such as ‘nosebleed plant’ or ‘soldier’s woundwort’.

Look out for parasol mushrooms on well-drained soils, and giant puffballs, which start to break down and release their spores in Autumn. They can vary in size from a tennis ball to a football, and the larger puffballs can release trillions of spores, although few grow to maturity. You may spot the rarer tooth fungi in pinewoods such as the sarcodon - these have tooth-like structures instead of gills, which support the developing spores. It’s also a good time to see waxcaps, a grassland fungi that avoids fertilised, deep ploughed or improved grasslands. They are therefore indicator species for old, unimproved grasslands and have beautifully-coloured, waxy fruit bodies in pinks, reds, yellows, greens, white and browns.

Photo: Andy Taylor

October is a good month for nuts and berries. Look out for hazelnuts, and the season’s first sloes on blackthorn hedges, delicious for sloe gin, jams and jellies, but even more important for the birds - sloes are a winter food source for hawfinches, thrushes, starlings, redwings and fieldfares.  Their blue colour enhances the reflection of UV light, so our feathered-friends can spot them more easily.

On the River

A wander along the Dee is always rewarded with some fascinating wildlife finds. But be prepared to watch and…wait. You may spot a grey heron on the look out – be patient, for such a big bird it’s easy to miss. The salmon are still running this month – so keep your eyes peeled. Muddy and sandy patches by the river are always worth investigating – look for tracks from otter or deer, you may even spot a freshwater pearl mussel, washed out of the river bed during a spate. Riverbanks can be a mix of woodland and grassland habitat – look out for the grassland plants of harebell and knapweed.

Photo: Ewen Cameron

Photo: Ewen Cameron

Photo: Judith Cox

What’s on?

'Simply Squirrels’ Children’s Walk at Crathes Castle on Tuesday 15th October, 10:30-12.00pm, booking essential

‘Crathes Acorn Day’ Children’s Walk at Crathes Castle on Wednesday 16th October 10:30-12.00pm, booking essential

‘Bushcraft Skills’ Children’s Walk at Crathes Castle on Thursday 17th October, 10:30-12.00pm, booking essential

Grampian Fungus Group Foray to Glen Tanar on Saturday 12th October 10:30-3:30pm. To book contact Toni Watt 0777 3626981