In a slight departure from our usual blog, here is an article on wider wildlife locally from the Deeside Piper. The Reserve gets a mention as a great wildlife watching spot but there’s other stuff in there. The article was written by Joanna Dick, of the River Dee Trust.
Life can be hard for wildlife in winter – days are short and for many creatures, especially small birds, finding enough food to survive takes up almost every hour of daylight. This results in bolder animals that are easier to see making winter a very good time to see wildlife on and around the River Dee.
Salmon are still spawning in the middle and lower reaches of the river, especially from Milton of Crathes downstream. Most spawning will be finished by late December but there are still chances to see spawning fish splashing in the river this month. Juvenile salmon and sea trout will be taking refuge under stones in the river bed, not feeding much and keeping out of harm’s way from winter floods and predators.
Lochs within the River Dee catchment are noisy with the whistle of wigeon and honking geese and swans. Winter is the best time of year to watch ducks, geese and swans for two reasons: the highest numbers of birds are present in winter months and male birds are in their brightest and best plumage of the year. In the strong winter sun it can be a spectacular sight.
While we turn up the central heating, put another log on the fire, cosy into a blanket or all three, many birds roost together for warmth and safety during winter. Starling roosts can be spectacular with huge flocks twisting and turning in the sky at sunset before diving into cover where they will roost for the night. While most species are focussed on staying warm and finding enough food, others are focussed on matters of the heart and finding a mate. Tawny owls pair up during winter and their iconic ‘twitt twoo’ is at its nosiest at dusk during December. This call is commonly a combination of calls from the courting male and female. A white winter can be especially hard for owls as the small mammals they feed on become more difficult to find.
Water voles are still active during the winter months, even up in the Cairngorm Mountains where populations are found living over 1000m. Usually water voles live in underground burrows on the banksides of small burns and lochs, but in winter the ground is often frozen and covered in snow. This layer of snow creates a perfect insulating blanket which allows the water voles to adapt to an above ground below snow lifestyle through the winter months. They create football sized domes of vegetation in which they nest under the snow. These domes can be clearly seen when the snow persists later in the year and are quite unusual in appearance. Snow also provides cover from avian predators such as buzzards, but stoats and weasels are still able to follow them into their winter hideouts. If it’s lucky the water vole can foil the attack by using his underwater escape route.
Things to do during winter:
Visit a loch or reservoir and look for wildfowl; Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve is home to over 200 resident greylag geese plus ducks, swans and my favourite, the great crested grebe. The walk around Loch Kinord is the best route to see waterfowl and offers beautiful views. Loch of Skene houses many thousands of pink-footed geese that are quite a spectacle to watch. The best time to see them is when they arrive in the evening just before dusk and when they take off after dawn.
Now is the ideal time to put up a nest box in your garden as blue tits and great tits will begin house hunting now for a suitable nest site. Feeding birds in your garden can make a big difference to their survival especially during harsh winter weather. As we are talking about birds, the River Dee are now tweeting on Twitter, you can follow us @RiverDeeTeam for news, links to our blog and photos.
Another thing you could do is report any sightings of squirrels to Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels to help them build up a picture of distribution. Reporting either species can be done via their website www.scottishsquirrels.org.uk and takes a few minutes.
Water vole photograph taken by Alan Ross