Words and pictures by Sally Huband.
First published on Sally’s blog Rain Gees and Selkies: A Shetland wildlife blog, written for BBC Wildlife Magazine.
Deeside is the stretch of land that flanks the River Dee all the way from its beginnings high in the Cairngorm Mountains, eastwards to Aberdeen where it enters the sea. It is a wooded place (albeit heavy in plantations) and to go there in the autumn from Shetland, which is largely treeless, is to risk a sensory overload.
For three years I lived in Deeside, mostly in a dilapidated old cottage on the edge of a wood into which our garden merged. Large oval indentations in an overgrown flowerbed told us where roe deer had been resting up and it wasn’t unusual to be visited in the kitchen by a vole. Less often we’d glimpse a red squirrel surely drawn into the garden by the clump of nut bearing hazel and on rare occasions we’d see crossbills perched like parrots in high branches. Most of all though I miss the en masse fittings of mixed flocks of small common birds.
So this was what I was most hoping to see last week on our Deeside trip. We stayed on a farm where a fence line separates the highly tended bright green silage fields from the higher ground, a woodland of rowan, birch and Scots pine. Bracken gives way to heather on the upper slopes and rowan berry filled badger scats littered the ground all over the hill side. There were fungi of many sorts and entire tree branches engulfed in lichen. Flies that seemed to have eyes and part of their wings gilded in gold, hundreds of them, massed on the silvery trunk of a birch. Startled roe deer bounded away in slow motion leaps; they seem less fettered by gravity than most creatures.
Walking through the trees was a delight enough but then, the ‘pink-pink’ of a chaffinch drew my attention to a rowan, berries still visible on the leafless branches. My bird watching bonanza; chaffinches and blue tits and goldcrests and bullfinches all together, at once. Feathers of blue, green, yellow, gold and the pink of all pinks on a bullfinch’s breast.
The holiday had started, on the way to Lerwick to catch the Aberdeen ferry, with a juvenile pallid harrier zipping across the road just in front of the car, itself harried by agitated gulls, and the week in Deeside continued to be full of raptors. We didn’t head far enough into the high hills to be in with a chance of seeing golden eagles but the certitude that each day there would be buzzards was enough. It was a bonus to see a kestrel glide the entire length of the valley below us and to watch a red kite and it’s flaring, twisting, falling flight through the window of a friend’s living room.
It was very good to be reminded that the bark of Scots pine glows like embers in the sun whilst the bark of birch shines icily. It was fantastic to watch my children stomping conkers out of their cases for the first time ever (not without some pride too, I was conker champion at my primary school in 1981!). It was good to follow the river upstream and to watch the Feugh, a tributary, come crashing down to join it in an epic spate. It was good to feel bound by high ground for once rather than by the sea. It was very hard to leave.
The ferry back to Shetland left the shelter of the gull topped harbour walls, a single bottlenose dolphin swum through the calm sea easing the transition back to the seascapes and creatures of my island home. A little further out a thin frothy white line contained a splayed fan of dark water; the limit of the River Dee’s physical reach. I keep memories of Deeside close to, and in this sense the waters of the Dee reach all the way to Shetland. I hanker to be back there often. Pallid harriers are spectacular and all that but sometimes, just a blue tit in a beech tree or a bullfinch in a rowan is the most special of all sights.