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21 Jun 2022

The Fantastic Five

Written by Roddy Hamilton, ranger at our North East places
An otter sits on a grassy river bank, facing the camera so we can see its long whiskers. It has brown fur with a pale throat.
Our North East ranger introduces his new series of wildlife guides at our Aberdeenshire and Angus countryside places.

Alarmed, a wood pigeon unleashes a volley of wingbeats against the pine branches, leaving a single feather floating. The sound that alarmed the wood pigeon came from below. As the feather dawdles in the air, a chestnut red squirrel bounds over a carpet of needles to a larch tree, onto which it jumps, spiralling to confuse the pine marten behind it. The pursuer follows, its claws hooking the bark. It’s no mean climber but it’s no match for the squirrel on the outer branches. And as the wind gathers suddenly, the pine marten thinks better of it. The squirrel escapes and scolds back a tchut-tut-tut! The pine marten backs down the tree.

All too often, these dramas unfold unseen by us. They happen too early in the morning or too late at night for our walk, or too deep in the forest away from the path.

Except, they don’t always.

I can remember hoping to watch the otter at the Mill Pond at Crathes, and on quite a few mornings getting up at an hour which was beyond funny. Once up, I loved the stillness and I loved the quiet but I never saw the otter. Then a few weeks later, a woman came into the rangers’ office to say how pleased she was, and how astounded, that on her morning walk with a friend at a little before 9 o’clock (9 o’clock!), they had seen the otter, with commuting vehicles on the road just a few hundred metres away. They had a clear view and for more than a minute.

“That chance sighting, that ‘right time, right place’ moment, is what the Fantastic Five series is all about.”
Roddy Hamilton

The Fantastic Five is a new feature on each of our North-East property pages. You will either find it as a tab to the right of Planning Your Visit or under the Things To Do tab. The Fantastic Five are our ‘nature notables’ for each place, be they plant, animal or fungi, and they give an idea of when to see them and how difficult they might be to spot.

Feel free to use the Fantastic Five as a checklist or spotters’ challenge. But remember that nature isn’t always predictable. It might be more usefully seen as a guide to what is possible to see. Among the charismatic fauna like the pine marten, there are some curiosities like the difficult-to-spot wool carder bee or the beautiful gold dust lichen. This lichen is easy to spot – it’s something you may have walked past a hundred times – but it’s likely to have been seen and yet not really ‘seen’.

The Fantastic Five guides are about being aware of the unusual and remarkable at all of our places, as well as about building your library of nature stories. Everyone has a personal nature story. It’s one of the defining characteristics of nature – a fleeting connection with nature can expand our world and make us think differently. It can slow us down enough to take stock; it can act as a soothing counterpoint to whatever else is going on in our lives; it can arrest us with its simple beauty or shock us with its sudden drama.

Quite recently, I saw a pine marten on the path in front of me. Who knows, it might have been the very one in our earlier mentioned ‘unseen drama’! On other occasions, I have encountered a roe deer or fox which, in the moment of being startled, hesitates. Despite sensing it should flee, it nevertheless dwells for long seconds, its gaze locked with mine, its curiosity getting the better of its fear, before it finally bounds off.

The Fantastic Five guides undoubtedly feature some rare and elusive species. The woodcock, although not especially rare, crouches low on the woodland floor and only reveals itself when disturbed. The dipper, that remarkable bird of fast-flowing rivers and streams, often disappears for long minutes to walk on the river bed where only our imaginations can follow. Leith Hall’s Scottish wildcat is often nocturnal. It ranges over the Clashindarroch area and therefore is rarely seen. It is likely, too, that you will only see the brown long-eared bat as a silhouette against a full moon.

But in these days of ubiquitous crisis stories, the Fantastic Five celebrates the diversity of what we do have. Experiencing nature at its best in the North East is not too difficult. Like the four-spotted chaser at Castle Fraser’s Flight Pond, cutting the air with its rattling wings as all around damselflies hang like musical notes – a scene which is at once mesmeric and enchanting.

Should we award points for seeing these creatures? Well, that would be to miss the point. Nature is free; its reward goes beyond that which can be counted or earned. Its reward is itself. And the more we begin to watch, the more we learn the skills of being silent and slow when we need to be, and the more chance we have of connecting to nature and witnessing those unseen dramas.

Fantastic five at Barry Mill
Fantastic five at Castle Fraser
Fantastic five at Craigievar
Fantastic five at Crathes
Fantastic five at Drum
Fantastic five at Fyvie
Fantastic five at Haddo
Fantastic five at House of Dun
Fantastic five at Leith Hall
Fantastic five at Pitmedden Garden

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