10 Tips and Tricks for Enjoying Great Wildlife in Scotland.


wild day finding ptarmigan on cairngorm

Wild day finding ptarmigan on Cairngorm.

I’ve often found myself comparing a wildlife watching journey with going to the zoo…

You could head to the zoo and, sure, everything would be there displayed for you, labelled, contained and explained. And there would be cake and ice cream too. Or, you could head out into the habitat and go looking yourself. You get great company, beautiful surroundings and more possibilities (plus great coffee shops).

Look below for some general tips on wildlife and birdwatching in the Scottish Highlands…

1. Scotland’s nature is brilliant all year round

red deer herd

Red deer begin the rut in autumn ( Red deer herd, Cairngorms )

The British Isles experience very variable seasons, which have big effects on our wildlife populations. The effects are greater the further north you go, with weather and day length changing drastically ( up to approximately 2 hours difference in day length between London and Shetland! ). Click the links below for a rough guide to wildlife highlights in each season…

Winter

(Dec, Jan, Feb) Ptarmigan, mountain hares and reindeer in winter camouflage. Winter migrants inland: snow buntings, geese, brambling and occasionally snowy owl. At the coast: seaducks including long tailed duck, common, velvet and sometimes surf scoter. Golden and sea eagles beginning to display and defend territories. Pinemartens, otters and red squirrels still active. Red deer gathering in big herds. Roving mixed flocks of forest birds include crested tit and sometimes crossbill. Northern Lights sometimes seen. Animals can be tracked in snow. Short daylight hours (in December around 6 hours).

Spring

( Mar, April, May ) Summer long distance migrants arriving such as osprey, ring ouzel and warblers. Resident species like crossbills, crested tit and eagles well into breeding. Capercaillie and black grouse display season. Winter migrants on the move. At the coast this can mean good numbers of seaduck, including long tailed duck, common and velvet scoter. Rarities often occur, such as white billed diver and surf scoter. Seabird colonies beginning to repopulate as puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and gannets return to territories. Skuas sometimes seen in large numbers and begin populating Scottish colonies. Red and black throated divers come off the sea to breed on remote freshwater lochs. Pinemartens, badgers and otters may have young. Late season snowfalls.

Summer

( June, July, Aug ) Summer migrants beginning breeding, eg: osprey, dotterel. Wildflowers in bloom ( species vary by month ). Resident species with young ( eg: crossbills, eagles, grouse ). Deer starting to give birth. Whales and dolphins seen more regularly. Basking shark sightings increase. Pinemartens, badgers, red squirrels and otters active. Dragonflies and butterflies active. Seabird and skua colonies at peak activity. Long daylight hours (in June, around 18 hours of daylight).

Autumn

( Sept, Oct, Nov ) Summer migrants departing and winter migrants beginning to arrive (eg: snow bunting, whooper swans, geese). Flocks of waxwings also beginning to arrive from Scandinavia, along with fieldfares and redwings. Chance of seeing leaping salmon. Resident species young are beginning to fend for themselves (eg: eagles, crested tit). Badgers, pinemartens and otters feeding up for winter. Red deer rut. Forest colours at their best. Good selection of fungi. First winter snowfall.

2. Bigger is better

seawatching

8×42 size binoculars are a great general purpose size.

I’ve lost track of how many guests turn up with the little pocket sized binos and spend the rest of the day frantically pointing them in all directions, trying to get the animal in view. There are, of course, excellent pocket sized binoculars (the Opticron Traveller is one that I have often been impressed by), but most simply do not ‘show enough’ (the field of view), or magnify enough to actually be of benefit. The recommended size range of 7×32 to 8×42 is actually becoming lighter all the time. Manufacturers are always shaving weight off their models and making smaller sizes work better. If you are put off by the weight of larger binoculars round your neck, consider using a binocular harness, a neoprene neck strap, or adjusting the strap to be really long, and slinging them over one shoulder instead. Arc Guiding also supplies a guide telescope for guest use and 7×32 binoculars for hire!

3. Don’t panic if your only waterproof jacket is bright red!

malc lochindorb

Honestly, it’s all fine. Some people are decked out head to toe in camouflage and, although perhaps a little creepy, it can be really effective ( essential in some situations ). However, you also need to be comfortable whilst out and about : it’s safer to be warm and dry and stand out like a sore thumb than hypothermic and lost in a bog in the middle of nowhere. Plus, most birds and mammals actually don’t perceive colour the same way we do. One study I heard of involving gamekeepers suggested that pink was actually the most effective colour for stalking deer ( can’t see it catching on, though ). Furthermore, you will learn with Arc Guiding, that it is actually the way you move that is just as important as colour, if not more so. Given the choice though, opt for muted greens, browns and greys ( unless you’re on a boat ).

4. Scottish wildlife is like single malt whisky

lochranza malt whisky

Great things are worth savouring ( Lochranza single malt, Isle of Arran)

It has been said that Scotland’s wildlife should be enjoyed like Scotland’s single malt whisky : savoured a bit at a time. Wildlife watching in Scotland can be quite an intense experience. The terrain is rugged, the weather is changeable and life can be tough for the fantastic creatures out here. Thus you might see big numbers of animals concentrated in only one place, or individuals defending a seemingly empty territory. If you have run out of steam searching, relax, take a break and enjoy what you’ve seen so far. It’s all out there somewhere and a spectacular sighting may be just round the corner…

5. Many species are protected by law

rogue capercaillie

Particular care is needed around protected species! (Rogue capercaillie, Cairngorms)

Famous for our golden and sea eagles, capercaillie, otters, dolphins and machair , amongst others, many of our species and their habitats are protected by national and international law. Many also appear on various schedules of endangered species and lists of important scientific sites. When we encounter these species and places, we need to be careful not to damage or disturb them. It’s easy to see how, for example, uncontrolled fire or litter can damage a habitat. But what about approaching too close to an animal whilst trying to get that perfect view? Every year, inadvertent mistakes like this reduce wildlife populations and result in deaths of young, because their parents are stressed or distracted. If convicted, such crimes can attract big fines or even prison sentences. Booking with a reputable, experienced company like Arc Guiding can help you enjoy, learn about and protect these wonderful species and places.

6. Expect the unexpected

common dolphin

Ferries can provide good views if you’re alert ( Common dolphin, The Minch )

I know it sounds like the strapline for a 60’s psychological suspense show, but it does apply here too! Sometimes, because there are so few other people exploring (compared to elsewhere in the UK), you might be the only person to witness certain wildlife or their behaviours. The rugged, sometimes inhospitable landscape occasionally forces animals to travel further than they would normally in search of food, or behave in unusual ways as they cope with the wild weather. Furthermore, because we are located between the Atlantic ocean, continental Europe, the Arctic circle and Africa we can expect all sorts of rarities to turn up on our doorstep at certain times of year.

7. The animals aren’t on a payroll

dotterel

They don’t always perform… ( Dotterel, Cairngorms )

Sounds obvious and most folk are fairly philosophical on this one, but sometimes you wonder! This is of course, one of the big attractions about wildlife watching – it’s wild. It’s unscripted. There’s no guarantee of success ( or failure ) and the animals are free to do what they do. Good advice is, persevere, do some research and spend time in the right habitat.

8. Eat cake

wildlife watching

Important to keep the energy levels up!

Traipsing around the Highlands looking for wildlife can be hard work! Keep yourself fuelled with regular stops for food and drink – it makes everything go much more smoothly. Ideally, take picnic breaks in the habitat, to maximise your chances of a sighting. Otherwise, make sure it’s a coffee shop with awesome chocolate cake.

9. Go Gaelic

callanish stone texture

The famous gneiss stones of Callanish illustrate Scotland’s ancient history ( Close up of Callanish standing stone, Western Isles )

You’ll be in a different country, after all, with it’s own languages, geology, folklore and history. Some of these aspects are shared to some extent with England, Wales and Ireland, but many are unique to Scotland and also to the Highlands and Islands. With Arc Guiding, learn your way round some Gaelic – it will give you a wonderful insight into the places you explore. Discover why geology is something Scotland is famous for. Enjoy some of the best locally sourced and homemade foods you’ll ever taste. And hear about the people who have worked, fought, studied and journeyed in the same places as you. I believe all these make the wildlife experience richer.

10. A great guide can make all the difference

A great guide will be able to recommend and take you to brilliant locations. They will be able to draw on expert knowledge and years of varied experience to help make wise decisions and give you a good time. They will have equipment and resources to help make your day a success and they will be flexible and friendly and have an eye for detail and a sense of humour. That’s why Arc Guiding is a good choice!

Also see the FAQ page for info on weather, walking, midges and more…

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