10 Tips For Enjoying Great Wildlife in Scotland.

So, how can you set yourself up for success when looking for wildlife in the Scottish Highlands? Obviously, going looking for animals in their own habitat presents a bit more of a challenge, but for many people it’s that challenge that they want. To find ‘their own’ animal in its own habitat. Plus, you get great company and beautiful surroundings (and great coffee shops if that’s your thing).

Below are some general tips on wildlife and birdwatching in the Scottish Highlands…

#1. Scotland has brilliant wildlife. All year round.

A wild day looking for ptarmigan (Cairngorm).

The British Isles experience very variable seasons, which have big effects on our wildlife populations. And the effects are greater the further north you go, with both weather and day length changing drastically (up to approximately 2 hours difference in day length between London and Shetland!). So, first, your usable time in the field varies a lot depending on which season you’re in. Second, regardless of the weather and season, the resident species will always be there somewhere. For eagles, otters, pinemartens, red deer, red squirrels and ptarmigan, it’s ‘business as usual’, all year. And third, because of where Britain is located, we get exciting migrants at almost any time of year.

#2. Bigger is actually better (within reason).

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. Wear decent layers – even if they are brightly coloured.

malc lochindorb
Make sure you’ve got a good waterproof jacket. Even if it’s brightly coloured!

Honestly, it’s all fine. Some people get decked out head to toe in camouflage, which can be really effective (I’ve got a camo smock which is awesome 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. Enjoy Scottish wildlife like single malt whisky.

lochranza malt whisky
Birdwatching in the Highlands is like enjoying whisky (Lochranza, Isle of Arran)

Gordon Hamlett says in the intro to Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands that Scotlands’ birds should be enjoyed like 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. We have the ‘Right to Roam’. But not to disturb or damage.

rogue capercaillie
Rogue capercaillie, Cairngorms

The public has the legal right of responsible access to much of Scotland’s landscape. But remember also that most of our star species and their habitats are also legally protected from disturbance and damage. And not just for their own sake, but also for the sake of local people and businesses. 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, mistakes like this lead to unnecessary deaths of already rare species and sometimes financial cost to people already working hard to make a living. 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 these wonderful species and places responsibly.

#6. Expect the unexpected.

common dolphin

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

I know it sounds like a headline for a 60’s psychological suspense show, but it applies 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 unfavourable 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 the payroll.

‘They should have gone to a zoo’. I’ve heard this said of people who expect wildlife to show up exactly where and when they expect it!

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 to persevere, do some research and spend time in the right habitat.

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

#8. Eat Cake.

Traipsing around the Highlands looking for wildlife can be hard work! Keep yourself fuelled with regular stops for food and drink – you will be more alert, happier and, probably, safer. Ideally, take picnic breaks in the habitat, to maximise your chances of a sighting. Otherwise, make sure there’s a coffee shop nearby (you can always justify this on the grounds of ‘supporting the fragile Highland economy’).

Important to keep the energy levels up!

#9. Go Gaelic.

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.

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

#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.

Arc Guiding is a great choice for all the above reasons! Check out my wildlife watching day trips and see the FAQ page for more detailed info on weather, walking, midges and more…

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