Scotland's top wildlife
The Scottish specialities to look out for during a wildlife-watching tour of the country.
The largest land animal in Britain and Ireland and one of the biggest species of deer in the world, the red deer seems to mirror the grandeur of many of the Scottish upland areas where it lives. The country as a whole has hundreds of thousands of red deer, which poses a problem for tree regeneration in many places. But this abundance means you’ll have a high chance of seeing some if you make more than a fleeting visit to Highland glens and other prime red deer ground.
You can find red deer on mountainsides, out on boglands, on moors, rough island pastures and in woodlands. Excellent sites for deer watching are on the Isle of Rum NNR, Deeside between Braemar and Mar Lodge, and in the many glens that run west of Loch Ness.
Spotting tip: Winter can be a good time for deer watching, since herds will move to lower ground in cold weather. The bellowing calls of the stags in the autumn rut are a give-away of red deer presence nearby.
Scotland is one of the best places in the world to see grey seals. More than one in three of all grey seals on the planet breed here, the majority in the Hebrides and Orkney.
Grey seal watching is best done away from the colonies. This avoids disturbance to the animals, which in any case only come ashore to breed for a few weeks in late autumn.
At other times, keeping alert for seals as you travel along the inshore is a good idea in most parts of the Scottish coast, as seals haul out on beaches, sandbanks and rocks to rest and relax after feeding. In a few places, the seals make it easy for you. For instance, the inner harbour at Stornoway, on Hebridean island of Lewis, can be popular with large bull seals, which visit there to take advantage of discards from fishing boats.
Spotting tip: Scotland is also home to tens of thousands of harbour, or common, seals, which are smaller than greys but are often confused with them. Look for a long, down-slanting skull and parallel nostril slits in adult greys, to distinguish from more dog-like heads and V- shaped nostrils of harbour seals.
Once persecuted to near extinction in Britain, with only a small number surviving in northwest Scotland, the pine marten has made a big recovery across the country in recent decades. Wooded areas in the Highlands are still strongholds, including at classic sites such as the native pinewoods of the Beinn Eighe, Glen Affric and Glenmore National Nature Reserves.
But although they need woodland within their large territories, martens also range over more open areas.
This makes places such as the Black Isle – a peninsula near Inverness with a mix of conifer plantations and farmland – a good location for them. Some wildlife holiday operators offer marten watching from purpose-built hides, including at Aigas House, on sites in Speyside, and at the Kindrogan Field Studies Centre in Perthshire.
Spotting tip: You’ll often first see signs of pine marten presence, rather than the creature itself. On forest tracks look out for their droppings, which are narrower than fox scat and thicker than a cat’s. In autumn, these may be stuffed with rowan berries, cherry stones or the shiny wing cases of dung beetles.
See sunshine glint on the golden nape feathers of an adult bird, or watch one soar high above a glen, and you’ll know why the golden eagle is such an icon of the Scottish wilds. Scotland is home to almost all the 440 or so pairs that breed in the UK, making it one of the top countries in Europe to see this scarce predator.
Almost all the Scottish birds live on the Highland mainland and islands off the west coast, with very few in the south and none on the North Isles. The Hebrides now has one of the highest densities of golden eagles. Boglands in central Lewis, the mountains of Harris and much of the island of Mull are all good places to look.
Spotting tip: Soaring eagles hold their fairly rectangular wings in a shallow ‘V’ shape, whereas buzzards (often mis-identified as eagles) soar with rounded wings kept level to the body.
Bottlenose dolphins are widespread across the world’s oceans, but Scotland has the northernmost groups. These Scottish animals are big, weighing-in at 400 kilos or so when fully grown – much larger than members of the same species in places such as Florida. There are several different groups of bottlenoses off the Scottish coast. Thirty to 40 known individuals live in the Inner Hebrides, between Kintyre and Skye, and about a dozen are regularly seen in and near the Sound of Barra.
The largest and best-known group, with around 130 animals, swims from the Moray Firth, along much of the east mainland, almost to the border with England. Hotspots for watching these east coast bottlenoses are at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle, the Kessock Channel and Cromarty, near Inverness, and at The Battery, overlooking the entrance to Aberdeen harbour.
Spotting tip: The inner Moray Firth has more sightings in summer months, while Aberdeen harbour can be a good location for winter watching. A rising tide is a likely time for bottlenoses to feed inshore at hotspots, and at Chanonry they come close to shore.
Different species of crossbills are typical birds of the boreal forests that circle much of the world at northern latitudes. The Scottish crossbill lives in the pine-rich Caledonian forests that are outpostsof the boreal and it is our only endemic bird. The core of its range is the Scots pinewoods around the Cairngorms, particularly Abernethy, the Glenmore NNR, and Rothiemurchus. Scottish crossbills also live in mature conifer plantations.
All crossbills feed by prising seeds from cones using their trademark crossed mandibles. If you’relucky enough to be close to one, you can hear thecracking sounds as its beak tweaks the cones.
Spotting tip: Scottish crossbill calls are deeper than those of common crossbill, and their heads can also look a bit bigger, but for confidence in identification you really need to go with a local guide experienced in separating the species.
Recently re-introduced to Scotland after centuries of absence, European beavers are now well established in different parts of the mainland.
A small population from the Scottish government-backed trial re-introduction can be seen in Knapdale, close to Crinan and Lochgilphead in Argyll. There’s a small visitor centre here and scope to go on organised watches with staff from the trial project. A much larger group has established and spread in the catchment of the River Tay in Perthshire since early in the millennium. Careful exploration of riverbanks and lochs in the area between Bridge of Earn, Perth, and around Dunkeld could pay dividends. This area is also excellent osprey country.
Spotting tip: Look for obvious signs of beaver presence, such as small logs with teeth marks and bark nibbled clean, or twig dams across watercourses. When swimming, a beaver keeps its large head up but much of its body submerged.