Where to see wildlife in the Scottish Highlands this winter!
Winter in the Scottish Highlands is a stunning time of year. Snow-capped mountains tower over tranquil lochs and rushing rivers; frost glitters over forests and open moors, and homes all over are filled with the sound of a crackling fire. Although beautiful, it can be a harsh environment to call home and many animals will leave for warmer climates or snuggle themselves away into hibernation. But all is not ‘oh so quiet’ out there. There is still plenty of wildlife to see and it is a wonderful time to linger off-route in search of it. RSPB Scotland have a few tips on where to see wildlife along the North Coast 500 (NC500) this winter.
Under bright city lights and back gardens
Even in busy urban environments, you can find wonderful varieties of wildlife. Already this winter, Inverness has welcomed large flocks of redwing throughout the city. The redwing is the UKs smallest true thrush and they travel to Scotland each winter from Iceland and Scandinavia. They have two distinct features: a creamy strip above the eye and orangey-red patches on the flank. Other winter wildlife that you may see in Inverness at the start of your NC500 journey include: waxwings, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, fieldfares and much more. Wander along the river bank path towards the Ness Islands and you will likely see some lovely wildlife.
Take a walk around one of the Scottish Highland’s many ‘coastal delights’ and you could see otter, grey seal, common seal and porpoise.Coastal areas and lochs are a haven for wildfowl in the winter. Pink-footed geese and wintering ducks descend in their thousands to winter in the shelter of the Cromarty Firth. RSPB Scotland Nature Reserves Nigg Bay and Udale Bay are fantastic places to see this spectacle. At mid-winter peak, more than 10,000 birds stop to feed and shelter there. Nigg Bay highlights include: bar-tailed godwits, a long-billed and long-legged wading bird that leaves its Arctic breeding ground to spend the winter further south; Wigeon, a medium-sized duck with a round head and small bill, lapwings and redshanks. Spend some time at Ivy Cottage car park by Udale Bay and you could see scaup, a diving duck with a large, wide bill that has a tiny black ‘nail’ at the tip. These birds are specially protected at all times and a nationally-important flock spends the winter in the Cromarty Firth. They are best viewed with binoculars or telescope. From the hide at Udale, you may also see pink-footed geese, teal, dunlins, knots and much more. It is best to visit both bays two hours either side of high tide as the birds are pushed closer to the hides.
Photos: Nigg Bay by Andy Hay, Flock Of Pink Footed Geese By Chris Gomersall, Pink Footed Geese By Andy Hay, Lapwing By Chris Gomersall (Rspb-Images.com)
Winter is the best time of year to see the magnificent red kite soaring around the skies of the Scottish Highlands. These graceful birds of prey are unmistakable with their reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail. At RSPB Scotland Tollie Red Kites Nature Reserve, you will be able to watch these birds feed as volunteers put food out for them every day of the year. In winter, they will often be joined by buzzards and ravens. Feeding time in the winter is 2.30pm daily (GMT). This changes to 1.30pm in summer (BST). The nearby woodland is a joy to explore and it sometimes hosts crossbills and siskins during the winter months. There is also a strong chance of seeing bramblings and chaffinches at the reserve’s feeders.
Photos: Red Kite feeding by Ben Andrew, Red Kite by Ben Hall, Cross Bill and Brambling by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Deep within the remote Flow Country
In the far north of Scotland is one of the world’s last wild places – The Flow Country and RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. Here, a vast expanse of blanket bog is surrounded by mountains and peppered with pools and lochs. It is one of the world’s rarest habitats and the bog is a vital defence against climate change. It is certainly a lot quieter during the winter months but if you look closely and patiently, you will see some spectacular wildlife. Winter is a fantastic time of year to get close to wild red deer herds and you may even catch a glimpse of the blue/mountain hare in its white winter coat. Other highlights include snow buntings and golden eagles. Not far from here, is RSPB Scotland Broubster Leans Nature Reserve. The wet grassland and pools here attract a variety of wintering birds. White-fronted geese arrive after a long journey from Greenland. Another long-distance migrant you might see is the whooper swan. You may also see twites, linnets, reed buntings and chaffinches.
Please ensure you follow responsible access in line with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and leave no trace.