Birdwatching in The Highlands

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  • The golden eagle - one of Scotland's largest birds of prey
    The golden eagle - one of Scotland's largest birds of prey
  • A bird-of prey in level flight with wings extended
    The hen harrier (image courtesy of RSPB/ Andy Hay - rspb-images.com)
  • A large bird or prey in flight preparing to land at its nest
    An osprey lands at its eyrie (image courtesy of RSPB/ Chris Gomersall - rspb-images.com)
  • Looking up at a brown bird of prey with open wings
    A red kite in flight (image courtesy of RSPB/ Ben Hall - rspb-images.com)

Given its size and the mix of terrain found there, the Highlands are excellent birdwatching territory, with a huge variety of species found across the seasons.

Seabirds

The Highland coastline is extensive and at almost any point you'll be able to spot a variety of seabird species. However, there are several key spots that are home to significant colonies.

Chief amongst these can be found on the Handa island Wildlife Reserve. Ths small island off the far northwest coast of Sutherland bursts into life each spring as over 100,000 seabirds roost here, including internationally significant colonies of guilliemot, razorbills and great skua. There are also smaller numbers of breeding puffins plus oystercatchers and Arctic terns. The island is accessed using an on-demand pedestrian ferry service from Tarbet, close to Scourie.

Further north, on the high craggy cliff faces around Cape Wrath, there are some of the most spctacular seabird colonies in the UK where you'll find huge numbers of kittiwake and guilliemot plus shags, fulmars and the ubiquitous puffins.

Over in Caithness, Duncansby Head, near John O'Groats and Dunnet Head, close to Thurso, also host large seabird colonies which are best seen from aboard a wildlife cruise.


Birds of prey

Raptors thrive amongst mixed Highland habitats of mountain, moor and loch, including some of Scotland's iconic and most spectacular species.

There are numerous pairs of breeding golden eagles to be found across the region, including those at Ben Wyvis National Nature Reserve, Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, and on reserves on the isles of Rum and Eigg.

The same is also true of the spectacular osprey. These majestic birds can be see on the reserves at Corrimony and Loch Fleet but are at their most accessible at Loch Garten where the RSPB have a visitor centre within the Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve. During the breeding season, a live video feed relays a close-up view of action on the nest back to the centre.

Visit the RSPB's Tollie Red Kites on the Brahan estate near Dingwall and watch these fantastic raptors feeding up close from a specially converted farmstead building.

Hen harriers, merlins and various owls can also be seen on reserves such as those at Insh Marshes near Kingussie and Forsinard in the Sutherland Flow Country.

Wildfowl, waders and other species

Greenshank, golden plover, dunlin and black-throated divers are among the other star residents at the Flow Country while in addition to Loch Garten's more famous occupants, also watch out for Scottish crossbills, crested tits and capercaillie. The crossbill, an indigenous species that's unique to the UK, can also be found at Loch Fleet and Beinn Eighe NNRs.

The mudflat, saltmarsh and wet grassland of the RSPB's Nigg Bay reserve attracts large colonies of waders birds and wildfowl, including bar-tailed godwits, knots, pink-footed geese and wigeon.

At the remote and unspoilt Culbin Sands reserve, near Nairn, you'll see wintering sea ducks, bar-tailed godwits, oystercatchers plus a small flock of brent geese. At nearby Dingwall, catch the thousands of widgeon each autumn at Udale Bay.

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