If you were lucky enough to have wings, would you fly to the milder climes of the south to wait out winter or would you rather retreat to hibernation and simply enter a period of deep sleep? Or perhaps you’d be active in the outdoors like a number of our fellow wild creatures?
Winter in Scotland is a truly enchanted time and offers unparalleled opportunities for wildlife viewings. Yes, you hear right – in winter!
As wildlife watching is both an art and an adventure, and encounters with fauna are invariably magical and sometime happen entirely by chance, we’ve got some tips and ideas for you on how to be a Michaela Strachan and have your own Winterwatch break in Scotland – successfully!
1. Be in the right place
Scotland’s rugged and beautiful landscape offers fantastic open spaces. Find nature centres and reserves in Scotland where you can look out for wildlife and enjoy stunning walks through amazing scenery. Keep your eyes peeled and ears pricked for various animals’ tracks and signs – they are waiting to be discovered and snowfall provides an excellent opportunity to study them. An experienced eye will recognize the track of a fox walking in the snow. Can you?
2. Be in the right place at the right time of the year
You may be surprised, but winter really is a good time to see wildlife as it becomes easier to spot them when leaves fall from hedges and trees. However, no matter how hard you try – you won’t see a wild elephant in Scotland (not even in winter!), so it’s crucial to know Scottish wildlife species and where the population is distributed geographically.
Top five winter birds and animals to look out for in Scotland
Wintering greylag, pink-footed and barnacle geese
Where: Mersehead Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth, Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve on Islay, Montrose Basin Visitor Centre in Angus, Loch Leven Nature Reserve in Perthshire, Loch of Strathbeg Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire, North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory on Orkney
When: Dawn is the optimum viewing time to see the skein of geese take off, looking for food.
Playful red squirrels
Where: Where you see nut shells there are red squirrels! Loch Garten Nature Reserve in Inverness-shire, Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie, Red Squirrel Trail in Dumfries & Galloway, Red Squirrel Trail in Dundee, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
When: Squirrels are less active on cold, wet or windy days, so keep this in mind.
Flock of starlings
Where: Mersehead Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth, Loch of Kinnordy Nature Reserve in Angus, Gretna Green in Dumfries & Galloway, near Collieston north of Aberdeen
When: It’s not always about slipping out of bed at dawn! The swooping and swirling mass of birds in the sky can be best admired at dawn and dusk.
Hear roaring red deer
Where: Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve in Torridon, Cairngorms National Park, Lochaber Geopark and around, Galloway Red Deer Range in Dumfries & Galloway, Isle of Arran in Ayrshire, islands of Jura and Rum in the Inner Hebrides, Queen Elizabeth Forest Park
When: Throughout the day
Ptarmigans in their white winter coats
Where: Cairngorms National Park, Ben Lawers Nature Reserve near Killin in Perthshire, Glenshee, Applecross
When: Ptarmigans reside in remote parts of the Highlands. Only if the weather becomes exceedingly cold or severe do these birds move down the lower level mountainsides and into the forest edges.
Check out when to see wildlife in Scotland.
3. Be quiet and listen to nature carefully
You might be familiar with the sounds that squirrels and pigeons make sometimes in your garden – they coo and screech – but listening to the chorus of winter wildlife in their natural habitats it’s a completely different story – it’s like listening to a natural sound track! Chances are that you will first hear the birds and animals before you see them so it’s important to be able to recognise wildlife by their calls. Think of the barks and roars of the red deer, the high-pitched screamy howls of the foxes, the strong yelping calls of the golden eagles, or the excited honking of the barnacle geese. Can’t tell your capercaillie from your ptarmigan? Check out this collection of wildlife and environmental sounds and know them before you go!
4. Be camouflaged, be invisible – blend in!
Wearing the right clothing is extremely important. If you want to make a successful stalk there are many different things that you need to be aware of. Wildlife is particularly wary of people and can be easily spooked, so it’s advisable to avoid bright colours and noisy fabrics. Camouflage yourself in the setting so that you don’t stand out too much and alert animals of your presence – it stresses them!
5. Be downwind (smell)
Where you can, minimise the smells you bring on you into the animals’ environment. Deodorants, perfumes, washing detergents – even the smell of garlic or onion that’s left on your hands after preparing dinner – they all act as a billboard advertising your presence.
Tip: some wildlife watchers take on the scents of the woods – they store their clothes in bags with dried leaves and let them pick up a smell familiar to the animal.
6. Be prepared – what to bring with you
- Waterproof trekking boots
- Waterproof outer layers, and warm hat and gloves
- Small torch/headlamp
- Waterproof dry bags for cameras, binoculars and smartphones may be useful
7. Be still and keep your distance
We hope that this tip is a very obvious one, nevertheless remember that wildlife is just wildlife and as per their very nature wild animals are… wild, so give all wildlife a really wide berth and keep a safe distance. Use roadside stops, where possible, to view wildlife, and binoculars and telephoto lenses to avoid disturbing them.
Remember: if you cause an animal to move – you’re too close! It’s also advisable to watch wildlife for a few minutes and then move on so animals and birds can carry on as normal.
8. Be respectful and responsible to your hosts
When viewing wildlife you’re entering the animals’ world on their terms, so try to see the world through their eyes. It’s important to stay safe and also know your rights and responsibilities when enjoying the outdoors. Familiarise yourself with some simple safety guidelines set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to ensure you enjoy an invigorating and satisfying experience in the beautiful Scottish countryside.
Learn more about birdwatching and finding wildlife in Scotland, or come face to face with incredible animals at one of the many wildlife attractions found throughout Scotland. And don’t forget to share you pictures with us using #lovescotland!
If you would rather view wildlife from the comfort of your home, tune in to BBC Winterwatch from 26 – 29 January!