January 20, 2023 7 min read
We are so lucky in Scotland to have a huge variety of wildlife on our doorstep. We even have our own Big 5 - Red Deer, Golden Eagles, Common Seals, Otters and Red Squirrels. As with many wild animals, most of these are only spotted in specific seasons or are best viewed at a certain time. Birds and sea life tend to migrate to warmer climates during the winter months and conservationists and biologists study their migratory patterns so we have a good idea of where they will be and at what time of year, whereas land mammals like deer can be seen year round, but only produce their energetic rutting displays at certain times of the year. If you don’t fancy tracking them down yourself there are plenty of wildlife tours, on foot, in boats and even snorkeling or scuba diving around Scotland where you have a good chance of catching a glimpse of these amazing creatures.
Image by Laurie Campbell, National Trust For Scotland.
White Tailed Sea Eagles
When: April - September
Where: Isle of Rum, Mull, Skye Tentsmuir and Loch Leven (Fife)
Scottish White Tailed Sea Eagles are the result of a successful rewilding effort in the 70s bringing Norwegian chicks over to the Isle of Rum after they became extinct in the early 1900s. They are the largest bird of prey found in Scotland and though these birds are rare with only 40 pairs in Scotland, they are one of the easiest birds to spot as they nest in the same place every year. They prefer sheltered lochs rather than exposed sea cliffs and have started nesting on Loch Leven in Fife. Although they are here all year round it is easiest to spot them during nesting season from April to September.
Image from Hebrides Cruises.
When: April - October
Where: Hebrides, Small Isles and the Moray Firth
Minke Whales are the most common whale spotted around Scotland and tend to swim nearer the coast than Dolphins or Orcas. Often inquisitive they will get close to boats, especially the adolescents. Sightings of Minke Whales are closely linked to their feeding patterns. Being spotted offshore in the Moray Firth from May to June and nearer the coast from July onwards. In the Small Isles, Eigg, Rumm and Muck, they are most likely to be seen from June to August.
Image from Country Life Magazine
Where: West Coast of Scotland and the Hebrides
There is thought to be a population of 8000 otters in Scotland's rivers and lochs, around half of this population can be found around the west coast and the islands of scotland. Catching a sight of Otters can often be pure luck but they tend to be more active in the early mornings and evenings. There are a few otter trails in Scotland with hides especially set up for otter watching, one of the most well known is on the Isle of Skye at Kylerhea.
Image taken by John MacPherson, The Wildlife Trust.
When: May - September
Where: Moray Firth south to St Andrews and the Hebrides
Scottish Bottlenose dolphins are thought to be some of the largest in the world. There are around 200 dolphins who make the coast from the Moray Firth South to St Andrews their home. The Moray Firth has been designated a Special Area of Conservation for Bottlenose Dolphins since 2005 and the Scottish Dolphin Center located on Spey Bay in Moray has some of the best viewing spots in Scotland. The Hebrides are also home to a little pod of Bottlenose Dolphins as well as the rare Risso Dolphin that visit the waters around the Isle of Lewis in the summer months. The best time of year to spot these Dolphins is from May to September and there are plenty of options for dolphin spotting tours around the Moray Firth and the Hebrides.
Image from The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.
When: May - August
There’s a small population of Orcas around Orkney referred to as the ‘West Coast Community’. It is thought there are only 8 in the group, 4 males and 4 females. The individual orcas are identifiable by their size, shape and scars in their dorsal fins and their white saddle-patches. Two of the most well known Orcas in Scotland are John Coe, the largest male who has a notch at the bottom of his impressive 2m long dorsal fin, and his partner Atlantis, who are on many a whale watchers bucket list. The best way to catch a glimpse of these fascinating animals is on a wildlife boat tour around Orkney in May to August.
Image from Scottish Seabird Centre.
When: May - July
Where: Isle of May, Shetland, Orkney, Mull, Staffa and St Kilda
Puffins are one of the most easily identifiable sea birds with their orange beaks and black and white bodies. They spend most of their life at sea only returning to the grassy cliff tops a few months a year to make their nests. The Isle of May is one of the most well known islands to see puffins and it has the biggest population in Scotland with around 45,000 breeding pairs of puffins having their nests there. They nest from May to July and you might be lucky enough to spot some fluffy Puffin chicks in June and July.
Image by Mike Rae, Scottish Wildlife Trust.
When: May - August
Where: Loch Garten, Cairngorms and Loch of the Lowes, Perth
Ospreys were very nearly extinct in Scotland until conservation efforts in the 1950’s helped to increase numbers. Loch Garten in the Cairngorms National Park was the first area to see Ospreys nesting again in Scotland in 1954. A few years after that a couple of breeding pairs settled in Loch of the Lowes in Perth. Now it is thought there are around 250 breeding pairs in Scotland. Every spring these birds migrate from Africa back to their nests in Scotland for the breeding season in March and they stay until their chicks have fledged in August. Both Loch Garten and Loch of the Lowes are Wildlife Reserves with special hides and cameras set up to catch a glimpse of these amazing birds.
Photo by Pearse O'Halloran on Unsplash
Where: Mixed Conifer Forests
Red squirrels are getting rarer to spot despite being a native breed to Scotland. Around 75% of the UK’s red squirrels are found in Scottish woodlands. January to early spring is the most likely time to spot the squirrels running around the tree tops during mating season. The two most well known trails and hides are found in Aberfoyle at The Lodge Forest Visitor Center and Kirroughtree Forest in Dumfries and Galloway. They can be found all over Scotland but tend to make mixed conifer forests their home. Although they don’t hibernate they are often hard to spot in bad weather!
Image taken by Amadej Tauses.
When: Grey Seals: May - August
Harbour Seals: September - November
Where: Grey Seals: Isle of May, Tentsmuir, Moray Firth and Hebrides
Harbour Seals: Hebrides and West Coast of Scotland
There are two types of seal that call Scotland their home, Harbour Seals and Grey Seals. Harbour seals tend to be smaller and have a shorter head than grey seals. Although seals live in Scotland all year round they are not so easy to spot during the winter months and the best chance to see them is when they have their pups on the beach. Most harbour seals live around the Hebrides and the West Coast and they come to shore to have their pups in the early summer. Grey seals are much more uncommon and Scotland has around 40% of the earth's grey seal population. Some of the largest colonies of Grey Seals are found on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth and around the Hebrides. Unlike harbour seals, grey seals will be on the beaches with their pups in autumn.
Image from Basking Shark Scotland.
When: July - September
Where: Oban and the Hebrides
Scotland is one of the best places in the world to see basking sharks. Despite being the second largest fish in the world, Basking Sharks are known as gentle giants as they have no teeth and feed on Plankton. They are one of the few sharks you can get up close to on diving or snorkelling tours. Found mostly in Oban during the summer months from July to September even if you aren’t keen on getting into the water with them they are easy to spot from the boat!
Image from Macs Adventure
When: Jan - Dec
Where: Isle of Harris, Isle of Mull, Isle of Skye and Argyll, Galloway and Glenmore Forest Parks
Scotland has almost all of the Uk’s population of Golden Eagles. There are around 400 pairs of Golden Eagle across the Highlands and Islands. In winter and early spring you might be lucky enough to catch an eagle displaying for their mate. They are most commonly spotted on clear calm days gliding above the mountains and across moorlands. The majority of Scotland’s upland forests are home to Golden Eagles as well as the Isle of Mull, Skye and Harris.
Photo by Nicolas Lysandrou on Unsplash
Where: Cairngorms National Park, Galloway Forest Park Isle of Skye, Isle of Arran, The Hebrides and Glen Affric
Red Deer are the largest deer found in Scotland. They tend to live in the moors and woodlands and spend most of their winter in amongst the trees. Although Red Deer are in Scotland all year round, October, during their rutting season, can be the most exciting time to see and, probably, hear them. There’s a number of Red Deer populations around Scotland and one of the largest is in Galloway Forest Park, they have special deer viewing hides and run guided visits if you want to learn all about them. The Isle of Skye and Glen Affric in the Highlands are also great places to spot Red Deer.
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