Seasonal Wildlife Watching with Heatherlea in the Scottish Highlands
We are often asked 'When is the best time to visit the Highlands'? The simple answer is 'there is no best time - wildlife in the Highlands is always great!' All our guides live locally and will tell you that once you have experienced all the seasons here, it becomes too difficult to choose! There is so much to see throughout the year, all in stunning scenery and changing light. Some holidays and seasons are better for certain species however, and for a description of when is best for a particular species, please see our Key Species page.
Heatherlea operate 25 full week Scottish itineraries spread over 46 weeks of the year, each holiday differing so that it focuses on the best wildlife experiences on offer at that particular time of the season.
Below is a description of the four seasons as seen by a Heatherlea guide, giving a broad brush description of what is on offer. Whatever time you visit, a week with a guide should produce between 100 – 120 species of birds (as many as 140 species in spring), with Red Squirrel, Otter, seals and dolphins possible throughout the year amongst a host of other stunning wildlife.
Winterwatch (mid December to late March)
Many people assume that winter is a quiet time for wildlife across the Highlands, but that is far from the truth. We probably have a greater number of birds in the Highlands in winter than in summer! All of the key Scottish specialities are resident, and to cope with the colder and shorter days they remain active throughout the day.
Eagles nest build and become very territorial, meaning birds are flying more often and dispersing throughout the region. At the same time, Mountain Hare, Ptarmigan, Red Grouse, Snow Bunting and Red Deer tend to drop down the slopes a little, so days up the glens and mountain can be rewarded with close views of these shy species.
Flocks of passerines can be spectacular, with good numbers of finches and thrushes, often including Twite, Brambling and Waxwing. Local feeders are always worth a look, as Crested Tit come in when it is very cold (which is a rare event in the rest of the year) and often provide stunning views.
To make the most of the shorter days we often head out at first light for an hour, particularly to look for Black Grouse and Capercaillie, and come back to the hotel for breakfast. Capercaillie are a little easier to see in winter, especially if there is snow on the ground, as they will readily take to the trees to graze on needles and shoots.
We often spend 2 or 3 days at the coast in winter, because there is so much to see! Of particular interest are the large numbers of seaduck, including of Common and Velvet Scoter, Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Scaup with rarities such as King Eider, Surf Scoter and on occasion something even rarer! As well as seaduck we have numbers of Slavonian Grebe and Divers wintering, plus several auk species. Gull numbers also peak, and we almost always bump into a “white-winged” gull or two, with the commoner Iceland and Glaucous occasionally joined by a Kumlien’s, Ross’s, Bonaparte’s or even Ivory Gull!
Wildfowl numbers around the Moray Firth remain high throughout the winter, and looking for rarities among the many thousands can be challenging but rewarding. Flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Pink-footed and Greylag Geese can be significant, and wader populations are at a peak, with many Curlew, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin, plus smaller numbers of Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper and Sanderling. Our guiding season begins over the festive period, with our ever popular Hogmanay Birding Festival.
If you would like to come and enjoy one of popular Winter holidays, take a look at some of our other holidays not mentioned above, including Highland Winter Birding, New Year Birdlist Booster and our bargain Short Breaks.
Springwatch (late March to mid June)
Spring is a time of migration both into and out of the Highlands. Many wintering birds head to their Northern breeding grounds, stopping here en-route, and many summer migrants arrive back after wintering in Africa or the Mediterranean.
Returning birds add to an already full dawn chorus, and come late April the majority of our passerines are back, with Wood Warbler, Tree Pipit and Spotted Flycatcher throwing their voices into the mix.
Resident birds are displaying earlier in late March and through April, with good chances of seeing Capercaillie and Black Grouse at their lekking grounds. Scottish (Parrot) Crossbills are early breeders, often on their nests in March, with Crested Tit incubating throughout May.
On the hill, we expect to see our first Dotterel in the first weeks of May, with Ptarmigan changing plumage throughout April, though often remaining lower down until early June. If snow persists into April we can often see Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting from the road side!
Many of our trips in Spring take in the wonderful West Coast and Inner and Outer Hebrides. The West is superb in spring, with 3 (sometimes 4!) species of diver and Slavonian Grebe in summer plumage, with both eagle species cruising over ridges enjoying the breeze. To enjoy the West without midges and hoardes of holiday makers is seeing these places at their best, with plenty of migrants to search through, and breeding birds in their finest plumage noisily defending their territories. Trips that take in Mull and Skye at this time of year are unforgettable!
From mid May our attention turns again to the North and West for one of the greatest ornithological spectacles in Europe, that of the bustling seabird colonies. We make three trips to Handa Island, four trips to Orkney and two to Shetland in this busy period, not forgetting our magical trip to the Treshnish Isles on our Mull short break. As well as visiting the colonies we make numerous ferry trips in these rich waters, and most weeks will deliver views of Puffin, Black Guillemot, Arctic and Great Skua plus 10 other species of seabird!
If you would like to come and enjoy one of popular Spring holidays, take a look at some of our other holidays not mentioned above, including Spring into Scotland including Mull, Birding the Highlands in May and Southern Hebrides holidays.
Summerwatch (Mid June to late September)
Summer is often seen as a quieter time for birds, but that depends on where you are looking! It is true the woods and moors will be a little quieter as the breeding birds quieten down, with up to 20 hours of daylight to feed in the warmer days, meaning there is plenty of time for inactivity! When we find birds in the forests, they are often in vast flocks made up of several family parties. You may only need to see one Crested Tit or Crossbill, but you will often see 15 or 20!
Summer is the best time for fishing Osprey, Dotterel running around the mountain tops and breeding Divers and Slavonian Grebe in their beautiful breeding plumage. Young eagles are active on the nest in June and July, usually fledging the last week of July, meaning there are more birds to see in the air. The Eagles, Divers and Dotterel holiday also visits the only mainland Gannetry in Scotland at Troup Head, always a memorable day!
Summer is also the best time for moths, dragonflies, butterflies and flowers, and our popular Highland Wildlife weeks focus on the scarce invertebrates and flora of the Highlands, though we will of course show you the birds and mammals too.
The rich waters of the West Coast have warmed up my mid June and for the next few months provide rich feeding grounds for Minke Whales, Basking Sharks, Common Dolphins and seabirds, with August and September being peak months for rarer seabirds, with all of our holidays in this period enjoying a boat trip on the West Coast. If you just want a West Coast holiday then our Islands on the Edge and Outer Hebrides and the Shiants and Inner Hebrides trips are where you should look first.
If you would like to come and enjoy one of popular Summer holidays, take a look at some of our other holidays not mentioned above, including our brand new and exciting Highlands & the West Coast in summer and St Kilda and the Hebrides. If a week is too long for you, do consider our bargain Short Break holidays.
Autumnwatch (late September to mid December)
Autumn is a stunning time across the Highlands and Islands. With a lower sun and ever changing weather, the light is simply superb and really brings out the colours of the trees and the hills, changing from Summer green to Autumn gold and bronze. The end of September sees the start of the Red Deer rut, with stags roaring across the glens and moors. With all raptors fledged and moving down from the high and remote areas, we bump into Hen Harrier, Merlin and both Eagle species with increased frequency.
Geese start to arrive from their Northern breeding grounds, with numbers peaking in October. We see great numbers of Pink-footed, Greylag, Barnacle and White-fronted Geese, with a few rarities thrown in. The Moray Firth is a good place to find hundreds at a time, but for really big numbers then a trip to Islay and Jura or the Solway Firth is thoroughly recommended. Seaduck numbers on the Moray Firth continue to build in Autumn, reaching their peak around mid November, with winter plumaged Divers and Grebes building too.
Late September and through October are superb times for migration, and all of our holidays in this period include a large element of birding, with exciting migration-focussed excursions to Lewis, Harris and Skye on the Outer Limits Adventure. At a time of great numbers and rarities we run special tours for birders in Shetland, North Ronaldsay (Orkney), Outer Hebrides and Fair Isle, Coll and Tiree, and our new Isle of Scilly departure celebrating common species, but hoping for scarce and rare vagrants!
If you would like to come and enjoy one of popular Autumn holidays, take a look at some of our other holidays not mentioned above, including Scottish Specials & Autumn Migration, Highland Autumn Birding and the bargain Scottish Birding in Autumn short breaks.
'I was on this years tour (my fifth Scottish tour with you) and would like to express my great thanks to all the staff that we had encountered, and also the office staff who are probably often forgotten. A special thanks to Mark and Scott who were frankly outstanding in the effort that they put in to find the birds and do everything they possibly could to get everyone on to each bird species seen. Both of them are great guys. Looking forward to my next tour with you.
Kind regards, Mr C' New Year Birdlist Booster January 2017