Birdwatching in Scotland

22 November 2016


The recent spotting of an incredibly rare Black-Billed Cuckoo on the island of North Uist has turned the attention of the birdwatching community to this remote island but has also served to highlight to the wider population just what an amazing location the islands are. The Black-Billed Cuckoo is a rare sight even in its native North America but it has been 16 years since its last recorded visit to the UK. Over the course of the last few weeks special chartered flights have been arriving almost daily, from as far afield as France, with devoted twitchers desperate for this once in a lifetime opportunity. North Uist has a long history of attracting birdwatchers with the nature reserve at Balranald being one of the top places in the country to see Barnacle Geese, Corn Bunting and Red-Throated Divers. At the end of last year it was also home to the world’s largest falcon, a Gyrfalcon from the Arctic Circle which spent 4 months on the island hunting geese, ducks and even swans. A great base on the island for your birdwatching adventures would be Clachan Sands Cottage with its luxury and expansive views. You may even be able to spot something flying overhead from the comfort of the hot tub. Birdwatching doesn’t get any easier.

One of the attractions of birdwatching is not just the act of observing, which can be relaxing, rewarding and occasionally frustrating but the places that this activity can take you to.  Some of the best spots in the country also happen to be remote, scenic and great family holiday destinations. Handa Island off the North West coast of the highlands is a superb day trip from the mainland. Each summer, nearly 100,000 seabirds breed here, including internationally important numbers of Guillemots, Razorbills and Great Skuas, but the main attraction is the chance to see Puffins at incredibly close quarters. Culkein Lodge which sits by the sea in a quiet bay is not only convenient for trips to Handa but makes a perfect place to come back to and relax by the fire after a long day in the great outdoors.

The Tower of Hallbar is a bit like an eyrie, offering commanding views of the surrounding countryside from the rooftop battlements. It’s an atmospheric place to survey the landscape but if you are having no luck spotting any local wildlife then a trip to the nearby Scottish Owl Centre is a must. This family friendly attraction houses one of the biggest collections of owls in the country and has its own flying display team of highly trained owls from around the world. It’s an educational day out that can also inspire youngsters to take to the wilds with their binoculars when they get their independence.

When Ospreys returned to breed in Scotland, the ancient Caledonian pine forest at Loch Garten is where they chose to come. The Osprey Centre here provides fantastic views of these magnificent birds on the nest, as well as close ups using a non-invasive CCTV camera. The centre is a fantastic place to visit at any time with a variety of walks and a well-equipped visitor centre. Drop by in early spring for Caper-watch and see the spectacular display of the capercaillie, Scotland’s largest grouse. Mallachie is located just a short walk away from Boat of Garten and Abernethy Forest, you can even spot squirrels from the living room. A lesser well known but equally impressive location to spot these magnificent birds is at Udale bay on the Black Isle. There is a well maintained hide where you can spot different species year round and it is only a short drive to Cromarty and the delightful Seashell Cottage.

The call of the Corncrake is incredibly evocative of long summer nights spent on the islands of the west coast. The distinctive sound, like a throaty crek crek is commonly heard around the machair and is a joyous background noise to fall to sleep to. Although a common sound, the birds themselves are notoriously elusive to spot, the challenge and the uncertainty being part of the attraction for many who travel here. A stay at Corncrake Cottage in the summer will give you the best chance of a sighting but the attractions of Scarista and the surrounding area are such, that any disappointment will be fleeting and more than mitigated by the stunning location, being surrounded by beaches, machair and mountains.

Loch Fleet is one of the most important nature reserves in the north of Scotland, and a big highlight here is the ease at which you can observe a huge variety of waders when the tide goes out.  Farthingworth has dramatic views over the loch and the water’s edge is just a short walk if you want to see this magnificent spectacle at close quarters. The really fortunate may spot some seals and otters at the same time. If you want to devote a whole day to the reserve, (there is truly enough to keep you entertained here for a week) then there are also two picnic areas and a wildlife hide that is perfect for photography.