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Watch Our Wildlife - Winter


Mary Legg
Dunnet Wildlife Exhibition

Tel: 01847 821531
[email protected]

Marina Swanson
Bruce Building
Sinclair Terrace

Tel: 01955607758
[email protected]

Head to the rocky coasts and shorelines for wading birds and check out Thurso and particularly Wick rivers where otters are often spotted on snowy days. Particularly good places for birds are Castlehill, Ham, Harrow, Sannick bay, Freswick & Keiss.  Birds to see are greenshank, ringed plover, golden plovers, turnstone, purple sandpiper and sanderling. Lapwing, oystercatchers, redshank and curlew are on coastal fields. Harbours including Wick and Thurso are also worth checking for white winged gulls like glaucous and Icelandic.

Walk along the coast between John O Groats and Freswick to look for pupping grey seals (any you do find on shore leave alone as they are being fed there by their mothers). Grey seals will pup from October through to February but mostly in November and December. stonechat

Plenty of geese and whooper swans around. Look out for them around lochs such as Loch Watten, but for protected Greenland white-fronted goose watch in the comfort of the Loch of Mey hide.

Wintering ducks such as longtail and goldeneye are on lochs and also offshore at Dunnet bay and Sinclair’s bay. These two spots are also good for great northern divers and red-throated divers. The Wick River can be good for other wintering wildfowl such as teal & wigeon.

Snow bunting and large flocks of finch including twite can be seen on the beaches and also neap and stubble fields. Look there also for hungry roe deer.

Fieldfare and red wings are around; try Newtonhill Woodland for the larger flocks.

West Sutherland / Assynt

Andy Summers
Assynt Visitor Centre

Tel: 01571 844654
[email protected]

Once the snows appear you can expect flocks of snow buntings to start appearing right down on the coast. Clachtoll and Elphin seem to be good places to look for them in bad weather.

During any period of cold weather it is worth going down to the beach. At Culkein Stoer, for example, stonechats, starlings, rock pipits and pied wagtails join the usual waders on the shore. Look out for purple sandpipers, turnstones as well as ringed plovers and dunlin. Meanwhile Lochinver harbour is always worth searching for glaucous and Iceland gulls.

Many of the inland lochs will have whooper swans during the winter. Loch na Claise near Stoer occasionally gets large numbers of goldeneye as well as teal and pochard. The little grebes usually leave the freshwater and head out to sea. Long-tailed ducks are often seen riding the surf at Balchladdich bay.

And remember the breeding season can start very early. Golden eagles perform their spectacular sky-dancing displays in February in some of the remoter glens and golden plovers and skylarks can often be on the hill by the end of February. The optimist is always on the look out for snowy owls or gyr falcons but a white-billed diver is more likely.

Red deer will be coming down the hill in bad weather and drivers need to take care on the roads, especially near Inchnadamph. Any casualties are worth taking note because they quickly become a source of carrion for foxes, wildcats, ravens and eagles including any passing white-tailed sea eagles.

Mid and East Sutherland

Ian Paterson
Ferrycroft Countryside Centre

Tel: 01549 402638
[email protected]

The two estuaries at Dornoch and Loch Fleet support a wealth of waders and wildfowl. Dornoch Point is worth a visit for views of pintail, long tailed duck and common scoter. Flocks of knot and dunlin provide a dramatic aerial display. Loch Fleet may have red-breasted merganser, bar-tailed godwit and ringed plover. A careful search of the sea at any location on the east coast may reveal red, black or great northern divers.

Moving north to Brora you will have arrived at the premier site in the north for viewing little gulls, just off the mouth of the River Brora. If gulls are your thing then a visit to Helmsdale harbour may turn up an Iceland gull or two.

Waxwings may well be the feature of this winter with flocks of 100 already seen at Lairg and Golspie. Any flocks of birds feeding amongst rowans will be worth a second look and they are surprisingly approachable.

North West Sutherland

Donald Mitchell
Durness Visitor Centre

Tel: 01971 511756
[email protected]

Far north we may be and the daylight shorter, however it is still a worthwhile time to be out and about in the hills and along the coastal fringes. One of the most spectacular sights is the grey seals at Whiten head. Still at their breeding sites well into November, the white seal pups ‘hiding’ like rocks on the shore. It is a long walk out though but a bothy is nearby for a Spartan overnight stay.

It is still possible to see otters on the shorelines and offshore in the many bays and Loch Eriboll in particular small flocks of over wintering red and black throated divers may be seen in winter plumage, quite often their larger relative the great northern diver too. Inland are still the red deer, ravens and birds of prey supplemented by influxes of Scandinavian redwings and fieldfares. 7-800 Greenland barnacle geese frequent Eilean Hoan and the boggy fields of Balnakeil, where greylag geese, golden plover, wigeon and mallard also feed.

In the absence of obvious wildlife look to the archaeology or remarkable geology that becomes more visible as the plants die back. If it does get dark early – good! Look to the unobstructed starry skies, on clear nights there can be spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis. It is a fine time to be in the north!

North Sutherland

Paul Castle
Durness Visitor Centre
Tel: 01641 521884

Check coastal sites such as Strathy Point for passing flocks of waxwings looking for any leftover fruit on trees such as elder and rowan further inland. Along the coast in many estuaries there are good numbers of long tailed ducks and eider ducks. There are lots of waders in the estuaries of the major rivers (Borgie, Naver & Halladale) such as curlew, redshank and turnstone. Loch Eriboll offers very good chance of winter sightings of great northern divers and possibly red and black-throated divers also. Even white-billed divers have been seen here on several occasions.

On the slopes of Ben Hope or Klibreck there is the chance of spotting ptarmigan and around the smaller quiet inland roads there is always the chance of seeing golden eagle. Best time is late afternoon on a fine day keep checking those hill tops. On the inland hills and peatland there is the chance of spotting white-tailed sea eagles.

A train journey from Thurso to Inverness takes you right through the peatlands with good views of herds of red deer now down off the high hills in search of better grazing.

Watch how you watch our wildlife;
their welfare comes first!

• Wear muted colours and blend into your surroundings.
• Keep noise to a minimum.
• Use binoculars to get clear views while still distant enough to avoid disturbance.
• Use hides when possible (your car is a good hide).
• Be particularly careful during the breeding season.
• Be patient and the wildlife may come to you.
• Dogs and wildlife don’t mix.
See Also
Caithness Biodiversity Collection

Caithness Rangers
Highland Wild Encounters
Caithness & Sutherland Map
Sutherland Biodiversity Plan
Nature Pages
Walking Pages