When to Come
A guide to the seasons and wildlife spectacles of the Highlands.
People often ask us when the best time to visit is, and it is a very difficult question to answer for the simple reason that there is so much to see at all times of year here. The majority of our guests recognise that the simple answer is to come again at another time of year! However, no-one can guarantee wildlife and inevitably there will be times when species are scarce and hard to find.
Below is a list of just some of the wildlife spectacles we enjoy throughout our open season (April – October).
The majority of Scotland’s enigmatic creatures live here all year round, so a visit at any time should produce views of golden and white-tailed eagles, crested tits, crossbills, otters, bottlenosed dolphins, pine martens, foxes, badgers and both red and roe deer. If there is anything in particular you want to see then check with the office as to the best time to come.
Beavers are nocturnal and so are only visible in the light summer months of May until end of August.
What a place to kick start spring! All of the really exciting wildlife is present all year round, but they certainly appreciate the good weather that April usually brings. We know summer is coming when the ospreys turn up, although you do need to wrap up well when watching black grouse and capercaillie at the lek, the early mornings are still quite chilly!
From mid-April onwards we start counting the migrants in, it’s great to go and out and see your first wheatear, ring ouzel, swallow or sand martin of the year in such stunning surroundings. On the coast the divers are looking splendid, with great northern, red-throated and black-throated all seen well. April also offers the best chance to locate rarities such as white-billed diver, king eider and surf scoter amongst the rafts of eider and scoter in the outer firths.
It is also the best time to see the famous red grouse, clucking away on the hillside, and seeing all four species of British grouse in a week is a real possibility at this time of year.
With everything setting up for the breeding season, our winter and early spring research pays off when we locate the active nests, dens and holts of some of Europe’s most exciting and secretive creatures. This enables April visitors to see all manner of activity, from the energetic and ostentatious crested tit to the elusive yet playful otter.
May - June
May and June are our most popular month with guests, and with good reason. Spring comes late in the Highlands but it comes with a bang – the big tree burst coincides with the arrival of millions of summer migrant birds. The dawn chorus is superb; warblers, chats, pipits, tits, thrushes, finches and flycatchers all in great voice. It is a time when we see and hear the most Cuckoos too, still a common sight up here.
With the ever increasing daylight you have so many options in the morning and evening – do you watch beavers, otters, deer, pine martens or birds? With 4 hides on the estate it is hard to choose! Our loch is a good place to start, we often see ospreys fishing in the early morning.
The otters we know so well should be out with cubs, and from mid-June we can hope to see bouncing pine marten kits.
With the water warming slightly, we start to see the bottlenosed dolphins more frequently from land, accompanied by porpoises. We watch them from our boat trips throughout the year though.
With peregrines, hen harriers, white-tailed and golden eagles on the nest, they are easy to locate and watch especially if you have our local knowledge of all the territories. Watching eagles on warm summer days with birds singing, and butterflies and dragonflies everywhere is truly magical. There are very few midges around in May and June at all, which is a great bonus.
No visit in the summer should go without seeing the seabird spectacle. The best places are in the Northern and Western Isles (where we run trips), but the Summer Birds programme takes you to Handa Island, a jewel in the north-west Highlands with over 250,000 seabirds, including puffins and skuas. All of our wildlife week guests also see the South Sutor seabird colony in the Cromarty Firth.
Some of our prime wildlife sites are breathtaking in summer. Fresh water lochs surrounded by native woodland, Slavonian grebe yickering away, red-throated divers effortlessly slipping under the surface, ospreys patiently hovering overhead with Hen Harriers quartering the nearby moor.
Bird migration is still continuing, especially with High Arctic breeders that don’t arrive until June. At this time of year rare vagrants are possible, and we will keep an eye on the local sightings to see if there is anything unusual to go and see. It is quite possible we will find one of our own – even on our estate! Typically the first week of May produces the highest birdlist, up to 125 species in a week.
July – August
The summer is in full swing, and it is the best time to visit for flowers and insects. We have many rare plants in the Highlands, particularly in the rare alpine heath and caledonian pinewood. The tiny twinflower and one-flowered wintergreen are two of our favourites.
The warmest water of the year coincides with exciting visitors, including basking shark, minke whale and even the occasional killer whales chasing grey and common seals.
With the salmon run in full swing, the bottlenosed dolphins are seen at nearly every tide change, giving prolonged and entertaining views. At local waterfalls we see the Salmon that have made it past the dolphins, now trying to conquer steep gullies with mighty leaps.
Occasionally we catch an otter waiting for an easy meal at the bottom, if it wasn’t thrilling enough!
The stable summer weather also enables us to go on to the high mountain tops, looking at rare plants and incredible birds, such as ptarmigan, dotterel and snow bunting, often so tame you can nearly step on them without noticing! A quick flash of white scampering away reveals a mountain hare, perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, but still with a little white underneath. Camouflage and nerves of steel are what keep the birds and mammals up here safe from peregrine falcons and golden eagles.
The continued day length and the presence of so many young birds and mammals mean you are in for incredible sightings, if you know where to look!
With the chance of frost gone, larger insects come out in good numbers, especially dragonflies and butterflies. Our two favourites are the huge golden-ringed dragonfly and the beautifully marked dark-green fritillary. For those of you that like moths, then you will love what we get in the moth traps.
July in particular is incredibly rich with all manner of species. Particular favourites with guests are the poplar hawkmoth, garden tiger, gold spot and the coxcomb prominent. A typical nights trapping would produce over 40 species, including some nationally scarce moths. Some places hold midges, but typically we are not bothered on the east coast. Unfortunately we get tarred with the west coast’s brush when people think of midges in Scotland.
September – October
With the seasons on the turn we often see a change in weather, but the fresh westerly wind means that rain never stays for long, and that sunshine is just around the corner. Everything points towards winter, but typically we gain more birds in winter than we lose to Africa on return migration! People think of the Highlands as a place for summer only, but September and October see the firths full of wading birds, ducks, geese and our favourites, the whooper swans, fresh in from Iceland.
With the native tree mix we have here, the autumn colours are spectacular, and make for amazing scenery with the first dustings of snow on the hill tops. The orange of the bracken mixes with the gold of the birch, contrasted by the occasional yellow and red of aspen and rowan respectively.
As with all woodlands, the autumn brings fungi, with the Highlands being particularly rich due to a lack of disturbance, clean air and rare habitats. Recognisable to everyone, the cartoon toadstool of fly agaric is often one of the first up.
At this time of year, the wind and young eagles near the nest make a great combination and we often get our most prolonged and close eagle views, spiralling away over mountain tops, and stooping quickly down time and time again.
Of course no autumn in the Highlands would be complete without the spectacle of the red deer rut. The energy, power and presence of the awe inspiring stags contrast beautifully with the young hinds and calves trying to feed up desperately for the upcoming winter. What greater sight than to have two stags bellowing at each other, finally coming to a spectacular clash of antlers on the steep and rocky slopes.
With young mammals gaining independence we find ourselves bumping into otters, squirrels, martens and foxes with an increased regularity as the days draw in. Badgers in particular know that winter reduces the worm supply, so they become ever more focussed on finding whatever food they can, and are grateful of the small amount of peanuts we leave for them.