The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland

My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.

As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.

Thousands of gannets swirling around the seabird city of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay.

Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.

So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
Barnacle geese in flight. Image by Nature Pix from Pixabay.

Caerlaverock Wetland Centre

Location: Caerlaverock, Dumfriesshire

Caerlaverock, the land of the skylark, is a liminal landscape; not quite the open water of the Solway Firth, yet not fully dry land either. Under vast skies, the rise and fall of the tide exposes and covers vast mudflats, winding tidal creeks, offshore sandbars, coastal saltmarsh and swamp woodland, creating a rich mosaic of habitats for a wide range of bird species.

The ruins of Caerlaverock Castle, like something from Game of Thrones, are located close to the Wetland Centre. Image by Neil Morrell from Pixabay.

The Wetland Centre is a prefect spot for beginner birders to get an introduction to waders and wildfowl. There’s several hides across the reserve, including one overlooking a wildfowl feeding area, where it’s possible to get a close up look at the whooper swans which migrate from Iceland for the winter. The hides have scopes, binoculars, and live cameras to get to know the residents of the reserve, plus interactive interpretation to learn more about the bird species and the challenges they face on migration.

All paths in the Wetland Centre and National Nature Reserve are liable to flooding during the highest tides of the year, so be sure to check the tide time information displayed on the reserve.

Best time to visit: Between October and March for overwintering wildfowl and wading birds. The wild swan feed takes place daily during this season.

Birds you might see: Oystercatchers; bar-tailed godwit; knot; redshank; curlews; lapwings; wigeon; teal; water rail; shelducks; barnacle geese; pink-footed geese; whooper swans; ospreys; skylarks; house martins; kingfishers.

Other wildlife: Natterjack toads; otters; badgers; butterflies; dragonflies and damselflies.

Scottish Seabird Centre

Location: North Berwick, East Lothian

Around 32km (20 miles) east of Edinburgh, the seaside town of North Berwick on the Firth of Forth is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre, a superb and accessible introduction to the birds of the coast for beginners. A range of live cameras connected to seabird colonies on the nearby islands of Fidra, Bass Rock, and the Isle of May, allow an incredible eye-level view into the daily lives of gannets, puffins, and shags. Interactive interpretation gives deep insight into marine ecosystems and conservation work, and the relatedness between seabirds and the health of our seas.

The gannet colony at Bass Rock viewed from Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. Image by Michaela Wenzler from Pixabay.

The centre also offers seasonal boat trips from North Berwick harbour: to Bass Rock, home to more than 150,000 gannets (10% of the global population of northern gannets) at the peak of the breeding season, leaving the distinctive rock looking like it’s at the centre of a snowy blizzard; and further afield to the Isle of May, a National Nature Reserve off the coast of Fife.

Best time to visit: April to July for breeding seabirds; gannets can be seen on Bass Rock between January and August.

Birds you might see: Puffins; razorbills; guillemots; gannets; fulmars; kittiwakes; herring gulls; great black-backed gulls;  Arctic skuas; common terns; sandwich terns; Arctic terns; redshank; turnstone; dunlin; oystercatchers; herons.

Other wildlife: grey seals; common seals; bottlenose dolphins; humpback whales. Fluffy grey seal pups can be seen on the Isle of May cameras between October and January.

Isle of May National Nature Reserve

Location: Off the coast of Fife

The Isle of May claims the title of Scotland’s oldest Bird Observatory, founded in 1934, and now the National Nature Reserve is managed by NatureScot. Rangers and volunteers gather data on bird numbers, which can be up to 200,000 nesting seabirds (including 90,000 puffins) every year, and give talks for visitors as they arrive. Occasionally unusual vagrant birds will turn up on the island, usually migratory species making the passage between Scandinavia and regions further south. In addition to the wildlife, the island has a rich cultural heritage, from Pictish and Viking connections to the first permanently crewed lighthouse in Scotland.

The former Isle of May Low Light is now the home of the bird observatory. Image by scotography from Pixabay.

Lying 8km (5 miles) offshore from the east coast of Fife, the Isle of May is only accessible by boat. During the season, a ferry runs several times a day from the seaside town of Anstruther in Fife, and tour boats offer wildlife watching cruises that include time exploring the Isle of May run from Anstruther and North Berwick, through the Scottish Seabird Centre. The island is closed to visitors from the beginning of October, as the resident grey seal population take over to rear their pups and moult their coats.

Best time to visit: Ferries and boat tours visit the Isle of May from North Berwick and Anstruther between April and September. There is no public access outwith this season.

Birds you might see: Puffins; razorbills; guillemots; fulmars; kittiwakes; shags; cormorants; herring gulls; great black-backed gulls;  Arctic skuas; common terns; sandwich terns; Arctic terns; eider ducks.

Other wildlife: grey seals; common seals; harbour porpoises; bottlenose dolphins; minke whales; humpback whales.

Montrose Basin Wildlife Centre

Location: Montrose, Angus

Montrose Basin is a vast enclosed estuary on the edge of the town of Montrose in Angus, with a variety of bird-friendly habitats within its bounds. The Visitor Centre provides scopes, binoculars, and live cameras to get to know the inhabitants the Basin, in artificial roosts, and on garden bird tables and ponds, and interactive displays and interpretation to understand their behaviour. Highlights include ospreys, which fish in the Basin between May and September, sand martins, which breed in the artificial colony over the same period, and kingfishers, using ponds and pools between September and February.

Eider ducks live on the Basin year-round. Image by Dr. Georg Wietschorke from Pixabay.

The mudflats are an important resting point for bird species on migration, moving between high latitude breeding grounds in Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia and warmer wintering climes, offering a safe haven for roosting and feeding during their passage. In winter, more than 80,000 pink-footed geese pass through the nature reserve in October and November on their way south, making a magical spectacle as they take off in the late morning twilight.

In addition to the viewing areas at the Visitor Centre, there are several hides, viewing areas and walking trails in different locations around the Basin, giving a glimpse in to a range of habitats from tidal mudflats to saltmarshes and coastal grazing marsh to fenland and riverside reedbeds, all home to different arrays of birds and wildlife.

Best time to visit: Between October and March for overwintering geese, swans, and ducks.

Birds you might see: Oystercatchers; snipe; knot; redshank; turnstones; lapwings; common terns; Arctic terns; eider ducks; wigeon; teal; shelducks; pink-footed geese; greylag geese; ospreys; sand martins; kingfishers.

Other wildlife: Otters; common seals; salmon; common eels; mussels and other mudflat invertebrates.

Isle of Rùm National Nature Reserve

Location: Rùm, Small Isles

One of the most sensational birding experiences on Rùm is an encounter with the Manx shearwater population, dove-sized black and white seabirds that winter in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil. During the breeding season, hundreds of thousands of the birds gather in the water around Rùm every evening, waiting for dusk to come ashore to enter nesting burrows on the highest slopes of the Rùm Cuillin. The susurrus of wingbeats in the darkness and their reedy calls in the northern summer night gave rise to the legend that the island was haunted by restless spirits.

Views of the Small Isles from Morar, dominated by the peaks of the Rùm Cuilin. Image by Tina Koehler from Pixabay.

The island was also the location for the first phase of efforts to reintroduce the white-tailed eagle (sea eagle) back to Scotland. Between 1975 and 1985, 82 young birds from Norway were released from the island, spreading out across the Hebrides, then the mainland. There’s now more than 100 breeding pairs across Scotland, and they are regularly seen around the isle of Rùm.

A challenging hillwalk over Bealach a’Bhaig Bhig to Guirdil bothy gives some of the best sightings of white-tailed eagles and golden eagles, as well as the island’s red deer and feral goats. The route is unmarked and indistinct in places, taking around four hours one way. The Northside Nature Trail and walk to the Otter Hide are shorter routes more suited to day visits to the island.

Rùm is served by the Caledonian Macbrayne Small Isles ferry service from Mallaig four times a week through the summer, and the M.V. Sheerwater operates passenger trips from Arisaig and sightseeing cruises around the island between April and September.

Best time to visit: Year round, but Manx shearwater activity occurs between March and September.

Birds you might see: Golden eagles; white-tailed eagles; buzzards; merlins; peregrine falcons; red-throated divers; Manx shearwaters; bonxies (great skuas); guillemots, kittiwakes, shags.

Other wildlife: Red deer; feral goats; mountain hares; otters; grey seals; harbour porpoises.

RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre

Location: near Boat of Garten, Strathspey

The RSPB Osprey Centre is located in the Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve, one of the most spectacular areas of the Cairngorms National Park, protecting remnants of the Caledonian Forest right up to the tundra-like plateau of the second highest mountain in the UK. Loch Garten is one of the best places to see ospreys, charismatic fish-hunting raptors that migrate between Scotland and West Africa, returning every spring to breed.

Fishing osprey. Image by Iain Poole from Pixabay.

The Visitor Centre has screens showing the feed from remote viewing cameras in the osprey nests, letting you have a phenomenal face-to-face encounter with the adult birds as they re-establish pair bonds after migration, and with the chicks, as they hatch out and grow up through the summer. If you can’t visit in person yet, check out the live webcam feed here. There’s also a viewing platform looking towards the nesting area, and lots of birdfeeders to tempt in small woodland birds, red squirrels, and bank voles for a closer look.

If you’re hoping to spot capercaillie, the best way is to walk nearby forest trails early in the morning, as they often visit the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July in this part of Scotland. The Two Lochs Walk in Abernethy Forest, linking Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie, has good capercaillie spotting potential.

Best time to visit: A walk in Abernethy Forest is rewarding at any time of year, but the Visitor Centre is open seasonally when ospreys are in residence between mid-March and September.

Birds you might see: Ospreys; crested tits; coal tits; siskins; Scottish crossbills; tree pipits; great spotted woodpeckers; goldeneyes; teals; wigeon; greylag geese; pink-footed geese; capercaillie; black grouse; ptarmigan; golden eagles.

Other wildlife: Red squirrels; pine martens; red and roe deer; otters; dragonflies and damselflies; frogs and frogspawn.

RSPB Loch of Strathbeg

Location: Crimond, Aberdeenshire

The Loch of Strathbeg is an internationally important wildlife site; the largest dune loch in the British Isles, surrounded by wetlands, sand dunes, and unimproved meadow grasslands. It provides a perfect winter home for thousands of wildfowl, including as much as 20% of the global population of pink-footed geese, and a service-station for thousands more birds passing through between the Arctic and warmer climes in Southern Europe and West Africa.

The distinctive lighthouse at Rattray Head, just offshore from the Loch of Strathbeg. Image by Chris Sansbury from Pixabay.

A highlight of visiting in summer is the chance to see common cranes performing their elaborate mating displays; complex pair dances of bobs, bows, and birls. These statuesque birds were once common across the UK, but became extinct in the 1600s. They’ve slowly returned, and Loch of Strathbeg is currently the only location in Scotland where common cranes breed.

A circular walk of around 6km leads from the reserve Visitor Centre through the impressive sand dune system, which is known to have engulfed small settlements over history, to the vast and wild golden sand beach and striking lighthouse at Rattray Head lying just offshore.

Best time to visit: Any time of year, but during October / November and March / April huge numbers of migrating geese, swans, and ducks can be seen on passage migration.

Birds you might see: Snipe; golden plovers; lapwings; common terns; Arctic terns; eider ducks; wigeon; teal; barnacle geese; pink-footed geese; greylag geese; whooper swans, starlings, common cranes.

Other wildlife: Otters; konik ponies; frogs and frogspawn; dragonflies and damselflies; grey seals; common seals; bottlenose dolphins.

North Harris Eagle Observatory

Location: Meavaig, Isle of Harris

The Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar) support the highest densities of golden eagles in Europe, and the North Harris eagle observatory is one of the best places to watch a resident pair going about their business. White-tailed eagles are also visitors to the area, having successfully re-established themselves after reintroduction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The area also supports a variety of other raptors, like buzzards, kestrels, and merlins, and other birds, like golden plovers, greenshanks, and corncrakes.

White-tailed eagle, known in Gaelic as Iolaire Suile na Grein, the eagle with the sunlit eye. Image by Andrei Prodan from Pixabay.

The observatory is located a short distance on a well surfaced track from the settlement of Miavag (Miabhag), between Tarbert and Hushinish (Huisinis); the out and back walk takes approximately an hour. A ranger is on hand at certain times to share information about recent wildlife sightings and help with identifying birds and interpreting behaviours.

The North Harris Eagle Observatory is part of the Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail, a self-guided route linking important birding locations along the archipelago from Barra in the south to Ness at the northern tip of Lewis. Find more information about it and how to plan it into a Hebridean trip here.

Best time to visit: The Eagle Observatory is open year round, but spring is the best time to see golden eagle activity. Sea eagles are seen most often in Autumn and Winter.

Birds you might see: Golden eagles; white-tailed eagles; buzzards; sparrowhawks; hen harriers; kestrels; merlins; peregrine falcons; short-eared owls; long-eared owls; greenshanks; golden plovers; red-throated divers; corncrakes.

Other wildlife: Red deer; Atlantic salmon; brown trout; mountain hares.

Handa Island

Location: near Scourie, Sutherland

The island of Handa is a stunning location for a birdwatching trip, and a worthwhile addition to any tour of the North Coast 500 route. It has a rich history, being used as a burial site for crofting villages on the mainland, and hosting a fascinating local way of life that ended with emigration during the Highland potato famine. It’s now managed for seabird conservation by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Arriving on Handa Island. Image by M W from Pixabay.

After landing on the beautiful silver sand beach, you can visit the remains of the village, then follow a circular trail around the island, taking in views of the spectacular Great Stack, Puffin Bay, and Poll Gloup, a great hole in the island formed by the collapse of a sea cave. The well-worn route is around 6.5km, and will take around 3 hours to walk. Sturdy footwear is recommended.

Handa is reached by ferry from the tiny harbour of Tarbert, just north of the crofting village of Scourie and south of Laxford Bridge. The crossing takes around 10 minutes, plus you’ll receive a safety briefing and a talk introducing the nature reserve on board. It can be wet, so a waterproof or windproof jacket is recommended. The ferry does not run on Sundays, and may not operate in adverse weather conditions, so be sure to plan ahead.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has opportunities for volunteers to assist with managing the island, which include the chance to stay on Handa for a week or two, or even the entire season.

Best time to visit: The Handa Ferry operates from early April to September, but between April and July is best to see breeding seabirds (mid-May to July for puffins).

Birds you might see: Puffins; razorbills; guillemots; fulmars; kittiwakes; bonxies (great skuas); Arctic skuas; Arctic terns; snipe; oystercatchers.

Other wildlife: Otters; grey seals; common seals; bottlenose dolphins; killer whales; basking sharks

Hermaness National Nature Reserve

Location: Unst, Shetland

At the northernmost tip of the island of Unst, the northernmost island of Shetland*, overlooking Muckle Flugga and Da Shuggi (Out Stack), the rocky isles and skerries that are the northernmost outpost of the British Isles, Hermaness is a wild place, often battered by wind and waves. Dramatic sea cliffs become a high-rise city that’s home to around a hundred thousand seabirds over the nesting season through to the late autumn, and the clifftop moorland is a haven for many more.

Charismatic favourites of many birders, puffins are known locally as Tammie Norries in Sheltand. Image by MustangJoe from Pixabay.

A trail from the Lighthouse Shore Station near Burrafirth meets a boardwalk crossing the blanket bog in the middle of the reserve, to reach the top of the pink granite and grey gneiss cliffs on the western side of the headland. This route is around 5km, taking about 2 hours return, but it’s possible to continue on a grassy clifftop path around the Taing of Looswick for better views of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse. Walkers should avoid going beyond the ruins of the old semaphore hut, where red-throated divers are known to nest, and return on the same route. The clifftop route is unfenced and adds an additional 5km / 2 hours to the walk.

*the correct form is always Shetland, or the Shetland Isles or the Shetland archipelago, and never the Shetlands, or a local will always make sure to explain exactly why you’re wrong.

Best time to visit: Mid-May to mid-July for watching seabird colonies at their peak.

Birds you might see: Gannets; puffins; bonxies (great skuas); Arctic skuas; razorbills; guillemots; fulmars; kittiwakes; red-throated divers (red-throated loons); snipe; dunlin; golden plover.

Other wildlife: Grey seals; orcas; minke whales; humpback whales.

Top Birding Tips

Are you brand new to birdwatching? Or completely affled by the appeal of birding? Read my post on why I think you should give it a try on your next trip and my tips on getting started.

Birdwatching doesn’t need much; looking and listening are often enough just to get an idea of what’s going on around you. A field guide helps with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch your sightings. Entry level binoculars can be found for around £50 to£100, and decent pairs are often available second hand.

Gannet gathering nesting material. Image by Dave Hostad from Pixabay.

Sturdy footwear and warm, waterproof clothing will make life more comfortable outdoors, especially when walking in more rural areas. A packed lunch, or a few snacks and a drink make it easier to stay longer in hides or good spotting locations, and with birding, patience is often key. Be sure to take gloves, thick socks, and a warm hat in winter, and a flask with a hot drink, as being still, waiting for wildlife to show can quickly cool your body down. A small foam mat to sit or kneel on will keep you insulated from the ground.

Several bird species can be quite aggressively territorial during their nesting season, especially terns, gulls, and skuas. Avoid approaching any nesting areas closely, and it might be advisable to wear a hat to protect your head. A walking pole tucked into your backpack will stop any low swoops from getting too close for comfort.

Ten of the best birdwatching spots in Scotland

  1. Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, Dumfriesshire
  2. Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick, East Lothian
  3. Isle of May NNR, near Anstruther, Fife
  4. Montrose Basin Wildlife Centre, Angus
  5. Isle of Rùm NNR, Small Isles
  6. Loch Garten Osprey Centre, Boat of Garten, Strathspey
  7. Loch of Strathbeg, Crimond, Aberdeenshire
  8. North Harris Eagle Observatory, Meavaig, Isle of Harris
  9. Handa Island, near Scourie, Sutherland
  10. Hermaness NNR, Unst, Shetland

Outdoor Access and Birding in Scotland

In Scotland, we have a right of access to most land, which allows us to enjoy activities in many areas like hills, moorland, and mountain, forests, beaches and coasts, parks, and some farmland, so long as we behave responsibly. This means there’s a huge area available to go birding and wildlife watching, not just the locations on this list. To ensure the protection of habitats and wildlife, you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and any advice from land managers and conservation organisations on signs.

At certain times of year, usually between April and August, it is best avoid leaving the paths in forests, moorland, and coastal areas, as you could be inadvertently disturbing ground nesting birds or damaging fragile vegetation underfoot. Often dogs are not permitted in bird hides or nature reserves, and should be under close control or on a short lead during the nesting season. In areas where capercaillie may be present, dogs should be kept on a lead at all times.

Have you visited any of these locations? Which birds would you most like to see on your trip to Scotland? Let me know in the comments below.
Inspired by what you’ve read? Why not pin this post to your travel planning board for later?

Author: vickyinglis

These Vagabond Shoes are longing to stray.

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