Best time to see wildlife in Scotland

Scotland’s seas in summer are alive with plankton attracting vast shoals of mackerel and herring, as well as larger predators such as whales, seals, dolphins and basking sharks.
Scottish summers are a hive of activity both on land and at sea. Anytime from May through to September is ideal for small ship safaris around the Inner and Outer Hebrides, as conditions are generally calmer and naturally lighter for longer. On the mainland you’ll also find a lot more animal action in the summer months, with woodlands, mountains and moorlands creating hidey holes for deer, hares and red squirrels, as well as hunting grounds for golden eagles, pine martens and bob cats. Summers also bring coachloads of tourists to provide a banquet for midges, although if you’re out at sea they’ll barely register and if you’re hidden away in the Highlands you’ll hardly care.
Colette Dubois co-founder at our Scottish wildlife cruise experts, St. Hilda Sea Adventures, dispels a few midgie myths: “The best time to see birdlife and other wildlife in Scotland, where we take our guests, is June. The autumn is also a lovely time but you will see fewer birds. For the weather, June is often also the best month. People do worry about midges in Scotland, but we absolutely never have midges on the boat because there is always a breeze. And when we go onto the mainland, we always carry Avon Skin So Soft which is a fantastic product to stop the midge bites.”

Scotland wildlife holidays, month by month

Aside from the histrionics of Hogmanay in Scotland’s cities, wildlife is seldom seen at the end of December and the start of January. It’s just too cold and too choppy for sailing trips and a wee bit too dark to see anything other than dark in the Highlands. Whale watchers braving Fife in February might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a humpback from the shore, although you might still be waiting into March and April so don’t hold your blow hole. Now, April is actually a lovely month to put a spring in your step, as lambs are bouncing around all over the place and migratory whales and dolphins are appearing out at sea off the north and west coasts. May is a great time to see nesting birds along the western coast and around the Inner and Outer Hebrides, although June is generally considered the best time to visit Scotland for the weather and wildlife. July and August can get busy, so escape into the Cairngorms on a camping safari or take a road trip over to Orkney and Shetland or, better yet, clamber aboard a boat for a week and set sail for Shuna Island on Loch Linnhe, where otters play along the shore. Crowds? What crowds? Seals can be seen basking throughout the year, but favour land when they are ready to moult which, for common seals, is August and September, whereas grey seals moult from February to April. The evening light may be waning somewhat in September, but you might still see the flick of a tail out at sea as dolphins and whales wave farewell for the winter. Wildlife watching cruises in October and autumnal tramps through the Highlands open up an absolute treasure chest of adventures, although the majority of organised wildlife watching tours do tend to wind up a little earlier. November and December is dark and cold. Not the best time to go wildlife watching in Scotland. Although, if it’s dramatic seas, dog walks and a few wee drams by the fire you're after, who are we to judge?

The Cairngorms Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)

Scotland wildlife watching advice

Colette Dubois, co-founder of our Scottish wildlife cruise specialists St. Hilda Sea Adventures, shares her love of sailing safaris in Scotland:

Peace & patience

“What I find fantastic about Scotland and, particularly where we sail, is that it is so wild and yet still so close to Glasgow. When we go sailing we meet very, very few other boats, and when we anchor we are often totally alone. If it was in the south of England, which is also beautiful, it would be packed with boats. But here it is really magical, because it is completely quiet. You are really lost. Sometimes you see a lot of wildlife, but to see it you’ve got to be very patient. You have to stay for a long time, be quiet and look around. Often people want to see the wildlife and they don’t, because they don’t stay there.”

Where to watch marine mammals

“After the silence, solitude and solace that cruising around the west coast of Scotland’s inlets and islands can bring, it is the wildlife that stands out in most people’s minds. The skippers on board these boats tend to be naturalists as well as navigators; conservationists as well as trusted captains. The range of wildlife you will hope to see includes porpoises, dolphins and even whales, not only in the far out waters en route to the Outer Hebrides, but also in the Sounds and Kyles that are closer to the mainland and wind their way between the islands. So get ready. You might see minkes off Mull or humpbacks off the Hebrides.”

Where to watch birds

“There is a veritable frenzy of birdlife, especially on some of the uninhabited islands where cliffs and coast are highly protected. Such as the puffin colonies on the Treshnish Isles, short-eared owls on the Uists or common buzzards on the Outer Hebrides. Skye is sublime for birding, ranging from golden eagles to whooper swans. Look out for sea eagles off Arran and, in the breeding season, Burnt Islands’ bird sanctuary is brimming with greater and lesser black backed gulls, oyster catchers, cormorants and eider ducks. Last but not least, white-tailed eagles were reintroduced to the west of Scotland in the 1980s after their populations had been wiped out by Victorian trophy hunters. They are now a frequent sight, particularly over the Isle of Mull.”
Dane Stewart trained in South Africa as an animal tracker and trails guide. He's also a qualified nature conservationist and owner of Tistel Wildlife Guiding, which runs our camping safaris for small groups in Cairngorms National Park. Here's what he had to say about wildlife watching in Scotland:

Animal action

Always can be a strong word, especially when talking about wildlife watching but I normally see red squirrels, roe deer, otters and red deer when I go out and camp in the Cairngorms. As for birdlife, I normally see buzzards, golden eagles, great spotted woodpeckers and red grouse to name just a few. There are also Scottish wildcats and pine martens, but they are known through their signs such as their scat and spoor rather than actually seeing them.”

Peaceful people

“Some of my favourite memories would probably just be watching wildlife in a secluded area. There are so many places to go watching wildlife that are normally very crowded. For me personally it's more to do with the people you are with. Seeing wildlife is great, but if you are with the right people and don't see much you still enjoy yourself.”

Expert advice

“People normally want to see red deer and red squirrels but get impressed by roe deer after I tell them more about them – such as when the roe deer males chase the female in a figure of eight shape as part of their mating ritual. The tracks left on the ground are known as a ‘roe ring’, and people used to think it was the devil dancing and putting a curse on their crops. Roe deer are also the only deer species known to use delayed implantation. People also like seeing butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies up close when I use my butterfly net.”

Local knowledge

“If I'm doing nature watching in the morning I like to go to Loch Muick in Aberdeenshire to watch wildlife such as red deer and red and black grouse. I also favour Loch Kinord in Aberdeenshire or the River Tummel in Perthshire to watch otters and kingfishers. If I'm doing nature watching at night I like to go to my local woods in Perthshire to watch bats. They normally fly at about head level and I use my bat detector to listen to them. I also go tawny owl spotting after 9pm.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland wildlife or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Tips from our travellers

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travellers are often...other travellers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do – and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful Scotland wildlife holiday tips that our guests have provided over the years to help you make the very most of your holiday – and the space inside your suitcase.
The whale watching boat trip was the most memorable as we saw loads of fantastic wildlife (including whales!) and the guides were all amazing. The Discover Mull trip was also brilliant though (just not as lucky with the weather), nothing to fault with either.
– Rebecca Ward
“For the time of year we went, which was mid-October, make sure you have got warm thermal clothing. If you are wanting to see the puffins, dolphins, etc., go before September. It was fantastic to see the contrast in both Orkney and Shetland and to see the nature and unspoiled beauty. The wealth of history and to see how the areas have evolved throughout the years. Also the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.” – Moira Parker

“Orkney mileages are a bit more accessible. Shetland is a misty, Icelandic, wilderness, and mileages will be greater. However, there is much to see within 30 miles of Lerwick. Also, wildlife conservation and archaeological findings are greatly supported by tourism and using bicycles to travel creates less environmental impact.” – Derek Gould

“We enjoyed the archaeology and history in both Orkneys and Shetlands. The Noss boat outing and Sumburgh Head photo opportunities with puffins were the most memorable moments. Also, local independent hotels used local produce in catering; we used ferries rather than flying, and a boat trip was included with a very experienced and knowledgeable pair of local guides.” – Tricia Stradling

“Our day trip with Sealife Surveys was the most incredible day, as we saw minke whales close up, common dolphins, porpoises, seals, eagles and lots of fantastic seabirds. The guys on this trip were very knowledgeable, and so passionate about wildlife. One of my best experiences ever. Take binoculars and don't let the weather forecast put you off. Weather changed hourly.” – Hazel Smith
Fabulous sunsets and misty mornings, seals and dolphins, hikes and a little fun fishing were all memorable.
– Janis Tratnik
“The sea and land safaris and the Tobermory hotel were all memorable for different reasons, but the one that ran through all of them was the excellent level of customer service. For the sea safari – make sure you are waterproof and wind/cold proof head to foot. Even if it seems okay when you leave port things can change in the blink of an eye, so carry gear for all weathers. Same advice for land safaris, but conditions shouldn't be so potentially severe.” – Jonathan Huggett

“The opportunity to see aspects of the beautiful inner islands from the lochs was quite special. Fabulous sunsets and misty mornings, seals and dolphins, hikes and a little fun fishing were all memorable. The captain and chef were so attentive and cordial, making our stay so comfortable. Not to mention the new friends we made in our cruise mates. Book early and ask questions. Be prepared for changes in weather and follow all the pre-trip instructions. But most of all welcome this unique adventure as a beautiful experience of the best of the Scottish Isles.” – Janis Tratnik

“10/10 would recommend Dane to anyone looking for a wilderness adventure without the hassle of having to put up your own tent and cook for yourself. It's a fantastic feeling to have a proper base camp in a really lovely spot hidden from the public. Falling asleep to the sound of a babbling burn is something everyone should do at least once in their life. Waking up early to watch the sun rise over a loch to watch for otters was also beautiful! All of this being said...the BEST part for me was seeing red and roe deer, red squirrels, Scottish crossbills and myriad interesting insects.” – Georgia Hall
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nevit Dilmen] [Intro: jon57] [Colette Dubois advice: Andrew Tryon] [Dane Stewart advice: Airwolfhound] [Rebecca Ward quote: marsupium photography] [Janis Tratnik quote: Paul Stümke]