BACK in the first lockdown, the glories of spring helped us through. Nature is here in the winter too – and spottable in many of our parks, gardens and city nature reserves – though sometimes you have to be a bit more of a detective to find it. Wherever you are in a city, you should be able to spy, hear, or find evidence of at least a few of these wildlife wonders. But respect this nature too – never get too close, or disturb.

1. Herons

Herons are year-round residents of our watery habitats and possible to spot in any Scottish city. Among the more magical sites, is Duddingston Loch, the only natural freshwater loch in Edinburgh, and a real hotspot for wintering wildfowl, as well as otters swimming along the shoreline. You also only have to wait a month or two to find them nesting. Herons are among the earliest nesters and it’s not unusual to find some laying their first eggs in early February. Osbert Lancaster, director of Nature Change, described the heronry, which has sometimes been known to host twenty nests, on Twitter as one of his Edinburgh highlights: “In spring, the herons nesting by Duddingston Loch, looking like half-folded grey umbrellas in the trees.” Other go-to heron spots are the River Kelvin, the Water of Leith and Pollok Country Park.

2. Seals

This beach site in the historic Old Aberdeen part of the City, where the River Don meets the sea, is an ideal location for seal and bird-spotting. It’s also at the end of the largest dune system in Scotland. Seals use the sandspit close to the river mouth. Another ideal site for seal-watching is Granton Harbour, Edinburgh. The wildlife pontoons were recently returned to the site after a period gone from the water. But, as Bill Simpson, who runs fishing and wildlife charters from the harbour, points out, the wildlife was all there even when the pontoons were gone. Swimmers, who regularly use the neighbouring Wardie Bay, often see the seals bobbing there in the water as they take their dips.

See the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching code for more information on how to minimise disruption of Scotland's marine life. 

3. Knots and other waders

The Edinburgh city beach and harbour at Wardie and Granton are the perfect place to spot knots at this time of year. These are short-legged and stocky birds, which, in winter, are grey above and white below. It’s when they take to the air, en masse, that they stun, as they wheel and turn, flashing their pale underwings. Knots use Scottish estuaries as feeding grounds, visiting the UK in winter from their Arctic breeding grounds. Along the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh, it’s also possible to see other waders – redshank, dunlin, godwit, curlew, oystercatcher as well as divers like cormorants.

4. Urban water voles

When the East End locals in Glasgow first spotted these endangered rodents, who happened to live, not on water, but on the grass of their park, they thought they were pests. As Martin Faulkner of Scottish Natural Heritage put it, “They thought they had rats. So they rang up the council to complain.” As with all wildlife, if you’re going spotting do your best not to intrude on the lives of these animals – and certainly avoid stomping over their burrows. Water voles don’t hibernate over winter but they do spend more time in their burrows, so you’re less likely to spot them out and about, eating the grass right now.

As wildlife photographer, Karen Miller advises, “Best time of year to spot them is spring when they start to become more active and the grass is still short. Come summer the foliage is so high they are virtually invisible. It's important to stay off the area where the burrows are as there are hundreds of them close to the surface and walking over them could cause them to collapse or stress the voles. Best to sit quietly at the edge. Once you get your eye in, if you're in the right place, you should start to see them popping up. They tend to stick close to a burrow entrance and disappear very quickly. They can be black or brown.”

Fellowship of the rings: Why we must protect our ancient trees

5. Roe deer

We might imagine the roe deer is far from being a city dweller, but in fact, it’s a feature of many of the wilder city parks. For instance Hamiltonhill Claypits or Possil Marsh, which is one of the oldest nature reserves in Scotland, and a site which has been called Glasgow’s Serengeti for all the wildlife you can see there.

Angela McCormick, a volunteer at Hamiltonhill Claypits, recommends that they are best seen early in the morning. Last year, he recalls, some were spotted there with their young, in spite of the recent building works on the site. There is so much wildlife, she says, in the reserve.. “And,” she says, “they are all living side by side with the bricks!”

Deer have also been spotted in Edinburgh on Costorphine Hill and around Barton – mainly they stick to green spaces like parks and golf courses, but have occasionally been known to wander into roads.

6. Otters

Oh the joy of an otter spot. One of the best otter-spying patches in Edinburgh is where the Water of Leith flows through Saughton Park. Towards the end of last year, Gavin Corbett, councillor for Fountainbridge, declared that, “The otters at Saughton Park have been one of wonderful things over the last 9 months.” Social media has been littered with photographs and delighted descriptions of the otters, of cubs being taught how to fish. Next best site in the capital to spot an otter is Dunsapie loch where a single otter has been thrilling visitors with what has seemed almost like swimming and fishing displays. The lone otter has made its home in this small pool halfway up Arthur’s Seat and drawing locals out on their walks to watch for hours.

In Glasgow, there are the otters of the Kelvin, which provide regular entertainment for locals, including last spring, a tug-of-war with a large eel in the river.

Swimming in sewage: The wild swimmers cleaning up our shores

7. Kingfishers

That shimmery electric blue and orange flash flying low over the river, or hovering for a moment, can be only one thing – that jewel of the river, a Kingfisher. The RSPB website advises: “They can be shy, but the easiest way to see a kingfisher is to listen for its approach - they whistle as they fly low over the water.” Good places to see and hear them are along the River Kelvin, particularly around the West End, and the White Cart Water in Pollok Park or, in Edinburgh, along the Water of Leith and at the Royal Botanic Gardens where a Kingfisher has been famously in residence.

8. Sparrows and other garden birds

The house sparrow used to be a common sight across Scotland, but their numbers have dropped in recent times, due to the loss of places for them to feed and breed, even declining by 90 percent in Glasgow. Provide a bird feeder in a safe spot and you may get the pleasure of such a visitor – or others, for instance robins, blue tits, redwings, chiffchaffs, long-tailed tits – and the feeling that you have helped them through a tough time of year. What comes to your feeder will depend on what you put out to eat. A guide on the RSPB website suggests, “Sparrows and finches like seeds; tits like fat; and thrushes and robins like fruit and worms. Starlings will eat just about anything. Make sure you're providing the right menu for your diners - find out what to feed birds.” It also suggests that our own leftovers are pretty attractive too: “Try sprinkling grated mild cheese under trees and bushes for more timid birds like wrens and dunnocks.”

9. Snowdrops

There’s nothing like walking through a carpet of snowdrops to remind you that spring is just around the corner, and, last month, the Friends of Pollok Country Park Facebook group was already declaring that there were snowdrops peeping through the ground, The promise of flowers on the way! Snowdrops bloom in Scotland between January and March and they were originally found in the forests and meadows of southern and central Europe, before being cultivated here in the 16th century,. The flower’s Latin name Galanthus nivalis means 'milk flower of the snow’.

10. Foxes

Yes, it’s that fox-mating time of year again – so if you’re being kept awake by unearthly cries in the early hours, then there’s a good chance that, since it’s January, it’s a vixen calling. Foxes have inhabited the centre of Glasgow for at least sixty years and, having only established populations in cities over the last century, are now in every urban area. Often they can seem quite bold, as they strut down the street or cross gardens. If you’re thinking that your local foxes are extraordinarily friendly, then that could be because, as University of Glasgow biodiversity expert, Dr Kevin Parsons, revealed earlier this year, urban foxes have evolved to have more domestication characteristics. They are, in other words, becoming more like dogs. Foxes dig dens, called “earths” underground, where they raise their cubs. In towns and cities these are often located under sheds, in bushes or on railway embankments.

Please follow the Scottish Government's latest coronavirus restrictions, see