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 wildlife 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.

HeraldScotland: SNAP JUDGEMENT: Chris Skone-Roberts' photo of a heron which landed in his garden at the weekend

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. 

HeraldScotland: Grey Seal in Harwich harbour

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.

HeraldScotland: Water Vole

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.”

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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.

HeraldScotland: Male roe deer by Peter Hunter

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.

HeraldScotland: Otters on the River Tyne, Haddington pic Lesley Slyth

READ MORE: Otters seen hunting in the Kelvin during coronavirus lockdown

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.

HeraldScotland: A fox prowling through the undergrowth next to the River Kelvin from the bridge on Kelvin Way, Glasgow...   Photograph by Colin Mearns.21 September 2017.

11. Peregrines

The world's fastest birds, capable of a high-speed dive, or stoop, as it is called, of 200 miles an hour. They now thrive in our cities, nesting on tower blocks and other structures – using them like the cliffs they would use in a non-urban setting. In 2012, famously, a peregrine pair raised checks in the now-demolished Red Road flats. In Stirling, in past years, peregrines have been known to nest on the radio mast above the Randolphfield police station. The peregrine is our biggest falcon; dark slate-grey above and white below with black bars and it feeds on smaller birds like pigeons and collared doves. If you see a panicked flurry of pigeon feathers, check it out – there may be a peregrine about.

12. Red squirrels

There’s really only one city in which you can see the endangered native red squirrel, and that’s Dundee, fifteen minutes drive from the city centre, in Templeton Woods, where it’s sometimes possible to spot them at a feeder right at the car park. A popular image was captured by Craig Doogan, who spent three weeks tempting squirrels in the woods with food in order to get this shot of one pushing a trolley full of nuts. Red squirrel populations have seriously declined, with only around 120,000 remaining in Scotland today. The greatest threat to the red squirrel’s future in Scotland is the invasive non-native grey squirrel. And if it’s grey squirrels you’re after, well you should have no trouble, whatever city you are in, spotting one of them.

HeraldScotland: Red squirrel at Templeton Woods, copyright Craig DooganRed squirrel at Templeton Woods, copyright Craig Doogan

13. Goosander and other wintering wildfowl

One of the great wildlife joys of winter is the arrival of wintering wildfowl in Scotland. Each winter our wetlands fill with wildfowl, a colourful collection of ducks, geese and swans escaping the harsh winters of their more northerly breeding grounds – but they are also to be found at our city lochs and ponds. Geese from Greenland, Svalbard and Iceland visit Scotland in internationally important numbers. A particularly glorious sight is the goosander, a type of duck – which can be found at, for instance, Hogganfied loch and Hamiltonhill Claypits in Glasgow and Duddingston Loch in Edinburgh: The male birds are white with greenish-black heads and striking red beaks whilst the females are mainly grey with a brown neck and head.


14. Bohemian waxwings

These winter visitors from Scandinavia, recognisable by their prominent crests and yellow-tipped tails, descend on Scotland’s east coast between October and March and feed on our berried trees. They are particularly fond of the red berries of the rowan, but they also like a hawthorn, pyrachantha or cotoneaster. The best time to see them is in November when they have first arrived, but the show still continues even in these winter months. An irruption of waxwings, polishing all the fruit off a rowan is quite a thing to behold. Try tempting them onto a tree in your garden or neighbourhood by cutting apples in half and sticking them onto the branches. The Edinburgh Birdwatcher, Euan Buchan, advises, “The best place to see Waxwings is normally at Balgreen usually near The Jenner’s Depot it’s a favourite spot for them as there is lots of berry trees.”


15. Sparrowhawks

In urban Edinburgh, these yellow-eyed and taloned raptors are no longer rare sights. One study found that Scottish sparrowhawks that live in the city are much more successful than their country counterparts – perhaps because our backyard bird feeders are like dining tables for these raptors.

16. Owls

One of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat's most thrilling sights is the short-eared owl swooping over the hill. These, most active of British owls, hunt by day, preferring open country, such as wetlands and moorland where their prey of small mammals is most abundant. More common, though, in cities are tawny owls. These are primarily a woodland species, but have adapted to live almost anywhere there are trees, including city parks, wooded urban and suburban gardens, As it is nocturnal and well camouflaged, it is very difficult to spot. You are more likely to hear its hooting, a deep tu-woo sound or kee-wick, around two hours after sunset. Magic.

17. Goldcrests

Scotland’s smallest bird – measuring in at only about nine centimetres and weighing only six grams – are distinguished by a striking black and yellow head stripe. Sightings soare in the country last year and in the 41st RSPB Big Garden watch, held over the last weekend in January 2020, reports were up 35.7 per cent compared to 2019. Angela McCormick, a volunteer at Hamiltonhill Claypits described her recent spotting of a Goldcrest as one of her “favourite sightings”. These tiny birds migrate g into the UK in winter from Scandinavia. It used to be assumed that such diminutive birds couldn’t possibly fly such distances and that they must have hitched a lift on the back of bigger migrants like the woodcock– thus they were nicknamed the woodcock pilot.

HeraldScotland: A Goldcrest, Britain's smallest bird by Janice Sutton.

18. White-throated dippers

The white-throated dipper is a delightful sight on the River Kelvin in Glasgow and the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, doing its characteristic dip underwater. It’s a small, stocky bird, distinguished by its white throat but also its ability to swim under water in search of the small fish and aquatic insects on which it feeds. Dippers breed early and it’s not uncommon to hear them singing at this time of year – a sign that spring is on its way. Their habitat is fast-flowing, unpolluted rivers – and their presence in the Water of Leith, is testimony to the work done over decades to restore the river after decades of industrial pollution.

HeraldScotland: Wayne Street took this shot of Cinclus cinclus ... the white-throated dipper.

19. Badgers

Badgers are living in all of our cities. There is a sett just off my local cycle path. Edinburgh’s, Costorphine Hill has long been designated as a Local Nature Reserve, because of the colonies of badgers, around 30 of which live on the hill. Winter isn’t the ideal time for badger watching, but they are still there, and actually there’s something quite satisfying about spotting a sett and acknowledging their presence – and knowing that, right now, in the winter months their cubs, which will emerge in the spring, are being born. It’s also important to not disturb or approach them when they are out of their sett. The Scottish Badgers website has good advice on badger watching and says, “The ideal sett [for badger watching]is in the open where you can watch using binoculars from a distance of 50m away. Such setts are few.” Badgers have long been persecuted in Britain. Badger baiting has led to strong legal protection for badgers and their setts.


20. Beavers

Again, not an animal to be found in every city. In fact, it’s only really if you’re living in Perth that you’re likely to stand a chance of spotting anything beaverish. Daniele Muir, who runs Beaver safaris in Pertshire with Perthsire Wildlife, described knowing of two beaver families living close to Perth, one to the north of the city centre and one to the south.

“Beaver evidence is easy to spot,” she says, “if they have been felling trees then the stumps, shaped like sharpened pencils, are easy to see. Rather than dying, the trees will coppice and produce lots of fresh, new shoots. Willows, the beavers' favourite of trees, are especially good at coppicing. The beaver lodge is usually in a riverbank and can be tricky to spot but the animals will put branches over the top and sides so that is a bit of a give-away. The entrance to the lodge is underwater, which helps to keep them safe from predators.”.

There are, she notes, benefits in the presence of beavers. “Where they do build dams these act like filters to purify water, can slow down the speed of water at times of peak rainfall, leading to less flooding downriver, and they provide homes for other wetland wildlife. Their woodland management changes the age structure of woods so that there are trees of different ages which then attracts lots of different insect species, which in turn attract other animals to feed on them. Studies have shown that bats do especially well where beavers are because of their woodland management skills."

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