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30 Nov 2021

Winter wildlife

Written by Rich Rowe
A mountain hare is just one of the creatures you can spot on a winter walk | Image: Edwin Godinho, Shutterstock ©
The coldest season of the year brings change not only to the landscape but also to the wildlife that inhabits it, with many species readily seen at Trust properties.

Snow bunting

Where: Mar Lodge Estate, Kintail

Although Scotland has only a tiny resident population of snow buntings – a sparrow-sized bird that breeds on the rocky ridges of Mar Lodge Estate, Kintail and elsewhere – numbers are boosted considerably from October when up to 15,000 of the birds fly south from their arctic homes to overwinter here. Most head for the coasts, where they forage on salt marshes and sandy beaches, but many also head inland where they often gather in small flocks at ski centre car parks or around summit cairns looking for human handouts.

Also at: Ben Lawers, Glencoe, West Affric

A snow bunting in the snow | Image: Ben Queenborough, Shutterstock ©

Ptarmigan

Where: Ben Lawers, Ben Lomond

Ptarmigan are true mountain birds. Supremely adapted to their high-altitude homes, they have thickly feathered feet that act like snowshoes and insulate them from the punishing cold. They are also masters of disguise, changing from a flecked rock-grey, brown and black plumage in summer to almost completely white in winter, meaning that they can be easier to hear than spot. The Gaelic name tarmachan (meaning ‘croaker’) is a perfect description of their distinctive call. Ptarmigan have inspired the names of several mountainous areas in Scotland – including Ben Lomond’s Ptarmigan Ridge and Meall nan Tarmachan near Ben Lawers.

Also at: Mar Lodge Estate, Torridon, Goatfell

A ptarmigan with its white winter plumage | Image: Edwin Godinho, Shutterstock ©

Mountain hare

Where: West Affric, Grey Mare’s Tail

Found on upland moorland in areas such as West Affric and at Grey Mare’s Tail, the mountain hare is another camouflage specialist. For much of the year, the hare’s grey-brown coat allows it to disappear into the heather but, in late autumn, they change to almost completely white (the exception being the black tips of their ears) to match the snowy surroundings. However, they can be caught out. When snow is thin on the ground, they stand out like sore thumbs – not ideal when trying to avoid predators such as the golden eagle. At such times, they rely on powerful back legs that can propel them across the ground at speeds of up to 40mph.

Also at: Mar Lodge Estate, Torridon

A mountain hare with white fur and black tips on its ears sits on a snowy hillside.
A mountain hare with white fur and black tips on its ears

Otter (traces!)

Where: Linn of Tummel, The Hermitage

Seeing an otter is always a thrill, but sometimes just knowing that these charismatic animals are present is equally satisfying. Tell-tale signs include the remains of fish by the water’s edge and pungent smelling ‘spraints’ left in prominent places to help them find mates and defend territories. But when there is snow on the ground, there is another giveaway: five-toed footprints and even the distinctive ‘drag’ of a tail behind. Best of all are the snow chutes that are sometimes seen at The Hermitage and Linn of Tummel, where these playful animals have enjoyed belly-sliding into the water.

Also at: Killiecrankie, Unst & Yell, Preston Mill, Balmacara Estate, Kintail, Inverewe

An otter swimming in water, with its head and body above the surface of the water.
Keep your eyes peeled for otter traces, and you may just spot one nearby | Image: L Campbell ©

Great spotted woodpecker

Where: Brodie Castle, Crathes Castle

Colour is in short supply in the winter months, which is why seeing a great spotted woodpecker is so memorable. Easily identifiable by the male’s bright red neck patch, these striking black-and-white birds are known for their sharp call and bouncing flight. Take a walk in the woodland grounds of properties such as Brodie Castle and the Crathes Castle Estate in late winter and there is every chance of also hearing the familiar, rapid drumming of their beaks. It’s a sound pattern used by males both to attract a mate and to establish territory.

Also at: Culzean Castle & Country Park, Inveresk Lodge Garden, Inverewe, Killiecrankie, Rockcliffe, Threave Garden & Estate

A great spotted woodpecker, bringing colour to the wintery woodland | Image: Scott M Ward, Shutterstock ©

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