As “The City in the Highlands”, Inverness is surrounded by some wonderful wilderness areas.
It’s home to amazing wildlife — which is why it is no surprise that the BBC’s Autumnwatch and Winterwatch teams selected the nearby Aigas Field Centre as the base for its 2012 and 2013 broadcasts.
However, many people might not realise Inverness itself also offers some superb Highland habitats, which attract a great selection of birds and beasts — meaning you don’t even have to head out of the city to get a taste of the great outdoors!
Here I take a look at just a few of the great wildlife watching opportunities on offer to those who choose to visit Inverness.
• Merkinch Local Nature Reserve: Situated in the South Kessock area of the city, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve features more than 50 hectares of habitats, offering a great opportunity to observe some of the area’s wonderful wildlife.
Animal lovers should look out for roe deer and wild weasels, while twitchers can spot a range of wading birds in the salt marsh, freshwater marsh and reed beds, as well as the occasional osprey overhead or the elusive kingfishers at the Muirton Pools.
• Longman Shore: At the south end of Inverness’s Kessock Bridge is the Longman shore — a recognised spot for birdwatching, the area has been highlighted by Birding Scotland as a great spot for gulls — including the increasingly rare Ivory Gull.
• Moray Firth: While Scotland is one of the best land-based dolphin watching hotspots in the world, the Moray Firth is home to the most northerly colony of Bottlenose dolphins in the world, one of only two resident populations in the UK.
The dolphins here are also the largest in the world, growing up to four metres in length and sometimes living for more than 40 years. Look out for them from the Seal and Dolphin Centre at North Kessock, Chanonry Point, on the Black Isle, or take a boat trip from Inverness. Visitors can also expect to spot seals, porpoises and the occasional minke whale or basking shark.
• Craig Phadrig: Wonderful woodland walks to this Pictish fort site overlooking the city. Well-marked trails mean it’s easy to take a tour around Craig Phadrig and discover the birds, butterflies and minibeasts that make this their home —
you might even spot a native red squirrel.
• Ness Islands: Sitting in the waters of the River Ness are the Ness Islands, an exciting natural habitat easily accessed from the city centre. Use the linking bridges to watch the waters for salmon and seals, follow the paths to discover a selection of flora and fauna, or visit after sundown to spot the Pipistrelle or Daubenton’s bats.
• Culloden Wood: Bordered by farmland on the outskirts of the city, Culloden Wood is a great place to get up close and personal with nature. A good spot for birds, butterflies and minibeasts, as well as the occasional mammal.
• Loch Bran: A small, shallow loch about 200 metres above Loch Ness, Loch Bran is a Site of Special Scientific Interest managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. Surrounded by trees and bog, it is one of the best places in Britain for dragonflies and damselflies to breed. The western end of the loch is shallow and has been filling up with peat washed in from the hills, and water lilies, rushes and other water plants have taken root and cover the surface. The eastern part is deeper and is inhabited by brown trout and char.
• Black Isle: Red kites are making a strong comeback in Scotland. The launch-pad for the Scottish reintroduction was the Black Isle by Inverness. Red kites have a red, orange and grey plumage. The forked, very manoeuvrable, tail is the most distinctive feature, especially when a kite is overhead. There’s remote viewing at the North Kessock Visitor Information Centre during summer. You may also glimpse ospreys or peregrine falcons.
• Aigas: Aigas Field Centre just west of Inverness played host to BBC’s Autumnwatch and Winterwatch programmes this past season. The Centre has been welcoming visitors from around the world for more than 30 years — they come to learn about and enjoy the history, archaeology and natural heritage of the area. The grounds play host to a superb array of wildlife — the main stars of the woods and waters being beavers, pine martens, badgers and red squirrels. Facilities include a pine marten and badger hide, a beaver hide, extensive nature trails and a loch.
Whatever wildlife you hope to spot here in the Highlands in this, the Year of Natural Scotland, Inverness offers great outdoor opportunities, all within striking distance of its bustling city centre.