The biggest mistake that visitors make when they come bird watching in Scotland is that they underestimate the sheer size of the landscape. The Island of Skye for instance has over 1000 miles of coast line, my own island, the Island of Mull has almost 300 miles of coast line, all of it rugged, rocky, often very wet under foot and sometimes very dry!
Therefore our hot tip is to settle on one destination and use this as a base from which to explore a particular area. You will also get a “feel” for the landscape in that region and you might also get tips from local people on what might be around. Wildlife tour operators in Scotland are pretty approachable and so don’t be shy about asking for their advice if you come across one of their trips.
Another basic mistake that the visitor makes is to assume that if the day begins wet, it will stay wet, or vice versa. In short never assume anything regarding the weather in Scotland. Also bear in mind that birds do not like rain anymore than we do and so they are going to be on the wing as soon as there is any indication that it is going to stop. In a nutshell check the weather forecast and if it is going to be poor all day go coastal, where you are more likely to get better weather and at least see seabirds, sea ducks, Otters etc. If the weather is more optimistic you can head for the mountains and hopefully see a Golden Eagle on the wing or maybe a White Tailed Sea Eagle. Sea Eagles can of course be more coastal in their behaviour than Golden Eagles and you may find them sitting on a rocky islet as they wait, like you, for the weather to clear.
Take note of the wind direction!! because almost all birds of prey hunt head into wind especially Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers, Kestrel, Buzzard, Short Eared Owls etc.
If anyone mentions a sighting of a bird to me I always ask about the habitat that it was seen in first, because you do not get Hen Harriers sitting on sea cliffs for instance. Nor do you get Golden Eagles sitting on the shoreline. It is a Buzzard on that telegraph pole and not a Golden Eagle!! etc etc. So habitat is critical when Bird Watching. Crossbills are in pine forests, it is probably a rock pipit on a rocky shoreline and not a meadow pipit and if you are in open moorland away from the coast it is a meadow pipit.
Sightings during the breeding season are quite different to sightings in the autumn or winter. For instance waders are very territorial during spring and summer and yet they are highly sociable in the winter months. A Golden Plover will nest on some remote and bleak moorland and yet outside the breeding season they can be in large flocks in a field quite close to a road.
I often get asked about bird watching gear and my answer is to recommend bringing sensible footwear because in Scotland you will be walking on rocky, boggy and perhaps seaweed covered terrain. Wear layers of clothing and always carry a lightweight waterproof. It can also be extremely hot and sunny here and therefore bring a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shorts. The sea off Mull and the other Hebridean islands is particularly clear and you will almost certainly be tempted to have at least a paddle off one of our beautiful white sand beaches, so bring swimwear.
Regarding binoculars and possibly telescopes. It is very a big country here and you will get excellent use out of a telescope. Whether you are a birdwatcher or not, binoculars are “essential”. If you are joining one of Scotland’s land based wildlife tours you will probably find that they provide you with binoculars for the day, but often sea trips do not, remember there is always a chance of seeing that distant whale. Binoculars are great for scanning sea bird colonies, or looking for dolphins offshore. That sitting Eagle on a mountain side can also drive you potty if you do not have your binoculars with you.
Finally remember you are coming to one of the best nature watching destinations in the world where the scenery can be equally spectacular.