Spotting Skye's wildlife big five in close up - Scotland on Sunday Travel

From eagles to otters to seals, the island is teeming with wildlife that demands a closer look

A white-tailed eagle soaring over the west of Skye. Pic: Paul Sharman-SKYEFARI
A white-tailed eagle soaring over the west of Skye. Pic: Paul Sharman-SKYEFARI

I’ve been to Skye in the past and seen wildlife, but never like this. Standing on a slope on the Minginish Peninsula we watch as a white tailed eagle swoops along a ridge across the glen opposite, over a herd of deer, scanning the ground for prey. Unmistakable with its barn door build and outstretched plank wings it’s a breathtaking sight, and even more remarkable because it’s six kilometres away. Yet with our top of the range binoculars and scopes from Swarovski Optik and friendly and knowledgeable guides from SKYEFARI, who run wildlife minibus tours of the island, showing us what to look for and where to look, we’re able to see Skye’s wildlife up close, and it’s addictive. Time falls away now that we have a perfect view and before we know it we’ve spent an hour watching a bird on a nest or a seal rolling around on a rock, basking in a blast of sunshine.

On a mission to spot the Skye Five - deer, golden eagles, white tailed eagles, otters and seals - we’re ticking them off along with a flurry of other birds along the way from oystercatchers to greenshanks to red breasted mergansers to teals. Even the crows are interesting here beyond the Highland line with ash grey bodies and black capes and hoods, as opposed to their city slicker cousins in all black suits. Then there are otters, crepuscular creatures who are best observed early or late in quiet bays away from the busier tourist hotspots.

It’s like being introduced to a club I didn’t know existed and the only time in my life I’ve witnessed the conversation opener ‘nice binoculars!’ Once I’d got my hands on my Swarovski NL Pure 8x32s, brought along by Paul Innes from Swarovski Optik, I wasn’t letting them go, until that is I’d had a look through the spotting scope that David Lambie and Paul Sharman from SKYEFARI had set up for us to zoom in on the wildlife goings on. And don’t get me started on the app that allows you to capture images of the close ups you’re viewing through the scope, or the thermal imaging camera that allowed us to spot animals we’d never have seen thanks to their natural camouflage or the light.

A dark shadow up on a hill? I’d have guessed it might be a deer grazing, but with binoculars raised it becomes clear it’s a golden eagle taking flight across the glen towards us, powerful wings propelling it at speed over our heads to alight on a rock on the hill rising behind. In no time it is joined by a pair of ravens - intent on annoying with a two-pronged attack to unseat it from its throne and the next half hour flies by as we watch their back and forth before piling back into our minibus in search of the elusive otters as the sun goes down.

Skye is the biggest of the Scottish islands but with guides in the know we cover a lot of ground, from south to north east to west, gawping at views of the Red and Black Cuillins, Macleod's Tables, Sleat and Glenbrittle and more. With our mission to watch the wildlife we avoided tourist hotspots with their car parks and mobile homes, striking out for more remote parts where the wild things are. There’s no shortage of jaw-dropping scenery to discover away from the crowds and several times the keen swimmer in our party could be seen eyeing deserted waterfalls and pools, itching to take the plunge. But we had our sights set on wildlife spotting and she’d already had her early morning dip in the sea opposite our base at Duisdale Hotel on the Southern Sleat Peninsula.

A stone’s skim from the shore and a beach more populated by sheep than people and surrounded by trees, this hotel is a haven of island hospitality. With the food showcasing local favourites such as West Coast brown crab and venison, it’s a friendly and stylish place to refuel and rest up with a dram after a day out on the hills. It was also the location of my favourite night vision wildlife sighting when we played back footage from a camera set up in the grounds and saw the hotel labrador taking a leisurely stroll among the trees in the dark.

We were still hungry to spot more wildlife as our trip came to an end but a final treat saw us return to the mainland from Kylerhea on the west of the island to Glenelg on the mainland, via the world’s ‘last manually operated turntable ferry’.

SKYEFARI run wildlife tours around the island in a minibus, spotting wildlife in out of the way places. Pic: Paul Sharman-SKYEFARI

As we distracted ourselves from the regret of leaving and found we could now name waders and sea birds, we watched the ferry on the opposite shore perform the delicate and unique operation of parking side-on then swinging round the car deck to load the six or so cars it can carry. And with our newly sharpened observation skills we realised it is not in fact the world’s last manually operated ferry at all.

“Look at the legs” said one of my companions, with skills honed by a few days’ identifying waders with legs running from red to orange to green. “It’s woman powered.” And no, we weren’t watching them through our binoculars - because that would be weird - and also because we’d returned them to Paul, the nice man from Swarovski Optik, but not without us having seen the landscape and wildlife of Skye through a fresh lens and being given a bird’s eye view of Skye’s famous top five.

The folding, compact SWAROVSKI OPTIK CL Pocket 8 x 25 binocular is available from £650. The CL Pocket is available in green and anthracite, and comes with a Wild Nature or Mountain accessory pack including carrying strap, field bag and eyepiece cover. For further details, visit www.swarovskioptik.com.

A full-day exploring the wildlife hotspots of the Isle of Skye away from the crowds with SKYEFARI costs from £90 to £150 per person for two to eight guests as a private tour. Advance booking is essential by phone at 07871 463755 or via [email protected] Full details at www.skyefari.com.

The SKYEFARI minibus making its way around the island with visitors keen to spot wildlife and take in the majestic views. SKYEFARI run wildlife tours on Skye, with various itineraries which can also be tailored to visitors' preferences. Pic: Paul Sharman

A double room at the Duisdale Hotel including full Scottish breakfast costs from £289 per night in April, from £219 per night in winter and from £389 per night in summer. Rates are based on two people sharing. To book or for further details, visit https://skyehotel.co.uk/duisdale/.

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A red deer, Skye. Pic: Colin Leslie
An otter sleeping in seaweed on rocks. Pic: Paul Sharman
Deer caught on a thermal imaging camera. Pic: Paul Sharman