Nature - the neighbourhood birds, seals and flowers
The north of Scotland is home to a resident cast of wildlife characters, species unique to this part of Britain, supported by many remarkable visitors. Whatever the time of year there is a feast of wildlife right on our doorstep and a host of amazing habitats within easy reach.
Every day a group of more than 100 seals beach themselves on the sandbanks of the loch to slumber through the low tide hours, often seemingly as entertained by us as we are by them. Otters are more elusive but we see tracks where our grounds meet the shore and sometimes they cannot resist the delights of a sunny day and can be seen playing around the bridge at the head of the loch. It would take a nightime stake-out to spot the pine martens in the woods on the opposite shore but a glance out of the window might reveal a very handsome stoat scurrying over the dry stone wall looking for voles or bouncing along confusing the rabbits.
And then there are the dolphins. Now and then you might get a glimpse of a group cruising by as you walk along the beach. But for some dramatic close ups (and a zoom around in a boat) try a dolphin watching trip sailing out of Cromarty. The quickest way to Cromarty is to catch the ferry from Nigg, adding to the general seafaring theme of the day, and, happily, next door to the Ecoventures base is an excellent pizza restaurant Sutor Creek tel: 01381 600855 http://www.sutorcreek.co.uk The dolphins have so much wow factor that the cost feels like an investment and though sightings are not guaranteed, we've been lucky. There's not been much science in our plan to book onto trips when the sea is predicted to be calm and the tide is just starting to flow but it has worked for us.
Ecoventures (Cromarty) tel: 01381 600323
Oystercatchers sits within the Loch Fleet national nature reserve which contains open estuary, mudflats, saltmarsh, sandy, rocky and pebbly shoreline, mature dunes, woodland, lichen heath, streams and river. The variety of birdlife and the seasonal variation is impossible to miss but the less showy variety of insects, flora and funghi is equally remarkable and, of course, right on our doorstep.
Going south there are RSPB reserves at Fairy Glen (Rosemarkie) on the Black Isle http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/f/fairyglen/about.aspx and Nigg Bay (tel: 01463 715000) http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/n/niggbayabout.aspx while going north to Helmsdale and turning left towards Melvich brings you to the RSPB reserve at Forsinard (tel: 01641 571226) http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/f/forsinard/about.aspx in the heart of the flow country which really is a different world.
Going west via Lairg, a very lovely one and a half hour drive brings you to the west coast near Tarbart from where boat trips run (April til mid September, not Sunday) to the seabird colonies, (100,000 birds and all the clamour that goes with them - they start to leave from mid July), sea otters and occasional Minke whale of Handa Island.
"As avid bird-watchers we managed to identify 105 species within a 25 mile radius of the cottage. Despite the lateness of our visit it was good to see ospreys still fishing locally most days."
T party, Colchester, late September 2015