A Scottish wildlife adventure

By Jamie McDermaid, Scottish Dolphin Centre volunteer and photographer

Being a residential volunteer at Spey Bay has been a wonderful experience for many reasons: the people, the visitors, living by the sea, the mountain views, the sunsets over the river, the Northern Lights… But one thing has captivated me above all else – the wildlife. My main targets before heading up here were bottlenose dolphins (of course), otters, seals, pine martens, and any interesting birds that might show up!

Living next to the sea brings all kinds of exciting wildlife potential. I’ve seen countless bottlenose dolphins, grey seals, and common seals; and that’s just the mammals! The highlight was actually seeing the second largest fish in the world – the basking shark – just along the coast at Burghead. Although it was miles away, and is just a tiny speck in my picture, it was a first for me, making it extra special. If that wasn’t enough, this sighting was followed by a large pod of dolphins passing very close to the headland! It was a very pleasant evening.

Whooper swans swimming in the surf
Whooper swans swimming at Spey Bay, copyright Jamie McDermaid

At the bay itself, another wildlife highlight is the vast array of birdlife. I can even see curlews and herons from my bedroom window! Sadly, I arrived just after the ospreys had returned to Africa, but seeing some of the winter migrants arrive has (almost) made up for this. Whooper swans loudly announce their arrival from Iceland; red-throated divers leap and lunge through the waves; and pink-footed geese gather in gaggling skyward swarms. Watching young gannets (clumsily) learn how to fish has also been a real delight!

A slightly more efficient fisher, the resident otter, has (so far) eluded me – other than a glimpse of a dark, slippery shape in the stormy waves. But I’m still hopeful that I’ll get a good view of it before I leave! As for pine martens, I never had much hope, but have managed to grab an image of one on my camera trap. I’ve still never seen one in-person though… At least the roe deer are easier to spot in the wide open fields!

Pine marten looking at camera
Pine Marten Copyright Jamie McDermaid

As I have my car with me, I’ve also been able to explore a little further afield. Lossiemouth Forest has been a favourite destination of mine on my days off. This woodland holds a huge range of wildlife, including the nationally rare crested tit. And by taking some peanuts with me I’ve even been able to tempt a few red squirrels into camera shot! Seeing their red bushy tails flying behind them as they scurry across the forest floor is always a treat.

A little more remote than these woods is the summit of Ben Rinnes – a 2760ft summit in the Moray region. Not quite as high as the nearby Munros in the Cairngorms, it is nevertheless home to mountain specialists such as the ptarmigan and mountain hare. Finding and photographing both of these species required hiking up the mountain 2 days in a row (thanks to a huge raincloud rolling in on the first attempt), but I managed it in the end!

Despite all the wildlife that I’ve seen and photographed in my time as a volunteer, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface! My time here has flown by and I only wish I had longer to explore more of the incredible animals and landscapes of the Moray region.

Ptarmigan walking to the right
A ptarmigan on the summit of Ben Rinnes. Copyright Jamie McDermaid