Tips for your next wildlife spotting trip

The UK has no shortage of destinations for a wildlife focused trip. Increase your chances of sightings with these tips for five different habitats, from grasslands and wetlands to cities and marine environments.

One of the largest deer species, the red deer is an icon of the Scottish Highlands, but it can also be spotted in northwest and southern England.

Photograph by Getty Images
By James Fair
Published 9 Aug 2022, 10:00 BST

The golden rule of looking for wildlife is to be alert for anything moving, whether it’s high in the sky or at the base of a tree. Many of Britain’s bird and mammal species are well camouflaged, so it’s only when they move that you might spot them. Look for subtle differences in the familar, too: if there’s a field you know well, and there’s something odd or different about it, check it out with your binoculars. That stone you haven’t seen before could be a sleeping fox or deer.

1. Explore woodlands at dusk

Wildlife is often hard to spot in woodlands — it could be high in the canopy, or hidden by foliage. Yet, as many species that live in these habitats — including beavers, otters, bats and owls — are crepuscular, visiting at dawn or, better still, dusk can increase your chances. Look for trails in the grass that deer or badgers might use, then find a hide where you can quietly sit. Binoculars with a high optical performance and wide field of view, such as Swarovski Optik’s CL Companion, will help you zoom in on the details, enhancing your viewing experience.

Many of Britain’s bird and mammal species are well camouflaged, so it’s only when they move ...

Many of Britain’s bird and mammal species are well camouflaged, so it’s only when they move that you might spot them.

Photograph by Swarovski Optik

2. Pick the right season to visit grasslands

Grasslands require you to either concentrate on what’s nearby or search the distance, depending on the season. In spring and summer, keep your eyes peeled for insects and other small animals, keeping a camera (or phone) to hand as a way of getting images for later identification. Butterflies can be flighty, so make subtle, small movements as you try to get close to them, and don’t forget to look up — kestrels are among the species that hunt over grasslands. Winter and early spring, in contrast, would be a good time to take out your binoculars and search for mammals such as hares and deer, especially as there will be less vegetation to provide cover; twitching ears can give both away.

3. Look out for specific species in wetlands

Wetlands are best visited in the late autumn, winter and early spring, when they provide sanctuary to ducks, geese and waders that have fled colder, northern climates. Find a hide where you can sit and watch over a lake or marshy area. Your challenge here is sorting through the sheer number of birds that gather in these hotspots. Various species of duck will be hard to miss, but for more of a challenge, look for birds such as snipe or bitterns skulking at the edges or in the reeds. If a flock takes to the air, they may have been alarmed by a passing peregrine or marsh harrier. Study the scattering birds for something that stands out.

Left: Top:

As many species that live in woodlands, including owls, are crepuscular, visiting at dawn or — better still — dusk can increase your chance of sightings. 

Right: Bottom:

Butterflies can be flighty, so make subtle, small movements as you try to get close to them.

photographs by Getty Images

4. Out to sea? Watch the water surface

British seas are among the best in Europe for spotting whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals. Scan the waves with the naked eye for any sign of a dorsal fin breaking the surface, as well as for ripples or swells that might indicate underwater movement. If you do spot anything that resembles a fin, try to predict which way it’s going and where it may resurface. Common dolphins breach again quickly, but minke whales stay under for minutes on end. Keep an eye out for birds such as gannets diving into the water too, as this could give away the presence of shoals of fish being followed by predators below the waves.

5. Try some urban bird watching

These days, many of the UK’s major cities are home to pairs of peregrine falcons, often nesting on major buildings. So, look up. But also look down — you may come across the remains of a kill (usually just the wings). Another good place to visit are city parks, where you’ll find lakes that attract many bird species. Herons can form large breeding colonies, even in large urban centres. In South-East England, listen out for the high-pitched cries of ring-necked parakeets — an unexpected highlight of some local urban areas.

Plan your trip

Swarovski Optik's CL Companion binocular.

Swarovski Optik's CL Companion binocular.

Photograph by Swarovski Optik

To improve your wildlife watching experience, consider Swarovski Optik’s high-precision, long-range optical instruments, which are designed to bring everyone closer to nature.

Compact and lightweight, their CL Companion binocular is an ideal option for travelling. It can be connected to a phone with the VPA variable phone adapter, allowing users to capture unique wildlife images.

For more information, visit

Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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