Must-visit seabird cities
Britain is home to some wonderful coastline and seabird colonies, so enjoy a great day out and boost your #My200birdyear ticklist
Enjoy a great day out and boost your #My200birdlist at these seabird colonies
It’s not until you travel further afield that you realise just how lucky we are in Britain as regards seabirds – we have some of the biggest colonies in Europe, and many are relatively easy for any birdwatcher to see (some, as you’ll see, require rather more effort, but it’s worth the time and patience). The fact that so many are RSPB reserves tells its own story. If Bass Rock, Isle of May and Farne Islands aren’t enough, try these 10 for a variety of seabird-watching experiences, and remember that a visit to a seabird city is usually also a great opportunity to see a variety of other bird species and wildlife, too…
1 MOUSA, SCOTLAND
As well as Guillemots and Arctic Terns, this uninhabited island in Shetland holds around 6,800 breeding pairs of Storm Petrels, a significant proportion of the world’s population. Many of them use the Iron Age tower, or broch, as a nest site. Take the ferry from Mainland, or sign up for a charter trip, to see and hear them properly, and you’ll need to visit at night, as they spend all day fishing and return after dark, to escape the attentions of Arctic and Great Skuas. Black Guillemots (inset), known locally as Tysties, are also present here.
2 RATHLIN ISLAND RSPB, NORTHERN IRELAND
The RSPB’S West Light Seabird Centre reserve on this island a few miles off Northern Ireland is unique – you can get right down into the heart of the Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Fulmars yourself, thanks to the old lighthouse, so it’s a great place for photographers as well as birders. Don’t neglect the rest of the island, either. It’s easily walked or cycled, and has Northern Ireland’s only breeding Choughs, Corn Crakes, Lapwings, Sky Larks, Wheatears (right), Stonechats and Peregrines, plus Golden and White-tailed Eagles occasionally drift over from the nearby Scottish islands.
3 COQUET ISLAND RSPB, NORTHUMBERLAND
One species makes this site a must – the dainty, beautiful Roseate Tern. Coquet, a mile or so off Amble, Northumberland, holds around 90% of the UK’S population of this gorgeous bird, but it’s also a great place to see nesting Sandwich, Arctic and Common Terns, Puffins, and Eider. You can’t land, but charter boats from Amble will take you close inshore. While you’re in the North East, too, why not make a diversion to see a seabird city in a city? The iconic Tyne Bridge, as well as a number of buildings on Newcastle’s Quayside, are home to a large colony of Kittiwakes, who commute the 10 miles or so to the North Sea to feed each day. You can watch these beautiful gulls from the comfort of a café terrace.
4 ST BEES HEAD RSPB, CUMBRIA
There are three viewpoints along the clifftop path at this Cumbrian reserve, and all give great views of the largest seabird city in north-west England. Guillemots and Black Guillemots can be seen, plus Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Razorbills, while the cliffs are also home to Ravens and Peregrines. It’s also a good spot to watch for skuas and shearwaters passing offshore (skuas pass in and out of the Solway Firth on migration), and dolphins and porpoises can often be seen too.
5 BEMPTON CLIFFS RSPB, EAST YORKSHIRE
Yes, we know we always go on about it, but Bempton really is a visitor-friendly seabird city. There’s a new visitor centre, for a start, and you get really close to the birds on the cliffs below thanks to six safe cliff-edge viewing platforms. More than 200,000 Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Shags and Kittiwakes can be found here, a staggering sight, and we suspect many a birdwatching obsession has been launched here, when holidaymakers from the nearby beach resorts have spent a breezy morning getting to know the local wildlife. Tree Sparrows are regular on the reserve, too, and Short-eared Owls are often present outside the breeding season. Watch out for Harbour Porpoises offshore.
6 BLAKENEY NNR, NORFOLK
Pack your walking boots, because it’s a long and tiring trek along this shingle spit (although boat trips also run from nearby Morston), but it’s well worth the effort. Large numbers of Sandwich Terns breed here, plus Common, Little and Arctic Terns, and you’ll also see breeding Ringed Plovers (sadly getting harder to find elsewhere), Oystercatchers and Redshanks. A spring visit always brings a chance of a genuine rarity – as one of the most northerly points on the bird magnet that is north Norfolk, Blakeney has logged more than its fair share of vagrants over the years. In the autumn, Common and Grey Seals also breed here.
7 SKOMER, WALES
An estimated 310,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters breed on this island a mile off the Pembrokeshire coast, using Rabbit burrows, with perhaps 40,000 on nearby Skokholm and, as with Mousa, the best spectacles are seen at dawn and dusk, so you’ll need an overnight stay at the Wildlife Trust’s hostel (boat trips to the island run from nearby Martin’s Haven). Puffins breed here too, plus other seabirds, such as Shags, Storm Petrels and the two common auks, but it’s the shearwaters that will stick in the memory – incredibly, after a few short months here (July is the best time to see them), they spend the winter off Brazil and Argentina.
8 LANGSTONE HARBOUR RSPB, HAMPSHIRE
The colonisation of the UK by the Mediterranean Gull is one of the birding success stories of the last few decades, and this is the place to see them, side by side with large numbers of the similar (but slightly duller) Black-headed Gull – in excess of 100 pairs of Med Gulls now regularly breed here. Common, Sandwich and Little Terns are also seen here, and on a visit in early spring there may also be good numbers of Brent Geese still present, just ahead of their migration to their Arctic breeding grounds. The success of the gull and tern colonies has been in large part due to access to the tidal islands being restricted, but the whole area of creeks and inlets is great for watching waders, too.
9 GWENNAP HEAD, CORNWALL
A seabird city with a difference – more of a hub airport, really. While relatively small numbers of birds actually breed here, this is a great point from which to watch seabird passage in July and August – passing species can include Gannet, Manx Shearwater, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Shag, Cormorant, and two shearwater species hard to pick up along much of the UK’S coast – Great and Cory’s. All those, and Choughs breed in the area, too, while the headland’s position makes it a cheaper and quicker alternative to Scilly if rare vagrants are your thing.
10 LES ÉTACS, ALDERNEY
There’s probably no better place to watch a Gannetry at close quarters without having to leave dry land yourself – this site, sometimes known as Gannet Rock, is just off the Channel Island, so you can sit on the cliffs just north of Vallée des Trois Vaux and see the comings and goings in comfort. You can also take boat trips out to see them at even closer range (and to get closer to the island of Burhou with its Puffin colony), but a clifftop vantage point is more than sufficient to get a sense of the sights, sounds and smell of a seabird city. Watch out for Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, too, while Peregrines and Hobbies hunt overhead, and the clifftop vegetation is home to Dartford Warblers and the Glanville Fritillary butterfly.
Nigel Mccall / Alamy