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

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: MATT MER­RITT

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

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