Guide to British seabirds: how to identify and where to see them

Our guide describes some of the UK's most common seabird species and the best places to see them.

Colony of seabirds on the Farne Islands

The fortunes of Britain’s seabirds are in decline, with climate change and overfishing reducing their food stocks, but you can still find teeming colonies on our coasts. Learn to identify some of the more common species found in the UK.

Advertisement

Here is our guide to seabirds found in the UK, including some of the most abundant species and the best places to see them.

Gannets on Bass Rock, Scotland
68% of the world’s gannets breed in Britain and Ireland ©Getty

Sea snail shells on

What is a seabird?

Many bird species live on or near the coast. Wildfowl, for example, are often found on estuaries or coastal marshland, and ravens, doves and kestrels regularly make use of sea cliffs. But they aren’t true seabirds. Seabirds are birds that rely, at least most of the time, on the ocean to survive. Their bodies are adapted to the marine world.

In recent years, and largely due to human-induced environmental changes, some species of seabird – including cormorants and a number of gull species – have adapted to life away from the sea. These species are still regarded as seabirds.

Gull on chimney
Some seabird species have adapted to life away from the ocean ©Jake Graham

When is the best time to see seabirds?

Seabirds can be seen throughout the year along Britain’s coastlines – but at certain times of the year the number of both species and individuals is considerably higher. In June, most seabird chicks are feeding, making it the best month to view some of our favourite species, including puffins, gannets, shags, cormorants, kittiwakes, terns, guillemots, razorbills, eiders and gulls.

In June, sea cliffs such as those at St Abb's Head in Berwickshire, teem with birdlife ©Jake Graham
In June, sea cliffs such as those at St Abb’s Head in Berwickshire teem with birdlife ©Jake Graham

What are Britain’s most common seabirds?

The British Isles is home to 25 species of breeding seabird – eight in Ireland and 18 in Britain. But many more (that breed elsewhere) may also be seen. Here are some of the most common:

Puffin

Puffin, Fratercula arctica

The colourful beak is the giveaway. The puffin nests in burrows on clifftops and islands and rears a single ‘puffling’ on beakfuls of sand eels. Its wings whirr like a clockwork toy in flight; on land the puffin waddles endearingly. 

Guillemot

Guillemot, Uria aalge

The most numerous inhabitant of seabird cities, nesting on the tightest ledges. Dapper dark-chocolate-brown and white plumage. The smaller, scarcer black guillemot has only small patches of white on its wings, and scarlet legs.

Razorbill

Razorbill, Alca torda

Similar to the guillemot but with blacker plumage, and a far heavier beak with a thin white stripe. The razorbill is found in more northerly regions and nests in crevices and on ledges among rocks at the bottom of cliffs. It is a very deep diver.  

Kittiwake

Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla

A delicate gull with snow-white plumage and grey upper wings with black tips. Unlike many of its relatives, it has a soft cry of a call. Rarely seen inland, it nests on ledges all around the UK. It makes shallow dives for fish and crustaceans. 

Fulmar

Fulmar

Britain’s albatross, this stiff-winged glider soars effortlessly on the updraft of cliffs. Superficially resembling a gull, the fulmar nests in loose colonies on cliffs. Its bill has tubes through which it can shoot a foul, oily substance at attackers. 

Northern gannet

Juvenile gannet

An elegant gliding ‘cross’ in flight but transforms into a bolt of lightning when it spots prey in the water below. Nests in huge colonies, turning islands white with birds and guano. Particularly susceptible to being caught in plastic pollution.

Manx shearwater

Manx shearwater

Glides low over the water, this dark, stiff-winged ocean wanderer makes the most of every uplift from the waves below. Vulnerable on land, so it returns to its nesting burrows under the cover of darkness to avoid a multitude of predators.

Shag

Shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis

A smaller, blacker, more seagoing relative of the cormorant with an emerald eye and a greenish sheen to its plumage. Nests among the colonies of other seabirds. The word ‘shag’ is an ancient word for ‘tufted’ and refers to the bird’s crest. 

Common tern

Common tern, Sterna hirundo

A summer visitor to coasts but also reservoirs and gravel pits. A slender, elegant gull-like bird with a long, orange-red bill. It dives frequently in search of small fish. Very similar to the Arctic tern, which breeds in more northerly locations.


Where to see seabirds?

St Abb’s Head, Berwickshire

Seabirds at St Abb's Head, Berwickshire, Scotland
Seabirds at St Abb’s Head, Berwickshire, Scotland ©Jake Graham

Raucous seabird colonies, ancient grassland rich in rare plants and butterflies, a sheltered freshwater lake with wildfowl and dragonflies – there’s so much to discover at St Abb’s Head. In late spring and early summer, the rugged headland is home to thousands of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes.

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

landscape of Skomer Island along the Welsh coast
Skomer is a small island just off the south-west the coast of Wales ©Alamy

A protected National Nature Reserve since 1959, Skomer Island is one of the most important wildlife sites in Europe. In one day you can see puffins, grey seals, rare wild flowers, stunning views and much more. It’s a birdwatchers paradise, but if you’re still getting to grips with your guillemots and gannets, then there’s no better place to learn.

Farne Islands, Northumberland

Farne Islands, Northumberland
Farne Islands, Northumberland ©Getty

From May to July, the Farne Islands and surrounding mainland cliffs resound with the cries of thousands of breeding seabirds, such as puffins, guillemots and little and arctic terns. You may also see atlantic or grey seals, thousands of which breed here every year.

St Kilda, Outer Hebrides

St Kilda, Outer Hebrides
There are thought to be almost one million seabirds on St Kilda’s cliffs during breeding season ©Getty

In spring and summer, 17 species seabird come to St Kilda to breed. the archipelago is home of the largest colony of northern gannets in the world and the greatest population of Leach’s storm petrels in Europe. St Kilda contains the most westerly islands of the Outer Hebrides, making it a tough place to reach – a factor that no doubt appeals to the many thousands of  birds to nest there.

Portmuck, Antrim

Portmuck harbour, Islandmagee, County Antrim
Portmuck harbour, Islandmagee, County Antrim ©Getty
Advertisement

The productive waters that surround Portmuck, or the Isle of Muck, just off Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast make it an ideal place for seabirds to breed. In the summer, thousands nest on the cliffs including fulmars, shags, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes. You may also see gannets, Manx shearwaters, terns, divers and skuas.