Guide to British seabirds: how to identify and where to see them
Our guide explores some of the UK's most common types of seabird, where they live and the best places to see them.
British seabirds come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Some can be seen year round along our shores, whilst other species are migrants, arriving in spring to breed for the summer months, before leaving again in autumn.
Some of our seabirds are large and others small; some rare and some common; and some our colourful and showy, whilst others have adapted to blend in with their surroundings.
There are dozens of seabird species to look out for, each with their own set of unique characteristics and behaviour patterns. Our guide to seabirds found in the UK includes some of the most abundant species and the best places to see them.
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.
Threats to British seabirds
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pirates of the summer skies, the skua dive-bombs smaller birds to steal their fish catches as well as raiding nests for eggs and young. It varies in colour from pale to dark brown.
An elegant little bird with bright red feet and white wing bars on an otherwise totally black body. Unlike its cousins’ seabird cities, it nests singly or in groups on rocky coasts, sometimes on harbour walls.
Great black-backed gull
Our largest gull has a ‘haughty’ look to its eye. Its plumage is much darker than the lesser black-backed gull and it is a more formidable predator, able to take adult seabirds and swallow them whole.
Far scarcer than its common and Arctic cousins, the little tern has a yellow bill rather than red. It nests in small scattered colonies on shingle and sandbars and is easily disturbed by dogs off leads.
Where are the best places to see seabirds?
Flamborough Head, Yorkshire
The name Flamborough is thought to come from ‘Flaneberg’, possibly from the Saxon word flaen meaning an arrow – which when you look at the area on a map it certainly resembles. It is a promontory of eight miles on the Yorkshire coast and Britain’s only northern chalk sea cliff. It is famous as a nesting site for thousands of seabirds and, as the most easterly headland in Yorkshire, it is a great spot to see migrating birds too.
Lunga, Inner Hebrides
The remote Scottish island of Lunga has a population of zero – or thousands, depending on whether you are a human or a puffin.
This beautiful slice of the Inner Hebridean archipelago, described as “a green jewel in a peacock sea”, has been deserted since the 1850s, but each summer it plays host to a huge colony of one of the most charming British birds of all: the Atlantic puffin.
St Abb's Head, Berwickshire
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
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
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
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, County Antrim
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.
Bass Rock, East Lothian
It’s late January, and after months at sea the world’s largest northern gannet colony is starting to return to Bass Rock. So copious are the seabirds that they alter the island’s complexion completely, the rock bleached brilliant white by a cocktail of snowy feathers and intoxicating guano.
Scotland is home to around a third of Europe’s seabirds, with numbers in the Firth of Forth rising to more than 500,000 in spring and summer when the gannets are joined by puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and shags.
Handa Island, Highland
It’s spring, and the teetering cliff tops of Handa Island in Scotland’s remote north-west are a sanctuary for seabirds. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars and Arctic terns nest alongside the puffins and, by summer, the island reverberates with the sound of 100,000 breeding seabirds, one of north-west Europe’s largest colonies.