5 of the UK’s most spectacular native seabirds
Living on an island, we’re no strangers to large swathes of coastline – every single person in the UK living no more than 70 miles from coastal waters. Our rugged coasts are ideal homes for many spectacular seabird species – from vast colonies of puffins and gannets, to colossal, solitary albatrosses.
However, as the surrounding ocean’s health and biodiversity continues to decline, so do the populations of seabirds. The global seabird population has taken a massive hit over the past 60 years, waste plastics, overfishing and invasive species to blame for the declining populations seen across many species.
As one of the most internationally important areas for breeding populations of seabirds, there really is no better place to see these magnificent creatures than on our own coastlines. Here are five of the UK’s most stunning seabirds…
These large, jet black seabirds are exceptional fishers, dining on a buffet of small fish, eels and even water snakes. Their stealthy colours and primitive, reptilian look have led many to regard them as sinister and greedy, particularly by anglers who are often beaten to their catch by a hungry flock of cormorants.
These birds nest in huge colonies, setting up their homes around the shore, on trees, islets or cliffs. With an abundance of rocky shores, coastal lagoons and estuaries, the UK coast is the perfect habitat for nesting cormorants – estimates putting the wintering population at a healthy 41,000.
Often confused with shags, another expert fisher, the cormorant is a regular and popular sight for UK birdwatchers. They can be seen in many areas around the UK, all year round, but they’re best observed from southwest Scotland and the Isle of Man where the coastline carves a perfect habitat for the birds.
Perhaps the cutest, most-loved seabird across the world, these exotic-looking animals are often called ‘sea parrots’ thanks to their comical, pint-sized bodies and stripy orange beaks. They’re a popular resident around the Yorkshire coast, particularly in Bridlington where they excavate shallow burrows in the sides of cliffs to form their massive colonies. Smaller colonies can also be seen around Anglesey, Northumberland and the Shetland and Orkney Islands.
Spending most of their lives at sea, diving up to 60m in search of fish or coasting the lapping waves, puffins only return to their cliff-top roosts to tend to their chicks or breed with potential partners. Despite their tiny size, the puffin is one of the fastest flying seabirds – flapping their wings up to 400 times a minute as they soar through the air at speeds of up to 88kmh.
Those nesting in the UK are far from endangered, many estimates putting the UK population at a whopping 580,000 breeding pairs. They are, however, very susceptible to oil spills – the oil destroying their waterproof feathers, rendering them both immobile and freezing.
With the longest wingspan of any bird – a whopping 11 feet – these pearly, feathered giants are an incredible sight to behold. Like medieval dragons, albatrosses cast vast shadows on the ocean below as they soar, coasting and gliding for days, even weeks on end without resting.
They can reach an elderly 50 years of age and are rarely ever seen on land, only gathering to breed and tend to their chicks. During breeding seasons, albatrosses form large colonies on remote islands to protect their chicks from predators and other hungry seabirds. The endangered birds are normally only found in the southern hemisphere, breeding and roosting in the Falkland Islands, but a few have been spotted along the UK coast – Albert the black-browed albatrossone of the most popular, annual visitors to the north of Scotland since the 1960s.
If you put aside the infrequent visits from colossal albatrosses, gannets are the UK’s largest seabird. With bright white plumage, distinctive black wing tips and a yellow hue on the backs of their heads, these seabirds are one of the easiest to spot – large colonies and groups often spotted hunting and nesting around the coast of Scotland.
Bass Rock is one of the best places to see gannets, a small island just off the North Berwick coast and in the mouth of the Firth of Forth. This steep sided, volcanic rock is home to over 150,000 Gannets, making it the largest colony in the world. At peak season, the island is seldom seen below the huge swathes of bright, white gannets – the birds covering the entire island with their bodies and guano.
Like cormorants, gannets are expert fishers – but instead of diving from the surface of the water, they’ll plummet from incredible heights and dive to around 15m, catching and swallowing their prey in one fell swoop. They hit the water at such incredible speeds that they can often be heard hunting by birdwatchers observing from the clifftops.
Nicknamed the ‘pirate of the seas’, this aggressive seabird is known to deliberately harass others in search of a free, easy meal. The great skua is also known to hunt and kill smaller seabirds, such as poor-old puffins, and prey on the chicks of larger seabirds like gannets. Their aggressive streak continues even at home, great skuas known to divebomb anything brave enough to come close to their nests.
With their dark brown plumage and broad wings, they resemble eagles in flight – often carrying just as much, if not more aggression as they search for their next meal. They’re one of the rarest seabirds in Britain and are only really seen across Scotland, particularly around the Shetland Islands where they are still known by their Old Norse name – ‘bonxie’.
The UK is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and utterly magnificent seabirds but, unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t so lucky. This month, 4Ocean is getting behind #4Seabirdsto help spread the word of their endangerment and risk of extinction. If you’re interested in doing your own bit for these incredible birds, then head over to the shopwhere you can buy one of our bracelets – each one pulling a pound of rubbish from the world’s oceans.