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Fun facts and articles
23 July 2007
The arctic skua - a real-life pirate
Image: Chris Gomersall
Almost everyone can recognise a puffin stood proudly on a cliff, with its chest puffed out and a beak-full of sandeels. These colourful clowns of the clifftop come ashore every year to perform at our coasts and deservedly take the crown as our best-known seabirds.
However, there is a lot more to our seabird selection than these comical auks - and the 'seagulls' familiar to any visitor to seaside towns.
For example, our coasts support internationally important breeding populations of a number of seabird species. 68% of the world's northern gannets, 90% of the world's Manx shearwaters and 60% of the global population of great skuas are found in Great Britain and Ireland!
Our coasts play host to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world and are the home of an impressive variety of different species for a few months every spring and summer.
Seabird colonies really are ‘seabird cities’. Birds occupy every available nesting site, from rocks at the cliff base to the grassy slopes and the rabbit burrows at the top that puffins move into for their summer break. This is sought-after, high-rise accommodation with a scenic view and space is at a premium!
The cast includes the comically-crested shag with its ‘coiffed’ hairstyle and brilliant bright blue eyes that perches upright on boulders at the cliff base. Dainty kittiwakes leave you with no doubt you have visited a seabird colony. Their ‘kitt–ee-waayyk’ calls will ring in your ears long after you have left and mysterious Manx shearwaters and storm-petrels return to their burrows under cover of darkness.
It is not just about rugged, rocky coastlines though. Five species of graceful terns nest on sandy or shingle islands, or among dunes exposed the elements. Despite their delicate appearance, they manage to rear their young every summer and complete epic journeys to and from the UK. Some Arctic terns fly as far as the edge of the Antarctic Circle for winter!
In late summer and autumn, when the last of the year's young have flown the nest, our seabird colonies fall silent and the birds take their final bow and depart.
The seabird show does not end there though. Migrant seabirds that have bred way to the north of us close to the Arctic Circle make their way south through our food-rich waters. Strong winds push them within sight of shore and keen birdwatchers spend hours perched on windswept headlands in search of storm-petrels, shearwaters and real prizes such as the beautiful Sabine’s gull.
Four species of skua make their way to west Africa, stopping to harry other seabirds and forcing them to steal their prey. They are the pirates of the sea and are masters of their art. The elegant long-tailed and burly, spoon-tailed pomarine skuas are scarcities that only appear in any number after onshore winds, but the Arctic and great skuas can be seen off much of the coast.
Others migrate into our coastal waters for a few months from as far away as islands off the coast of South America - as in the case of the sooty and great shearwaters. The former is an almost mechanical, stiff-winged acrobat that skims the waves with ease in even the roughest of seas.
Conditions are harsh out at sea, but these birds are among the toughest and most hardy of all. Storms are hazards they face with regularity, but food shortages in our seas are becoming a more regular occurrence.
These seabirds and all the other marine wildlife that depend on our coasts and seas need our help, so please support our 'safeguard our sea life' campaign today.
Click on the links to the right to find out more about some of the seabirds that visit the UK and some of our reserves where you can see them.
Let us introduce you to some amazing wildlife at one of our date with nature events across the UK
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