Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus, adult flying low over the water of an evening, Isles of Scilly

Enjoy a seabird spectacular

Our coasts play host to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world.

Our seabirds

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 per cent of the world's northern gannets, 90 per cent of the world's Manx shearwaters and 60 per cent of the global population of great skuas are found in Great Britain and Ireland!

An all star cast

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!

Black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, adult standing on a potential nest site, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

The next act

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.

Great skua flying in the vicinity of Dunnet Head RSPB reserve, Caithness

Seabirds in danger

UK seas should be a spring haven for puffins and other seabirds but as climate change warms our waters, they're struggling to survive. Storms are a hazard they face regularly, but food shortages in our seas are becoming a regular occurrence.

Find out what is happening to our seabirds and the marine environment on which they, and their young, depend.

Black-headed gull Larus ridibundus on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve

Don't let threatened birds fade away

Will you help us to save our threatened birds? The number of birds at severe risk in the UK has nearly doubled. Our birds are struggling to find safe places to nest and enough food to feed their young. They urgently need our help. Find out about the RSPB’s work to save our threatened birds, and discover simple ways you can help them to thrive. Together, we can save our birds.

See for yourselves

Looking north from Bempton Cliffs

From April to June, seabird colonies around the UK are at their vibrant, raucous and pungent best. Come and experience them for yourselves.