10 Fascinating Seabird Species to Keep an Eye On

Shag

The shag, scientifically known as Phalacrocorax aristotelis, is a seabird that shares similarities with a cormorant. However, it has a smaller size, a slimmer bill, a more rounded head, and a thinner neck. Its plumage is green-black in color, and it has a bright yellow gape and chin. During breeding season, it develops a crest on its head that curves forward. It is often seen standing with spread wings held at a straight angle, and it can be spotted in large, loose flocks on the sea. The shag flies quickly and low over the water with its neck extended and short wings set back. It feeds at sea and dives for fish to depths of up to 45 meters. Its call is a series of grunts, and it emits a cackling alarm call when it’s at the nest. The shag can be found all around the UK coasts, particularly on cliffs, rocky ledges, and small caves during breeding season.

Razorbill

The razorbill, also known as Alca torda, is a charming seabird that can be easily recognized due to its black and white plumage. It has a white upper breast and dark upper parts, foreneck, and head, as well as a pointed tail. Its distinctive bill is blade-shaped with a white cross band and a delicate white line through its eye. During non-breeding plumage, the razorbill’s bill is blunt, and it has a white throat, cheeks, and a white patch behind its eye.

The razorbill is a speedy flier that flies low over the surface of the water with active wing beats. When taking off or circling over the sea, the flight is butterfly-like. This bird feeds on fish and crustaceans within 15 km of the colony and brings the caught prey back to the nest crosswise in its bill.

While breeding, the razorbill produces a guttural growling call, whereas young birds make a plaintive piping sound while at sea. During summer, razorbill colonies can be spotted on rocky coasts and cliffs all around the UK. In winter, these birds migrate offshore, rarely returning to land.

Guillemot

Puffin

The Atlantic puffin is a funny-looking bird that’s also known as the “clown of the sea” or the “sea parrot”. It belongs to the auk family and has a unique waddling walk on its toes. During the breeding season, adult puffins have black backs, white underparts, and a pale grey disc on their faces. They also have a large triangular bill that’s colored red, yellow, and grey, with bright orange legs and feet. Outside the breeding season, their faces are darker, and their bills are smaller and less colorful. Juveniles have smaller bills too, with a dark face and plain black upperwings.

Puffins have evolved wings that can propel them underwater, but they’re also capable of flying with fast whirring wing beats, reaching speeds of up to 80 km per hour. While away from colonies, they tend to be silent, but on breeding grounds, they make low, hard growling sounds.

During the summer, puffins form colonies with other seabirds on cliffs and rocky islands around the UK’s west and east coasts. In the winter, they return to the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean to feed on fish and marine invertebrates. Puffins are rare visitors inshore during winter.

Gannets

The Northern gannet is a stunningly large bird that inhabits the seas. It has a bulky head and a sharp, pointed bill, long wings, and a slim tail. From afar, it may even resemble a swan while swimming on water. The gannet’s appearance is overall bright white with black wingtips and a golden hue on its head. Its eyes are white with a pale blue circle around them, while the bill is a pale shade of gray. The legs and feet are black, and males and females look very similar.
When in flight, the Northern gannet soars to great heights, alternating between rapid wingbeats and short glides. Even in strong winds, it maintains control over its movements. It hunts for fish and squid by diving into the water with a splash that can be seen from a distance. The gannet is quite vocal, producing loud, rasping calls and a mechanical-sounding chorus when in colonies. These birds can be spotted both on and off shore throughout the year. During breeding season, they can be found on sea-cliffs, rocky islands, and sometimes on coasts near the mainland.

Kittiwake

The kittiwake is a cute little gull that lives in the ocean. It has a round head, plump body, slim wings, and short legs and tail. When it’s breeding, its upper body is white and its back is grey with black wing tips. Its small bill is yellow, and its legs and feet are black. During non-breeding season, adult kittiwakes look similar but have a dusky spot on their cheeks and a grey nape. Baby kittiwakes have a dark band on their wings, a black collar, and a black bill.

Kittiwakes don’t like to walk or hunt on land. Instead, they dip or plunge into the sea to catch small prey like fish, worms, and crustaceans that’s often far away from the shore. They have a loud, wailing, nasal call that gives them their name, and they can be heard making long, high notes around their colony during breeding season.

These birds love to form big groups on narrow cliff ledges and coastal buildings all over the UK during breeding season. They usually spend their winters at sea but are sometimes spotted during migration in the spring and autumn.

Common Tern

The common tern, known for its forked tail and rapid flight, is a medium-sized bird similar to the Arctic tern. It has a longer bill and legs and is sometimes referred to as the “sea-swallow.” During the breeding season, it dons a grey-white coat below and paler grey above with long tail streamers and red legs. Its head is adorned with a black cap, and its bill is scarlet with a black tip. During the off-season, its forehead and underparts turn white, while its bill and legs become black. Juveniles have a brown back and white underparts with an orange bill and a black tip.
Common terns mainly feed on fish, crustaceans, worms, and leeches. They hover over the water before plunging below the surface, and will also dip their bills just under the water’s surface to catch prey. Common terns often hunt in groups and are known to steal food from other terns.
These birds are highly migratory, and can be spotted in the UK between April and September when they come to breed on coasts, islands, inland lakes, and rivers before heading to warmer waters for the winter.

Great Skua

The great skua, also called the bonxie, is a bird that resembles a gull but is larger and heavier with powerful flight. It has brown plumage with buff streaks, a white flash on its outerwing, and a pale face with a dark cap. Its bill, legs, and feet are black while young ones have buff bars on their upperparts and rufous below, with a smaller white wing flash. This bird is an opportunistic feeder that harasses other birds to drop their food and catches prey while swimming or dipping to the surface in flight. It preys on other birds, including kittiwakes and puffins, and their eggs and chicks around breeding colonies. Great skuas exhibit little fear of humans and aggressively defend their nests by dive-bombing anyone who gets too close. They breed on coastal rocky islands in the northernmost parts of the UK from April to July and are spotted offshore on migration along the eastern and western coasts until November.

Fulmar

The fulmar, or Fulmarus glacialis, is a medium-sized bird resembling a gull that is related to albatrosses. It is characterized by its tubular nostrils located above its thick bill. Its upperparts are pale grey while its underparts are white with dusky wing tips and a plain grey rump and tail. The head is either white or pale yellow with a dark eye patch, and the bill is yellow with dark nostrils. Both adults and juveniles look identical.

While on land, the fulmar cannot stand or walk, but it can glide low over the sea even in heavy winds. During breeding season, it flies high up cliff faces by using air currents and holding its wings at an angle.

Fulmars typically feed in flocks out at sea, consuming fish and invertebrates as well as carrion and offal. They usually take prey while sitting on the water but can also plunge dive. These birds will swarm around trawlers, competing for the food provided.

Breeding colonies of fulmars are found on narrow ledges or hollows of cliff faces. They fiercely defend their nesting territory by spitting foul-smelling stomach oils at any intruders. They also perform displays, such as head-waving, and emit loud, throaty cackling calls.

Fulmars can be found around the coast of most of the UK, but they are almost always offshore except during breeding season.

Great Black-Backed Gull

The great black-backed gull is a sizable bird belonging to the gull family. It boasts a robust, muscular body, broad wings, and a large head. Its breeding plumage is characterized by a black back with white wing tips, which can be seen while flying due to its white trailing edge. The bird’s beak is massive and yellow with an orange or red spot near the tip. Its legs and feet are pink. During non-breeding plumage, the bird’s head has gray or brown streaks, and its beak is less vivid.

Younger great black-backed gulls have a strikingly patterned upper body with black and brown diamonds, accompanied by gray streaks on their underbelly. The bird’s head is white, and their bill is black.

This species of gull has a widespread habitat and can be found in open sea, coasts, estuaries, reservoirs, and inland regions. As an opportunistic feeder, it consumes small mammals, the eggs and offspring of other gulls, seabirds, ducks, fish, insects, carrion, and berries. The great black-backed gull is known for its aggressiveness – it often takes food from other birds and can even kill adult birds.

Great black-backed gulls inhabit the United Kingdom throughout the year. During the breeding season, they are mainly near coasts, but during the winter, they tend to be inland near water.

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