Seabirds get almost all of their food from the sea and spend most of their time far from land, but they have to come back to the coast and cliffs to breed. This is when both enthusiasts and curious visitors have the best chance of seeing them.
There are colonies of seabirds, each with their own unique mixture of breeds, all over Scotland. Here are some of the best places to go and see them.
Isle of May
The Isle of May is home to the oldest bird observatory in Scotland, which was founded in 1934. Five miles off the Fife coast, the island is internationally important for its populations of breeding seabirds. The most significant breed on the island are puffins, with more than 40,000 occupied burrows in the spring and summer. Other breeding seabirds are found in large numbers including shags, eiders, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, arctics, common and sandwich terns, herrings, lessers and great black-backed gulls.
350 species of birds have been recorded at this popular twitchers’ destination. The Shetland island is home to an old bird observatory and lodge, proving its historic importance to the birdwatching community. Fair Isle has the second-largest seabird colony in Britain, made up of Arctic terns, Arctic skuas, Atlantic puffins and black guillemots, among others.
Around 15 per cent of the European population of razorbills nest here, making it the UK’s largest colony of the species. The island, along with neighbouring Berneray and Pabbay, were evacuated in the early 20th century, leaving an ideal, uninhabited place for the birds.
One of the remotest places in Scotland, the Shiant Isles are uninhabited and can only be reached by chartered boat - but there’s a strict limit on how many people can visit the islands at once. They’re located east of Harris and south east of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and if you’re really keen you can stay there in a cottage with no running water or electricity. The privately owned islands are home to around 10 per cent of the UK’s puffins and seven per cent of the UK’s breeding razorbills. The Shiants also offer an ideal place for seabirds to set up new colonies and Manx shearwaters and storm petrels have been doing just that.
The cliffs to the west and north of Canna, and on the south of the neighbouring island of Sanday, provide space to nest for around 15,000 seabirds and 14 different species. The colony of European shags is the second largest of its kind in Scotland. Manx shearwaters also make their homes on the cliffs in the summer months. Although the numbers for this species fell considerably during the 1990s, the population has since been restored.
This world-famous colony is home to almost a million birds, with 17 different species of seabird breeding on the remote group of islands. St Kilda also boasts a number of bird-related records. Among the many that nest there is the largest colony of northern gannets in the world, the largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in Europe, and the biggest colonies of Atlantic puffins and northern fulmars in the EU.
St Abb’s Head
A short drive from Edinburgh, St Abb’s Head near Berwick is an ideal place to view around 50,000 nesting seabirds, with May and June the best months to visit. Common guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes are the most prevalent, but you can also now see northern gannets. The birds were absent from St Abb’s for many years and only attempted to breed there again in 2017.
Staffa Nature Reserve
Reached from Iona by open boat, Staffa is one of the most idyllic islands you can visit in Scotland. Atlantic puffins burrow here in May and June. The name ‘Staffa’, which is home to the famous Fingal’s Cave, comes from the Norse word 'Stave' or ‘pillar island’. This is thanks to the enormous basalt columns that stick out from the sea just off the island’s coast.
For close-up viewings of majestic seabirds making their nests for breeding, Sumburgh Head, Noss and Hermaness nature reserves on the Shetland Islands are the places to be. Gannets, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars are all known to make their homes here. Sumburgh Head is the most accessible of the three, while Noss boasts the spectacle of 23,000 gannets, 24,000 guillemots and 10,000 fulmars spread out over a mile of cliff face. Hermaness, which includes the Muckle Flugga stacks off the northern tip of Unst, has even more gannets.