Seabirds are a common site for our fishermen, they accompany our boats when they’re out fishing and they pick fish from our nets as it’s easier to let us do the hard work for them. A seabird is a sign of a healthy ocean – fact!
Explore the various seabirds native to our fishing grounds in Peterhead, Scotland.
Sterna paradisaea (Arctic tern)
With long tail streamers the Arctic tern is often called the ‘sea swallow’. Appearing white with a black cap they are largely coastal although can be seen inland on migration. Like all seabirds, they depend on a healthy marine environment and some colonies have been affected by fish shortages. Arctic terns are the ultimate long-distance migrants – they are summer visitors to the UK and winter visitors to the Antarctic.
Generally, along the coastline in open areas with sand or shingle, or on moorland/coastal heath. They are extremely vulnerable to predation, especially by ground predators, and in some areas are forced to nest on small islands which are free from mammals such as rats and mink.
They start to arrive back from their Antarctic winter break in May, with northernmost birds getting back in June. Many birds occur inland during their migration north, passing through central England in late April/early May. Migration south commences after breeding in late July and August.
Incubation 20-24 days
Fledging 21-24 days
Maximum lifespan 29 years
The razorbill is a medium-sized seabird: black above and white below. They have a thick black beak which is deep and blunt, unlike the thinner bill of the similar guillemot.
Like all seabirds, the future of this species is linked to the health of the marine environment. Fishing nets, pollution and declining fish stocks all threaten the razorbill.
On rocky cliffs and among boulder scree close to the sea. The egg is cone-shaped, though slightly less so than the guillemot, helping to prevent it rolling off the cliff. They only come to shore to breed.
From March to end of July on the Isle of May, Bass Rock, Craigleith and Fidra. Rather scarce in inshore waters the rest of the time.
Incubation 33-36 days
Fledging 18 days
Maximum lifespan 28 years
Herring gulls are large, noisy gulls found throughout the year around our coasts and inland around rubbish tips, fields, large reservoirs and lakes, especially during winter.
Adults have light grey backs, white under parts and black wing tips with white ‘mirrors’. Their legs are pink, with webbed feet and they have heavy, slightly hooked bills marked with a red spot. Young birds are mottled brown.
They have suffered moderate declines over the past 25 years and over half of their UK breeding population is confined to fewer than 10 sites.
Often in colonies, on coastal sites around the UK, including cliffs with grassy slopes, shingle beaches, small islands and rooftops in seaside towns: also on moors.
Primarily in coastal areas but generally more widespread in winter, ranging inland to feed on rubbish tips and roost on large lochs.
Herring gull facts
Incubation 28-30 days
Fledging 35-40 days
Maximum lifespan 31 years
The fulmar is an ocean-going member of the petrel family with its typical tube-like nostrils distinguished from gulls by its stiff-winged, gliding flight. They have medium pale grey wings with white beneath. To protect itself the adult and chick can spit out their stomach contents, an oily foul-smelling liquid.
Only 1 egg is laid, usually on grassy ledges near the top of cliffs, and the chick fledges in September.
They are off-shore throughout the year.
Incubation 52-53 days
Fledging 46-51 days
Maximum lifespan 50 years
The UK’s heaviest, and also fastest flying, duck. A true sea duck, rarely found away from coasts, eiders are highly gregarious and usually stay close inshore, riding the swell in a sandy bay or strung out in long lines out beyond the breaking waves. It is an Amber List species because of its winter concentrations.
Along rocky coasts with suitable islands and reefs with protective rocks and vegetation. Many eiders nest in gull and tern colonies, where they derive some protection as their more aggressive neighbours chase away predators.
Sheltered rocky coasts and estuaries.
Incubation 25-28 days
Fledging 65-75 days
Maximum lifespan 31 years
The UK’s coasts have many stretches of sheer cliffs where seabirds breed, and the guillemot is one of the most prevalent birds in the great ‘seabird cities’. They land only to nest, spending the rest of the time life at sea: unfortunately, this means they can be vulnerable to oil spills.
Dark brown and white, not as black as the similar razorbill, it has a ‘bridled’ form with a white ring round the eye and stripe behind it.
On narrow, horizontal or sloping ledges on sheer cliffs and on top of offshore rock stacks. The egg is cone-shaped helping to prevent it rolling off the cliff.
Out at sea.
Incubation 28-34 days
Fledging (leave ledge) 2-3 weeks
Fledging (flight) 6-7 weeks
Maximum lifespan 10 years
Shags are goose-sized, dark, long-necked birds similar to cormorants but smaller and generally slimmer with a characteristic steep forehead. In the breeding season adults develop a dark glossy green plumage and prominent crest on the front of their head.
In the UK they breed on coastal sites, mainly in the north and west. Over half their population is found at fewer than 10 sites, making them an Amber List species. Shags usually stay within 100-200km of their breeding grounds.
Nests are in coastal colonies on ledges and sea cliffs, or among large boulders.
Incubation 30 days
Fledging 53 days
Maximum lifespan 15 years
Morus bassanus (Northern gannet)
Scotland is home to around 60% of Europe’s gannets. From February gannets return to the Bass Rock: numbers peak at over 150,000 making it the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets. It is also BBC Countryfile Magazine’s Nature Reserve of the Year 2014/15 and 2015/16.
Gannets are Britain’s largest seabird and they have a distinctive appearance: adults are bright white with black wingtips and a yellow marking on their heads, a long neck, pointed beak and long pointed tail.
At sea they flap and then glide low over the water, often travelling in small groups. They feed by flying high and circling before plunging into the sea, at speeds of up to 60mph/ 96kmph.
They breed in significant numbers but only at a few localities: coastal cliffs and remote islands with cliffs, ledges and slopes.
Spent at sea, with many flying as far as Bay of Biscay and the West Coast of Africa.
Incubation 42-46 days
Fledging 84-97 days
Maximum lifespan Up to 35 years
Rissa tridactyla (kittiwake or black-legged kittiwake)
A gentle looking, medium-sized gull, kittiwakes have a small yellow bill, dark eye, grey back and white underneath: their little legs are short and black. In flight, the black wing-tips show no white, unlike other gulls, and look as if they have been ‘dipped in ink’.
On rocky, steep sea-cliffs, buildings and piers.
Spent out in the open Atlantic.
Incubation 25-32 days
Fledging 33-54 days
Maximum lifespan 28 years
A large and conspicuous water bird, the cormorant has an almost primitive appearance with a long neck making it appear almost reptilian. They are often seen standing with wings held out.
Regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy, cormorants are supreme fishers which can bring them into conflict with anglers. The UK holds internationally important wintering numbers and with their breeding concentrations at a few sites it is an Amber List species.
As coastal seabirds they are found wherever there are cliffs or rocky islands. New colonies inland are mainly in trees by freshwater lochs, gravel pits and reservoirs.
Eggs 3-4 eggs
Incubation 28-31 days
Fledging 48-52 days
Maximum lifespan 23 years
Fratercula arctica (Atlantic puffin)
Often called the ‘clown of the sea’ the puffin is an unmistakable seabird with a black back and white underparts, distinctive black head with large pale cheeks and brightly-coloured bill. Their comical appearance is heightened by red and black eye markings and bright orange legs.
They prefer islands where they mostly nest in burrows which they usually excavate themselves but they may also nest under rocks and scree or in cracks on cliffs: these are called puffinries. They lay one egg and their young are called pufflings. After hatching the young puffin remains underground concealed in the nest, until the night comes for it to head for the open sea, not to return until it is ready to breed, usually some 5 years later.
Spent at sea, some fly as far as the Bay of Biscay.
Incubation 36-45 days
Fledging 34-60 days
Maximum lifespan 29 years