The UK's summer wildlife spectaculars

Gannet colony on Bass Rock

Hundreds of thousands of birds all jostling for space, the smell of guano and rotting fish and a cacophony of calls and yells.

It can only be the sensory overload you get from a seabird colony in summer.

No wonder that these spectacular seabird cities have been described as one of the 'wildlife wonders of the world'.

And in the UK we have some of the best examples on the planet.

The usual suspects

With so many similar coloured seabirds crammed onto the same cliff, identification can be tricky.

Almost everyone will recognise a puffin, but what about guillemots and kittiwakes?

Hopefully our picture gallery below will help to identify some of the more common species and lead to a more rewarding experience.

Puffin Puffin (Fratercula arctica): Affectionately known as 'clowns of the sea', look to coastal cliff tops where they dig or use ready-made burrows when nesting. Good views to be had at Bempton Cliffs and Isle of May.
Guillemot Guillemot (Uria aalge): One of our commonest breeding seabirds, with colonies nesting on narrow ledges of sheer cliffs. Widespread around UK coasts with large colonies at Bempton Cliffs and on Orkney.
Northern gannet Northern gannet (Morus bassanus): Perform spectacular dives from great heights at breakneck speeds. Nests in large numbers on broad high ledges. Significant colonies on St Kilda, Bass Rock and Grassholm.
Razorbill (Alca torda) Razorbill (Alca torda): Looks similar to a guillemot but has deeper, blade-like beak. Nests in crevices or among boulders on sheltered cliff ledges. Seen around the UK coastline, particularly in northern Scotland.
Kittiwake Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla): Pretty gulls that are mostly found at the coast in noisy colonies, breeds on coastal cliffs. Found around most of the UK coastline with Bempton Cliffs boasting 75,000 pairs.
Fulmar Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis): Gull-like but more closely related to albatrosses. Breeds on steep coastal cliffs and grassy banks. Seen on cliffs all around UK coastline, but St Kilda is home to the UK's largest colony.
Manx shearwater Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus): Swift and elegant in the air but clumsy on land, nests in tunnels made by rabbits and puffins. Skokholm and Skomer islands in Wales have roughly 50% of world's population.
Common shag Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis): Look out for the short curly crest in summer, breeds on broad cliff ledges or inside coastal caves. Large colonies in Scotland on Orkney, Shetland and also in Wales and Devon.

Interested to know how and why common names come about? Then read our guide on how to describe wildlife.

Magical marine mammals

If a seabird colony in summer wasn't enough of a thrill keep your eyes, and binoculars, on the water, you just might spot one of these marvellous marine mammals.

Marine mammals

From left to right:

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): are the most frequently seen species of dolphin in British waters, with resident populations off of the Scottish and Welsh coasts. Watch out for the acrobatic leaps out of the water.

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena): no leaping out of the water for this small porpoises so all you will usually see is the short, blunt dorsal fin. Luckily, they are the commonest cetacean in European waters.

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus): spotting the world's second largest fish would be the icing on the cake for many. They will venture into shallow coastal waters during the summer harmlessly filter feeding, look for the large triangular dorsal fin and tip of the tail fin.

Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus): spend most of the year out at sea until autumn when they haul out on rocky shores and beaches to form formidable-looking breeding colonies. About 40 percent of the world's population are around British coasts.

Check out our guide on where to see marine mammals for more information.

Where to see

There are a number of locations around the UK's coastline where you can experience this summer spectacle.

To get you started we have selected an example from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Bempton Cliff / Bass Rock / Rathlin Island / Skomer Island

From left to right:

Bempton Cliffs, England. A managed reserve near the town of Bridlington in East Yorkshire boasts over 200,000 birds between April and August. It is home to England's biggest mainland gannet colony, as well as a sizeable kittiwake one. Look out for guillemots, razorbills and puffins as well.

Bass Rock, Scotland. This seabird sanctuary is a volcanic island situated in the Firth of Forth, one mile off the mainland. It is home to an incredible 150,000 gannets, making it the largest single island gannet colony in the world. Guillemots, razorbills and shags occupy the lower ledges.

Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland. Lying off the coast of County Antrim with tens of thousands of birds, it is Northern Ireland's biggest seabird colony. Here you'll find puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes and as an added bonus, choughs are breeding again after nearly 20 years.

Skomer Island, Wales. Just off the coast of Pembrokeshire, Skomer and sister island Skokholm have an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters, making it the largest known concentration in the world! If that's not enough there are also important numbers of storm petrels.

Seabird cities


See the great ‘seabird cities’ of Orkney

Search our list of bird activities happening near you or try these organisations and charities:

Quick tips to take with you

Some of the best seabird colonies are out at sea on rocky outcrops and secluded islands so you will have to embark on a short boat or ferry ride. Although mainland colonies, such as Bempton Cliffs, offer great views without having to leave the land.

You'll want protective clothing, possibly sun screen and of course a pair of binoculars for some great close-up views.

Colonial Britain


See how Britain's coastline is littered with dozens of seabird colonies

An ID guide will be useful for sorting out who's who on the cliff face (use the photo gallery above to get you started).

A camera or phone is a must to capture all the sights and sounds on offer. These handy tips and tricks will help you to get the best out of your photographic equipment, whatever your level of expertise.

Above all else be prepared for the noise and the smell of the birds!

But please remember to follow the Countryside Code when out and about.

Been inspired?

Experienced the magic of a seabird colony this summer? Then tell us about it and join the big Summer of Wildlife conversation on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature - #summerofwildlife.

And don't forget to share your seabird photos on the Summer of Wildlife Flickr group - #seeitsnapitshareit.

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