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How to Identify Common Seabirds

Whether it's a coastal walk or a sea cliff adventure, you're bound to encounter seabirds on any day out to the British coast. But can you tell your guillemot from your gannet? As a supplement to our existing guides on moorland birds and upland raptors, the RSPB has made us a basic spotter's guide to the most common seabird species.


There's no mistaking a puffin - a small, black and white seabird with the most extraordinary looking brightly coloured parrot-like beak.

Atlantic puffins, Fratercula arctica, in the Shiant Islands  © Colin Wilkinson (rspb-images.com)
Atlantic puffins, Fratercula arctica, in the Shiant Islands
© Colin Wilkinson (rspb-images.com)

Unfortunately these popular seabirds, members of the auk family, are in serious trouble. Their numbers are plummeting in former strongholds in the UK and Europe and the species is now officially classed as vulnerable to extinction. It's likely that climate change plays a significant role in their decline. Tiny fish called sand eels are an important part of a puffin's diet and it's thought that warming seas are reducing the abundance of sand eels further north. In addition, commercial fishing for sand eels (for processing into fishmeal and fish oil) does not set aside enough of these fish for the birds.

In May 2019 the RSPB launched the return of its Puffarazzi project, inviting the public to send in images of puffins carrying beakfuls of food back to their burrows. Scientists can then build up a UK-wide picture of what puffins are finding to eat: and whether the food they're bringing back to the chicks in their nest burrows is changing from years past.

  • Find out how you can help here

Puffin  © RSPB

Guillemot  © RSPB


This is a sleek seabird that looks a bit like a penguin with its upright posture and dark brown and white feathers.

Guillemot, Uria aalge, on the Isle of May  © Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Guillemot, Uria aalge, on the Isle of May
© Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Guillemots nest shoulder to shoulder on tiny cliff ledges such as those at RSPB reserves like Fowlsheugh, Ramsey Island, and South Stack Cliff. Here the female will lay one large egg, which is pointed at one end. It was thought that the shape of the guillemot's egg stopped it rolling off the cliff edge. However recent research by the University of Sheffield reveals the shape makes it more stable on a sloping ledge. Its shape also enhances the strength of the egg: if another bird crashes into an adult guillemot sitting on an egg, something that often happens in these crowded colonies, the shell will not break easily. Some guillemots appear to be wearing spectacles – these 'bridled' guillemots have a white circle around the eye which extends in a tapering line towards the back of the head. Bridled guillemots are not a separate species, just a variant of the unbridled ones.


This auk has a black back and wings, and can be distinguished from guillemots by the stout, liquorice-black beak that gives the razorbill its name.

Razorbill, Alca torda, on the Shiant Islands  © Aidan McCormick (rspb-images.com)
Razorbill, Alca torda, on the Shiant Islands
© Aidan McCormick (rspb-images.com)

Razorbills nest in crevices and typically lower in the high-rise cliff seabird colonies than guillemots, but the young of both these birds have to leave their nests in a dramatic fashion. Once the adults have successfully raised their chick in its precarious home, the youngster's father will encourage it from below to take the leap into the waves below! He'll then accompany this "jumpling" on the water and escort it out to sea for several weeks until it has learned to catch fish for itself.

Razorbill  © RSPB

Kittiwake  © RSPB


If you listen to these gulls calling to one another they do actually say their name "kitt-i-waake"! Kittiwakes have yellow beaks, grey wings with black tips, and black legs which give the birds their full name "black-legged kittiwake".

Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla, Isle of May National Nature Reserve  © Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla, Isle of May National Nature Reserve
© Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

They are red-listed in the UK, as their numbers have nearly halved here in just 15 years. Along with the puffin, these birds are affected by reductions in the availability of their favoured food, sandeels, due to climate change, aggravated by fishing which does not set aside enough of these prey for the birds. Urban walkers will also encounter these birds around the Tyne, where a colony of kittiwakes has settled on the bridges and buildings of Gateshead and Newcastle.


From a distance the fulmar, with its dark grey back and white front, might look like a gull. But it's actually the closest thing we have here to the albatrosses of the southern oceans, and like them it has a special tube above its beak to help expel salt from seawater.

Fulmar pair engaged in cackling display, Shetland Islands  © Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Fulmar pair engaged in cackling display, Shetland Islands
© Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

It flies with stiff wings, keeping them straight as it glides over the water. Fulmar chicks have a neat trick to keep predators and intruders at bay: they will projectile vomit a disgusting-smelling oil from their stomach at anything that gets too close to the nest! They're incredibly long lived, with some fulmars recorded as reaching over 40 years in age.

Fulmar  © RSPB

Gannet  © RSPB


Gannets are our largest seabirds, almost a metre in height with bright white feathers and a yellow head and neck. When they're flying you'll notice distinctive black tips to their wings.

Northern gannet, Morus bassanus, pair engaged in some mutual preening  © Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Northern gannet, Morus bassanus, pair engaged in some mutual preening
© Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

And if you're lucky enough to watch them diving for fish at sea then you'll see how perfectly adapted this bird is for plunging beneath the surface to find food. As the gannet drops through the air it folds its wings back and hits the water like an arrow, sometimes entering the sea at 60mph! It'll dive and propel itself under the surface to around 15 metres, and swallow a tasty fish before surfacing in just a matter of seconds. One of the best places to see them in the UK is at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, where you'll find their biggest UK mainland colony during the summer months. In 2019 Bempton Cliffs celebrates 50 years as an RSPB nature reserve: a haven for wildlife and a huge attraction for visitors.

  • Find out more about watching seabirds here

How not to disturb nesting seabirds

Most climbers will have inadvertently encountered a nesting fulmar or a puffin at some point, but it's vital that disturbance is kept to a minimum.

Here's the advice from BMC Access Officer Rob Dyer:

All wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000). Damaging, destroying or disturbing the nests, birds or eggs is an offence. Schedule 1 species (the subject of the majority of BMC agreed restrictions) are especially vulnerable and subject to additional special protection.

Climbers should be aware that there may be birds nesting at crags that don't have a formal restriction in place, or that a nest site may have moved since a restriction was agreed, and should exercise good judgement if they do disturb a nest. Some common indicators of nest disturbance are listed below but are not exhaustive:

  • Alarm calling
  • Visibly agitated birds, sometimes circling the threat
  • Mock or actual dive bombing

If climbers observe behaviour of this kind (or indeed any other obvious signs of disturbance) from birds at a crag, the best advice is to back off until the birds stop displaying signs of distress. If this occurs whilst at the base of the crag this is easy enough, but if it happens mid-climb, back off as soon as is safely possible.

There is an added incentive to avoid disturbing some species of bird as they have been known to physically defend their nests against perceived threats. Examples of these are Ravens (which have been known to dive bomb climbers), Fulmars (which often meet unsuspecting climbers pulling onto their nesting ledge with a face full of partially digested fish) and Tawny Owls (which are known to defend their nests fiercely and have caused serious injuries to experienced bird ringers in the past).

A particularly sensitive time is before the chicks hatch, whilst the parent birds are incubating the eggs – if the parents are scared off the nest, the eggs can cool very quickly, preventing the embryo developing correctly. The period of time when birds may be sitting incubating eggs can vary widely across the country and depending on the species – for example Raven tend to nest early and can sit on eggs from February with the young fledging early, whilst some sea birds nest late and will incubate eggs well into June. It's worth bearing this in mind when assessing if you are disturbing a nest or not.

To find out the very latest access and bird restriction information see the BMC Regional Access Database (RAD)

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