You can see some of the finest gatherings of breeding seabirds in Europe around Scotland. Every summer, huge numbers of a wide range of species home-in on Scottish coasts and islands.
What to look for
A large sea cliff can be a superb seabird colony site, so long as its rocks are layered to provide plenty of ledges for breeders. The classic seabird cliff is zoned, with some species typically preferring certain levels of the cliff to others.
Working upwards from sea level on a Scottish cliff, the bird sequence could be roughly as follows: low level - shag, black guillemot, herring gull and lesser black-backed gull, mid level – razorbill (on small ledges), guillemot (broad ledges), kittiwake, fulmar upper level and clifftop fulmar, puffin (in burrows) and great black-backed gull.
Where to see them
There are many accessible major seabird cliff complexes in Scotland. In the Borders, go to St Abb’s Head for a clamour of kittiwakes and guillemots. The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has video links to seabird sites, including the gannet colony on the Bass Rock.
Take a day trip from Anstruther or Crail in the east of Fife to see a big range of seabirds on the cliffs of the Isle of May, backed-up by puffins in the turf behind. In the north-east, Fowlsheugh is great for guillemots, as is Handa, largest guillemot colony of all, off Scourie in the north-west.
In Orkney, Marwick Head, close to Skara Brae, gives the interesting contrast of a seabird city near a Stone Age village. Noss on Shetland has gannets in its honeycombed rock, plus a big range of other species.
When to go
Breeding action in Scottish seabird colonies typically begins in earnest in late April and lasts until the middle of August. Guillemot and razorbill chicks leave their ledges in the second half of July. Fulmars, gannets and nocturnal shearwaters and petrels may still be feeding chicks in late summer, after other breeders have departed.