Bioblitz Blog: Seabirds by Name and by Nature
The Ayrshire coast is a great place to watch seabirds during their breeding season. Garnock Connection's Project Officer Ian gives us the rundown on his favourite species, where to find them, and tips for separating those 'seagulls'.
When I spent a year or so living in Orkney, I developed quite an affinity with the local seabird population. While I was initially quite sad to say goodbye, I’ve massively enjoyed meeting their cousins in the Garnock Connections landscape. Seabirds by name and by nature, many of these species can be difficult to spot for most of the year, unless you’re willing to hire a boat and sail a few dozen miles into the North Sea or Atlantic Ocean. However, in the spring and summer months, they come ashore to feed, breed and put on a spectacular show for birdwatchers.
Ardrossan Harbour is a great place to spot a multitude of species, including razorbills and both common and black guillemots (look out for the bright red maw of the latter). Sandwich terns also nest nearby, a far cry from their wintering grounds, which can be as far off as the southern coasts of Africa. Keep your eyes and ears open for them (keerik!).
There are a host of good spots for viewing gulls too, including around Irvine and the Three Towns. While many ‘seagulls’ may look similar initially, keep watching and you’ll spot their individual characteristics. With their large size, loud cries and a red patch on their bills, I often think of herring gulls as the angry-looking member of the family. Although maybe that’s just having seen what they can do to a bag of chips. On the other hand, common gulls (which despite the name are actually less common than herring gulls UK-wide), are generally smaller and ‘softer’ looking.
Once you’re feeling confident, see if you can spot the difference between great and lesser black-backed gulls. The names would indicate that the size would be a giveaway, but with wingspans of up to 1.65m and 1.5m respectively, they’re both sizeable birds. Personally, I look for the legs: pink on a greater, and yellow on a lesser.
Of course, wherever you are along the coast, it’s always worth keeping at least one eye on the water itself. Gannets – the UK’s largest seabird – can often be spotted performing spectacular dives into the sea, easily identifiable by their yellow head and almost 2-metre wingspan. Look out for Manx shearwater too, another species with an impressive flight pattern, as their long, black wings allow them to glide over the water’s surface. And if you’re really lucky, you may even spot the colourful bill of a puffin bobbing on the water, looking for a meal to take back to its pufflings on Ailsa Craig.
Being right in the middle of the breeding season, International Day for Biological Diversity comes at the perfect time of year to see these birds, and many more besides. Whether you join us on the day itself, or just keep an extra eye on the sea during your evening strolls, I hope you have a successful season of spotting.
(Photo credits: RSPB Images)
Ian is Project Officer for Garnock Connections, working with local partners and communities on our projects related to wildlife and nature.