A guide to British Seabirds and species to spot on the Northumberland coast

Spotting seabirds can be one of the great joys of a walk along the UK's wild coastlines. Here HF Walk Leader Patrick Norris describes some of the UK's most common seabird species. You can find teeming colonies on our coasts – there are great opportunities to spot seabirds on Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire or on St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides but we think one of your best bets is the Northumberland coast. Patrick is lucky enough to live near the Northumberland coast and regularly gets out and about exploring on foot. Here he shares some of the close encounters of the avian kind that he has had and provides hints and tips on identifying various coastal birds as well as insights into their lives, so you can learn to identify some of the more common species found in the UK when next exploring nature on a guided walking holiday in Northumberland.

When's the best time to see seabirds?

Seabirds can be seen throughout the year on walking holidays along Britain’s coastlines – but at certain times of the year the number of both species and individuals is considerably higher. To stand the best chance of seeing some of the seabirds spotted by Patrick, it’s best to visit during the breeding season in spring (unless you wish to see geese, in which case autumn or winter is the time to go). In June, most seabird chicks are feeding, making it the best month to view some of our favourite species, including shags, kittiwakes, terns, guillemots and razorbills.

Sand Martin
Sand Martin

It's great to see a sand martin colony down on the Northumberland Coast. The birds are small, brown above and white below and not too difficult to identify when seen in proximity to their burrows. The tunnels are about 1-metre in length and the birds lay their eggs, raise their young and fledge the chicks from this home in the sand. The birds do all the work themselves, which is why they are often the first of the martins to reach the UK. I have seen them as early as 21 March in the north of England.

Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover

This is a ringed plover, a small wading bird. They nest well above the tide line, sometimes on gravel, sometimes on sand. While walking one nest took me by surprise and got me back into a 'think nesting shore birds' mindset. I grabbed a photo, moved quickly away and observed the adult bird return to the nest. The advice in spring is always to be aware, walk on the wet sand and keep dogs on leads. On a not very busy beach at the best of times, I'm amazed they raise young successfully, but they do.

Light bellied Brent geese
Brent Geese

A migrant bird that I always look forward to seeing back on the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve come the autumn. This population arrives from the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, somewhere north of Norway. In a cold winter, perhaps 10,000 birds will gather on the mudflats to feed on the eel grass that grows out in the bay. Recent mild winters have seen lower numbers on the reserve. They have a lovely gentle chatter as they potter about in the muddy water. I miss them when they return to their northern breeding grounds in spring.

Shag
Shag

It looks like a cormorant, but it isn't. It's a seabird; you won't see these (as far as I'm aware) on freshwater reservoirs (but you may well see a cormorant). A common bird on the Northumberland Coast, it nests precariously in good numbers on the cliffs and on the Farne Islands. The male has a crest early in the breeding season; it's his way of attracting the females. Once they've paired up, the crest disappears. They stay on the coast all year, not migrating away like other seabirds. They hang their wings out to dry, although it is in fact just the edge feathers that get waterlogged, not the whole wing.

Kittiwake
Kittiwake

This small gull is a true bird of the sea, only visiting our coasts for the breeding/nesting season. Named after its call, it's an onomatopoeic bird, (in the same way as the chiffchaff is) and if you listen around the noisy colonies, you can hear "kittiwake" being called; they're a noisy lot. It's a fine-looking bird, clean cut almost, a red eye and that grey and white plumage. The black wing tips are black because they contain melanin; this gives the wings extra strength where it's needed in flight. They nest along the cliff sections of the Northumberland Coast in good numbers. The Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and the Baltic Art Gallery are great places to see kittiwakes in the nesting season.

Guillemot
Guillemot

Also known as the slender auk. Thousands of guillemot nest on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast. If you don't fancy the boat trip to The Farnes, head across the Border to St. Abbs Head NNR where you can enjoy the sight of guillemots gathered and nesting in huge numbers on the cliffs there. The chicks leave the nest before they can fly, taking that leap of faith from the relative safety of a vertical cliff into the cold North Sea. The term given to them is 'jumpling' and off they go with the adults to the Dogger Bank to mature into grown up flying adults.

Razorbill
Razorbill

A chunky auk with very smart plumage. We are fortunate to have lots breeding here on the Northumberland Coast and just over the Border at St. Abbs Head. Fewer in number than the more garrulous guillemot, but they are easy to pick out on the near vertical cliffs where they nest. This photo was taken from inside the walls of Dunstanburgh Castle; as the young begin to fledge, the adults move up and perch along the clifftop, affording some great close up views. Once the young are away, off they go too, to bob about on the ocean far from the shore until it's time to return to the Northumberland cliffs for another breeding season.

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern

If you visit the Farne Islands, it's this bird that means you need to wear a hat. They are very aggressive. They nest on and beside the path and they are the first birds that you really get up close to as you arrive on Inner Farne. This means, you can't avoid them and you run a kind of gauntlet. They fly extraordinary distances; a recent satellite tagging programme recorded a 94,000 kilometre journey in just one year. The ring from another recently recovered bird put her age at 32-years; you can do the sums. Five species of tern nest in Northumberland, the other four are common, sandwich, little and roseate.

Fulmar
Fulmar

A member of the albatross family and perhaps my favourite seabird. There are lots of places along the Northumberland Coast where they nest, always on high cliff edges. The males arrive early in the year, around January to prospect for the perfect nest site. The females arrive a little later to meet their mate and the pairs will form a long-term bond lasting years. They fly stiff winged in that albatross way, soaring along the cliffs, often at eye level, giving great views as they swoop past. They're noisy too and make quite a racket, particularly when greeting each other as they return to their nest sites from their feeding trips out at sea.

The Farne Islands

Explore the Northumberland Coast

From May to July, the Farne Islands and surrounding mainland cliffs resound with the cries of thousands of breeding seabirds, such as puffins, guillemots and arctic terns. You may also see Atlantic or grey seals, thousands of which breed here every year. Join us on one of our Explore Nature holidays to explore Northumberland’s wildlife hotspots.

Grab your binoculars