Birdwatching Across the British Coastline

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At Cruise1st, one thing we always look forward to on embarkation day is checking the skies and the coastline for local birdlife. An amazing selection of birds call the British coastline home, and a cruise is often the best opportunity to spot species which rarely visit our back gardens.

If you’re like us, and love to spot birds as your cruise pulls out of port, you are in for a treat. We’ve recently got together with Jamie Wyver, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), to discuss birdwatching on the British coast. We’ve asked him what cruise passengers can expect to see and where

So, thanks to Jamie for taking the time to answer all of our questions about birdwatching across the British coastline.

Do you have to be a skilled or experienced ornithologist to go birdwatching on the British coast?

The coast is a great place to start birdwatching. At certain times of the year, birds can be very easily seen as they gather to nest on cliffs in spring, or to feed on mudflats in winter. You definitely don’t need to be an expert as the experience of seeing, hearing and smelling a seabird colony is fantastic for everyone!

ornithologist with binoculars

Would you recommend any specific pieces of equipment/kit to maximise the chances of spotting more birds on the British coast?

A good pair of binoculars or a telescope will always enhance your experience. A bird guide to help you identify what you’re seeing is good too, especially one with illustrations rather than photographs. Finally, for winter birdwatching you’ll obviously need to wrap up!

Are there any areas on the British coast particularly popular with different species of birds? And what are the best times of year for birdwatching across the British coastline?

Where there’s plenty of suitable food and habitat around coastal wetlands, estuaries or sea cliffs you’ll find birds! In June, head to the UK’s busiest seabird colonies like the RSPB reserves at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland or Ramsey Island off the coast of Wales. A visit to these impressive gatherings of birds is a breath-taking experience with incredible sights, sounds and smells.

Gannets, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes jostle for position on cliff ledges while everyone’s favourite seabirds, the puffins, waddle into burrows bringing back beakfuls of fish for their young. During the colder months, visit a coastal nature reserve like Burton Mere Wetlands in Cheshire, or Snettisham in Norfolk for huge flocks of waders and wildfowl feeding on the mudflats and marshes. The RSPB is creating more coastal habitats for these birds, for example at Wallasea Island in Essex where the sea wall has been breached to create a massive new saltmarsh.

Find out more about RSPB’s nature reserves.

herring gull birdwatching

Are any coastal birds attracted to busy locations such as cruise terminals, or even departing cruise ships?

Some birds, especially the herring gull and its cousin, the lesser black-backed gull, will readily live alongside people and harbour activity where they are ever on the lookout to scavenge discarded fish and other waste food. Many other birds, however, are extremely sensitive to disturbance. For example, along with colleagues from organisations like the National Trust, we have wardens who keep an eye on colonies of rare birds like little terns, 24 hours a day.

Do you know of any migration routes which could be followed by a cruise ship?

Actually, people watching birds from ferries and cruise ships have really helped us understand where seabirds go when they leave their breeding colonies. For example, in the North Sea and western waters in late summer, gannets, skuas, and terns are regularly seen as they head south to overwinter in the tropics. From ships, you can also look out for skuas harrying terns to rob them of their fish. We now know that fulmars and auks (puffins, guillemots and razorbills) disperse widely after the breeding season rather than heading uniformly south: these too are also regularly seen from deck. You may also see puffins in winter. They’ll have shed their brightly-coloured bill plates and will look drab in comparison to their gaudy summer appearance.

What are the most commonly spotted birds on the British coastline?

The most obvious are the gulls, often incorrectly lumped together as ‘seagulls’ although there are several different species. As their food has become scarce at the seaside, many of these adaptable birds are moving inland. The most common is the black-headed gull, which sports a dark chocolate ‘hood’ in summer and a dark spot behind the eye in winter. Another common seabird, the cormorant, can now also be seen inland. This prehistoric looking black bird with its long neck can often be seen holding its wings out to dry after a spot of fishing.

tern flying ornithology

What are the rarer species of birds known to occupy Britain’s coastal regions?

Puffin numbers have declined to such an extent that they are now recognised as globally ‘vulnerable’ to extinction on the IUCN Red List, which grades the populations of wildlife. Choughs, members of the crow family, are gradually returning to parts of the UK. These are attractive black birds with bright red legs and a downcurved red bill. The kittiwake, a small, elegant type of gull, is on the UK red list, meaning that it is of conservation concern. Kittiwakes are generally the most coastal of all our gulls but some have set up colonies in the heart of coastal communities in North Yorkshire (Bridlington, Scarborough) and in Tyne & Wear, where a celebrated colony nests on and around the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead.

Do you have any tips for spotting hatchlings or chicks on the British coastline?

If you visit a seabird colony like Bempton Cliffs towards the end of the breeding season, especially July,  you may get to see ‘jumplings’. These are the flightless chicks of the guillemot and razorbill which must make the dangerous leap down to the sea from the cliff ledge they were raised on.  A parent, typically the male, then escorts them on the long swim offshore where they complete their development and learn survival skills.

Could you recommend any guides or smartphone apps to help amateur ornithologists identify the birds they have spotted on the British coastline?

Of course, the RSPB has produced a few of its own – there’s the RSPB e-guide to British Birds and our guide for younger birders, RSPB First Birds. Our web bird identifier also works very well on mobile.

As for those produced by other organisations, we recommend the Collins Bird Guide and the Warblr and Chirpomatic birdsong apps.

If Jamie’s answers and enthusiasm for ornithology on the British coast has inspired you to take a UK-centric cruise, we’ve got a huge selection of deals you’ll love. For the full selection, visit our dedicated page here or call our friendly sales team on 0808 231 3669.

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Birdwatching Across the British Coastline
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Birdwatching Across the British Coastline
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We interview the RSPB's Jamie Wyver, who offers tips for bird watching on the British coast – as well as talking about how cruise ship passengers have helped ornithologists to better understand bird migrations.
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Cruise1st
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Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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