Pembrokeshire's seabirds: Where to spot them
Pembrokeshire has long been a birdwatchers’ paradise, with a wide variety of birdlife on display that includes seabirds, songbirds, raptors, waders, wildfowl, corvines, ocean wanderers, warblers, finches - the list goes on and on!
Pembrokeshire: A Seabird's Paradise
Pembrokeshire’s rich waters and diverse range of coastal habitats has made it a bird’s paradise and each year thousands of seasonal seabirds from around the world are attracted to the sea, cliffs and skies along the coast.
The towering cliffs and remote islands, like Grassholm and Skomer, provide them with the perfect breeding ground, where the seabirds can safely lay their eggs on the narrow rock ledges or underground burrows, and raise their young sheltered from the wild seas and protected from predators.
It’s no surprise then that Pembrokeshire is one of the best places in the UK to spot marine wildlife and boasts some of the largest gatherings of species in the world. Skomer Island alone is home to the world’s largest colony of Manx shearwater, with over 300,000 birds, while Grassholm has over 39,000 pairs of breeding gannet, making it the second-largest gannet colony in the Atlantic.
One of the most enchanting members of the crow family is the chough. And, thankfully, it is quite numerous all around the Pembrokeshire coast and on the offshore islands where its favourite nesting sites in inaccessible caves, cracks and crevices in the cliff face are abundant. The uninitiated can mistake this blackbird with its wheezing call for its first cousin the jackdaw, but close inspection reveals the difference, particularly when it is seen pecking the clifftop turf in search of soil-dwelling invertebrates like worms, beetles, ants, larvae and grubs.
It even likes lichen and will also eat grain and berries on open ground. Its pink pointed curved beak and its bright orange legs reveal its difference from the jackdaw with its straight, black bill and black legs. It is blacker, sleeker. glossier and more beautiful than the jackdaw.
The call is different, too, and an unmistakable distinguishing feature, for unlike the jackdaw’s harsh “chack”, the chough is a somewhat asthmatic wheezing cry, softer and less aggressive. The European population is estimated at 28,000 to 85,000 and the British a modest 490 pairs, although there must be more than a quarter of that number in Pembrokeshire alone. They lay three to five eggs, usually in only one brood, between May and July and have a lifespan of five to ten years, although one has been recorded at over 16 years of age.
Where to spot choughs
According to Welsh Wildlife, there are around 72 pairs of chough occurring along the coastline, with the Castlemartin Peninsula and Ramsey Island being the locations where most pairs gather, though one pair has been nesting on Skokholm Island since 1992.
There are few more graceful fliers than the fulmar petrel, which patrols the cliffs around the Pembrokeshire National Park coastal footpath. These sleek seabirds, which glide the cliff thermals, nest on cliff ledges which they defend from intruders by spitting a foul-smelling oil at them. It is not just offensive but is positively harmful to avian aggressors as it mats on the plumage, ruining its water-proofing qualities.
This oil is not only useful against intruders but is an energy-rich food source for chicks and also for adults on long flights. Fulmars resemble gulls but, on closer inspection, are distinguished by the shape of their beak which has a tube-shaped protuberance on the top, for the fulmar is a tube-nosed and a first cousin of the albatross.
Currently, there are an estimated 504,756 breeding in the UK and possibly more than three times that number wintering here. They lay a single white egg on a ledge or in a shallow depression lined with plant material on the rock.
Where to spot fulmars
Fulmars nest in many areas of the Pembrokeshire Coast including on Elegug Stack/Stack Rocks and Ramsey Island, but can also be found on cliffsides along St Bride's Bay including at either end of Newgale Beach. Arriving in April, of all the visiting seabirds, their nesting time is the longest with 100 days between the Fulmar laying an egg and the chick fledging. They finally leave with their chicks in late September, with the chicks not returning to land for another five years when they begin to breed.
Britain’s largest seabird patrols the waters off the Pembrokeshire coast and dives spectacularly into the sea to catch its prey. It is a memorable experience to watch the large cruciform shapes of gliding and plummeting gannets, with their sparkling white plumage and long black-tipped wings. With a body, the size of a goose and a 6ft wingspan, their presence in St Brides Bay, and other locations around the Pembrokeshire coast can not be missed, particularly as they are so numerous - with some 70,000 pairs nesting every summer on Grassholm Island, about nine miles off the west coast.
They nest so closely together on the rock that on clear days, their massed white plumage makes Grassholm look like an iced cake on the horizon from the vantage point of the cliffs overlooking Newgale beach. By taking advantage of the many tourist boat trips which are available around the island, visitors can see the gannets at close quarters, although the experience has its drawbacks - one of which is the strong odour given off by the colony!
Where to spot gannets
The best place to spot the gannet, as you'd expect on Grassholm Island, where it would be difficult not to see the thousands of nesting pairs. They begin to return to the island from late February, and by spring it’s alive with thousands of nesting birds, busy with activity. Eggs are laid in April, with chicks beginning to hatch by early June. They are fully grown and will begin leaving the island in late August, with the last flying away by the end of September.
While you can’t land on Grassholm, there are several boat tours that take you for a good look at the incredible sight, without disturbing these wonderful creatures during their most important time.
Looking very penguin-like on land, with its dark brown back and snow-white breast, the guillemot is a member of the auk family (Alcidae) and first cousin to a puffin and razorbill. They breed on the Pembrokeshire bird sanctuary islands of Skomer and Skokholm as well as on Ramsey and St Margaret’s Island off Tenby and the Stack Rocks off the Castlemartin peninsula.
Indeed, the stack near that well-known coastal feature the Green Bridge of Wales is called Elegug stack, and an elegug is either guillemot or razorbill to south Pembrokeshire folk, as they both look alike at a distance. Visitors to Skomer island will see during the 20-minute boat trip from Martin’s Haven to the island’s North Haven, large rafts of guillemots floating offshore, and when they land and walk to the clifftop overlooking The Wick, they will see a seething mass of black and white seabirds on the cliff ledges on the other side of the inlet.
The RSPB says the guillemot is “one of the most numerous birds in the great seabird cities,” found all around the coasts of Britain and Europe, the European population being about a 2.7million pairs and the British number about 880,000 pairs. They can dive down to 60 metres.
Where to spot guillemots
Guillemots choose to breed on narrow ledges, usually on sheer cliffs, making the dramatic and rugged Pembrokeshire coast ideal for nesting and can be spotted in several places along the Pembrokeshire Coast, including the Castlemartin peninsular. Skomer Island is perhaps the best place to see them in numbers though, with smaller populations living on nearby Skokholm and Grassholm. You’ll be able to spot them clustered together on the narrow cliffs, balancing on the edge as if about to fall off, but there’s no need to worry. This is actually a tactic of the birds to prevent larger, predators from having space to land.
Pairs usually begin breeding in May, with chicks hatching after 30 days, with just a further 20 before they fledge the nest. While some Guillemots will leave for warmer shores, many of the birds will stay local and spend the rest of the year around the Welsh and Irish coast.
The kittiwake is an ocean-wandering member of the gull family, and many people believe they are never seen on the mainland, let alone nesting there. Only about 39-cm long, with a wingspan measureing 108cm it bears a striking resemblance to the common gull or a small herring gull. The kittiwake breeds in the Pembrokeshire bird-sanctuary islands and on offshore stacks and there is no mistaking its raucous cry on the sheer cliff nesting sites it shares with guillemots and razorbills on Skomer Island. An impressive nest builder, they will use an array of materials they find along the coast including wet grass, seaweed and even mud to form their nets, which are then stuck to the rock ledges with saliva and guano.
Visitors to Skomer in early spring, when the island is an artist’s palette of beautiful bluebells, are intrigued by the shuttle service of kittiwakes, flying back and fore across the island ferrying beakfuls of mud from the central pond to their cliff ledge nesting sites to make a safe place for their eggs.
Its British population is around 370,000 pairs and it lays two eggs and rears only one brood. Its small yellow bill, dark eye and black legs distinguish it from other seabirds, and it keeps its white plumage pristine clean, despite the crush on the nesting ledges.
Where to spot kittiwakes
While spending most of the year at sea, the kittiwake does briefly appear on land to breed, arriving from February onwards and staying until August. Nesting on coastal cliffs, in Pembrokeshire you're most likely to find them in places such as Ramsey and Skomer Island.
No bigger than a pigeon and able only to shuffle on land, the Manx Shearwater is a master of ocean flight and a pelagic wanderer that can clock up five million miles in its lifetime. And, if it survives the many perils it faces during its long ocean journeys and its lengthy annual stay on land during the breeding season when it is at its most vulnerable, it can live for over 50 years. Indeed, one ringed bird was 55-years-old when it was recaught on Skomer, and it might well still be somewhere out in the wild North Atlantic today.
The European population of Shearwaters is estimated at between 280,000 and 320,000, and the Pembrokeshire bird sanctuary islands of Skomer and Skokholm hold the largest known concentration of these beautiful birds in the world, Skomer hosting 129,000 pairs and Skokholm 45,000 pairs. Manx Shearwaters arrive at the Pembrokeshire islands in March for the breeding season and depart in October to return to their winter wanderings around North and South America between November and February.
Birds ringed on Skomer and Skokholm have turned up at Lawn island, Newfoundland, Rhode Island, Argentina, Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, thus the round-trip they make annually exceeds 20,000 miles.
Where to spot the Manx Shearwater
The Manx Shearwater being returning to land around March time, where they return to the same burrows and find their mate, who they stay with year after year. The egg hatches after around 50 days, with the chick remaining in the burrow for another 70 while their parents feed them. The adults are the first to fly the nest in late August, with their chick following around eight days later.
Though nocturnal, the Manx Shearwater can be seen off the west side of Skomer Island during the day, especially during bad or cold weather. The best chance to see them from the mainland is in the evening when you’ll often find large numbers visiting the feeding grounds at St Bride’s Bay and Broad Sound, where they can be viewed from vantage points. A great way to observe them in their quest for food is by taking an evening boat tour around this area, where you’ll be able to watch vast numbers flying between the islands and different areas along the coast.
Watching peregrines in flight is a thrilling experience. Their normal flight is swift and direct and when they stoop on their prey they can reach speeds of up to 240 mph in the dive from several hundred feet, to strike an unsuspecting pigeon or other bird in flight. They are undoubtedly the fastest creatures in the animal kingdom.
They can even knock down a bird as large as a duck, a skill which earned them the alternative name of Duck Hawk in North America. Almost every stretch of the cliff on the mainland and on the Pembrokeshire islands has its pair of peregrines, and they are often seen taking prey over town and city streets. Their breeding range includes land regions from the Arctic tundra to the tropics and they can be found nearly everywhere on earth, apart from the extreme polar regions, high mountains and tropical rainforests.
The peregrine is a handsome bird about the size of a crow, with a blue-grey back, barred white underparts and a black head and a distinctive ‘moustache’. Its yellow beak and talons and its large, dark, yellow-circled eyes are fearsomely formidable features.
Where to spot the peregrine falcon
The Peregrine Falcon likes to nest on rocky sea cliffs, making the Pembrokeshire coast ideal for this bird of prey. The Castlemartin and Marloes peninsulas are both great places to see them, as is St Bride's Bay. You don't need to even head to the coast for a glimpse of these impressive creatures, as they often venture inland as well.
Colourfully clown-faced, the puffin is probably the best-known and most popular of Pembrokeshire seabirds. Its image appears on advertising for local potatoes, coastal shuttle buses and various food products, and it is one of the most photographed of the auk family which inhabits the Skomer Island nature reserve. The boat trip out to the island from Martin’s Haven gives visitors their first glimpse of puffins as they raft off the island with their auk cousins the guillemots and razorbills.
The Puffin was considered as a possible emblem of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority when it was founded 50 years ago, but the committee plumped for the ‘Eligug’, the south Pembrokeshire name for the Razorbill. The worldwide population of puffins is estimated at about 15million, 60% of them breeding around the Icelandic coast, and some 700,000 around Great Britain and Ireland, the same number as in the largest single European colony at Røst, Norway. Skomer has about 7,500 pairs and is the best place in Wales for a close-up of these comical ocean-wandering seabirds, many of which nest in clifftop burrows on the northern side of The Wick, only a few yards from the footpath.
Where to see puffins
While they can be spotted nesting in cliff sides throughout the Pembrokeshire coast, Skomer Island is the best place to really appreciate these colorful and charming birds. Along with neighbouring Skokholm Island, they form the largest puffin breeding colony in southern Britain. Arriving in late March, they spend their first few weeks gathering supplies for their underground burrows before laying a single egg that hatches in June. By mid-July, they're heading back out to sea until the following spring.
One place you won't see puffins is Ramsey Island. The population was decimated by rats around 100 years ago and despite efforts by the RSPB, who own the nature reserve, they haven't been tempted back yet. Many arrive on Ramsey expecting to see the same friendly puffins as other islands - but are disappointed to find out that's not the case.
The Razorbill is the emblem of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, and lays its single egg per season and rears its lone chick on a rocky ledge on a mainland cliff or island, amid the chaotic maelstrom of competing auks. The British summer population is estimated at about 110,000 pairs and the European population around 430,000 to 760,000 pairs.
When seen close-up, their graceful beauty is appreciated, their black upper plumage glossy and their white breasts and underparts pristine. Like the guillemot, the razorbill dives from the surface to catch its food of small fish, squid and sand-eels and it can go down as deep as 60 metres. Its future is under threat from fishing nets, declining fish stocks and pollution, but happily, it survives.
Where to see razorbills
There are thousands on the Pembrokeshire islands and on some of the stacks offshore, including Elegug Stack that is famed for being crowded with auks during the breeding season. Selective about their nesting locations, the razorbill prefers narrow ledges and crevices protected by overhangs or neat caves, which is why so many return to breed along the rocky Pembrokeshire coast year after year. Here they'll lay a single egg directly, sometime between May and early July.
You can spot Razorbills from the mainland with one of the best spots at Elegug Stack/Stack Rocks on the Castlemartin peninsular. That’s not to say that you won’t spot them anywhere else, there are around 12,000 razorbills on Skomer Island with small populations on nearby Skokholm and Grassholm too, so there are lots of chances to spot this charming seabird.
The European Shag is a species of Cormorant that breeds around the rocky coasts of western and southern Europe and is a familiar sight on the Pembrokeshire coast. A goose-sized, dark, long-necked seabird, it is generally similar to the larger and more numerous cormorant, although in the breeding season it develops a glossy almost iridescent green plumage which gives it its alternative name of Green Cormorant.
They are also common around the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, which have great similarities with Pembrokeshire. Shags particularly like caves, and the naturalist and author Ronald Lockley recorded three or four pairs nesting high up on ledges in the darkness in a deep cave called The Lantern at the east end of Skomer, through which the tides flow from south to north at high water.
Visitors like to see the shags and cormorants drying their wings in the sun after a session of fishing. They stand erect, their wings spread like dark crucifixes, looking very dramatic and ornamental and doing a very good impression of the Cristo Redentor presiding over Rio de Janeiro.
Where to see the shag
Those who visit the Pembrokeshire bird sanctuary islands of Skomer and Skokholm are certain to see shags on their cliff nesting sites. Some 27,000 pairs breed in the UK and an estimated 110,000 winter in this country.
The tiny storm petrel is not much bigger than a sparrow, but with longer wings, and weighs just over an ounce. They make landfall only at night because of their vulnerability to predators, their arch enemy being the Little Owl, which frequents Skokholm and has the nasty habit of catching and beheading petrels and storing them in cracks and crevices for future consumption.
Little Owls are strictly controlled on Skokholm during the petrel breeding season because of the toll they take on their favourite food. Storm petrels range from Iceland down to the South African Cape and breed in Britain and Ireland, the Faroes, Biscay and the Mediterranean, 90% of them favouring the windy, plankton-rich seas around the Cape of Good Hope. The British population is estimated at 20,000 and they have a lifespan of about 20 years.
Where to see the storm petrel
These birds, the smallest oceanic seabirds in the world, breed on the Pembrokeshire islands, particularly Skokholm where they occupy small rock crevices and often stone walls, laying one egg and brooding one chick between April and July.
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