Scotland’s Unsung Seabirds

Volunteer Coordinator, Emily Burton, shines a light on some of our unsung seabird species.

When iconic seabirds like puffins, gannets and herring gulls are around, it is easy to forget that more than 20 incredible seabirds breed around the Scottish coastline. Whether it’s because they’re tricky to catch on camera, difficult to identify, or found only in remote locations, some of these amazing birds don’t get the credit they deserve. Here are just a few of the species that are often underappreciated or overlooked…

The pirates

Introducing the great skua; a pirate that scours the Scottish coastline, relentlessly pursuing and harassing other birds to steal a free meal. Alongside looting, these smart seabirds are also predators, their size making them formidable to smaller birds like puffins.

Known as the Bonxie in Shetland, the great skua is a large, chocolate brown bird which breeds on the North coast and Scottish Isles. They are well-known for being very aggressive around their nesting sites, showing little fear of humans and dive-bombing anyone who gets too close. They’re fearlessness, intelligence and fascinating feeding habits definitely make them one to watch!

Great Skua © Hannah Greetham

The travellers

Scotland is home to the world’s greatest traveller. Arctic Terns are masters of migration, enduring journeys of between 44,000 and 59,000 miles every single year. That means that this small bird, which has been known to live over 30 years, could rack up a total of 1.5 million migration miles in its lifetime. That’s equal to three return trips to the moon!

Also known as the ‘sea swallow’, Arctic Terns are mainly white, with a black cap, red beak and red legs. They nest on the ground and, like the Great Skua, don’t take kindly to anyone who gets too close, dive-bombing intruders and using their sharp beak to defend the site.

Arctic Tern © Susan Davies

The invisible seabirds

It’s no wonder that most people haven’t heard of a Storm Petrel, let alone managed to spot one. Around the size of a songbird and weighing around 27 grams, these black and white petrels are our smallest breeding seabird. However, their size doesn’t stop them from spending the majority of their life at sea, enduring wild and stormy conditions, only returning to land during the breeding season.

Even when incubating their eggs and caring for their chicks, Storm Petrels still manage to fly under the radar, choosing to nest in remote and inaccessible locations like cliffs, crevices, and caves. This isn’t an accident. These birds are very vulnerable to predation by mammals like rats, so have learnt to nest where these animals are absent. As an extra precaution, they also become nocturnal at their nesting sites, moving at night to cut down the likelihood of being spotted by a predator.

Storm Petrel © Hannah Greetham


You can find out more about Scottish seabirds by visiting our website, and keep up to date with all the latest news from the Scottish Seabird Centre by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


SNH colour

This project is supported by the Scottish Natural Heritage Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

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