Extending out into the wild Atlantic, Cornwall’s unique geology and location make a fantastic place for both nesting and visiting sea birds. The towering cliffs of the north coast and sheltered bays on the south coast provide an ideal environment and food supply for an array of wildlife. This list focuses on seabirds and leaves out other iconic birds such as the Cornish Chough and Buzzard. A great way to get involved with the conservation of Cornish wildlife is to record any sitings online at Online Wildlife Recording for Kernow & Scilly (ORKS).
GannetScientific name: Morus bassanus
Gannets are large bright white birds with black wingtips, a distinctive yellow head and piercing blue eyes. Gannets hunt for fish by circling high above the water before diving bombing into the sea at speeds of 60mph. They breed in colonies on the Scottish Islands and in Wales but can be seen offshore around Cornwall, most often sited in West Penwith during the autumn. Siting of Gannets in large numbers near Downderry are not uncommon.
PuffinScientific name: Fratercula arctica
The puffin is a member of the Auk family and is recognised by its brightly coloured, flattened beak and orange, webbed feet. Their uncoordinated landings and funny walks give them a comical appearance and have become one of the UK’s favourite birds. Puffins nest in burrows on the edge of cliffs and hunt for sandeels by diving underwater and swimming. Sadly their numbers are in decline and are now a Red List species but can still be spotted around the north coast of Cornwall near Padstow and also near Lizard Point.
RazorbillScientific name: Alca torda
The razorbill is a medium sized seabird from the auk family that breeds along the coast of the UK, often nesting at the base of cliffs. The razorbill can be identified by its black back and white front plumage, complimented with a blunt, black beak crossed with white lines. A fantastic swimming bird, it catches it’s prey by diving underwater and swimming, sometimes up to 20m deep. The main breeding colonies are located in northern Scotland but Razorbills have been spotted off the north cliffs of Cornwall around Fishing Cove and Basset’s Cove.
GuillemotScientific name: Uria aalge
Cornwall plays host to the dark-brown Guillemot, another resident sea-bird of the auk family that colonises the cliff tops around the UK. A medium sized bird, the guillemot looks similar to it’s cousin, the Razorbill, but not as dark and has a thinner longer bill and a ringed white eye. Guillemots are found nesting on cliffs on the south coast of England in spring and summer, spending the rest of the year out at sea. Guillemots have been sited in large numbers at The Rumps near Pentire Point, north Cornwall as well as in Sennen Cove, West Penwith.
CormorantScientific name: Phalacrocorax carbo
A large and striking bird, the Cormorant is an excellent fisher and is considered by some to be greedy, especially when poaching fish from anglers’ lines. Often sited on rocks drying their outstretched wings, Cormorants are excellent underwater swimmers and catch fish with long, hooked bills. Cormorants are found along rocky shores and estuaries of the UK coast and Looe Island has accommodated large numbers of Cormorants in recent years.
ShagScientific name: Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Similar but smaller than Cormorants, the dark green Shag can been spotted ducking and diving all over the Cornish coast. Feeding on fish, molluscs and crustaceans, the Shag can dive to depths of 45m to hunt. Shags are usually seen alone. It’s UK conservation status is currently classed as red.
KittiwakeScientific name: Rissa tridactyla
A pretty, medium-sized gull, the Kittiwake is distinguishable by its short legs, small yellow bill and dark eyes. Whilst in flight, the Kittiwake’s wings appear to have been dipped in ink. Kittiwakes can be spotted nesting in clifftop colonies around Cornwall from spring through to autumn and they spend the winter out at sea. Sadly their numbers are in decline and are classified as Red conservation status. Kittiwakes nest in certain locations around Cornwall including Tea Caverns near Fistral Beach, Newquay.
Herring GullScientific name: Larus argentatus
Probably the most notorious bird on our list, the Herring Gull is a noisy Cornish seabird that lives year round and has developed a reputation for swooping tourists and stealing chips around sea-side resorts. Sporting a distinctive red spot on its yellow bill, the Herring Gull is actually endangered and is classified as Red conservation status. They can be seen year round in popular harbours such as Porthleven and St Ives.
Great Black-Backed GullScientific name: Larus marinus
The largest of all the gulls on the Cornish coastline, the Great Black-Backed Gull is a heavy-looking bird with a powerful beak, happy to snatch food from smaller rivals. The Great black-backed gull can be distinguished from other gulls by their pink legs and larger stature. They can be sited around the coast all year round, nesting on cliffs and roof tops. The high cliffs between Porthtowan and Godrevy can be a fruitful place to spot these domineering gulls.
FulmarScientific name: Fulmarus glacialis
Related to the giant albatross, the grey/white fulmar is a member of the Petrel family and is often spotted cruising Cornwall’s rocky outline. The gull-like Fulmar can be identified by a thick neck, stiff wings and shallow wing beats. Keep your distance as they defend theirs nests by spitting putrid oil from their yellow beak when threatened. The fulmar can be seen year round, West Penwith offer good birding opportunties.
Storm PetrelScientific name: Hydrobates pelagicus
The Storm Petrel is the UK’s smallest seabird but amazingly classed in the same family as the albatross! These tiny seabirds spend most of their lives out on the open oceans, only returning to land to burrow, nest and breed. The Storm Petrel is identified by the all-black body, white patch on the rump and a distinctive tube on the bill. Mainly breeding in colonies up in Scotland, the Storm Petrel can be also seen near St Agnes throughout the autumn.
Manx ShearwaterPuffinus puffinus
Migrating all the way from South America, the Manx Shearwater chooses to nest in burrows on Isles of Scilly during the summer months. A member of the petrel family, the Manx Shearwater is a medium sized black and white bird with long straight wings that move with a stiff rapid movement, sometimes shearing across the surface of the water. The best time to spot the Manx Shearwater in Cornwall is during spring and summer.
Great SkuaStercorarius skua
Often referred to as the “pirate of the seas”, the Great Skua is a large aggressive seabird that steals food from other birds and even eats smaller birds including puffins. Skuas show no fear for humans and will attempt to dive-bomb any intruders that dare to venture close to their nesting grounds. These dark brown Skuas can be spotted from headlands around Cornwall from spring through to the beginning of autumn. The Arctic Skua, a smaller cousin, is also a visitor of these rugged coastlines.
Arctic TernSterna paradisaea
Locally referred to as the ‘Sea Swallow’, the Arctic Tern frequents the Cornish shores during the spring and summer months. Arctic Terns live in noisy colonies in the Northern Isles but migrating birds can be spotted around Cornwall's coastline. The Common Tern is a mid-sized seabird with short tail streamers and an orange bill. The Arctic Tern can be differentiated by the bright red bill with no black tip. Both the Common Terns and Arctic Terns are very protective over their nesting grounds and will happily dive-bomb anyone threatening their nests. Hayle Estuary on the north coast of Cornwall is a common place to spot these beautiful seabirds.