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Many birds prefer to spend most of their lives on the open sea, either bobbing about on the surface and diving periodically for food or swooping about on the wing, sometimes following fishing boats. They only come to land to breed during spring and summer. Some of these birds can only be seen on the offshore islands of West Wales, but if you don’t want to take a boat trip, you can see Guillemot and Razorbill, Kittiwake and Fulmar elsewhere. See Where to see nesting pelagic seabirds below.

Adaptations of pelagic seabirds

Birds such as the Fulmar have adapted superbly to flying in the turbulent air over the ocean; it glides in steep arcs and makes long, low swoops which carry it a long way on very little energy.

PuffinGuillemot and Razorbill belong to the Auk family and have many similarities with their penguin cousins in that their wings are really short and strong, and can be used for underwater swimming; their legs are set far back on the body so they can’t walk very well at all. They fly with very fast wing beats and often low over the water.

In fact many pelagic birds have evolved to such an extent that their legs are barely functional: for instance, the Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel have to make burrows for nesting near the edges of cliffs, so that they only have to land clumsily and scoot down out of sight of predators. If you want to see them, an overnight stay on one of the islands is necessary.

Puffins also nest in burrows but have retained the ability to waddle around on their short, bright orange legs – if a little clumsily at times!

An evolutionary feature of birds of the Petrel families (Storm Petrel, Shearwater, Fulmar) is the fact that they have nostrils enclosed in external tubes running down their bills. When they drink seawater, the salt is removed by a special gland in the base of the bill and the salt waste is excreted through the tube nostrils.

Breeding behaviour of pelagic seabirds

Fulmar, Shearwater and Storm Petrel return to their natal colony to breed – and even to the same nesting site over many years. They are monogamous and form strong pair bonds which may last for the life of the pair. They usually only make one attempt at nesting per year and only lay a single egg. With so much at stake, the parents take it in turns to incubate the egg and both help with chick rearing.

The various nesting birds favour slightly different sorts of ledges, so that Guillemots hardly nest on Skokholm as there are few long, narrow ledges onto which they can pack themselves in huge numbers.

Gannets don’t necessarily go back to where they were born but they do continue to breed in the same place once they’ve raised one family successfully. They prefer hillsides or cliffs so that it is easier to take off. Nests are made of seaweed, plants, earth and all sorts of bits and pieces. They are monogamous, much like the petrels, and only lay one egg. Young birds migrate south (they have even been seen around Ecuador!). It’s a rare treat to take a trip to Grassholm Island (about 11 miles offshore) and see them nesting in their thousands, with adult birds performing their spectacular rocket dives into the sea.

Other nesting seabirds

Cormorants and Shags make their home on the islands; up to 250 pairs of Cormorants nest on St. Margaret’s Island, which is on the western tip of Caldey Island, just offshore from Tenby. Various types of gulls can be seen nesting on one or more of the islands, including Herring GullLesser Black-backed Gull and Great Black-backed Gull.

Other birds which breed on the islands

A few Little Owl and Short-eared Owl breed on Skomer and are resident here. The former predates upon Storm Petrel. Of the wading birds, Oystercatchers, Lapwing and Curlew all nest on the islands. Raven, Chough, Buzzard, Peregrine and Kestrel are also resident species. Island ponds support several varieties of duck and there are numerous small passerines (perching birds).

Where to see nesting pelagic seabirds

(*dominant island)

Storm Petrel: *Skokholm, Skomer, Ramsey – Fewer on Skomer due to predating Little Owl.
Manx Shearwater: *Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey
Fulmar: *Skomer, Ramsey. Also perhaps on Telpyn Point cliffs, east of Amroth, a few pairs Ynys Lochtyn near Llangrannog and some on Elegug Stacks just west of Bosherston in S. Pembs.
Puffin: Skomer and Skokholm. A few pairs on St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). None on Ramsey.
Gannet: *Grassholm only
Kittiwake: *Skomer, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island), Ramsey, Grassholm. Also around Elegug Stacks and Flimston on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); New Quay Head, Ceredigion.
Razorbill: *Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). Elegug Stacks and Flimston on on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); Needle Rock on north side of Dinas Island; New Quay Head in Ceredigion.
Guillemot: *Skomer, Ramsey, St Margaret’s Island (on tip of Caldey Island). Elegug Stacks and Flimston on on the Castle Martin peninsula (S. Pembs); Needle Rock on north side of Dinas Island; New Quay Head in Ceredigion.

Please note that bird populations change all the time so that the above information should serve as a guideline only.

Other pelagic seabirds and migrant birds

Seabirds which breed elsewhere but may be seen in the waters close to the islands outside the breeding season include Black-headed Gull, Common and Arctic Tern, Arctic and Great Skua, Common and Velvet Scoter and other types of Shearwater. In spring and autumn, other passage migrants too numerous to mention may be seen.

Boat trips to the islands

Trips are available from the end of spring to late October. These include Ramsey (off the St Davids Peninsula) Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm (off the Dale Peninsula) and St Margaret’s Island Bird Reserve on the tip of Caldey Island (off Tenby).

Thousand Island Expeditions, Cross Sq, St Davids Tel: 01437 721721 [email protected]
Dale Sailing Company Tel: 01646 603123 or 109 [email protected]
Tenby Boat Trips Tel: 07980 864 509 [email protected]

Staying in West Wales

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A large bird sitting on a fence or telegraph post is usually a buzzard; not a golden eagle. Flies with stiff wing beats, then glides. They eat carrion from roads but also small live prey. Streaky brown with paler breast and very dark wing tips with spread ‘fingers’ in flight.

Size: 55cm Where: Inland, Island


Crow family but more attractive. Slim bird with striking slim, curved, orange beak. Legs orange. It uses upcurrents near cliffs to soar and dive around. In flight: feathers end of wing spread and curled upwards like fingers

Size: 40cm Where: Sea coast, Island

Common Scoter

Pelagic. Flies in flocks (sometimes large) quite low over water. Black all over but for yellow bill patch. Close up it has some paler flight feathers. More numerous in winter but can be spotted all year although it does not breed here.

Size: 46-51cm Where: Sea coast, Island


Water bird with dark plumage and white throat, white feathers on head in spring. Yellowish bill. White patch on thighs. Long and low when swimming. Dives for long periods. Flies low over water with head held well forward. Often stands with wings half spread.

Size: 90cm Where: Sea coast, Island


Largest wader of its kind with long down-turned bill. Mainly grey-brown speckled plumage. Reveals white rump in flight. Calls “Cu-urlew” often late into the evening. Breeds on uplands but is often around the Teifi estuary in late summer as well as winter.

Size: 53-58cm Where: Sea coast, Inland, Island


Pelagic. Skomer and Ramsey. Looks like gull but petrel family. Has tube nostrils. Flies with stiff, rectangular wings. Often groups to feed; breeds in colonies on cliffs. Regurgitates on intruder if alarmed. Blue grey on top and white under. Dark smudge around eye. Often lingers around breeding grounds all year.

Size: 44-50cm Where: Sea coast, Island


Pelagic. Huge colony breed on most remote Pembrokeshire island, Grassholm . Unmistakeable, it has long, narrow wings with black tips. Rest of upper body is white with yellowish head and neck. Very large grey bill and blue eye. It can be seen flying close to headlands all year.

Size: 90cm Where: Sea coast, Island

Greater Black-backed Gull

It is largest gull; very dark on back and upper wings. Bill very large and chunky and adult legs pink. Broad white trailing edge on wing plus white patch at tip of wing. Bill yellow with orange spot. Winter can be seen inland but not in W Wales. Nesting pairs are solitary.

Size: 65cm Where: Sea coast, Island
Summer Visitor


Pelagic. Most on Skomer; also on Ramsey Few on Skokholm as ledges not good. Chocolate brown with white belly. Birds favour long, narrow ledges on sheer cliffs and cram themselves in. Lots between Angle and Stackpole on South Pembs coast and on Needle Rock close to Dinas Head.

Size: 41cm Where: Sea coast, Island

Herring Gull

Large and noisy. Grey and white with large yellow bill which has red spot on lower tip. Legs pinkish – NOT yellow.

Size: 56-62cm Where: Sea coast, Inland, Island


The most common of falcons. Bright rusty brown upperparts spotted with black and long, slim tail barred with black, grey head and tail with black band at tip. Female has tail barred brown. Silvery underparts. Hovers or sits on posts.

Size: 33cm Where: Sea coast, Inland, Island


Pelagic Skomer and Ramsey. Also Flimston in caves. Very pretty gull. Makes nest with mud, wet grass and saliva. Winter: blue-grey back and upper wing. Black wingtips. White elsewhere. Bill yellow, legs dark and dark patches on head. A few around harbours in winter. Offshore August to October.

Size: 40-42cm Where: Sea coast, Island

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