Seabirds and sailors have always shared a special kind of bond. Our experts reveal the top locations to go bird watching by boat in Great Britain and Ireland
Bird watching by boat: 10 of the best places in Great Britain and Ireland
The waters, cliffs and islands around Great Britain and Ireland host an abundance of seabirds.
According to the last national census, just under eight million seabirds from 25 species breed in Britain and Ireland, including 90% of the world’s Manx shearwaters, 68% of northern gannets and 60% of great skuas.
Migratory birds also visit to make the most of our food-rich waters, giving us a chance to spot rare species.
Since 2001, nesting seabirds in the UK have declined by 30%. Sailors have a unique opportunity to see seabirds in their natural habitat and record any sightings.
So grab your binoculars and bird book and start recording. It will be a magical experience.
Fair Isle, Shetland
Recommended by Jason Lawrence
Fair Isle is a mecca for birdwatchers, and the great news is you can sail there.
Owned by the Natural Trust since 1954, the island lies midway between Orkney and Shetland and provides a haven for both resident and migratory birds.
With an element of adventure to get there, those intrepid enough to meet the challenge will be highly rewarded.
With over 391 bird species recorded, this small island has the highest intensity of recorded bird life in the UK.
Strolling around Fair Isle it is possible to see many rare species, with more common species in abundance.
The Bird Observatory, some 300m from the harbour, was destroyed by fire in 2019, with plans to rebuild it in 2022.
Walking on the island is a joy with dramatic scenery and plenty to see, and with few cars allows for solitude interspersed with the occasional friendly social exchange.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Fair Isle
Fair Isle is remote, but accessible within a good day’s sail. The passage is open to prevailing winds and Atlantic swell, but once in the lee things quieten down.
The small harbour with narrow entrance is located on the NE corner of the island and is only exposed from the north and northeast.
Alternatively, it is possible for a few yachts to anchor at the pier head.
Time alongside is limited and with the harbour administered from Shetland, fees are paid locally (01595 744221).
Shiant Islands, Outer Hebrides
Recommended by Sarah Brown
The Shiants form a dramatic trio of islands in the Minch.
Long before you can make out the colour of the land you will pick up the whirling birds overhead as they circle across their feeding grounds.
Famed for the puffins nesting on the grassy slopes, the Shiants are also home to colonies of guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and much more.
The name comes from the Gaelic for ‘charmed’ or ‘enchanted’ and on a nice day you can see why; buzzing with wildlife and boasting incredible views across the Minch they also look somewhat otherworldly in their isolated spot.
Landing on the islands should be done with significant care to avoid disturbance or transportation of invasive species.
The RSPB has only just finished clearing the black rats, probably introduced via shipwreck, from the islands easing the burden on the seabirds they predated on.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to the Shiant Islands
This area can be uncomfortable in almost any conditions due to the subsea topography; however be especially aware of overfalls west of the Shiants, particularly when the tide runs against a northerly wind.
The main anchorage is off the isthmus between the two western islands.
Holding is variable on the rocky, shallow seabed but sand can be found at the northern anchorage and slightly further off the shore elsewhere.
Ulva, Gometra and Treshnish Isles, Inner Hebrides
Recommended by Sarah Brown
Ulva and Gometra offer an excellent base for exploring the dramatic west coast of Mull, where resident white-tailed sea eagles mix with the occasional golden eagle and dolphins.
Minke whales and basking sharks are also regular visitors.
The Treshnish Isles offer possibly the most outstanding bird-watching with puffin colonies and cliff nesting birds all across the island chain.
For the full experience try a close pass at Fingal’s Cave on Staffa a few miles south east of the Treshnish chain; the columnar basalt makes the entrance to the cave truly impressive but watch out for downdraughts from the cliff.
As ever, take care when approaching, particularly the cliff nesting birds, as disturbance can lead to mass fatalities as eggs and chicks are accidentally pushed out of the nests.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Ulva, Gometra and Treshnish Isles
While fully exposed to the Atlantic there are several options for safe and sheltered anchoring and a walk ashore option at the Ulva Ferry pontoons.
Anchorages include North Harbour Gometra, Gometra Harbour between Ulva and Gometra and Cragaig Bay on the south coast of Ulva.
In all cases there are numerous rocks and hazards but they are well charted for the most part.
The Treshnish Islands can be visited by the day from Ulva and there is a fair weather anchorage to the east of Lunga.
Skomer, South Wales
Recommended by Miranda Delmar-Morgan
Skomer is part of a Marine Conservation Zone, along with Skokholm, and is managed by Natural Resources Wales/Cyfoeth Naturiol.
They both attract a profusion of birds. Skomer alone has over 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters which return from South America in March.
These get predated by greater black-backed gulls in daylight hours. Guillemots, razorbills, great cormorants, black legged kittiwakes, a variety of gulls, and storm petrels smother the cliff sides and rocky outcrops.
Barn owls, little owls and short-eared owls all nest here, feeding on an abundance of small mammals such as wood mice and the Skomer vole.
Courtship flights of short-eared owls can be seen at dusk from April, as they emerge from their scrapes on the ground.
There are between one and three breeding pairs of choughs. Puffins return to nesting sites in April and compete with the shearwaters for the best burrow sites.
Declining elsewhere, puffins are thriving here with over 25,000 counted in 2017.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Skomer
The anchorage in North Haven is open to points north but has landing access and four mooring buoys.
There are no lights, marks, or facilities.
Best to leave from Milford Haven and catch the slack tide in Jack Sound. Tides can run at 7 knots in the sound so timing is critical.
Alternatively go west about, where the tide will be less critical but will remain a factor.
It is permissible to anchor in South Haven but this is a marine reserve, so no landing is allowed.
It is open to southwesterlies and shearwaters have been known to fly into the rigging of an anchored yacht at night.
Cape Clear, south-west Ireland
Recommended by Norman Kean
The southernmost inhabited part of Ireland, Cape Clear Island is – by virtue of its location – one of the best places in Europe to observe seabirds and migrants.
The island’s bird observatory attracts thousands of visitors each year, and it is a beacon for environmental research, education and bird monitoring in Ireland.
Spring and autumn on Cape Clear feature large numbers of migrant songbirds moving through, usually including one or two strays from North America or Siberia.
Storm petrels are common, huge migrations of Manx, Cory’s and Great shearwaters take place in August and September, and in autumn many rare species can be spotted.
Chough, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs in summer. Ask at the observatory for advice.
Cape Clear has a population of 120, and is also a Gaeltacht area where the Irish language is especially promoted.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Cape Clear
The island lies six miles southwest of Baltimore, County Cork, and there are two sea routes to it; the North Passage is the more sheltered, but longer and intricate, while Gascanane Sound is more exposed but simpler and shorter.
On the north coast of the island, take care to avoid the unmarked Bullig Reef – the ferries often go inside it, but don’t be tempted to follow.
The ferry port at North Harbour offers near-perfect shelter, with a dredged basin and alongside berthing on a pontoon, while the anchorage at South Harbour is scenic and tranquil but exposed to south and southwest.
Lundy, north Devon
Recommended by Jane Russell
A granite outcrop off the Devon coast in the Bristol Channel, Lundy is an important stop for migratory birds and has become something of a bird ringing capital – by the end of 2019 over 122,000 birds of 176 different species had been ringed on the island – work that continues every spring and autumn and reveals some astonishing migrations as well as some rarities.
The island is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust, with bird recordings overseen by the Lundy Field Society.
The name Lundy is Norse for Puffin Island, and these endearing improbables are just one of the many species that breed here in increasing numbers.
Manx shearwater, fulmar, guillemot and razorbill are others that have done well in the past 15 years since the eradication of rats, and now even storm petrels are beginning to breed successfully.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Lundy
Ten miles NNE of Hartland Point, Lundy lies at the mercy of Atlantic weather and the big Bristol Channel tides, and there are tidal races off the north and south of the island.
Access via the supply ship or helicopter can be tricky, so arriving on your own keel is doubly satisfying.
The anchorage, which lies within the marine nature reserve, is tucked under the southeast corner, off Landing Beach (also known as Landing Bay) and clear of the supply ship jetty, protected from SSW to W with good holding.
Dinghy to the beach and pay a landing fee at the pub (free to National Trust members). No dogs are allowed.
Lymington and Keyhaven
Recommended by Kieran Flatt
The five square mile stretch of marshland between Lymington and Keyhaven on the north shore of the western Solent is one of the best places for birdwatching in Britain, any month of the year.
The path along the sea wall gives a commanding view over the narrow strip of lagoons, marshes, reed beds, mudflats, salterns and shingle that provide rich feeding grounds for a huge variety of resident and migrant species.
Many can be seen at quite close range.
There are waders galore: black and bar-tailed godwit, redshank, greenshank, curlew, turnstone, snipe, ruff and many more.
Spoonbills, great white egrets and avocets are sometimes seen, plus lots of ducks: eider, goldeneye, garganey, velvet scoter, shoveler, wigeon, pintail, tufted and teal.
Keep an eye out too for Slavonian and little grebes, red-breasted mergansers, various warblers and five types of tern.
It’s a magnet for raptors too: marsh harriers, peregrine falcons, merlins, hobbies, four species of owl, and ospreys.
You might even see a white-tailed sea eagle – they’re being reintroduced on the Isle of Wight and while they range far and wide, they often hunt here.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Lymington and Keyhaven
Access is easy, with marinas and a town quay at Lymington, sheltered moorings with a wonderful view at Keyhaven, and a good anchorage in westerly winds in the lee of Hurst spit.
From Lymington Yacht Haven, just follow the path west along the foreshore.
From Keyhaven, land by dinghy at the quay, walk around the harbour and simply head east.
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Alderney, Channel Islands
Recommended by Jane Cumberlidge
Alderney lies on the migration route of many bird species, making it the perfect destination for keen ornithologists.
Burhou, the Swinge and the south-west coast of Alderney is a RAMSAR site and a useful stop-over for birds moving between winter and summer habitats.
The gannet breeding colonies on Ortac and Les Étacs make up 1% of the world population.
The track-a-gannet project has shown that birds can travel over 1,000km in a week on foraging trips, and each colony uses a different area.
From March to early August, Burhou is home to breeding puffins, with a boat exclusion zone off the island so they are not disturbed.
Puffins, with their colourful bills and small stature, have the same mate and burrow every year and you can watch the Burhou breeding site on www.teachingthroughnature.co.uk/webcams/.
Other seasonal species include ringed plovers and storm petrels, with cormorants, shags and gulls here year round.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to Alderney
Braye Harbour is a pleasant day sail from Weymouth, Poole or the Needles and 25 miles from Cherbourg.
Approaching the harbour keep clear of the submerged old breakwater to starboard and follow the leading marks, two orange triangles in transit on 215°T.
From the northwest, to safely clear the rocks off the north of Burhou, keep Fort Albert open to the east of the breakwater head, bearing more than 115°T.
River Ore, Suffolk
Recommended by Janet Harber
Avocets have been synonymous with the River Ore since 1947 when a small number were discovered breeding on Havergate Island.
For many years this was the only place these birds could be seen.
Nowadays, since the island was made into a reserve by the RSPB, the avocet is flourishing up and down the East Coast.
The Ore is part of an area of international importance for many European bird species, in particular redshank, avocet and widgeon.
Other birds you might expect to spot on a summer cruise are curlew, egret, marsh harrier, lapwing, kestrel, tern, and gulls of the black-headed, herring and lesser black-back variety.
The latest attraction is the spoonbill, which in 2020 bred on Havergate for the first time in 300 years.
You cannot land on Havergate. However, from your boat on a mooring at Orford, or from one of the anchorages behind Havergate, or in the Butley River, you will be surrounded by birdlife.
There may be a seal or two as well. Don’t forget the binos. Call RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648281 to visit Havergate by boat from Orford Quay.
Bird watching by boat: Getting to the River Ore
The best time to enter the Ore is from about two hours before HW, when there is sufficient water over the bar and some of the shingle banks will still be uncovered.
The position of the entrance buoys can change frequently.
Check www.eastcoastpilot.com for updates
Farne Islands, Northumberland
Recommended by Theo Stocker
The coast of Northumbria has long been frontier country for Celtic saints and Viking invaders, especially Holy Island, but the low-lying Farne Islands, strewn between a mile and three miles off the drying harbour of Seahouses, have only successfully been colonised by seabirds.
The species that nest here are a sign to the sailor that they are heading away from the shallow confines of the North Sea.
Puffins and guillemots abound, with over 20,000 pairs of each (2012), and are accompanied by terns (common, arctic and sandwich), ducks (mallard, eider, merganser), as well as shags, fulmars and gulls, and shore birds such as pied wagtails, plover and rock pipits.
The islands are a National Trust nature reserve. Landing is only permitted on Inner Farne, Staple Island and Longstone, and wardens run birdwatching walks ashore,
with Billy Shiel’s boat trips running from Seahouses. www.farne-islands.com
Bird watching by boat: Getting to the Farne Islands
Pinnacle Haven, Outer Farnes and the anchorages in the Kettle and Knocks Reef in the Inner Farnes offer some shelter, the Kettle being the main one.
Only approach the islands in settled weather and beware of both strong tidal streams to seaward and in Staple Sound, as well as covered reefs extending 7 cables to seaward of the outer islands, Megstone 1 mile NW of Inner Farne and Crumstone 9ca. ESE of Staple Island.
This coast is entirely open to the east and all harbours have shallow entrances.
There is good shelter and deep water once over the bar at Holy Island, but the nearest all-weather harbour is Blyth, 30 miles to the south.