Common Scoter

In winter, the squat, dark Common Scoter can be seen in distant flocks bobbing on the sea or in long straggling lines flying along the coast. This highly social sea duck is mainly a winter visitor though there are about 50 breeding pairs in the north of Scotland.

The Common Scoter is smaller than a Mallard. The male is all black with a large yellow bill that has a knob at the base and a black pointed tail. The female is brown with a grey bill, pale cheeks and pale neck. They can be distinguished from other types of Scoters by the lack of white anywhere on the male and the more extensive pale areas on the female. In flight, they appear dark and skim across the tops of the waves in long lines. The Common Scoter makes several whistle and piping calls when displaying.

Common Scoters feed on molluscs which they find by diving, using their feet to propel them downwards after a forward jump. They can dive to depths of 30 metres to hunt for their favourite blue mussels, though they will also eat cockles, clams, shellfish, crabs, insects and small fish.

Although the Common Scoter is a sea duck, it often nests amongst the vegetation of the Arctic tundra far from the sea. Courtship involves lots of head stretching and pairs form in the winter flocks before nesting begins in late May. The male defends the female at the nesting ground until the eggs are all laid and then, like so many ducks, he wanders off. The nest is a hollow lined with grass and down, usually on an island close to water. The 6-8 eggs hatch after 30 days and the youngsters can swim and feed themselves soon after hatching. They can fly and become fully independent 45 days later but won't breed themselves for 2 years. Mum and dad are flightless for 3-4 weeks while they do their moult, often at a traditional moulting ground where large flocks can gather and can stay there all winter.

The Common Scoter is specially protected as thousands have been killed by past oil spills. About 135,000 over winter around our coasts though the British breeding population has halved since the 1990s.

Their Latin name is 'melanitta nigra' where 'melanitta' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'melas' for 'black' and 'netta' for 'duck'. The 'nigra' is from the Latin 'niger' also meaning black. Like the Brent Goose, the Common Scoter was allowed by the Roman Catholic Church as a substitute for fish during the Friday Fast as it tasted fishy. The origin of the English name 'Scoter' is unclear. It might be a variant of 'scout' used as a local name for a Coot (which is black too).


The Eider duck is where Eiderdown bed covers came from. Their insulating feathers used to be collected once they had finished nesting. It is Britain's heaviest and fastest flying duck, reaching speeds of 70mph! The Eider is a marine diving duck that breeds around the rocky coasts of northern Europe and winters only slightly further south. It spends most of its life at sea, usually seen in large floating flocks.

Eider ducks are the size of Mallards. They have fat bodies, short necks, and large wedge-shaped 'Roman nose' bills. The male is black and white with a lime green nape. The female is a darker mottled brown. The youngsters resemble mum and take 4 years to reach their full adult plumage. In flight, Eiders look heavy with drooping heads and they tend to fly low over the water in single lines. The male has a visible black behind and a white front. They are mainly silent except for a camp cooing "ah-ooo" when displaying.

Eiders feed by tearing mussels from rocks with their strong bills, often diving to search for their food. They will also eat shellfish, sea urchins, crabs, and winkles. Their dependence on molluscs means they are mostly found close to the coast. They eat mussels by swallowing them whole and the shells are crushed in their gizzard and then excreted. When eating crabs, they first remove all the claws and legs, and similarly eat the body whole.

The Eider breeds in northern Europe and as far north as the Arctic and Siberia. Their courtship starts in winter where the male throws his head back and coos affectionately. Pairs form and stay together until they nest in late April, often joining colonies of Arctic Terns on rocky islands. The nest is made from down plucked from the mum's breast and is sited amongst sheltered rocks. Mum incubates the 4-6 eggs which hatch after 25 days. She seldom leaves the nest and will lose more than a third of her body weight. Once hatched, the youngsters make their way to the sea and can feed themselves while ravenous mum has a big dish of Moules Mariniere. When mum and dad do their moult, the youngsters are looked after by aunties in creches, escaping from any predators by diving. The young ducks can fly after 65 days and become fully independent 55 days later, though they won't move far from the breeding grounds.

About 27,000 pairs breed in Britain with numbers expanding to 86,000 in winter. Eiders are found mainly on our northern coasts. Because of living mainly at sea, their main threat is sea pollution. The oldest known Eider lived to be 31.

Their Latin name is 'somateria mollissima' where 'somateria' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'soma' for 'body' and 'erion' for 'wool' and the 'mollissima' is Latin for 'very soft', both referring to the Eider's down. The English name 'Eider' is a Dutch, German or Swedish word derived from the Icelandic word 'aeour' meaning 'Eider', itself derived from the Old Norse 'aethr'. Eiders are also called St. Cuthbert's duck or Cuddy's duck. They were the first ever bird to be protected by law, in 676 by Saint Cuthbert, so their valuable feathers could be gathered rather than the ducks being eaten.

There are two other species of Eider, the King Eider and the Spectacled Eider.

Yellow-legged Gull

The Yellow-legged Gull is the size of a Herring Gull and can easily be confused. It has only recently been recognised as a separate species, having previously been thought of as an odd-looking Herring Gull. It often stands apart from other gulls to make our lives easier. It is a rare visitor, mainly seen on the south coast. Numbers are slowly increasing with global warming as they move north from their more normal Mediterranean areas.

They look like a Herring Gull though have yellow legs instead of pink and more black on the wing tips with smaller white 'mirrors'. With their yellow legs, they can look like a Lesser Black-backed Gull though their back is a paler grey. A really tricky one to single out. Their call is a laughing "Kyow, kyow!"

Like all good Gulls, it feeds on a wide variety of food including carrion and loves a good rubbish tip. They also have the habit of stealing food fished by other birds, chasing them, and bothering them until they drop what they have caught.

Yellow-legged Gulls very rarely breed in Britain. The nest is a mound of vegetation on a cliff ledge or building roof. The 2-4 eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after 30 days. The nest is fiercely defended and they will attack anything that gets too close by diving from above. The youngsters soon leave the nest but remain close by. Mum and dad feed them with regurgitated food until they can fly 35-40 days later and become fully independent. They will take 4 years to become mature adults, in the meantime being bolshy teenagers.

About 800 are seen here each year. They are mainly found in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Many birds remain in the same area all year round, though the ones seen in Britain generally move to the warmer south in winter.

Their Latin name is 'larus michahellis' where 'larus' is Latin for 'gull' or large seabird and the 'michahellis' is in honour of the German zoologist Karl Michahelles. Good to have a bird named after you. Not so good that it eats on rubbish tips.

Little Gull

The Little Gull can be seen in our coastal areas singly or in small flocks. It is the smallest Gull in the world. Its migration and movement are still a puzzle to ornithologists, as it can turn up anywhere at any time, though it mainly winters in the Mediterranean.

True to its name, it is a petite, Tern-like Gull. In summer it has a black head, a grey back, grey wings with an obvious pale rear edge and no black on its wing tips. The underwings are strikingly dark, its legs are dark red and the bill is black. In winter, its head is white with a dark crown and a spot behind the eye, similar to the Black-headed Gull. The youngsters have a strong 'W' pattern on their wings. The Little Gull is usually silent and it flies with quick wing beats in a zigzag, Tern-like flight.

The Little Gull feeds on insects like dragonflies, mayflies, water beetles and midges in the summer and switches to fish in the winter. Like the Black Tern, it dips to take food from the surface of the water and catches insects in the air.

Little Gulls breed in northern Europe on freshwater marshes, usually in colonies. The nest is a scrape on the ground lined with vegetation. The 2-3 eggs are laid in late May or early June. Both mum and dad incubate the eggs as soon as they are laid which means they hatch at different times after 23 days. The youngsters quickly leave the nest and hide nearby where they are fed by both parents. They can fly 21 days later. The youngsters will take three years to reach full maturity and breed themselves.

The Little Gull does not normally breed in Britain. The first ever recorded was a single pair in 2016. Only 700 visit our coasts each year, so it is really lucky if you see one.

Their Latin name is 'hydrocoloeus minutus' where 'hydrocoloeus' is from the ancient Greek 'hydro' for 'water' and 'koloios' a sort of web-footed bird. The 'minutus' is Latin for 'small' (as in minute). It is the only member of the genus 'hydrocoloeus', although ornithologists think it should get the Ross's Gull as a friend.

Black Tern

The Black Tern is a rare spring and autumn visitor to freshwater marshes and reservoirs. It mainly lives in coastal West Africa and pops here to get bird twitchers excited. The Black Tern belongs to a family known as 'Marsh Terns' because they like marshes.

In the summer, the Black Tern has a sooty black head and body, slate grey wings, a black bill and a white tail. It looks very different in winter, with a white body, a black crown, black marks on its shoulders and paler wings. They look lazy and buoyant in flight, dipping down to pick insects off the water's surface. Their call is a harsh "kreert!"

Unlike the 'white' Terns, Black Terns do not dive for fish, but forage by picking food from the water's surface or catching insects in flight. They mainly feed on insects, larvae, amphibians and small fish.

Black Terns don't breed here anymore. Their freshwater breeding grounds are in Europe, stretching from Denmark to Spain. They usually nest in small colonies of about 20 pairs. They lay 2-4 eggs on a mat of floating vegetation or in a scrape close to the water's edge. While mum sits on the eggs, dad brings food to feed her. Mum and dad defend the nest with shrill screams and will relentlessly swoop at any intruders until they retreat. The youngsters hatch after 21 days and can fly 25 days later, soon becoming independent. They will remain at the wintering grounds for their first year. Black Terns also breed in North America, but these migrate to the coasts of South America.

Only a few hundred are seen in Britain each year, though about 170,000 pairs breed in Europe. They used to be abundant in the eastern Fens until the 1840s when drainage of their breeding grounds stopped them breeding here. Attempts by the Black Tern to recolonise England have so far been unsuccessful.

Their Latin name is 'childonias niger' where 'chlidonias' comes from the Ancient Greek 'khelidonios' meaning 'swallow-like' and 'niger' is Latin for 'shining black'. In some lights, the Black Tern can look blueish and has the old English name 'blue darr'.

Arctic Tern

The Arctic Tern is a big daylight lover and travels huge distances to be in the sun. They breed in the Arctic during the nearly constant summer daylight and, in the autumn, fly all the way to the Antarctic to enjoy the winter sun. A return trip that can be over 70,000km. Over its whole life, an Arctic Tern can fly the same distance as three round trips to the Moon!

The Arctic Tern is easily confused with the Common Tern. It has a grey back, white rump, black cap, white cheeks, short red legs, and a red bill without a black tip. Compared to the Common Tern, their flight is more buoyant on long tapering wings with pale wing tips and the wings look translucent. They have a longer forked tail, though without them side by side, it is tricky to tell. The Arctic Tern makes several calls: A buzzing, "ee-yar" alarm call, a "chek chek" call and an angry, fast, clicking "ek ek ek" rattle like a Geiger counter.

Arctic Terns catch fish by plunge diving. They often look hesitant as they hover before diving and tend to feed in groups close together. Their favourite food includes sand eels, sprats, herrings and other small fish. They will also eat insects, crabs and worms.

Arctic Tern courtship begins with a high flight, where the female will chase the male to a high altitude and then slowly descend. This display is then followed by fish flights, where the male will offer fish to the female. Once paired, the happy couple choose a nest site, usually on the beach of a small island close to the sea, often in a colony with Common Terns. The nest is a shallow scrape in the ground. The eggs are laid in May and mum and dad incubate the 1-3 mottled eggs for 20 days until they hatch. The chicks quickly move to hide in nearby vegetation. The proud parents will drive away any predators by swooping and angrily pecking - including people! The youngsters can fly after 21 days but depend on mum and dad for several more weeks. Adults will do their winter moult before starting the epic migration down to Antarctica. The youngsters will stay there for 2 years before they return to breed.

The Arctic Tern is a summer visitor with about 50,000 coming to northeastern Britain. A small number breed in Scotland, but most breed further north. Outside the breeding season, the Arctic Tern is a sea bird and seldom comes inland. They migrate further than any other bird, going down the European and West African coasts to reach Antarctica in October and returning the same way in the spring. They depend on a healthy marine environment and can be affected by fish shortages. Arctic Terns are long-lived, often reaching ages of 25 years or more.

Their Latin name is 'sterna paradisaea' and is derived from the Old English 'stearn' for 'tern' and the Latin 'paradisus' for 'paradise'. Why the Arctic and Antarctic are paradises is a mystery. A local Scottish name 'pictarnie' comes from their distinctive call. As you would guess, the English name is from where it mainly breeds.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gulls can be hard to tell apart from Black-headed Gulls until you see one, and then they stand out a mile with their blood-red bills. If you aren't sure, it's a Black-headed Gull. Unsurprisingly, they are mainly found in the Mediterranean, mostly around the Black Sea and in central Turkey, and they are a relatively new arrival in Britain. Numbers are increasing steadily and they started to breed here in 1968.

The Mediterranean Gull is more bulky and thick-necked than the Black-headed Gull. In summer, they have a dark black head with a white ring about their eye, a pale back, a striking, thick blood-red bill, and bright red legs. In winter, they have a white head with a dark smudge behind the eye similar to the Black-headed Gull. Youngsters have scaly brown backs. When flying, their wings are pure white with no black wing tips. On the ground, they stand upright like a soldier on parade. Their call is a mewing cat-like "wee-ah" similar to an Eider duck.

They feed on insects in the summer and fish and marine animals in the winter, though like most gulls they will eat just about anything including worms, eggs, offal and carrion.

Mediterranean Gulls nest in colonies on marshes or fields near water, frequently amongst Black-headed Gulls. Trying to spot them is like 'Where's Wally?' but they often occupy the higher ground. Breeding starts in May, and the nest is a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with grass and feathers. Both mum and dad incubate the 3 eggs which hatch after 35 days. The youngsters soon leave the nest and hide in nearby vegetation. Mum and dad feed them until they can fly 35 days later and become fully independent. Most Mediterranean Gulls will head to the warmer southern Europe in July.

About 1,200 pairs breed here and are specially protected because of the low numbers. Most of their breeding sites are in the south and south-east of England.

Their Latin name is 'ichthyaetus melanocephalus' where 'ichthyaetus' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'ikhthus' for 'fish' and 'aetos' for 'eagle'. The 'melanocephalus' is from 'melas' for 'black' and 'kephalos' for 'headed'. Black-headed fish eagle is a little over the top. Maybe the blood-red bill scared the scientists.


The Shag (don't laugh) is hard to tell apart from a Cormorant as both can be seen on the coast, though Shags are rarely seen inland. They are mainly in the north and west of Britain, and more than half of their population is found at fewer than 10 sites, making them a Red Listed species. Like Cormorants, the Shag will often perch on rocks with outstretched wings. This pose is used for drying their wings after diving, as their feathers are only partly waterproof.

Shags are slimmer than Cormorants and have a steep forehead. They are a dark green-black with a crest when in breeding plumage and have a fine black bill with a yellow base and a small white patch on their chin. Youngsters are browner than adults, Shags are mostly silent, only making clicks and grunts at their nests. They do a gradual moult over many months, allowing them to always fly.

Shags are one of the deepest divers among the Cormorant family and can reach depths of 60m as they find their prey. They eat a wide range of fish, including herring and cod, but their favourite food is sand eels. Shags will travel many kilometres to feed. They often dive with an upward leap to help them get to the bottom.

The nest is built on rocky ledges at the bottom of a sheltered cliff site, often within a small colony. The male selects a suitable spot and both birds build the nest from a heap of seaweed and vegetation cemented together with poo (yuk!) The 1-6 eggs are laid between March and May, and hatch after 30 days. The chicks are born without down and rely totally on mum and dad for warmth. It can be up to 53 days before they can fly. They are cared for by both parents for another 50 days until finally leaving home. Shags seldom move far from their breeding area. The youngsters won't breed themselves for 3 years.

Britain has about 10% of the world's breeding Shag population with about 30,000 pairs. With their fishing from the surface of the sea, the major threat to Shags is oil spills and loss of fish stocks. Typically a Shag will live for 15 years.

Their Latin name is 'gulosus aristotelis' where 'gulosus' is from the Latin for 'glutton'. 'Aristotelis' is from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, though Shags aren't very wise. There are two other species of Shag. One is found in the Mediterranean and the other in Africa. They differ slightly in bill size and breast colour. The English name comes from its breeding crest, Shag being an old name that means 'tufted'. Another name is 'Green Cormorants' from the green sheen on their feathers.


The Fulmar is a small 'tubenose' gull related to the much bigger Albatross. It is often seen riding the up draughts at its cliff face breeding site. They defend their nests from predators by spitting out a foul-smelling oil that not only stinks but can also kill. The oil is made in their stomachs and is a high-energy food source for chicks and for adults on long flights. The Fulmars seen in Britain are called the 'Northern Fulmar' to distinguish them from the bigger 'Southern Fulmar' found in Antarctica.

Fulmars look gull-like with thick necks and tubed nostrils that stand out. The specially adapted noses help them remove salt from their bodies, allowing them to happily drink seawater. They are white with a grey back, rump and tail. There is a dark smudge around the eye. They fly low over the sea on stiff wings, followed by a rapid series of shallow wing beats, gliding and banking to alternately show their white underparts and grey upperparts. Fulmars are mainly silent apart from a cackling call when nesting. Like a Swift, a Fulmar cannot stand or walk. They are built for flying or bobbing about on the sea with their tails held up.

Flocks of Fulmars will feed out at sea, often near fishing boats, feasting on the fish waste that is thrown overboard. They also plunge dive to eat shrimp, fish, squid, plankton and jellyfish.

Fulmars breed all around Britain and a Fulmar pair, who stay together for life, will use the same nest site year after year. The single egg is laid in May on a cliff ledge or rooftop with little other nest material. Both parents carefully look after it until it hatches 50 days later. The chick is fed by mum and dad and can fly after 45 days, becoming fully independent soon after though mum keeps an eye on it for the first two weeks. The youngster will then spend several years at sea, miles from land, and won't breed until it is 6 years old.

There are about 500,000 Fulmar pairs in Britain and numbers are slowly increasing, helped by the fishing industry and the offal thrown from boats. On the flip side, this makes them vulnerable to any changes in fishing practices. A Fulmar can live to be over 30 years old and have lots of stories about how the people of St Kilda tried to eat him.

Their Latin name is 'fulmarus glacialis' where 'fulmarus' comes from the Old Norse 'fulmar' meaning 'foul-mew' or 'foul-gull' because of the bird's habit of spitting out its foul-smelling oil. The English name has the same source. The 'glacialis' part comes from the Latin for 'icy'.

Manx Shearwater

The Manx Shearwater, apart from having a cool name, is a bird of the open ocean, only coming ashore to nest and, even then, only after dark. They are clumsy and vulnerable on land, so darkness saves them from predators. Vikings in long boats heard the weird calls of this little bird and thought they were evil spirits. They travel thousands of miles every year to nest in their hobbit-like burrows and raise one super fluffy chick between March and July.

The Manx Shearwater is black above and white below, has a small head with a black cap extending below the eye, a long slim dark hooked bill, and a white underwing with a dark border. They fly with rapid beats of their stiff wings and long glides close to the waves, often flying in a straight line and flashing black and white as they turn. They make 'wheezy chicken' howls and screams from their burrows at night as they tell ghost stories.

They feed alone or in small flocks on fish and other marine creatures, which they take from the surface or by shallow dives. More of a duck-like snorkelling bird than the scuba diving Guillemot or the torpedo Gannet. Their favourite food includes herrings, sardines, sprats and squid. They have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and can detect fish many miles away.

The Manx Shearwater nests in old rabbit or Puffin burrows on isolated islands, in large colonies - often numbering in the thousands. The single white egg is incubated by mum and dad taking it in turns to sit for 6 days before swapping over. They need the time to travel to offshore feeding grounds which can be as far as 900 miles away. The egg hatches after a long 51 days and the young chick is fed on pre-digested food. After 60 days, mum and dad eventually tire of feeding the huge youngster and putting up with its messy bedroom, abandoning it to sort its life out and lose a bit of weight so it can fit through the door. The youngster gets the hint and leaves the burrow 8 or 9 days later after a crash diet. It then starts a long journey to winter in South America! The youngster will not breed until it is 5 years old, though a Manx Shearwater can live to an amazing 50 years old.

They are the most common shearwater seen in Britain, mainly on our western coasts. About 300,000 pairs breed here, 80% of the world's population. Their numbers are thought to be stable but the Manx Shearwater is difficult to survey accurately - being at sea during the day and in their burrows at night. Many of the offshore islands they use are now protected. In 2008, a Manx Shearwater that nested on Bardsey Island in Wales was more than 50 years old and estimated to have flown about 5 million miles in its lifetime.

Their Latin name is 'puffinus puffinus' where 'puffinus' derives from 'puffin' which referred to the cured carcass of a Shearwater, a former delicacy. The term however switched and came to be used for the Atlantic Puffin. The English name is from the 'shearing' way they fly and a nest site on the Isle of Man, hence 'Manx Shearwater'. Local names include 'Devil Bird' from the eerie howls and shrieks they make at night. Shearwaters are 'tubenoses', a bird group that includes Fulmars and Storm Petrels.