How many of Cornwall's amazing seabirds could you recognise? Helping you on your way, we have put together a list of some of the county's key species.
A haven for wildlife, Cornwall is home to a huge array of species. Particularly popular amongst birds, the county’s beaches, cliffs, islets and sea-stacks are the perfect roosting, feeding and breeding grounds for a wealth of amazing seabirds. If you have spent any time tracing the coast paths and walking along the shore, you are sure to have seen some of the beautiful feathered faces who call Cornwall home. But can identify them?
Helping you on your way, we’ve put together the who’s who of seabirds in Cornwall:
Perhaps some of the most famous faces in Cornwall, both the common gull and the herring hull have graced the front of countless postcards and pictures and can be seen all over the county. Yet despite their fame, these two gulls are often misidentified. So how can you tell them apart? Much smaller than the herring gull (whose incredible wingspan can reach 1.5 meters), the common gull has a more reserved personality, with greenish legs and a yellow bill. Bearing similar plumage, the herring gull on the other hand can be recognised by its pink legs and a striking red mark on its beak. Perhaps misconstrued because of its somewhat noisy nature, the herring gull is not actually as prolific as people think and is now a globally-threatened species.
Cousin to the mighty albatross, the fulmar is a beautiful grey and white seabird of Cornwall. With a diet of fish waste, crustaceans and sand eels, they fly low over the water on unbending wings, using shallow wingbeats to cut effortlessly through the air and lowering their feet to brake and turn. Despite fulmars cutting a handsome frame, their name derives from ‘foul mar’ meaning foul gull, which may have something to do with their habit of regurgitating food onto suspected predators! If you would like to up your chances of seeing a fulmar in Cornwall, West Pentire headland and Godrevy cliffs are particularly promising spots.
Guillemots and razorbills are both members of the Auks family. Similar in their colouring, the guillemot has a dark brown back and white front while the razorbill has a black back and white front. Another key difference, the razorbill has a thick, blunted beak that is much chunkier than the thin, delicate bill of the guillemot. Only coming to land to nest and raise young, both birds spend a huge amount of time out at sea and consequently are extremely vulnerable to fishing nets, pollution and declining fish stocks. Although guillemots are one of the most prevalent species of seabird in the UK, razorbills are much less common, with around 800,000 fewer breeding pairs. If you would like to see both species of seabirds in Cornwall, your best chances are in winter around the offshore islands between Tintagel and Boscastle, off Land’s End, St Agnes Head and the Isles of Scilly.
Pretty, medium-sized gulls with a distinctive call, Kittiwakes are characterised by their small yellow bills and dark eyes. With a light grey back and white body contrasted by short, black legs and wingtips, they almost give the impression of having been dipped in ink. Feeding largely on fish, shrimp, sand eels and worms, Kittiwakes are also sadly endangered, threatened by marine pollution and dwindling prey. Sticking to the coast, the best time to see kittiwakes is between spring and summer when they come to land to breed. With a few large colonies around Cornwall, two of the best locations are Towan Head in Newquay and Land’s End.
Belonging to the petrels and shearwaters family, the striking manx shearwater is a small seabird with long, elegant wings, a black back and white underbelly. Soaring above the water in a series of stiff-winged flaps followed by prolonged glides on outstretched wings, its agile movements are sometimes accompanied by swift banking, or ‘shearing’. Breeding in colonies around the UK, it favours offshore islands that are safe from the dangers of rats, predators and human interference. Spending their winters in South America, they can be seen in Cornwall between late February and March and have a significant colony (along with thousands of beautiful storm petrels) on Annet Island off the coast of St Agnes.
The endlessly endearing puffin has one of the most recognizable faces of all species of birds in the UK. Sporting large, colourful beaks, bright orange webbed feet and decorated eyes, they are truly photogenic. Although not the most gracious on land with their slightly bumpy landings and cute waddle, puffins are extremely agile fliers, hunters and divers and spend most of their time at sea. Returning to land to breed in late March or April, they occupy underground burrows (either spring-cleaning old burrows or making new ones with their powerful, shovel-like beaks) where they raise their young. These rabbit-like burrows can be clearly seen on the cliffs of Mouls Island and the Rumps, not too far from our luxury cottages in Padstow.
Another two species hard to tell apart, cormorants and the endangered shags are part of the same family and are both found throughout the year around the Cornish coast. With sleek bodies and dark brown plumage, their superbly aero-dynamic profiles are easily confused – especially at a distance. That said, if you have a keen eye, there are some tell-tale differences that will help identification. Firstly, shags are smaller than cormorants – lighter, shorter and with a much smaller wingspan. Along with its dainty size, the shag also has more petite features including a delicate beak and a proud forehead topped with a small crest of feathers. In breeding season, cormorants are a little easier to spot as they develop a white cheek and thigh patch. While out of the water they are both regularly seen with wings outstretched soaking up the sun, on the water they are quite different, with shags preferring to dive into the water from above and cormorants happily slipping beneath the sea from a sitting position on the surface.