Sea Bird Cliffs

Every summer in the North Atlantic and Arctic there are millions of sea birds nesting. During the short summer up north sea birds such as puffins, gannets and guillemots nest. These cliffs with sometimes up to 100,000 birds in a colony are a sight to behold and an amazing wildlife spectacle. Even though the Arctic is cold and the summers are short there is an abundance of life. Sea birds nest in their thousands on the safe and secure cliffs of the Atlantic coast. While more tropical climates have many more species there is no lack of animal numbers in the north. The sea produces an amazing array and amount of life for other creatures to feed on. Due to the short summer and weak sun plants don’t manage to produce as much energy as the phytoplankton in the ocean. This means that land life is limited. Some hardy creatures exist such as reindeer who scrape by on lichens but the majority of the fauna in areas like Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland depend on the sea for sustenance. For example Polar Bears have come to hunt sea creatures exclusively. The birds that succeed here are all fishermen. Divers or otherwise they tend to get their nutrition from the fish that feed on the nutrients of the ocean. Puffins for example eat sand eels. Because of this bounty they come to areas like the sea cliffs near Longyearbyen in Svalbard to breed. Out of the reach of predators they lay their eggs in massive colonies on the cliffs. It is easy this way to feed and to care for young. This amazing sight can be seen anytime from May through to August but is best seen around the middle of August when the young are about to fledge. It is at this time that numbers are at their maximum before birds head away to escape the harsh winter that is on its way. One unmissable aspect of all of this is the green grass that tends to grow at the bottom of a cliff underneath a guillemot colony or similar. Quite simply there is so much nitrogen in the sea that birds eat it up and poop it out underneath their nests. This excess of fertilizer make this one area lush despite a lack of energy in the sun at this latitude. Every animal who lives in the Arctic is dependent on this same short season for maximum growth. Arctic foxes too have to have their young fattened up and ready for an early winter. While the birds nest on cliffs to prevent predators like foxes stealing their eggs there is a way they benefit nonetheless. When the young birds are ready to fly they have no choice but to jump off a cliff and fly to the sea. However the cliff often is a little bit inland and has ground beneath it and the open water. That means that any bird who jumps too early might not be strong enough to make it. If not they are easy pickings for the foxes. Sad to see if you are a bird lover, but from the foxes point of view it is manna from heaven and a chance to survive the winter.

Nesting on a cliff keeps you away from predators

Where to See Sea Bird Colonies

Beware of the Arctic Terns in Svalbard. They can get very protective of their area as their young nest on the ground.

 Svalbard is not an difficult place to get to. However it is a long way away. A trip in the summer will be rewarded though, with masses and masses of nesting sea-birds. 

Puffins, Skuas, Arctic Terns, Fulmars, and Gulls in many forms are everywhere you look during the short summer. Not far from the only real town, Longyearbyen, there are numerous cliffs on which these birds nest. 

Easily accessible by boat trip the numbers will leave you in awe of how much life there is in this area. 

While the land looks barren the sea currents bring plenty of nutrients to the area resulting in abundant plankton that feeds the whole food chain. 

The birds that nest here are mostly pelagic and feed on the fishes in the rich waters. During the short summer they nest in massive numbers in the hope of bringing up their young before the cold returns. 

The end of this breeding season is especially interesting as the young take to the air. It is relatively easy for them to take flight as they are born high up on the cliffs. However not every cliff is a steep drop to the sea so unfortunately not everybody makes it to the water. In some cases this can lead to easy pickings for the Arctic Fox and so this is a good opportunity to spot them as well. The fox would be a predator of eggs if she could just access them. As it is waiting for fledglings is the best she can do. 

Amazingly considering the barrenness of Svalbard in general the grass at the bottom of nest sites is extremely lush. This is because the birds tend to fertilise it on the way to and from their nests. The plankton’s energy passes through the fish and the birds to provide sustenance to plants as well.  The way the ecosystem works is quite visible around here. 

Puffins on Skomer Island in Britain. An easy place to see these charismatic birds

Great Britain and Ireland aren’t necessarily the best places for wildlife giving their dense populations. However the islands of their coasts are havens for sea-birds. 

Places like Skomer Island of Wales, Cape Clear Island off the South West of Ireland and St. Kilda off the coast of the Hebridies in Scotland are all fantastic bird reserves. 

Their island status has helped keep them predator free and so promote the breeding of birds who like to nest on the ground. 

Puffins, Gannets, Storm Petrels, and Shearwaters are among the species that nest in their thousands on these islands. 

Of course these are not the only islands where birds nest but they are easily accessible (with the exception of St. Kilda) and a great introduction to wildlife viewing for new comers. 

While the birds themselves might not be as exciting to everybody as seeing some more elusive large mammals like lions and tigers the sheer numbers during nesting season will take your breath away. 

Angry Gannet

Other Species

Most sea birds nest in areas where there is no competition from other species. 

That said there are a number of other animals you are likely to see on a Sea Bird Safari.

You are most likely to see other pelagic species. Sea birds after all thrive on the oceans and on fish. In areas near nesting sites the waters team with plankton the basis of the food chain. This leads to numerous fish in the area. 

Fish in turn attract animals like whales and seals who also sustain themselves by eating fish. However some whales and fish like basking sharks, the second biggest fish in the world, vacuum up the plankton. Despite cold inhospitable regions life can be abundant in the north Atlantic during the right season.