10 Best Cruising Destinations For Bird Watching
Yachting Monthly|October 2021
10 Best Cruising Destinations For Bird Watching

THE BRITISH ISLES

The waters, cliffs and islands around the British Isles 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. But according to the British Trust for Ornithology, seabirds are facing growing pressures, from climate change to the exploitation of the marine environment and plastic pollution. 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.

1 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 solitudei nterspersed with the occasional friendly social exchange.

GETTING THERE 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. With yacht berthing against the harbour wall it is common to find yachts rafted up, leaving space for commercial vessels. 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).

Orkney and Shetland Islands by Clyde Cruising Club/Iain and Barbara MacLeod, 2nd edition (Imray, £35)

Shetland Islands Pilot by Gordon Buchanan, 1st edition (Imray, £19.95)

Admiralty 1239, 1119, 1942

2 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 circles 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.

GETTING THERE

This area can be comfortable 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.

Outer Hebrides by Clyde Cruising Club and Edward Mason, 2nd edition (Imray £32.50); Admiralty BA1757; Imray C67; Antares Charts www. antarescharts.co.uk

3 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 birdwatching 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.

GETTING THERE 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.

Kintyre to Ardnamurchan by Clyde Cruising Club and Edward Mason, 3rd edition (Imray £35). Admiralty 2171, 5611; Imray 2800 Antares Charts www.antarescharts.co.uk

4 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.

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