Ever wondered what those birds on the beach are? Well, wonder no more! This is your easy identification guide to the seabirds of the Irish seashore. We’ve selected the birds you’re most likely to see by the coast and have provided links so you can dive like a Gannet into much more information.
Let’s start with two of the more common gulls you’re likely to see:
1. Common Gull (Larus canus) Faoileán bán
The appropriately-named Common Gull has light grey upperparts and white underparts. Common Gull is much smaller than Herring Gull, with a slighter bill (yellow in adults), and adults have yellow-green legs and often show larger mirrors at the wing tips. Common Gull is also a more delicate Gull with a more rounded head and quicker movements. Like adult Herring Gulls the head is pure white in the summer and streaked in the winter.
‘Is it a Common Gull or is it a Herring gull? Size is the big difference’
2. Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) Faoileán scadán
A large gull, which in adult plumage has light grey upper wings, showing black tips with white ‘mirrors’ (white at the very tips surrounded by black); the rest of the plumage is white. Similar to Common Gull in colouration, but separated by size, Common Gull is much smaller and shows larger, more conspicuous white ‘mirrors’ at the wing tip as an adult. Adult birds have heavy yellow bills with a orange spot on the lower bill, the head is pure white in the summer and streaked in the winter. The legs are pink at all ages.
The other eight gulls you could see: Black-headed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Iceland Gull, Little Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Sabines Gull
3. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) Corr réisc
The grey heron is a long-legged wading bird standing up to 1 m tall with adults weigh from 1 to 2 kg. They have a white head and neck with a broad black stripe that extends from the eye to the black crest. The body and wings are grey above and the underparts are greyish-white, with some black on the flanks. The long, sharply pointed beak is pinkish-yellow and the legs are brown.
4. Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) Roilleach
Large, distinctive wader with long orange-red bill, black head, chest and upperparts and white underparts.
5. Redshank (Tringa totanus) Cosdeargán
As the name suggests, its most distinctive feature is the leg colour – bright red. A common wader of wetlands throughout the country, though mainly coastal estuaries in winter. A generally mouse brown bird with dark streaking. Bill medium length and straight, reddish at the base. Legs relatively long. Can occur in quite large numbers at the larger estuaries.
The slightly larger and very similar Spotted Redshank and the winter-visiting Greenshank can also be found on the coast.
6. Guillemot (Uria aalge) Foracha
The most common species of Auk in Ireland, a highly marine species which are only found on land in the breeding season. A dark brown and white seabird, brown above and white below, with a distinct breeding plumage. In the breeding season head and neck completely dark brown, in the winter white on front of the neck and face. At a distance can be confused with Razorbill. Guillemot has a longer body, browner upperparts with less white on the side of the body and a lighter bill. Shows a darker ‘armpit’ than Razorbill. Seen flying in lines close to the sea with Razorbills.
“Is it a Guillemot or a Razorbill?”
7. Razorbill (Alca torda) Crosán
A species of Auk, highly marine and only found on land in the breeding season. A black and white seabird, black above and white below, with distinct breeding plumage. Head and neck all black in the breeding season with white on the front of the neck and face in the winter. Bill heavy, except in first winter birds. At a distance can be confused with Guillemot. Razorbill slightly smaller with blackish rather than brownish upperparts, more white on the side of the body and the bill distinctly heavier and blunter on adult birds. White ‘armpit’ compared to the darker ‘armpit’ of the Guillemot. Seen flying in lines close to the sea with Guillemots.
8. Puffin (Fratercula arctica) Puifín
The smallest species of Auk in Ireland, a highly marine species which is only found on land in the breeding season. A black and white seabird, with black above and white below. In the breeding season, the parrot-like multi-coloured bill and large white patch on the face make adults distinctive and easily recognisable at close quarters.
The bill is smaller on the adult in winter and much smaller on the juvenile. At a distance can be told from Guillemot by its small size, thicker body, larger, heavier head and darker undergoing.
9. Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) Fulmaire
A gull-like bird with white underparts and pale grey upperparts. Has a thick neck and large head. Does not show gull-like black tips to the primary feathers. Straight, stout bill with hooked tip and tube-shaped nostrils on the upper mandible, giving distinctive bill shape if seen at close range. Flies with very stiff wings, uses long glides at sea, with series of stiff, shallow wing beats. Hangs in the wind in the fierce updrafts generated by steep cliffs, where it can even fly backwards.
10. Light-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla hrota) Cadhan
Winter migrant from high-Arctic Canada. Most occur in Ireland between October and April. This population winters almost entirely in Ireland, with small numbers in parts of Britain and France. Small dark goose, with a black head, neck and breast, and dark-brown upperparts and pale underparts. Almost whitish flanks, and small white crescent on the upper parts of the neck visible at close range.
You could also spot the Barnacle Goose, Canada Goose, or indeed the Dark-bellied Brent Goose
11. Mute swan (Cygnus olor) Eala bhalbh
Large white swan, with an orange-red bill with a prominent knob on the forehead, black nostrils and cutting edges.
Other swans you might spot: Bewicks Swan and Whooper Swan
12. Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Broigheall
Large, mainly all dark seabird, often stands with wings outstretched drying. Long body and neck, long strong hooked bill. Dark webbed feet. Deep guteral call when at the colony.
“Is it a Shag or a Cormorant?” Very tricky to say – cormorant have brown-black feathers and in breeding plumage they are easy to identify with white patches on their thighs and under their chin. Shags are smaller, more slender-bodied with a long slender bill and emerald eyes surrounded by feathers. Their plumage is black with a green gloss (less glossy out of the breeding season), wings tinged purplish with no white parts on its body.
13. Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) Seaga
Very rarely inland unlike the similar-looking Cormorant.
14. Sandmartin (Riparia riparia) Gabhlán Gainimh
Widespread summer visitor throughout Ireland from mid-March to September. Adult Sand Martins have a brown head, back, rump and wings. The throat is white, as are the belly and vent except for a broad brown breast band. Juveniles have a pale yellow wash to head throat and face, as well as breast. The breast band is also noticeably narrower. In all plumages, has only a small fork in the tail, never has the long tail streamers of the Swallow.
15. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) Éigrit bheag
Medium-sized white heron, with long black legs, yellow feet, black bill and blue-grey lores, and two elongated nape-feathers in breeding plumage.
16. Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) Piardálaí trá
The wader most likely to be found along our rocky shoreline. Mainly a winter visitor, but good numbers pass through Ireland in spring and autumn en route to/from arctic and subarctic breeding grounds. About the size of a Starling, with a stocky build and short orange legs. In winter, its dark brown upperparts, white underside and black breast crescent make it difficult to see amongst seaweed. Spring birds are brighter and show rich chestnut markings on the wing and back.
17. Gannet (Morus bassana) Gainead
A large seabird with long, narrow wings. Plunge dives into the sea from up to 40 metres, folding wings back on descent to hit the water in a streamlined shape. Long neck, head and bill. Large projecting wedge shaped tail. Large dark webbed feet. In adult plumage is white both above and below with large dark wing tips and a yellowish head. Juvenile bird is all brown (apart from upper tail coverts), with beautiful fine white speckling.
18. Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) Canog dhubh
A black and white seabird, black above and white below. Long narrow wings, which are used for gliding low over waves, with hardly a wing beat employed to aid flight. Straight bill with hooked tip and tube-shaped nostrils on the upper mandible, giving distinctive bill shape if seen at close range.
Can be confused with less common Cory’s, Balaeric or Sooty Shearwater in late summer
Much of the information on the page is taken from the excellent Birdwatch Ireland website – it’s a real mine of information. Check it out for more detailed information.
19. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) Geabhróg
Slender seabird with narrow, pointed wings, long forked tail and long, pointed bill. Grey above and white below, dark cap to head. Adults have a orangey-red bill, usually with a small dark tip. Underparts are whiter than Artic Tern and there is no contrast with cheek.
Common Tern has a longer head and bill and slightly broader wings than Arctic or Sandwich Tern
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