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Where do go birdwatching on Scotland's west coast islands

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credit: Lorne Gill / Scottish Natural Heritage

Awash with everything from gannets to guillemots, Scotland's islands are a birdwatching heaven. Dr Katherine Jones details where you and your binoculars should be heading

Scotland's fertile seas and wild, remote coastlines and islands make it one of the best places in the world to see seabirds. Nearly half of the world's gannets breed in Scotland, and almost a third of the world's Manx shearwaters nest on the Isle of Rum alone.

From the deck of the ferry, gannets will be the largest seabird you'll glimpse. Look out for groups fishing as they drop like arrows from the sky. They hit the sea at speeds of over 50 miles per hour, their specially adapted skulls offering some cushioning against the impact. Gannets nest in a few large colonies (St Kilda is one of the biggest) and can range hundreds of miles in search of food; this means they can be seen almost anywhere.

Like gannets, other seabirds like to nest together in colonies and the scale of these 'seabird cities' can be vast: the noise, the activity and even the smell, makes them one of nature's spectacles. Each species has its place in the colony; gannets on the summits, puffins in burrows in the grassy slopes, and kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills on tiny ledges on the sheer cliffs. The colonies on the Shiant Islands, between Harris and Skye, are home to 63,000 pairs of puffin, as well as many thousands of guillemots, razorbills and other seabirds. Look out for the islands, and for its puffins, on the ferries to Lewis. A recent rat-eradication project (also seen on the Isle of Canna) offers the prospect of better breeding success for the puffins and the return of Manx shearwaters to the islands.

The Isle of Rum is famous for its Manx shearwaters, nesting in burrows high up on the island's mountains. In March, around 100,000 pairs return from their wintering grounds off the coast of South America and you can see them on any of the ferry routes,riding on stiff, straight wings, almost touching the surface of the sea as they search for food. (Dr Katherine Jones)

Where To Where To See Seabirds

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Guillemots / credit: Lorne Gill / Scottish Natural Heritage
Starting at Oban harbour look out for black guillemots. They nest in holes in the harbour wall.

The remote Shiant Islands, accessible by day trip from Harris, is home to the largest population of puffins in Scotland. A gigantic boulder field holds the main breeding colony. Lunga, a boat trip from Mull, is the place to see puffins, with thousands of pairs nesting on the tiny island, many in burrows only metres from the path.

The best place to see Rum's Manx shearwaters is from the ferry. You will spot them cruising low over the water and gathering in huge rafts at dusk waiting to return to their burrows after sunset.

Canna is a great all-round seabird island. Following a rat-eradication programme, Manx shearwaters are back, and it's also great for puffins and guillemots.

No guide on where to see seabirds would be complete without an entry for St Kilda. The stacks and islands are home to more than 60,000 pairs of gannets, and a couple of operators offer day trips from Harris.

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