Island Birds | INFORMATION

By any standards the Saltee Islands are remarkable, notwithstanding the fact that there are over 220 species of birds recorded. There are three main groups of birds on these islands.

  • Breeding sea birds
  • Resident land birds
  • Migrant birds.

A vast amount of knowledge of the breeding birds has been gathered over the years by visiting Ornithologists.  The late Prince Michael and the Neale family have always respected this bird sanctuary and treated visiting Ornithologists and bird watchers alike with hospitality. Most day trippers and birds watchers enjoy viewing the Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills etc.


Great Saltee Bird Maps & Breeding Status (PDF FILE)



The Gannets are white birds with black tipped wings and a long bill. They are both beautiful and graceful to watch in flight, with a wing span of up to 2 meters. They hunt for fish by diving from a height into the sea and pursuing their pray under water. Their eyes are positioned far enough forward to give them binocular vision allowing them to accurately judge distances. 

Gannets can dive from a height of 30 M, achieving speeds of 100 km/h as  they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most airborne birds. Gannets are breeders on islands and coasts, they normally lay one chalky blue egg. It takes five years for gannets to reach maturity. First-year birds are completely black, and subsequent sub-adult plumages show increasing amounts of white. Gannets "Jewels of the Saltees" breed on the island, but are absent during the winter.


Puffins are chunky birds with large bills. They shed the colourful outer parts of their bills after the mating season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for flying under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 100 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean's surface.

Unlike many animals, puffins form long-term pair bonds. The female lays a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. The incubating parent holds the egg against their brood path with their wings. The chicks fledge at night. After fledging, the chicks spend the first few  years of their lives at sea, returning to breed after 3 - 6 years.The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fishes at a time, crosswise in their bill. This allows them to take longer foraging trips, since they can come back with more energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time. Puffins breed on the island, and are in abundance from April to July.


Manx Shearwaters are extremely economical fliers, gliding on wind currents rather than flapping continuously. It comes to land only during the breeding season, when it seeks out an island where it can dig a burrow. It will stay at the colony until the end of the summer and will then head out back to sea where it travels around southern Atlantic.

The Manx Shearwater has a black back and wings with a white belly and at about 14 inches long it is slightly larger than a pigeon. They breed on islands and coastal cliffs in the North Atlantic. They breed in large colonies and nest in burrows excavated in soft ground with a chamber at the end. After breeding they migrate south to places such as South America. They feed on small fish and shellfish which are captured either on the surface or by diving. They often gather offshore in large "rafts", this is usually in the afternoon in preparation for visiting their nest-sites which they always do at night. Manx Shearwaters breed on the island, and are nocturnal.


The Fulmar is similar to the common herring Gull, but on closer examination one sees the peculiar bill, apparently made up of several separate pieces. The upper parts are a darker grey than the Herring Gull and the wing tips are darker still. In flight the Fulmar is easily recognised by its long stiff wings which it hardly flaps as it glides effortlessly about the cliff-face.

Only one egg, completely white in colour is laid. This is incubated for nearly eight weeks by both parents taking turns. If the nest is approached both the adults and young will defend themselves by firing a vile smelling oily substance at the intruder. It is an inquisitive bird  and will glide within a few feet of an observer to get a closer look. Fulmars breed on the island, and are present all year round.


The Kittiwake is so called because of its sounding cry. The gull is only 16 inches long and has a mild expression unlike the fierce expressions of the larger gulls. Like other gulls it is white with grey wings and mantle. Its wing tips are completely black. They construct compact nests of grass and seaweed on tiny ledges on sheer cliffs of solid rock.

Kittiwakes do no scavenge like other gulls but feed almost entirely on small fish, crustaceans and platonic invertebrates. They do this by sitting on the water and catching their prey from the surface or by plunge diving under the surface. During the breeding season birds will often fly up to 40 miles out to sea in search for food and will fish both by day and night. They feed their young by regurgitating when they return to the nest. Kittiwakes breed on the island, and are in abundance from March to October.


Next to the Guillemot Razorbills are the most numerous cliff nesting seabirds on the Saltee Islands. The are smaller than the Guillemot. The head and upper parts are black and the under parts are white. Their bills are very distinctive there is a white vertical line in the middle and a thin white line runs from the base of the bill to the eye. Razorbills have short wings which they flap rapidly in flight.

They nest on cliff ledges or boulders. They stand up right like penguins and waddle rather clumsily. They often dive in groups.  They are expert divers and propel themselves under water with both their wings and webbed feet. When feeding their young they are able to hold several fish together in their bills. Razorbills breed on the island, and are in abundance from March to October. scared off their ledges,  eggs roll off and are broken, others are taken by gulls while unattended. Guillemots breed on the island, and are in abundance from March to late July.


The Guillemot is larger than the Razorbill, though slimmer and longer necked. The head, neck and upper parts of the body are dark brown, while the under parts are white. The guillemot also has small wings and stands penguin like when perched on ledges and rocks. When not on their breeding sites the Guillemots spends most of its time at sea swimming about and diving for small fish.

They make no nests but simply deposit their single pear shaped egg on the bare rock. Losses of eggs are heavy, especially when disturbed by humans.


Great Black backed Gulls are the lords of the seabird colonies. They choose the highest vantage points to build their nests. The adults are unmistakable because of their size, jet black wings and mantle, measuring two and a half feet with a five foot wingspan. 

The massive bill is yellow with an orange spot on the lower mandible. If an intruder approaches the parents call anxiously and the young birds "freeze"  in the dense cover and are hard to locate. The parents also will also make low swoops at the intruders head, however  they seldom strike. Great Black backed Gulls breed on the island, and are in abundance all year.


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