8 Best Birdwatching Destinations in the UK

Osprey with a fish, in flight

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The U.K. (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) is a nature lover’s paradise for those who know where to look. Wildlife thrives across the country, both in protected national parks and nature reserves and against unexpected urban backdrops. In particular, the island nation is a haven for many different bird species—those that live and breed here all year round and those that take temporary refuge on their annual migrations between the icy north and the warmer climates of Europe and Africa. The British Trust for Ornithology has recorded 619 species living wild in the UK, and in this article, we take a look at a few of the best places to see them. 

01 of 08

Farne Islands, Northumberland

Puffin with a full beak, Farne Islands

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Situated off the coast of Northumberland, England, the mostly uninhabited Farne Islands serve as a pristine refuge for over 100,000 seabirds, which is perhaps why the legendary David Attenborough once referred to this location as his favorite place in the U.K. for experiencing “magnificent nature.” The stars of the show are the puffins, charismatic, burrowing seabirds with brightly striped bills that can be encountered at close quarters during the May to July breeding season. At this time, there are approximately 37,000 pairs resident on the islands. Other highlights include Arctic terns, guillemots, and eider ducks. Operators like Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips offer dedicated birdwatching trips to and around the Farnes. 

02 of 08

Minsmere, Suffolk

Bearded tit on a reed stalk

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The RSPB’s Minsmere Nature Reserve, located near Saxmundham in Suffolk, offers many different habitats, including coastal lagoons, reed beds, and lowland heath. From June onwards, birders flock here to look for migrating wading birds, including pied avocets (the emblem of the RSPB), spotted redshanks, little stints, and ruffs. Bearded tits and bitterns are often spotted in the reed beds, while marsh and hen harriers quarter above them, and short-eared owls hunt over the heath. In springtime, keep an ear out for nightingales singing in the neighboring deciduous woodland. Look for other wildlife, too, from majestic red deer to otters fishing in the tidal lagoons. 

03 of 08

Isle of Mull, Argyll and Bute

White-tailed sea eagle in flight, Isle of Mull

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The second-largest of the islands that make up Scotland’s spectacularly beautiful Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Mull boasts mountains, marshes, lochs, and moorland. All of these offer excellent and diverse birding, although most people come especially to look for the island’s golden eagles and reintroduced white-tailed sea eagles. For the best chance of spotting the latter, head to Loch Frisa or the eagle viewing hide at Glen Seilisdeir. Elsewhere on Mull, tidal lochs attract many migratory waders, ducks, and divers—from snipe and shelduck to whooper swans and goldeneyes. Neighboring Iona is also one of the UK’s best places for sighting the elusive corncrake. 

04 of 08

Leighton Moss, Lancashire

Starling murmuration at dusk

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Another RSPB Nature Reserve, Leighton Moss is located close to the market town of Carnforth in Lancashire. It protects the largest reed bed in northwest England, making it one of the country’s best places for spotting reed-dwelling species, including bearded tits, bittern, warblers, and water rails. Come in spring to see marsh harriers engaging in aerial breeding displays above the reed beds and catch migratory waders and experience the annual red deer rut in autumn. At this time of year, Leighton Moss is also renowned for its starling murmurations, whereby thousands of these small birds flock together in a great, swirling, dancing cloud before settling down to roost for the night. 

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05 of 08

Loch Garten, Scottish Highlands

Male capercaillie calling, Scotland

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All of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park offers magnificent birding, but if you only have time to visit one area, make it the RSPB’s Loch Garten Nature Centre. Here, nature trails wind their way through the native Caledonian pine forest, a unique habitat for a long list of specials, including the crested tit, the Scottish crossbill, and the capercaillie. This woodland grouse is extremely rare; for the best chance of a sighting, venture out on the woodland trails in the very early morning. Loch Garten’s star attraction is a pair of ospreys who return to the center to breed in spring and summer. Autumn and winter bring huge skeins of migrating greylag and pink-footed geese, while mammals range from endangered red squirrels to red and roe deer. 

06 of 08

Arne, Dorset

Dartford warbler perching on top of a bush

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Located in the far south of England on the shores of Poole Harbour, Arne is one of the jewels in the Dorset Area of Natural Beauty. Known for its ancient oak woods and abundant open heathland, its particular specialty is the Dartford warbler. This species triggered Arne’s protection as an RSPB Nature Reserve and is most often seen in the gorse thickets during the spring nesting season. In summer, dusk visits are likely to yield sightings of nightjars swooping for prey above the heathland, while autumn and winter welcome many migratory waders to Arne. This is also the best time of year to catch a glimpse of Poole Harbour’s spoonbill flock, the largest in the U.K. Keep an eye out for rutting sika deer as well. 

07 of 08

Snettisham, Norfolk

Flocks of pink-footed geese in flight over marshland

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Norfolk has earned itself a reputation as one of England’s most rewarding counties for birdwatchers. The RSPB Nature Reserve at Snettisham is amongst its most popular birding destinations, offering a series of well-maintained bird hides with unobstructed views of the reserve’s salt marshes, mudflats, and coastal lagoons. These make up the ideal habitat for wading birds, with tens of thousands of different species present on The Wash from late summer onwards. These include knot, oystercatchers, dunlin, avocets, and bar-tailed godwits. In late fall and into winter, vast flocks of brent and pink-footed geese arrive at Snettisham, with the latter often comprising raucous flocks of over 40,000 individuals. 

08 of 08

Rathlin Island, County Antrim

Flock of guillemot, Ireland

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If you’re headed to Northern Ireland, Rathlin Island is another of the UK’s top spots for close seabird encounters. Accessible via ferry from Ballycastle, the island boasts an RSPB Seabird Centre and a cliff-top walking trail, both of which offer fantastic sightings of breeding coastal species, including puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills, and guillemots. Visit in spring to watch breeding pairs vying for nest sites, and the first chicks hatch out onto the perilous bare ledges their parents call home. Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony then remains in situ until early August. Other highlights are the corncrake habitats at Roonivoolin, Craigmacagan, Church Bay, and Knockans, and the island’s unique “upside-down” lighthouse.