The two types of seals that inhabit the Firth of Forth are grey and common seals. These species can be difficult to tell apart, particularly in the water; however, grey seals are the larger of the two. These creatures can be spotted lounging on buoys in the river, or on the rocky outcrops of the various islands.
Porpoises and Dolphins
Some of the most exciting species to spot in the Forth are porpoises and dolphins. Porpoises are part of the “toothed whale” family and are much smaller than their dolphin cousins. These are sometimes spotted swimming in the waters around the Forth Bridges, although they are more common the further out to sea you go. Dolphins themselves are becoming much more prevalent in the waters of the open sea.
Known as the “clowns of the sea” due to their colourful beaks and clumsy waddle, these birds are quite common to see around the Island of Inchkeith and the Isle of May in the Summer. In the breeding season it is also quite common to see their chicks, known as “pufflings” in the water.
The Forth Estuary is home to the world’s largest colony of northern gannets: the Bass Rock. This volcanic rock hosts over 150,000 gannets per year at the peak of the season. Read more about this famous rock in our “Islands” section.
Keen bird watchers should keep an eye out for cormorants on the River Forth. Despite being regarded by some as sinister, these birds have a rather primitive grandeur about them. This is due to their long reptilian necks, and their habit of standing with their wings held out. The UK Is renowned for having particularly high numbers of these birds during the Winter season, however, they can be found all year round on various islands in the Forth.
Shags are quite similar to cormorants, in that they are dark, long-necked birds; however, during the breeding season the adults develop a glossy green plumage. Shags are an Amber List species so they are certainly one to keep an eye out for. These birds don’t migrate in Winter so you can find them all year round at the Bass Rock, Fidra and Craigleith.
Razorbills are also an interesting bird to try and spot whilst travelling on the River Forth. They are a migratory bird so spend the Winter in the North Atlantic Ocean, only settling on land from March to July. During the breeding season these magnificent black and white birds can be spotted on the Bass Rock, Isle of May and Fidra. Be sure to listen out to the growling sound that they make as you pass them! The razorbill is sadly on the list of endangered seabirds due to fishing nets, pollution and declining fish stocks. Their future is linked to the future health of the marine environment.
Another hardy seabird which winters in the Atlantic and comes back to breed on the islands of the Forth is the guillemot. Although these birds are similar looking to a razorbill, they should be fairly easy to distinguish as they make a very loud whirring noise. As well as this unique sound, a guillemot can be recognised by the white ring around its eye and the white stripe behind it.
Kittiwakes are another bird which migrate in the Winter; they can be found in the Firth of Forth between February and August when they come to the breeding colonies. These birds are especially hardy as they spend the entire Winter in the open Atlantic. The easiest way to differentiate a kittiwake from other gulls is that, in flight, their wing-tips look as though they have been dipped in black ink, no white is on show at all. Kittiwakes can be found on the Bass Rock, Isle of May, Fidra and Craigleith.
Pink Footed Geese
One of the most exciting birds to spot on the Forth Estuary is the pink footed goose. In fact, the estuary is internationally recognised as an important area for this species. The milder climate encourages them to migrate here from Iceland and Greenland, to spend their Winters on the mudflats and fields near the Forth. These birds are particularly easy to spot as they fly in a “V” formation, and make quite a racket with their distinctive honking sound.
An Amber List species that needs to be on any keen bird watcher’s list is the eider duck. These lovely birds are the UK’s fastest flying, as well as the heaviest, ducks. They are rarely seen out in the open waters as they tend to stay close to the shore, riding the swell of the waves within a bay. They stay in the Forth all year round and can be spotted on the Isle of May, Fidra and Craigleith.