Wet and wild: Britain's coasts are home to many exotic creatures

Puffins, dolphins, sand lizards, seals - Ifunanya Ifeacho on the species to see and where

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:23

Grey Seals

Grey seals like a spot of sunbathing as much as we do. Richard Harrington, a marine biologist for the Marine Conservation Society, says that "if you know the haul-out sites, you're guaranteed to find some soaking up the sun". Grey seals have a gestation period of 11 and half months, meaning that pregnant females are a common sight. Around October, the females will give birth and the pups suckle for three weeks before the mothers mate again and then leave. Grey seals can blend in against the backdrop of the shore, but if the seal has just come from the water, its skin will be black, making it easy to spot. There are many grey seal colonies to be found around the coast; try Marloes, Pembrokeshire, Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland or Herne Bay in Kent.

Golden Eagles

Golden eagles, with flying speeds of up to 120mph and diving speeds of 150mph, create beautiful displays as they fly. The great birds of prey perform loops, plunges and spirals to take your breath away. They can fly for long periods, maintaining their graceful and elegant flight even in strong winds or at slower speeds. Golden eagles, once partnered, mate for life. However, their mate should die, golden eagles will find new mates so it is possible to catch nuptial displays any time of year. These displays include locking claws and spiralling to the ground. Golden eagles are mainly seen and not heard, but are known to make barking calls, which can be heard for miles. Keen property developers, golden eagles can build several nests in different locations, and alternate between them. Scotland hosts almost the entire British population of golden eagles, with Brochel Wood and Ardcastle the prime locations. There is one lone male in the Lake District.

Early and Late Spider Orchids

The early spider orchid and the late spider orchid are two very rare varieties in this country. Arachnophobia warning for the fainthearted: the flower of the early spider orchid has yellow-green petals, while the lip resembles a big and exceptionally hairy spider and has a pale blue marking in the shape of an "H" on the upper side of its body. The late spider orchid stands considerably taller, with pink-orange petals, but with a similar brown velvety lip. The two species are eye-catching and, initial fright over, very pretty. The early spider orchid's rarity means it can only be found at Dover in Kent. Similarly, the late spider orchid can only be seen at five spots around Kent and your best bet for a sighting is in Wye Down.

Leatherback Turtles

With the reported rise in temperatures in British water, these turtles are increasingly gracing our coastline with their presence. Great travellers, the leatherbacks have been enjoying the British summer before continuing on their migratory wanderings. The Marine Conservation Society has tracked migratory trails that start in the Caribbean and end up by Africa, via Britain. Leatherback turtles are dark brown or black and have bones in their skin which withhold water pressure, allowing them greater diving depths. There has been growth in the presence of these turtles on Welsh and Cornish coasts as they come in from more tropical climes, hot on the heels of their prey – jellyfish. Leatherback turtles are endangered, so if you are lucky enough to see one, visit the Marine Conservation Society website and let them know.


These charming little seabirds, with their brightly coloured feet and vibrant bills, are a visual delight, particularly at this time of year as colour lost during the winter returns. Their small wings mean they have to work very hard to fly, but help them to swim and thus make them highly skilled at catching fish. Harrington says: "They are able to burrow, but often prefer to inhabit disused rabbit burrows by the cliffs."

The British Trust for Ornithology has placed puffins on its amber list because of their vulnerability to environmental change. At this time of year, it is possible to see adult puffins "teenage" birds. You can see them in the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, where boat excursions allow visitors to get fairly close to the puffins so there are good opportunities for some truly stunning photographs.

Sand Lizards

Sand lizards are bigger than the common lizard, with lengths up to 20cm. In addition, they have bigger, bolder patterns on their backs and flanks. Females are brown, while the males are bright green, both with the dark markings atypical to the common lizard. They mostly stay in the vegetation, but are known to come out in the morning to soak up sun – they have usually returned to the vegetation to hunt by 11am. Dr David Bullock, head of nature conservation for the National Trust, suggests that as sand lizards are "very difficult to spot, the best time to see them is during the first sunshine after rain in the morning, when they come out to bask". Egg-laying occurs around June, with sand lizard offspring hatching by August. The sand lizard is common to Europe but rare in Britain. This is due to the erosion of their natural habitats and they can only be found in a few sand dunes – Sefton Coast, Merseyside, or Purbeck, Dorset.

Bottlenose Dolphins

These lovely creatures are extremely friendly and sociable; it is not uncommon to see up to 20 dolphins congregated near the coast and up to several hundred further away. Although Harrington warns that "you should never approach a dolphin, especially at a high speed", he says there have been "incidences of dolphins swimming in areas close to bathers".

Schools of dolphins often stick together in work and in play. They hunt for fish together and spend a great deal of time playing; clamping jaws, smacking the water with their tails or marking small lacerations on each other with their teeth. Dolphin courting practices include head butting and scratching with teeth, so you may not know if you are watching love's young dream or a boisterous play fight. A large population of bottlenose dolphins can be found in Cardigan Bay in west Wales, with particularly good views from Strumble Head. Moray Firth in Scotland is the other main site where they can be found in Britain.

Grayling Butterflies

This butterfly has beauty and brains. In flight, you can see it in all its glory. Its large, black-spotted grey or brown wings with white pupils and orange circumfusion make an impressive sight as the grayling glides through the air. The best part of the show is when it lands. It closes its wings and tilts to one side, concealing the more colourful upper wings and using the plain undersides as camouflage. This creates the illusion that as the grayling lands, it disappears.

Bullock says "this is in part to stop it from being blown away and also to hide from its predators". While in camouflage the grayling will be hard to spot, but you may be able to catch them spreading their wings for some sun. The grayling may be seen in coastal heathlands or near cliffs in areas such as Kynance Cove in Cornwall.

Whales and Sharks

Minke whales – small, usually solitary with an inquisitive nature – and basking sharks – large but chiefly harmless – can both be found in our waters. Bullock recommends looking for them on days with "a mirror calm sea and when you can see for miles – you might just pick up the flopping fin of the basking shark". The rise of plankton around the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, has seen an increase in sightings of basking sharks, and ferries to Lundy Island, Devon, are often a good bet to catch a glimpse. Many sightings are also made off Cardigan Bay, west Wales. However, basking sharks and minke whales do not have specific spots where they can be found. Boat excursions, such as whale watching trips from the Isle of Mull or the Isle of Skye, which take visitors to seek out minke whales, often encounter basking sharks, porpoise, common dolphins, Risso's dolphins and killer whales.

Natterjack Toads

A bright yellow dorsal stripe distinguishes the natterjack toad from the common toad. The natterjack toad is also bigger, with semi-webbed feet, and doesn't leap so much as run – and quite fast. This is an endangered species and so is found only in a few monitored sites.

Natterjack toads are nocturnal creatures, so the best time to see them is in the evenings "where it is possible to catch them foraging", according to Bullock. The mating call of the male is reputed to be loudest in Europe; it can be heard for miles, but as the breeding season has just passed, Bullock considers that "it is slightly late for the mating call" and it is unlikely you will hear it. Inhabited spots include Sandscale Haws in Cumbria and Formby Point near Liverpool.

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