Breeding at the right time is essential for animals in seasonal climates in order to ensure that the energy demands of reproduction, particularly the nutritional requirements of growing young, coincide with peak food availability. Global climate change is likely to cause shifts in the timing of peak food availability, and in order to adapt successfully to current and future climate change, animals need to be able to adjust the time at which they initiate breeding. Many animals use environmental cues available before the breeding season to predict the seasonal peak in food availability and adjust their phenology accordingly. We tested the hypothesis that regulation of breeding onset should reflect the scale at which organisms perceive their environment by comparing phenology of three seabird species at a North Sea colony. As predicted, the phenology of two dispersive species, black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) and common guillemot (Uria aalge), correlated with a large-scale environmental cue (the North Atlantic Oscillation), whereas a resident species, European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), was more affected by local conditions (sea surface temperature) around the colony. Annual mean breeding success was lower in late years for European shags, but not for the other two species. Since correlations among climate patterns at different scales are likely to change in the future, these findings have important implications for how migratory animals can respond to future climate change.