20/09/2010
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Black Guillemot

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The highest numbers of Black Guillemots are found in Orkney and Shetland. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com)
The highest numbers of Black Guillemots are found in Orkney and Shetland. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com)

This small member of the auk family is always worth a closer look, as its colourful legs and mouth make it a most attractive species to watch.

Black Guillemot mainly breeds around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, from eastern North America, as far south as Maine and including Greenland, across Siberia to eastern Russia. There are also a few hundred birds in Alaska. The world population is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs, and the species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

The British form, arcticus, breeds in Britain and Ireland and Scandinavia, and is often considered the same as atlantis, found in eastern North America and southern Greenland. The nominate subspecies grylle is confined to the Baltic, while the Faroe Islands and Iceland have their own subspecies, faroeensis and islandicae respectively.

Mandtii occurs in the Arctic as far east as eastern Siberia and Alaska, where a separate form ultimus is sometimes considered to be distinct. In Alaska it overlaps with its Pacific equivalent, Pigeon Guillemot, but no interbreeding has been recorded. It has occurred as a vagrant as far south as Madeira.

Mandtii and ultimus, the more northerly populations, tend to have more white in their winter plumage, with some appearing almost pure white with black only on the wings, as well as having shorter bills. A bird showing these characters was seen off Long Island, New York, in December 2009, but these forms have yet to reach British waters.

Britain and Ireland are home to the southernmost breeding colonies of Black Guillemot, and here it tends to be mostly resident. Most birds are found in the north and west of Scotland (about 18,750 pairs) around the coast of Ireland (2,270 pairs) and on the Isle of Man (300 pairs). The sole English breeding site is at St Bees Head in Cumbria, where there are only a few pairs, while in Wales some 14 pairs are found on Anglesey.

On Shetland, Black Guillemot is referred to as Tystie, which is derived from a Scandinavian word and is similar to its name in Norwegian and Icelandic

Black Guillemots appear to exhibit handedness – that is, they seem to show a preference for arranging their catches of small fish with the heads always pointing to either the left or right.

The species is rarely found more than a mile from land and tends to stay close to its breeding areas in winter, although the more northerly populations disperse more than southern ones. Young birds may also move more than adults and it is these birds which probably make up the majority of records away from breeding sites, when mostly single birds are seen. Black Guillemot is less gregarious that other auks, although some of the northern colonies can be large.

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After the breeding season, when the chicks have fledged, adults will gather into moulting flocks, which can number as many as 600 birds, and they are flightless for four to five weeks, usually during September. Dispersal occurs from more northern breeding locations in Shetland and Orkney, especially from more exposed islands like Fair Isle and Foula.

How to see

Black Guillemots often breed in holes in harbour walls, and may sit on a ledge when not on the water. Always check any holes or ledges and look for them close to the water’s edge, rather than well out on the surface, as it can be easy to overlook them.

Where to see

Breeding sites are the best places to find Black Guillemot at any time of year. It is relatively common around the coasts of north and west Scotland.

England

  • Cumbria: St Bees Head RSPB (NX 959118)     

Wales

  • Anglesey: Holyhead Harbour (SH 237836) and Fedw Fawr (SH 604818)

Scotland

  • Shetland: Mousa RSPB (HU 435248) and Lerwick Harbour (HU 477412)
  • Orkney: Hobbister RSPB (HY 395069) and North Hill RSPB (HY 495538)
  • Highland: Dunnet Head (ND 202766)
  • Inner Hebrides: Neist Head, Skye (NG 133478)
  • Outer Hebrides: Lochmaddy Harbour (NF 920680) and Stornoway Harbour (NB 422327)
  • Ayrshire: Ailsa Craig (NX 020998)
  • Dumfries and Galloway: Mull of Galloway RSPB (NX 156305)

Ireland

  • Co Antrim: Rathlin Island RSPB (NR 282092)
  • Co Down: Bangor Harbour (J 501821)
  • Co Donegal: Tory Island (B 853466)
  • Co Mayo: Clare Island (L 707853)
  • Co Dublin: Howth Head (O 290377)
  • Co Wicklow: Bray Head (O 282171) and Wicklow Head (T 320925)
  • Co Waterford: Helvick Head (X 315892)
  • Co Cork: Old Head of Kinsale (W 625400) and Cape Clear Island (V 957219)