SPENDING time out on a small boat has many advantages, not least being close enough to the water to see marine wildlife. This includes the birds, of course, and this year in particular we seem to have enjoyed a lot of guillemot sightings on the waters around our shores. The common guillemot is a chocolate brown and cream mix while the black guillemot is, as its name suggests, mainly black in summertime with a striking white wing patch and vivid red feet and legs.
Guillemots are pelagic (live mostly at sea) and come ashore mainly for breeding purposes. There are huge colonies of nesting common guillemots along the coast of Ireland, most notably the Saltee Islands and the Skelligs. Wedged almost on top of each other, the birds emit a constant noise and this murmuring sound gave rise to one of its alternative names of ‘murres’.
Guillemots raise their young in the same tiny site every year, sometimes for 20 years or more, and so get to know their immediate neighbours very well. ‘Friendships’ develop between the birds that breed in such close proximity to one another and these are strengthened by mutual allopreening.
Such behaviour has a dual benefit: it forges a valuable bond with a neighbour unable to remove parasites from some areas of its own plumage, usually the head and neck. And it also means that ticks and other parasites are less likely to be passed on in these high-density breeding sites. The close bonds with neighbouring birds pay off as guillemots look out for each other’s chicks. They defend them against predators and will even brood an unattended neighbouring chick to keep it warm in the parents’ absence.
But both the common and black guillemot also nest in small numbers on our numerous West Cork islands and coastal cliffs.
The typical breeding site is an uncomfortable-looking narrow ledge on a steep cliff face overlooking the sea. Many long-lived species only raise a single offspring annually and the common guillemot, which lives up to 38 years, lays just a single egg each year.
Black guillemot are not quite so long-lived with a maximum lifespan of around 25 years.
Common guillemots and black guillemots are members of the auk family, alongside razorbills and puffins. There was once an additional member of the auk family resident in Ireland, the great auk, which is now extinct. The last Irish sighting of one was in 1834, just off the coast of Waterford. This huge creature, the only flightless European bird, became extinct due to its exploitation by man for food, oil, eggs and feathers.
Both the flesh and eggs of the black and common guillemots were also once used as food in Ireland. While their breeding sites are located on remote cliffs and ledges, this was overcome by men being lowered on ropes to collect them. Common guillemots are notoriously tame and their nests can be approached without being attacked so it is easy to see how they were targeted by egg-stealers in times past. Their lack of resistance led to the belief that they were stupid birds and gained the bird the unfortunate moniker of ‘foolish guillemot’.
The black guillemot was known by a variety of names in Ireland, including ‘little sea-pigeon’, ‘pigeon of the waves’ and ‘rock dove’. Many of its regional names across the British Isles also refer to pigeons and doves and this may down to the displays of affection they engage in while at the breeding sites.
Guillemots can be seen all around the coast of West Cork during the summer season – sometimes floating on the water in a small group, known as a ‘raft’. A breeding colony of guillemots is called a ‘loomery’ while the collective noun for a group is a ‘bazaar of guillemots’.
If disturbed while bobbing around as a raft, the take-off of a guillemot is very dramatic and similar to that of the puffin and razor bill. The small wings, which offer great dexterity underwater, require rapid flapping to get airborne. And the rudder-like feet, positioned for optimum use underwater, are distinctive on take-off. On land the position of these feet results in an almost comical, waddling gait.
These birds will be around our shores for a few more weeks this year so slow down on the water to see a raft of rafts.