Guillemots

Looking very penguin like on land, with its dark brown back and snow-white breast, the guillemot is a member of the auk family (Alcidae) and first cousin to a puffin and a razorbill.

They breed on the Pembrokeshire bird sanctuary islands of Skomer and Skokholm as well as on Ramsey and St Margaret’s Island off Tenby and the Stack Rocks off the Castlemartin peninsula. Indeed, the stack near that well-known coastal feature the Green Bridge of Wales, is called Elegug stack, and an elegug is either a guillemot or a razorbill to south Pembrokeshire folk, as they both look alike at a distance.

When the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority was established half a century ago and the authority was looking for an emblem, the chairman, Alderman Tom Scourfield of Carew, a true south Pembrokeshire gentleman with a strong local accent, looked at the candidates, which incuded the puffin, the guillemot and the razorbill, and plumped for “The Elegug,” which he identified as the razorbill, so that was the seabird that won the day. The only difference between the razorbill and the guillemot is the latter’s slightly greater size and the former’s thicker beak with a white line on it to match the white horizontal eye-line.

Visitors to Skomer island will see during the 20-minute boat trip from Martin’s Haven to the island’s North Haven, large rafts of guillemots floating offshore, and when they land and walk to the clifftop overlooking The Wick, they will see a seething mass of black and white seabirds on the cliff ledges on the other side of the inlet. The guillemots densely pack the rocky ledges, incubating their eggs or feeding their fledglings, on what appears to be a rather precarious and potentially dangerous location. But they are well-adapted to the narrow ledges and their khaki-coloured, black-spotted eggs are so shaped, like smooth fir cones, that they can’t roll off the ledges but, if knocked, simply spin in a tight circle and stay put. The scene is animated, noisy and slightly chaotic, the guillemots uttering a shrill, churring, growling chorus as they mill around, landing and taking off at regular intervals as they come and go to and from the feeding grounds with fish which they regurgitate down the gaping maws of their offspring. The norm is one egg, one chick each per season between May and June, and, unlike the puffins and shearwaters, the ‘elegugs’ are resident all year round. The northern guillemot is darker than the its brown southern cousin and occasionally, amid the multitude on the ledges, the keen observer may spot one with a white mark on its head, which is a bridled guillemot. The RSPB says the guillemot is “one of the most numerous birds in the great seabird cities,” found all round the coasts of Britain and Europe, the European population being about 2.7-million pairs and the British number about 880,000 pairs. They dive down to 60-metres.

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