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Black Guillemot { Birds of Europe }

Updated on October 5, 2015

Black Guillemot. Cepphus grylle

Taken  on the cliffs at Reigkjanes, Iceland
Taken on the cliffs at Reigkjanes, Iceland | Source


The Black guillemot belongs to the order of birds known as the Charadriiformes and the family Alcidae within that order. The genus name of Cepphus derives from the Greek Krepphus a water bird described by Aristotle. The specific name grylle is from the Swedish grissla their name for the Guillemot.

In the UK it is placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so},due to declines in European populations as is also the case in Ireland. The UK population is estimated at around 19,000 pairs in summer. { Source BTO }.

In Europe the birds are classed as being of 2 concern ,most in Europe declining. The total European population is estimated at between 120,000 and 290,000 pairs. The populations vary from country to country here are a few selected examples. The Danish population is estimated between 950 and 1,150 BP. Greenland 25,000-100,000. BP. Finland 17,000-19,000 BP. Iceland 10,000-20,0000 BP.Norway 15,000-35,000 BP. Russia 10,000-20,000 BP.Sweden 6,000, and 8,000 BP. {summer months}.

They are birds of north and west Europe and north Africa { North America} They inhabit Rocky islands and cliffs during the breeding season otherwise they are Pelagic.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Gearra-glas, the Welsh name is Gwlog Ddu and the Irish name is Foracha dhubh.

Black Guillemot showing red gape


Pigeon Guillemot

Taken - Kodiak Alaska
Taken - Kodiak Alaska | Source

Spectacled Guillemot

Taken at Yamsky Island  Sea of Okhotsk Russia.
Taken at Yamsky Island Sea of Okhotsk Russia. | Source

What are Guillemots ?

Guillemots are sea birds in the Auk family. There are two genera in British taxonomy Uria and Cepphus. In North America the Uria species are referred to as Murres and the cephus species only are referred to as Guillemots. The common Murre of North America is referred to as the common Guillemot in Britain and Europe. However they are not closely related to the Black Guillemot.

Others in the genus Cepphus are the Pigeon Guillemot Cepphus columba,which is endemic to the pacific ocean. they range from the Kuril islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia to coasts in western North America, from Alaska to California. After breeding they migrate south to open waters.

The other species is the Spectacled guillemot Cepphus carbo which is also known as the Sooty Guillemot.The range of this species is restricted to the north western Pacific Ocean throughout the Sea of Okhotsk { A marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean in Russia and the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands}, and the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. The range of this species often overlaps its closel;y related relative mentioned above. it is so named because of the white spectacle like markings around the eye. { see image}.

Here we review the Black guillemot Cepphus grylle and as always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Guillemot and habitat

Crossley's ID guide to Britain and Ireland Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID guide to Britain and Ireland Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Black Guillemot.

At a glance---it is a medium to small sized water bird with a straight bill. Large white wing patch otherwise a black plumage. They have bright red feet. In winter they are mostly white with dusky black among the plumage. They have a relatively long thick neck.

In more detail.---The adult bird has a breeding plumage that consists of a black bill, the iris is dark blackish brown. The whole plumage looks black but it is glossed on the upper parts with a green-bronze or purplish red,with the exception of the median and greater wing coverts. The under wings coverts are white except for the edge of the wings,and there is a patch near the base of the inner web of some of the primary feathers are white or whitish. The tarsi and feet are vermilion red .Inside the mouth is red,but somewhat more blood coloured.

In winter the upper part of the sides of the face become white,but a dull black spot in front of the eyes seems to be permanent. The forehead ,crown of the head and back of the neck finely mottled with black and white. The rump is nearly white and the outside edges to the scapular feathers are broad. The throat,fore-neck and under parts generally white,with a few dark feathers on the sides of the body and flanks. The bill is less intensely black than it is in summer.

The inside of the mouth is coral red or light crimson during the winter. The tarsi and feet remain red, the back of the tarsus and the underside of the toes brownish and dusky. The webs a dusky vermilion, the claws a dark horn colour.

At periods of change in the summer and winter plumages the plumage has curiously mottled black and white appearance. The sexes are the same. The total length of the bird is about fourteen inches the wing is about six inches long.

Courtesy of Paul Wetton. Standard You Tube license.

The common Guillemot.

Butler 'British Birds with Nest and eggs' 1898. Courtesy of the BHL.
Butler 'British Birds with Nest and eggs' 1898. Courtesy of the BHL.

General and Historical information

The black Guillemot was formerly referred to as Uria grylle which was the name the bird was known by to Butler, who describes the species as a strikingly colourful little diver. This species is rarely found much more than a mile from land and it tends to stay close to its breeding quarters even during the winter. Although more northerly ones as in North America disperse southwards.

In England they can be seen at Bees Head in Cumbria and in Wales at the Holyhead harbour and Fedw Fawr on Anglesey. In Ireland they may be encountered on Rathlin Island County Antrim, Bangor Harbour in County Down. Tory island County Donegal,Clare island in County Mayo and at County Dublin at Howth Head. They are also found at Waterford and in county Cork.

They are capable of staying under water for at least two minutes . Mr.P Ralfe states that the low piping cry of this bird described by Colonel Fielden as a 'plaintive whim' is sometimes constantly repeated and he heard it uttered by a small party of birds whilst on the wing.

The Black Guillemot flies well and fast,in a direct line somewhat like that of the Quail**, its short wings are beaten rapidly, and when the bird is in summer plumage the patch of white on the wings,contrasts with the black of the rest of the plumage gives a curious affect. They are very neat and pretty little birds.

Booth remarks that the species ,from the position of its nesting place,has need to use its legs with freedom,and can walk and run with the greatest ease,and that it can rise from level ground with almost the rapidity of a Grouse. It can certainly rise rapidly from the water,where it feeds on fish and crustaceans and small shellfish.

Other common names, which were used in former times inclue 'Tystie' in the Shetlands, a name of Scandinavian origin, and the old Norse name of 'Tejst'. It was the Dovkie or Greenland Dove of the Arctic voyagers. Pennant, writes " The welsh call the bird Casgan Longwr, or the sailor's hatred from the notion that its appearance forbodes a storm"

Dixon ,'British Sea Birds' 1896, conveys " It is on the whole ,a more trustful bird often permitting a near approach and frequently remaining on the surface till the boat is about to pass over it,when it will dive and reappear quite unconcernedly a short distance away out of danger. Although capable of swift flight,it always prefers to dive to escape danger. It swims lightly ,usually sitting high in the water, but it has the power of sinking itself more than half below the surface when alarmed"

Black Guillemots are strong fliers.

Originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio.
Originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio. | Source

Courtesy of lochvisions. Standard You Tube License. https;// The film maker says "It is thought to be a bonding ritual but w

Breeding Nest and Eggs

Black Guillemots tend to return to their familiar haunts to breed. Unlike other Auks the Black Guillemot is typically found in the UK, in ones and twos, scattered around the rocky islets and coasts and is typical of the larger Sea Lochs in western Scotland and the northern Isles.

Courtship commences with an elaborate display. The male stands up straight and points the bill downwards,and,walks around the female with exaggerated steps. Shows various lunges,turns of the head and other posturing. In the video above the film maker says the movements in the video are thought to be bonding rituals,but goes on to say " Whatever it is it is a joy to watch."

The nest may consist of pebbles ,Seaweed and bones, or the egg may be laid directly on rock with no nest material at all. Placed on a rocky coast,often under an overhang or boulder or in a cavity of various depths.

The eggs are of a dull white colour or sometimes pale green,boldly marked with dark spots and blotches. They are somewhat like those produced by the Razorbill** but smaller.One or two eggs are deposited are are incubated for a period of 23-40 days by both parents.. When the eggs hatch the chicks are covered with a sooty black down and are capable of moving around on land. However, many will stay around the nest place until they are fully feathered. Both parents tend to the young until they are able to fly and dive,when they forage for themselves.

**This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Eggs of the Black Guillemot.

Museum Weisbaden Germany
Museum Weisbaden Germany | Source

Young birds.

Young birds have the white wing patch barred with brownish black,the feathers having dark tips. The sides of the head, throat, neck and under parts generally freckled in varying degrees with dusky brownish black,less so on the belly. The upper parts black or dusky the edges of the feathers white after the first autumn moult,but the rump has not so much white as in the adult birds.

According to Saxby, " The young birds at the end of August have eyes that are dark brown, and the bill is blackish grey. Inside the mouth is pale orange. The tarsi and feet deep brown,the front of the tarsi and upper surface of the feet paler"

The inside of the mouth,tarsi and feet get redder as the season progresses.

Pair of Guillemots

Taken at Elliston,Newfoundland ,Labrador.
Taken at Elliston,Newfoundland ,Labrador. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, your very welcome. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I do need to see guillemots, murres, razorbills, and other pelagics. Thanks for the introduction on the guillemots.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, once again I must thank you for your encouraging comments,your loyalty and your votes,all of which are truly appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful birds! I have come to another learning lesson. Greatly approached with new information. Voted up, interesting and useful.


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