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The Guillemot, diving master of the sea

Blog | By John McEwen | Jul 19, 2018

The penguin-like auk, the common guillemot (Uria aalge), is a summer migrant. So why is it also a famous Christmas bird? Answer: Ronald Lockley. He established Britain’s first bird observatory on Skokholm, off Pembrokeshire, in 1933 and wrote in The Island:

‘It was delightful to encounter, on some fine mornings in late December, the guillemots suddenly gathered in hundreds.’ Soon, they performed ‘fascinating water dances, as communal and excitatory as any jungle dance’. The Pembrokeshire locals, who called them ‘eligugs’ after their call, believed they came ‘home for the Christmas celebrations’.

By then, the adults are already in their dark chocolate and white breeding finery – the close-knit feathers tight as a pelt – but there is no mating. Performance over, they disappear. ‘It is a near-sexless display of joie de vivre, a midwinter reunion of the auk clans after the five months of the moulting and wandering period… The old hands are busy checking… those land ledges where, in five months’ time, they will lay the huge, single, handsomely marked egg.’

The egg is another guillemot marvel. In The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg Tim Birkhead, who has ‘lived and breathed guillemots for forty years’, singles out the egg as extraordinary for the variation of its size, colour and pattern; no two alike. The egg and the guillemots’ nestless breeding colonies, the densest of any cliff-dwelling bird, made them particular victims until modern bird-protection legislation. Across the northern hemisphere, hundreds of thousands of the eggs were taken to make soap, to eat or as art objects. At Bempton, in Yorkshire, ‘climmers’ risked their lives to gather them. The birds were also shot like driven pheasants by boating parties and, for many coastal communities, the meat was a valuable food.

Between the wars, the oologist George Lupton formed a collection of a thousand guillemot eggs. In the wild, smeared faeces obscure the beauty, although its fellow auk the razorbill manages to keep its eggs clean. That the egg is pointed to prevent it rolling is a myth; but, despite the birds nesting shoulder to shoulder, Lockley was amazed that a female recognised a returning mate at half a mile.

The guillemot, as Adam Nicolson writes in The Sea Bird’s Cry (2017), is ‘super-conservative’, annually laying its egg on the exact spot on the same narrow ledge. He has dived with them: ‘They come past you in spurts, each wing-thrust jerking them forward.’ Capable of four-and-a-half minutes under water, they can reach depths of 600ft. Birkhead writes, ‘Guillemots are our barometers of marine wellbeing’; overfishing, oil pollution, storms, temperature change all immediately registered. Welsh government funding for his 25-year research programme on the guillemots of Skomer, Skokholm’s neighbouring island, ceased in 2013, and in 2014 a storm devastated the colony. An article in Nature saved the project. In 2016 numbers on Skokholm were the highest since 1927.