Search for “guillemots” on Google right now, and more than half of the top results are devoted to the U.K. rock band, not the small black seabird with a white handkerchief tucked over each wing, bright red legs, and a cerise mouth. Though underappreciated, guillemots are the true underdogs of the auk family, which includes 21 diving bird species like Razorbills, puffins, and murres.
Explore.org is looking to raise the intrepid alcids’ profile with its Black Guillemot burrow cam on Maine’s Seal Island, which has been streaming live since June 10. Here are some quintessential guillemots facts so you can dive right into the duck-sized bird’s world (video below).
Black Guillemots are homebodies.
There are three species of guillemots, the Black, Pigeon and Speckled. Their global population is estimated to be between 400,000 and 700,000 individuals—much lower than puffins and other auks—and their range stretches from the Arctic Circle all the way down to Southern California. While they’re found throughout this huge swath, individual birds don’t stray too far from their breeding grounds.
Black Guillemots are the most common, and reside in shallow waters from rocky Arctic shores to as far south as Connecticut’s coast. Unlike puffins, which typically travel miles to hunt in deep waters, southerly guillemots don’t forage more than three miles from home.
“You can actually see them pretty often just from the mainland, which is a nice treat,” says Keenan Yakola, the Project Puffin supervisor on Seal Island. “Even with a spotting scope it’s pretty unusual to see a puffin hunting. But to see the Black Guillemots at their best, all you need in Maine is a pair of binoculars.”
They’re rugged and not fussy at all.
Unlike their fellow alcids, these birds can live in dense colonies or isolated pairs. In the food-abundant Arctic, Black Guillemot colonies can number between 2,000 and 10,000 nesting pairs; in their scantier southern range, they tend to live in smaller groups or even opt to go solo. Seal Island typically houses several hundred pairs during the summer breeding season.
Guillemots are also far less picky than their peers when it comes to choosing a nesting site. “All they need is a rock crevice—covered or not—just deep enough to prevent a predator’s head from reaching in,” says Yakola. This flexibility means more areas are suitable for breeding—something that’s contributed to keeping the bird off the endangered species list even though there aren’t as many of them as other auks, Yakola adds.
Unlike other auks, guillemots aren’t loyal to the same nesting site from year to year and they don’t normally spend a lot of time preparing the cavity. The birds’ nests are generally pretty bare, a shallow in sand, soil, or gravel that may be lightly lined with rough materials like pebbles or shells. The nest featured on this year’s live Seal Island feed includes a few sticks and loose fragments of shale.
They’re adventurous eaters.
Because they don’t swim as far offshore as other auks, guillemots eat a lot more benthic, or shallow-water species. They’re excellent divers, taking up to two-and-half-minute-long plunges and descending down to 165 feet beneath the surface. Guillemots make these epic dives to hunt down small crustaceans and sand eels. Parents usually swallow small invertebrates whole upon capture, saving larger prey for hungry chicks that gulp down entire fish.
Seal Island guillemot favorites also include rock gunnel—“wormy-looking butterfish about 15 to 20 centimeters long,” says Yakola. “These are the little flapping brown fish you’ll see individually brought back to the nest by the birds hopping along rock tops.”
They don’t put all their hopes in one egg.
Guillemots lay two eggs each year, which means that in good years colonies can grow twice as fast as the Atlantic Puffin and Razorbill flocks that share Seal Island.
“They’re one of the few alcids to lay two eggs instead of one,” says Yakola, adding that the double-egg trait has helped guillemots rebound more quickly than other auks.
Prior to the 1930s, guillemot eggs were collected for food, and adults a popular target for sport hunting. The United Kingdom was the first to protect guillemots (primarily because seabird chatter warned sailors of shore in stormy weather), with the 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act. This protection extended to North American with the adoption of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Black Guillemots have never been formally endangered, and the IUCN currently lists the species as one of “least concern.”
The babies are fluffy but tough.
Though some guillemot populations are under more pressure than others, those on Seal Island seem to be holding their own. This year, two white-and-brown-splotched eggs had already been laid, probably around June 1, when the burrow cam went live. After four weeks of incubation, the first chick hatched last Tuesday, and the second chick emerged the next day. The parents are now delivering meals—primarily in the early morning and late afternoon. The birds don’t hunt at night. While the initial few feedings were rough, with prey far too big for the babies to swallow (the miscalculations of what are likely first-time parents), things have settled down since then.
The chicks were born camera ready. They’re usually either cuddled together while they snooze, determinedly hobbling back and forth between the entrances of their rocky home, or seemingly attempting to swallow the camera.
The curious pair will live the life of leisure for the next five weeks, until they fledge. At sea parents still guard their offspring, but most of their grown-up instincts are already in place, says Yokala.
Black Guillemots can signal trouble in the water.
They may be small, but guillemots can be mighty indicators of troubled waters. Because the birds only come ashore to breed, they’re extremely vulnerable to the effects of oil spills. Being shallow-water feeders, guillemots are also especially susceptible to toxins like mercury, pesticides, and oil, which collect in their tissues and eggs until reaching lethal levels.
Because they’re easy to observe and well spread out, Black Guillemots are also the subject of climate change studies, like that run by the Friends of Cooper Island. Its scientists have been tracking a Black Guillemot colony on Alaska’s Cooper Island in the Beaufort Sea for the past 50 years, and have found that egg-laying dates have moved up as much as two weeks over the last decade, following an earlier spring melt.
Guillemot pride is a real thing.
On June 27, the staff on Seal Island celebrated International Guillemot Appreciation Day, which was first launched by Project Puffin 24 years ago. Biologists donned Black Guillemot costumes, made baked goods that resembled the bird, and even dressed up a rowboat as a guillemot to catch the attention of visitors on educational tours for other island favorites like puffins.
“Guillemots are rather unknowns, but there’s no good reason for that,” says Yakola. “To ensure these amazing birds remain the common visitors to shores they are now, more people just need to start loving guillemots!”