On the sheer cliffs and geos of Sule Skerry there are hundreds of guillemots. The rocks are white with their guano as the birds perch on precarious ledges overlooking sheer drops into the churning water below. Sitting near a colony is an assault on the senses. Everywhere you look there are hundreds of these dark brown and white birds with pointy bills. There is continual movement, flapping of wings, manoeuvring of densely packed bodies and preening of feathers. There is sound, a constant drawn out ‘aaaarrrr’ of hundreds of birds. Then there is the smell, a whiffy pungent combination of fish and ammonia.
It is on these cliffs that each year guillemots return from the sea to breed. They are packed in close together so that neighbours are often touching, and often undertake appeasements displays and allopreening as a means of resolving the inevitable squabbles and conflicts in such close quaters. There is no nest. Eggs are simply laid on the bare rock and the adults incubate them standing up. The eggs are pear-shaped; originally it was thought that is was so that if they are knocked they swivel round in a circle rather than rolling off the ledge. However more recent work suggests it has evolved, along with a thick shell, to help the egg survive the frequent impact that comes from so many birds being in such close quarters. More over researchers have found that the blunt end of the egg tends to stick upwards clear of the muck (and these colonies are very, very mucky!), reducing the risk of contamination to the developing chick within.
Among the hundreds of adults there are also numerous downy chicks. Black and white fluff balls with tiny pointy bills and legs so big in proportion to their bodies that they look like they are wearing clown shoes.
Most of the adults are chocolatey brown on the head and back, contrasting with a pure white belly. But there are also birds that have a pure white ring around the eye with a thin line that extends backwards, almost like they are wearing spectacles. These are known as bridled guillemots, although they are not a different species.
Sitting among the hundreds of guillemots are little groups of a very similar looking bird. The same size and shape as a guillemot, but with jet black feathers instead of the chocolate brown. Rather than the thin pointed bill, these birds have a much larger, deeper and blunted bill that still sports a mean hook on the end. They are the rather aptly named razorbills. Next to the beautifully colourful bill of the puffin, the bill of a razorbill is one of my favourites. It is as beautiful in its simplicity as the puffin is in its colour. Along the top, leading from the eye to the end of the silky black feathers there is pure white line, with a second line running vertically on the hard plate of skin at its end. The contrast is stunning.
While they perch up on the rocks at the tops of the cliffs along with the guillemots, razorbills do not nest right on the ledge like their close relatives. Instead they tend to nest in the cracks and crevices created by the boulders of rock. Here they raise their chicks that are seldom seen out from under their crevice until it is time to leave.
When I first visited Sule Skerry in 2009 there were very few guillemots and razorbills remaining on the island, with most having fledged already. This year due to visiting the island slightly earlier in the month, but also due to the birds having a late breeding season there were still hundreds if not thousands still perched on the cliffs and settled on top of the rocks along the islands shoreline. Breeding is at a range of stages, from eggs hatching in front of our eyes to fluffy chicks that are almost ready for that leap of faith that will see them jump from their cliff ledge and bounce down into the sea below. Once there they will head off with dad for anywhere up to 7 weeks before striking out on their own in the cold waters of the Atlantic.
Working through a guillemot colony is a delicate business. The team moves along its periphery with care avoiding areas where the birds are right at the edge of the cliff lest we push them off into the sea. We watch carefully, looking and listening to the birds behaviour. You can always tell when they start to get a bit fidgety as waves of flapping and increased calling pass through the hoards. That is the time to back off. Our team however is experienced at moving through colonies and by taking our time and picking our spots carefully, we are able to work our way through bringing out adults for ringing and then gathering up any nearby chicks. Since their legs are so well developed we can place a ring on their legs too.
For razorbills it’s a question of catching one off its nest in a crevice as you come upon them.
Up close, both species are superb, if you can get past the muck that often accompanies them! The white eyeline of a bridled guillemot, the deep black and contrasting white stripe of a razorbill’s bill, the brilliant yellow that lines the inside of their beak that flashes at you when they open their bills… Even the muckiest of the muckiest guillemot chick is a delight to hold, even if they do tend to wipe unsavoury things on your clothes with their waggling feet. Still there is a reason why you wear coveralls when in a seabird colony, and a reason why those coveralls only tend to last one trip…
Because of the way guillemots and razorbills perch, with their leg flat against the rock rather than sitting on their feet, the shape of the ring we put on these birds is unique. Rather than being a split, round shaped ring, it is shaped like a triangle with a flattened bottom. It is a little more complicated to put them on compared to the usual rings but it is highly satisfying to master the technique during my stay.
All too soon my time on the island handling these precious birds, wondering at their beauty, power, smell and resilience, comes to an end. But it is one of the greatest delights of writing, that I can sit here at my desk listening to cars rumbling by outside along the wet roads, read these words, close my eyes and I am back; sitting on the white painted rocks, taking in the sights, listening to the sounds and breathing in the smell of a seabird colony that is hundreds of miles away.