Isle of Man highlights – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

9 comments

  1. I wouldn’t have expected their feet to be orange. Very chic.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. T Ibara Photo · July 15

    Hello Mr. P,
    Black Guillemots are so striking! It almost appears as though they have a slight smile on their faces. We don’t have them here so it’s a real treat to see them through this post and the video. Thank you for sharing 🙂
    As always, our best to you and Mrs. P.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 16

      Yes, they’re very special birds, totally unmistakeable. We’ve seen them from time to time in Scotland over the last couple of decades, but these were definitely our best views ever. Best wishes to you and your husband.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tanjabrittonwriter · July 19

    In my humble opinion, black, white, and red always make for an elegant attire. When we lived in Alaska, we saw Pigeon Guillemots, their relatives, but looking at the distribution map, I don’t think we ever came across Black Guillemots. It’s nice to hear that they are doing relatively well, though it would be interesting to know how many breeding pairs existed when the health of the ecosystem was better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 20

      Black and white is definitely an elegant combination (cf penguins, magpies etc), but the addition of red is startling.

      Checking out photos of the Pigeon Guillemot it looks like the Pacific cousin of our own Black Guillemot. I’m sure numbers of both must have been higher in the past, but I guess we should celebrate that these handsome birds are still doing fairly well.

      Liked by 1 person

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