Guillemots, Penguins of the North
With their black and white “Tuxedos” and their upright stance guillemots really do look like little penguins! And this is no accident; it is due to the phenomenon of convergent evolution. This is where species develop similar body forms because they live a similar lifestyle and their shape evolves to suit that common purpose. Another good example of this is the body shape of dolphins and sharks. Dolphins are mammals and sharks fish, and so quite unrelated, but both are active hunters in the marine environment and have developed similar streamlined shapes in parallel.
This image nicely shows a few of the guillemot’s adaptations. There is the long pointed bill which allows the guillemot to catch fish underwater. Then there is the streamlined body, with feet set far back and long narrow wings allowing the bird to “fly” with agility under the sea. The chocolate brown upperparts and white belly of a typical guillemot camouflage them against the bright sky and the dark sea, much in the same way as world war two fighter aircraft such spitfires and hurricanes were usually dark above and pale below.
Razorbills, by comparison are not brown, but truly black and white, with much more contrast between the upper and lower sides of the body. A “bridled morph” of guillemot can also be seen, where the bird has a striking white eye-ring with a line running back from the eye, recalling a pair of spectacles. This form occurs in the North Atlantic but not in the Pacific Ocean and its frequency increases with latitude from less than 1% in the south of the guillemots range to 20-25% in northern Britain.
Bridled guillemot (left)
Ups and Downs
The guillemot is the most abundant seabird in Britain and Ireland. There were 1.6 million at the last full census (“Seabird 2000”); three-quarters of these breeding in Scotland. The “Operation Seafarer” the census of 1969-70 recorded half this number, so they were doing well.
However, according to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) guillemot productivity declined dramatically between 2002 and 2007. A rise in productivity occurred in 2009-11 (when compared to 2004-08), but it still remains below the long term mean. Although it is not fully understood, declines in productivity coincided with food shortages mostly affecting colonies in the north and east of the UK, where sandeels (rather than sprats and their relatives) are the main prey.
Last weekend with some other RSPB colleagues I was able to carry out a count of the cliffs that include the RSPB nature reserve at Dunnet Head. This was to allow a comparison with the same sectors counted during the Seabird 2000 census. The results are striking with a decline of 46%. It will be interesting to see how this fits in with the general picture.
G.G.G...Grab a Guillemot!
Recently, while driving through Thurso, I came across an unexpected sight. A guillemot was waddling across the green on the road to Castletown opposite the Tesco store. Almost immediately I knew I had to do something. The bird looked, at first glance, to be fine, but it was very quickly approaching a busy road.
So, I turned around and stopped my van opposite the bird, opened the back door and dashed across the road. By this time it was standing on the brink, and I could see it had clearly forgotten its “green cross code” Vehicles were approaching from both directions. Disaster was imminent!
I had no gloves, but realised I had to do something, so I quickly grabbed its head from behind, keeping its dagger-like bill away from me and then with the other hand I was able to lift it up and pop it into the back of my van.
My little hitch-hiker (Dave Jones)
The bird was standing upright; showing no signs of injury, or disease, or any distress. I presumed that it had merely become disorientated and landed in the wrong place and thought the best thing to do would be to give my little hitch-hiker a lift to the Thurso river mouth and release it there. Had it shown any signs of sickness I would have got in touch with the local branch of SSPCA and sought their assistance. I don’t have any veterinary skills and would therefore have been more than happy to let their staff look after any sick or injured animal.
Given what we are learning of declines in the guillemot population, I was glad I managed to give one of them a helping hand!
* In case you hadn't guessed it, guillemot is a C17th diminutive of the French name Guillaume (William), hence "Little Willies!"
A WEATHERBEATEN DUNNET HEAD
It has been a cold spring so far and here at Dunnet head last week it was very windy too. It can be bracing and a great experience even on such a day.
This photo was taken in a force 5 although it felt much stronger!
The weather seems to be having an effect on our seabirds too. The general impression I am getting is that they are having quite a late season. Some colleagues suggest that the breeding season may be running around two weeks late. To paraphrase one last week “Kittiwakes are not on eggs yet at either Coquet or Bempton and the Coquet Puffins don’t really seem settled either – while the Black-headed gulls are carrying on as normal!”
Wind can have an effect on those species which feed at the surface; for example terns can find it quite difficult to see their sand-eel prey if the surface is disturbed too much by strong, blustery winds. Here at Dunnet Head there are no terns, but the puffins also can be really affected by choppy water. They specialise in feeding in the top 10 feet (three metres for younger viewers) and so are affected by turbulent water. In contrast guillemot and razorbill feed much more deeply, typically diving as deep as 25-60 metres.
Shags breed nearby and are affected as they feed close to shore. Here onshore winds stir up sediment and hide their prey in the murkiness. This issue is compounded in winter when they are required to feed throughout the very short days. Prolonged wind can then contribute to feeding difficulty or even starvation.
Other seabirds may be affected by another feature of the weather, that of water temperature. I have heard reports on the John O’Groat’s Journal website that sea temperatures are about 3-50C lower than those of last year. Winter temperatures! This in turn may be affecting the distribution of the birds’ food particularly its depth in the water column which in turn affects access to this food. Birds may simply not be able to dive deep enough or more likely they feeding will be much less efficient; prey items are less likely to be in predictable locations and so birds will have to spend more time and energy on finding the same amount of food
Sandeels are common prey for many seabirds
WEATHER AND THE SHIPPING FORECAST
Rough seas are not stopping the Scrabster to Orkney ferry, the M.V. Hamnavoe, seen below undergoing sea-trials prior to coming back into service following a crankshaft failure.. Many visitors to Caithness, of course, are passing through to see our great nature reserves on Orkney. If you are heading up to to the isles or perhaps are not so keen on a sea crossing, why not stop off at Dunnet Head and enjoy the seabirds while keeping your feet on terra firma!
..and finally, apologies for anyone hoping to take part in tomorrow's guided walk which has had to be cancelled due to circumstances beyond my control. Normal service will be resumed next week.
In this and future articles I will keep you up to date with the comings and goings of the birds and other wildlife of the reserve. Of course many folk come north to tick off John O’Groats, but the real aficionados come to see Dunnet Head. Not only is it the true northernmost point on the British mainland but it houses an exciting nature reserve centred on a spectacular seabird colony. If you have not visited before, perhaps this should be the year that you do!
Seabird colonies are exciting places to visit. In the breeding season they come alive with the sights, sounds and yes, the smells of the seabirds. Dunnet Head is no exception, with the common nesting species of fulmar, kittiwake, puffin, guillemot and razorbill. If you count the less common species and those that are seen feeding or passing-by off-shore then you might easily see another seven or eight species of seabirds.
I have started carrying out weekly guided walks every Wednesday afternoon. These will run until the end of August and are designed to show new birdwatchers and family visitors the various special birds of the reserve. The first few walks have been quiet for birds and strong winds have made it difficult to watch them without a tear in the eye! With this spring being very late, few of the usual wildflowers were out too and the vegetation still looks very wintry. An exception is the common scurvy-grass which doesn’t seem to realise how cold it is just now. In fact, anyone driving regularly up and down the A9 right now should keep a look out for this white-flowered plant and its relative Danish scurvy-grass. Both are in full flower now by the roadside, thriving in the salt-laden soils of the modern road network. They have thick fleshy waxy leaves which are well able to store water and resist desiccation in the salty environment of the coast (or the roadside). They think they are still by the seaside!
Last week; however, was very special as we saw the first puffins of the walks season. There were just a handful showing and they would disappear underground but everyone on the guided walk managed to get cracking views through the telescope. They should be seen in increasing numbers as the season gets underway, so if you have not seen a puffin yet, get yourself along. Another highlight of last weeks walk was a common lizard. I saw it again this week and managed to take a snap of it. Despite the chilly weather it was able to bask in the sunshine by the south side of the wall. It’s May so let’s hope it will warm up pretty soon for lizards and visitors alike!