Friday 27 December 2013


Brünnich's Guillemot (first winter) - Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

Whilst mopping up my daughter's spilt bottle of nail varnish remover on Boxing Day morning, my attention was drawn to my illuminated phone, lying there abandoned on the sofa. I could see that I had missed a few calls but alarmingly two of them were from Dan Pointon. I only usually hear from Dan when something 'megawise' is in the process of kicking off. I gulped, sat down to prepare myself and nervously logged on to the RBA website. A few clicks later it became evident that my suspicions were correct, there was only a BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT bobbing around along the south coast of England. In this demented year for exceptional rarities, not even the normally relaxed period between Christmas and the new year was safe from causing a touch of aviform related stress disorder.

For me, some times of the year are completely sacred and the trilogy of festive days from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day are completely out of bounds to even consider any long distance twitch. These few days are for putting family and friends first, after all they have a lot to put up with for the other 360+ days of the year I am sure you will agree?

The 27th of December is however a completely acceptable date to indulge in a spot of yuletide birding. By 9.30am Steve Allcott, Tony Barter, Dave Hutton and I were standing scouring a windswept harbour on the east side of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. A few other Warwickshire lads from Coventry had arrived before us and you could deduce from their collective grimace that it was not good news. The rarity had been present earlier in the morning however it was spotted flying off out into the choppy bay before most birders in the area could connect with it. 

Out in the harbour a first winter Black Guillemot was soon located amongst the forty or so Red-breasted Mergansers along with a Great Northern Diver and distant Black-throated Diver. My heart then jumped as an auk flew towards us and then banked away revealing plenty of white on the cheek, it was just a Common Guillemot. After a downpour of rain and hail had subsided we decided to branch out and check alternative areas of the the harbour. No sooner had we done so though, we noticed a few other birders running towards us. At long last the elusive alcid had been relocated.    

The Brünnich's Guillemot is just to the right of the nearest boat.
Photo by Adam Archer

After a few nerve racking minutes of the bird being submerged, up popped a magnificent BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT, the first twitchable example of this high Arctic species ever to grace the British mainland. Out of the 41 acceptable British records, well over half of them have involved dead birds picked up along the tideline, mainly up in the extreme Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Only the rarity packed year of 2013 could provide us all with a relatively easy chance of connecting with such a difficult to see species. The record is even more remarkable bearing in mind the only other live bird in England was way back in 1977, although a bird at Filey, North Yorkshire on the 3rd December 2013 will no doubt become the second acceptable record for the country.

Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird was initially extremely mobile as it dived for food however it soon settled down to moor itself amongst the luxury yachts where it showed very well indeed for about thirty minutes. It then swam quickly back out of the marina and down to a small bay, about half a mile south where it teamed up with a winter plumaged Common Guillemot as a nice comparison species. At one stage they were also joined by a winter plumaged Razorbill, it was like page 211 of the Collins Bird Guide had suddenly sprung to life! 

Common Guillemot (left) & Brünnich's Guillemot (right)
Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

As the weather conditions improved the bird gradually floated closer towards its hoard of ecstatic admirers who were patiently perched along the quayside. It was great to see so many familiar faces full of the festive spirit and it was a hell of a memorable twitch to conclude one of the most remarkable years in British birding ever. 2013 will be long considered the year that just kept on giving. It would not surprise me if another outrageous rarity was found before the new year celebrations commence.

Steve Richards, Bob Duckhouse, Richard Challands & Dave Hutton
representing the West & East Midlands twitching fraternity!

The Brünnich's Guillemot in Great Britain

This species is almost circumpolar in the Arctic and near Arctic but in Newfoundland it breeds at a latitude equivalent to that of northern France. This reflects the lower sea temperatures on that side of the Atlantic Ocean. The nearest breeding colonies to Britain are in Iceland, Greenland and northern Norway. In winter it disperses out to sea in northern latitudes with it's southerly limit in the eastern Atlantic being well to the north of Scotland. The worldwide population is estimated to be in the region of 15 to 20 million individuals and as such it is one of the most abundant marine species in the northern hemisphere. There are nearly two million breeding pairs in Iceland alone which makes it's rarity in Britain very surprising indeed.

The first really twitchable bird came during the summer of 1989 when an individual turned up amongst the seabird colony at Sumburgh Head in Shetland. For those unable (or too young) to travel for this bird, a second chance arrived during the winter of 2005 when another bird was located in the rather convenient location around the ferry terminal in Lerwick, Shetland. A few friends successfully twitched this bird however there are some real nightmare stories of stomach churning, sixteen hour sea crossings and gut-wrenching dips. A full list of all British records, reminiscent of a birding obituary is as follows:

2011 - Moray - Burghead - 17th November only
2007 - Aberdeenshire - Girdle Ness - 7th November only
2007 - Shetland - Scousburgh, Mainland - 25th March - dead
2006 - Shetland - West Sandwick, Yell - 4th May - dead
2005 - Shetland - Lerwick, Mainland & Bressay - 30th November to 20th December
2001 - Orkney - North Ronaldsay - first winter on 29th January - dead
2000 - Orkney - Scapa Flow - 21st December - dead
1997 - Shetland - Fetlar - 26th to 30th December
1996 - Highland - Kilchoan Bay, Ardnamurchan - 27th March only
1995 - At Sea - north of sea area Fair Isle - 23rd January only
1995 - Shetland - Gulberwick, Mainland - taken into care on 4th January (released 1st February)
1994 - Shetland - Wadbister Voe, Mainland - 12th February - dead
1994 - Lothian - Seafield - 6th February only
1993 - Lothian - Musselburgh - 27th March only
1992 - Western Isles - Hirta, St Kilda - 26th May to 8th June
1991 - Orkney - Sule Skerry - 25th January only
1989 - Shetland - Sumburgh Head, Mainland - 16th June to 12th July
1988 - Highland - Dunnet Bay - male on 9th March - dead
1987 - Shetland - Hamnavoe, West Burra - 3rd to 7th February - dead
1985 - Orkney - Scapa Bay - 9th January - dead
1984 - Orkney - Birsay, Mainland - 20th March - dead
1983 - Shetland - Banna Minn, West Burra - 30th October - dead
1982 - Highland - Golspie, Sutherland - 24th December - dead
1982 - Orkney - Stromness, Mainland - 3rd April - dead
1982 - Highland - Brora, Sutherland - 3rd February - dead
1981 - Orkney - Bay of Ireland, Stenness, Mainland - 29th December - dead
1981 - Aberdeenshire - Johnshaven Beach, Kincardine - 25th January - dead
1980 - At Sea - sea area Viking (Brent Oilfield) - 26th December only
1980 - Shetland - Fair Isle - adult from 16th to 17th October
1980 - Shetland - Burrafirth, Unst - 24th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Kilspindie Beach - 9th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Ferry Ness - 9th February - dead
1979 - Aberdeenshire - Rattray Head - 25th February - dead
1978 - Aberdeenshire - St Cyrus - 14th July - dead
1977 - Shetland - Sumburgh, Mainland - 18th December - dead
1977 - Northumberland - Farne Islands - 13th July only
1976 - Highland - Reay Beach, Thurso - 31st January - dead
1969 - Argyll - Loch Caolisport, Knapdale - 11th October - dead
1968 - Shetland - Norwick, Unst - 20th March - dead
1960 - Lancashire - Middleton Sands, near Morecambe - adult on 15th April - dead
1908 - Lothian - Craigielaw Point - female on 10th December - dead


  1. Hi Archie
    Great post. Would it be OK to copy your listing and some text for my own blog?