Arctic Black Guillemots: Can we ID them in summer?

ssp. mandtii – and possible British records.

Dan Brown


Polar Bears and Ivory Gulls should be too much of a distraction but closer scrutiny of the Arctic Black Guillemots (mandtii) around Svalbard proved to be an interesting exercise.


A trip to Svalbard normally sees observers straining their eyes for Ivory Gulls and Polar Bears, but there’s a lot more on offer. On my first day at Longyearbyen, the capital, I was enjoying the chance to photograph a few commoner Arctic species, Black Guillemot being one. I was immediately struck on reviewing the first flight images by the striking wing patterning of this individual. Had I missed something back home? Was this just an aberrant individual? Or was it a previously un-recognised plumage feature? Over the course of the next couple of weeks I made a half-hearted effort to get further in-flight shots of Black Guillemots, though the afore-mentioned distractions proved too much of a draw most of the time!

mandtii Black GuilleIMG_3180Five subspecies of Black Guilliemots are recognized in the WP, arcticus (UK, Norway, SW Sweden, Denmark, White Sea), islandicus (Iceland), faeroeensis (Faeroes), grylle (Baltic), & mandtii (Arctic E North America as far south as Newfoundland, W & E Greenland, Jan Mayen, Svalbard and through to E Siberia and N Alaska).

Very few literature sources comment on racial identification, and those that do only focus on the distinctive winter plumage of mandtii which becomes significantly whiter during winter than any of the other races. Collins fails to recognise any racial difference and even the Advanced Bird ID Guide only notes differences in the winter plumage of mandtii.

Only a single recent winter record of mandtii is known from the UK, a striking bird in Talkin Tarn, Cumbria, last year ( As is often the way with vagrant alcids, they appear in weird inland locations.

So back to Svalbard, and after nearly three weeks of watching Black Guillies the vast majority of individuals showed two main distinctive features; white tongues on the inner webs of the primaries, and white tips to the primary coverts, and/or the lesser primary coverts (is this the correct term?). Some birds only showed one of the features, and several birds were noted resembling arctica Black Guillemot with no additional white plumage marking.

IMG_4336 IMG_3151 IMG_5184

The former feature forms a distinctive white blaze in the outer wing almost akin to skua, whilst the latter feature creates a more pointed white wing patch rather than the oval or kidney-bean shape we are used to.

IMG_6026 IMG_3154 IMG_5186

I was still unsure as to whether this was a feature that I had simply overlooked in the UK or something new. A search of the Iris photo database produced 2 interesting looking birds from the UK. The first a tatty first summer (?) bird photographed by Chrys Mellor in Bridlington/off Flamborough, East Yorkshire appears to show pale tongues to the inner primaries:

Whilst the second bird from late winter in the Isle of Man appears to show two or three all white primary coverts, presumably an abnormality rather than a plumage trait:

This leaves several questions, firstly are these features indicative of mandtii Black Guillemots? If so does the Bridlington Bird constitute the first British record? Or, is the feature indicative of northern birds, islandica and arctica included? If the latter is true then, like borealis Eider, we may expect to see birds with these features more commonly in Northern Scotland. I’d be very interested to hear of other similar birds at home or abroad for comparison.


12 thoughts on “Arctic Black Guillemots: Can we ID them in summer?

  1. Andy Cook

    I had a candidate for mandtii in Shetland last winter, but was shot down when I phoned it out being told they are really difficult! – this was a winter plumage bird and was excessively white. I had seen the picture in your link from Cumbria prior to the sighting which made the alarm bells ring at the time.

    1. Dan Brown

      Do you have any shots of the bird Andy? Shame it wasn’t taken more seriously as it is a definite possibility and there are plenty of other birds that are ‘difficult’ doesn’t mean they are un-IDable!

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  3. Andy Cook

    Sorry Dan, no photo’s. It was seen from an inter-island ferry, will keep searching next winter though. Hopefully lightning will strike twice!

  4. James K

    In Vaurie’s Birds of the Palearctic Fauna, mandtii is described as differing “from nominate grylle by being whiter on the wing in breeding plumage, the white speculum on the upper wing coverts and the white area on the inner webs of the primaries being more extensive; the body plumage and the scapulars are also much whiter in the winter and juvenal plumages. Generally speaking, the bill of mandtii is also somewhat more slender than in nominate grylle”.

    Vaurie goes on to describe differences in biometrics between taxa and discuss clinal variation along with providing a couple of references. Worth checking out if you haven’t already.

    1. Dan Brown Post author

      Thanks for this info James. Interesting to see that it has clearly been recorded and written up before. I’ll look into this reference further.

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