Brünnich’s Guillemot off Flamborough

and Fly-by Records

Martin Garner

One week ago today, the weather was a bit more lively. Weather charts indicated strong to near gale winds (force 6-7) coming from the north. Seawatching!

A few shearwaters, a Blue Fulmar, ‘flocks’ of Great Skuas moving south and Pomarine Skuas in good numbers. Northward moving auks, mostly Razorbills with smaller numbers of Guillemots were the most visible feature. It wasn’t long before Lee J. called the first hoped-for Little Auk. Then I picked up another trailing a flock of the larger relatives. Around 9:15 I was now routinely checking the auk flocks when, in a closer range group (few hundred meters out) I picked out what looked like a ‘stick-on’ Brünnich’s Guillemot, hard to put into words but the whole look of the bird appeared spot-on for the species. The head pattern was the most eye-catching feature. I then immediately called for other observers to ‘get on this auk’. Then zooming the ‘scope up to see the head and bill better  I clocked a fat head, much more extensively dark then other auks with white throat patch surrounded by dark, but most importantly the head shape was long flat 45 degree angle into… no bill. At least the bill end came to point with slightly down wards tilt, so that the bill almost disappeared into this long slope on a fat head. All in a few seconds, so very quickly after the ‘get on the auk’ call- I yelled (something like) Brünnich’s , it looks like a Brünnich’s , it’s a Brünnich’s – with some considerable enthusiasm.

With 8 plus observers present, very windy conditions and auks spread out individually and in flocks over the sea it wasn’t going to be easy. The Brünnich’s was initially trailing a closer group of auks straight out- in full profile. As folk asked what to look for I shouted to look for the group of auks it was trailing and the distinctive head pattern. Unfortunately the bird then peeled off and I was now tracking it as a lone auk. Lee J and Dave T managed to get on to it though from their accounts after it was ‘going away’ with bill not fully visible but head pattern just discernible as well as the birds colour and shape “definitely  black and white and tubby looking with isolated white throat patch surrounded by dark“. It all happened rather quickly. No-one else got in it.

Vagrancy of Brünnich’s Guillemot in Europe

Read the paper by finders of Dutch fly-by HERE.

Read this paper on ringed Brünnich’s and their movements (with maps).

Data includes the SW migration of from breeding grounds in the North and North-eastern part of the WP.  Primarily young birds moving SW toward the NW Atlantic (off e.g. Newfoundland) in area north of Britain in October. Self-evidently northerly winds with the kind of reach to bring Little Auks into the North Sea (we had 7 on the 13th October and c 15 on 14th October) can also bring Brünnich’s  from the same vector.

Fly-by records in Europe

As of 2008 there were 7 accepted fly-by records in Sweden 1 in Denmark and subsequently  1 (photographed) in the Netherlands but none so far in Britain (what do they know that we don’t?)

This account of a fly-by in the Netherlands is a great read and they did mange a photograph. The same bird is written up in greater details in Dutch Birding 35:2 after it was accepted.


Below some of my shots of Brünnich’s Guillemots in the mouth of Varanger Fjord in March 2013. I have really studied them closely over 3 early spring seasons in succession. I actually think they look pretty darn distinctive with practice.

One of my question is I wonder if Razorbills can ever really show a very similar plumage to the typical winter pattern of in mid-October? Maybe though I am not aware of it.

Anyway enjoy the photos. Most shots chosen to convey the classic winter appearance of Brünnich’s . The odd Common Guillemot (arctic ssp. hyperborea) is alongside. Check out the fat heads, long sloping forehead, small pointed bill tip and white throat patches surrounded by black. The white throat patch can be variously larger and crisp white or smaller and sullied with some dark. First winter birds (most likely to reach the north sea in October) have small/ shorter bills than adults.

Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 11 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 15 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 4Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 14 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 13 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 12 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 4 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 1 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 5

Brünnich's  and Common Guillemot side-by-side

Brünnich’s and Common Guillemot side-by-side

Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 6

some have a head pattern resembling winter plumaged Common Guillemot

some have a head pattern resembling winter plumaged Common Guillemot

some have a more yellow tomium stripe

some have a more yellow tomium stripe

and then they come back into summer plumage...

and then they come back into summer plumage…

2 thoughts on “Brünnich’s Guillemot off Flamborough

  1. rob van bemmelen

    Hi Martin,
    Great story and great flight shots! Congrats! Also, thanks for referring to our records and papers. It is exactly nine years ago now!

    I was wondering if you also noted the underwing pattern (they look cleaner than most Common Guillemots) flank pattern and feet projection. Concerning whether Razorbills can have similar head patterns: at least 1cy birds not! But older birds in spring might approach it, but will always have some amount of white specks (but they can be inconspicious!).


    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Hi Rob

      thanks for getting back- and congratulations to you also for getting the other Dutch bird accepted and teaching us all so much in the process. The other features were less well studied as I was ‘mesmerized’ by the head but the flanks looked plain white. Underwing no comments and I failed to really study the back end as I was just calling out the bird to other observers though I never thought it was a Razorbill shape.

      I will be watching auks closely over the next couple of months to learn more whenever the chance arises

      Thanks again


Leave a Reply