Sunday 24 June 2018

Consider The Razorbill 22nd June 2018

Razorbills are probably not the first bird that one would choose as the most beguiling and attractive of species that inhabit Britain but personally I feel a great affection for them and derive much pleasure in their appearance.

Maybe it is because I see them at their best, in summer, clad in their smart black and white breeding dress. The feathers, compacted to an unsullied smoothness and adapted for a marine existence, are almost akin to the plumage of a penguin. Indeed the birds themselves look very much like miniature penguins both on land and above and below the sea, which for two thirds of the year is their natural environment. I can recall looking down on them from cliffs at the Mull of Galloway and watching their streamlined forms swimming with rowing wings, just like penguins, below the surface of the clear water. 

For the most part I have been fortunate to see them on some cliff ledge in beautiful and remote island surroundings such as The Isle of May in Scotland, Skomer in Wales or The Farne Islands in England. Sometimes I do not have to cross the sea to an island but can go to see them in the still vast colonies of seabirds that inhabit mainland cliff sites around the coasts of northern Scotland in the summer months.

They are stocky birds, blunt looking with a head that can look slightly too big for its body.Their massive bill adds to this impression as, unlike the slimmer and pointed bill of the more numerous Guillemots with which it shares the cliff ledges, it is thick and obtuse.

I can do no better than quote a description of the Razorbill by Richard Perry, a nature writer par excellence, from his book 'Watching Seabirds' published in 1975 and proving that some things do not fade with time.

'Once alighted, they stand or sit back on the full length of their black tarsi. spiked tails projecting: just as at sea they can always be picked up as much for the elevated pin tails and tilted heads of their dumpy forms as for the salient black and gleaming silver of their plumage. When the sun broke the veil of the thin mists these razorbills were exquisitely beautiful in the splendid contrast of china white fronts and glossy black mantles, with slender primaries crossed like scimitars over the hilts of their long spiked tail, and delicate white grooves on their gnarled black bills. Their tiny, peering eyes have a reddish brown tint, but at a distance of more than a few feet the eye is completely lost in the intense blackness of the face - brown-tinted in certain lights. Almost parallel to the yellow gash of their usually slightly parted mandibles runs a white groove, from the corner of the eye to the base of the bill, which when wide open reveals a tiny tongue spike attached to the lower mandible. Although there are various uncoloured grooves in both upper and lower mandibles, the single white grooves in either mandible coincide when the bill is closed'

When I look at any of the pictures of Razorbills that I have taken I am immediately transported to the time and location, the memory strengthened by the visual stimulus. I have been lucky in that my visits to see breeding seabirds have, almost without exception, been on days of uninterrupted sun, shining down on petrol smooth seas of blue and green. On Skomer everyone, including me, immediately made for the Puffins that are located on the other side of the island but soon I was drawn back to the landing stage, there to sit alone with the few Razorbills that were either standing or squatting on the cliff edge.


Similarly on a visit to the Isle of May with my wife, last year, and suffering much pain and immobility from a damaged knee, we walked a short distance from the harbour, all that I could manage, to some nearby cliffs and there to sit with some Razorbills, the closest of the breeding seabirds to us.

Razorbills I am told pair for life and to sit near a pair is to observe a harmonious couple, seemingly immune to the constant cacophony of seabird cries and activity that fill the air all around. They sit back on their legs and tail, either upright or squatting with head tilted upwards and nibble at each other's bills or head feathers in a demonstration of affection, then ceasing, reflect on their show of unity by sitting solemnly and quietly together. They do not form, as do Guillemots, ghettos of shoulder to shoulder cliff ledge tenements but select a minimal piece of cliff to share just amongst the two of them and repel any other Razorbill that should show signs of wishing to join them. 

Their seemingly tranquil existence commutes itself to those of us who are content to sit and watch and you can find yourself savouring and almost relishing these moments of contemplative harmony in the Razorbill's existence.

On the sea the Razorbill sits high in the water with its head and tail held up at an angle, a profile distinct from the more numerous Guillemots with which it often associates while swimming.

A Razorbill with a Guillemot

Their wings are narrow and when used in full flight they are moved fast, becoming almost a blur of motion as the bird skims like a projectile, just a foot or so above the water, but when descending from a cliff to the sea below, the wings are flapped at a slower speed, more to balance the bird than propel it, as it descends with black webbed feet splayed out at an angle from its body to act as an air brake. They land in an ungainly fashion with head and breast striking the water first.

Occasionally violent and prolonged fights break out between two males and neither bird will give in so that they thrash and gyrate in the water, a tangle of feathers and white foam as each seizes the bill or head of their opponent, seeking supremacy. You feel sure that such violence will result in severe injury but it rarely does and although the fight can last for minutes on end, eventually one gains mastery and the other retreats. Sometimes these conflicts commence on the cliff ledge and such is the intensity, the two birds can tumble down the cliff, never for one moment relenting their grip on the other, to fall into the sea and carry on their argument there.

Razorbills fighting
But let us go back to the generally placid existence of the Razorbill, where the loving couple squat in close proximity, in the sun, uttering an occasional deep growl of contentment, their bills partially open and eyes closed as if in some mild ecstacy unknown to us, as they begin another year of renewing the cycle of life.

That is how I like to think of them and remember the pleasant times spent in their company

Please click on any image above to view a larger version

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