The Razorbill is another bird that breeds on our sea cliffs and spends the rest of the year out at sea. Over 20% of Razorbills breed in Britain. The Razorbill's closest relative was the Great Auk, which was driven to extinction by the dastardly Victorians, hunting it for meat, feathers and collecting its eggs. Fortunately, the Razorbill became protected before it suffered the same fate.

The Razorbill is slightly smaller than a Guillemot and looks very similar until you see the strong white line on its thick black bill. Their head and upper parts are black and the underparts are white. They have thick necks and pointed tails. A sea Goth. Mum and dad look identical, but youngsters are smaller and browner. Razorbills, like Puffins, fly fast on narrow whirring wings. They make a growling call when breeding but are otherwise silent.

The Razorbill is in its element underwater and has been recorded at depths of 140m while chasing fish, which they can carry 2-3 at a time. While diving, they rarely stay in groups but rather spread out to feed. They eat mainly small fish like sand eels, herrings and sprats, and a lot of their time is spent hunting for food.

They start breeding in April on hidden and sheltered cliff ledges not too far above the sea, with the largest colonies being in northern Scotland. Razorbills are monogamous, with the female choosing one partner for life after encouraging a bit of competition between rival males for her affection. Courtship displays include touching bills and chasing in elaborate flight patterns. The single oval egg is laid in a rock crevice (so it can't roll off) and hatches after 36 days. The youngster is fed by mum and dad for 18 days then jumps down into the sea when only half grown, where dad continues to care for it until it can fly. The youngster won't breed for 2-3 years. Mum and dad are flightless for a few weeks in September when they do their moult out at sea.

About 160,000 pairs of Razorbills nest in Britain. They are Amber Listed as their survival depends heavily on the sea, making them vulnerable to fishing nets, oil pollution, and falling fish stocks. The oldest Razorbill lived to 41, though the average life span is 13 years.

Their Latin name is 'alca torda' where 'alca' is from the Norwegian 'alke', and 'torda' is from the Swedish 'törd', both words referring to the Razorbill. A local Scottish name is a 'Marrot' and the English name comes from the shape of its bill.


A big fan of Tolkien's Mordor, the Guillemot is our most numerous sea bird and the largest member of the Auk family. A Penguin-like seabird that breeds on sea cliffs between May and July, then spends the rest of the year in loose flocks at sea, similar to Razorbills and Puffins.

Bobbing on the sea, the Guillemot sits long and low looking like a duck. It is larger than a Jackdaw and has a dark brown or black back, white underparts, a long tapering black dagger bill, long looking neck and a short tail. Sometimes there is a spectacle mark around the eye and in winter the neck and lower face turn white. It flies on whirring wings and its legs stick out the back. Their call is a hard growling "aaarr".

Guillemots have a fast direct flight but are not very agile. They become much more manoeuvrable once underwater and feed by chasing fish, often travelling many kilometres to find them. They can dive to depths of 180m, though usually hunt at about 50m. Their favourite fish include cod, herring, sprats, sand eels, as well as shellfish like crabs and molluscs.

Between May and July, they nest in noisy cliff face seabird 'city' colonies, where the cliffs are steepest and most perilous. The courtship display includes lots of bowing, billing, mutual preening, and showing off by standing upright and not falling off. The male points his head vertically and makes croaking and growling noises to attract the females. Pairs, once formed, are largely monogamous. Mum and dad come together each year at the nest site. A single pear-shaped egg is laid on a narrow cliff ledge or flat rock and incubated between mum and dad's feet. The nesting spot may be as near as a bill's length from their neighbours! The egg pattern is unique and helps the parents recognise them. Their odd shape is thought to make the egg less likely to fall off if accidentally knocked. The egg hatches after 20 days and the youngster is fed by both parents for 3 weeks, at which point the 'jumpling' jumps into the sea, as it can't fly properly. Its dense, downy feathers and underdeveloped wings allow it to avoid any serious harm. Dad continues to feed the youngster until it can fly properly 7 weeks later.

There are about 1 million pairs nesting in Britain. Most don't travel far and winter in the North Sea before returning to the same cliff face to breed. With swimming and diving in the sea, they can easily become victims of oil pollution, their main threat.

Their Latin name is 'uria aaige' from the Greek 'ouriaa', a waterbird mentioned by Athenaeus, and the Danish 'aalge' , the Old Norse for 'Auk'. The English name derives from the French 'Guillaume', a form of 'William', not a very frightening name for a Mordor Auk. Another name for a Guillemot is a 'Murre', from the sound of their call, which is much tougher sounding.


Like the Kingfisher, the Puffin is much smaller than you expect, smaller than a Woodpigeon. It always gets the full page treatment with its crowd pleasing, clown-like expression. The Puffin is a summer visitor to our sea cliffs. For the rest of the year, they live like duck pirates on the open sea.

The Puffin has a black crown and back, white underparts, an elaborately coloured bill and - bright red feet! When searching for Puffins amongst other seabirds, look for those red feet. The male is marginally bigger than the female, and youngsters are duller, without the colourful bill. Puffins fly with madly whirring broad dark wings, showing an obvious black breast band. Their call is a growling pirate's, "Arr, arr, arr" (without the "Jim lad").

Puffins feed on fish and crabs caught by diving and swimming underwater, using their wings for propulsion and legs to steer. They can catch fish at considerable depths and stay submerged for up to a minute. Favourites are any small fish like sand eels, herring and sprats.

Puffins return to their nesting areas in March, mainly on remote islands, though there are a few British clifftop colonies. They become sociable while nesting, but otherwise are loners, seen only in ones and twos. Their courtship display involves a lot of head bobbing, bill knocking, and standing upright. Unlike many other birds, they nest in burrows on cliffs, often amongst colonies of Razorbills, Gannets and Guillemots. Although they can dig their own, they usually take over rabbit burrows. The cosy nest chamber is one metre from the entrance and lined with grass. Previous pairs will reunite and use the same burrow, giving it a good clear out and redecoration. A single white egg is laid which hatches after 39 days and the chick (puffling) is fed by mum and dad for 40 days. The parents can carry ten or more fish in their bills, which are specially adapted with a series of hooks to hold the fish securely. The main danger to the chick in the nest is rats. The young Puffin leaves the nest at night, to avoid being eaten by other predators like Gulls or Skuas, and heads off for the open sea on its own. It will be 4-5 years before it returns and breeds itself. Mum and dad leave the nesting area in August and they too head out to sea to do their winter moult, during which they are flightless for several weeks.

There are 600,000 pairs nesting in Britain, mainly in the north and west. Sadly, their numbers are falling and they are Red Listed. Threats to Puffins include rats getting onto their rat free islands and overfishing, reducing food availability. Conservation efforts include the removal of the rats from their islands. The oldest ringed Puffin lived to 29 and had a hook.

Their Latin name is 'fratercula arctica' where 'fratercula' is the Latin for 'friar' from the word 'fraterculus' meaning 'little brother', because the Puffin's black and white plumage resembles the robes worn by monks. The 'arctica' refers to their northerly distribution. The English name 'Puffin' -- puffed in the sense of swollen -- comes from the fatty, salted meat of the Manx Shearwater. Puffin is an Anglo-Norman word for the cured carcasses and has no connection with cute Puffins at all. Their brightly coloured bills have given rise to various nicknames, such as the 'clown of the sea' and the 'sea parrot'. Puffins are the official bird of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Our Puffin is the Atlantic Puffin. Two other Puffins, the Horned Puffin and the Tufted Puffin, live in the North Pacific Ocean.