Guillemots: Clowns of the Sea

Black guillemots would be strong contenders in any competition for “clowns of the sea,” and perhaps even serve as proof that God has a sense of humor. They are a medium-sized black duck with white wing patches — and bright red feet. The inside of the guillemot mouth is bright orange. Legs set far back so they wobble when they walk, kinda like penguins. The habit of repeatedly dipping their heads (and tipping up their hind ends) when nervous. Awkward in flight, they fly low over the water with rapid wingbeats — when they fly at all.

Oh, and it bears repeating, they have red feet, which they trail behind them like oversized clown shoes when the take off. Taking off is difficult for them so they are more likely just to dive underwater to escape a threat. They are much better swimmers than fliers and can stay underwater for up to 2 minutes. They migrate not by flying but by swimming hundreds of miles. Related to puffins, guillemots get a lot less press. Ever hear of a guillemot tour? Guillemots don’t seem to mind the lack of notoriety though. Their motto seems to be: guillemots have more fun!

As part of my “critters of the sea” series, I’m featuring the black guillemot this week. I always enjoy watching these birds as they bob unconcerned on rough seas or go tails up and dive beneath the surface. Along the Maine coast, guillemots are sighted most often in pairs or groups of up to a dozen. They are most common in areas with rocky shorelines and access to open waters. On our kayak tours off Stonington, South Thomaston, and Jonesport, we almost always have numerous black guillemot sightings.

Guillemot (rhymes with spill-a-lot) chicks hatch from eggs laid in rocky burows on offshore islands. According to what I’ve read online from various sources, the chicks grow rapidly and soon enter the sea to evade predators such as gulls. They are one of the most commonly sighted Maine sea ducks — and can be sighted along much of Maine’s coastline during all months of the year. During the winter, at least some of Maine’s summer guillemot population migrates south to Massachusetts. Guillemots are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed, yet they rarely venture far from shore.

The range of guillemots, which are sometimes called “sea pigeons,” is described on the National Audubon Society website:Black Guillemots breed from eastern Canada south to the coast of Maine, then eastward at the fringes of the Arctic across Eurasia, reaching North America in isolated colonies in northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory.”

Nick Schade of Guillemot kayaks describes the behavior of the black guillemot: “When paddling toward a guillemot swimming on the surface, it will quickly duck it’s head into the water, looking to make sure it is safe to dive. It will dive with a quick beat of it’s wings to help it under. If you are close enough you will see the white wing patches flash as it flies through the water. If the bird chooses to fly instead of dive, it will run on the surface of the water until it can lift off. Then, with its red legs trailing out back it will typically circle around you at a distance of 100 ft for a couple revolutions.
If it decides you are no threat, it will land again. Otherwise, it will fly until it reaches a safe distance before landing,”

Information on the Black Guillemot in Alaska and how they are being threatened by reduced sea ice is here.


National Audobon Society

University of Maine at Farmington

Young black guillemot on Robinson ledge off Camden.(Photo by Ray Wirth)

Ray Wirth is a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Water Walker Sea Kayak, LLC.

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