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1 Jun 2020

Creature feature: razorbill

A razorbill lies on the edge of a rock, with the blue sea seen in the background. It has a white tummy with black feathers elsewhere. Its black beak has a white stripe along it.
A razorbill looking dapper in the sun
These are one of the smartest (if not the smartest!) seabirds we’re lucky enough to have at St Abb’s Head NNR.

The razorbill (Alca torda) is the closest relative to the now-extinct great auk. It’s in the same family as guillemots and puffins, and has a similar body colouring. However, the beak is the giveaway for identification! Razorbills have a distinctive chunky wedge-shaped beak with a white line; guillemots have a long, thin beak. The legs of auks are triangular and set far back on the body. This is an adaptation that means they’re more at home on rocky ledges and also makes them expert swimmers. They can dive to depths of over 150 metres to catch a variety of prey types. 

Razorbills are amazingly hardy, spending the majority of their lives on the open ocean, returning for just a few short months a year to breeding ledges on rocky outcrops. Seabirds go through trials every season and really are on a vanguard of the elements; weather, predation, lack of food and pollution are all things they have to contend with.

A guillemot and a razorbill swim close to each other near the shore, with cliffs seen in the background. Another guillemot swoops down to land in the distance.
A nice comparison between a guillemot (on the left) and a razorbill (on the right)

At St Abb’s Head, razorbills often nest on the broad ledges and sides of offshore stacks, especially in the area north of the lighthouse. They prefer to nest in single pairs or small groups. They lay one egg each year, and both the male and female bird look after the nest to protect it from gulls, ravens or peregrine falcons. Once the chick has hatched, the parents take it in turns to get food from nearby waters – razorbills mostly eat sand eels, herring or sprat.

It’s a privilege to get to monitor these birds at St Abb’s Head and get a closer insight into the everyday trials and tribulations of a seabird colony. Their jibber-jabber can be heard from quite a distance as you approach Starney Bay. Some razorbills can live for over 40 years – it’s amazing to think that some of the birds we’re monitoring are older than some of the monitors!!

A razorbill sits on a lichen-covered cliff ledge, with its head to one side.
A razorbill showing off its ‘sit down’ pose

The end of June brings the spectacle of the jumpling season – when brave chicks must make their way through the scrum of adults to the cliff edge ... and then make the leap of faith off it into the sea! Once there, they’re joined by their parent. By the end of July, most are heading back out to the North Atlantic and will only return next spring.

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