Razorbill – 1894

Alca torda – Resident.

The great multitude of cliff birds to be seen in the summer months on the various islands off the Pembrokeshire coast, is one of the unique features in the Ornis of the county. No one who has once visited in May or June the beautiful islands of Skomer or Ramsey, will ever forget the spectacle that has been presented to his eyes, whether he be an ornithologist or not. The celebrated Stack Rocks, being within an easy reach both from Tenby and Pembroke, are among the curiosities of the county which all tourists feel compelled to inspect. And the scene is one that well repays the trouble of journeying to the spot.

Caldy, St. Margaret’s Island, Skokholm, Skomer, Grasholm, and Ramsey, besides various cliffs of the mainland, are all of them, to a greater or less degree, visited by Razorbills, Puffins, and Common Guillemots at the nesting season; and while the Puffins lay their eggs in rabbit earths or in holes they excavate for themselves, the Razorbills and Guillemots deposit their eggs, without the least semblance of any nest, on the ledges of the rocks, tier above tier. From our own experience, we are confident that if a census were to be taken of the three birds we have mentioned, the Puffins, in their innumerable myriads, would exceed the other two put together, and then, perhaps, in the proportion of ten to one ; the Guillemots are very numerous, and would rank next, and last of all would come the Razorbills that, although when regarded by themselves might justly be considered abundant, are yet not to be compared with the extraordinary hordes of Puffins and Guillemots.

As they fly off the ledges of the cliff beneath one’s feet, as they pass one in the air, or as they alight on their eggs on their return from the water, or when viewed on its surface, swimming and diving in small parties, the Razorbills, with their brown-black heads and backs, and pure white underparts, present the appearance of great neatness in their brightly contrasted plumage. The white lines, too, across the mandibles, above the eyes, and across the wings, are also plainly visible to the spectator, when the birds approach him, as they will fearlessly, if he only remains quiet.  

And all the while the air will be fall of their crooning cry, and the noises to be heard at any great breeding station of cliff birds, Kittiwakes, &c, are also part and parcel of an experience new and strange.

After heavy and continued gales in the summer and early autumn, countless cliff birds perish from starvation, as they are then feeble from their moult, and unable to capture the fish that desert the shallows around the shores, and seek refuge from the tempest in deeper water; and, at such times, we have seen the sands (on the North Devon coast) strewn for miles with Razorbills, Guillemots, and Kittiwakes, and every wave has cast others, dead or dying, to our feet.

Varieties of the Razorbill are very rare. Indeed, the only one we have ever heard of is one sooty-black all over, with the exception of a dozen or two small white feathers scattered about the breast, that Mr. C. Jefferys, of Tenby, has mentioned to us, that is now in the museum of the Hon. Walter Rothschild, at Tring, and was obtained at Tenby about the year 1886.

As soon as the young birds are strong enough to fish and to maintain themselves, and this is about the beginning of August, the cliff birds leave their nesting stations, and scatter over the open sea, many of them working towards the south, but numbers ascend the Bristol Channel, where they may be seen in little flocks throughout the winter, and we have ourselves encountered them in December and January as far up as the Severn Tunnel in the old days when we used to make the passage across in the paddle-box steamer to Port Skewet.

The eggs of the Razorbill are very handsome, and beautiful varieties are met with. The collection of cliff birds’ eggs formed by Dr. Propert from Ramsey Island, is hardly to be surpassed, except, perhaps, by that belonging to the national collection of British birds’ eggs at South Kensington, and any ornithologist who finds himself at St. David’s ought to inspect it, and will be sure to meet with a courteous reception.

Mathew M.A. 1894, Birds of Pembrokeshire and its Islands

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