Razorbill – 2003-07 breeding

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant

Comparison with previous atlas:

1984-882003-07
Breeding confirmed2427
Breeding probable1
Breeding possibleexcluded from total
No of tetrads occupied24 (of 478)28 (of 490)
Percentage of tetrads5%5.7%

Razorbills nest mostly in loose colonies scattered around broken cliffs in cracks and holes and less commonly on small ledges. In some places just a few birds might breed in suitable sites, so their distribution is slightly wider around the county than the gregarious Guillemot.

 There are many fewer Razorbills than either Guillemots or Puffins but they occupy many more breeding sites around the coastline, especially along the south coast of the county and between Dinas Head and Newport along the north coast.  Their distribution appears to have hardly changed during the last century.

 Razorbills are not easy to count as they nest in scattered, often well concealed, small groups.  In the late 1970s (but for some reason not on Skokholm until the late 1980) the count methodology was changed.  Now all individuals attending the colony (i.e. observed on land), are counted, rather than using the older method of estimating “apparently occupied sites”.   Accordingly population comparisons have since been made using a standard conversion factor of 0.67 across the UK, i.e. for every three birds counted there are two nest sites on average. Even so, because of the problems of seeing birds easily at some sites (where sometimes the birds are very evident and sometimes they hide very effectively, which is possibly weather related), and because of the simple variation in attendance from day to day, the census counts are at best reasonable estimates. 

 Because of these census variables, data needs to be accumulated over a long period of time to assess population changes.  Information for Razorbills at their main breding sites has been collected for more than 40 years. The counts during the Seabird Colony register in 1985 – 1988 found a population of around 6,600 individuals in the county, half of them on Skomer. Seabird 2000 counts between 1998 and 2002 showed a significant increase to c. 9,000 birds during the period 2003–07, with almost 5,000 of them on Skomer.  This is the highest known population level.

Steve Sutcliffe

More about the Razorbill in Pembrokeshire

Razorbill – 1994

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant

1984-88
Breeding confirmed24
Breeding probable
Breeding possible
No of tetrads occupied24 (of 478)
Percentage of tetrads5%

Breeding distribution seems to have changed little since the time of Mathew (1894). Assessing numbers, though, is even more problematical than for Guillemot, for a large proportion breed in rock crevices where they are not readily visible.

Changes in the fortunes of the Razorbill have been very similar to those of Guillemot. Lockley et al. (1949) noted a decrease in numbers following the second World War, which they attributed to the effects of oil pollution. The population continued to decrease thereafter, with numbers on Skomer, for example, falling from about 2,100 pairs in 1963 to about 1,600 by 1974. In addition to oil pollution, Razorbills in the Irish Sea area were also casualties of toxic residue build-up (Saunders 1976). The Operation Seafarer survey of 1969 found about 3,000 breeding pairs in Pembrokeshire, about 50% of which were at Skomer.

Despite the Irish Sea seabird wreck of 1969 and oiling incidents such as those involving the Christos Bitas and Bridgeness, Razorbills began increasing again in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Seabird Register survey of 1985-1987 found about 6,600 occupied sites in Pembrokeshire, the major colonies being at Skomer (3,869), Ramsey (927), Skokholm (702), Elegug Stacks, Flimston (393), Needle Rock, Fishguard (266), Stackpole Head (138) and St Margaret’s Island (154).

Flightless young and moulting adult Razorbills gather off Strumble Head with Guillemots during August and September. Ringing has shown that some Razorbills stay in home waters throughout the year, while others, particularly first year birds, wander to Ireland, Scotland, the North Sea (as far north as Norway), the English Channel, all the way down the Bay of Biscay and into the Mediterranean.

Large numbers pass southwards out of the Irish Sea between late September and early December, often mixed with Guillemots but normally greatly outnumbered by them, though a remarkable 20,000 birds were estimated to have passed Strumble Head on 25 October 1992.

Donovan J.W. & Rees G.H, 1994, Birds of Pembrokeshire

SAUNDERS, D.R. 1976. A brief guide to the birds of Pembrokeshire. Five Arches Press.

More about the Razorbill in Pembrokeshire

Razorbill – 1980s winter

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant

The BTO winter atlas showed that Razorbills were present in some coastal 10km squares during the winters of 1981-82, 1982-82 and 1983-84.

The darker the colour, the higher the relative total count for each 10km square.  The darkest blue represents over 17 birds.

Small numbers were found feeding in coastal waters but many more during their occasional winter time visits to breeding locations.

Data collected by volunteers for the BTO. Lack, P. 1986 Atlas of wintering birds in Britain and Ireland. T & A.D. Poyser.

More about the Razorbill in Pembrokeshire

Razorbill – 1949

Alca torda britannica

Mathew describes it as a common summer resident, but less numerous than Guillemot or Puffin, and mentions the following breeding stations: Caldey, St Margaret’s, Skokholm, Skomer, Grassholm, Ramsey and various mainland cliffs.  Breeds today in suitable sites from Cemmaes Head to Caldey.  Decreased during the recent war, probably because of oil-pollution.

R.M.Lockley, G.C.S.Ingram, H.M.Salmon, 1949, The Birds of Pembrokeshire, The West Wales Field Society

More about the Razorbill in Pembrokeshire

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

More about the Razorbill in Pembrokeshire

Razorbill

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant

Razorbill – 2003-07 breeding

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant Comparison with previous atlas: 1984-88 2003-07 Breeding confirmed 24 27 Breeding probable 1 Breeding possible excluded from total No of tetrads occupied 24 (of 478) 28 (of 490) Percentage of tetrads 5% 5.7% Razorbills nest mostly in loose colonies scattered around broken cliffs in cracks […]

Razorbill – 1994

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant 1984-88 Breeding confirmed 24 Breeding probable Breeding possible No of tetrads occupied 24 (of 478) Percentage of tetrads 5% Breeding distribution seems to have changed little since the time of Mathew (1894). Assessing numbers, though, is even more problematical than for Guillemot, for a large […]

Razorbill – 1980s winter

Alca torda – LLURS – Breeding resident and passage migrant The BTO winter atlas showed that Razorbills were present in some coastal 10km squares during the winters of 1981-82, 1982-82 and 1983-84. The darker the colour, the higher the relative total count for each 10km square.  The darkest blue represents over 17 birds. Small numbers were found […]

Razorbill – 1949

Alca torda britannica Mathew describes it as a common summer resident, but less numerous than Guillemot or Puffin, and mentions the following breeding stations: Caldey, St Margaret’s, Skokholm, Skomer, Grassholm, Ramsey and various mainland cliffs.  Breeds today in suitable sites from Cemmaes Head to Caldey.  Decreased during the recent war, probably because of oil-pollution. R.M.Lockley, […]

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 […]