Guillemot – 1894

Lomvia troile – Resident.

The Common Guillemot is the well-known “Eligoog” of Pembrokeshire; the Stack Rocks, on which they nest in such numbers as almost completely to cover them, being often called “the Eligoog Stacks.” What we have written above with respect to the Razorbill, applies almost in so many words to the present species. It is to be found upon all the islands, on some of them, as upon Ramsey, in extraordinary numbers, and upon some of the cliffs of the mainland.

Three parts of the year the Guillemots, as well as the other cliff birds, are dispersed upon the open sea. They only resort to the islands and cliffs for the summer months for the purpose of rearing their young. We have visited the Stack Rocks in the early spring before the birds had arrived upon them, only to find a few Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes perched on their ledges, a Shag or two on the rocks just above the sea level, and a pair of otters disporting themselves among the waves that lapped their base. A few weeks later, and there would have been a transformation scene! The Stacks would have been white with birds, the waters in their neighbourhood would have been dotted over by little parties diving and fishing, and there would have been an almost deafening noise proceeding from the multitude of birds.

The Stacks are two in number, distant some sixty or seventy yards only from the shore, and reach in height almost to the level of the cliff on whose top the spectator stands. The largest of them is said to be only about thirty yards across on the summit, and they both present the appearance of rocky towers rising out of the water. The birds cover them from top to bottom, and are huddled together on their tops as close together as they can pack, but as the spaces after all are small, the total number of birds cannot be large, and there is not on these Stacks and on the cliffs in their neighbourhood, any more than a mere fraction of the immense numbers to be found on Ramsey or Skomer, where the birds are distributed over a great length of cliffs. But even on these two islands the birds are not found everywhere, having their favourite cliffs, which are densely thronged with them, while others are quite destitute of birds. Mr. Dix rowed round the Stack Rocks one day, to discover that the Guillemots were more numerous on their ledges fronting the sea than they were on those turned towards the land, although even on these the numbers were astounding.

Like the other diving birds that pursue the fish beneath the water, the Guillemots use their wings, and may be said to fly under the waves. One is able to form some idea of the vast myriads of fish the seas around our coasts must contain, when we consider the millions of birds that are daily feeding upon them. No amount of netting by fishermen is likely to produce any impression upon the shoals of fish ; the only injury that man can inflict upon them is in dredging the spawning beds. If only these could be left in quiet, there would be no danger of our fish supply becoming exhausted, however persistent and united the attacks made upon it by larger fish, seals, birds, and fishermen.

The variety called the Bridled Guillemot (once held to be a distinct species, and called Lomvia lacrymans), that has a white line curving a short distance down the neck on either side from the eye, occurs occasionally among the other Guillemots, but is rare; Mr. Mathias includes it in his list. On each of our visits to the breeding stations of the birds, we have kept a close watch for it, but among the thousands of Guillemots we have closely approached on their ledges, we have never succeeded in detecting one.

The eggs of the Common Guillemot are well known for their beauty, and one or two are generally carried away by visitors to the Stacks as ” curios.” Some very beautiful varieties may be picked out from among them, and we are not a little proud of our own series procured from Ramsey and Lundy. The farmers around St. David’s are said to feed their calves in the summer with a custard made from the “Eligoogs'” eggs obtained on Ramsey.

In the winter time we have seen numerous Common Guillemots far up the Bristol Channel, off Clevedon and Portishead, and often when we have been crossing the ferry to Port Skewet, in company with Razorbills.

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

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Black Guillemot – 1894

Uria grylle

A century ago there were a few Black Guillemots resident on the Pembrokeshire coast. Colonel Montagu, writing in his Ornithological Dictionary in 1802, says: “We have seen it rarely on the coast of Wales near Tenbeigh (sic), where a few breed annually; but nowhere else that we could find from thence to St. David’s.”

None now breed south of the Isle of Man, and the bird has deserted Anglesea, and the neighbourhood of Llandudno, in North Wales, where it was reported to occur by Pennant, equally with our coasts. There is no specimen of a Pembrokeshire Black Guillemot now existing that we know of in any collection; nor is the bird, in virtue of a chance straggler floated to our shores, at the present day included in any list of the birds of the county. The Black Guillemot is very abundant off the north-west of Scotland, and is a species that does not wander far from its habitat; specimens reported from the Bristol or English Channels are few and far between.

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

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Puffin – 1894

Fratercula arctica – Resident.

This is the last of the Pembrokeshire birds that is left to us to describe, and, in the summer time, is by far the most numerous on the whole list; we do not believe that we should exaggerate were we to say that the Puffins, in number, are then equal to all the other birds in the county added together!

They occur on almost every station that is visited by the other cliff birds, wherever there are facilities for making their burrows, but like some other species, have their favourite quarters, being found on Ramsey only on the north end of the island, while the Razorbills and Guillemots chiefly occupy its western and south-western cliffs, and the large rocks standing out in the water to the south. On Skomer, where their numbers are marvellous, the Puffins are distributed all over the island, and there is scarcely a yard of ground free from them, so that we were both surprised and amused by coming on them at the least expected places. In walking over the island every now and again, our feet would slip through into a Puffin’s burrow, and sometimes, we fear, we sadly discomposed the bird sitting within upon her egg.

The Rev. C. M. Phelps has remarked that the eggs of the Skomer Puffins are very fine, and, in some cases, unusually richly marked. The same characteristic would seem to apply to the Puffins eggs from any part of the Welsh coast, as some we obtained from the neighbourhood of Barmouth, in North Wales, are very handsome, being of a pure white, and sparsely dotted over with grey patches. The average Puffin egg is a dirty white egg, far from ornamental in one’s cabinet.

We had frequently been informed by friends of the vast numbers of Puffins that inhabited Skomer, but from their descriptions we were but little prepared for what we actually saw. As our boat approached the island we first came upon an immense mass of birds upon the water, that proved to be acre upon acre of Puffins ; flocks were continually arriving, and others leaving the main body, and all over the surface of the sea there were smaller flocks. As we drew near to the shore we found the cliffs in front of us so thickly covered by Puffins as to look as if they were sprinkled with snow, and the air was thick with single Puffins flying off the water with ribbands of fish hanging from their mandibles, on their way to feed the young in their burrows.

The birds were ridiculously tame, and when we landed, and were close to them, took but slight heed of us, only fixing their little round eyes upon us, and seeming to sit a little more upright upon the rocks. But there was a continual movement amongst them of those arriving and departing, and sitting down among the fern we for some time watched the wonderful scene, and as we remained quiet some of the birds were emboldened to alight almost within arm’s reach, and presently we saw a pure white Puffin, white all over, save for the wings that were black, fly within a few feet of us. In Mr. Vaughan Davies’ house there is preserved a beautiful specimen of a perfect albino Puffin that had been obtained on the island, and we were informed that varieties are rare, and that this was the only albino that had ever occurred.

Mr. Dix relates that on Caldy Island, where Puffins are also numerous, there was in his time a very cruel custom that we heartily trust has been put a stop to by the Sea Birds’ Preservation Act, viz., the men and boys of Tenby used to slaughter the Puffins wholesale on Whit Monday, and adds: “It is as much an institution with them as May Day with the sweeps.” We are told that on Grasholm the Puffins are a week or ten days later in nesting than they are on Skomer and Ramsey.

In the winter the Puffins disappear from all the islands, and are distributed over the seas. They do not appear to go far up the Bristol Channel, as the Guillemots and Razorbills do, as we have never met with any, and there are but few instances of stragglers having been noticed on the Somerset coasts. The singular fact is reported from one of the Light Houses at the entrance to Milford Haven that Puffins strike against the light annually at the beginning of September, and do not do so at any other season of the year. At Caldy they visit the Light House in the spring; twenty occurred there at 6 a.m on March 4, 1886.

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

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Storm Petrel – 1894

Procellaria pelagica

This, tiny Petrel, commonly known by the name of ” Mother Carey’s Chicken,” is resident on Skomer Island, where it nests in the chinks of an old wall on the top of the cliff, and probably nests also on other islands off the Pembrokeshire coast. When we were on Skomer on the last day of May we visited this wall, but as the Storm-Petrels are late in breeding there were no eggs there then, although we distinctly perceived the unmistakable Petrel odour clinging in places to the stones, showing that the birds were at that time visiting the wall.

The Storm Petrel does not lay its single white egg before the end of June, or even later, for in the Zoologist for 1886, p. 457, the Rev. H. A. Macpherson mentions an adult and nestling that he saw in Leadenhall market, in London, as late as 20th September. Both, he was told, had come from Skomer ; the nestling was taken on 18th September, and was fully feathered, but still retained some of the sooty down, especially upon the belly.

After severe gales the little Storm Petrel is occasionally picked up inland at some distance from the coast. In stormy weather in the autumn some are captured at the Light House on the South Bishop’s Rock; on the night of October 14, 1883, eight were taken; it was misty weather, with a S.E. breeze, and a drizzling rain. A great number of small birds struck that night against the light, ninety were killed, and two hundred were taken in a net. Three “Falcon Hawks and a Large-horned Owl” were also present, and “made sad havoc among them” (Migration Reports, 1883).

It seems strange that the Storm Petrels should be betrayed into danger by the glare of the Light House lights. One would have thought that, from being always about and skimming over the water at night time, they would have become accustomed to the lights; we can only suppose that in misty weather they are bewildered and become reckless, and so approach too near to what in ordinary weather they would be careful to avoid.

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

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