Black Guillemot

The Black Guillemot is a seabird of the coastal regions of the North Atlantic and Alaska. Much like its name, derived from the French ‘Guillaume’ or William, it is a strong-willed shorebird with striking characteristics. This duck-sized seabird has a dramatically contrasting winter and summer plumage, both equally impressive and unique. 

The rocky shorelines of the Arctic and North Atlantic see Black Guillemots diving and swimming around in leisure. For a bird species with black in its name, it is only in summer that its plumage actually turns black. The winter season is spent with a rather ice-white appearance. 

In the summer, the Black Guillemot is easily identifiable by its almost entirely black body with hints of white and eye-catching red feet. On the other hand, it dons an almost snowy-white plumage and dusky markings in winters to match the season.

Unlike others in the auk family, the medium-sized shorebird is often found in smaller groups of ones and twos. They can be found near shallow coastal waters and along the shores of the Atlantic and Arctic. They hunt for fishes and crustaceans besides the usual insects and can take short dives in the water. 

Today, we’ll learn about: 

  • Black Guillemot color patterns, songs, and size
  • Black Guillemot behavior, habitat, and diet
  • Black Guillemot life cycle, nesting, and migration range


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Black Guillemot Color Pattern

The most notable feature of the Black Guillemot is its summer plumage, from which they get their name the “Black” Guillemot. Their breeding look consists of entirely black feathers covering the body with bold white patches on the wings. They have a striking pair of red legs that stand out even more than the black plumage. Besides their legs and feet, even the insides of the mouth turn a bright coral-red shade. The bill is black.

Perhaps the second distinctive feature is the dramatic change into the winter plumage. When winter comes, they lose their all-black plumage and swap it for an almost all-white one. The dusky spots over the body mark their white feathers. However, the wingtips remain black. The upper body is covered with light grey and white plumage, with their head being a pale grey.  Their underparts are white, and their legs and feet turn a pale red. 

The white wing patch, black beak, and redness of the inside of their mouth are common to both breeding and non-breeding adults. Although, there is not much difference in coloration among the sexes. You can easily identify the juveniles by the grey or brown spotting of the white wing patch.

Description and Identification

The key to correctly identifying any bird lies in the details. If you find yourself on a rocky shore, staring at a black-colored duck-ish bird with red feet in the summer, you have yourself a Black Guillemot on your hands. 

 To spot a Black Guillemot, be on the lookout for these four characteristics- 

  • Habitat: Guillemots like to nest on rocky islands, shorelines, and cliffs near the coasts, particularly in spring and summer. They forage around shallow ocean waters close to the shore and openings in sea ice. Scan the open water for a blackbird with white wing patches sitting on the water or flying in a flurry of heavy wingbeats. A few nests can be found in Alaska, among the Pigeon Guillemots.
  • Color Pattern: The surest way to spot a Black Guillemot is to look out for their breeding plumage. Keep your eyes peeled open for a deep, blackbird with large white patches on the wings. The underwings are white, and the legs and feet are bright red. In the off-seasons, look for a similar black-and-white wing pattern but with a grey-white bird body. 
  • Size and Shape: The Black Guillemot is a medium-sized seabird. They have a heavy body and pretty short wings. The head is small and round and sits on a short neck. The bill is straight and pointed, A medium-sized seabird with a heavy body and relatively short, pointed wings. 
  • Behavior: You can often find these Guillemots crouching on shallow waters in a duck-like manner. They forage for aquatic life by swimming or diving underwater to catch prey in their bills. They are more solitary birds, found alone or in small groups of twos or threes. 

Black Guillemot Song

The Black Guillemot common calls are light like a wailing whistle. Some may even go far as to compare it with a mouse-like squeak. When breeding, their calls resemble a high whistle. Breeding or mating calls are described as tremulous whistles and staccato piping.

Black Guillemot Size

The Black Guillemot is a medium-sized sea bird. Think of it as a crow-sized black duck. It is larger than a Pied-billed Grebe but smaller than a Surf Scoter. The adult birds usually are 30 to 32 centimeters or 12 to 12+1⁄2 inches in length. Their wingspans stretch from 52 to 58 cm. Adults can weigh up to 350 to 450 grams.

Black Guillemot’s bodies can be described as on the heavy side with wings that are mostly short. The head happens to be small for the body and so is the neck area. They have a straight, thick, and pointed bill. In general, Black Guillemots are bigger than Pied-billed Grebe. But Surf Scoter are smaller than them. 

Black Guillemot Behavior

The Black Guillemot is our very own pretty hermit- it likes to forage, nest, and live in solitude. It is sedentary most part, compared to other auks. They are seldom found outside their breeding range or in offshore waters. 

It can be found on rocky shores, dwelling inside small caves or crevices near ocean waters, or on coastal shorelines. In many ways, it carries a close resemblance to ducks, like the way it sits on water or searches for prey. It forages near the shore in shallow waters by diving under to catch food near the bottom. They typically dive at an angle of 30° from the surface and rarely dive at 100°.

Black Guillemots are usually monogamous and form bonds that last for several nesting seasons. When spring approaches, they tend to approach the same nesting grounds, finding last year’s partners, finally commencing their courtship. They perform mating dances by circling them at sea or on the ground. They use their breeding call too. Black Guillemots are also known to practice “greeting calls” when nesting. 


What Black Guillemots Eat

Most of the Black Guillemots’ diet consists of small fish and crustaceans, and even mollusks, crabs, worms, insects, and plant material. 

They use their wings and feet to propel and steer themselves after diving underwater, searching for prey. Using their bills and jabbing, they capture fishes near the bottom of the ocean bed, between rocks, in water columns, or below sea ice. Swallowing the smaller feed, they tuck in larger fishes and crustaceans in their bills and take them to the surface. There, they process or soften the food inside their bills before swallowing them whole. 

Other prey may include pollock, Arctic cod, grubby, rock gunnel, northern sand lance, radiated shanny, sculpins, blennies, sea scorpions, herrings, pricklebacks, and pouts. A remarkable array of marine creatures like sponges, jellyfish, ctenophores (such as comb jelly), bristle worms (polychaetes), and segmented worms (annelids) are often caught in their bills. They also catch squid, mollusks (such as sea snails), and small crustaceans (amphipods, decapods, copepods, euphausiids, mysids, cetaceans, and barnacles) in their bills. 

Where Black Guillemots Live And Habitat

Black Guillemots can be simply narrowed down to shorelines of oceans. Islands, areas where the shores have huge boulders, are all their favorite breeding places. If you are looking for them, you will find them closer to shore areas where the waters are shallow. Some might stay around the edges of pack ice. Sometimes, they are found near the coasts where there is freshwater lakes present. For their nests, low cliffs, the rocky shores, and the debris in beach areas are among the many places they prefer.  

The Black Guillemot is a circumpolar species spread over the low arctic and high arctic regions of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. There are five subspecies listed, all different inhabiting niches in this range. 

In North America, they can be found far south in the Gulf of Maine and New England, even across parts of the northern coast of North America going as far as Alaska

They are also common to the British Isles and on the northern coast of Asia. The Black Guillemot are among the few birds that breed in Surtsey, Iceland. Another common breeding ground lies in the western and northern regions of Scotland and Ireland. 

Their habitats are pretty similar in each part of the world. They are partial to rocky shores, ocean waters, and beaches, utilizing the cliffs, crevices, and boulders for their nests.

Range and Migration

The Black Guillemot is native throughout northern Atlantic coasts and eastern North American coasts. It is primarily sedentary, and you can rarely find them away from its nesting grounds. Being particularly permanent residents, they tend to overwinter far north, as open water allows. 

The Black Guillemots are found in low and high arctic regions and the boreal areas in the Atlantic north and Arctic oceans. Their breeding range has been accurately narrowed to 43° to 82°N. As they are further divided into 5 subspecies, different types are found in different ranges. If you look for them in southern North America, you can find them in the Gulf of Maine and North America. You can also find them on North America’s northern coast, places like Alaska. 

If you go to Asia and Europe, you will find them in the north of Asia’s northern coast and the British Isles in Europe. They belong among the few birds that have chosen to breed on Surtsey Island of Iceland, a new volcanic area. Scotland and Ireland are also well acquainted with this bird when it comes to breeding. About 40 percent of the population of this bird species usually breeds in the high arctic while another 30 percent in the low arctic. The boreal gets the rest of the 30 percent breeding population. 

The birds who reside in high arctic waters might head southward due to the ice collected during winter, making them seasonal migrants. The ones that live in fairly temperate zones don’t bother with migration though. Similarly, the Robin stays or migrates depending on the situation.

Sometimes they may migrate annually over small distances, moving southwards to Massachusetts, rarely farther. Large populations from the high arctic migrate southwards in winter.

Black Guillemot Life Cycle

The Black Guillemots start breeding at the age of four. These Guillemots are monogamous and stay with the same partner for several breeding seasons. They prefer breeding in solitary pairs or small groups, resonating with their other habits. 

Their breeding season starts in February and early May. A pair may typically lay two egg clutches and raise two chicks to fledge. Eggs are light greyish with dark speckles and blotches and are laid directly onto the ground. Their incubation period usually lasts 28 to 32 days. 

Once the eggs hatch and chicks come out, they are looked after by their parents for roughly 30 to 40 days, when they reach fledging. Once fledged chicks become independent, they rejoin their natal colony some time at age three or four. Chicks leave the nest 4 to 8 weeks after hatching, typically unaccompanied by their parents. 


The Black Guillemot nests in rocky crevices near the shores, under stones, or in screes. These places are almost inaccessible to predators and difficult to find too. The nest site can be close to sea level or high up in bird cliffs. They often nest in places with few other guillemots or auks nearby. The exception is in the Arctic breeding grounds, where one can find several colonies with up to a few thousand pairs. 

In many cases, the pairs may not form actual nests. They may choose to lay eggs directly on the ground surface. Alternatively, some may collect pebbles, seaweed, feathers, bones, and shells lining the nesting areas. The nests and cavities vary significantly in size.

Many pairs perform communal displays like strutting with a high-stepping walk, neck upstretched. They may assume a similar posture in water which may lead to games of chasing and diving. The male and female may face each other and bob their heads together, sometimes calling or touching bills.

Anatomy of a Black Guillemot

The best way to describe Black Guillemots’ anatomy is to simply say they look like ducks. Except for the change in color patterns, they pretty much have the shape of ducks. Except, when they are flying, they don’t look anything like ducks. Their wings are proudly stretched while they straighten their necks and their legs are tucked in. 

Otherwise, they have thin legs and a potbelly. They have small heads that meet a thick neck. Then we see a curved back and a huge belly. The wings are quite small but have enough feathers and appear thick. Their eyes are small compared to their head and the neck curves a little. Unless they are flying, Black Guillemots never are really up to their full length. 

Final Thoughts

The current global population estimate of the Black Guillemot stands at 750,000 breeding birds. They are a relatively protected species not facing any imminent threats and are considered a species of low conservation concern. 

The remote and almost inaccessible breeding habitats make collecting accurate numbers a challenging task. It is hard to determine the actual status of the Black Guillemot population whether they are rising, stable or falling. 

One of the major concerns is that the guillemots are often exposed to pollution. Because of their foraging behavior and habitats, they venture out on ocean waters and shores. The increasing levels of pollutants pose threats like habitat contamination. Exposure to toxic chemicals that may enter the waters, including mercury, PCBs, pesticides, and crude oil residues, gets stored in their plumage and body, inflicting continuous damage. 

However, because of this occurrence, they are also used to measure local pollution in some areas. These contaminants may cause nest failures. Oil spills may result in the death of Black Guillemots. Global climate change is also likely to affect Black Guillemots, as most species will be too. In particular, changing weather may cause a change in ocean currents, temperatures, and fish distributions.

Right now, the conservation status of Black Guillemots isn’t of huge concern. Their range is one of the widest amongst the bird species. Combined with the fact that their nesting sites are generously scattered, their survival chances automatically rise up. Still, there are some areas where the population has taken a dip due to rats or mink invading their nesting areas. It is also interesting that those in Massachusetts have increased a lot since the 1960s. Overall, you shouldn’t worry about Black Guillemots going extinct any time soon. The only point of worry is whether you can reach their breeding ground during the right season to see them.


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Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Black Guillemots  

The most common types of bird-watching binoculars for viewing Black Guillemots are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

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Black Guillemot Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Black Guillemot. Here is the sticker pack we sell with a Black Guillemot sticker.

Bird Feeders For Black Guillemot

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Best Bird Houses For Black Guillemot

There are many types of bird houses. Building a birdhouse is always fun but can be frustrating. These 4 birdhouses have become our favorites. Getting a birdhouse for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. We spent a little extra money on these birdhouses but they have been worth the higher price and look great.

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