Brünnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia and influx of Little Auk Alle alle
at the Isle of Schiermonnikoog, October the 23th, 2005

Photographs by Martijn Renders and Mark Gal



Ben Wielstra tells...

We (Kasper Hendriks, Ben Wielstra, Martijn Renders, Niels van Houtum, Rob van Bemmelen, Swen Rijnbeek) decided to spend a long weekend of bird watching on the Isle of Schiermonnikoog from Friday October the 21st until Monday the 24th. Although we did have nice observations of scarce migrants and wintering birds such as Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus and Horned Larks Eremophila alestris, and good numbers of thrushes Turdidae and Goldcrests Regulus regulus were present, it stayed tediously quiet on the far-eastern passerine front.

On Sunday, October the 23rd, we decided to start the day by watching some seabird migration for a change, secretly in the hope of seeing Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica. Wind predictions were not very interesting, so we did not expect to see all that much when we calmly left for the North Sea coast that morning, after we had waited for the rain to end. However, we were soon fixated on the surf as a group of five Little Auks Alle alle flew past close by, before we even settled ourselves and our optics along the beach!

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

There was no time for celebration, because within seconds a group of 21 supposed Starlings Sturnus vulgaris flying over, turned out to concern Little Auks as well. Immediately we started checking our bags in search of a pen and maybe a piece paper. Yes, we were very much prepared… Soon we found ourselves counting groups of Little Auks. 5...3...16...3...3...16...10...7...3…11…etcetera, etcetera. This promised to become an interesting day! Groups were made up of up to even 30 individuals and we saw many a group numbering 20 birds or more. Regularly, birds passed us at extreme close range. Groups of Little Auks were flying past behind us, over the beach or even inland. Because we were standing at about sea level, we did not have a good overview of what was happening behind the surf. Now and then we saw clouds of white dots coming up from behind the waves. We were not the only ones to notice the spectacle: several Peregrines Falco peregrinus were patrolling the beach, now and than catching a Little Auk. One falcon even tried to seize the Little Auks directly from the water, which was not such a bad idea, as many birds were swimming in the surf (we saw groups of at least ten birds). The auks were occasionally joined by a photographer. On one occasion we heard one of the swimming birds calling.

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

From 9 AM until 6 PM we were treated with an almost continuous stream of Little Auks flying westwards. As far as we know, the highest number of birds counted along the Dutch coast was that of about 692 birds flying past Camperduin on December the 24th, 1990. We soon realized we were going to beat it and at the end of the day, after we had done the maths, it turned out we had seen 3287 birds. Euphoria! We only arrived on the beach relatively late in the morning, we should have started at 8 AM at the latest! Furthermore we must have missed a considerable number of Little Auks who were flying too far out at see or inland. The number we counted can only be seen as an absolute underestimate. We notified other birders of the massive influx of Little Auks and Klaas Haas eventually spread the news over the Dutch pager system. During the day, high numbers were noted in other places in the north of the Netherlands, too. An estimated 1500 birds were seen flying past the Island of Terschelling, including a group of 84 individuals! Also good numbers were noted far inland (e.g. several tens of birds on the lake “IJselmeer”).

A variety of other seabirds joined the feast, albeit in more ordinary numbers. During the day we saw two Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis, three Sooty Shearwaters Puffinus griseus, two Leach's Storm-petrels Oceanodroma leucorhoa, two Red Phalaropes Phalaropus fulicaria, all four species of jaegers Stercorariidae and three Sabine's Gulls Larus sabini, amongst others, most birds flying close by.

Sabine's Gull @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Sabine's Gull @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Sabine's Gull @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Sabine's Gull @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

As if this seabird bonanza was not exiting enough already, we had a stunning encounter with the extremely rare Brünnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia! We picked up most of the passing birds when they were still far east of us. At about 16.10 PM, Kasper noticed an odd “Razorbill Alca torda / Guillemot Uria aalge”. He pointed us towards the bird, saying “is that a Razorbill!? Is that a Razorbill!?”. It immediately struck us that the sides of the head of the bird were dark. When watching Auks Alcidae, at least during autumn in the Netherlands, this means as much as “pay the f**k attention!”.

As soon as the bird had approached enough so we could see it from the side, Ben shouted “Is that a Brünnich's Guillemot? It IS a Brünnich's Guillemot!”. In the following seconds we had absolutely brilliant views of the bird as it was flying past us over the surf, and all could confirm this daring identification. Martijn Renders stayed cool as ice and took a series of pictures (he was still holding his camera anyway because of all the Little Auks on near collision course). Rob spread the news of this mega over the Dutch pager system. Brünnich's Guillemot was a lifer for all of us. This means none of us had previous experience with the species in the field. We did have experience with some of his cousins, and we had also seen them well that same day. Interestingly, we hardly saw any Guillemots and Razorbills; only about five individuals of each species and another 20 unidentified birds flying too far out of the coast. It has been suggested that the bird may have followed the Little Auks. Who knows…

The appearance of the bird was striking: it did not resemble a Guillemot at all and it made more of a Razorbill impression (it was compact and very black and white). When it had passed it turned out we all had only paid attention to the head of the bird. Of course, most field characters are present on that part of the bird: a short pointy bill, an angular forehead ('Great Nothern Diver Gavia immer hump'), a breast band (which we count as belonging to the head) and a dark face without any white in the neck. We did immediately notice the white “armpits” but did not check the projection of the feet in the field. Although the pictures are vague, the bird seems to show its feet instead of a pointy tail. A full and detailed description of the bird can be found to the right.

This Brünnich's Guillemot constitutes only the eight record for the Netherlands and the second one to be observed alive. Euphoria again! The only bird that reached the Netherlands alive before, was a dying oil victim which was present along the Brouwersdam in 1979. It was first seen on February the 4th and eventually found dead on February the 10th.

After nine hours of continuous sea watching, just about when we decided to call it a day, a last Little Auk came flying past. The bird made a sharp turn, and landed in the tidal pool in front of our feet. We had great views while it was foraging lively under water and waggling about penguin style. After this last treat we went back to our hotel for a well deserved dinner and toilet break.

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal

Little Auk @ Schiermonnikoog © Mark Gal


A description of the Brünnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia will be placed in this column as soon as reasonably possible. Meanwhile, you can have a look at the full size photographs of the bird, made by Martijn Renders, by clicking the magnified images below.

The photographs will open in a pop-up window. Note that browsers such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox might need a permission to open the pop-up first. After opening the pop-up, make sure to right click the photographs and save them, for the photograph's resolution is much higher than your screen's.

Brünnich's Guillemot @ Schiermonnikoog © Martijn Renders

Brünnich's Guillemot @ Schiermonnikoog © Martijn Renders

Brünnich's Guillemot @ Schiermonnikoog © Martijn Renders
Brünnich's Guillemot @ Schiermonnikoog © Martijn Renders




The Usual Suspects (aka Het uitschot van Nederland) @ Schiermonnikoog © Swen Rijnbeek
The Usual Suspects @ Schiermonnikoog © Swen Rijnbeek



Legendary notes by Ben

Legendary notes by Ben



Bring me back to the core, please...