Monday, August 31, 2009

At the coast... Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon Guillemot, Newport, Oregon on 9 August 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Pigeon Guillemots are common nearshore seabirds on the West Coast. They breed from the the Kamchatka Peninsula in Asia, north to the Bering Strait, through the Aleutians, and south to islands off southern California. From spring through fall you can find these small black waterbirds with bright red feet in bays and estuaries and in the ocean along rocky shores.

Pigeon Guillemots nest on pilings, bridge footings, and under wharfs in bays and estuaries. On the outer coast they choose rocky sea cliffs where they lay their 2 eggs in a crevice or similar protected cranny. You can hear their drawn out high piping whistle call that runs together at the end: see-see-see-see-see-see-seeeer.

In winter they become scarce on the open ocean and outer bays of California, Oregon, and Washington. Some field guides say that they winter "far offshore," but this may not be the case. Many evidently migrate northward to Puget Sound and protected waters off British Columbia. Likewise, most of the birds breeding in the Bering Sea move southward to southern Alaska. During this time they molt into a non-breeding plumage that is mostly dusky white with dark on the crown, back, and parts of the wing.

These birds swim in the ocean and then dive below the surface to chase fish for food. They flap their wings under water to propel themselves. They feed in shallower waters than the related murres and puffins.

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon Guillemot, Newport, Oregon on 9 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The most similarly colored bird to Pigeon Guillemot is the White-winged Scoter, a slightly larger sea duck. Swimming, both Cassin's Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets are rather dark gray above the waterline. But the Pigeon Guillemot differs obviously from these last two, in that the guillemot has the large white wing patch.

Many people have trouble determining whether a patch of color on the upperparts of a non-flying bird is on the back or wing. By comparing the two photos above you can see how a wing patch looks in flight compared to when the wing is folded.

Another thing that the two photos reveal is that I visited the coast and captured photos of Pigeon Guillemots two years in a row on the exact same day! That is because I was at the coast each year to help guide on a pelagic birding trip. A pelagic trip is a tour set up to go far to sea (35 miles in this case) on a chartered fishing boat, but to view seabirds, not do any fishing. There are about 20 species of seabirds off the Pacific NW, that are rarely spotted from shore and that are common to abundant just out of sight of land. Please visit our pelagic birding website to learn more.

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