How did you do?
There are of course two birds in this photograph, which look they are flying with powered flight (rather than gliding) over the sea. The first impression is of neckless, chunky black-and-white lumps of birds. They look deep bodied and this combined with the black-and-white plumage and short neck suggests they are one of the auk species. Adult guillemots and Razorbills and indeed Puffins can be ruled out by the tiny bill, which is much smaller than it would be on any of these birds. Young of these larger auks go to sea when half the size of adults, but don’t have such well developed wings. So, we are only left with one alternative: the relatively scarce Little Auk, an Arctic breeding species which comes inshore in the UK only after very high winds.
KEY FEATURES Neckless, chunky black-and-white lump of a bird Dark underwings Tiny ‘triangular’ bill White wraps round face almost to nape
The shape of this bird is obviously that of a gull, and judging by its proportions, a large one at that. It is what some may call a ‘large, pale-headed gull’. But that is just a starting point. The overall plumage is a little patchy, so this is not a fully mature bird. The dark mantle and wings rules out the large pale-backed species, such as Herring Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and straightaway narrows it to one of the so-called ‘black-backed’ species. But which one? The dark grey rather than blackish mantle may suggest Lesser Black-backed. But younger Greats can have slightly paler backs. The strongest evidence for which species this is comes from the bill. It is massive and very deep, typical of the largest gull, Great Black-backed Gull.
KEY FEATURES Big, angry-looking, dark-backed, pale-headed gull Dark mantle suggest one of the black-backed gulls Patchy plumage suggests it is not a fully adult bird Very thick, deep bill
Most birds seen when seawatching are either swimming or more commonly, flying past. This one is apparently just in transition between the two modes. It is a long-necked bird with feet set well back on the body, suggesting it is adapted for surface diving. The patterned wings rule out divers and cormorants and the head shape and long thin neck are unlike any of our diving ducks. This bird is a grebe and the white in the forewing rules out Little and Black-necked Grebes. In fact, the white on the inner wing (showing on the right wing) also rules out Slavonian and Red-necked Grebes and leaves us with Great Crested Grebe. The pink bill and pale face confirm this identification. Great Crested Grebes are frequently seen on seawatches.
KEY FEATURES Long-necked, large bodied, duck-like bird Legs set at back of ‘tailless’ body Odd white and ‘black’ wing pattern Pale face and pinkish bill
At first glance this bird may look like a gull, with its white head and grey back and well-proportioned body. But look again, and those stiff straight wings, that grey rump and tail, those pale patches on the wings and that odd bill structure should steer you away from gulls and toward the group of seabirds known as tube-noses. That includes the storm-petrels, the petrels, the shearwaters and the massive albatrosses of the southern hemisphere. Indeed, this bird appears to have albatross-like dark-shaded, dark eyes. There is only one UK tubenose which looks superficially like a white-headed gull, though, and it is our only mid-sized petrel species, the Fulmar. Fulmars are widely distributed around our coasts and frequently seen on seawatches.
KEY FEATURES Gull-like plumage Stiff-winged flight, like a shearwater Grey rump and tail Dark ‘eyeshadow’
Like Bird 4, this bird has its long wings extended straight out, while it appears to be flying with its wings in the vertical plane. Realistically, only tubenoses and Gannets will fly like this, shearing over the waves. Juvenile Gannets are largely dark all over, like this bird, but have a long, dagger-like bill, whereas this bird has quite a fine, ‘blunt-ended’ bill, more typical of a tubenose, and the slim shape and long, pointed wings suggest a shearwater. The plumage is largely dark brown all over, with whitish or ‘silvery’ areas to the underwing. Balearic Shearwaters tend to have paler bellies and look pot-bellied. This all-dark, silver-winged, cigar-shaped beauty is a Sooty Shearwater.
KEY FEATURES Stiff, straight wings suggests a ‘tubenose’ All dark brown body and head Silvery underwing patches Nicely proportioned cigar-shaped body
Perhaps the toughest ID challenge of the lot, this month, the photo shows a long-necked bird flying in level flight. It is dark above and white below, and there are few other plumage features to go on. The feet are set well back on the body, which is typical for a surface diving bird and the head appears to be held lower than the plane of the slightly hump-backed body. The bill is dagger-shaped. The combination of the structure and plumage suggest a diver species, out of breeding plumage. Red-throated Divers have white above the thin upturned bill. This looks to be either a Black-throated or Great Northern Diver. Great Northerns have a distinct neck ‘collar’, not shown here. This is a Black-throated Diver.
KEY FEATURES Goose-like, long-necked, brown-and-white bird Dagger-like grey bill Dark feathering around eye, cheeks and neck sides Legs and feet come from extreme rear of bird