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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel Dave Jones

Alcids Index

Atlantic Puffin

Razorbill

Dovekie

Black Guillemot

Murres 

 

Seabirds - Alcids

 

Common Murre

Uria aalge

Thick-Billed Murre

Uria lomvia

 

Murres nest on cliff  EBTarry

Both Common and Thick-billed Murres nest on wide rocky ledges usually not together. Emmalee Tarry Alaska

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Names
The two Murres species are known by different English names in Europe. Use Latinized scientific names to avoid confusion.

US  English Name                Scientific Name                         European English Name

Common Murre                        Uria aalge                                    Common  Guillemot or just Guillemot Harrison (1983)
Thick-billed Murre                    Uria lomvia                                  Brunnich's Guilemot



Two Species Very Similar

These two species of Alcids are very similar in appearance and behavior. At close range there are clear differences to distinguish the species both in breeding and winter plumage. At a long distance it is not so easy and In winter there can be some difficulty distinguishing either species from Razorbills.

Range
Both species are found on both coasts of the north Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Thick-billed Murres live further north than the Common Murre. Both birds avoid ice. Both species prefer to live year round near the coast and islandst. The Common Murre does not venture far from the breeding area in winter while the Thick-billed Murre has a wider disbursal perhaps to avoid ice in its more northerly breeding range. Freethly (1987).

Breeding
Both breed in colonies and lay single eggs on bare ledges as seen in the picture above. If the egg is lost, the female may lay a second egg. The only nest consists of a few stones. The Thick-billed Murre breeds further north than the Common although there is overlap. Where there is overlap, the species are segregated on different ledges even if they are are close together.


Common Murre Egg EB Tarry

 Few Murre eggs roll off the ledge despite being laid on the narrow ledge without the protection of a nest. This is because the Murre's egg is pear shaped with a pointed end. The shape is said to makes the egg roll in a circle rather than roll off of the cliff.

The webmaster found this empty shell in the grass at the top of the cliff at Cape St. Mary apparently stolen and eaten by Ravens. Notice the light blue color with the irregular brown spots.

I took this picture and then left the shell as I found it. Later in the visitor’s center I asked the ranger if she would be interested in collecting the shell to place in the exhibit. She was not pleased and lectured me on the necessity of not collecting anything on the refuge. I am happy to know she is protecting the birds from souvenir hunters if not from Ravens.

Both parents feed the hungry chick. After the chick is about half grown it takes to sea accompanied by one parent. The webmaster observed an adult feeding a fledgling at sea on a Southern California offshore trip out of San Diego. This was a SoCal sponsored trip. See Take a Trip  for information about these wonderful trips.

Adult birds are silent at sea, but the fledgling begs for food from the adult with short low whistles. To observe this you must make sure you are not attracting gulls to the boat with popcorn.

Feeding
Both species feed by sitting on the surface of the water and head-dipping prior to diving in pursuit of fish which form the main part of their diet. Unless they are feeding young, the prey is usually swallowed before surfacing. They are reported to dive up to 180 feet.
Some times Murres feed in groups and on occasion have been observed gliding over the surface of water before crash diving into the water.

This Thick-billed Murre was photographed by Glen Tepke feeding in the more usual way of diving from the surface. We will have to take Glen’s word that this is a Thick-billed Murre

.


Thick-billed Murre  Glen Tepke

Common Murre Uria aalge
Breeding males and females are alike. The head, neck,back and wings, feet and legs are black or dark brown (Harrison 1983). The dark throat ends in shallow, rounded inverted “U”

Wings dark on top. Secondaries have small white tips not the large white tips of the Razorbill that produce a thin trailing edge..

The under parts are clean white. Not really visible in the breeding bird is a dark furrow behind the eye which shows up very distinctly in the winter plumage. See picture below. The bill is slim,straight and all dark.

This photograph of a Common Murre on the left and a Razorbill on the right was taken by Emmalee Tarry at Machias Seal Island in Maine.


In the Atlantic the Common Murre has an uncommon bridled form in which a bright white line extends down and back from the eye. Sorry no picture.

In nonbreeding plumage the dark throat and neck are white with only a black area in the very back. A dark furrow that runs down and back from the eye is usually not observed in the breeding bird except at very close range. However in the winter plumage it show up very clearly..

Non-breeding Common Murre photographed by Leonard Medlock at Rye Harbor, NH




Left Common Murre  right Razorbill  EB Tarry
Common Murre non-breeding Leonard Medlock Rye Harbor

Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia

The Thick-billed Murre has a shorter bill with a decurved culmen (upper
edge of the bill). The all dark bill has a white gape line. The gape is the fleshy edges at the corner of the mouth. This can be seen in the picture to the right by Leonard Medlock. taken on Jeffrey’s Ledge. The bill is shorter and thicker than the Common Murre.

Notice the thin white line on the back that is made by the small white tips at the end of the secondary wing feathers. Compare to the Razorbill which has larger white tips and makes a more distinct white line.

A front view of a standing Thick-billed Murre shows the white pattern under the throat is an inverted “V” shape as contrasted with the Common Murre’s inverted “U”.



Thick-billed Murre  Leonard Medlock 
Thick-billed Murre Glen Tepke

This photo by Glen Tepke emphasizes the thickness of the bill. White gape line is clearly visible


 
Thick-billed Murred Glen Tepke

In this photo by Glen Tepke the thin white line formed by the tips of the of the secondaries is clearly shown. The white tips are common to both species of Murres.
 

Let’s end with a little quiz. To what species do these two winter plumage birds belong? Answer mouse over picture to the right.

Quiz photo 
Seabirds | Alcids | Puffin | Razorbill | Murres | Dovekie | Black Guillemot  |Top of Page                                                                                                                                     

Freethy, Ron (1987 Auks An Ornithologist’s Guide Facts On File Publications New York                                              
Harrison, Peter (1983) Seabirds an identification guide Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston                                                Comments to Webmaster


Sibley, David (2000) The Sibley Guide to Birds Alfred A. Knopf, New York.