Monday, 27 August 2018

Sea-watching, Skuas and a fish supper

If you're not a birder you might wonder what "sea-watching" is, and why anyone would do it? The name makes it sound like it is just staring at the sea for hours on end. In fact the reality is not that different. Sea-watching is a rather specialist sub-set of bird-watching which involves sitting (or standing, but I prefer to sit) at a point on the coast, often at the end of a headland or pier/jetty, and scanning the sea with your binoculars and/or telescope to see, and hopefully identify, as many seabirds as possible.

Although most birders will do some sea-watching at various times during their lives, mostly because that is the only way to add certain species to your life-list, there is a small 'sub-community' of birders who are addicted to it and spend several hours a day at certain times of year braving all weather to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing a rare petrel or perhaps an albatross or even (in their wildest dreams) something supremely rare such as a Red-billed Tropicbird.
At this point I have to confess that I am definitely NOT part of this sub-community. I have quite a short supply of patience when it comes to scanning the mostly birdless waves in the hope of glimpsing a shearwater or skua which will probably be so distant that even if I do see one I probably won't be able to identify anything but the commonest species.

However, occasionally (usually when lots of interesting things have been seen at a bit of coast near me over the preceding few days) I am tempted to take my scope and my folding chair out to the coast to sit for an hour or so doing my best to identify whatever I see. That is exactly what I did this morning. Over the past few days, from several different points along the coast of North Yorkshire and County Durham, people have been seeing hundreds of terns and Manx Shearwaters, and smaller numbers of Arctic Skuas, with among them occasional Black Terns, Roseate Terns, Pomarine Skuas and Long-tailed Skuas. Despite the fact that both species are seen every year round the coasts of Britain in varying numbers I have never seen Long-tailed (Stercorarius longicaudus) or Pomarine (aka Pom) Skua (S. pomarinus) and so I headed out to the end of South Gare (see this morning to see what I could find.

Before I tell you what I did find I think I need to tell you a bit more about Skuas. They are medium-sized to largish seabirds (the smallest is about the size of a Black-headed Gull and the largest is similar in size to a Herring Gull), that make their living by chasing other birds such as small gulls and terns and harrying them until they drop whatever food they are carrying, at which point the skua dives down and catches the food for itself. In other words, they are the pirates of the sea-bird world. The four species that are regular in the UK all nest in northerly parts of the northern hemisphere  but come further south outside the breeding season. Two species, Great Skua (S. skua) and Arctic Skua (S. parasiticus) breed in the very north of Britain while the other two mostly breed inside the Arctic Circle and have never bred in the UK. They are very impressive birds to watch and when one appears in the middle of a group of feeding terns or Kittiwakes they stand out immediately as something different, with their swept back wings, mostly darkish coloration and purposeful flight (Great Skua is a little more lumbering than the other three). [Note for North Americans - the three smaller species of skua are known as Jaegers on your side of the Atlantic, so if you have heard of them and are confused, I am talking about the same things]

This morning, when I got to the end of South Gare the first thing I saw was a (relatively) huge crowd of fishermen, accompanied by several children. This was mostly explained by the fact that it was a Bank Holiday Monday during the summer holidays and the weather was nice. It was also partly explained by the fact that (as my father would have said) the Mackerel were 'in' - in other words there was a large shoal of Atlantic Mackerel just off-shore. The fishermen were catching lots of them - sometimes two or three on one cast. Some of them were keeping them (one had a large bucket full of Mackerel) while others were throwing them all back - I don't know why, because they are delicious. The Mackerel were probably there because they had been chasing another shoal of smaller fish, such as Sprats, and these were also providing food for the large numbers of terns, Kittiwakes (a small marine gull) and Guillemots. These gave me plenty to look at and gave me hope that I might see some skuas. My hope was not ill-founded and after a few minutes I saw my first Arctic Skua of the day - a dark, long-winged shape dashing across the waves towards a group of terns over on the other side of the river mouth. Over the course of the next hour-and-a-half I saw several more Arctics (or the same two several times) and three other skuas which I didn't positively identify but which were most likely also Arctics. As well as these there were hundreds of Common and Sandwich Terns, and Kittiwakes and smaller numbers of Guillemots, Gannets, Cormorants, Shags and large gulls as well as a few Grey Seals just offshore. Sadly I didn't see any Poms or Long-tails, even though an adult Pom with its unmistakable spoon-shaped tail feathers, was seen just behind where I was sitting, on the other side of the river at Seaton Snook while I was looking in the wrong direction from South Gare. Never mind! I am planning to go to Seaton Snook tomorrow morning to see if I can strike lucky there.

I didn't go home empty-handed however. One of the fishermen who had been throwing (actually kicking, in his case) the Mackerel back into the sea must have noticed my disapproval and asked if I wanted any of them so I went home with two lovely fish which Sue and I ate for tea this evening.

A small group of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo)
A Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) - the all yellow bill and black-tipped 'dipped  in ink' wings
distinguish adults of this species from  other common species of gulls
A Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)
A Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) comes up for a look around.
The scientific name of this species means 'hook-nosed sea-pig'.
The two Mackerel that I was given
And one of them just before I ate it this evening


  1. I must say was a little envious! I have sea watched, mostly of the Cornish coast in winter where I've seen divers, eiders and grebes. My two most memorable watches were firstly off Hornsea, North sea, where the rain was horizontal and my telescope got trashed because of it. It was probably around force 5! Suffice to say I can't remember the birds! Secondly was off the lizard point with a birding mentor from Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society who took me down in my teens and introduced me to Manx shearwater, my first and only sighting.

    Great post Colin. I will be having mackerel myself soon as I saw it in the fridge recently!!

    1. Thanks Rob, glad you enjoyed it. I hope your Mackerel was nice. I still haven't caught up with a Pom even though there's been an adult with nearly full spoons at South Gare for the last few days (the one which was being reported at Seaton Snook that I referred to in the blog post was subsequently re-identifed as an Arctic (I actually saw it the day after writing the post))

  2. Yes, we have jaegers here on Lake Ontario!

    1. Hi.
      yes, Arctic Skuas (Parasitic Jaegers) apparently occur on all the Great Lakes during migration, and both Pomarine and Long-tailed Skua/Jaeger have been recorded on Lake Ontario also, but might not be very regular. Great Skua and South Polar Skua can also be seen in the ocean off the coasts of North America. Bye for now,