Thursday 16 April 2020

From The Archives: Pom my Soul 26th April 2004

All set for a Pom day on the Seaford breakwater.
                                                     This one's for you Dick Gilmore!

As any seawatcher will tell you a southeast wind combined with sun on the south coast of Sussex during the last days of April and early part of May are about as propitious as it gets for sightings of Pomarine Skuas on their annual passage up the English Channel to their breeding areas in arctic Russia.

Such conditions came to pass on 24-26th April this year. Consequently I spent an inordinate number of hours on Seaford breakwater awaiting the none too certain arrival of these enigmatic birds. Many are the tales of the perfect conditions for sightings and yet not a trace of a Pom. Copious stories abound of birders giving up during a dull spell with no birds, only to discover later that the Poms arrived just after they left. It has happened to all of us.

I stuck it out on Seaford breakwater for thirteen hours on both Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th April but there was not a sign of them. Plenty of other interesting species passed by but nothing could quite take the edge off the disappointment of their non appearance and thus missing the ultimate prize. Monday the 26th repeated the weather pattern of the previous two days. It was perfect conditions. Where were they? 

The morning wore on but still no Poms. Approaching noon and the sun was at its zenith, the sea gently caressing and dragging on the shingle lulled me into a gentle sleep. Thirty five hours of seawatching over two and a half days was taking its toll.

A screaming gull awoke me with a start at just after 1230 and in a panic I scanned across the shimmering blue sea to the horizon - nothing. This went on until a sweep to the west with the binoculars at 1306 produced the adrenalin rush of three dark shapes, low over the sea, Poms coming from the west and beating their way into view out of the sea haze. Involuntarily I shouted 'Poms!' to no one but myself. I was alone on the breakwater, the early morning birders having departed and others who had lingered for longer also given up, convinced this was not to be the day. With  eye to scope I watched two full adult Poms in close formation, long tails slightly downcurved with the distinctive twisted ends or 'spoons' to the elongated central tail feathers all too evident, followed at some distance by another with much less obvious 'spoons' on its tail. To watch these dark, powerful birds, inexorably and with purpose passing on their way east is to sense the magic of migration. Never seeming to be hurried, low over the sea they tilt and roll with the light wind currents rising from the wave tops. Their progress can appear stoic, almost world weary as they enact the instinct that drives them onwards but that is misleading and watching them you gain a sense of how far they can travel with such a rhythmic powerful flight, progressing from the west coast of Africa, across the trackless miles of sea in the Bay of Biscay to turn into the southwestern approaches and move up the English Channel to delight seawatchers awaiting their arrival on the south coast of England.

The three Poms disappeared around the glistening white, chalk cliff of Seaford Head. Now it could go either way - more Poms or none. It was still comparatively early in the year for Poms after all, I reasoned. Most come in early May, so was this just the vanguard?

I was still on my own on the breakwater. What birder if  honest doesn't get a quiet satisfaction from getting one over a fellow birder, however benignly? Forgive me my friends for I am but mortal. Shortly after 1330 I was joined by a somewhat animated John, who armed with a pager informed me that seven Poms had passed Selsey Bill at 1245 and enquired if they had passed by here. 

I told him no and he relaxed, well almost, and we waited to see if they turned up. Sure enough at 1404, one hour and nineteen minutes after passing Selsey they came past in close formation, low over the sea. Dark and mysterious, their outline at a distance blurred by haze from the blue sea. Is there anything more exciting than seeing a flock of Poms on migration, the flock compressing and lengthening as the individual birds slow or speed up but forever continuing their eastward progress.

This was looking better now. It could be the big Pom day - there is often, but not invariably, one such day every spring. Nothing more came to excite us until 1427 when a single adult, pale morph Pom went past the breakwater. John's pager bleeped again - another seven Poms had just passed Selsey. Anticipation and excitement took hold but we could relax as it would take them 79 minutes to get to us. We waited, scanned and scanned the sea and when the appointed time arrived there was, well, nothing. Despondency. Where were they? Had we missed them? Sometimes a flock moves further out to sea and becomes invisible from land. Maybe that is what had happened. The time dragged on and then, not seven but nine Poms came into view at 1626, high above the sea this time, probably due to the wind having dropped to nothing, the flock spaced out across a bright seasky, all pale morph birds.

This was most definitely becoming a big Pom day. Two more pale morph birds came at 1714 heading, as always, east, then the jackpot, a big flock. the ultimate seawatching prize, twelve birds at 1723, all pale morphs apart from one dark morph, all black, looking more powerful in build than its companions, an optical illusion. Dark morphs form only 10% of the Pom Skua population so consequently are seen far less often. These twelve were well up in the sky but then came a stroke of real good fortune as they glided down to the glass like surface of the sea off Seaford Head and with much wing flapping and flashing of the white wing patches on their primaries, settled on the sea. I have never in seventeen years of Pom chasing in Sussex had such a good view as now presented itself.

The bird's individual plumage details were clear to see in the sunlight as they sat on the calm sea, so much so that I could discern the full adults with their yellow buff collars. white chests and black caps from the sub adults, duskier in appearance due to their brown barred flanks and underparts, showing little white on their chests and only a hint of buff on their necks.

Most of the flock remained close to one another but others were more widely spread on the sea, some a good way further out.There was the dark morph bird off to the left, while three full adults were to the right of the main flock which was being watched warily by a Fulmar. Two others washed vigorously, rising up to sit on their tails in the water and flap their great wings, causing the white on their wings to flash in the sunlight. At intervals individual birds would fly up off the sea to harass the Kittiwakes flying to and from their colony on the cliffs above, the skuas giving a wonderful display of  flying as they indulged in acrobatic skills which you would have thought were beyond such a large bird. Soon, becoming disinterested, they would break off the chase and glide down to rejoin the flock settled on the sea while yet another would rise and take its turn in chasing an unfortunate Kittiwake.

The constant movement of birds was mesmerising with Poms either flying above or settled on the sea but they were restless, not certain whether to continue migrating or chase the Kittiwakes.To add to the confusion another three Poms arrived from out to sea to make a total of fifteen milling around.

By now the news about this Pomfest was well and truly out and other local birders came hurrying down to join us on the breakwater. A cry went up about another twelve in the sky and sure enough at 1755 twelve more pale morph birds came high from the west but did not stop,carrying on east over the Poms on the sea. Yet another shout and thirteen Poms in two loose flocks of seven and six arrived in the sky in front of us at 1810 and then proceeded to glide down to join the fifteen already on the sea. Pom-mania took hold. 

Poms were flying or settling on the sea to our left, a constant motion of birds. Three chased a Kittiwake knocking it into the sea and forcing it under water. It rapidly disgorged its food and the Poms fought amongst themselves for it while the Kittiwake fled for its life. Another Pom was chased by a Greater Black backed Gull but with a dexterous side slip sent the ponderous gull in the opposite direction. It was difficult to know where to look next as there were literally Poms everywhere you looked, on the sea, chasing Kittiwakes or just flying around. This went on for an hour with no sign of the Poms resuming their migration. You could not take your eyes from them for a moment as this was unique and every moment had to be savoured for, as everyone knew, it would be over all too soon.

My note book for 26th April 2004
Eventually the tide drifted the Poms eastwards and out of vision beyond Seaford Head. Maybe they would rest on the gentle swell of the sea during the night, carried east by the tidal current and resume their migration in the morning. It was now 1830 and with the disappearance of the skuas most birders on the breakwater took this as their cue to leave but I wanted to prolong the magic of this day. I remained on the breakwater with Neil who had just arrived from work and at 1840 he found two more Poms high in the sky heading east.

A total of sixty four Poms in the space of five and a half hours was good enough but the real excitement was the chance to watch these enigmatic birds for an extended period rather than the usual all too brief, tantalising sight of them as they fly east on their long northwards migration

Could it get better? I doubt it but let's wait until next year!

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