Friday 3 May 2013

It's that time of year again 3rd May 2013

Yours truly at Splash Point. Note the paraphernalia required for 14 hours of seawatching. Large amounts of clothing -it's really cold first thing. Water and food. Sunblock, notebook. tissues, scope and bins, seat to collapse or fall asleep in and of course a miniature bottle of whisky for that magic moment

                                            'I must go down to the sea again
                                            To the lonely sea and the sky
                                            All I ask is for a southeast wind
                                            And one hundred Poms to fly by'

                                           with apologies to John Masefield

As any seawatcher on the South coast will tell you the last week in April and the first two weeks in May is prime time for Pomarine Skuas migrating up the Channel. They are the holy grail of pelagic birds for those who seek such things. For over ten years I lived not far from Brighton, spending and even now still spending, despite living in Oxfordshire, more time than I care to admit staring out to sea in search of Poms. 'Pomitus' can seize the most sensible of souls, causing them to risk careers, relationships and even marriages in search of these coveted birds. This year I am full of anticipation as yet another anniversary comes round and I will be seeking them from the breakwater at Splash Point in Seaford, East Sussex. The most propitious conditions are a southeasterly wind, usually but not exclusively accompanied by continual sunshine. Every day I scan the weather predictions on the internet and listen to the Shipping Forecast with bated breath. If the winds are right I will be in bed early and away from home at 3am to take my place on Splash Point at 5.30 with other like minded Pomariners. By some good fortune, possibly the plethora of Kittiwakes from the adjacent colony on Seaford Head, Pomarine Skuas sometimes stop relatively close in, to rest and/or harass the Kittiwakes, so not all encounters are an all too brief view of a passing flock or individual. When this happens I offer a quiet prayer to the birding gods and enjoy the resulting encounter after a year of anticipation. The following extracts from my notebooks of previous years give a flavour of what to expect if the Poms do come, and believe me it is by no means certain even in the right conditions that they will turn up. Enigmatic to the last

5th May 1992

Because there was no wind the distant passing Arctic Skuas all seemed to be heavier in flight than usual, not their usual rapier selves, and thus causing false alarms and excitements in my anticipation of Poms. Then suddenly a skua high above the sea, inches from a Kittiwake, chasing up, down, left, right, round and round - surely another Arctic? It broke off from the chase and there for all to see, those spoons on the end of the central tail feathers - a Pom! It glided down and settled on the water, lowering black webbed feet and flashing white patches on the undersides of the wings. It's heavy, black, formidably hooked bill and black cap extending from the bill, under the eye and sweeping up to the rear of it's crown clearly visible in the early morning light. Every bit the pirate! It bathed, preened, briefly raising it's wings and flapping them to shake off the water. It sat and looked about, then rose and flapped around in a sedate, leisurely circle before settling again. As befits it's piratical nature it looked like a miniature galleon riding high on the sea with the wings and tail held up at an acute angle. I watched it for thirty minutes, before, with another flap and flash of white wing patches it rose with methodical wingbeats, ascending ever higher, heading East- to who knows where

Pomarine Skuas including a dark morph on Spring migration
Courtesy of Martin Cade

2nd May 1995

Well what a day. A total of one hundred and nine Poms in groups of up to twelve, moving all day in glorious sunshine and no one to see them but me. The first Poms arrived in the early morning light, the flock appearing as a dark smudge from out of the haze gathering over the blue of the sea; the excitement of counting how many in the flock sending a thrill through me. So it went on throughout the day, with Poms appearing virtually every hour. As the day passed so did my mood change; the thrill and expectation of early morning with the sun just rising, passing into a mood of quiet contemplation as the sun rose higher in the sky and the ever present sound and rhythm of the sea lulled my senses.The sun moving from east to west had, by noon, created a seemingly infinite panorama of sparkling flashes as the rays caught the gentle wave tops and the light off the sea was white and dazzling. But still the dark shapes moved past, not so clear now in the glare but undeniably Poms heading inexorably East. Late afternoon and the light was turning to golden orange from the West and now many of the Poms were resting on the sea and had to be picked up as dark flocks floating eastwards on the running tide-often betraying their presence by the raising and flapping of wings. The energy and adrenalin of an all day seawatch when Poms are moving seems infinite and one does not want the day to end but inevitably it does. However the elation of knowing that this day is for ever special and the grail has been found for one brief day fills one's soul with a magic which lingers for the rest of the evening and night.

Highights of the day - a Kittiwake being chased, almost casually by a line of twelve Poms; two Poms chasing an Arctic Skua, which in turn was chasing a Kittiwake;

6th May 1996

The first Pom of the day arrived over the sea from the West characteristically beating it's way East but then diverted, and gaining both speed and height launched a ferocious attack on a Kittiwake, following every twist and turn of it's victim and striking it hard enough to leave a trail of white feathers floating in the air. It's unfortunate victim disgorged the contents of it's crop, which the Pom settled on the sea to consume, followed by vigorous bathing and preening. It remained on the sea, it's head moving constantly following passing Kittiwakes. It launched another three attacks on Kittiwakes, displaying awesome power and flying skills. The final attack resulted in the Pom, in the heat of the chase actually doing a complete loop-the-loop, then seizing the hapless Kittiwake by the wing tip, knocking it into the sea. After these exertions it sat for over ninety minutes on the sea, drifting east on the tide until it was lost to sight

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