Tuesday 27 January 2015

Pom my soul 24th January 2014

A Great Grey Shrike near Enstone in Oxfordshire was proving a diverting distraction for my Oxfordshire birding colleagues but I could not countenance the prospect of standing on the verge of a road and probably waiting hours for the chance of seeing the shrike. I had already seen another, twice, at Great Barrington last week and that was just a few minutes drive from my home.

So on Friday night I hatched a little plan of my own. I had seen some impressive images on the internet of a juvenile Pomarine Skua which was spending its time on a saltmarsh at Pilling in Lancashire rather than gobbling up Grey Phalaropes in its normal wintering area, at sea off the coast of West Africa. Increasingly, although still in very small numbers, Pomarine Skuas, mainly juveniles are opting to spend their winters in northern waters such as around Britain, as would appear to be the case with this individual.

The images I saw indicated the skua was allowing a close approach and this proved irresistible as there was a good chance I too might get some really good pictures or at least have the opportunity to try. Any opportunity to get close to such a bird was just too much to ignore.

So on Saturday morning, not without a little trepidation at the journey before me, I embarked on a three and a half hour trip up t'north to Pilling, to see if I too could get close and personal with a Pomarine Skua, one of my all time favourite species of seabird. The drive up the Motorway was, if not pleasant at least uneventful and I finally turned off the great highway of hell onto smaller single carriageway roads taking me to join the Saturday morning scrum of vehicles heading for Supermarkets or wherever people generally go on a Saturday morning. I knew I was near the coast as a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed high overhead.

Following the instructions on my RBA app that directed me to park by 'the pheasant pens in Pilling and then take the track to the seawall', I had covered half the distance to the seawall when I encountered a birder walking the other way. I enquired about the  skua but was told it had just been flushed by a dog walker, yes they have them up here too, and had flown a mile up the coast and was now sitting out on the saltmarsh at a place called Fluke Hall. The birder, who was a local was friendly and told me that I could either walk the mile along the sea wall or follow him in his car to the car park at Fluke Hall which, handily, was situated right beside the sea wall. Heroically I opted for the latter.

We snaked around narrow lanes until some ten minutes later we were at the car park at Fluke Hall and a few minutes after that I was looking at a juvenile Pomarine Skua sitting cosily in the saltmarsh grass by a large piece of wood. 

Two other birders were already there, standing out on the saltmarsh taking photos but we all kept our distance whilst the skua sat, alternately dozing or casually looking about. We waited patiently to get some pictures of it standing up but it just sat there perfectly content. Time drifted by not unpleasantly, with the sea and sky as always filling me with a joyous celebration of being alive and we were entertained for a little while by a flock of some forty Twite which landed on the saltmarsh close to us to feed. They did not remain for long and ever restless soon flew onwards along the saltings but they were nice to see nonetheless.

Twite on the saltmarsh
I got chatting to one of the other birders and he told me a nightmarish tale of near disaster for the skua that had happened only yesterday. So confiding was the skua it showed no fear of dogs or humans alike. Yesterday a woman with a Dalmatian allowed her dog to seize the skua in its mouth and but for the actions of the birders present  there would have been no skua to see today. Fortunately the skua was not unduly harmed by its encounter although its left wing was slightly strained causing it to droop every so often but despite this minor affliction the skua could still fly strongly. So a lucky escape and yet another sorry tale to add to the litany of unfortunate encounters between birders and dog owners.

After about forty minutes the skua perked up and began showing signs of wanting to move which soon resulted in it rising to its feet, using its wings to balance and then somewhat unsteadily it rose a few feet into the air and flew back along the sand towards Pilling, where it had originally come from when it was flushed by a dog earlier.

We watched its unhurried progress across the saltmarsh until it was hidden from view. There was only one thing to do now and I retraced my tortuous route in the car and parking yet again by the hallowed pheasant pens at Pilling took the two hundred metres of track to the sea wall. As I got to the wall I could see a small huddle of birders standing on top of the wall obviously looking down from the wall onto the rock reinforcements that acted as a sea defence. Presumably they were looking at the skua. No other bird would be that close.

The saltmarsh and sea beyond from the seawall at Pilling
The seawall and path along the top with birders looking at the skua below
I walked along the seawall to join them and the skua was indeed there, feeding on what looked like a long dead Pink footed Goose wedged into the rocks.

The sight of the skua was indeed highly satisfactory but what it was eating was not quite so appealing.The goose had obviously been dead for quite some time but this seemed no deterrent to the skua's appetite and it gleefully and energetically tore at the goose's intestines, tugging them out using its wings to balance and bracing its feet on the rocks as it pulled and pulled. Nature red in tooth and claw before my very eyes but the photo opportunities despite the circumstances were excellent. There is nothing like some action shots!

The Pom fed for at least half an hour, its crop becoming more and more distended as it gorged itself on its unsavoury meal. Every so often it would desist from feeding and take a few steps away as if sated but then you could almost see it thinking 'Why not, just one more beakful' and it would return for another bout of intestine pulling.

All the time the tide was coming in apace and flocks of waders, Oystercatchers, Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin were rising and falling from the tide's edge as the water encroached ever further onto the saltmarsh and disturbed them.

On the sea a raft of Shelduck rose and fell on the waves, their red bills gleaming in the sunlight, the sea churned up by the stiff southwesterly wind. A cloud of Common Gulls, washing powder white in the bright sun flew in a haphazard wind blown array above them before settling amongst them on the turbulent sea.

The Pom having had its fill finally gave up feeding on the goose, stood for a minute or two on the rocks and then wandered out onto the green grass of the saltmarsh. It selected a soft spot, sat down and slept for a minute or two but was clearly unhappy with its position so walked further to select another area more to its liking. The rapidly incoming tide was obviously making it restless and it finally selected the highest point it could find on the saltmarsh remaining here until it was literally washed off by the rising seawater which by now had submerged the entire saltmarsh and was about to commence beating at the sea defences.

A good view of the diagnostic double white wing patches on the underwing

When the sea was almost up to its belly it flew up and away downwind but then turned and came back, flying over our heads. Its portly tummy and barred underwings were all too evident as it flew back over us and then crossing the seawall it pitched down in an adjacent horse paddock on the landward side of the seawall.

The Pom showing to good effect its bulky body and barring on tail and underwing

The horse paddock with the Pomarine Skua standing in the field
Sheltered from the wind it stood quietly no doubt intending to remain here for a while digesting its meal of goose innards. I walked up to the fence and it walked towards me! It was as close as six feet from me at one point and showed absolutely no fear at all. No need for binoculars so I just stood and admired it. For no particular reason its legs and feet particularly struck me. Pale, powder blue legs with natty black webbed feet as if it had been walking in tar supported an impressively bulky and powerful brown body, the upperpart feathers tipped and fringed with burnt umber whilst its underparts were indistinctly and diffusely barred with greyish brown. More striking were the distinctive black and white bars above and below its tail. Every so often its damaged left wing would droop slightly but it would soon flick it back into position. We stood and looked at each other, both in our own very different worlds but physically, at least together for this brief moment in our lives.

The Pom's left wing drooping slightly but not inhibiting it from flight
A man came along clutching a polythene bag which he informed me contained manageable squares of prime ham for the skua, prepared by his wife. He proceeded to throw them over the fence to the skua which  waddled towards us and tried to eat the pieces of ham. Unfortunately it was so full of goose it had some difficulty in accomplishing this but eventually it managed to cram the ham down its gullet. I asked the man if he could throw the ham further out into the field as the skua was now too close for my lens!

Consuming some prime cuts of ham
Note the black feet and knees

Can I manage just one last piece?
Note the distended crop absolutely bulging with goose and ham
He obliged, so the skua was now all of twelve feet away! So it went on for another half an hour with the man occasionally feeding the skua and me happily clicking away with my camera. Another person arrived along the seawall with three spaniels and the skua instantly headed for the middle of the field. It seemed it had learnt a lesson from its encounter yesterday which can only be good for the skua's future welfare. The sun shone on the wild sea, the skua and myself. I had been here for two blissful hours but now came the moment when I recognised it was time to depart,

Fortunately the local birder I had met at the outset had told me of several other places nearby to go to see other birds in the area so I followed his instructions and first went to Cockerham where there was a field by the road containing around two thousand Pink-footed Geese. Scanning through these I discovered a Pale bellied Brent Goose amongst them and an aberrant Pinkfoot whose plumage was much paler than normal appearing to be pale grey with an overlying ginger tone.

Aberrant Pink footed Goose
Many of the large fields were waterlogged and in places held flashes of water and were being utilised by huge numbers of waders to carry on feeding whilst the high tide covered the mud and sand of the seashore. Curlews, Common Redshanks and Lapwings were present in large numbers as were smaller flocks of Dunlin scuttling about amongst the larger waders. Further down the coast a group of swans in another field consisted of  twenty two Whooper Swans, three Bewick's Swans and two Mute Swans.

Whooper Swans
One last stop and the furthest away, but not really that far, was Glasson Dock where an adult drake Scaup was spending the winter in the company of some Common Goldeneye and Tufted Ducks.

I was told that I probably would have difficulty in accessing Glasson Dock as the high tide would result in the sea covering the road but venturing down the road there was no problem and on parking the car by the dock, there was the Scaup feeding with the other ducks just as it had been described to me

Glasson Dock
The Lantern O'er Lune Cafe opposite Glasson Dock
So my big gamble had paid off. Indeed so much more than I could ever imagine. I had some excellent pictures of the Pomarine Skua to relish back at home over a large whisky and had also managed to do some unexpected but excellent birding into the bargain.  I celebrated in restrained fashion with two jam scones and a hot chocolate in the intriguingly named Lantern O'er Lune Cafe at Glasson Dock and then turned the Audi south for the long drive home.