Tag Archives: Arctic Skua

A bird with a highwayman’s mask

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Sunday, September 18, 1988

A trip to North Wales this time to twitch a long staying vagrant from North America. It’s the second, or maybe third attempt to see the Forster’s Tern, a seabird which has been knocking around this area for some years now. This time, I’m going to a little village called Gronant, near Prestatyn, where the bird has apparently been sitting out on the beach with Sandwich Terns, at a place where the freshwater stream crosses the sand. Look for the orange arrows:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s a pleasant enough place, although once more confusion is caused by the unfortunate decision to put up road signs in two languages, despite the fact that the total number of Welsh speakers around here is probably absolutely zero. The whole area, therefore, is just one constant traffic jam, as people stop and try to wade through the novel length traffic signs, in a vain attempt to find out what the hell is happening – and where. Added to this is the fact that there are only half the signs that there ought to be, because all the ones they’ve got are twice the length than they need to be.
First of all, of course, is the traditional stop at you-know-where for the Lady Amherst’s Pheasant.

wild-ladyamherstspheasant-xxxxxxxx

None of these mythical birds is about, but it makes a nice break in the journey, with superb views over the Mersey, to the distant metropolis, topped off by its two completely distinctive cathedrals, and the bulk of the Liver Building, visible easily even at this distance. Now that is a good tick – Liver Bird.

Liver_Bird xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

On we press to Gronant, and its caravan and chalet village, right next to the beach, but sheltered by the comforting solidity of the sea wall. I park the car, and we set off across the almost limitless expanse of sand.

gronant beaxchxxxxxx

We can already see a group of a dozen or so birdwatchers, all obviously looking at different things – not a good sign. There are a good many  of the much commoner Sandwich Terns…..

bp_sandwich_tern_zzzzz

…but we are not to be disappointed though, because the Forster’s Tern is still there. It’s just that a couple of minutes before we arrived, the bird took off for a little fly round and nobody has yet managed to find where it landed. We soon relocate it though, sitting with a group of Sandwich Terns, about fifty yards away.

Forsters_Tern_Ixxxxxxxxxxx

It’s obviously a lot smaller with a different shade of grey on its back. It has red legs and the fabulous highwayman’s mask arrangement of patches on its face. It’s everything I’d hoped for – a really foreign looking and exotic bird. The only problem is that we are almost directly behind it and we can get only rather imperfect views of its main features, so we decide to make our way round, and try to look at it from the side. This manoeuvre of course, is enough to flush every tern on the North Wales coast, including the Forster’s Tern, which immediately sets off on a twelve thousand mile trans-global migratory flight.

flying zzzzzzz

To be honest, though, that is the very last we see of the bird that day, despite the fact that we return several times during the afternoon and wander around for a good while, looking at all the terns on the beach. We do see Bar-tailed Godwit, and Arctic Skua, and a couple of Little Terns.

little terns xxxxxxxxx

The most interesting thing we come across is the advice offered to us by a couple of Liverpool birdwatchers, who give us dire warnings about how dangerous this place is, since the tide comes in very quickly, and it’s very easy to get cut off. They tell us that every few weeks somebody drowns out here fishing, and indeed, it is less than a month after this that we hear of two night anglers who have perished out on the lone and level sands, within just yards of where we see the Forster’s Tern.

Next stop is the Point of Ayr, a most unusual place for a beach. It has a coal mine.

Quite literally on the seashore, or within a hundred yards of it, there is a colliery, which I cannot imagine how they keep dry. Perhaps they have specially adapted mineworkers with gills, who can dig underwater, a sort of “Scargill from Atlantis”.

Arthur-Scargill-leads-the-002

On the Point itself, there is a deserted and ruined lighthouse, which is crying out for someone to restore and then convert either into a sea watching hide, or better still, a bird observatory.

lighthouse xxxxxxx

On the way back to the car, we find a wonderfully promising area, which is full of little hawthorn bushes, all carefully designed to attract small migrants and rare warblers from every corner of the globe. We find just one bird and we are eventually forced to concede that it is merely a Garden Warbler.
On the long way back, another visit to Halkyn. This place is fast becoming a sort of drug.  I am trying to give it up, but I just keep getting dragged back. This time, we meet one of the locals, an individual whose talents for unprovoked rudeness are probably exceeded only by his apparent brainpower. I park in a long and completely deserted street, only for him to rush out of his traditional cottage and tell me that I’m causing an obstruction and I have got to move. Apparently he’s expecting a cruise missile convoy at any moment. I enjoy screeching off ostentatiously down to the end of the street, parking the car four hundred yards away, before walking back to ask him if he reckons he’s got enough room now. He says he has. Some of these country people are really nice and pleasant to talk to, but so many, quite simply, are not. Still, I have the last laugh, because I can get into my car and drive off back to the big city. I won’t have to spend the rest of my life in a place like this with absolutely nothing better to do than to be gratuitously rude to tourists.

Twenty five years or so later, things have changed comparatively little on the beach at Gronant.  A most interesting Second World War pillbox which we all contrived to miss at the time is apparently a lot more visible now, and has been featured on the Internet on at least one specialist pillbox spotters’ website.

type 25 pillbox ddddddd

The lighthouse is still there but a local artist has equipped it with a sculpture of a lighthouse keeper imaginatively called “The Lighthouse Keeper”.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can still get cut off if you are not careful.

cut off xxxxxxxx

Even if you are a glass sculpture, and at no special risk….

too late now cccccccc

On this beach, even a jellyfish can get lonely, although he does appear to have some sort of (presumably waterproof) mp3 player which will help him to pass the time.

lonely jelltyfish xxxxxx

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Humour, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

A Twitch to Flamborough

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Sunday, August 28, 1988
The sea again. Its magic lure drags Steve, Alan, Paul and me off to seawatch, anywhere on the East Coast where, according to the weather forecasts, the wind should be suitable for our porpoise (as the spell check suggested). We decide to go to some place where we can seawatch but where there is also another specific bird to look for. In that case, we must head for Flamborough where there have been reports of a Desert Wheatear although there are no details to hand of either its exact location or its plumage. We arrive at about 8.30 a.m. and there is a lovely light foggy drizzle drifting around the cliff tops. Not too pleasant for the birdwatchers but brilliant for keeping down any lost little vagrant passerine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are other birdwatchers around, all looking for the relevant little bird. We find a somewhat peculiar female wheatear within half an hour, and then another, and another. We soon realise that all female wheatear are somewhat peculiar. None of them seem to have a consistent set of plumage features that they have in common with all the other female wheatears.

northern 3ccccccccc

Nothing for it. We set off down to the lighthouse for a sea watch. Same old place as ever – we set up our telescopes on the slope below the main cliff edge and start watching. No sign of Flamborough’s most famous birdwatcher, its very own “Mr.Sea Watch”, Brett Richards.

twitcher6

There are some Arctic Skuas moving through and we are able to study their piratical antics in some detail. After about ten minutes I see one all dark bird flying steadily and heavily northwards. Then it seems to remember its error and sweeps back around in a huge arc. Then it starts flying around in very large circles as if it is by now completely confused. On the other hand, it could be some vaguely half remembered display flight of some sort.

Pomarine Skua 4vvvvvvvvv

Whatever the case, it finally stops its circling, makes a half-hearted attempt to harry a Kittiwake and then heads off out to sea. We all pick the bird up and we all agree that at long last, we’ve seen a Pomarine Skua. It’s bigger than all the Arctic Skuas and it’s obviously not a Great Skua. Its flight is heavier than an Arctic and its behaviour is completely different. Every Arctic we have seen today has been energetically and enthusiastically chasing Kittiwakes in a most agile and nimble way. They are all darting, lightly built birds that at no point have shown the slightest inclination to soar or circle like some marine Common Buzzard.
Ten minutes later I find another large and heavy skua but this time, it’s down on the water. Again, its structure is much more solid than the Arctics, its bill is more substantial, its body weightier, and it even has what may well be rudimentary spoons sticking up into the air at the back end.

pom on seacccccc

We watch it for a good twenty minutes as it cruises around, well separate from the rest of the birds on the water. We are all satisfied that it is a first winter dark phase Pomarine Skua.
If we think we’ve had a difficult time of it with bird identification so far, then we are sadly mistaken. In the next half hour or so, we’re going to get into very deep water indeed and I don’t mean falling off the cliff.
We still have the best part of a sunny afternoon left so we decide to walk slowly round to see what we can turn up in the way of migrants. It’s really rather pleasant. A nice day, a blue sky and the hope that more or less anything might be out there for us to find it. We turn up any number of Northern Wheatears, both male and female and a Short-eared Owl, that looks very pale and which we try very determinedly to turn into a Barn Owl, but without any success, because in the final analysis, we just can’t ignore those dark carpal patches. We stop at the top of the cliffs, a little way south of the lighthouse at a point about fifty feet or so above the sea. There are lots and lots of wheatears here, flitting around, most of them near some kind of ruined wooden landing stage.

northrbqqqqqqqqqq

Alan soon spots what he thinks is a funny wheatear and we all set up scopes to examine it more closely. The first and most obvious feature about it is that its eye stripe is not as fully developed as the other birds. It seems to be more buffy, even russetty, in colour and seems to begin further back on the head, almost behind the eye itself.

desert 2ccccccc

The bird, a female, is obviously tired and is harried and picked on by all the other birds. Nevertheless it keeps returning to the landing stage steps and eventually begins to preen. That’s when we realise two interesting things about the bird. Firstly, its tail, as far as we can see, is completely black and although it has a smallish area of white in the top two corners, this is really no more than a slight curvature of the line between the white rump and the black tail. It is completely different from the T-shaped pattern that we have been looking at all day, more or less, on all the other Wheatears. Indeed, we’ve even noticed that with every Northern Wheatear that we’ve seen, this T-shaped pattern may even be visible when the bird is at rest. Not the case with this bird.

Desert-Wheatear-0bbbbbbbbb

The second feature, and for me, the one that clinches it as a female Desert Wheatear, is the fact that as the bird lifts its wing to preen, it reveals a snowy white underwing which is absolutely and totally white, except for a darker line on what must be the trailing edge. For weeks after this I look at Northern Wheatears and cannot find a single one, either in real life or in photographs, that comes even close to our mystery bird in the whiteness of this underwing. There is not a hint of brown or buff, just a brilliant white like a patch of bright fresh snow.
This bird, however, is not terrifically distinctive except for these two features and the eye stripe. This differs slightly from the Northern Wheatear but, in truth, if there is supposed to be a major difference in basic plumage, then there just isn’t one. It is perhaps a little peachier in colour but is not really fundamentally different from the Northern Wheatears that continue to chase and harry it. It is at this point that our problems start, because, as I later suspect, the mystery bird flies off without our noticing it, perhaps because the cliff is overhanging at this point and there is a vast area underneath it that we cannot see. It is certainly impossible to see the comings and goings of every single bird.

norethern flight ccccc

A few seconds later, a Wheatear of indeterminate species comes to perch on the landing stage, just as our bird has on several occasions in the past few minutes. A small crowd of some ten or twelve  birdwatchers has by now assembled, all trying to see whatever we’re looking at but apparently too shy just to ask us. We lead them to believe that this is the mystery bird even though we have not yet seen either its tail or underwing to confirm this. When the bird flies away, of course, it has the T-shaped pattern of an ordinary Northern Wheatear and this leads a high percentage of the new onlookers to think that we are a bunch of complete village idiots. Well, we are, but on the other hand, I know what I saw. And yes, I am more than a little put off by the episode at the end when I was fooled by the Northern Wheatear on the landing stage, but Steve soon calms me down.  He makes the valid point that whatever has happened subsequently, we did all four of us see a female Wheatear with an all-black tail, and an all-white underwing, whatever antics the bird got up to afterwards and whatever skilfully designed imposter came along its place. And surely even the most aberrant of birds could not have two diagnostic features of another species? That discovery would knock the Rarities’ Committee back a bit.
The whole appalling business does have its funny side however, because as soon as the assembled group of eight or ten becomes fifteen or twenty, this is easily a big enough crowd, particularly here at tight-lipped rare-bird-suppressing Flamborough, to attract an even greater number of birdwatchers. Very quickly, we have seventy or so people, all looking downwards with great deliberation.

Somebody on duty in the lighthouse then presumably thinks that one of us has had an accident and perhaps somebody has fallen off the cliff. Perhaps we are all looking at a corpse floating past. Whatever the case, it doesn’t take the RAF Rescue helicopter very long to get here and it soon arrives, a huge  deafening yellow whale that hangs, hovering loudly, about twenty yards from the cliff edge. I can’t really believe it’s here for an unconfirmed report of a female Desert Wheatear. News cannot possibly travel that fast. On the other hand, it would be really tremendous if that were the case and he could use the loudhailer – the electronic equivalent of Kevin’s voice:

“Hey, you on the cliff – yes – you – you on the left – in the green – yes – stop harassing that bird – return to your homes – and by the way, do you know they what they’ve had at Spurn?”

Rescue-Helicoptercccccccccc

Our final gesture is a last bit of seawatching as we give up hope that our Desert Wheatear will return to its original spot and we soon get a superb bit of unusual bird behaviour.

Guillemot06cccccc

It’s a Guillemot that is performing some bizarre sort of preening ceremony that seems to consist solely of the bird lying flat on its back in the water, with only its beak and its little legs sticking out above the surface. It remains motionless for minutes on end so that it looks just like a man bathing in the Dead Sea or a gigantic dead fly floating around in the bath. A strange end to a puzzling day.

3 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Humour, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature