Arctic Skua

I’m walking the west coast of Westray again. It’s wild and wonderful. There are processions of Guillemots coming past fast and low. They’re travelling in convoy, often each with a silver fish in their beak.

Guillemots - Westray - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I’m wondering why they travel together when I see the reason; an Arctic Skua. It’s one of my favourite birds, a kleptoparasite which preys upon other birds by stealing the fish they have spent so much energy catching. I sit on the cliffs and watch.

I’ve read descriptions of Arctic Skua hunts before. They are always vague and never capture the action. There are often bland statements that the Arctic Skua ‘may make contact’ with the bird it is chasing.

As I watch, a hunt begins. The Arctic Skua is flying, gliding over the land, alert to the presence of any potential prey. It’s gone up the small hill behind me and is flying parallel to the coast when it flicks its wings, turns ninety degrees and sets off, low to the ground directly out to sea. It hugs the cliffs and then the sea as it flies fast and hard to reach its quarry when it turns ninety degrees and falls into line and flies directly behind. Then it singles out, and catches up with, a Guillemot with fish and is just about to catch it when the Guillemot brakes and throws itself, fish and all, into the Ocean.

It’s distant, but I capture it in a sequence:

It’s a clever way of avoiding capture. I love the desperate twist the Arctic Skua makes in the penultimate picture as it tries to stop itself from losing a meal. It’s tricky to see whether the Guillemot dives to get away and whether it retains the fish or not. I can’t watch with binoculars and take photographs at the same time.

What I can see, though, is the pattern. There’s the ascent up the hill, the patrol, the explosive venture out to sea, the following in line and the evasive manoeuvre resulting in a failed hunt. Then it returns to land, always at the same spot.

I walk over to the spot and sit there quietly, unobtrusively, concentrating, watching hunt after hunt and having it come directly towards me and pass just overhead. Here it is.

Arctic Skua - Westray - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I can say I’m utterly delighted with this photograph, can’t I? Having said that, it was so close I missed a bit of the wing off.

There are only 1 in 5 of the UK breeding population of Arctic Skuas left after a population crash in the last 30 years. Arctic Skuas are migratory and will be off to spend time far south in the Atlantic Ocean soon. It’s been an honour to witness this one hunting.

I’ll be back tomorrow.

There’s currently a British Trust for Ornithology research project to discover more about Arctic Skuas. Information is here.

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