May I introduce you to the cast of characters of this eternal struggle?
This is an adult Kittiwake, one of the most elegant of gulls. It comes to Westray to breed on the cliffs.
This is a juvenile Kittiwake on one of its first flights. They have distinctive ‘L’ shaped learner insignia on their wings.
Despite their youth, they are joyous and semi-competent fliers:
The updraft on the cliffs from the breeze hitting the rocks gives them a safe place to practise flying.
Unless, of course, there’s a Great Skua around.
Here’s a Great Skua:
They are exceptional and tenacious hunters, scavengers and kleptoparasites. The grass at Noup Head today is littered with six or seven juvenile Kittiwake corpses.
This one has a juvenile Kittiwake in its sights:
Sometimes the juvenile Kittiwakes are blown over the top of the cliffs and stray over land and occasionally that’s within the territory of a Great Skua.
This one strayed too far:
The Great Skua has caught it by the wing and has no intention of ever letting go.
There are calls of deep distress as the juvenile Kittiwake struggles and attempts to fly while held in a vice-like grip.
The juvenile Kittiwake tries to peck the Great Skua and both are engaged in a lengthy aerial struggle.
As the juvenile Kittiwake struggles its wing feathers get more and more twisted.
It struggles while held firmly in mid-air. As I watch another Great Skua arrives and joins in the hunt.
How will it survive when there are two of them?
The Great Skua seems momentarily distracted by the arrival of its compatriot and appears to receive a peck from the juvenile Kittiwake.
The Kittiwake breaks free and makes a bid for freedom.
Its wing is damaged and it’s exhausted from the struggle. The Skua catches it once more.
It drags it to the ground and, finally, kills it.
Both Skuas sit in the long grass, pluck its feathers and eat its breast muscle. It’s a feast.
That was such an epic struggle. It had everything. I’m exhausted and exhilarated. To be a witness to something so primeval is a privilege.