Life and death on the waves

Strange things happen in the natural world. Here’s a photograph from a sequence that I’m still mentally processing.

Bonxie and the Gannets - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

From left to right: A Great Skua, a juvenile Kittiwake and two Northern Gannets

I am standing at the top of the cliffs at Noup Head on Westray enjoying the bustle of the seabird colony. There are Gannets in the colony, together with Fulmars, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Razorbills. Patrolling the skies are Arctic Skuas looking for a bird to steal fish from, and Great Skuas looking to prey upon an unwary juvenile bird. Here’s what Great Skuas do when they manage to catch hold of an unwary juvenile Kittiwake:

That experience had it downed over the land and it didn’t end well for the Kittiwake.

It’s far more common for the Great Skua to grab the unwary Kittiwake near the cliffs and drag it down to the sea and peck its neck or drown it. Underneath the seabird colony are the occasional floating corpses of juvenile Kittiwakes, suspended in the swell, with their lifeless bodies ‘spreadeagled’ on their backs, having had their breast meat stripped from their sternum. Often a group of Great Skuas will assemble, with two birds tucking in to the feast from either side and a couple of hangers on waiting for scraps or a free sea-seat at the Kittiwake buffet.

I spot a Great Skua patrolling and see it grab a juvenile Kittiwake and watch them descend, flailing, to the Atlantic below as the Skua drags it down. They’re very distant and I can hardly tell what’s happening from the top of the cliffs. I take some photographs anyway, even though they won’t be artistic and I’m unlikely to use them on my blog. I know the Kittiwake is still struggling and very much alive. I can tell it’s still being attacked. It’s too far away for me to see much of what’s happening. I’ll have to look at the images later to see it properly. Then I see two Gannets arrive and dive close to the Kittiwake. They’re far too close for comfort. Why are they diving there? It would be a strange coincidence if there happened to be a shoal of fish exactly under the Great Skua and its prey. Any why so close? They’re not diving anywhere else near their colony. The Gannets are making the strange neck movements they make when they catch a fish underwater, but they’re doing it again and again. They’re also aiming it at the Great Skua. What’s going on? I’ve not seen that before.

It looks as if the Gannets are trying to save the life of the Kittiwake and stop the Great Skua. Can that possibly be the case?

I’ve seen Gannets being attacked as they fly past by Great Skuas from these cliffs. The Skuas want the Gannets to regurgitate fish, which the Skuas eat.

Is it possible that the Gannets saw the Great Skua attacking the Kittiwake and decided to harass it? I saw the Great Skua abandon its prey and fly heavily off the surface to circle the cliffs once more. I know that the Gannets became airborne and joined the clamour above. What I don’t know is whether the juvenile Kittiwake was fatally injured, or injured and so waterlogged that it wasn’t able to take off again. I didn’t continue the series of photographs when it was there, of a tiny spec on the waves in the distance. Some other photo opportunity came along which distracted me.

Did the Kittiwake escape to fly another day? I can only hope that it did.

Has this Gannet behaviour ever been observed before? Am I right in thinking what it might be? I’d love to know.

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