It’s Sunday 23rd September. The previous day and night, a foul storm whipped up in the North Sea, and on Sunday morning a strong north/northwest wind was blowing, with at times driving rain and heavy cloud. It was a morning for sitting at home with a coffee, and the reports of an astonishing number of seabirds being pushed west into the Thames intrigued – 450 Great and 275 Arctic Skuas past Oare Marshes alone, with much smaller but still notable counts of Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas and Little and Sabine’s Gulls along there and other north Kent watchpoints.
|The shortish tail, heavy chest and head/bill and general stocky
shape can be made out in this photo, just as the bird flewbehind the oak, and was lost for good.
Birds were clearly seeking shelter. During the miserable weather, 19 Spoonbills pitched up at Beddington for a while, a Surrey and London record count. However, not long after lunch, the sun appeared as if from nowhere, and calm was restored. I joked with Wes as to how I was heading to the patch to find a seabird.
I headed up The Ridge, and sky-watched for a bit. There was little doing bar the local corvids and raptors enjoying the remaining breeze, and I continued onto Junction Field, where I’d have more sky. It was quiet here too save for a couple of Meadow Pipits bounding south, and I was ready to leave when, out the corner of my eye, I picked up a fairly high bird moving west-southwest over Ridings Brook. It was one of those moments where you instantly know it’s something interesting, so I lifted my bins to the bird.
An assortment of swear words entered my mind as it became pretty clear that this was a skua. The first feature that struck, and remained key throughout, was the total darkness of this bird – dark brown all over, though I could make out faint white patches on the underwing. It was a little smaller than a large gull, but with a distinctive flight style – direct yet measured. The bird seemed tapered towards the rear; slightly top heavy and barrel-chested, and looked relatively short-tailed. The darkness of the plumage was so striking, assuring my mind that this wasn't a 1st-winter gull. Yes, this was definitely a f***ing skua!
The shock meant I spent about a minute watching this bird as it continued its flight path towards The Ridge (and annoyingly the sun) before I reached for the camera, firing off as many images as I could. My thoughts were racing a little. Any birding friend will tell you that a (any) skua species here is my dream patch find, but, particularly in autumn, they are fraught with ID pitfalls unless seen well. This bird was fairly distant, but clearly a skua, and I’d got some photos…however, I wanted longer views, and having disappeared out of vision behind a big oak, it would be only 20 seconds or so before it would reappear, and I could nail it.
|A clearly dark bird, with a barrel-chest that tapers slightly
towards the tail. The tail length here is down to the angle -
it wasn't noted in the field or any other photos.
I finished my loop to Bonhurst Farm and back (the long-staying Black Redstart gave itself up quickly, as if urging me to get home and review my shots). As I passed back over The Ridge news of a Gannet over Worcester Park, in north Surrey, appeared on BirdGuides. I remained positive, in the hope I could clinch the identification with a little help from Photoshop.
This anticipation, however, was to be punctured. The photos just didn’t have enough reach to make out anything beyond a skua. The darkness of the bird, chunky shape, barrel chest and front-heavy appearance could be made out. One image in particular seemed to showed a long tail. However, I had nothing that could take the identification further than I'd already taken it already...which wasn't very far!
After spending quite a while editing and sending photos around, the reality that this bird just couldn’t be confirmed as a 100% hit home. I was left with a feeling of total disappointment. A dream, one-off chance came, and I blew it! The odds on another skua flying over the patch are slim at best. Obviously it’s exciting to have seen a skua over here, but the frustration of not being able to pin it to species level is immense. Unfortunately, there are a few Surrey records of 'skua sp.', and it's the nature of the beast when you don't get all the luck and then a little more on your side. Inland patching, and indeed patching, can be a dangerous game.
Perhaps fittingly, to finish off this one-that-got-away to end all ones-that-got-away, a final, generous sprinkling of salt into the wound; early this morning the hand of harsh reality delivered a knockout punch via a Whatsapp message from Wes, who I knew was up the Leith Hill Tower: “Bonxie SSW 06:28”…
There isn't much point delving into the intricacies of autumn skua ID, given the quality of the photos and so on. However, naturally, I consulted birding friends for further thoughts. Tied with field views and scrutinising of the photos, a popular consensus (for what it probably was) has been reached.
The front-heavy, barrel-chested and slightly tapered shape of the bird was seen in the field and in photos. The bird was very dark - faint white patches could just about be made out when the bird was first picked up, but they were soon harder to see (not helped by the fact the bird was flying straight into the light and away from me). The darkness of the bird and it's hefty appearance contradicted it's rather elegant flight. The bird appeared to have a heavy bill. In the field, I didn't see a tail projection of any note. My initial thought was a probable Great Skua.
Having passed the photos around a few folk (with far greater experience than I), the majority of the opinion mirrored mine - it was probably a Bonxie, but other species couldn't be ruled out. However, one opinion I rate particularly highly was adamant the bird wasn't a Great, and was probably an Arctic/Pomarine. This opinion was understandable when considering the second photo in this post - the bird there doesn't appear much like a Bonxie at all, with a sleeker profile and apparant longer tail.
|Here the barrel chest, dark tones, slightly tapering rear end and tail projection are seen (IB).
This led to the exploration of the pom avenue (with thanks to the resolute opinion still being held by said consultant). A perk of my job is that I was able to intensively scrutinise the photos today, and gain further expert opinion in the office. The bird felt too hefty for Arctic, as well as bigger. Dark, juvenile Pomarine is a plumage I'm only thinly familiar with, and I admit to having little appreciation of the bulk and darkness of many poms this age. After examining many photos, I’m left feeling that Pomarine Skua is essentially the only thing preventing the certainty of Great Skua.
In my modest opinion, it must have been a Great Skua - the barrel shape, shortish tail, heavy appearance and bill, size, white wing flashes and very dark plumage point to this species. However, I'll never know for sure...Below are some comparison images, to add visuals to this text if nothing else.