Friday 11 May 2018

Skua Fix

When it comes to skuas I am quite easily pleased. It could never be said that Lyme Bay is crawling with them, so the odd one or two here and there generally does the trick for me. Despite an almost 100% birding hiatus so far in 2018 I have been keeping an eye on the weather with a view to getting a seawatch in at some stage this spring. I had an abortive go back in April, but the rain and lack of visibility saw me scuttling home after about twenty minutes. This morning, however, looked very promising I thought...

We've had very little wind with much east in it so far, but the forecast predicted a swing from SW to SSE overnight, and a breezy SSE (more or less) for most of the day. My fairly limited seawatching experience at Burton Bradstock tells me that anything with west in it is a bit of a trial at best, while a raging SW (a potentially excellent wind at Seaton) is basically a straight-onshore nightmare. Anything from S through to E, however... yes, please. The orientation of the coast here seems to encourage almost everything to fly from right to left in such conditions as well, which is extremely helpful.

So, alarm set for 05:15; in position at 05:40...

Almost immediately it felt promising. Auks and Manxies were already passing in little groups, and a few Gannets very close in. The trickle built to a gentle flow, and I can honestly say that the next four and a half hours flew by. No boredom whatsoever. And there were skuas. The first was an immaculate dark-phase Arctic at 06:15, just 2-300 yards out and superbly lit by the low morning sun. Its chocolate-brown loveliness even made me exclaim out loud: "Oh yes, you beauty!" Bit sad, but there you go. Hopefully I will always feel that way upon reacquaintance with nice close skuas after a little break.

Next up was an equally close Bonxie at 08:00, plus another, more distant, some 15 minutes later. Lyme Bay clearly was not packed with skuas, and a couple of tweets from observers further west suggested likewise, with just a few Arctics and Bonxies reported. This helped me feel that at least I was getting my share, but didn't quite prepare me for 08:43...

Panning right I glimpsed a dark shape low among the waves. In the nanosecond before it dipped out of sight I knew it was a Pom, and sure enough, as it heaved upwards, there was a stonking light-phase Pomarine Skua in all its spooned-up glory. Superb! It was a little further out than any of the previous three skuas, and appeared to forge a path straight into the wind and gradually away from the shore. Too soon it was gone.

I packed it in at 10:10. There were no more skuas, but it's not often that I've had three species in one seawatch along the coast here. And there was plenty of variety in the chorus line. Although I didn't bother with much counting, here is a list of the rest of this morning's action...

Great Northern Diver, 4
Manx, 500+ (I actually counted to 200 before remembering how lazy I am, and stopped immediately).
Gannet, lots (200+?), many really close
auk sp, hundreds, many more than Manx.
Kittiwake, 10+
Sandwich Tern, 25+
'commic' Tern, 5
Common Tern, 2
Roseate Tern, 1
Common Scoter, 21
Sanderling, 4
Whimbrel, 5
Bar-tailed Godwit, 11
Grey Plover, 3
Gadwall, 1 female, a seawatch surprise!

Did you notice the Roseate Tern hidden away in that lot? Bit of a Lyme Bay biggie there, and only about my fifth or sixth local bird I think. I picked up a little group of Sandwich Terns coming slowly towards me from the west and quickly noticed that one of them was a bit small and had a ridiculously long tail. It was clearly as white as a Sarnie though... Er... My poor little cogs were struggling a bit, but finally the penny dropped and I eagerly awaited the close fly-past that was imminent. It didn't happen. Instead they all gradually drifted back W again and that was the last I saw of it.

There was also brief excitement when I tried hard to turn a distant single auk into a Puffin, another local rarity. It all looked okay except that I couldn't get any colour at all on the bill, and I thought I should have done at the range involved. So, safer to let it go.

Anyway, I enjoyed it so much that I might even return later. I've done this kind of thing before though, and I know exactly what 'anticlimax' means...

In other hobbies, well, I hooked and lost a single tench on Tuesday, while Rob caught one. I was rather disappointed. The area we've put a bit of effort into doesn't appear to be rewarding us to the expected degree, though Rob is happy enough with a fish or two each time. Me though, I'm greedy, and want more. Still, I certainly can't complain at the lovely surroundings...

The Exeter Canal, late evening on Bank Holiday Monday. Lovely.

Our set-ups are a bit different, and while I am mostly using a combination of fake and real maggots for bait, Rob is only using fake stuff, bits of foam and plastic designed to mimic sweetcorn and red maggots. The upside of his approach is that Rob is not pestered by small fish, which home in on my real maggots like moths to a flame. On the other hand, at least I get a few bites to keep things lively, while Rob gets very, very few! A couple of my maggot-raiders were bootlace eels, which are never welcome, but the rest have been gorgeous little rudd, and I've yet to tire of them...

5lb 12oz of immaculate canal tench


  1. Your chosen pastimes are certainly rewarding you Gavin. Personally missed the Pom season due to other commitments but always enjoy reading about other people’s successes.

    1. Thanks Neil, I thought I was going to miss it too. West of Portland it's all a bit unreliable anyway, so a single bird will do nicely.

  2. Yeah great write up of a Pom day, must get up to Sussex some time we've had a few!