Thursday, October 23, 2014

Five Great Skua in One Day!

Great Skua photo by Jill Pakanham

Great Skua is a large, aggressive and fairly obnoxious predatory seabird that nests primarily in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands and coastal Norway.  Like most birds it departs its nesting area in fall and winters in more hospitable climates. Almost without exception Great Skua spends its winters over open-ocean waters along the coasts of Europe and North America.  One record a few years ago of a Great Skua in central North Dakota remains one of those ornithological mysteries that will never be figured out.

Finding Great Skua for your life list or your American Birding Association area (48 US States, Alaska, Canada) can be a considerable challenge.  Because the bird is in our waters in winter and because winters can produce nasty storms, those who have seen Great Skua away from nesting areas are the lucky few.

 Generalized view of the range of Great Skua

My first Great Skua was harassing Dovekies, Herring Gulls and anything else with feathers as the ship I was on traversed the Cabot Strait between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port-aux-Basque, Newfoundland, on December 7, 1988.  I stood on the deck in a howling gale looking for skuas.  Luckily the staff was understanding and lashed me to a pole on the bow of the ship so I couldn’t be blown overboard.  The Great Skua appeared from within some gigantic waves, flew around the bow of the ship harassing other birds and then quietly and quickly disappeared among the swells.

My next Great Skua was seen on February 8, 1995, from a pelagic birding boat about 50 miles east of Virginia Beach, Virginia.  This magnificent bird was harassing anything in sight at the edge of the Gulf Stream on a day with moderate winds and 4 to 7 foot seas.  We enjoyed the bird for several minutes and pursued it as it flew further east.  However just like the bird in Cabot Strait, it suddenly disappeared.

Despite being offshore numerous times in subsequent years including a trip offshore from Iceland in March, I had seen only those two Great Skuas in my entire lifetime.  That string of bad luck changed on October 8, 2014.

We were aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship the Norwegian Star on a repositioning cruise from Copenhagen, Denmark to Miami.  On October 8 we transited the English Channel largely in English waters for most of the day.  Earlier, on October 7 as we passed through the North Sea, gale force winds whipped up waves and swells to 30 feet but on October 8 that system had passed further east.  Now in the English Channel winds were 45 miles per hour and seas only up to 16 feet. 

I sighted the first bird at about 1230 GMT at 50 degrees 01 minutes north latitude and 2 degrees 51 minutes west longitude.  The skua was busily harassing Black-legged Kittiwakes as they tried to forage unmolested over the open waters.  Later at about 1315 GMT and at 49 degrees 54 minutes North and 3 degrees and 30 minutes West, I found a pair of Great Skua sitting on the water less than 100 feet from the ship’s path.  There being no other seabirds around this pair squabbled between themselves over some scrap of food they had found.

Later at 1430 hours GMT and at 49 degrees 48 minutes North, 4 degrees 01 minutes West I found two more Great Skuas that were near the edge of the continental shelf break and in the Celtic Sea.  This pair was first seen gliding over the waves very close to the ship.  They seemed to be keeping abreast of the ship as it moved west and stayed in my field of view for more than 10 minutes before they simply disappeared.

Long-time friend and colleague Chris Haney, who conducted the research for his PhD on seabirds, has never seen a Great Skua.  Likewise long-time friend and colleague Jon Andrew has only seen this species once.  Likewise, fellow tropical traveler Mark Oberle, in all the times he has been offshore, has seen Great Skua only once - on a winter trip out of Ocean City, Maryland long ago.  Bill Murphy’s only observation has been a bird in the Caribbean not far from Trinidad.  Needless to say they are very difficult to find despite their enormous size and their tendency to make their presence known by harassing everything in sight.

In 1979, Jim Vardamann was attempting to become the first person to see 700 species of birds in North America in a single calendar year (he saw 699 species).  Out of frustration in late December he chartered a plane and flew low over the waters of the Stellwagen Banks off the Massachusetts coast looking for Great Skua.  He never saw one.

I consider myself very lucky to have seen five of them in one day – 2.5 times as many as I had previously seen in my entire lifetime.  Days with that sort of luck while bird watching don’t happen very often.