Saturday, 11 May 2013

Skuas and other seabirds: recent reports and past experiences

This blog has been rolling along for a while now with no politics/soap opera antics - thank God! But maybe, just maybe, I am about to commit an act of ornithological slander!?

Flashback to yesterday. Tempted by the prospect of more spoonage - and guilty of doing very little seawatching last year, I  headed back to Cricieth. A couple of friendly guys from Wolverhampton (who seemed to know what they were looking at) had been present since 0800 hrs and left shortly after Rhys, Eddie and I arrived at 1230 hrs. They'd had around 25 Poms in the morning and we systematically counted (1235-1535 hrs) at least 35 POMARINE', 3 GREAT' & 3 ARCTIC SKUAS, 2 WHIMBREL, 7 RED-THROATED DIVER plus a few hundred Manxies, Kittiwakes and terns feasting offshore on sandeels etc in a classic Multi-Species Feeding Association as it's known in marine ornithology. A good proportion of the Kittiwakes were 2nd calendar year birds and continuing the immature theme were one or two 2cy Med' Gulls and a 2cy Lesser Black-backed. Many of the Poms were loafing then getting up and heading west out past the promenade again - including a fabulous group of 18 birds at a very respectable distance. The majority were pale-phase adults with a few intermediates, dark morphs and sub-adults. A very nice mixture.

Anyway, I get home to find Birdguides reporting 65 Poms and TWENTY BLOODY SEVEN LONG-TAILED SKUAS! Funnily enough, there have been only a handful of Long-tailed reports so far this year via the 'information services'. If you trust everything reported by them  - but that's another story!

It did seem somewhat incredible and got me thinking about the vagaries of identifying birds when seawatching. It really wouldn't surprise me if the observer(s) were mistaken... those distant Poms can look like they have really, er, long tails!

Please don't anyone take this the wrong way. I must stress that I was not there, have never stared into the salty abyss with the observer(s) concerned and am really and truly not trying to disrespect anyone - just attempting to process the report in a rational way, assume that a mistake has been made and hope I haven't been thoroughly gripped off!  Maybe a magnificent set of photographs will appear, I will be proved wrong and feast on humble pie once more :-D

But an opportunity has arisen to air some thoughts and seeing as I am in controversial mode and heading down that slippery slope anyway... I may as well attempt to get a few things off my chest and grasp the end of a ball of string that has possibly tied up some of our seabird records for a long time?

Essentially, I have serious doubts about the historical reports of a couple of pelagic birds in particular in Welsh waters. I'll start with the species above. Off the west coast of Ireland and in the North Sea, longicaudus are passage migrants, especially in autumn. Off the Western Isles the spring passage is well known. However, I really believe that most of the reports of immatures in autumn in North Wales are probably just Arctics. This is based on a sample of thousands of hours of seawatching by a small group of trusted friends who don't see them very often!

The other thing that bugged me for many years was Sabine's Gull. Again, lots of time getting battered in the sea breeze by birders I know and trust has resulted in a mere handful of records, while at other sites, especially a particularly famous watch point in Pembrokeshire they are apparently regular. On visiting Strumble Head a few years ago with a crack team from the north I was shocked to witness one of the regular guard there misidentify a Kittiwake as a Sabine's at close range! This got me wondering how many more erroneous reports there might have been of this species from there over the years and, realising that I might not be missing too many of them after all I was relieved and disappointed in equal measure!

I repeat in all honesty, that I am not trying to slander anyone. I know about making mistakes, having made hundreds over the years but I am slowly improving and appreciate any help I can get. Casting our egos aside for a minute one comes to realise that mis-identifications are absolutely crucial steps up the ID mountain. They are how we all learn as birders - especially by sharing our thoughts and experiences with our fellow devotees.

Because when we get to do The Real Thing, having departed from the comfy sofa and neat illustrations on crisp field guide pages to mountainous waves, things can get weird, really weird!  There are so many factors to bear in mind: distant birds, species out of their usual habitat, crap light, salt sprayed optics, brief views, no size comparisons, rolling seas... never mind the terrible directions (over the wave!) and sensory deprivation.

So here I am, baring my soul and confessing that I still sometimes have problems with the following maritime identification mysteries 30 years down the line; small skuas - especially distant immatures - regularly give me grief, distant divers often trouble me, I can't always separate Razorbills and Guillemots at range, commic terns can be a bloody nightmare, pale Balearics are a pain sometimes and those little flocks of waders buzzing past at Mach speed are a complete bugger. Right, I feel better now after my confession and would appreciate any help with my afflictions!

Admittedly, things are improving these days with regard to ID resources. There are some great resources on the web. The pioneering Scilly Pelagics team are in the process of producing a series of multimedia guides that sound great (although I've not picked any of them up yet).

There is one particular writer who I have long admired. Like a poet/singer describing elements of the human condition that resonate on a deep level with your own experiences Anthony McGeehan can magically describe elements of a bird's appearance that you have never been able to put into words. He is fantastic at both transmitting the feel for seawatching with the subtle ID tips required to separate some of the key species. And his other birding work is brilliant - inspiring, thoughtful and humorous! Anyone remember his brilliant articles in Birdwatch magazine? Fortunately the amazing Sound Approach team have published a great anthology of his work in 'Birding from the Hip'.

Publications like 'Flight Identification of European Seabirds' are also worth picking up (despite the odd blueish tinge to some photos in the first edition). The cutting edge work of Peter Harrison has developed beyond our 80's dreams.

I vividly remember when visiting the coast as a youthful land-locked birdspotter from Sheffield being completely and utterly baffled by the distant shapes darting over the horizon. I used to hate the sometimes boring discomfort of staring out to sea and simply saw it as a means to year tick a few specialist species but, having wrapped up better and experienced the Zen of Seawatching now have fond memories of many sessions over the years. Four hours into a freezing September session at Ysgaden, with the wind rattling your tripod and thoughts turning to big steaming mugs of Earl Grey and Chocolate cake... a tiny Leach's Petrel from distant shores flips over the swell and dances along the wave crest. This magic is what it's all about!

Sincere thanks to my personal seawatching guru, Rhys Jones. The only man this side of the Irish Sea who can pick up a Sooty clearing customs in Dublin. I would probably still be watching woodland birds without your advice and encouragement over the years. Cheers mate - we will get a local Fea's one day!



  1. You forget that essential bird watching equipment - a bowl of salt from which to take a pinch now and again.

  2. Welcome to my world !! Feckin stringers everywhere !!

    How many kitts get called sabs over here, and do we really get that many juv longtails ?

  3. Good advice from Anonymous! A salt that actually lowers my blood pressure - maybe there's a gap in the market for the ultimate healthy birding condiment? :-D

    Stringer, are you saying there's more than one of you!? I am flabbergasted. I thought you East Coasters were such an honest and reliable bunch :-p

  4. Well put mr C. I have on occasion been known to pull out the odd Sabs from the mouth of the Liffey but do agree that some non-regular sea watchers can pick them out at even greater range, but they always 'land on the sea!' before getting close enough for me to get onto. I spend, as you know, much of my waking hours in autumn with my specs becoming one with my leica eyepiece looking towards the port of Dublin and in thousands of hours seawatching I have seen only 20 long-tails in 15 years! So what are we doing wrong? Maybe we should go and live back to Birding catcliff and take the occasional trip to the coast to clear up on three divers, four skuas, all the sea ducks, five auks, three rare grebes, five species of shearwater three petrels and a whole host of other birds in an annual three hour seawatch! I was in Norfolk last year and was shocked to see a group of inlanders have what they described as the best 15 mins seawatching of their lives. I was at Salthouse and was shown BTD aka Guilliemot, Slav Grebe aka Razorbill, Red-necked Grebe aka red-throated Diver, the 'velvet scoters' were great-creasted grebes flying by and the list went on!! I was so taken aback by the claims and the talk about letting Birdguides know I phoned the guys at Birdguides and told them they were about the get a report of all this fantastic stuff - I was too late the news was out! I was able to confirm however, the flock of 20 Snow Buntings were genuine!!!!! But we don't want to be so cynical, some of these claims at times are the real deal, but having spent hours and hours getting to know the taste of the ocean waves and seeing at best, not a lot, I do wonder if we are doing something wrong.

    Just checking here, it is the fat end of the scope you are supposed to look down isn't it?


    A cynic like you!!

    1. Hi,

      Be good if the anonymous posters left a name - if you want - and apologies if I dont recognise you and should!

      Anyway it's been a long day so just able to reply to the comments. Nice to hear you're not seeing the two species either, despite thousands of hours of Kittiwakes and Arctic Skuas eh? Lovely stuff :-D

      Trust me, I used to head for the coast expecting to clean up before I got my eye in and my illusions were shatterred! Not sure I was as, er, successful as the Norfolk party though.

      Not had Snow Bunt on a seawatch yet, maybe one day. And what's all this about using a telescope when seawatching? ;-p

      Keep at it - we are overdue another Irish Sea Frigatebird methinks!

  5. Not slander; just the truth as I see it too. From the start to the last correct paragraph. Well said that man.

    1. What kind words (your cheque is in the post)!

  6. Nice to see a reference to our beloved Strumble on your blog although in would argue whether the incident you mention came from a regular & experienced "Strumbler".Regarding observations of the usually annual more scarce seabirds such as Sab's Gull & Long Tailed Skua, it is well documented & fully understood that observations at Strumble Head especially on the very good days correlate more with those from Southern Ireland & North Cornwall sites such as St.Ives & Pendeen rather than birds which have come down the Northern route from the top end of the Irish Sea. Equally as frustrating for me when I see the fantastic records from Criccieth, as I could have sat at Strumble from dawn till dusk everyday in the last week & I doubt whether Pom or Long tailed would be on my yearlist yet.

  7. Hi Adrian

    Thanks for the response. Must confess I've only been Strumbling the once (about 10 years ago) albeit with a crew that included a very well-connected Welsh ornithologist/lister who was familiar with the site and had indeed seen a good number of interesting birds over the years. He also had very good things to say about some of the skilled and dedicated regular observers.

    I can't honestly recall who the person was that misjudged the Kittiwake other than being informed that he was - at the time - a regular visitor and I am certainly not implying that ALL Pembrokeshire observers are stringers (crikey that sounds awful just saying it, and forgive me if that was implied) but recounting my experience in a jampacked hide one August day. It simply got all of us wondering about the veracity of some of the records (rightly so!), and the Long-tailed Skua reports the other day got me wondering about the true status of those two species in particular.

    Absolutely agree about the different seabird movements down your way compared with the north. It's always great to compare the totals. I'm sure the Celtic Deep has a major influence when it comes to certain birds - eg the regular passage of the big shearwaters at Strumble compared to the relative scarcity up here, even from such a well watched site as Bardsey.

    Funnily enough, we often experience subtle differences in the composition of passage migrants between Bardsey and Porth Ysgaden, which is only a few miles away as the petrel flies.

    Simultaneous counts result in a tendency for higher totals of the scarcer pelagic species (again Sabs & Long-tails spring to mind) off the island, but far fewer divers and terns, which presumably cut through the Bardsey Sound rather than going around the island.

    Hope you connect with some Poms soon!

    Good Birding & Best Wishes


    1. Although not a strumbler I have made an annual pilgrimage from Cardiff to Strumble every autumn for the last 10 years. In ideal conditions sabine's gull is regular with 3 or 4 on view at the same time (in good years). I have seen long tailed skuas most autumns but just the odd one or two.

      Very jealous of the poms in your area at the moment. Managed a flock of 7 off Criccieth last year in June whilst visiting the in-laws. Must plan my visit ton coincide with passage in the future.

      All the best


    2. Hi Gareth

      Good to hear from you, especially the supportive words about Strumble seabirds.

      As mentioned above I'm not dissing everythnig from there, just recounting my experience. I think if you had witnessed what the other guys and myself did that day you might begin to question some of the record(s) yourself!

      Another 15 Poms at Cricieth today but the highlight was a cracking adult Long-tailed Skua. More on that later - it's time to make some dinner now!

      Good Birding & Best Wishes


  8. We have a couple of well known serial offenders over here.....

    In over 15 years watching this place (probably more than anyone else) I have had just 3 patch sabs, yet they seem to be regularly reported every weekend in the autumn, how does that work ?! There was even one reported this March ?!

    Last autumn a large number of juv long-tailed skuas were reported up here on a couple of days. I went out and had 3 juv long-tails and large numbers of arctics. A little way down the coast at a very popular seawatching point over 40 long-tails were reported, is that the result of an increased number of observers or just a load of old string ? Hmmmmm......

    1. Nice to hear your interesting and scandalous comments G! I'm not the only doubting seawatcher out there then?

      Wonder if the Strumblers ever question their fellow birders?

      Do the Ceredigion birders?

      Or Bardsey?

      What about the Mersey birders?

      And Point Lynas?

      Or Penrhyn Bay?

      I have been developing terrible status anxiety these last few autumuns having apparently been missing all the goodies! Never mind shaking with uncontrollable rage, the ticks (eye not list) and fits of jealousy...

      Isn't this place getting a bit Jeremy Kyle?

      Flashback to a really horrible story I heard from years ago about a certain brutish twitcher committing Grieveous Bodily Harm at Flamborough with a tripod to a fellow birdspotter!! A bloody tripod... and not one of the new light carbopn fibre models!!!!

      I believe that the cause of that argument was suppression related frustration but wonder what might happen if these 'serial offenders' mentioned by Mr Stringer continue with their sick birding crimes and the vigilantes take matters into their own hands... a new Ann Cleeves novel maybe?

  9. At least Anne of Cleves wasn't beheaded...

  10. I was at Strumble on the day mentioned and remember it well. The Kittiwake called as a Sab was by an observer from Cardiff, not one of the core Strumblers, fair play though he accepted correction with good grace.
    The “crack team from the north” were generally on the ball but kept identifying almost head on skuas as Arctics. When I asked them how they could do this I was ignored. Statistically they were likely to be right most of the time but it seemed to me assuming a small skua was an Arctic unless proved otherwise was not a constructive way to tackle skua identification. That has not been the Strumble way.

  11. Graham

    Your memory of the event is different to mine and the other guys from our party. I'm not going to go into further details... or repeat what I've written above.

    And, I repeat that I certainly don't want to sound like I am disrespecting ALL records of this or other species from there. Far from it. I have admired the years of dedicated observation and fantastic seawatching from the site for many years and long may it continue!

    Always good to share experiences with other observers, especially constructive criticism eg. how do we separate small skuas at long range?

    All the best