Monday, 16 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 2, 7th June

....continued (from Handa Island, Part 1)

One of the iconic birds of Handa Island and certainly the most noticeable are the Great Skuas or Bonxies as they are known in this part of the world. These hulking great brutes of the seabird community nest in their hundreds on the moorland that covers much of Handa and are easily seen either standing menacingly on guard at their territories or flying and displaying overhead. You can also witness them, if you're not too feint hearted, harassing other seabirds for their fish catch, robbing unguarded eggs or even catching and devouring unsuspecting chicks and adult Puffins and the like! On one of our first visits to the island we were fortunate enough to see a Bonxie take a Guillemot egg from the cliff face. It then landed just metres away and skilfully cracked the egg open and feasted on the contents. It remains one of my most treasured wildlife encounters and although the photos that I took are not the best quality (my camera at the time was pretty basic) the image below is still one of my favourites. It looks as if the Skua is holding the whole world in its bill which, in the case of the developing chick inside, it certainly was!

Great Skua & Guillemot egg, June 2010
As we left the old village stones behind one such Great Skua eyed us carefully from a rocky outcrop. They really are impressive birds, buzzard sized with a very dangerous looking hooked bill. In early June they are really only just starting their breeding season so are mainly displaying and setting up territories although some may be sat on eggs. Later in the month and into July they will have young and at that time they become highly aggressive to any intruders, so any that have made nests close to the paths and boardwalks are very keen to attack and many tourists have had to beat a hasty retreat after being battered around the head. In fact the rangers and wardens have had to develop a tactic to divert such attacks and they do that by carrying a pole or stick above their heads which the Skuas then go for instead. We watched from afar as a Skua made a practice dive at a pair of said rangers who were out on the moor counting the birds. As visitors we stayed firmly on the boardwalk.

Great Skua standing guard
At the end of the uphill walk and about a mile from the wardens hut you arrive at the seabird cliffs. Close by these cliffs is a small lochan which serves as a bathing place for the Great Skuas. There are always some taking time out here to refresh and clean the salt from their feathers, this time there were around 30 birds. Bonxies were coming and going all of the time, mainly to and from the moorland but some were flying out to sea. We've also seen Red-throated Divers on this lochan before but none were present today.

Bonxies bathing
We spent some time watching the antics of the bathing Skuas and I reeled off shot after shot of them flying past or overhead. It was a lovely sunny day so there were no lighting complaints from me for a change and the blue sky backgrounds always help. As is usual for me when in a place like this, I took hundreds of frames and probably managed the best Great Skua shots that I've ever taken (apart from the egg thief of course). 

After spending ages with the Skuas Mrs Caley finally managed to pull me away and we studied the cliff nesting birds. As I feared the density of birds on the cliffs seemed lower than on our previous visits but I knew already that birds were late in starting to nest this year because of the poor weather in the spring, so maybe a lot of birds just hadn't settled down to breeding yet. In fact there appeared to be many more birds on the sea than on the cliffs so perhaps this was indeed the case. It is impossible to capture the splendour of the seabird city on camera and you really have to visit in person to appreciate it. There is much more to take in than just the sight of the birds, there is the constant barrage of noise from the thousands of Kittiwakes and Auks and then there is the smell of the tons of fishy guano that is excreted all over the rocks! Such sounds and smell cannot be related in a photo. 

Guano (& Auk) covered rock
So I chose instead to concentrate on taking photos of individual birds and my first targets were the Fulmars that glide effortlessly around the cliff face. Fulmars are one bird that seem to positively enjoy riding the up currents of air and take in circuit after circuit of the cliffs. Maybe they're all racing each other or daring to see who can get closest to the cliff without hitting it, either way they are supreme at flying.

A wheatear scolded us for taking up a position close to its nest burrow but it would have to get used to it since a few other day trippers were now arriving at the cliffs. I always think that small birds such as the wheatear, skylark, meadow pipits and even the tiny wren are incredibly brave setting up home so close to the Great Skua colony, but the predators very presence probably helps in deterring other birds of prey that would usually target those smaller birds.

The nesting passerines and the smaller seabirds also had to keep an eye open for the Herring and Great Black Backed Gulls that were monitoring the area too. They would be just as eager to take advantage of an easy meal as much as the Skuas were.

Herring Gull
Most visitors to Handa come to see that most recognisable of all of our seabirds, the Puffin, and although there were some dotted around the grassy areas of Great Stack, I preferred to concentrate on watching and photographing Kittiwakes. I knew that they'd be ample opportunity to capture images of Puffins later in the day further around the cliffs too. Kittiwakes are one of our most beautiful Gull species with pure white plumage on the body and tail, a bright yellow bill and a staring black eye. They also have solid black wingtips which is unique amongst our adult gulls so makes them readily identifiable. And they are constantly baying their "kittiwake", "kittiwake" calls. Another bird that is named for exactly what is does. The bright white plumage against a darker background does make them more difficult to photograph though since its easy to over expose images so I spent a bit of time using different settings. Problem is I'll forget what was successful and what wasn't and make the same mistakes next time!

We moved on and found a nice quiet and comfortable spot to eat our picnic which included a forbidden fruit, a pork and pickle pie! I'd kill for such delights but unfortunately too many of them will kill me instead so such guilty pleasures are only taken on special trips like this one! We'd found a place that overlooks a less busy cliff but there were still many birds on offer including some more Bonxies that were patrolling on the lookout for an easy meal. Truth is though that few of the Auks or Kittiwakes were bringing in fish since there weren't any hungry chicks to feed yet so the Skuas were largely wasting their time. Maybe they just wanted the other birds to know that, "any time you feel like going fishing, we'll be waiting for you when you get back"! They truly do have that intimidating presence. be continued in Part 3....

No comments:

Post a Comment