Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Pom and circumstance!, 11th September 2018

It had to be done. I had to do it. So I did!

For a couple of weeks now a Pomarine Skua had been frequenting an area known as South Gare at the mouth of the River Tees in Cleveland. The photos that had been posted online of this bird had me looking on with envy since it was clearly one very obliging and confiding critter. I hatched a plan to drive up there last Friday but work commitments conspired against me and I couldn't go. A couple of birding friends did make the trip that day and their fine photos made me even more eager to get up there myself and see it. The weekend was out of the question and I was back working again on Monday but my "twitchiness" was becoming unbearable! I couldn't take any more so on Monday evening I decided that I just had to go and the next day would be it.

Mrs Caley and I left home just before 07:00 and stepped out of the car after 220 miles of non-stop driving just before 11 into a very pleasant but breezy day. There had been no reports of the Pomarine Skua yet via Birdguides but I could see a group of birdwatchers stood close to the beach, where a lot of the sightings were from, so I felt reasonably confident that we would get the bird. I had seen a Pomarine Skua only once before, distantly offshore at Minsmere and that was nearly 20 years ago so this would be an opportunity to finally get good views of a species that is normally only seen either flying along the coast on its migratory route or from a boat out at sea. As we kitted up I saw a birder walking towards us so I intercepted him and asked if he'd seen the Pom. His response was negative, it hadn't been seen, and when I inquired about the group of birdwatchers at the beach he said that they too, despite much searching, hadn't located the Skua. My confidence ebbed a little but we were here so had to remain upbeat.

I started along the concrete road that leads to the lighthouse and began to scan around with my binoculars. I first spotted a chap with a camera stood right at the end of the pier but he didn't appear to be looking at anything so I assumed he was sea watching in the hope of finding birds flying past the headland. I cast my glance on to the sea and was amazed to see a large bird resting on the water with a white throat, speckled chest (how it appeared at the distance I was looking from) and dark hood and back and realised immediately that it was the Pomarine Skua! I turned towards Mrs Caley and exclaimed "I've got it!". She was amazed, "what already?". You bet! It had taken me less than 10 seconds of scanning to find it. Easy this twitching lark!

The Pomarine Skua
Our luck continued when the bird took to the air and flew left to right past us, still some distance away mind, and landed briefly on the rocks of the breakwater before flying on a bit further and landing on a small strip of sand next to the dunes to our right. 

We scrambled over some rocks at the bottom of a slipway and found a path that ran alongside the rocky shore towards the place where the Skua had landed. I stealthily approached the place where I judged the bird to be and was astonished when I saw it around 30 feet away. It appeared settled so we carefully attained a good vantage point and sat down with the dunes at our backs so that the bird wasn't startled.

I began taking some frames, the click of the camera shutter gaining some attention from our subject, but it was totally unperturbed and actually flopped down onto its belly and relaxed. For the next 45 minutes it did very little save for shake its head to rid itself of annoying flying insects that bugged it. It was truly a stunning bird and I felt so fortunate to have this opportunity to study it at such close quarters. The throat was actually a lovely lemon yellow colour contrasting with the jet black head. A broken band of brown crossed the chest with gleaming white underparts. The back, wings and tail were mainly brown but the open wing would reveal small white patches in the outer primaries. Its most discerning feature were the spatulate feathers, known as "spoons", which protrude beyond the main feathers of the tail. The bill in typical Skua fashion looked ready to do any amount of damage, long and mainly flesh coloured with a hooked black tip. The legs were rather spindly for a bird of such size and ended with, quite small I thought, webbed feet. It certainly was a looker!

We were joined by a chap that we'd met while twitching a Little Bittern in Shropshire back in July (see I want that one!). Phil asked us what we were looking at so we pointed out the Skua sat just yards away. After a short burst of exclaim, he settled in next to us and we chatted away while studying the bird. He too told us that the group of birders stood by the beach, that we'd seen from the road earlier, were searching for the Skua. None of them made any move to join us though.

"when you gotta go..." 

The bird was roused when one of the local cockle, I think, fisherman walked along the beach towards it. Sensing an opportunity I readied myself and sure enough the Skua took to the air when the man got too close. I sent the camera into overdrive capturing the birds flight as it flew slightly away from us to the sanctuary of the rocks. 

Luckily, once again, the bird only moved a few yards further away and alighted on a flat rock in the middle of a small rock pool from where it watched the man pass. I half crawled to a better position where the Skua wasn't obscured by any rocks and sat down behind a washed up tree stump. Some more photos from a different perspective!

After almost an hour and a half of having the Pomarine Skua to ourselves (and Phil) another couple of birders approached and on reaching us asked if we'd seen it. "Yep, sure have, it's stood just in the rocks there" I answered. "Bloody hell" came the reply! Unfortunately their fieldcraft was lacking the necessary skills and, because they remained stood above the skyline, it was only moments until the Skua took to the air again and this time flew away over to the lighthouse. Mrs Caley and I decided to leave anyway and made our way back to the car. I kept my eye on the Pom all the time though which, after a few minutes of flying around the lighthouse and pier area, had landed right at the end of the concrete causeway so we thought we'd have a last look at it before leaving and I was hoping for some flight shots over the sea. By now though we had attracted the attention of other birders and we were followed out to the bird by a small posse of them. I knew what would happen so kept back a way while an over eager "Togger" approached the Skua ever more closely. Sure enough it was harassed into flying once more and I seized the chance to get those flight shots over the water as it sailed past.

The Skua was now much more alert and landed on the sea quite a way out so we called it a day. A few yards from the car another newly arriving birder asked the same old question and I told him that the Pom was sat on the sea at the end of the pier. I looked back as I pointed it out and said "actually it's flying straight towards us" which it was. The chap said aloud "fancy that, the Skua has come out just to see me". If only mate!

We had seen some other good birds whilst watching the Pomarine Skua, not least two Roseate Terns that passed overhead calling (too slow with my camera though). There were Sandwich and Common Terns too as well as wading birds including Curlew, Turnstone, Redshank and Oystercatchers (others had seen Purple Sandpipers too). A single eclipse plumaged drake Eider had swam past and there were Guillemots idling further out. Finally a few Seals were loitering offshore. 

Sandwich Tern
South Gare is a fantastic spot nestled in amongst one of the most industrial landscapes of the country and offers superb birding potential. Today was just all about the one bird but maybe we'll return one day and explore a bit more. The long drive home was gruelling as expected but you have to take that pain if you want to see birds like the Pomarine Skua!

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