Skua Cruise 2011

This weekend I had my annual pilgrimage to Flamborough and Brid for the Skua and Shearwater Cruise.

I arrived on Saturday lunchtime, and made it up to Flamborough in time to learn I’d just missed a buff-breasted sandpiper at Thornwick Bay! Ah well! I met up with fellow birder Jason, and had a very pleasant afternoon, although it has to be said that it was a very quiet day indeed bird-wise. We spent quite a bit of time seawatching, but apart from a few sandwich and common terns, and the obligatory species such as gannets, fulmars, cormorants, guillemots, kittiwakes and oystercatchers, nothing came into view. Other stuff around included a nice pair of whimbrel, a trio of bar-tailed godwit, the usual turnstones, a small group of red-legged partridge, and a sedge warbler (practically the only migrant all day), plus a few grey seals bobbing around and giving good views.

However the lack of seabirds (even ones I couldn’t identify!) didn’t bode well for the next day. Would the Skua Cruise be equally bereft of birds?

Getting up first thing on Sunday for the 9am cruise, I joined the usual BirdForum regulars on the North Pier, stopping off to have a quick look at the easy purple sandpipers on the harbour wall. Kittiwake was also got before we left the harbour, and common and sandwich tern followed very shortly. It wasn’t long into the cruise we got our first arctic skua, giving great views as it bobbed around in the water next to the boat, and shag and common scoter were soon picked up too, fulmars were drifting around the boat, gannets were plunge-diving, ridiculous amounts of harbour porpoise gave cracking views as they broke the water, and the odd grey seal popped its head up. Despite my misgivings this was showing early promise… and it was only going to get better!

The boat drifted off to explore a huge raft of auks, mainly containing thousands of guillemots, but also a good few hundred razorbill (and two puffins were also seen later). Very quickly we got our first shearwater of the morning – a sooty shearwater sat in the water a few metres from the boat. A much sought-after lifer for me, and I got cracking views. Soon Manx shearwater was called too and distant birds were seen, another arctic skua seen, and a couple of arctic terns were picked out among the commons.

Exploring the auk raft further, we came along a second sooty shearwater. Or was it? Regular seawatchers on the boat realised it was too small, stumpy and – most tellingly – had a pale belly. The penny dropped and it was reidentified – Balearic shearwater, giving equally cracking views as the sooty! And mere minutes after we were all onto this the fella calling birds shouted at the top of his lungs, barely containing his excitement… SABINE’S GULL!!!! Most of us managed to whip round from watching the Balearic in time to see it just as it passed the boat, only brief views but enough to see its distinctive all-grey ‘W’ markings which differentiate it from the confusion species of juvenile kittiwake.

Following this excitement, stuff still tricked in, with a flypast by the one and only great skua of the trip, we finally got a cracking view of a Manxie, and a flock of little gulls found among the terns. A quiet spell followed, but on the way back things went a bit mental as Brid loomed back into view. A black tern was called, which turned out to be the first of at least nine seen (a remarkable number for the cruise), arctic skuas were appearing left right and centre, a flock of teal bobbed past (the only thing I’ve mentioned I didn’t get on to, and the one I can live with!) and five red-throated divers went past.

This is the fourth cruise I’ve been on, and while I’ve always enjoyed them a lot, I’ve always got the sense I’ve picked relatively quiet cruises, with only a handful of skuas or shearwaters seen. But this year more than made up for it – it’d take a lot to beat this one!

My camera’s not good enough for seabird photography, but Michael Flowers has kindly let me use some of his, which are below. (Check out Michael’s Blog for his own version of the day, and loads of other info on his birding and the nature courses he runs).

Arctic Skua

Arctic Skua [(c) Michael Flowers]

Balearic Shearwater

Balearic Shearwater [(c) Michael Flowers]

Harbour Porpoises

Harbour Porpoises [(c) Michael Flowers]

(You can see a pic of the Sabine’s on Martin Garner’s blog – also see if you can spot me in the short video of the boat crew!)

Brilliant stuff! After the cruise some of us went up to Thornwick Bay on the remote chance the buff-breasted sand was still around, but no avail! Consolation was a smattering of stonechats and whinchats on the way to the hide, and  little grebe was added to the day’s tally, but Flamborough was just as quiet as the day before, and nothing could top the rush of such a fantastic skua cruise – a brilliant birding experience!

Here’s my full list for the two days…

  • Greylag Goose
  • Mallard
  • Common Scoter
  • Red-legged Partridge
  • Pheasant
  • Red-throated Diver
  • Little Grebe
  • Fulmar
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Manx Shearwater
  • Balearic Shearwater
  • Gannet
  • Cormorant
  • Shag
  • Grey Heron
  • Sparrowhawk
  • Kestrel
  • Moorhen
  • Coot
  • Oystercatcher
  • Lapwing
  • Purple Sandpiper
  • Whimbrel
  • Curlew
  • Turnstone
  • Arctic Skua
  • Great Skua
  • Little Gull
  • Sabine’s Gull
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Common Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Kittiwake
  • Sandwich Tern
  • Common Tern
  • Arctic Tern
  • Black Tern
  • Guillemot
  • Razorbill
  • Puffin
  • Feral Pigeon
  • Woodpigeon
  • Collared Dove
  • Swallow
  • House Martin
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Wren
  • Dunnock
  • Blackbird
  • Mistle Thrush
  • Robin
  • Stonechat
  • Whinchat
  • Wheatear
  • Sedge Warbler
  • Whitethroat
  • Great Tit
  • Blue Tit
  • Carrion Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Rook
  • Magpie
  • Starling
  • House Sparrow
  • Goldfinch
  • Linnet
  • Yellowhammer

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My name is Pete

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