Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Learning Curve

I set off for Orcombe Point at about 7.45am. I’m such a beginner at sea-watching that even quite common birds would make me happy. ....everyone else seems to be seeing loads of Manx Shearwaters, well I’ve never seen one! I’d done a bit of homework, watching Birdguides videos (narrated by the scintillating Dave Gosney) in the hope that I may be able to recognise one should it happen to fly by.

It’s a half hour walk up Gore Lane to reach the path across to the cliffs, so I was distinctly unimpressed when I got there to find this....

What are you looking at?
I admit to being a real coward (how appropriate) when it comes to bovine beasts. I briefly considered braving the cows & their bog, but at least one of them had horns....and I was wearing a red coat. On to Plan B, I headed for Exmouth front.

I set up the scope by the Lifeboat station & started to scan the sea. 

Looking across to Dawlish Warren from the Lifeboat Station
Almost immediately a dark bird with pointed wings & a white belly flew into my view & landed on the sea. It had a black cap, a pale face & neck, a small dark bill & I hadn’t the faintest idea what it was (I did say I was a beginner at this lark!). It then flew up & I could see small white patches on the wings and an odd shaped tail. It chased a Sandwich Tern, twisting & turning after it in a pretty impressive acrobatic display. It then landed back on the sea & I reached for my Collins. When I looked again, it had gone.  

I started going through the book.....not a Shearwater or a Petrel....then a chap appeared with his bins. “You look like you know what you’re doing,.....what was that bird that was just chasing the Terns?” It just goes to show that you really can’t judge a book.......
It was a hands-up job “I haven’t a clue” I said. “Do you think it could have been a Skua?” he suggested.  I was just coming to them.....

A quick look at the Collins narrowed it down to a Pomarine or an Arctic Skua. I couldn’t exactly fall back on my personal experience which consists of a possible Arctic Skua flying by at Cley in Norfolk in 2001 & a fleeting glimpse of a Pomarine Skua from the ferry to the Isles of Scilly in 2004! It definitely had an odd projection on the tail, but was it a point or a spoon? As far as I could remember it had looked more point-like. Luckily the bird came back & did a bit more nifty Tern chasing relatively close to shore. It did look more like a point & the bird looked the same size as the Sandwich Tern, which all matched the Arctic. The bird then flew off towards Dawlish Warren & I lost it when it landed on the sea.

I was about 99% happy with the ID, but I always like confirmation. Whilst trying to find it again, I spotted 4 birders with scopes looking out from Dawlish Warren. Hopefully they will have seen it & put an entry on Devon Bird News later. Well, I can always hope!

I watched the Gannets diving quite close in to shore, had a good look at the Terns hoping to find a Common but only found Sandwich & saw 8 Whimbrels & 2 Shelducks heading into the estuary.  I probably missed loads of other birds whilst trying to figure out the Skua, but I’m more than happy with my lot!

Simon was walking out along the cliffs from Sandy Bay to meet me so I headed off East along the front. Having just put the tripod legs up, the Skua reappeared. I quickly put the scope back up  & watched as it chased another Tern & flew off towards Dawlish Warren again. I was a happy bunny as I climbed up onto the cliffs at Orcombe Point. It had been threatening rain & there was a brief shower, but not enough to get wet. I just love the views from the cliffs, we’re so lucky living here! There was the added interest of a large ship heading West across Lyme Bay carrying another ship on the deck!

Looking West towards the Exe Estuary & Dawlish Warren

I found a hairy man sketching on a bench & we headed back along the cliffs.

Simon but no V.....she's at home resting in her basket

I‘ve now had a chance to watch the Birdguides Skua videos, and read the Collins & ‘Birds by Behaviour ‘ books a bit more carefully & I’m now 100% sure it was an Arctic Skua. The 2010 Devon Bird Report & old Devon Bird News reports confirm it’s the most likely of the 2 as well. I’ve clawed my way a little bit further up the learning curve!

A life tick! Year List now on 171 + 2

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