Despite the tide being wrong and the wind lying in the South yesterday afternoon, I went down to the coast to spend an hour looking for migrating skuas as they come rolling up the Solway. Skuas are essentially just large and extremely aggressive seagulls, and they ply their summer trade on the Northern coasts by killing, bullying and mobbing other birds. Three species of skuas come up the Solway as they migrate North from Spain and Africa to their breeding grounds, and I was keen to see some of these fantastic birds coursing over the water just a mile or two away from my home.
In 2008, I worked for a summer on a mussel farm on the Isle of Scalpay, just off the East coast of Harris. I became most familiar with the great skua (or bonxie) as they coasted behind the boat as we travelled up to Loch Seaforth at five o’clock each morning, but there were also close encounters with arctic skuas, trailing their swallow tails behind them and tearing gouts of down from the puffins.
Scalpay was a bird watching paradise, and this was where my love of corncrakes began. We worked long hours harvesting mussels and shipping them up to Stornoway, but it was always a pleasure to hear the corncrakes scratching throughout the hours of semi-darkness when snipe drummed and the colony of terns fell quiet for a few minutes below the stars. In fact, we often saw corncrakes on Scalpay, and they used to scuttle across the road at first light on rainy mornings when they would emerge from the irises to dry off. We even found youngsters once from the lorry window; little black bees in the verge almost within arm’s reach.
On holidays to Caithness, bonxies prowled the moors where the standing stones span shadows through the heather. Bog owls and bonxies on the Flow Country, then further North to Orkney where we found eider ducklings and more bonxies in the gin-clear water. Fishing for trout on Orkney, a friend watched a bonxie drown a greylag gosling amidst squalls of foaming water and clattering wings.
So perhaps I was more excited than I should have been at a distant view of a bonxie off Southerness point yesterday. It was a glimpse against the smirring rain and the fearsome cold. The conditions were far from ideal, but the dark shape showed white wrists for a second before battling on over the spray and heading up towards Carlisle. I must admit that I don’t know what route they take from there, but they’ll be North in time to wreak their havoc when the sea pinks show and the massive stacks of salted, scarted rock fill up with bustling birdlife.