Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Pirates harass coastal travellers

Autumn is a time of movement for many birds, with summer breeders departing our shores and the first winter visitors beginning to arrive. It is a great time to be up on the Norfolk coast, particularly if the weather conditions are favourable. This morning the conditions weren’t quite so favourable, at least for delivering a fall of migrants. It was clear and bright, the early mist burning off quickly and helped by a gentle breeze out of the west. What the conditions did deliver, however, was a comfortable morning of seawatching from the beach at Titchwell.

Seawatching at this time of the year can be rather rewarding, especially for a beginner. What remains of summer’s warmth, coupled with good light and a calm sea, means that you tend to get decent views of the passing birds and avoid the challenge of picking out dull shapes in poor light, while the telescope shakes in the biting wind. What you don’t get are the numbers and rarities that an autumn storm can deliver.

This morning saw good numbers of gannets, with many juveniles in various stages of moult, their smoky black plumage a contrast to the crisp white of the adults. The sea also supported a dozen or so great crested grebes, the occasional individual of which could be seen in flight, and the odd red-throated diver was also noted passing low and fast. Small flocks of waders, typically knot, godwit and ringed plover, flashed overhead or flicked low above the sea and a single razorbill drifted slowly west.

Also evident was a steady passage of sandwich terns. On more than one occasion the terns attracted the interest of a passing Arctic skua. These large birds are the pirates of the sea, taking much of their food from other birds by harassing them in flight. Arctic skuas leave their breeding sites in late summer (some pairs breed in the north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland), heading south and often moving through our coastal waters before moving towards wintering grounds that lie off South Africa and Argentina. They seem to shadow migrating terns, presumably to steal food from them, and the presence of a good tern passage often suggests one of these pirates will not be far behind.

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