sand dunes and skuas

Sitting amongst the dunes at Druridge Bay, I am scanning the sea with my binoculars. From my elevated position here, gulls and terns show up well against the backdrop of the sea as they fly back and forth, working close into the shore looking for food. Every now and again a tern pauses, and makes a sudden dive into the water.

We are camping in Northumberland – it’s late afternoon in August, the sun is warm and I’m looking more with idle curiosity than any degree of seriousness.

I make another sweep of the coastline, and in that moment my casual hope for the unexpected becomes reality.

An unfamiliar shape hoves into view; easy flight on long, swept wings, and at this distance, the unknown bird looks black in its entirety. This is something different. Then a second appears further away, while the first swoops on a gull or tern, I can’t tell which. A brief conflict ensues, both birds twisting through the air. Then they are lost from view.

My mind goes back two days prior to this, when we were visiting St Abb’s Head, on the Berwickshire coast. I saw in the visitors book someone had noted seeing a juvenile Kittiwake attacked and killed by a skua. I get the bird book out, and sure enough, these are what I’m looking at. I can’t say with absolute surety what kind of skua they are but most probably Arctic, on their migration route to warmer climes for the winter. Described as ‘piratical’, these birds attack other seabirds in order to force them to drop food they may be carrying, so that they in turn can eat it.

I catch sight of both skuas a few more times as they move down the coast, before the dunes obscure my view entirely and they are gone. It’s a treat to have had a snapshot of these ocean-going travellers, on their journey from their breeding grounds high in the Northern hemisphere to the Southern Atlantic. The whole sequence has probably lasted no more than a minute, but the thrill of it will stay with me for days.

Getting outdoors and exploring the landscapes and natural world around us has always been important to me. It’s encounters like this which offer a tantalising glimpse into a much bigger story, and I hope some of that comes through in this blog.

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