Well, I guess it had to happen at some point… Today marked the final stage of my descent from casual observer of birds to full-on crazed twitcher.
For the past week or so, I had been aware of the presence of a Long-Tailed Skua that had set-up camp along the south-coast in West Sussex. Before the internet kerfuffle about this uncommon bird began, I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of a Long-Tailed Skua – I was familiar with chicken skewers, but this was probably down to one too many visits to Harvester restaurants during a low-budget misspent youth… Have you ever been to a Harvester before?
My research suggested that, during migratory periods, these Skuas travel out at sea between northern Scandinavia and beyond (for breeding) and the South Atlantic (to over winter) via the coastline of western Britain and are very infrequently seen on land in between. According to reports, this one had been spending its days bullying terns into dropping their dinners out at sea and resting on the beach in the Selsey area.
Initially, I resisted the urge to get in the car and drive a couple of hours to add a plus one to my 2014 list because I didn’t really want to become someone who travels the length and breadth of the country looking for notable birds to stare at. Something about doing stuff like this, for some reason, has never sat too well with me. Maybe I don’t want to admit that I’m a birdwatcher. Maybe twitching for birds, for me, would be a bit like Luke Skywalker saying ‘Oh go on then. What harm could it do?’ when the Emperor asked him to join the Dark Side. Maybe I just don’t want to run the risk of turning a nice hobby into a relentless quest to stick ticks in a notepad. Maybe I’m just a bit odd.
My reasons for, after a period of careful contemplation and soul-searching of course, finally deciding to get in the car and travelling a couple of hours to add a plus one to my 2014 list were two-fold: –
- The chances for me to ever get such good views of a Long-Tailed Skua again were, in all likelihood, very small. I’m keen to learn as much as I can about the natural world, so I shouldn’t be turning down opportunities to see things like this first hand.
- Adding ticks to my imaginary bird-spotting notebook is what this year’s challenge is all about, so would seem strange to avoid chances like this.
All that internal reflection gave me a bit of a headache!
On arrival at East Beach in Selsey, I didn’t really have much of a clue where to look for the Skua, so I scoured the area – not for the bird, but for people with telescopic equipment. In the past, I had always found that this was the best way to scout out things worth looking at.
To make things difficult, there was a small gathering of people at either end of the promenade – all seemingly looking out to sea for something. In true Miss Marple fashion, I deduced that the Skua must have been elusive to this point and was out at sea somewhere. I considered this supposition my best chance of being nominated for detective of the year.
For no reason other than I was facing that way, I took a bit of a wander eastwards, seeing a couple of Wheatears on the breakwaters on the way, and sat down on a bench to eat my sandwiches. I have noticed that birdwatchers are nearly always prepared with a good on-the-go lunchtime spread. Eating is always important during a stake-out and, I guess, the foodstuff could always (unethically, perhaps) be used to tempt birds into the vicinity.
Between mouthfuls, I scanned the area with my binoculars, not sure if I’d be able to identify the target bird if it appeared. After about ten minutes (the sandwich had long been dispatched) the Skua appeared from the west, glided past and settled on the shingle beach about three groyned sections along.
The two groups of bird-spotters at either end of the promenade speed-walked towards a near-central point on the seafront and set up their telescopic equipment. I moved about fifty yards eastwards and took my place amongst the assembling crowd.
The Long-Tailed Skua was sat on the beach seemingly oblivious to the fuss it was stirring. It was a great sight to behold and I was glad I had decided to ignore my concerns about joining a twitch to go and see it. I doubt that I will ever get to sit on the same beach as a Skua again.
Seeing as I had become a maniacal twitcher for the day, I decided to spend the afternoon rushing around public footpaths in nearby Sidlesham, with the aim of tracking down a reported Cattle Egret using a dodgy photograph of a map I had taken with my phone from a noticeboard at neighbouring RSPB Pagham Harbour.
I failed to locate it – my chances of being detective of the year probably lost somewhere in a cow field nearby – but I did manage to see a Whimbrel (a first for 2014 and ever) and a juvenile Sedge Warbler scurrying through the undergrowth and stealing flies from the webs of likely-to-be disappointed spiders.
Surprisingly, I had had an enjoyable (and productive) day of being a member of the Dark Side. Next stop: The Isle of Wight to stalk a family of European Bee-Eaters…