On Tuesday last, 11th August, myself and Michael O’Clery joined the rest of the ‘Kerry lads’ for our annual pelagic off Dingle. Run with military precision each year by Ed Carty, they have become known as ‘Ed’s Pelagics’. For the uninitiated, a pelagic is a boat trip out to sea in search of seabirds. It involves going well offshore, cutting the engines and throwing out chum, a horrible mixture of old smelly fish, krill oil and old cooking oil which has fishy bits. The smell is rotten but it’s just that smell and the promise of food that brings the birds in.
So, off we set at 7.30am and chugged out to sea for over two hours until we were well into the rolling Atlantic. On the way we encountered several superb Minke Whales and pods of Common Dolphins. So, after almost two hours, the boat reached the waters where we plan to chum (chum becomes a verb when you throw the chum off the boat!). This is the time when anyone who is in any way slightly prone to seasickness succumbs. The constant rolling of the boat in a 2-3 metre swell and the smell of fishy chum is often enough to have people contributing to the chum.
Almost instantly birds appeared…Fulmars, a few Storm Petrels, the constantly calling and bickering gulls. Then a beautiful Arctic Skua came in…it was a pale phase, in almost adult-like plumage. It danced around the boat, soared over us, flew off and came back. This is the joy of pelagics…you get to see such birds up close and personal. As if that wasn’t enough, a full adult Pomarine Skua arrived…spoon-like tail feathers and all. It too posed for shots. We were also visited by Bonxies (Great Skuas). Alas, that was it. No rare petrels to be seen. Still, by the end of the day, we all had great shots of Pom and Arctic Skua, so a good day was had by all.
Later, back in Michaels house, with the rolling waves still causing us to sway a little despite being on terra firma, we casually started checking our shots. They were certainly the best skua shots I have taken, especially of Arctic Skua.
But hang on…that’s odd…those wings are showing white shafts on only the two outermost primaries…surely Arctic would show much larger wing flashes. Hmmm, there was no hint of a wing flash on the underwing. The secondaries showed as a dark trailing edge of the wing…hmmm, that’s odd. Such thoughts were going through our respective minds at the same time.
I cast my mind back…for just one brief moment both the Pomarine Skua and the Arctic Skua appeared beside each other and I remember thinking… ‘God! Poms really are big birds.’ Of course, the penny was beginning to drop…it looked huge because the Arctic looked so small. Feck…why didn’t I cop this before?
Mick and I looked at each other.
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking? he asked.
‘Yep, that Arctic wasn’t an Arctic…it was a second-year Long-tailed Skua?’
Long-tailed Skuas are the rarer cousin of the others and this bird was in second year plumage, a plumage we wouldn’t see often. Other features became very obvious. The barring on the underwings and on the upper and under tail were quite grey, not the usual ginger tones of Arctic Skua. Anthony McGeehan and Killian Mullarney also pointed out other features…the dark cap does not go below the gape of the bill, while the shape and size of the bill are all perfect for Long-tailed Skua.
Of course the small size and shape of the bird should have screamed Long-tailed Skua to us all when we saw it but a bird that is seen so close often takes on a different appearance. Thankfully, there were enough shots taken of the bird to see every feature in minute detail. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Lesson learned…always take a second look.
Hmmm….now I still need to get a good Arctic Skua shot, but I’m not complaining.