Monday, 5 July 2010

Heron today, gone tomorrow

great skua in water
A ferocious and calculated attack brought interest to an otherwise grey and wet weekend.

We were having a lazy time: half watching the Wimbledon men's final; half eyeing the weather out of the large window and hoping that the wind and rain would stop. My sister called and I described the weather to her, noting a large crow battling the storm.

After the phone call my wife pointed out that the "large crow" was behaving more like a raptor in flight and that it had strong white-band markings on its wings. A quick skim through a bird-spotting reference book revealed it to be a Great Skua, apparently blown off course from its usual summer territory around Shetland. It wheeled away out into the bay at great speed - the storm-battling had been a ruse - its long, narrow and pointed wings cutting through the gale.

My wife kept watching it through binoculars. She called me back to the window a few minutes later: The Skua was harassing a Grey Heron in flight. The slow-flying Heron tried hard to avoid its attacker but sustained assaults from above eventually tired it and forced it down to the sea. There it fought back, writhing its long neck as it tried to get a strike in on the Skua. All to no avail. With ruthless efficiency the Skua rode it under the ashen waves and drowned it.

We had seen the way Skuas operate on nature programmes. It was rather different observing it first-hand.

Later we noticed that there were actually two Skuas in the bay, now resting almost invisibly on a central seaweed-covered rock. One of them took off and make a brief but unsuccessful raid on the Mallards before returning to the rock, where the pair eventually settled for the night.

My parents visited in the late afternoon. My dad told me that the Gaelic for Skua is feasgadair which means "to wring out". This is because of the Skua's charming feeding habit of forcing its victims to regurgitate their last meal.

Nature can be brutal. We're better off out of it.

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