Category Archives: a) Skuas

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain.  Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua off Galicia, NW Spain

By Dani López-Velasco

One of the main aims of the ID paper Dick Newell, Steve Howell and myself published in British Birds in 2013 (Newell et al, 2013) was to help build a clearer picture of the identification of South Polar and Great Skuas by using a new approach. That is, using the timing of primary moult as an aid to identification. Furthermore, we found some new features, which we discussed in detail, and also refuted some common assumptions. As a summary, the breeding seasons of Great and South Polar Skuas differ by six months but the moulting periods of adults of each species overlap broadly with the moulting period of first-cycle birds of the other species. Consequently, if a bird can be aged, its wing moult is often diagnostic for identification. The other main purpose of the paper was to reassure field birders that, given good views and photos, the identification of a South Polar Skua in the Western Palearctic was feasible. A handful of recent records of “good” South Polars in European waters have come to light, and we hope that, by increasing birders awareness, more will follow.

In Spain, there have already been at least 4 presumed South Polars seen well from land, all in Estaca de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain, arguably the best seawatching spot in Europe. Furthermore, a further 3 birds have been photographed at sea off Galicia.

The following record, of a presumed second cycle (or older) South Polar is worth publishing. In early September this year, 2016, and during a good seawatching day, the intrepid birder Victor Paris ventured out on his kayak just in front of Estaca, about 1 mile offshore. In good weather, but rough seas, He had a very enjoyable time photographing the skuas that flew overhead. Amongst all the Great Skuas that flew past was the bird depicted in this post, that he tentatively identified as a South Polar after reviewing the pics.

The moult score (45) of this individual, with a growing p10, in early September, is strongly suggestive of a second cycle (or older) South Polar.  However, a late moulting second calendar year Great Skua, completing its first primary moult, could show a similar moult score in early September. Based on our research, and after analysing a lot of photos, we couldn´t find any evidence of any 2cy Bonxie in early autumn showing a plain back (relatively plain, dark, back feathers and scapulars) and smooth and uniformly colored underparts showing no spotting/streaking in the flanks. All of the 2cy Bonxies we analysed showed at least some obvious pale, coarsely marked scaps as well as some pale spots in the flanks.

Although the entire back of this bird can´t be seen properly due to the angle, at least part of it is visible in some pics. It shows the expected plain looking, uniformly dark colours of a South Polar, lacking any coarsely marked scapulars, typical of 2cy Bonxie, that should be even visible from that angle –compare with some of the bonxies below-.  Furthermore, the entire underparts are really smooth looking, showing the same uniformly cold-toned tones, without any pale spots or marks in the flanks. The very dark, almost black axillaries are also supportive of SP, (although note that some Bonxies can show similarly toned axillaries), as is the hint of a golden nape collar and the compact structure, better judged in the more distant pics of the bird approaching. The white peppering around the eye is interesting. Although more commonly found in Great Skua, it´s also shown by some South Polars, like an almost identical bird depicted below.

All classic SPS features  are visible on these high-quality images, including very smooth-looking and uniformly cold-toned underparts without any markings on the flanks,  hint of a golden nape collar, very dark axillaries and relatively compact structure. Part of the back is visible in two of the pics, showing no hints of the pale markings that are expected on any 2cy Bonxie at this time of the year. Note also growing p10, typical of a second cycle or older SPS in September.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

This is a relatively late-moulting 2cy Bonxie , with P10 still growing in late August. Classic bird, with dark upperwing but typically showing scattered pale scapulars and back feathers, as well as pale markings on the warm-toned underparts.

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Three more examples of 2cy Great Skuas from late summer-early autumn, finishing primary moult and showing typical coarse markings on the back:

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Ashley Fisher

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Ashley Fisher

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Gary Thoburn.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Gary Thoburn.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Jose Ardaiz.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Jose Ardaiz.

South Polar Skua – a very similar looking to the Galician bird, even showing some white peppering around the eye:

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older, off California, September. Photo by Martin Lofgren.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older, off California, September. Photo by Martin Lofgren.

A typical South Polar showing a very similar head pattern to the Galician bird:

South Polar Skua, Antarctica. Photo by Gorka Ocio

South Polar Skua, Antarctica. Photo by Gorka Ocio

So, all in all, although the ideas in the paper could be regarded as a working hypothesis, where we invite people to provide more evidence to support or refute our conclusions, it seems clear that this certain individual ticks all the boxes for a second cycle South Polar. So everyone, especially avid seabirders in Ireland and Portugal, watch out, pay attention to all suspicious looking bonxies, and, above all, take photos!

Congratulations to Victor Paris for this exciting sighting in unbelievable conditions. I mean, who would have ventured out in a kayak, in rough seas, to photograph migrating skuas….? Such efforts are usually eventually rewarded.

References

Newell, D., Howell, S., and López-Velasco, D. (2013). South Polar and Great Skuas: the timing of primary moult as an aid to identification. British Birds, 106: 325-346.

Variation in first summer Great Skuas

Off Flamborough and the Azores

Moult matters!

It’s almost October. The best month… potentially… to get a South Polar Skua.

Learning to read moult scores may well secure Britain’s or NW Europe’s next SPS. From now on (peaking October?)  the loop migration of South Polar will take individuals closer to Europe than at other times.

With a summering Great Skua at Flamborough (previously featured) and photos of 2 birds off the Azores last April, I found it a useful exercise to be a bit more genned up. Dick Newell who has spear-headed much though on large Skua ID and moult kindly chipped in.

In June – July 2015 one notable Great Skua summered off Flamborough. The bird occasionally came close enough to capture some images. I posted HERE to open discussion. In the final analysis I change my gut reaction view and now I think the bird is in fact a first summer (2cy) individual (‘cos I am slow and some folk helped me!)

Reading Moult Score. Only new feathers score points

Let’s keep it simple for now.

The birds (skuas in this case) have OLD primaries, NEW primaries and primaries in various stages of REGROWTH, once the old feather has actually fallen out. Each of these stages can be scored.

P.S. you know I am only doing for myself, as I can never remember and need quick reference spot 🙂

OLD: If the feather is still present and OLD – NO POINTS- NOTHING!

NEW: If the feather is fully grown and NEW – full 5 POINTS

REGROWING: and here’s the slightly more tricky bit…

If the feather is NEW and regrowing but incomplete:

new feather NOT visible (in pin) 1 POINT

new feather visible and c 1/3 grown 2 POINTS

new feathers visible and c 2/3 grown 3 POINTS etc

That’s very roughly it! So only NEW feathers get POINTS whether fully grown or part grown or the gap where there are growing (in pin). Easy!

Flamborough, late June

A first summer Great Skua- moult score 32. Three old outer primaries (no points). Five new fully grown inner primaries. 5 x 5 = 25 points. then Dick has found 7 more points. Hmm need to check where he’s got them from…  Have I got that right?

Great Skua 28th June M Garner d (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner a (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner e (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner g (1 of 1)

 

 

 

 

Dick Newell:

“Moult score of about 32 on 28th June puts it in the zone of 1st cycle Bonxie or very early moulting older South Polar – which is not a contender for SPS on plumage.”

Flamborough- same bird – now mid July

Bonxie boy (1 of 1)

Flamborough – different bird? – 15th August

Thanks to Craig Thomas for these pics. Watched this one fly close and it was not too tricky to age as a first summer Bonxie (Great Skua). This bird is just completing its primary moult. This is a ‘classic’  first summer/2cy in which the streaking etc is more limited to the mantle and scapulars/central body strip in flight but the upperwing is relativly plain and unstreaked (adults heavily streaked). Lots more in first Challenge Series: AUTUMN.

15-08-17 Bonxie image 2 15-08-17 15-08-17 Bonxie Flamboro

 

Azores – April

Peter Howlett sent these photos to the Birding Frontiers team for comment. Not an easy subject and with different climatic conditions, some birds in this region, even though they are also first summer Great Skuas, can be far paler, more bleached and frankly carry of a nice South Polar Skua search image in their appearance.

They often provide a South polar pitfall!

“I’d like to have your (and the team’s) opinion on these skuas I photographed just south of Sao Miguel, Azores on 13 April this year.

Reply from Dick Newell:

Hi Martin (and Peter),

How nice to hear from you and thank you for sending this.
The bird with a primary moult score of ~25 on April 13th is overwhelmngly likely to be a 1st cycle Bonxie. It would be a rare event for a South Polar to have this score on this date. Apart from which, it looks like a Bonxie and doesn’t have the compact profile of a South Polar – but that’s subjective stuff.

The second bird looks pretty similar to the first bird, so, on those grounds it is probably also a Bonxie. The primary moult score of ~2-4 makes it marginal. An older than first cycle South Polar could have this moult score (just), but more likely a late-ish 1st cycle Bonxie.

It would be unusual for a South Polar to look as mottled as these birds. The dark hood is also a point against, though can happen on a South Polar.

Dick

BIRD ONE

Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel

BIRD TWO

DSC_6782

Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel

There’s a wee warm-up on skuas, ageing and moult scores. While passerines may dominate my desk for the next couple of weeks… we are also entering a South Polar window.

 

Great Skuas summering off Flamborough

and them Pomarines

Martin Garner

Great Skua 28th June M Garner f (1 of 1)

Skua watching has been unusually good off Flamborough this June. However it’s not of the expected species. Up to 7 Pomarine Skuas and several Great Skuas seem to be summering in Bridlington Bay. Most individuals, especially the Pomarines appear to be immature birds as might be expected.

This Great Skua came particularly close this morning. The dark ‘hooded’ head and pale base to the upper mandibles indicate this should be an immature bird. I might take a stab at it being a 2nd summer. I haven’t looked into any literature but it would be interesting to see if the details in the photos can lead to a more definitive ageing.

Have a look:

Great Skua 28th June M Garner d (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner a (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner e (1 of 1)Great Skua 28th June M Garner g (1 of 1)

Five of Eighteen

The Challenge Series: AUTUMN

One of the chapters covers South Polar Skua and Great Skua. South Polars have a fascinating narrative in their ‘super migration’ into the North Atlantic. Special friends on the Lanzarote pelagics have pioneered the path. The features are clearer than ever. South Polars seem to have already reached Britain. There must be more to come. For more on the content and how to buy the book click HERE.

 South Polar Skua presumed to be 2cy, with Great Shearwater. September.  J. Sagardia

South Polar Skua presumed to be 2cy, with Great Shearwater. September. J. Sagardia

The Pomarine Skua Show

Spoons up!

by Martin

Full report to follow. For now, headlining act on our Seabird weekend event was this adult Pomarine Skua. Seen coming in to the chum at the back of the boat, a skua was called out. Heading toward the back of the boat, I quickly picked the bird up just as it turned to reveal shape, plumage and ‘spoons’ thus sparking a holler from me of  ‘Pomarine Skua! Thankfully, unlike many other skuas, this one chose to stay and give a wonderful performance to the 100 plus folk on the boat.

Spoons up:

Adult Pomarine Skua goes in. Unfortunately some moisture in my lens meant a bunch of foggy fotos, Managed to salvage this attempt at an ‘arty’ one of the bird’s central tail feather ‘spoons’.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012, above 3 by Steve Race. Easily aged as an adult by all dark underwing coverts. The bird is moulting into winter plumage with new secondaries contrasting with old primaries. It has also moulted some body feathers including on the rump and upper tail coverts. In fresh summer plumage males can have almost no barring on flanks or breast band. However I think an adult in moult is perhaps not safe to assign to sex as they do develop barring over the underparts in winter plumage.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012, above 2 by Phil Palmer (www.BirdHolidays.co.uk). Very much enjoyed once again working with Phil as a fellow ‘spotter’.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012,  by Steve Race.