Thursday 23 April 2015

What chance of a spring Pomarine Skua?

Dungeness - 0900hrs - cold, cloudy, ne 2 - The early morning seawatchers reported small numbers of Black-throated Divers, Arctic Skuas, Velvet Scoters and Little Gulls passed the point but the passage had fizzled out by the time we arrived. At the Patch 50 or so Common Terns amongst the gulls.
The land was quiet too with six Wheatears, Mipit, Skylark and Pied Wagtail opposite Jarmans, Chiffchaff in the lighthouse garden, Swallows, Yellow Wagtail and Goldfinch inbound.
Lade - The local patch delivered Cuckoo, Reed, Cetti`s and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroat and Chiffchaff, plus distant soaring Marsh Harrier and Buzzard.
In summary the guests had a pretty decent three days birding, despite the howling wind, with passage waders, and warblers the highlights amongst 109 species. The only disappointment was the poor seawatching, once again mainly due to the wind direction.

                                Early Purple Orchid and Wheatear, Dungeness

Pomarine Skuas at Dungeness
The question I get asked more than any other by visiting birders is, "when is the best time to see Pomarine Skuas at Dungeness in the spring?" To which my immediate response is, based on the past nine seasons down here, "usually the first week in May, but there are variables...".
So, in a vague attempt to be a little more precise I tabulated the last ten years of Pom records published in the Dungeness Bird Observatory reports from 2005-13 and 2014 from the website (many thanks to the warden David Walker). I only looked at April/May records, so excluded `wintering` birds and four June birds in 2012/13.
The earliest bird was one on the 1st April 2012 and the latest on the 29th May 2006. There are a scattering of records in the first three weeks of April and from mid-May onwards but the overwhelming majority of Poms occur within a 16 day window from 25th April to 10th May. Within that period the peak number of bird dates was from 29th April to 2nd May with 1st May being the optimum with birds noted on eight out of ten May Days from 2005-14.
And so to the variables, or rather the wind direction. I`ve not had time to check all the `big Pom days` but its generally accepted that an on shore wind is best and certainly last years record count (at least for the last ten years) of 103 birds on 3rd May was on a south-easterly wind. As for time of day, usually the first two or three hours after daybreak is best for a variety of seabird species, but Poms can come through at anytime, even late afternoon. The best viewing conditions are when its cloudy and while the seawatch hide is the place most birders congregate, given calm weather some of the closest views can be had off the boardwalk opposite the Britannia pub.
So, for the very best chance of encountering this iconic seabird check the weather patterns and if a south-easter is forecast within the 25th April to 10th May period head on down to Dungeness. Be prepared for the long haul though, take a chair, drink and grub and with a bit of luck you should score, but don't blame me if you dip out!

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