Saturday 12 September 2015

Skuas, Sooties and a boatswain bird...

Lade - 0700hrs - mild, cloudy, sw 3 - An early walk out back before the rain band crossed the peninsula revealed a steady passage of Swallows and Sand Martins streaming south with hundreds more over south lake. A flock of 12 Wigeon were new in amongst a big increase in Coot and Gadwall to around 1,000 combined, plus 23 Dabchicks feeding amongst the floating water weed.
In the shelter of the brisk south-westerly at the ponds a few Willow and Reed Warblers, Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap, while a Redstart was a surprise find in the scrub by the main track. Several Mipits, Linnets and Yellow Wagtails passed overhead while scanning from the aerial mound.
The garden moth trap was stuffed with Setaceous Hebrew Characters, Large Yellow Underwings and the like, plus a migrant Vestal and, new for the year, Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing.

                                             Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing

Dungeness - 1000-1130hrs - Joined TG, SO et al in the seawatch hide for a lively session with plenty of Gannets and Sandwich Terns on the move, plus a few Common Terns, a Fulmar, at least 10 Arctic Skuas coming and going and a Bonxie beating up a Great Black-backed Gull. The cream of the crop though was 3 Sooty Shearwaters, one of which cut in quite close, shearing dramatically over a choppy sea at high speed, ably demonstrating why they`re referred to as the `greyhound of the ocean`.

                   Red-tailed Tropicbird, collected from the Mozambique Channel, 1977
Last week Steve Gale posted an article on his blog ( )  about a past obsession with dead birds, and it seems that one or two other birders went through a similar morbid phase of collecting corpses in their youth, myself included, which reminded me of a treasured memory many years ago.
During the 1970`s I spent most of my time at sea and encountered a number of birds that came to nocturnal grief by colliding with the ships superstructure. My best pal back home, Kevin Downer, was a trained taxidermist and he showed me how to skin and cure a dead beast; and as I had plenty of corpses to practise on became reasonably accomplished with scalpel and borax. Wilson`s Petrel, Blue-footed Booby, Pintado Petrel and Black Noddy all went under the knife as cabinet skins and given to Kevin to perfect his art once I returned home. What happened to those trophies I don't know, lost in the mists of time and all that, but there was one bird that I remember being transfixed by and has survived to this day.
In 1977 I shipped out on the SS Linga, a Shell tanker, and one of the largest ships afloat at the time; it was so long that we used a bicycle to get from one end to the other! Anyhow, I digress. Whilst on passage to the Persian Gulf (in the Mozambique Channel near the Comoros Islands) I picked up a large, white seabird off the deck one morning that had hit the funnel during the night, but was in immaculate condition.
It was a boatswain bird, as sailors referred to them, and the previous day I`d been watching small flocks of these gorgeous seabirds, with an incongruous flight action, feeding around the ship near their breeding islands. The combination of red bill and tail made for an easy identification: it was an adult Red-tailed Tropicbird. So, out came the blade and powder and the skin was soon flat-packed for the journey home in a suitcase.
However, I didn't want this specimen to remain as a cabinet skin so asked Kevin to mount and case it for show, which he duly did. Sadly, over the years, and several house moves, it has taken a bit of a battering, but still sits in our study as a reminder of one memorable day in the Indian Ocean long, long ago.
What chance one of these beauties on a Dungeness seawatch I wonder...


  1. weekend possibly, seen by a day tripper...

  2. Apparently, one has been claimed in Cornwall recently, and the wind is getting stronger and stronger as I write, from that direction...