Birdwatch: Arctic Skuas are the gulls of the dark side

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At first, I thought the quartet flying towards me were gulls – but something about them rang warning bells. “Arctic skuas,” I called out instinctively, even before I realised I’d identified these unfamiliar birds.

Slender-winged, buoyant, yet utterly determined, they flew strongly into the wind, on their long journey north from the South Atlantic to the Arctic tundra.

They circled over our heads, glanced down towards the fishers, joggers and dog-walkers along the seafront; then flew off up the River Brue, heading inland. From here, they would cross unseen over the heart of England, en route to their breeding grounds.

Arctic skuas do look superficially like gulls; but gulls that have gone over to the dark side. In the US, they callthe species “parasitic jaeger”, from its habit of chasing other seabirds to steal their food combined with the German word for hunter.

I’ve watched them on Shetland, as they hassle the kittiwakes and Arctic terns, forcing them to regurgitate their fishy catch, before snatching their ill-gotten booty in mid-air. I’ve also been attacked by one, when I inadvertently ventured too near its nest. This was, I admit, truly terrifying.

But the one place I didn’t expect to see them was over my local seaside resort, on a fine spring morning.