Skuas ? an interesting note from the County recorder

Skuas ? an interesting note from the County recorder

Recent sightings of a group of light and dark morph Skuas in Berkshire lead to some discussion about identification features. This is not the first time as some difficulty arose last year at Queen Mother Reservoir about identifying these species. The discussion was about birds found by Paul Cropper and a contribution from Marek Walford.

Chris Heard recently put this note on the BerksBirds Yahoo Group which may be of interest:

?Dark morph juvenile Long-tailed Skuas are, of course, quite frequent
but – as Marek said – dark morph adults may not actually
exist. ‘Skuas and Jaegars’ (by Olsen & Larsson) states that adult
Long-tailed Skua “occurs only as a pale morph (i.e no intermediate
morph either)…. and the existence of a dark morph adult is still
to be proven”.

To put this in context, Dave Davenport (author of several papers on
Long-tailed Skua occurrence) has seen over 4,000 adult Long-tailed
Skuas in the UK (!!) and has never seen anything resembling a dark
morph adult.

So Paul’s dark morph adult (as clearly indicated by the pronounced
tail streamers) must surely have been an Arctic Skua. And, in the
absence of any structural differences, the likelehood is that pale
morph adult was also this species. Some adult Arctics do show
remarkably long tail streamers and can take you by surprise even
after prolonged seawatching.

But this does raise the issue of whether inland skua flocks are ever
composed of more than one species. Different skua species do mingle
when collecting, for instance, at the mouth of the Swale (N.Kent)
but Dave Davenport reports that they invariably separate into single-
species groups when they head inland. In autumn, flocks of Arctic
Skuas are occasionally recorded over inland counties and in autumn
1985 there were several inland groups of Poms (see Bit Birds 80:404-
421) – but DD says that they too were all single-species flocks. I
cannot recall ever hearing of an inland Long-tailed associating with
another skua species.

Last year, during eight days seawatching at Bridges of Ross* (Co
Clare), I saw a total of 24 Long-taileds (singly or in groups of 3-
4) and my impression was that passing Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas
may coincide but that cohesive flocks were generally of single
species; they even seem to travel at different speeds and Long-tails
often loiter and feed on the surface – which Arctics and Poms rarely
do. In the same period this year I saw just two Long-tails but,
remarkably, they went past separately at the same moment in time
(perhaps – by remaining in sight of one another – they were actually

It has become axiomatic to state on this group that skua
identification is often not straightforward – but perhaps that is
part of their attraction. [Even their genetic make-up is
confusing… several studies indicate that Pomarine is closer to
Bonxie than the smaller skuas – somewhat at odds with their

Chris Heard

* The October issue of Birdwatch magazine includes a feature on
August’s seawatching at Bridges of Ross – which was written by Niall ?
Keogh – one of the sharpest of the new generation of Irish