Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fascinating Story

Even the birds are getting aggressive.............

You squawking to me? Bird terror turns tourists' stroll into emergency escape

Great skuas show little fear of humans while protecting their young, or of other birds when hungry

« Previous « PreviousNext » Next »View GalleryADVERTISEMENT Published Date: 13 August 2008
PICKPOCKETS in Turkey, too much sun in Spain or a hurricane off the coast of Florida are all holiday hazards that can be anticipated on an exotic break.

However, one couple were astonished to find their gentle stroll on a holiday to Orkney fraught with danger when they were dived-bombed by angry seabirds and had to be airlifted to safety by the coastguard.

The pair, from London, got lost while walking on the island of Hoy on Monday and then found themselves targeted by great skuas after stumbling on their nests.

Most residents of the Northern Isles know to stay well away from the great skuas, or "bonxies" as they are known, which are renowned for their swooping assaults on humans who invade their territory during the breeding season.

A direct "hit" is extremely uncommon, but the aerial bombardment, designed as a scare tactic, can be frightening and intimidating for the victims.

Chris Booth, a naturalist who carries out counts of the birds on Hoy, has taken to wearing a crash helmet after suffering cuts to his head.

"They are just defending their nests. If you walk into their territory they will attack you but they don't attack for any other reason.

"These people were wandering around a bit aimlessly and went into a skua territory and the birds were telling them to get out of the way."

At this time of year nesting is almost over with just a few large chicks left to fledge.

Mr Booth has counted 44 great skua nests at Stourdale, near the Old Man of Hoy, and expects about 14 pairs to rear young.

His advice to those who find themselves in a nesting area is to raise a stick above their heads: "If you raise your profile the birds will come down to the highest point. If you lift a stick they will tend to touch the stick rather than you."

Other birds known to dive-bomb are Arctic skuas, Arctic terns, tawny owls, hen harriers and some species of gull.

Doug Gilbert, an ecologist with RSPB Scotland, also has experience of being hit by bonxies and Arctic skuas.

"I've been dive-bombed in Shetland and elsewhere, it's an occupational hazard. They are much more aggressive in mid-egg stage and very young chick stage. You could be 100-150 yards away and be dive-bombed.

"They swat the back of your head with their feet or use their wing tips to belt you.

"I've felt the 'sting' from a great skua's feet; it's like getting a whack on the head with a ruler. If you're not expecting it it can freak you out.

"Local people will know all about bonxies but most people in Britain will never have seen them. They are impressive birds and to suddenly find you're being attacked by them can be a bit of a surprise."

Eric Meek, an RSPB warden on Orkney, said in 28 years on the island he has been hit only twice by a great skua: "If a bonxie does hit you, you know you've been hit. But it's very rare occurrence.

"They will threaten you and come whizzing past your ears. But as soon as you walk out of their territory they will leave you alone."


• Sometimes called flying thugs or the bovver boys of seabirds, great skuas are aggressive pirates that terrorise other birds to steal a free meal.

• Bonxies, as they are known in Orkney and Shetland, are about 50-58cm in length with a 125-140cm wingspan.

• They deliberately harass birds as large as gannets to give up the food they have caught so they can eat it themselves.

• They also readily kill and eat smaller birds such as puffins and it has been known for a bonxie to swoop on a flock of ducks and pick off the young one by one.

• Great skuas migrate to the northernmost isles of the UK from their wintering grounds off the coasts of Spain and Africa.

No comments: