Monday, 31 October 2011

Sun-seekers

I escaped from under the blankets yesterday. Seeing me hunched under the weight of the ongoing gloom my other half suggested the family headed east for the day, to the coast - and the sun.

Sure enough as we drove out beyond Edinburgh on the A1 we emerged blinking into the warm, coppery light of a perfect autumn day. Aberlady Bay, our destination, sits on the southern shore of the Forth Estuary, just a few miles east of Edinburgh. Low tide reveals a goblet-shaped inlet of mud and sand - a magnet for waders and wildfowl in the colder months. At its mouth the sand spills over into impressive dunes and beaches facing out into the wide entrance to the Forth.

We walked out onto its eastern flank across a long, narrow, rickety wooden bridge, stopping to watch the curlew and redshank probing about absent-mindedly in the sun-glossy mud. We were heading for Gullane Point, where the bay meets the North Sea. The way slowly morphed from muddy track to loose, sandy path across the dunes. A poster at the entrance had advertised a work party to help clear the sea buckthorn that is encroaching onto the species-rich grasslands here, but today it looked magnificent. Huge stands of it bordered the path, sprays of branches studded with lines of apricot-orange berries exploding like fireworks against the grey-green leaves.

At the point a perfect strand of pale gold stretches east to the point. A few couples, families and dog walkers dotted the beach, playing in the sand or dawdling along holding hands. We were halfway along it, Holly and I barefoot, enjoying a last taste of cool freedom before the winter, when Dave pointed out a dark bird sitting incongruously among the gulls at the shore, 50 metres ahead of us. It was an Arctic skua, donkey-brown against the sun-brightened white of its beach-fellows. I expected it to move away as we got closer, but as we approached it lifted, harried by the gulls, and flew directly towards us - passing within a couple of metres of our heads. I've been this close to Arctic skuas before, last summer on Fair Isle in the Shetlands. Then they were harrying me, driving me away from their young. Now this bird was the unwelcome interloper.

Outside the breeding season these birds head south beyond the Equator to Africa or even South America. Strange that a bird that chooses some of the coldest, harshest parts of the world in which to breed should seek out the sun every winter. Maybe the gloom gets them down too. The gulls were keen to move it on because Arctic skuas make their living by mugging other birds. They chase and mither their victims in the air until they regurgitate their last meal - then eat it themselves. That explains their less than flattering scientific name, Stercorarius parasiticus - parasitic dung-hunter. When the Arctic skua got its name 'dung' meant anything that came out of orifices at both ends!

Once we'd watch the Arctic skua disappear over the dunes we finished our walk at the Point, perched on the rocks looking out to sea at the rafts of eider ducks and common scoters lifting and dipping on the swell. Not satisfied with the surprise view of the Arctic skua, Holly stared intently across the Forth through her binoculars, trying unsuccessfully to spot the pomarine skuas we'd been told were about. Me - I was happy - I'd had my day in the sun.

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