One doesn’t easily forget one’s first encounter with a skua. Mine was well over a quarter-century ago, on a calm and sunny August afternoon a couple dozen miles off the Jersey shore. It had been slow for several hours by that point, and folks were understandably starting to slack off and zone out. Then the cry went out: “SKUA!” We went from zero to sixty, alertness-wise and adrenaline-wise, every single one of us on that boat, in precisely the amount of time it takes for a spotter to exclaim “SKUA!”
About twenty years later, I was on a boat out of Cape Town. There were just the four of us that mild and mostly cloudy July morning in the austral winter: three Afrikaners and myself. I don’t know a word of Afrikaans, but Birderspeak is mutually intelligible among all the world’s bird lovers, and I instantly figured it out: “SKUA!”
And earlier this fall, in the fog and mist off California, the same deal. At the horizon, hulking and well-built, flashing white in the wing: “SKUA!” Bird guides Alvaro Jaramillo and George Armistead relive the sighting of that exact same skua in the Oct. 19, 2022, episode of their “Life List” podcast; check out the segment beginning at the 19:19 mark, reflecting on the thrill of spotting a skua—excuse me, “SKUA!”—on the open ocean.
Skuas are, for almost all of us, rarities. But what does that even mean—a rarity, a rare bird? In an interview in Birding magazine, ornithologist Kimball Garrett takes exception with the term because most so-called rarities are “downright common in the core of their range” (May 2011 issue, p. 16). For example: subantarctic skuas on South Georgia Island in the Southern Ocean. If you’re not careful where you step, you might step on one. Like this:
The subantarctic skuas of South Georgia aren’t the star attraction of that fabled wildlife-watching destination in the Southern Ocean. That title is shared equally among, I would say, the king penguins, South Georgia pipits, and southern elephant seals that call South Georgia home. No, the skuas don’t get a piece of the pie of that three-way tie. But I think they were my favorite vertebrates on South Georgia.
That’s because, for the first time in my experience with any skua species of any sort, they were, as Kimball Garrett would say, “downright common.”
The central preoccupation of “How to Know the Birds” is the celebration of common birds. We started close to four years ago, back in the heyday of The ABA Blog, with an encomium to the common cardinal, followed immediately by a paean to the even more common crow. Next up were the American dipper and sagebrush sparrow—two birds that, if you’re from Boston or Philadelphia, hardly seem common. But it’s all relative: There’s a creek through downtown Boulder where dipper sightings are guaranteed on frigid February mornings; and there’s a cattle guard in the San Luis Valley where the song of the sagebrush sparrow might be the only sound on an otherwise still morning in late winter. (A nerdy birderly aside: The experience of hearing South Georgia pipits totally took me back to the experience of hearing sagebrush sparrows; both sing these weird, chanting, metallic songs in desolate yet beautiful landscapes with no other birds.)
Don’t get me wrong: There’s an undeniable thrill about being on a boat far from land and shouting “SKUA!” at the apparition of a dark form near the horizon. But there’s also something wondrous about whispering to your companion “skua” as the two of you carefully step out of the way while crossing a small creek where the birds are bathing:
The din in the background?—that’s the constant trumpeting of the ubiquitous king penguins. And the wind of course. Always the wind. As central to the experience of being there as rock and ice and sky.
We came upon a skua at a nest, you may recall. (We came upon several such skuas tending nests.) And I snapped a quick photo, you already know. That’s cool, but what about the omnipresent wind? Here ya go:
I’ll never forget that skua sitting on her nest, hunkered down like that just out of reach of the Beaufort 7. (And moments later, we were summoned back to shore as a safety precaution.) Encounters like that one are why I’ve been so taken of late with making short videos, typically under decidedly suboptimal conditions, for learning about birds. I’ll never forget that skua, as I said; and, possibly, just possibly, she’ll never forget me.
A few years ago, there appeared in the journal Animal Cognition a paper with the simple yet startling title “Antarctic skuas recognize individual humans.” I’m still getting over the fact that workaday crows—appreciated for eons for their intelligence—are capable of distinguishing between “Ted” and “Kimball,” between “George” and “Alvaro.” And now skuas! Who knew?
We’re attracted to birds, more than ever before, for their eerie convergences with the human mind and spirit and maybe soul. At the same time, we’re still attracted to birds, as we always have been, for how they symbolize wildness and otherness; we see it, and we long for it, like the stars at night or faraway snowcapped summits, and we have some understanding of it, but it is forever beyond our reach.
It’s a skua—a “SKUA!”—amid rock and ice and sky and, most of all, wind. But it’s also “just a skua,” in her way as human as you or I, contemplating a sublime landscape one instant; then in the next instant reviewing her mental to-do list or wondering where she put the avian equivalent of her cellphone or car keys; and in the very same instant, so much of the time, the rare and the yet-not-rare, the sublime and the absurd, conjoined in the singular experience of being a birder.
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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