Friday, 1 January 2010

New Year, new list, London tick

Flew in to Heathrow on the New Year red-eye at 8.15am this morning, leaving behind falling snow in New York. The last bird I saw in the US was Common Starling and the last mammal Grey Squirrel; how appropriate in the age of globalisation that these two trash species were also the first I saw in the UK, on the cab ride home. Trash is an unkind moniker, especially as roles are reversed and the pestilential introduced Common Starling in the US is a fast-declining native species here; but I'll stick with it for Grey Squirrels, which are acceptable in Central Park but not Regent's Park. (As an aside, how come we don't get the blackish morphs which are so frequent in the US?).

I passed the time on the journey home by kicking off my yearlist, reaching a heady 11 species by the time the taxi reached our house in north London. But my listing rhythm was broken by a text message from Ruth at Rainham, telling me that a Great Skua was - amazingly - still there for its fourth day. How often is it that good ticks turn up when I'm out of the country? Not wishing to get the year off to a bad start by deliberately avoiding a long-awaited London (never mind Rainham) bird, as soon as we got in I was off again with camera, scope and bins around the North Circular Road towards the tidal Thames. After an anxious 40-minute scan another birder picked it up distantly on the Kent side of the river, drifting upstream on the rising tide. After a while it flew and I got some incredibly poor record shots, but I'll try again tomorrow.

In the meantime, the debate has already begun - as it inevitably does - about the identity of any 'Great' Skua turning up in British waters in midwinter. Can South Polar be excluded? What about Brown? What age is it, and what's its moult state? Too many questions to answer at this stage, and with such distant views as today's it'll go down as a Great Skua until proven otherwise - like all bar two of the other countless Catharacta skua sightings in Britain over the years.

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