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George

Dining on Great Skua leftovers

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For the last two years, large numbers of dead seagulls are being washed up on Brora beach. The tides tend to bring stuff down the coast, so I’m guessing a lot of them come from perhaps the Helmsdale area.

The thing is, these are not the usual dead birds that wash up whole and then get pecked to bits. These are coming ashore fresh but completely sucked dry of all flesh.

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I know orcas take birds from the surface, so could these be orca kills? I’ve never seen orca off Brora, but they could be coming closer if these are indeed orca kills.

Or could it be seals, perhaps? You would think something as large as an Orca would swallow gulls whole. This seems rather unique, so could it perhaps be one individual seal who has learned to eat this way?

Then again, there are no visible signs of chewing and there are no broken bones. The meat looks to have been eaten quite delicately so could it have been some kind of fish or crustaceans such as crabs? Then again, could death have been due to something natural and the bird eaten after death?

But then, how would a seal remove the meat without chewing through the rib bones and sternum? Those are really fragile bones, easily broken; and they are also soft, they surely would have been eaten as well.

There have been dozens of these turning up on the beach, with 1 or 2 fresh ones washing up every week. This particular bird came ashore with the tide as I was walking by. Fragile bones are not broken and there are no signs of chewing. Although not all of them are, this bird is quite fresh and hasn’t been dead very long. Its eyes have not even been pecked out. In this photo you can see that the bird’s eyes are moist and fresh, as is the flesh on the rib cage, and that’s its tongue sticking out which doesn’t suggest death by natural causes. In my opinion, the bird has only been dead a day or two.

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Great Skuas perhaps? They are certainly capable of killing large gulls and would likely tear the carcass open and feed out on the open water, leaving the remains to drift away on the tide. Is it possible perhaps one individual pair have taken a liking to large gulls?

It makes sense. I had considered sea eagles, but discarded that idea as I would have thought they would take their prey to land to scoff. What we can safely assume is the birds are being taken at sea, so either from the surface or from the air. Sea Eagles I’ve ruled out as I’m convinced they would take their prey to shore. I don’t think we have any predatory fish around here. In fresh water, pike could certainly do this. If we don’t have any predatory fish, then orca was the only thing I could think of. I know great skuas prey on young, but now it appears they could take adult birds. There are Great skuas here as I see them out at sea regularly. If they can take adult birds and feed on them out on the water, that would certainly account for the clean fresh carcasses being washed up.

After another walk along the beach, I think we can clear this one up, as well as another little mystery that’s puzzled me for some time. I’ve been here since the 1970s off and on, and I’ve never seen crows on Brora beach. Well, not until 2 years ago. Why would crows show up 2 years ago? Never understood that. This morning I realised that the crows showed up about the same time as these carcasses began washing up on the beach. My guess is this small crow colony owes its existence to a pair of Great Skuas who have acquired a taste for herring gull. The way nature balances itself is amazing. Here’s a hoodie (or a hybrid) feasting this morning on what is most likely Great Skua leftovers.

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