One of the undoubted highlights of the year on the Solway is the annual passage of skuas each spring. From mid-April until the end of May, if the weather conditions are favourable, many hundreds of skuas can head east past Bowness-on-Solway. A small, dedicated number of locals gather each year to witness this awesome spectacle, and it’s fair to say that these birders have definitely put the Solway firmly on the map as one of the best places in Britain to see skuas on migration.
However, as with any type of birding, it is important to understand that there is no guarantee that any skuas will be seen, even in seemingly good conditions. As we have discovered, the chances of seeing skuas depends on many things!
Pomarine, Arctic and Great Skuas are all possible from the start of April through until the end of May. The much rarer Long-tailed Skua can appear from the second week in May until the end of the month. The peak time is probably the second and third week of May when it is possible to see all four species if conditions are ideal. To increase your chances be aware of the tide times, it is best to begin watching at least two hours before high tide, and keep watching for up to a couple of hours after the tide has turned. Unless conditions are exceptional it is unlikely you will see many skuas when the tide is fully out, so turning up on a low tide is generally not advised.
Keep an eye on the weather, it’s no good turning up on an easterly wind or if there is no wind at all. Generally, as long as there is some west in the wind you have a chance. The skuas are ‘funnelled’ up into the inner Solway, and the stronger the winds are, the better, and a more prolonged period of gales (i.e. 3 or 4 days or more) really seems to get things moving. Another thing that affects how many birds will be seen is the cloud cover. If the winds are ideal, but the skies are blue with little or no cloud, the birds seem to go through very high and are easily missed, particularly if there are only a few observers looking. Cloudy and overcast conditions are definitely best, as this generally keeps the birds low and easier to pick up. Although some skuas float in on the water, don’t just scan the surface or just above it, keep scanning the sky aswell – flocks can already be spiralling up higher by the time they pass Bowness. Remember too that birds also fly out (west), so allow for this if you’re doing a count – it can get rather complicated! Birds also seem to move through ahead of heavy squalls.
Where to watch
There are several places to observe skua passage on the Solway. Some of the more hardy sit out on the end of the old viaduct just west of Bowness, this location without doubt gives the best views of the birds as they pass, but it is totally exposed to the elements so expect to get cold and wet. Alternatively there is a shelter in the village which gives some protection from the weather, but there isn’t much room, and some trees have got a little too tall here now for unrestricted viewing. Expect lots of interuptions too from the Hadrian’s Wall walkers as they get photos of themselves as they start or finish their walk. There are also many places to park and watch from the comfort of your car between Bowness and Campfield Marsh.
Apart from the skuas there are usually plenty of other things to see. Barnacle Geese and Pinkfeet might be seen, and ducks should include Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal. Tufted Duck and Pochard have also occurred. Scaup seem to be appearing far less than they used to but are still seen, and other ducks can include Common Scoter and occasional Eider and Long-tailed Duck. If you are extremely lucky you may see a Velvet Scoter. Good numbers of Red-throated Divers and Great Crested Grebes are seen, but don’t expect to see any of the scarcer divers or grebes unless you are particularly fortunate. Fulmars and Gannets are often seen but Manx Shearwater is less common, whilst Storm and Leach’s Petrel are occasional visitors in autumn gales. Kittiwakes should definitely be seen and check carefully amongst them for Little Gulls, as they sometimes tag along with them. On one memorable occasion I watched a gorgeous summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull hidden amongst a few Kittiwakes. Terns should include Arctic and Sandwich during the earlier part of the season, with Common usually turning up later in May. Little Tern is a rarity these days, whilst Black Tern is a possibility. Guillemot and Razorbill are the commonest auks to be seen, but Puffin is a rare visitor to the inner Solway.