Saturday, December 28, 2013


"What can I get you, sir?"

"Umm. I'll have the Great Skua, please. I believe it's medium rare. And I'll have a side of Tropicbird. Oh wait - that's probably out of season. Albatross?"

At least, that's what I'd like to say. But I don't, because (a) I'm hungry, (b) it's the only place in town that's open, and (c) they're about to close. I'm also wearing a Red Sox cap, and I don't want to give them another reason to not serve me. And so I play it safe.

"I'll have the grilled tuna."

I'm back in Hatteras, North Carolina. It's my 4th time to the Outer Banks this year and Great Skua is on my big year birding menu. (And yes, they are medium rare.) And while I'm eating my non-skua dinner (and apparently forgetting the advice about not drinking alcohol the night before a boat trip) I'm thinking about the next day - a pelagic trip on the Atlantic looking for the only currently chaseable bird in North America that I haven't seen this year - the Great Skua. And like many of the trips this year, I'm nervous. Will I see the bird? Will everyone else see it except me? Will I fall overboard? Did I leave the iron on back home? Is tuna normally this tough, or did I *actually* order the skua?

I should also mention that I have new traveling companion on this trip - Travis (the traveling trinovid.) I've been birding with him already this year - in Barrow and Adak. He's also doing a big year (he's over 600), and keeping a blog here. Travis - I should mention - is a pair of Leica Trinovid binoculars. After having a blast with him earlier in the year, I was very happy to be asked to look after him for the final week.

Travis (on the left.) Looks like he ignored the no drinking rule too. 
(And what's that? The remains of a Skua dinner?! Typical!)

And so the next day - today - starts like most potentially great birding days with what never feels like enough sleep. And while it's still too dark to actually see any birds.

6:30am. Hatteras, NC.
Brian and Kate preparing the Skua - our boat for the day.

There are 7 of us on the boat. As well as Brian Patteson, the captain, and Kate, chief chummer and bird spotter, there's Lynne Miller (of the ABA), Nate Swick (birding superstar and ABA blogger), and Bruce Richardson - who has a ton of experience birding Australia as well as the US. Jay Lehman and I are the big year birders on board, with only days left in our quest.

Lynne and Bruce. Both hoping for a Great Skua lifer today.

As the sun peaks over the watery horizon, the ocean in all its splendor and horror is quietly revealed to us. An ocean that is completely bird-free. But not for long...

Whoa! Where did all those gulls come from?

It always amazes me how fish offal and beef fat can transform a completely dead, bird-free ocean into a gull feeding frenzy. You have to respect a creature that can not only smell beef fat from a great distance, but then fly over to investigate and pick fights with other gulls just so that it can eat the disgusting stuff. (A not dissimilar phenomenon can be seen in the UK with humans at kebab vans on a Friday night.)

Chum - beef fat and fish parts. Just add gulls.

As well as the many Herring Gulls that are now trailing the boat, we start attracting other species too...

Black-legged Kittiwake (immature) - a nice surprise and a state bird for Nate Swick

Manx Shearwater - dark upperparts with bright white underparts

Northern Gannet. Preparing to dive-bomb into the sea.

As well as the birds, we also spot a Hammerhead Shark and Loggerhead Turtles.

Loggerhead Turtle. One of a pair. 
Notice the barnacles on its back.

We're having a great time - we've seen a very impressive range of birds and sea creatures. The screaming cacophony of gulls continues to flap, dive, glide, beg and even use my shoulder as a bathroom (that's lucky, right?) In fact, the gulls are doing everything except what they're being fed to do: attract a Great Skua.

Skua is the only bird name derived from the Faroese language. And no, that's the not language used by Ancient Egyptian rulers. Think further north: the Faroe Islands - a rocky archipelago belonging to Denmark that's actually closer to Norway and Scotland. Great Skuas breed there, as they do in Iceland, Norway and Scotland (where they're called Bonxies.) They're large, heavy gull-like birds, that are chocolate brown. They winter in the Atlantic Ocean and survive on a piratic lifestyle - harassing gulls and gannets, scaring the hell out of them until they drop their food, which the Skuas greedily scoop up.

"Damn it! This map doesn't have Skuas on."

Despite the season and the snow I left behind in Boston, out here at least, it's a beautiful, balmy day. Blue skies. Warm breeze. I'm just thinking about putting on some sun block, and whether I really did leave the iron on, when...


It starts so softly that I first think it's that's voice in my head, the one I'm mentally practicing for when I spot one and can shout it out. Or that I'm mentally willing someone else to shout. And then again, much louder...

"SKUA! Dark bird, white in the wing."

The shouting is coming from Nate, and he's pointing at the back of the boat. This is it. It's really happening. (Must pay attention!) Kate immediately gets on the bird. 

"Going left. Below the horizon. Going away from the boat."

I'm not on the bird. Did she say away from the boat? Still not on the bird. Away doesn't sound good. Maybe this is all we're going to get? What if I...and then I see it. A dark speck moving left.

Great Skua (in red circle). Enjoy!

It's a terrible view, and I'm aware that Jay is not on the bird. Hey you ungrateful Skua! Come and check out all the gulls we've been feeding! And then, it's almost like the bird hears my thoughts. It banks and starts beating its heavy wings in our direction. We watch as the bird circles and starts chasing gulls. Even without my binoculars, I can see the bright flashes of white in the wing. As the light hits its back I can see the beautiful gold flecks. And, like a July 4th pyrotechnic display, I can hear "oohs" and "aahhs" coming from some very happy birders around me. 
Great Skua. Oooh! Ahhh! 

Great Skua. Notice the large amount of white at the bases of the primaries, 
and the gold flecking on the chocolate brown upperparts. 
The bird is large and very heavy with a powerful bill.

The sense of relief is palpable. It's a life bird for Bruce and Lynne, and an important year bird for Jay and I.

Very happy big year birders: Jay Lehman and Neil Hayward

Great Skuas are not as accommodating as their cousin, the South Polar Skua. They generally creep up on gulls, then sneak away just as fast. They have little curiosity about boats, and once found, don't stick around for long. Apparently (and thankfully) this bird didn't read the guidebook. We were treated to an amazing show - we watched the bird for several minutes as it flew round in circles, landed on the water, chased gulls, and, in one final and incredible gesture, flew right by the boat. (Thank you!) I've seen Great Skua in Massachusetts twice, and this was by far the best view. 

We continue chumming all the way back to shore, which brings in some new birds, including a Sooty Shearwater:

Sooty Shearwater

as well as large numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls - a very uncommon bird anywhere else:

 Lesser Black-backed Gull. Yellow legs, dark gray upperwings.

And as we get closer to shore, we start seeing pelicans:

Brown Pelican - immature top, adult below

Thanks to Brian and Kate for a wonderful day. They have such an amazing record for finding difficult birds like the Great Skua. It might look easy, but it's not: there's years of experience involved and knowing where and when to chum. Thanks for delivering again!

Happy birders aboard the Skua!
From left: Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, 
Jay Lehman, Brian Patteson, Neil Hayward. Front: Kate Sutherland.

Six hours later, Jay and I are toasting champagne at Chris Hitt's house in Chapel Hill. What are we celebrating? To big years! Chris did one in 2010, and Jay and I are just finishing one in 2013. 

Great Skua was big year bird #746 for me - and very possibly the last bird of the year. There was a lot of excitement today about beating the ABA big year record - set by Sandy Komito in 1998 (who - perhaps ironically for the day - had SKUA as his license plate.) He saw 745 birds, plus 4 that were new to the ABA region (745+4.) Three of those would eventually be accepted by the checklist committee giving him a final total of 748 (745+3.) I started the day on 745+3 and ended on 746+3. Have I beaten the record? Maybe. (It would be nice!) But none of my provisional birds (the 3 species new to the ABA - Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart and Sparrowhawk) have been voted on yet, so I'll likely not know definitively until next year.

So. Back to the champagne: to big years! It's fun to compare big years - and even more fun to potentially set a new record (especially one held for 15 years.) I never set out to break a record, and the person I was competing against most of the year was myself. Could I plan things better? (Yes.) Could I be better at identifying birds? (Hell yes!) Could I have done things differently? (Absolutely.) Could I have seen more birds? (Yes - hint: start at the beginning of the big year.) Could I have had more fun, met more amazing people, seen more spectacular places, learned more about myself? Probably not. That's what the big in big year means. 

And so, to a big year! They don't come much bigger than this.

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 746 + 3 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Sparrowhawk)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Great Skua


  1. Awesome!! Congratulations.....Maybe one more somewhere....

  2. Neil, so much congratulations in order! I'm sure it was a lot tougher than most people think. Your a great writer. Loved the ride! Hope you didn't max your credit cards out like Greg Miller did...

  3. Bravo! Great year! Great blog! Thanks for the great memories!

  4. Neil, Congrats on the Skua, you still have two more days, maybe that dirty Pintail will show up down hear in Florida again. It has been a lot of fun reading your travels, thanks for sharing, take care, happy birding and New Year!

  5. Congratulations Neil, it's been wonderful to follow your ups and downs with this blog. Have you made a definite decision regarding whether to count the Aplomado Falcon? Since everyone else did, I think that you should too!

    1. I second Adam's motion...Komito counted it, so should you. Honestly, the distinctions between "exotics" and "accidentals" become increasingly artificial with every passing year of the Anthropocene...

  6. I waited two days for the post. I didn't want to rush to the end of the story,so I slowly read, and actually cried out "YEAH!" when I got to "skua"! Congratulations, Neil. Whatever ABA says, you're our champion!

  7. Neil, Congratulations on a Great Big Year and a brilliant blog which has with each new entry made me look forward to the next exciting episode. I like many other followers of your Big Year have never met you and probably never will but reading and following your blog made me feel like I was along for the ride and in the latter stages willing you to see each new target species and set a new record. Well done and enjoy a more relaxing 2014 (hopefully).

  8. Massive congrats, Neil. You have completed an amazing accomplishment and, kudos, for sharing your Big Year through your writing on this blog.

  9. Neil:

    I want to leave another huge congratulations and thank you for your excellent and very funny writing which "took me along" through your very big year. I was born with a birth defect, used to walk with crutches and am now in a wheelchair. My life list is at 482 and there are many birds you've seen and photographed that I know are beyond my seeing in person. So this was great fun! Best wishes for as much success in your next endeavor!

  10. Congratulations Neil! I am so happy for you, what an achievement. Happy New Year!

  11. Great Blog of Great Amounts of chum thrown in the Great Atlantic Ocean to get Great Views of the Great Skua and with this the Great Chance of breaking a Great Record and making a Great Year out of a Big Year. ConGREATulations, Neil!

    Congratulations also from me for this breath-taking record, Neil Hayward!!
    It's really unbelievable, that you broke Sandy Komito's "record for eternity" when you just decided in April to go for a Big Year. I was following your very well-written and surely funny blog for the last time very closely - and am looking forward for the next posts.

    And last but not least: Go for the White-cheeked Pintail (I am sure that you will be lucky in the end)!

    Just two Facebook-Postings of the Accidental-Big-Year-Fan Daniel Doer from far Germany

  12. Congrats on your Big Total for the Big Year! Since the Great Skua lifted you to a (presumably) record-setting, you should celebrate by stealing someone else's dinner!


  13. Heartiest congratulations. Not only on your amazing feat, but also your well-written blog that has been much fun to follow. Best wishes.

    John Schwarz

  14. I'd like to add my Congratulations on your *Record* Big Year. And, I'd like to add my sincere Thanks for your excellent and informative Blog!

    I must have missed you by minutes at the Smith's Longspur site on Grays Harbor at the end of August (I dipped . . . )

    Jon. Anderson
    Olympia, Wash.

  15. Congratulations on your accomplishment!

    Incidentally, is there any possibility of you doing a follow up post saying what you would do differently and other advice on doing a big year? I am pretty far removed from being able to do one for the next few decades, but do enjoying thinking about them.

  16. Brilliant blog and brilliant Big Year - congratulations! Love the Tropicbird picture - it's my favourite bird. Saw a pair of White-tailed Tropicbirds briefly in Samoa - so inspiring I wrote a book about it. All the best with getting your record verified,

    Etienne Jackson
    Author of 'Flight of the Tropicbird'.

  17. Great blog. I started at the beginning and read it all the way through. What an adventure!

  18. Thanks for sharing this adventure
    It's a lot of work to post the record and include photos.
    Many congratulations however you feel about the final count.
    Neil Whiting

  19. Aw, rats! I'm late at everything. I very much enjoyed this *last* post for your Big Year. Perhaps if I find some extra time (almost never), I will continue reading through your adventures. Your count is extraordinary considering that mine stands at just over 200 in November. We hope to give more effort to it next year. Hope things were a bit more *ahem* normal for you this year. Cheers from Texas! ~ Shannon