It was unfamiliar, speckled brown. And enormous. Awesome, and vaguely threatening, in a way birds seldom are – to me, at least – as we felt its alien gaze upon us.
The book told us it was a great skua. Bonxie, in the local parlance.
I was lucky enough last week to see another, at almost as close proximity, and this time to to able to watch it for several minutes. While it, in turn, watched us.
It gave our approaching car just enough respect to leave its roadkill meal, but only for a few yards. While it waited for us to move on and let it resume eating, I was able to wind down the window and snap off a few photos, including the one above.
This thrilling encounter took place on the island of Hoy, best known for the dramatic geological feature off its west coast, the Old Man of Hoy.
The photogenic Old Man is a stick of rock 138 metres high, first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonington on live TV. Sir Chris repeated the feat last year to mark his 80th birthday. The nearest I’ve been is the deck of the Orkney ferry, which affords a fine view (below).
The excitement of the day began on the boat trip from the mainland. Mainland Orkney, that is, not mainland Scotland, which lies a few miles to the south.
Readers of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons adventures will know how special it is to see a great northern diver. We saw one, unmistakable from pictures I’ve known since I was a young reader, bobbing on the waves close by our passing vessel.
Once on Hoy itself, and once the first of the day’s squalls of rain had passed, we saw another rare first. Glimpsed it, at least, through borrowed binoculars. And took the word, frankly, of the RSPB volunteer who passed us the lenses as to what we were looking at through them. A treat, nevertheless, to be able to see we’ve seen wild sea eagles.
The first breeding pair in the Orkneys for 150 years – or so it had been reported. That very evening the pair left the rocky ledge they had nested on and moved on. Not a breeding failure but a young couple establishing a home to start a family in next year, the RSPB hopes.
Also for the family journal was the male hen harrier – an elegant, majestic bird – we’d watched hunting on the (Orkney) mainland. There are more hen harriers in Orkney than there are in England. And one of them does its harrying right outside our cottage window.
And there are more bonxies on Hoy than anywhere else. Depending which source you read, either 12 per cent or 17pc of the world’s entire population lives on the island.
Whichever you believe, there’s no doubt the skua deserves its reputation as the pirate of the bird world. I’d read about its piratical way of robbing other seabirds of their food – and from the return ferry I watched the whole criminal enterprise unfold in plain view.
The day before, I’d seen an oystercatcher – brave little bird – driving off a marauding black-back. A crow pitting itself against the harrier. And a gaggle of starlings pursuing a fleeing crow. It’s these engagements, more than simply ticking off species on a list, that provide the real pleasure in watching birds.
The sense of other lives, other dramas, other necessities, sharing our world with very little care or concern for us or our obsessions.
And then there’s the joy, at this time of year, of puffins. A good reason in itself to undertake the voyage to the northern isles. Just to convince oneself at first hand that such an unlikely creature – a bird surely invented by a committee of nursery children with wax crayons and plastic blocks – really does exist. It does.