This summer I had an amazing opportunity to spend a few days alone with the wildlife on Handa Island - a rugged and remote island off the north-west coast of Scotland. I've been to Handa previously to photograph the seabirds, which nest on the cliffs around the Great Stack, but this time I was going there for the great skuas or "bonxies" as they are more commonly known..
"Bonxie" is a Shetland word for a dumpy, untidy woman, which I think sells them a little short. In my experience, they are highly intelligent, full of character, fiercely territorial, wild, beautiful, tough and awesome birds, which inhabit wild and beautiful places.
Bonxies are pretty much seagulls on steroids - last time on Handa, I watched them terrorise the birds of the sea cliff, and have epic battles with each other over territory, so I couldn't wait to get back out there to photograph them. After an epic drive from southern England to our campsite in Durness, near Cape Wrath, I was excited to get out on the first boat the next morning, so arrived nice and early, only to be greeted with a big sign.. "Boat to Handa OUT OF SERVICE". NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! There were a few others around, moderately disgruntled at the inconvenience, but I was in denial - after such a mission to get up there and after looking forward to it for so long, I couldn't accept that this was the end of the story. I quickly got on the case and to cut a long story short, after buying a few people flowers and boxes of chocolates and getting the thumbs up from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, I managed to secure a ride out on a local fishing boat. It was Monday morning and the fisherman who had agreed to take us out there then broke the news that he wouldn't be able to pick us up until Thursday afternoon... RESULT! We would get the whole of Handa Island to ourselves for 3 days! Even better, we would get the morning and evening light, which you never really experience if you go out on a day trip.
We pitched up our tent in a little walled enclosure and headed out to explore and see what the bonxies were up to.. Everything was running a little late and most were only just laying, so there was still a fair bit of display and posturing as they reaffirmed partnerships and divided up territory. Bonxies are monogamous and there are around 300 pairs on Handa, so it is a bit of a regional stronghold for the species. The pair in the image above, had set up a territory not far from our camp and would call together in unison whenever another bird came near. In the background is the Old Man of Stoer and Stoer Point, just a little way down the coast.
On the little beach, just down from our camp at the start of the tern colony, a pair were tucking in to a rabbit. Over the next few days, we realised, this was a symptom of a larger scale shortage of their regular food - mainly fish and birds. There has been a general decline in fish discards, but this year, as the season was a little behind, the sea cliff birds were breeding late, so the bonxies were getting desperate for food.
It wasn't just rabbits either - we saw bonxies actively predating each other. Bonxies will take birds as big as a great black-backed gull and have few natural predators (apart from golden and white-tailed eagles), so the bonxie remains strewn about the island provided enough evidence that this cannibalistic behaviour wasn't a one-off.
Where we set up camp wasn't ideal for evening light, so as sunset approached, I'd head up to near the Great Stack, as there was a flat area with a few rocks dotted around that the skuas used as perches to call and display from. Bonxies can be pretty aggressive to anything invading their territory, so you have to be careful to watch your back if you don't want a clout on the back of the head, but I wanted to include a bit of the background in some of my images, so had to get a bit closer with a medium focal length lens. With a bit of patience, I managed to slowly shuffle close enough that I could use my 70-200mm, which was perfect for a nice shallow depth of field, whilst including the mountains in the background. I got into position, just as the light started to give everything a warm glow, framed up my shot and waited for the skuas to display.
This set were my favourite from the trip, as I think they capture what makes a skua a skua - firstly the massive barrel chest and white wing flash that instantly identifies them from a distance and their defiantly brutish character - the pirates of the bird world!
© Sam Hobson 2014