Thursday, 30 June 2011

Bonxies - big, brown and bad to the bone!

The summit area of Conachair is home to a colony of the largest, most powerful and predatory of seabirds in northern waters, Great Skuas (Cataracta skua), known in Scotland as "Bonxies".  As soon as we approached they got airborne in preparation.

They began a concerted series of low level attacks on us, normally at head height.  These are big birds, muscular and with a wingspan of 1.5 metres.  An attack, accompanied by a tearing rush of air as the bird passes, gets your full attention.  We were most careful to avoid any area where there was a possibility of a nest, but it seems that the mere presence of a human (or anything else) in the area is enough to trigger an aggressive response...

Everything about Bonxie behaviour and body language exudes menace, even when they are not attacking.

Relatively recent arrivals on St Kilda, Bonxies are predatory pirates, they will attack and kill smaller birds, kill lambs and make a speciality of ganging up on Gannets, grabbing wings or tail and forcing the Gannet to disgorge its load of hard-earned fish.

It's fair to say they don't mix well with others......

Amongst ornithologists, small and nondescript birds are known as LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs).  We christened this group of Bonxies as BBB's, which needs no further explanation!

In an attempt to get good pictures of an attack, Gordon and Douglas formed a team, Gordon standing as a target and Douglas taking the pictures.

I was having my own personal issue with a Bonxie.  One individual took great exception to the fact that I wasn't ducking under attack but standing my ground to take pictures.  Clearly this was a grave insult to his Bonxie pride and he attacked with renewed menace.  It became a battle of wills.

In this post, Douglas has captured the attacks from about 25 metres away, including the moment just before......

The bird powered in and hit me a resounding slap on the forehead with its feet.

Honour was restored, the Bonxie went off to perch on a cleit and  I moved away.  We were rather glad to move out of the combat zone!


  1. When I visited St Kilda years ago, we were told by the MOD staff that the particular 'combat zone' you walked through just below the summit of Conachair was known on the island as 'Death Valley'. I'm sure the reason why will be obvious to you after your experience!

  2. Hi Fiona,

    Very appropriate! Several birds were attacking at any one time, an impressive sight and i guess one you will have experienced on Orkney too?

    Kind Regards