Arctic species: Arctic Skua

From all the four species of skua that can be seen on Spitsbergen, the Arctic Skua is by far the most common. It can be seen breeding on all tundra areas, especially in the western half of the archipelago. They look a bit like a brown kind of gull, which they are indeed somewhat related to. The Arctic Skua can be recognised by its creamy coloured underside, with brown back and wings and a partial chest band. The completely brown phase is much more common further south but is sometimes also seen on Spitsbergen. They do have prolonged tail-feathers, but they are much smaller as with the Long-tailed or Pomarine Skuas.

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Some birds are a bit browner as others.

Arctic Skua or Parasitic Jaeger – Stercorarius parasiticus
Length: 37-44cm (excl. prolonged tail-feathers of 5-8.5cm), wingspan 108-118cm
Brown and cream-coloured, gull-like bird with a dark cap and prolonged tail-feathers.

In America, the Arctic Skua is called Parasitic Jaeger (also see its scientific name). This parasitic comes from its favourite way of finding food. They chase other birds, mainly Kittiwakes or Black Guillemots until they throw up their last meal, which is then eaten by the skuas. These high-speed chases can be very impressive to see.

Arctic Skua chasing away a Polar Bear

Just like the Arctic Tern, the Arctic Skua is a fierce defender of its nest. When you come too close, one of the parents will pretend to be injured, making ‘crying’ sounds, trying to lead the perpetrator away with hanging wings. When this doesn’t work, they will also start to divebomb you, hitting you with their feet (and yes, that does hurt). When you see behaviour like this, please turn around and go back to where you came from, or follow the ‘injured’ bird, as he will also lead you away from its nest.


Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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