Foraging strategies of seabird species often vary considerably between and within individuals. This variability is influenced by a multitude of factors including age, sex, stage of annual life cycle, reproductive status, individual specialization and environmental conditions.
Using GPS-loggers, we investigated factors affecting foraging flight characteristics (total duration, maximal range, total distance covered) of great skuas Stercorarius skua of known sex breeding on Bjørnøya, Svalbard, the largest colony in the Barents Sea region. We examined influence of sex (females are larger than males), phase of breeding (incubation, chick-rearing), reproductive status (breeders, failed breeders) and bird ID (they are known for individual foraging specialization). Our analyses revealed that only bird ID affected foraging flight characteristics significantly, indicating a high degree of plasticity regardless of sex, reproductive status or phase of breeding. We recognized three main groups of individuals: 1) those preying mainly on other seabirds in the breeding colonies (6%), 2) those foraging at sea (76%) and kleptoparasiting other seabirds and/or foraging on fish and/or offal discarded by fishing vessels, and 3) those alternating between preying on other seabirds in breeding colonies and foraging at sea (18%). Despite marked size sexual dimorphism, we found no apparent sex differences in flight characteristics. Birds after egg- or chick-loss and thus not constrained as central foragers did not modify their foraging flights.
Great skuas breeding on Bjørnøya displayed a high degree of plasticity regardless of sex, reproductive status or phase of breeding. We recognized groups of individuals regularly preying in the seabird colonies, foraging at sea, and alternating between both strategies. This suggests foraging specialization of some individuals.