Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The story of a leg and a ring.

This is an update. Back in October I found a pair of long grey legs on Rona, and a few feathers. A carcass on a raptor kill, probably a peregrine. On one of the legs was a ring with a Finland contact. The guess was that it was a curlew or possibly a whimbrel but after sending in the ring details to the British Trust for Ornithology I have now received confirmation of the ring details.
The bird was indeed a curlew and it was rung as a nestling on 28 May this year (2011) in the middle of Finland.
This is the joy of ringing. After a whole summer of turning over carcasses and looking at dead birds legs this is the reminder of why we do it. To me it is fascinating to think of the (short ) life of this individual bird and what it has seen and done. The wonders of Google maps show me that the area where is it was rung is just south east of the centre of Finland, in an area of huge lakes. After fledging it has made a journey of 1877km if it flew in a straight line though  of course the distance would have been much further. What was its route ? I don't know, either west through Scandinavia and then to Scotland or down to the Baltic states and the south edge of the Baltic may be. Either way it is a big undertaking even for a bird the size of a curlew, especially as it was directed by instinct having never made the journey before. And on once it reach the island it just passed on its energy to a bird of prey like a baton by a relay runner. Such is the natural world.

Friday, 9 December 2011

End of Season Clear Out

With high winds forecast we had a mad rush around to close down the island for the winter.
There were few birds about, but on Tuesday morning good numbers of pink-footed geese were coming in off the sea, maybe they new the weather was due to change and wanted to get south when they could.
2 long-eared owls were still about, roosting in the top heligoland trap. The migrant birds that they usually feed on have mostly moved on so my guess is that they will follow soon or go hungry.

And across the island were weaners everywhere. These are newly weaned grey seal pups who have bulked up on a high fat diet from mum but haven't yet got the motivation to move on with the next stage of their lives. You have to be careful as you go around the island as they can literally be everywhere. Lurking in muddy pools.
I don't know how they got there and how they will get out but some were sunbathing on cliff top ledges.
While others turned up in and around the buildings.

This weaner liked a sea view having made it way up nearly to the South Horn.
While this one was sleeping on the path back to the cottages, I literally stepped over it.
And so with the buildings locked up, the laundry, scientific samples, tools and equipment bagged up we headed off for a wet and bumpy ride back to Anstruther. This really is the end of the field season for the May. The island has a short period of peace over Christmas and the New Year but it all kicks off in late when January another visit is required to look at wintering shags and a chance to see another face of this special island. On the way back I made a mental note to myself - in January thermal underwear essential.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Seal Action

Monday morning and a rushed trip out to the island to help with the closing down. Storms are forecast for later on in the week and the seal researchers have finished their work for the year so it is time to help them get their stuff off, drain down the water system and close down the buildings for the winter....and quickly. But in between cleaning out cupboards, bagging laundry and other such joyful tasks I had a chance to wander around the island. Many of the seals have left the island already, it seems like either a very early season or not so many pups as usual have been born this year but there were still plenty dotted around all corners. Most of these are weaners, that is this years pups whose mothers have feed them and then left them. They lie around for a while wondering when their next feed is coming before eventually heading out to sea. If you go quietly you can get quite close to them and it gave me a chance to have a closer look at these amazing animals.

They have fantastic whiskers. They are incredibly sensitive and they use them for finding food underwater where there isn't much light.
Some of the weaners spend lots of time messing around in muddy pools and end up looking like a monster from the deep. This one is coated with mud which shows off its eyebrow whiskers beautifully.
Grey seals do actually have a tail but it is just a short little stubby one that apart from helping with steering doesn't now have much use.
When the grey seal pups are first born that have a white coat. This is thought to be an adaption for when ancestors of grey seals lived on polar ice sheets and shows their geographical origins. This weaner is gradually losing its white coat and getting a mottled adult one. When they are being feed these pups don't move much and afterwards they just sleep so there is often a huge patch of white fluff left on the ground where they have moulted.
The weaners are feed for just 18 days by their mothers and grow at a rate of up to 2 kg a day on a high fat diet. By the time they are weaned if feed properly they are very fat and don't do much.
Eventually they will grow into an adult bull or cow and return to the island after 7 years at sea to start breeding. They are less cuddly and more world weary by then.

But there are always some pups that don't make it, one of the seal researchers, Jo is trying to find out why this is. Even dead they go to provide food for a whole range of creatures that eat carrion and break down carcasses such as gulls, crows, burying beetles and blowflies.

Friday, 18 November 2011

To the land of the seals part 2

A long-eared owl close-up, feel the force of its personality.

A photo session
A woodcock close-up.
A European white-fronted goose, a youngster and a rare visitor to the island.
One of 100+ blackbirds depsrately refueliling for the next part of their journey.
A dusky warbler, a very rare visitor.

When you land on the island it is the seals that captured your attention but there was plenty else to see with a bit of searching. Birders are not normally out on the island this late in the year so Mark and I were surprised to see so many birds about. The light east winds had brought in a drift of migrants from Scandinavia and over the two days we found some gems of birds. The most exciting, due to rarity rather than beauty was the dusky warbler as only a handful are recorded in the UK each year. But for me the most awe inspiring were the long-eared owls, one of which we managed to catch to ring. These birds have followed the migrant blackbirds across the North Sea like a donkey following a carrot and when seen close up they demand attention and respect. The woodcock that we caught look a bit more worried about life but they have patterns on the feathers that have a warmth, depth and detail that can never be fully captured on paper. Behind every bush and crag were blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings looking strangely out of place away from the gardens where you normally see them. Mixed in with them were a black redstart, blackcaps, bramblings, chaffinches, dunnocks and robins. For variety there was an extremely wary little grebe on the lochan, a lonely European white-fronted goose and a bean goose, a merlin, 2 peregrines and a kestrel. All of them eating or being eat, desperate for food to make their next step of their journey.
It was a privilege to see the island in this hidden season on its year and learn a bit more about its life and character. The great thing about picking up a bit of knowledge is that it allows you to see more. After what I have seen and learnt from this visit my next visit I will look at the birds with new eyes and the seals with better understanding.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

To the land of seals part 1

The welcome committee to the island

There are seals everywhere.

The pups do a lot of sleeping.

The island turns very muddy with 4000+ seals across it.

After nearly 6 weeks off the island Mark and I headed out there on Monday, "refreshed" by day after day of being in the office working on annual reports and other such things. I didn't quite know what to expect having never seen the island in peak seal season. I was going out with Mark just for 1 night, he was checking winter shags, I was clearing up the things I had left when I left the island in a hurry and starting to make shopping lists for next season. But we both wanted to see the seals and the seal researchers. Out there on the island were 6 people who spend a solid 6-7 weeks finding out more about the seals lives than you thought possible. The researchers lifestyle is very different from the seabird researchers, they don't have the interruption of daily visitors coming but they do have to contend with the short days / long nights and the cold, the wet and the mud. Three of them are PhD students, Jo is looking at parasites and pathogens found in the many young seals that don't make it through the first few weeks (the post mortems were fascinating), Amanda and Kelly are looking at pup mother interactions. More about Amanda's work on rarely studied vocalisations on the Isle of May seal blog ( . When you get talking to experts like these you quickly realise how little you know about creatures that you have been looking at all season. For instance, did you know that the mothers only feed their pups for 18 days after birth during which the pups grow from 15kg to 60 kg (that is some diet) ? And did you know that seals have huge amounts of blood which they use to store oxygen in the haemoglobin rather than hold in it their lungs when they dive? In 2 short days I learned loads but barely scratched the surface.
The island itself was showing an entirely different side. Damp, grey, bleached and muddy (sounds like an standard August day) initially it looked spent and dormant but actually it heaved with life. Seals were everywhere, I couldn't believe where they had got to. These are not animals that just lie on beaches a few feet from the sea but roam all of the place, some were up at the top of the cliffs while others had made themselves at home next to Evelyn's purple shed, hundreds of yards away from the shore. Their grunts, growls, wails and cries carried on the wind, sounds at times like a school group had just landed. At night it gave an eerie feel to the place, gives voices to ghost stories. And if you put 4000 seals in a small area for 6 weeks it is going to smell. A sort of farmyard, pig sort of smell that is not totally unpleasant, at least from a distance.
But the seals were all the was to see, tomorrow find out what birds were out there!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Marine Rubbish - This Is What Can Happen

A grey seal pup similar to the one caught in this incident.

The last few days have seen the Isle of May in the news but not for a good reason. A very young seal pup born on Pilgrims Haven decided to do a bit of investigation of a structure that it found on the beach. Unfortunately itwas a creel (used for catching lobsters) washed up on the beach after the last lot of stormy weather. It crawled in through a hole but then found it couldn't get out. Its mother stayed by its side all this time but it seems that though the pup was later seen out of the creel it didn't survive the experience and was dead on the beach a short time later. All this drama was captured on the live web cams that are linked from the beach to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick . Footage of the trapped seal was released as a press release to highlight the dangers to wildlife caused by rubbish washing up on the beach. The links to the BBC and STV television websites are below.

We clean Pilgrims Haven regularly of rubbish (see blog posting Tues 27 Sept) including removing at least 10 creels this season, the last time shortly before we left the island for the season. It is therefore very dispiriting to see more rubbish being washed up and causing this problem.

Watch the seals on Pilgrims Haven through the Scottish Seabird Centre webcam:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Close Down

Many apologies for the rather abrupt ceasation of blog updates but the end of our island season came a bit quicker than we expected. I ended up coming off the island in a bit of a rush and in the roughest weather I have yet experienced leaving Jeremy to hold the fort. But then Jeremy's computer went down with a nasty virus and to allow him to finsh his report he had to come off as well. So we have partially closed down the island for the winter leaving it to the seals, mice and rabbits but it is not completely abandoned as the Lowlight is still manned by the bird observatory monitoring the bird migration and next week the hard-core seal team from Sea Mammel Research Unit ( head out to the island for their 6 week stay.

And I will be heading out for short stays through the winter, just a night or two every so often to complete the final close down in December and make sure everything is OK. I will post the occassion blog posting about these visits but from now onwards there won't be any regular postings until March when we start the process of opening up the island again ready for visitors at the start of April.

But thank you very much for reading the blog over the season and I hope that you will join us for next season in our journey of finding out more about this special island.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Boys are back in town

First seal pup to be born on Pilgrims Haven this year, having its first meal.
On Rona there are seals draped across large parts of the island.
The big boys are waiting to get their beaches back.

The numbers of seals coming back to the island is going up every day.

The little bit of red you can see on these flippers is a numbered tag so the seal researchers can identify individual animals and plot their life histories.

Seal season is building up here and it seems to be an early one. There are already more than 8 pups on Rona, a pup at Tarbet and the first to appear on Pilgrims Haven (you can watch the seals on Pilgrims Haven from the web cam linked to the Scottish Seabird Centre, follow this link . And at each flat area of the island increasing numbers of seals are hauling themselves and starting to reclaim their beaches for the season. Whenever you go down to any of the bays you can feel eyes on you and just off the shore following your every move is a beach master a bull grey seal that is watching you. They spend a lot of time just floating around in the quiet water blowing bubbles, snorting and sizing up rivals but this is all a prelude to the real season when the seals come ashore. The Sea Mammal Research Unit are due out in a couple of weeks time to start their annual work looking in detail at the seals and they keep a blog going that tells of their work. Paula who writes the blog is a wizard at seal identification, she runs the project that uses the individual pelt patterns to identify different animals. To follow their work the blog address is and as they are the experts they will be able to tell you far more about these brilliant animals and their work.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Shrike on the Horn

Today began with coffee out on the deck of the Principal Keepers cottage over looking Kirkhaven and the most stunning sunrise I have seen for a while.

There wasn't a breath of wind and I could hear the seals from the end of the island grumbling and wailing. The last couple of days have been quite interesting as it has been generally fairly still but with light east winds bringing in at different times a deluge of rain, thick fog (called haar round here) and a whole pile of interesting birds.

Jeremy and I have been torn between wanting to lookf or birds and get on with the long list of island close down tasks, So a compromise was reached where we have been wearing our binoculars every moment of the day and have got on with the tasks but just very slowly, with repeated interruptions for checking out birds (message to line manager - don't worry Caroline, all the jobs were done, honest). For example Jeremy spotted his first crossbill for his Isle of May list when he was perched on top of a hide that we were reroofing with a hammer in his hand. It was a close run thing whether it was the hammer or the binoculars that he brought up to watch it.

A redwing

Things started getting interesting on Friday late afternoon when redwings started appearing, these beautiful thrushes come from Scanadnavia to spend the winter here in the UK. By Saturday there were at least 200 on the island with similar numbers of song thrushes and also parties of robins and blackbirds. A load of rain later on on Saturday briought in more migrants including my favourite a great grey shrike whh seemed to like perching on the trumpet of the South Horn.

Great Grey Shrike

While looking for the shrike I also found this tiny treecreeper on the side of one of the fog horn buildings. Normally you only see these birds fly a few yards in the woodland where it noremally lives but this little birds had flown hundreds of miles on migration. It was exhausted and starving and immediately started feeding.


Sunday was a better day for weather and we woke to find the island absolutely hooching with birds. Mostly they were goldcrests, unbelievably they are Britain's smallest bird yet they were stopping off on the island to refuel and rest while on a journey of hundreds of miles. Mixed in with them were chiffchaffs, bramblings, blackcaps, whitethroats, garden warblers and about 50 wheatears. The bird watching was exciting as you just didn't know what would should out of cover or drop out of the sky next.


The calm conditions of last night and this morning were good for travel so most of the birds have now left the island and just in time as tonight it has all blown up again. A south westerly gale is now howling down the chimney, rattling the gates, sending spray across the island and generally making life for humans and birds more difficult out here. According to the forecast it will be with us for 3-4 days and this will slow down or stop bird and human journeys until the next bit of favourable weather but until then I will be remembering 1200 goldcrests peep peeing from every wall and bush.

West Rona this evening.