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!