Seals pups – born into a harsh world

It has to be said that the pupping beaches of Ramsey Island aren’t places of peace and quiet where the seals live in harmony with each other. They are actually places of sex and violence, right in full view of the pups (and often the visitors too!).

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The pups arrive in a blood-stained gush straight onto the stony beaches, gasping for breath and open to the often harsh weather conditions and surging tides. They struggle towards their mothers to get their first feed of rich milk, using their weak flippers to push themselves across the hard ground. Some of the pups find themselves in amongst bolder fields while others right on the water’s edge; either blocked in by rocks or at risk of being washed away by a surging wave.

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The gulls take a keen interest in the spectacle, waiting for the afterbirth to appear, a fine meal for them, which they sometimes tug at whilst it’s still attached to the female, eliciting an irritated response. They also look out for those pups struggling into life, those too weak to survive or taken away by the sea only later to be deposited lifeless high up on the strand line. This is a time of plenty for the gulls especially when the weather turns for the worse.

Storms take their toll on the seal pups, last year was particularly hard, but even a short-lived storm in late September this year took a number from the largest beach on the Island. With a  westerly wind, the waves rolled in to Aber Mawr bay, crashing up the shingle beach and against the base of the cliffs, leaving little room for the pups to resist the sea.

It’s not only the angry seas that the pups have to look out for. The adults are a risk to them too. The females are intolerant of others, whether they be adults or pups. Much of the sound coming up the cliffs from the beaches below is from quarrelling females arguing over space and proximity to each other’s pups. The aggression increases with the arrival of the males, it’s not only pupping season but the time for mating too. The males make claims for territories on the beaches and will fight each other to keep control of their patch and to mate with the females within it. I thought that grey seals had relatively tame fights compared to the elephant seals I’ve seen in the Falklands but I saw two really going for it at Aber Mawr with plenty of blood flowing from gashes on their necks.

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The females give as good as they get too, warding off unwanted advanced from males with growling and biting, with fights breaking out at times. Even when they are in the process of mating, there’s plenty of aggression between the pairs.

However, there are times of relative quiet, with the females nursing their pups and others, whether large or small, relaxing on the shore, basking, stretched out in the sun. The only sounds being the water breaking on the beach, the gulls calling from the wing and a pup calling out towards the sea waiting for its mother to return from feeding.

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Pupping time for Grey Seals on Ramsey Island

September on Ramsey Island is right in the middle of grey seal pupping season. I have to say that, despite views to the contrary, my real wildlife interests are in mammals rather than birds, so a couple of weeks on the Island at this time of year gives me an opportunity to take a look at some of the UK’s biggest.

Ramsey is the largest pupping location in south-west Britain and around 500 to 700 born on its beaches each year between August and November. Walking around the island, the calls of the adults and pups can be heard coming up from the shoreline in most places and I could even hear them whilst I was lying in bed this morning.

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My time on Ramsey this year hasn’t just been spent looking at them for fun, I have also been helping with the ongoing monitoring work that the RSPB do. I have been helping out with two sets of work. The first involves taking photographs of the adults; the images are then uploaded onto a database which has pattern recognition software and can identify individual seals. This enables the seals to be tracked between different locations on Ramsey and much further afield.

The second monitoring task has been surveying the pupping beaches every three days. The surveys involve counting all pups, all females on the beaches, females in the water, all males and any dead pups (old or recent). The pups are also categorised according to a set of aged-related parameters:

  • Class I – new born – very loose baggy skin, wet/red umbilicus – 14kg
  • Class II – 6 to 10 days old – starting to fill out but still an obvious neck, no loose skin folds on the body
  • Class III – 11 to 15 days old – Outline rounded to barrel shaped, no wrinkles, no neck
  • Class IV – 16 to 20 days old – Patches of white natal fur moulted to reveal first-year pelage underneath
  • Class V – 21 days + – Fully moulted, independent and weaned – 45kg

It’s quite amazing just how fast the pups grow and that in just three weeks they are weaned and independent. Growing at an average rate of 1.5kg a day on the rich milk of their mothers, they soon turn from yellowy-white wrinkly bags of wet fur, through to miniatures of their parents.

Aber Mawr, just south of the Bungalow where the volunteers stay, is the largest bay on the Island and also the largest pupping beach. The first count I did there revealed 91 pups but a few days later, following a storm, there had been a drop of nine. Compared to some of the storms last year, however, the pups got off quite lightly. Storm Orphelia, in October 2017, washed away many pups with the count across the Island dropping from 120 to 31. We’ll have to wait and see what further storms come their way this year.

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More to come on the seals…

A brief sunny spell…

After what has seemed like endless days of cloud, rain and wind, yesterday afternoon turned sunny and in the shelter from the wind provided by the east coast slopes of Ramsey Island, it was momentarily summer again. I went out to take photos of seals on some of the pupping beaches – largely for scientific purposes – but I did get some nice more artistic shots of them and this scene below.

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This shot is looking north-eastwards across the Bitches (the reef of rocks stretching out from the Island’s coast), and onto the Pembrokeshire Coast. In the left-middle distance are the two RNLI Lifeboat Stations and on the left is the small peak of Carn Llidi, with St. David’s head disappearing further beyond. There aren’t many flowers left blooming on the Island but there are a few pockets of gorse and heather still out in the early autumn sun.

September on Ramsey Island

Last year I was lucky enough to have an extra week on Ramsey Island, on top of my usual fortnight. I’ve been volunteering each year for the RSPB on the Island since 2012 but before that extra week, I had never stayed in September. Having enjoyed that week, I decided that I would book my fortnight this year in September too as opposed to my usual springtime stay.

Ramsey Island in September is very different from earlier in the year. Gone are cliff-nesting seabirds and so have many of the other birds from the Island’s sheep fields and maritime heathland. All but the last few flowers have disappeared, with the final purple flushes of the heather dotted here and there. Even the bracken is falling over with the deep green turning to reds, oranges and rustiness.

I arrived on Saturday but there haven’t been any visitor boats since. Usually there are incoming boats at 10am and 12pm bringing up to 40 visitors each but the wind has been strong enough to prevent them from running, so there have only been four of us on the island for the past few days (Greg, the site manager, Alys, a student studying the seals and two of us volunteers). It looks like this will continue until at least Saturday with more wind forecast and the seas not having much chance to subside.

It’s been lashing it down with rain again today, so we spent time painting the Bungalow (where the volunteers stay) but we also went out to do the latest round of surveys of the grey seal pupping beaches – more on those in a later post.

I’ve been a little slow with my blogging of late but hope to have a few more posts before my stay is over…

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A final osprey shift of the season

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I slowdown as I turn through the narrow gateway and over the cattle grid. The trees draw in as the car trundles slowly down the track with the undergrowth clipping the wing mirrors and bumper. There are no sounds of calling birds, just the crackle of twigs beneath the tyres. The tarmac of the track is starting to split, with grass and moss forming a ridge down the centre where few tyres pass. There’s dampness on the surface from overnight rain; finally some relief to the long running drought has brought a new freshness to the woodland and fields. The leaves and shoots have been washed clean of the long resting dust and the bright sun picks out the rejuvenated greens.

Across the meadows, the grass has returned with vigour and lushness with the cattle and sheep feeding restlessly as they try to make the most of the new growth. The early morning cloud parts and the strong sun breaks through casting a dazzling shimmer across the land made more sparkling by the light shining back off the new lustre of the grass.

Getting out of the car, I walk down to the bank and the river too has been given a new flush of life. The levels have risen over the past two weeks which has given volume to the weeds, now waving in the steady flow like wind-blown wheat. As I walk onto the bridge, a kingfisher diverts off its flight path and rises higher and around me, returning to the river as it passes around the back of a waterside tree.

While the life is more subdued than it was at the height of the spring, life still has depth here. There are bands of small birds feeding on the nuts and seed left out for them and the insects are making the most of the remaining flowers. There are countless white butterflies busying themselves amongst the undergrowth and open fields. Over the water, dragons and damsels flitter their way across the surface and under the bridge.

Across the river, over the bund and through the field, the copse of tall fir trees stands silent as I take my first look; the huge nest is empty. It is only after a while that a great pair of wings comes into land in the centre of the bowl and a crying is blown towards me on the steady breeze. Then, as a fish is brought in, nearly the whole family return, all three fledglings demanding food and their father providing it, watched on by their mother from a nearby tree top.   

Well, that’s my osprey shifts over for another year…and what an osprey season it has been. The late arrivals of the birds from Africa kept everyone waiting for a while but that aside there have been no major dramas (so far). There are now three very healthy looking chicks, fledged and free, having been fed relentlessly since they hatched. 

The weather has been like nothing I have ever experienced over the seven breeding seasons I have volunteered here and maybe the lower water levels have helped make fishing easier this year. The return of rains, I’m sure, is welcomed by most but especially the wildlife. The parched lands of my previous shift have given way to the more usual green woodlands and meadows. The wildlife will need more of the wet stuff if they are to be prepared for the autumn and winter to come.

I spent the day moving between the caravan and the bridge, enjoying the sun and the shade (and the cricket – the wonders of 4G!). It was a quiet shift with the nest largely empty and only returning to life with the arrival of a fresh fish. At times, there was more crow action than osprey, with two of the cheeky corvids launching a raid on the nest and stealing fish while the ospreys weren’t at home.

After seven years of osprey protection shifts, maybe this will have been my last. Over that time I’ve done nearly 60 shifts and seen 18 chicks fledge, and even had some make their first returns. I’ve had night shifts in the freezing early spring (going to bed afterwards fully clothed and still cold) and day shifts in the heat of a long summer drought where it’s been almost unbearable in the caravan…and, obviously, there’s been lots of rain, the Glaslyn Valley wouldn’t be the same without it! 

If 2018 is my last year volunteering, well, it will have been a vintage one, ended at my favourite spot; sat with my legs dangling off the bridge watching the water run beneath me and looking up to keep an eye on the activities around the nest.

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Eye to eye with nature

It’s just past mid-July but driving down the wooded track under heavy cloud cover the scene has a hint of autumn. The bracken is drying and turning brown and the leaves are fading on the trees. These, however, are not the signs of an early changing season but the result of the ongoing drought affecting the country. The heat, strong sun and lack of rain over the last few months has starved the Glaslyn Valley of water and the usual damp woodland is parched dry. I stop before I leave the cover behind as I spot a fox sauntering across on of the track-side meadow. The grass is freshly cut into rows and it picks its way along the edge, stopping to catch eyes with me before purposely heading off into a neighbouring field.

Passing through the gates and under the oak tree by the caravan, I wander through the long grass down to the river. As I approach the bridge there’s a high pitched whistle and a darting away but the kingfisher soon returns and I meet eyes with nature again but this time only a couple of metres away. The moment lasts a second or two before it shoots off along the banks, round the bend and out of sight. The river itself has fallen even further than my last visit with rocks now peeping up above the slow and low trickle of the water, the flow much narrower than before.

As I head back to the caravan, my legs damp from drops on the grass from a rare shower, the field is bouncing with young life. In amongst the bushes are countless fledgling great, blue and coal tits with a few chaffinches too. The are chattering loudly as they flit between cover and squabble on the bird feeders hanging from the trees. There’s a family of woodpeckers, initially frightened off when the see me but they too return to feed on peanuts.

At the top of the fir tree, the nest is emptier than it was, I see only one chick when I first look and it soon momentarily disappears from sight. Not a first fledgling flight but its second, following on from his sisters’ the previous days. He soon returns and over the following hours he and the other chicks come and go, taking both short and longer flights, visiting the nest, perch and nearby trees, practicing their art while waiting for another fish to sustain their energies.

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The chicks seem to have grown so quickly this year, more than usual. They’ve gone from tiny hatchlings to fledglings in the blink of an eye. Maybe the amazing weather has saved them energy that usually keeps them warm or perhaps the fishing has been easier with the lower water levels – but they really do seem to have burst into their full-sized selves in no time at all.

With the cloud cover for much of my shift, it was nowhere near as hot as my shift a three weeks ago and I was glad I brought a jumper with me. It wasn’t cold but even average summer temperatures could seem a touch chilly compared to the recent heat.

Despite the lack of rain, bar a momentary shower, the area along the banks of the river still looks quite lush, albeit with a brown tinge. The grass has grown long and there are plenty of flowers still dotted about. However, there’s one flower I found that I didn’t welcome catching my eye. I’m not sure whether I’ve seen it here before, at the protection site, but the Himalayan Balsam isn’t a plant I want to see appearing along the banks of the river. Over the last few years, I’ve spent many days clearing this invasive species from other riversides. Some days it’s seemed like a losing battle; after spending hours pulling up the plants, there was always so much more to do as the lack of effort in previous years had allowed it to prosper and take over. Perhaps this is an opportunity for some practical conservation tasks in the Glaslyn Valley on top of the osprey work, bringing the community together to help prevent the Balsam from taking over like it has so much elsewhere. It would be desperately sad to see the lovely waterways of this corner of Wales dominated by a plant that shouldn’t be here.

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Himalayan Balsam

The ospreys are real success story in the Glaslyn Valley and a sign of what can be achieved by people coming together to help wildlife but the Balsam is just another sign of there being so much more to do to protect, conserve, restore and enhance our environment. It’s easy to get depressed about such things, not helped by constant news of climate change and politics, and their real or looming affects on nature and the environment, but every step in the right direction counts, no matter how small.

A bee day

I spent a bit of this afternoon looking a the smaller wildlife in my back garden, well bees really. I don’t have many flowering plants in my garden but the lavender bushes are in full bloom at the moment and the bees are going mad for them.

This was the first time I’ve tried a spot of bee IDing and I found four different species feeding on the plants; common carder, honey, buff-tailed bumble and red-tailed bumble. The shot below is a common carder (I think)…

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Orkney: The wildlife

One of the main reasons I went to Orkney was to see the wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. I heard a long time ago how the Northern Isles are pretty spectacular for birdlife and they truly are; with the breeding season well underway, the sheer quantity of birds is simply breathtaking.

The greatest spectacle is all around as you travel through the islands in the early summer. The quantity of breeding waders is like nothing I have seen anyway else in the UK. It seems as if every field has its own resident pair of curlew and their calls ring out constantly. I loved going to sleep and waking up to those spiritful cries and, for me, there are fewer more evocative sounds of wild Britain. There are other waders, however, with oystercatchers seemingly as plentiful, constantly in a state of alarm or sheer panic, and redshanks, golden plover and lapwing are in good numbers too. I also saw some migrants still on their way north including lovely summer plumage dunlin, black-tailed godwit and sanderling.

The other big spectacle are the seabird cliffs, of which there are many and on a number of the islands. One my first day I had a good walk around Mull Head Nature Reserve on the north-east corner of the Deerness Peninsula. All along the coastal cliffs there are good numbers of guillemots (common and black), razorbills, fulmar and shags. I thought I heard the calls of kittiwakes there too but I believe their numbers reduced significantly at this site. This was also where I had my first head-to-head meeting with bonxies; the infamous harassing great skuas.

Out on Westray are the greatest seabird cliffs in the archipelago, at the RSPB’s Noup Head reserve. The huge towering cliffs have all the birds listed above but it is also Orkney’s only gannetry. This was the first gannetry I’ve seen and I spent a lovely lunchtime watching these iconic birds noisily come and go beneath me.

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One really interesting observation was the location of fulmar nests on some of the more remote locations. I’m used to seeing fulmar, like those on my favourite island, Ramsey, nesting high up on cliffs. On Sanday, however, I found them nesting at the back of beaches under the first tussocks of grass beyond the sand; surely a sign of the lack of predators and human interference.

I also spent a while at a puffin colony on Westray trying to get some shots of these most-photogenic of birds and I wasn’t disappointed…

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Elsewhere away from the cliffs there are good chances of seeing terns, and I had views, and close passes, of both arctic and little terns. There are arctic terns in a number of spots in Orkney but little terns can only be found breeding by the fourth Churchill Barrier between Barray and North Ronaldsay. This was the first time I’ve seen these lovely little birds but I made sure I didn’t approach too close to their small breeding colony.

I was also hoping to see a few birds of prey and I took two great memories from Orkney and both came from within a few hundred metres of each other on the southern island of Hoy. I had my first ever (albeit distant) view of a white-tailed eagle chick on a nest, which also happened to be the first to hatch in Orkney in over 140 years. Just a short distance away as I was walking down the public road back to the foot ferry at Moaness, I saw a pair of hen harrier mobbing a bonxie. As the intruder moved away, the male harrier spotted me and came over to check me out and move me on as I continued on my way. Normally, getting this close to a pair of hen harriers would be seen as interfering with them but there was little I could do given this was the only road in northern Hoy and there were plenty of other pedestrians and cyclists using that route.

Over the course of my stay on Orkney, I recorded 71 species of bird, which isn’t a bad total. This included a number of other northern specialities including red-throated diver, hooded crow, eider, twite and arctic skua. The relative of the bonxie, arctic skuas are a slimmer and more falcon-like bird and much less of a general menace, in fact they’re rather a nice looking bird.

I wasn’t expecting to see great numbers of hirundines but I saw good numbers of swallow and sand martin, as well as the unrelated swift. I don’t recall ever seeing so many sand martins and came across two nice sized colonies in beach-side sand walls.

There is, however, a sad element of a visit to Orkney and that is concerned with the changes in seabird populations. Only the week before I was reading in a national newspaper how numbers of many seabird species have plummeted over recent decades in the islands all around Scotland, probably as a result of losses in their food supply through over-fishing and climate change. It might be that my visit to Orkney was a last chance to see large numbers of cliff-nesting seabirds as, if their numbers continue to decline, there may not be many left when I next manage a visit to this lovely bird-rich group of islands.

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On my first day, I had an evening tour with Tim Dean, a local expert on all things Orkney wildlife including birds and plants. This really set me up for the week and he told me of some great locations to go looking for wildlife. He also introduced me to the only mammal I saw on the trip, a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Unfortunately, it had been washed up on the beach at Marwick Bay and had been deceased for quite a while. I have to say that Tim was one of the best local wildlife guides I’ve had a trip with in the UK and he really put in great effort before and during the trip to ensure I saw what I wanted. His contact details can be found here and I would certainly recommend him.