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…

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.

Back again…

I feel privileged enough as it is to spend a fortnight each year volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but this year I’m luckier still – I’ve just landed for an extra week! It might be a short stay as I’ve arrived a day late, due to strong winds yesterday preventing the boat from running and I may have to leave as early as Thursday for the same reason. However, it’s just great to be back and to see the Island in its autumn colours.

With a day to spare in Pembrokeshire yesterday I spent a few hours touring around parts that I have only previous seen from a distance while on the Island. It was a dark and foreboding kind of day for the most part so the photos below are all in black and white.

Working with the sheep

One of the great things about volunteering on Ramsey Island is the chance to get involved (even in a small way) in the running of the farm, and in particular looking after the sheep.  During my last two stays shearing took place, and last year I helped to round the sheep up and separate the ewes from their lambs ready for the shearers to do their stuff.  Today, the ewes were given their anti-fly treatment and had to be rounded up with their lambs from the nursery fields and taken into the barn.  Dewi, the island sheepdog (and without doubt the best dog in the world!), did most of the rounding up, although I did play the role of sheepdog in one field and ‘expertly’ drove a few ewes and their lambs to join the rest (and without as much as a ‘come by’ or ‘away’ having to be shouted at me!).

Here’s a few pictures…

Giving nature (Manxies) a home

Ramsey Island is home to a wide range of wildlife; small and large, rare and common.  At present, however, significant efforts are going into, literally, making homes for one particular species; Manx Shearwaters.

When Ramsey was bought by the RSPB in 1992, there were only around 500 pairs of Shearwaters nesting on the island. The presence of rats had reduced the numbers of this species, and of other ground nesting birds, to levels far below those on the nearby rat-free islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

Back in the winter of the turning millennium, a successful rat eradication exercise was undertaken on the island. Since then, the benefits of doing so have shown in the increasing numbers of ground and burrow nesting birds. The last survey of Shearwaters, undertaken last year, and ‘helped’ by me, revealled that the upward trend was continuing with nearly 5,000 pairs recorded.

Whilst the increasing numbers of Shearwaters is very positive news, there’s still much work to do.  Monitoring the population remains a key activity for the RSPB on Ramsey and this task is made easier by constructing nest boxes through which easier access can be gained to the birds while they are breeding.  The birds usually nest at the far end of rabbit burrows and this makes them tricky to get of off but the nest boxes, with a door in the roof, make the job very simple. The monitoring includes checking on the health of the birds as well as ringing them.

One of my first jobs on the island this time was to help make nest boxes, some of the 100 to be installed on the island’s sheltered east coast.  They’re relatively simple wooden boxes to build, with three of the four sides enclosed, one of the longer sides having a round hole cut into it, no bottom, and a thick roof, one half of which is hinged to give access for monitoring.  Once installed, the round hole is fitted with a three-foot long tube through which the Shearwaters reach the nest chamber.  In total, I put together 11 boxes and they’re now waiting to be installed.



During the last couple of afternoons, we’ve spent a while out on that east coast and installed more than a dozen boxes.  The installation is also quite straightforward but requires a bit of hard graft. A hole just large enough to ‘plant’ the box is dug in the sloping side of the island, deep enough for the front of the box to be nearly flush with ground level. With the box in place, a channel is dug from the hole in the side and the is tube installed. All that is required then is for the back half of the box and the tube to be covered with soil and the job is nearly done. The last touches are to put some soft nesting material on the bare earth beneath the box and put up a small piece of bracken at the box end of the entrance tube; if this gets knocked over, it’s a tell-tale that the box has been visited by a Shearwater (or one of those pesky rabbits).


I’ve installed four boxes so far, and they’re more to be done.
One of the aspects of a stay on Ramsey that makes it so special is lying in bed on a dark night and listening to the odd chuckling and gurgling sounds of the Shearwaters as they come back from the sea and head to the burrows.  Hopefully, making homes for them will help to play a role in further increasing their numbers and make the nocturnal sounds on the island even more special.

A wintry day in north Norfolk

After a late meeting in Boston on Thursday, I decided to take Friday off and head over into Norfolk and spend the day wandering around some of the nature reserves that dot the coast.  Having had a few holidays and long weekends in the area, I know the sites well along the north coast and planned to fit a few in during the course of the day.

After a couple of dawn visits to RSPB Snettisham in the past, with great spectacles of both dawn flight of pink-feet geese and the hide tide wader root, I had thought about getting up very early again. However, looking at the weather forecast and the stage of the moon cycle the night before, I decided a dawn visit would probably be less fruitful than my previous two, so I decided to have a bit of a lie-in instead.  I eventually got to Snettisham at about 9am and as I headed out on the walk to the front, the dark, brooding cloud cover started to release icey snow, made more forceful by the strengthening breeze and rattling on the outside on my hood.

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Passing the lakes on the way to the front, there were plenty of geese, ducks and lapwings, the latter occasionally lifting in large flocks spooked by a passing raptor.  On getting to the front, I found the sea was out, revealing square miles of mud, and out on that mud were thousands of birds.  Close to the shoreline were shelduck, curlew and a few redshank but out in the distance were masses of others including large groups of golden plover and knot.  As the wind became stronger and the snow came down heavier, I turned and made my way back to the car, crunching on the pebbly shoreline as I went.

Next stop was RSPB Titchwell, seeing a few brown hares in the fields on the way.  The weather had improved markedly by the time I got there and I headed straight out for the coast again. Stopping on the way, I talked to a group looking into the distance and had my first ever view of a water pipit and then (as usual) a very fleeting view of the electric-blue flash of a kingfisher as it darted past.  At the front, I had another first ever view, this time of velvet scoters – all in a nice group very close to the short line.  Further out was a much larger group of several thousand common scoter and I tried for ages to see long-tailed ducks and red-throated divers but to no avail.  On my way back to the car, I had a nice view of a male and female marsh harrier playing in the wind – one didn’t look too happy with the other.  There were also good-sized groups of brent geese busily coming in and out of the reserve making a change from the large number of pink-feet I usually see in the area but strangely missing on this particular day.

Onwards I went again and moved on to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley.  The weather had drawn in again and the snow was coming down but I still decided to do the 3-mile walk  around the reserve including out to the sea shore.  With the weather proving troublesome, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way around but found the impact of previous poor weather was just as interesting.  I haven’t been to north Norfolk since the storm surge of late 2013 and the impact is noticeable, with the high shingle bank now flattened and partially spread out onto the reserve behind it.  Walking along the coast was hard-going in parts as a more recent storm surge had loosened the shingle.  While there was no storm surge this time, the force of the sea was still clear to see with the waves crashing onto the shoreline and the wind buffeting me as I made my way west giving a bit of welcome assistance.

On return to the car, I decided on one last stop before heading for my digs for the night and I went off to Holkham.  Parking on Lady Anne’s Drive, I walked along fields on the landward side of the woodland and went up to the hide.  During my brief stop, I had great views of four marsh harriers floating in the strong winds as they prepared to come down at dusk.  Back out into the weather again, I went to the beach but soon headed back inland as the wind strengthened again and down came more snow, starting to settle for the first time in the day.  As I approached the car, the snow was starting crunch underfoot as it froze on the ground; the going becoming more slippery with every metre.

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I drove on to Blakeney and the White Horse – a fine Adnam’s pub and hotel – which provided a comfy, warm room and lovely evening meal of local produce, all washed down with a few pints of their great beers.  Before turning in, however, I had to go for another walk and went out into the darkened streets of the village.  The snow had stopped and the wind had lessened, making it a nice, chilly late evening wander around the picturesque lanes of flint-faced cottages.  As I reached the final waterfront of the day, I couldn’t see far out along the river and across the marshes but could still hear nature out there.  One of my favourite calls of wild followed me back up the hill to the hotel – the evocative, enchanting, and to me, slightly melancholic call of the curlew.

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The great thing about Norfolk, I find, is that no matter what time of year you visit, there’s always plenty of wildlife to see.  Despite the slightly challenging weather of this short trip, I managed to see well over 50 species of bird and a few mammals. The good thing about visiting in winter, is that you can have large parts of the lovely place all to yourself.  Norfolk simply has to be on the anyone’s list who has an interest in wildlife and great English countryside.

 

Time Moves On

A subdued atmosphere hangs in the trees as I head down the track today, the sounds of spring have fallen away and the only noises are the thwack of bracken against the wing mirrors and the crack and crunch of twigs under my tyres. There’s a coolness in the breeze coming through the open window and a muffled light, stifled by the thick woodland cover and held back by the patchwork of passing clouds. Out onto the open valley floor, between stone walls and damp meadows, the air becomes warmer but quicker, the breeze increased to windy gusts, chilling in the gloom. The seasons have moved on here, spring prime gone and summer just beginning. The plants have grown to their full height but faded from their bright freshness to darker, fixed tones and early flowers are a distant memory, even some later blooms are starting to fall. The fruits of the dawn chorus are out in the open, young finches, tits and thrushes feed, chase and squabble in the trees and bushes, all under the eye of a waiting hawk. I get a first sight of the other young in the valley, high above the fields in the tall copse. My last visit was spent in wait for eggs to first crack but so much time has passed since then; the chicks are almost in full feather and beginning to flex their wings. It won’t be long until those wings are lifted into the summer air.

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It was a quiet shift today with the chicks resting in the cup of the nest for most of it, with a bit of preening and wing flexing; there was more snuggling than arguing. They are also starting to stand properly on straightened legs, bringing them to their full height, although not yet up to their parents size. Mrs G was either sat on the perch or on the nest much of the time or occasionally chasing crows, and I didn’t see Aran until early afternoon when he returned with a trout. It all got a bit panicky for them mid-afternoon when the farmer came into the field by the nest with his dog to check on the sheep. Both adults took to the air and flew around for a while but she returned to the nest after a short time and he disappeared into the distance; the chicks seemed oblivious. He returned later with what looked like a whole sea trout (could easily be wrong as my fish ID skills are pretty poor). It got quite windy towards the end of my shift; I thought the caravan was going to lift off it’s wheels at one stage!

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During my shift I had a strong feeling of time moving on; the seasons, the year, the years, and the subdued atmosphere I sensed on my arrival seeped into my thinking. The five weeks since my last shift has brought changes to the valley; the plants have grown, flowers bloomed and fallen, and birds fledged. I’ve missed the early stages of the osprey chicks’ growth since hatching and they don’t seem far from the size of their parents.

I had a sense that the year is moving past at speed. It doesn’t seem long since the Glaslyn training event in the dark days of late winter, spring has been and gone, and summer is already upon us (although no one has told the weather apparently!); it won’t be long until osprey parents and fledglings start their journeys south. The busiest period of my, now usual, conservation year is coming to an end with bird surveys finished, my two weeks on Ramsey Island gone and not many osprey shifts left.

I also had a sense of greater scale of time moving on. I have a significant birthday to mark soon, one I’m not altogether comfortable with but one to mark all the same. It’s strikes me that there’s only so much time in life to make a difference – whether that time be the hours in the week, the weekends in the year, or the years in a life. It’s easy to let time pass unmarked and let life drift and that risks missing chances to make an impact and a difference. It got me thinking about conservation and what contribution I make. I’ve already had my ‘midlife crisis’ moment, an early one if that’s what it was; it was now nearly five years ago when I started 12 months away from work and began my stop/start journey through conservation – including a month, altogether, with Mrs G and 11/98.

In the decades of my life so far, so much of nature has already been lost. What the new generation is beginning with, the environment, the plants, birds, insects and animals, is so diminished from what my generation started with and that in turn was much diminished from previous generations. There is a risk that the new generation may use what they inherit as the benchmark norm, to see that as what nature should be like, as others have done so before. Those benchmarks are lowering with every new generation and mine only has so much more time to lift it back up to a higher point from which our successors can take it on.

What has been lost over that time was put into sharp focus by the State of Nature report in 2013 – a copy of this sobering document can be found here. The report highlighted many frightening trends including that a group of 155 species it had data for, some of the most threatened in the UK, had declined by 77% over the last 40 years with little sign of recovery and that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s.

However, over the last five years, I’ve been involved with a range of conservation organisations and projects, some large and some small, some well established and some just starting out. Whilst what we have now is much diminished, these organisations give hope and there are good signs amongst all the bad. When I came into the world, there were barely any ospreys in the whole of the UK and none at all in Wales. Over time this has changed and not only are they thriving in Scotland, there are now growing pockets of populations in England as well as in Wales. The work of the volunteers at Glaslyn and many others like them, have helped to reverse the decline of this species and bring the growth in numbers – there just needs to be many more people making efforts to bring success to other parts of nature.

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Time moves on…no one knows yet what impact recent decisions will have on conservation, with potentially so much to do, what time will be given in government to the environment and nature? What will happen to the existing legislation and policies? With these challenges, of politics, governance and available time, is the chance for this generation to repair the damage of the past slipping away?

There may be opportunities as well as problems but that’s the exciting thing about time, it keeps moving on…and not always in the direction we hope or expect.

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