Wildlife sightings 16 November 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Bass Rock: The neck stretches upward, head swiveling  eyes scanning. This is the daily scenario of the two remaining young gannets (Brutus and Spartacus) as they scan the skies for their returning parents. During the rest of the short November days and long dark nights, they are alone. The third chick, Luscious, was near to fledging. It was spotted over a week ago wandering toward the cliff edge and although it wasn’t quite ready to fledge, it may now have gone. Keep panning around and please do note when the adults return.

Isle of May: Reaching the peak of the breeding season, Pilgrims’ Haven is extremely crowded. Little fat barrels, many now molting and littering the beach, interspersed with the skinny shaggy coated newborns are easily spotted. On calm days many are swimming in the shallows of the bay, their mothers keeping a close eye so they don’t venture too far. For the younger pups most of the time they are content, feeding, sleeping, but occasionally you can spot a very young one at the water’s edge enjoying the gentle splashing of the incoming tide.

Craigleith:  Although not as crowded as the May, numbers are looking good with over 30 pups visible. The elder bush pup appears to enjoy its ‘den’ under the spreading branches of the bush where again it was spotted lurking. Although there are microphones attached to the cameras, perhaps we’re not always aware of the constant noise you hear from a colony. We are familiar with the haunting wail we hear around the May camera or from the depths of the cave as we sail past, but pups can sound like children wailing or crying. It can be quite disconcerting.

At our members’ evening I was asked about this. The couple were out walking early morning on the beach. It was very calm and still, although the fog was thick. They heard some very strange noises echoing they thought, across the sea. I’m fairly confident it was the pups from Craigleith.

I mentioned I was off to count seals last weekend. With more than enough in the group, I took an hour out, just to sit and observe the colony from the cliff top. It was fascinating and extremely noisy with childlike wailing and crying filling the air, the occasional snorts and growls as cows infringed another’s area coming too close to a pup, or an amorous bull being firmly rejected offshore. A cow came too close to another’s pup. She started to growl trying to protect it. A full scale battle ensued between the two cows with the pup caught in the middle of the fighting cows. Although the cows lose an enormous amount of weight at breeding time they are still heavy enough to squash or injure a pup. In between the growls and snapping, the mother was desperately flippering her pup trying to move it to safety. The fight died back for a short while only to erupt again with vengeance. The end result, the pup was ‘claimed’ by the attacking cow, with the original mother backing off in defeat. This fight was ongoing for about half an hour.

As the colony settled back down with the pup now in the care of the ‘new’ mother, the normal behaviour resumed. Cows swimming close to the beach, pups draped over rocks, others exploring the shoreline, when suddenly there was a mass stampede for the shore! Normally it is the other way around. If a colony is disturbed you see everything rush into the water. What caused this? Seals are very susceptible to sound and vibration. A tanker a good half mile away was steaming out the Forth. I can only think this was the cause of the disturbance. Certainly from the boat we know how they do react to noise.

Vibration and noise under water can cause problems for cetaceans. There has been an interesting development relating to the recent mass whale stranding in Fife which resulted in the death of 22 whales including 4 calves. Spanish acoustic experts are looking at the possibility that deafness may have contributed to the stranding. The whales may have been affected by an earthquake off the Norwegian coast and seismic tests being carried out off the coast of Aberdeen. If this was the case, they would not be able to communicate with each other or forage for food. They would panic. The study is being undertaken by Barcelona University at the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics. They are world-leaders in assessing sound damage to cetaceans. The oceans are becoming noisier and this is affecting marine life.

Local sightings: A pair of peregrines were seen off Craigleith with the male going into a stoop, with aerial display showing the female what a good provider he is. Spend a little time on the viewing deck as we have seen this before.

Keep your eyes peeled on the berry trees for waxwings!

Local sightings: Waxwings! These beautiful birds are being spotted from Dunbar, Gullane, Aberlady and Gosford to Edinburgh, so keep a close eye on berry trees and listen for their call. At Aberlady fieldfares, redwings and snow bunting were seen yesterday on the west end of the beach. For anyone that travels on the train as you head out of North Berwick on many days you may spot the whooper swans in the fields and on the water on the right hand side. Very often they are also seen feeding in fields near Tyninghame. An unusual one with bright yellow webs has been seen. Look out for it if you are out on a bird walk.

With thanks to all at Lothian Bird News

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Wildlife sightings 9 November 2012

Sightings  from the Discovery Centre  

Isle of May: 80 to 100 pups on the beach now and nearly impossible to count accurately! A bull has been seen on the bay and young pups in shallow water getting swimming lessons! Lots of pups are moulting and some starting to outgrow the cows.

Craigleith: more than 20 pups now!

Local sightings: eiders are being spotted on all cameras and in large numbers off North Berwick.  The peregrine is being rather elusive this week with no sightings at all.

Sightings from Maggie

Seals! No matter whether it‘s watching the web cams at home, or scanning with the cameras in the Discovery Centre there is always something to capture you. I spotted the ‘elder bush’ pup on Craigleith hiding deep in the base of the branches. You could just make out the profile of its head sniffing and exploring.

A cow, head resting on a raised rock, deep in sleep with that characteristic smiley face. Such contentment. The flip side, the morning scan for the increasing number of pups that haven’t survived the night.

News from the May that Kirk Haven is completely closed for landings. I’m sure Paul remembers his close encounter with a protective cow! Check out the Isle of May blog and you’ll see the reason why. There are some fabulous photos. Now the SMRU will be out monitoring and studying every aspect of seal breeding. Keep an eye out for tagged seals.

Posted on 1 December 2011 by SMRU
We had a nice surprise when we spotted a tagged yearling sheltering from the wind. It turned out to be one of the ones she was studying last year. The survival rate for grey seals in the first year is only about 50% so she was very happy to see him back on the island. Last time she saw him, he weighed 52kg – this time he was only 3kg heavier, but he has lost his pup fat and is now a lean bundle of muscle and an impressive 128cm long. Not bad for a yearling! 

Seal counts and ID: over the next few weeks, the Fife Seal Group will be out counting the pups and taking photos to enable identification of cows on many of the Forth islands. It’s not as easy as it sounds. We try to capture profile and head on shots, without disturbance to the breeding colony. Patience and stealth is required. We pass these on to researchers at SMRU.

The photo-ID work at is currently restricted to females for a number of reasons. Historically, SMRUs photo-ID projects have been based on photographs of heads in the water and the computer-aided matching program uses the sleeker head shape of the females.

As males mature the change in head shape makes it more difficult to use a computer to look for matches between pelage patterns – they also get a lot of scarring on their necks from fighting and this often makes it very difficult to see any markings. So if you see James and myself on the upper slopes of Craigleith, belly crawling, cameras in hand, you’ll know what we’re up to.

Local sightings: Waxwings! These beautiful birds are being spotted from Dunbar, Gullane, Aberlady and Gosford, to Edinburgh. So keep a close eye on berry trees and listen for their call. At Aberlady, fieldfares, redwings and snow bunting on west end of the beach yesterday. For anyone that travels on the train as you head out of North Berwick, on many days you may spot the whooper swans in the fields and on the water on the right hand side. Very often they are also seen feeding in fields near Tyninghame. An unusual one with bright yellow webs has been seen. Look out for it if you’re out on a walk.

With thanks to all at Lothian Bird News.

Wildlife sightings 26 October 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Craigleith: The first pup born on Craigleith went unnoticed for some while. We think it was born late Sunday or early on Monday 22 October. It was contented, obviously fed as that scrawny face had already filled out, the white coat smooth and dry and importantly no sign of gulls. The cow had hauled higher into the glen. In the past there have been a few at the top of the hill. Look out for trails in the vegetation – scan around! There is wildlife all over the island!

Panning around on Tuesday morning a very tranquil cow – deep in sleep, head resting on a pillow of stone, with that ‘smiley’ look that seals have, the occasional sigh and scratch of contentment – was stretched out in the centre of the glen. Heavily pregnant, was it the calm before the birth? She was closely monitored that morning. As happens, during lunch break, unseen, the pup was born. Superb footage, recorded a few years ago, shows the birth to be very quick.

Back with the newborn, the mother had moved away from the danger of the gulls, which vie for the afterbirth. The pup is very vulnerable at this moment. The mother was sniffing tenderly and then presented herself to the straggly bundle for its first feed. She appeared to be an experienced mother. Returning later, it was lovely to them settled. With six pups now born, breeding is well underway showing a very similar pattern to last year. Try to keep a count and note stillborn pups too, as it all adds to the total breeding numbers. 

The little pirates on the Seafari pirate boat sang to the seals last week as we hunted for Black Pearl’s treasure, the seals very much our ‘helpers of the seas’. Bulls and cows watched with interest as we drifted slowly opening the treasure chest we had hauled on aboard. Such fun!

Isle of May: With over 80 pups and cows on Pilgrims Haven the beach is quite crowded. As you scan around, your eyes just catch an incident which might be amusing, aggressive or traumatic. Just watching them sleep at times is spellbinding. Are they alive? (something we are often asked). Look for the rise of the chest. They can be so peaceful at times and then you get a twitch and a flipper waves or scratches and our visitors are reassured. The first pup born on Pilgrims should have moulted, perhaps already gone.

Bass Rock: Are we going to have another Maximus? There are three young chicks still being tended. One chick appears to have one parent in attendance and the others are left although the parents do return and feed the chicks regularly. Please do keep a watch and note feeding times.

They generally have a pattern and return at certain times. Ask visitors to watch. With the blizzards forecast out at sea this coming weekend, we do wonder if they may be abandoned. A visit is due to the Rock, perhaps next week, and although we don’t want to intervene, if the chick is abandoned we may have to. HMS Gannet is not a rescue option!

Fidra: The peregrine is being seen from the lighthouse to the viewpoint. Scan the seas around the island. Heading up in the boat yesterday a raft of about 20+ common scoter was close to Fidra.

Local sightings: Keep up-to-date with local sightings with Lothian Bird News.
The first waxwing has been seen… and so much more!

Wildlife sightings 1 November 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Bass Rock:  Brutus, Spartacus, Luscious…if I mention Maximus I think we will all understand, this is not a theatrical review. Yes, this is the Bass Rock sightings. (May I add, I did not name the chicks!) ….. Paul?!

The wintry blizzards due last weekend did not materialise. The Discovery Centre team has monitored daily the return of the adults to feed the two lone chicks.The 3rd and youngest, Brutus, has had constant attendance from an adult. Concern was raised on Wednesday when it appeared two of them had not been fed. One is near to fledging, still with a little down, but the other has at least two/ three weeks until fledging. By Thursday morning it was thought that they had been abandoned. With cameras panning frequently to the preset, an adult was spotted returning to feed one of them. Good news!

Several years ago when we rescued Maximus, many were amazed that there were still young on the Rock. These late breeders are a regular occurrence and have been for several years. It is probable that it may be a replacement egg if one was lost earlier in the season. Only because of the cameras do we now witness this. They are ‘home alone’ birds with little stimulation around them, therefore their behaviour reflects this. Please do keep watching and watch their behaviour.

The peregrine has been a regular on the Rock this week. It has various lookout points but one of the favourites, and also a feeding station, is the lighthouse. It’s worth keeping an eye out for any activity there.

Craigleith: On 1 November there were 22 visible pups and they are not confined to the main body of the glen. Several cows have hauled quite high up the slopes safely away from high tides and crashing surf. We know a few may breed on the west of the island out of site of the camera and only when we land for the counts will we know if they have returned. Numbers are on par with previous years, excluding last year. Last year there were none on the west side. Possibly the weather impacted on them gaining access to the island? (We had many days of severe crashing seas).

I watched one the other day at first sniffing the chickweed, the head burrowed a little further, until its entire body was entangled and almost hidden. It was playing.

Again, try to keep count and note any stillborn as these add to the counts and are important for building that picture of mortality during breeding season.

Isle of May: Wall to wall pups, cows and offshore bulls. It is difficult to count not least because you’re drawn into the action of the moment, whether it’s a pup being splashed for the first time by an incoming wave, or one convinced a log may be a food source. We know from previous years we would expect to have over a hundred pups by now. See how many you can count.

The cameras are being used by a researcher from Glasgow University to monitor overnight mortality with a short recording of the shoreline every morning. Hopefully the SMRU will have a blog soon that will update on this year’s research. I’m still dying to find out about the sound recordings they took last year of the haunting wail. Did this produce any findings or conclusions?

Seal advice as previous years:
Over the next few weeks, particularly when heavy winds prevail, we will have the odd report of ‘pups’ on the beaches.
It is time now to start reminding visitors, should they find a ‘pup ‘on the beach,
• Observe from a distance, does it have an obvious injury? Is the coat white?
• Keep children and dogs clear
• Only if the pup looks injured or is in distress, report it to the SSPCA or bring it to our attention if within sight of the Centre and we will check it out. The BDMLR (Marine Medics) will attend
• Location – a landmark or precise location aids the responders
• More often than not, the young seal is resting and will head out on the next tide
• A seal bite can be extremely serious as they carry several nasty diseases
We do now have a seal cage for those trained to remove a pup from the beach to hold or transport to the rescue centre.