Wildlife sightings 22 March 2013

Sightings by Maggie

Bass Rock: The wintery squalls have been relentless this week, the seas storming, but the gannets sit tight, although numbers appear slightly less than last week. Have a look at Gavin’s update ‘time line’ this Sunday on twitter. Will it show a change in numbers? A few years ago on 27 March with the birds looking very settled an unexpected ‘dread’ happened. This is when the birds in almost a structured sequence, depart from the Rock. They return usually within 24 hours. I’ve witnessed such an event and we know it was nothing to do with us landing. It’s like a signal is given that then ripples through the colony and your left alone wondering what you’ve done, or at least I was on that occasion. Perhaps a final party out there in the North Sea before the serious breeding and guarding of territory for the long months ahead begin? Seriously, gannets that are here now may still be at their site in October. From incubation to fledging it’s almost 5 months if everything is to plan. There may be reasons for delayed laying, perhaps condition of the bird, food supplies, some birds loose eggs and relay. Post fledging is more to do with site attachment and certainly we witness constant nest building throughout the season.

Craigleith/Isle of May: Puffins!! Where are they? Last year to the delight of visitors, they were seen for most of the day on the 20 March. They had returned cleaning out burrows, sitting on the wall above Pilgrims Haven. With the school holidays beginning this week, recruit our beady eyed spotters to pan and scan!! Just to tease, they will come and go, but check the areas and the sea as soon as the cameras are on. It’s close to puffin time!

Fidra: The strong easterlies make difficult conditions for the birds, with the sea crashing over low rocks where we see the eiders and shags, also this week no sighting of the Peregrine on the exposed ledges. Tom, however, witnessed a spectacular swoop with 3 peregrines displaying further inland this week. Peregrine numbers have steadily increased in recent years, in part due to the protection they are given and the well documented reduction in chemicals that caused such devastation in past times. Perhaps something we could have information session on later in the season to enhance our knowledge of the peregrines?

Webcams: Around the world people log on for all different reasons. Perhaps they have visited the Centre, been on a boat trip, landed on the Bass or the May or just curious to see what wildlife we are looking at. Panning around looking for puffins on the May yesterday, a sleeping seal was spotted. For the visiting students, unlikely to return during the winter months, I suggested they watch the seal breeding on the webcams. Many people don’t realise they can watch the seasons unfold.  Let them know! Filming on the Bass a couple of years ago, one of the American crew had a call from his daughter. She was so excited she could see her dad and then there are the night time harbour viewers (mainly the boat team..sad!), keeping an eye on conditions and the boats. But the webcams also aid researchers. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (http://www.ceh.ac.uk/sci_programmes/IsleofMayLong-TermStudy.html) regularly check the stacks on the May particularly at the moment, as sea conditions are preventing them landing. For the ringers we are able to report the first cormorant and shag eggs and subsequent hatching dates. The Bass had its dedicated webcam for Leeds University during its 3 year study, and over the winter a student at Glasgow University was using the May web cam to check seal pup mortality on a daily basis.  Her project was ‘The role of the marine mammal carrion in the ecology of the coastal marine system’; her story is on the Isle of May blog. Importantly as we pan around remember someone on the other side of the world may be watching!


Wildlife sightings 15 March 2013

Sightings by Maggie

Bass: Alive with gannets, bowing, bill fencing, sky pointing, jabbing and nest building, an unfolding story in front of our eyes. Now is the first chapter of the season. With the first boat trips sailing this weekend it will be wonderful to see what birds have returned to the lower promontory and the stack by the cave. Will the harbour seals greet us, curious of the large orange boat filled with its ‘yellow and blue’ waterproofed passengers. What is for sure will be that very distinctive Bass aroma!

Craigleith: Wonderful to see the cormorants’ wing flicking head tossing displaying, attracting the female’s attention, their plumage so fresh, the obvious white thigh patch. Although not settled, they are returning to sites. Watch them pairing and adopt a site to watch for the season. Any sign of the Greylag? Leeches pond on the top of the island has been filled this winter and there is always evidence of the geese around. Often they are seen flying between the islands.

Dunbar: The kittiwakes are back! Thanks to Gordon who called yesterday to let us know they were at their sites on the castle with several dozen on the surrounding seas. At first just one but by late afternoon there were over a dozen, alone, but sitting at their nests, and that’s only on the area we see.

Isle of May: Guillemots coming and going, but when will the first puffins be seen? Also great shots of the peregrine sitting on cliff ledge to the right of the stacks. It was there for several hours. Keep a watch for seals hauled out. Check them out in case the one that was injured with the netting returns. It would be good to see if it has healed?

Fidra: Fulmars rule! As a pair sat calmly on the peregrine’s viewing point, the peregrine perches lower down and slightly to the right of the ledge. Fulmar oil is no fun for any bird. There appears to be an understanding on that!

Bass Rock: For twitter followers, Gavin from the DC has a regular slot on Sundays showing a ‘Time Line’ of the Bass gannets. Each week he will photograph the same spot so we can see the changes in the colony as the season progress.

Wildlife sightings 8 March 2013

Sightings by Maggie

Bass Rock: A sea of white now extends over the rock, not yet dense, but there is no mistaking the gannets are returning to their sites. Many sit alone, perhaps waiting for their partner to return? Others already paired are performing gentle, mutual preening, intense bill fencing, they have been apart for several months, hence all the displaying of pair bonding. For the lone gannet the territorial displays are obvious. The deep bowing, wings held high, the call, all re-affirming to neighbours, ownership of their site. If you can’t make it in to the Centre, check out the web cams. I did and spotted some nest building/scavenging. At this time they wander about eyeing up anything that may be useful for the nest, the odd air jab as one passes close to another’s nest. Territorial disputes can become quite heated and intense. I watched a pair last year, bills locked together, breaking apart, jabbing, etc. the fight continued for over half an hour. The really amusing part, they were the only 2 gannets in that area, the rock was empty! The mentality of gannets!

The Peregrine has been spotted on the lighthouse. Guillemots, razorbills and shags all visible. Keep a watch for harbour (common) seals. We start to see them return around this time.

Fidra: Shags mating, razorbills and guillemots staying longer on the cliffs, fulmars at sites, the 2013 breeding season is on the cusp. This is the time to really watch and learn about the displaying and bonding behaviour between the pairs.

Isle of May: Wonderful shots of the returning shags. Nests are being rebuilt although there are not any flowers around to decorate as we have seen in the past with one of the pairs. Guillemot and razorbills on the stacks coming and going, fulmars a delight to watch, gliding along the cliff edges, and the first puffin was spotted (still winter plumage) off shore from the May.

Seals and fishing line: A couple of weeks ago a seal with netting/line around its neck was spotted on Pilgrims’ Haven. It didn’t appear too stressed at that time, but you could see the line around its neck. It hauled out for a couple of days and true to form by the time we reached the island it had gone. I checked daily when I was on the May and of course, after I had left, it re-appeared. This time it was in distress and the injury from the fishing line very obvious. We called Dave the Reserve Manager who fortunately was on the island. Dave to the rescue! Despite a wriggly fighting seal he managed to cut the line. Dave is very aware of the seriousness of a seal bite and certainly this is something that should not be attempted without proper training and equipment. The seal shot off into the sea. We see a lot of these types of scars on seals so it’s hoped he will heal in time. There is a report on BBC news online relating to this story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-21698848

Wildlife sightings 1 March 2013

Sightings by Maggie

The Bass: At last! On the 24 January a gannet landed in sight of the camera. As the week progressed, there were more arrivals. Gathering of nest material has been spotted although it will be a few weeks before they settle.

Fidra: Shags were seen mating although again coming and going at sites and just today more pairs spotted on the May returning to nests.

Isle of May: My annual visit to the May this year was a little earlier and considerably shorter than previous years, affording little time for relaxation. Much of my work revolves around the kitchen sink, with a view over Kirkhaven harbour and the sea beyond.  How could I not stop to enjoy the deep red glowing ball of the rising sun over the horizon, nor the breath-taking deep orange of the full moon mellowing to a brilliant yellow, like a spotlight shimmering across Kirkhaven. However, on one evening I became slightly spooked! Alone on the island, just before dark the power failed. Time enough for me to venture into the old engine room where I checked the generators/invertors etc. Everything was down and unresponsive to my fiddling. With little daylight left, I grabbed the manuals, the essential head torch and resigned myself to a candlelit night in front of the fire. The light from the moon was streaming through the window. As I peered out I froze, torches flashed down by the harbour with another appearing to be heading through the garden. Somewhat faltering, I went outside realising I was now so visible against the whitewashed walls.  Rationalisation kicked in. The tide was so low nothing could enter the harbour etc. and the lights were not going anywhere. It was reflections on rock pools glinting in the moonlight. Thankfully the generator issue was resolved by the following evening. Living on the island you have an alarm system, the gulls! Their gentle mewing fills the air but walk through their territory; they take flight their raucous call alerts everyone.

Although, early in the season, the fulmars were everywhere gliding and swooping over the island at times passing so close I felt I could touch them, beautiful to watch. Every year, early season a pair of shags return to their site on the stack at Pilgrims. It’s an excellent site protected from stormy seas and strong winds. Although shags are around this was the only pair I saw at a nest.

It was lovely to receive a call from Neil about the hundreds of guillemots at Pilgrims. At that moment the mist had cleared and I’d just counted a raft of 84 razorbills off Alterstanes. I passed Pilgrims a couple of hours later and the guillemots were still there. Too early for puffins, but I saw several strings of gannets passing the island.  With such a low tide I thought I would explore a little and picked my way over slippy rocks. Absorbed, I failed to spot 2 seals hauled out behind a large rock. We all got a fright!  Dozens more were hauled out over the rocky outcrops off Rhona.

One thing that was very obvious although the vegetation suffers with winter storms and breeding seals there is no shortage of rabbits on the island this year. They were everywhere!  Another May resident that appears to be flourishing is the May mouse. I prefer not to share the utility room with the four I kept spotting scuttling out of sight every time I entered the room.

The May Bird Observatory Extension: Although work is still on-going the new extension is very impressive. It is extremely sympathetic to the surrounding and will be wonderful when complete. I suspect once the builders depart and the vegetation returns it will look as if it has always been there. A testimony to the design and architects.

Wildlife sightings 22 February 2013

Sightings from Maggie

Bass: They’re teasing! In flight and sitting on the sea. Are they there early morning? We just have to be patient. Apart from the North side, it shouldn’t be long until you spot the odd gannet or two on the cliffs. Slowly the cliffs start to turn white, then the outer fringes of the Rock. By July, there will be little space and we shall see the mature non-breeders take to any available site, but that is a long way off.

Fidra: To see the peregrine pair on the ledge is wonderful but to see them mating live on camera is superb! Keep a watch. How often do they return to the ledge? Sightings will become fewer giving an indication that they have taken to a site somewhere along the coastal area. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that tells the story and we will know that somewhere the both sexes will be incubating the eggs although the male plays a minor role.

Isle of May: The calm seas reflected the deep red of Sunday’s sunrise. The eiders oo-OOOOh echoed around the EastBay. A spring feeling filled the air as cameras were turned on and revealed the stacks crowded with hundreds of guillemots. In the background it was hard to miss the flight activity over the seas with all the purposeful too-ing and fro-ing. On Monday another beautiful day unfolded but this time, having scraped ice off the boat, we were heading out from Anstruther early morning on yet another seal rescue. A few days prior, we had tried to find the one with the netting caught around its neck. Slowly we had sailed past Rhona, shag rock, Whaups rock with over a thousand eyes watching as heads lifted in interest. Over 500 seals were hauled out on the treacherous rocky outcrops. At this time they may be moulting. We don’t see this side but come September, when the seals start to return for breeding, Seafari will run special seal trips past this area prior to landing. I’m pleased to say that, although we didn’t spot the one with the netting, we did free another that was trapped.

Neil spotted a dead shag with a red Darvick ring (important) and recorded nature’s food chain as a great black back gull took advantage of an easy meal on the boulder beach of Pilgrims Haven. As we were on the island, we hoped we could retrieve the ring. However, the shag had vanished. Thankfully, Neil did not record me falling over on said boulder beach although I believe several staff witnessed that, and me having the giggles. Prior to this, James further down the beach, had just indicated for me to be quiet as there was a seal further down this beach…. oops!

PIB or Polyisobutene, and don’t we all know what this is? This is the substance identified by scientists from the University of Plymouth from samples taken from seabirds washed ashore in the recent ‘mystery oil’ seabird wreck of the southwestern coast of Britain which also accords with analysis done separately by the Environment Agency. PIB Is believed to be responsible for over 4,000 seabird deaths in the last 10 years. PIB is currently given one of the lowest hazard classifications under MARPOL (marine pollution from shipping) therefore justifying less stringent restrictions on the quality and quantity of discharge into the marine environment. This substance is used in making chewing gum, sticky tape and in cosmetics. We come into contact with it daily, but when mixed with seawater it becomes lethal for seabirds. The following is an extract from an RSPB report featured in BirdsGuides Newsletter 14th February 2013.

“The RSPB is seeking public support to call on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to review the hazard classification of PIB urgently, and to implement regulations that prevent any further tragic and wholly avoidable incidents like the one just witnessed.”


Wildlife sightings 14 February 2013

Sightings from Maggie

Two very excited young visitors reported a sick seal trying to haul out on the Seafari mooring. Dawn called me. This sounded strange. As we were talking the young team returned even more excited. I heard them say “It’s a family heading to the beach”. Intrigued, I asked if they could keep watching and report back.  Very soon the final call, an otter, not one but 3! A mother with 2 cubs. A ripple of excitement spread through the Centre. Diane caught them on camera playing just over the harbour wall. What was so special is that Nikita and Alex took the time to report this too us and, importantly we listened. They were out the next day watching and came in with another sighting. They are now our official ‘otter-spotters’

What is fabulous we’ve had sketchy reports over recent years but to see them so close to the harbour with young is wonderful not only for North Berwick (perhaps not for the fishermen) but something else for us to look out for, particularity from the boat. A few otter facts at the end.

The Bass: Daily reports of gannets close to the Bass, not hundreds but it won’t be long before there is an influx. Mind you, with all these beady eyes during the school holidays it is not for the want of trying, and the odd white plastic brought a few rousing calls in the Discovery Centre in the faint hope that it may be a gannet. The peregrine is around and I spotted a blackbird which was rather nice as I haven’t seen them for a while.

Isle of May: Guillemots have been seen early morning on the stacks. They disappear before opening, but worth checking the web cams as one will be locked on the stacks for early morning viewing. Many are being spotted on the sea. Young seals have been hauling out. The straddle line is strewn with all manners of garbage washed up in the winter storms. The seals are oblivious to it with the odd piece of flotsam catching their interest. This week saw another young seal with obvious netting around its neck. Unfortunately, weather conditions prevented us from landing, however it was monitored closely. It wasn’t in great distress and lounged around for almost 48hrs doing what seals do best: scratching and sleeping. Checking the web cam at first light it was there, but I had a feeling it may head off and indeed by the time the Centre opened it had vanished. It may well return as the fine netting will be causing discomfort. Please do keep a close watch. If it returns we’ll head out to free it from the netting. It could be we will bring it into the care of the SSPCA (we have our seal kennel and seal bag for such events).

Fidra: The peregrines are still being seen. We have an excellent recording in the Discovery Centre showing the pair feeding. This was recorded some time back but is superb footage and for many visitors this is the first time they may have seen how these birds feed. Remember, if you are in the Discovery Centre and spot something unusual, shout! Get someone to hit the record button! Several of the Centre’s recordings have been used in wildlife documentaries. It’s important to keep building the library of recordings.

Otter facts (Lutra lutra) Known as the common otter, Eurasian river otter or European otter. Inhabits UK and Europe.

Otters have long, slim bodies and relatively short limbs, with webbed paws. Most have sharp claws on their feet, and have long, muscular tails. They are small animals that average about four feet in length and up to 30 pounds. There are 12 other species of otter. An otter’s den is called a holt or couch.

Otters are inquisitive, playful and intelligent. They are semi-aquatic mammals and fast, agile swimmers. Bubbles of air trapped in their fur give them a silvery appearance underwater. They are the only known marine animals that don’t have blubber and have the thickest fur of all animals with at least 250,000 hairs per square inch. Some species have up to 1 million hairs per square inch.

They can stay underwater for up to four minutes, after which they must surface to breathe. As they dive, they close their ears and nostrils to keep water out.  Otters grab their prey in their mouths. They eat small fish that they catch in the water, holding the food with their forepaws while floating on their backs. When the otters catch large fish, they haul them onto shore to dine.

Otters communicate with a variety of squeals, chirps, chatters, chuckles, screams and warning growls. They have been around for at least 30 million years based on early fossil remains.

They have the ability to create and use tools just like beavers, monkeys, and apes.