Notes from the seal cameras, Discovery Centre – Fran Thomas

Isle of May The beach on the cameras is beginning to look quite empty. From the highest count of 105 pups, we had only 51 left on 20th November. This is as expected: it is now six weeks since the first birth on camera – pups are weaned at a maximum of three weeks and leave after another couple of weeks, moulting pup fur. Some remaining pups look like half-shorn sheep, with clumps of white fur in patches, and drifts of fur lying around them on the rocks. But, this does not mean that breeding is all over: we’re still getting newborns, and expect them well into December, so a good range of ages can be seen on camera.

On 20th November there were only five cows on the Isle of May beach. This doesn’t mean that the pups are weaned, as mothers spend a lot of time hanging out in the water just offshore. Lots of mating has been observed, and they often seem to fall asleep together afterwards for about half an hour! I watched some interesting courtship behaviour yesterday: cow and bull had their necks stretched out, with their noses 2 feet apart, calling to each other. She started waving her front flippers. After about twenty minutes, when he actually tried to mate she bit him viciously and he retreated up against the cliff, with her ‘barking’ at him judging by the jerky movements of her body.

An unfamiliar bull appeared at the south end of the beach – with pale spotty fur, and bloody wounds on his head and back. From his open mouth you could see he was vocalising to some nearby cows when the holder of the territory shot out of the sea like a rocket and savaged him, sinking his teeth into his neck and back and driving him off. It would appear that he had heard him from underwater! The young-looking bull that holds this territory is the one most challenged, but he is successfully holding on to his patch.

Craigleith has about 26 pups on camera, much younger than those on the May. Many seem quite brown in colour, but when you look closely they are just caked in mud! A cow is lying really far up the glen, under the big tree. One bull is visible most of the time, sleeping.

After stormy weather last week the Isle of May beach was completely strewn with plastic bottles, plastic bags and sheeting, footballs, buoys and wood. While it may be amusing to watch a seal pup playing with a football, it’s a shocking reminder of the extent of mindless littering that goes on. Perhaps seeing where it all goes can remind visitors of an important environmental message.

Wildlife sightings – Maggie – Sheddan

Last night as I was listening to the wind battering against the window I could hear the roaring seas, always a bad sign. I thought we may have our first call out for seal pup rescue and at 8am, as dawn was breaking, the phone rang. It was Sandy reporting a white coat (seal pup) healthy, fat, with the exact location which is so important. Unfortunately I was not able to attend and, as no local medics were available, I called the SSPCA. Jenny arrived and also spotted the pup. She advised dog walkers and the inquisitive until the feisty pup was taken off to Fishcross (the SSPCA headquarters).

In contrast, last Sunday, a beautiful frosty morning as we approached Inckeith, the wailing, snorting and hissing could be heard echoing around the bay. Bulls patrolled looking for available females. Pups cried like babes and cows hissed, having an occasional altercation with another cow, but it was the bubble blowing, as many just played in the bay heads breaking the surface with wonderful gurgles and snorts. I headed off to spot any birds on the islands but found myself sitting listening to all these wonderful noises alerting me to each individual situation unfolding on this magical morning.

Wildlife sightings – w/3 Friday 15 November – Maggie Sheddan

Craigleith It was a beautiful sunrise as we sailed the short distance to Craigleith, slight south westerly wind but not the strong gales we had seen earlier in the week. This was the first of the seal counts for the season. Although the cameras give excellent views we know from experience there are blind spots. The light can also be an issue especially as they start to moult. It can be difficult to determine the age of a moulting pup/weaner. All this info is fed back to the Fife Seal group and subsequently SMRU. As we approached the island we spotted two pups on the west of the island fairly, low down as the mallow is quite dense there but great to see them. Last year there was no sign of breeding there as in previous years, so good to see the cows return there. It was always something to watch for on our last sailings of the season. White water crashed on the low rocks and our spirits fell, we knew landing was not an option. Back to the Centre and a detailed pan around with the camera. At that point we think the count is around 30-32 pups but by now perhaps there are more?
This weekend the 2nd seal count takes place on the islands of the upper Forth
Chatting with Dave (SNH) news from the May, despite a slow start to the season it’s all looking fairly good. Seals appear to be more spread out on the island than previous years (Pilgrims looks fairly normal although we know it’s probably hit peak breeding now) but interestingly SMRU have commented that cows returned in very good condition this year (in other words, fat!) and despite feeding their weight has remained good. Therefore, an indication that food has been plentiful. With all the Cetacean sightings this year, that too affirms it has been a good year once the season settled down.
With Fran giving us the wonderful updates from the May and Mary listing the shore birds and ducks from the viewing deck, I’ll take a wee break unless I have something of interest to update you all on.

Cameras in the Discovery Centre – Catherine & Mal

The Bass Rock again continues to be the main focus of activity with young gannets showing the full range of stages from fluffy chicks to the dark adolescent gugas! Club birds are also still present in the lower areas of the Bass, particularly at the helipad.

The last few adolescent fulmars can still be spotted on Fidra and Craigleith and look ready to fledge soon.

Cormorants and shags are still visible on Craigleith.

Kittiwakes have all fledged from Dunbar Harbour now but there have been quite a few sightings of seals in the harbour instead!

Grey seals will be coming to the islands soon so we’ll be on the lookout for new arrivals!

Sightings from Maggie Sheddan

Bass This time last year the yip–yip sound of the flightless guga tilting, wings flapping, desperately trying (without success) to be airborne as the boat passes was a common sight. This week only a couple have been spotted on the water. Two days of strong offshore winds may have blown any that recently fledged out to sea, but the season is late. On the promontory by the west cave, the front two rows have young from approx 4 -7 weeks old. Behind them various ages, some ‘parliament goose’ stage and a few almost ready to fledge with only a wisp of down showing.
We rescued one the other day. In the lee of the Bass with a high tide, I was able to scramble onto the rock it was perched on. As I was balancing myself before I stretched to grab it, it promptly jumped into the sea to the amusement of the passengers. Back on board and hanging over the side with boat hook in hand I finally captured it. Without a box to put it in, the only option was to hold it for the rest of the trip…That was fine in the shelter of the rock, but once exposed to the brisk westerlies and having to continue guiding, my feisty new friend certainly provided entertainment as every so often I would have to wrestle with it, hang on, smile and ignore the fact that it had a firm hold of my jacket or finger. As ever, unappreciative, it went off to the care of the SSPCA.
This past week there has been another influx of club birds with the landing areas packed with non-breeders.

Craigleith The wind appears to have caused the cormorants to move on. Only a couple have been seen this week. Shags and juveniles easily spotted. Fulmars have been gliding along the cliffs. A few kittiwakes have been sitting at sites on the west of the island probably due to the winds. Seals have been few over the weekend but last week, on low tides, we saw quite a few grey hauled out on low rocks. Off the Craig a raft of 6 eiders – this was two females with a crèche of four ducklings spotted a few weeks ago. It really is lovely to see them all still together. Guillemots also spotted on the sea recently. Spend a little time on the viewing deck spotting!

Isle of May is gearing up for its special “Lighthouse Open days”. This really is an amazing weekend with access to all three lighthouses, the engine room with its many original well-maintained features. It also shows that the May is not just about birds. Of course with winds changing this weekend the odd interesting migrant may well appear.
With the seal season almost upon us, it may be we will cruise slowly around Rona in hope of spotting some of the several hundred seals that regularly haul out there.. Only three weeks until ‘Seal open Day’ and the end of the May sailings for another year. Prior to this, with regular weekend sailings, we hope seals will be a commonplace sight!