Wildlife sightings 19 Feb 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Claudia

We are looking out for gannets! Last year they arrived on Valentine’s Day but this year we are still looking. We can see them circling the Bass Rock from the Scope Deck but who will spot the first gannet on camera? Meanwhile we spotted the peregrine falcon on the lighthouse.

Our return of the Craigleith camera brought us lovely pictures of the cormorant colony. We can observe daily how they display to each other. In the morning, we very often see guillemots and razorbills on the cliffs and the guillemots floating in the water in big rafts. The fulmars are just above the cormorants and, of course, the herring gulls and the black backed gulls are not far away.

On the Isle of May, we have spotted a group of seals now nearly daily on the far end of Pilgrims Haven.

Fidra gave us good pictures of a pair of greylag geese this week and we have lots of fulmars and shags hanging around. The guillemots are there in the morning but normally disappear during the day.

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan

Bass Rock – armed with spades, brushes, and the essential flask of tea and chocolate, we hope to land on ‘The world’s largest Northern gannetry’ later this morning, not to spot gannets, (although I hope we do), but to clear the paths. It’s that time of year. I was looking at a photo that I took just a few years back where photographers were leaning on the chest high chapel wall cameras in hand. That same wall now is knee high such is the extent of the erosion.

Looking at past records, (and remember the records are only as good as the observations), we have seen the first landing anywhere between late Jan, (by the foghorn) and on camera from the 11 to the 23 Feb, but that doesn’t mean to say they haven’t landed prior, only that we have observed them on these dates, so always worth an early morning view with binoculars or scope, scan the cliffs, you may be surprised!

It will be interesting to see where the shags will settle as the extending colony has been pushing them out this last few years. However as the shags are already settling into sites, I think this year they should be fine in the areas they nested in last year, but as the gannetry below the battlements grows (this is one of the real growth areas of the gannetry) the shags will ultimately lose their territory.

I expect guillemots and the odd razorbill will be in the cave, fulmars swooping and chuckling. I wonder if there will be any kittiwakes? Time to keep a watch for their return.

It’s been interesting to hear the reaction to last week’s historic news about the Bass Rock. Many, particularly locals although it was wonderful news acknowledged that it was the largest ‘rock’ colony before, but when you say; “The Bass has overtaken St Kilda” there is a dawning and a recognition, that this is very special. Although St Kilda will always be magnificent and quite a magical journey, I think we have every reason to shout and crow this year about the Bass Rock.

Craigleith – wonderful to see the cormorants, white thigh patch flashing as it wing flaps and head flicks, displaying to attract a mate. I spotted on the webcam a shag looking quite settled. Any kittiwakes on the cliffs?


Wildlife sightings 13 Feb 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Alex

The Bass Rock still awaits the first landings of the gannets this year, though there are still reports of them circling the island. As Valentine’s Day approaches we may yet have another repeat of earlier years, with the gannets landing on this particular day.

The peregrine continues to make appearances on Fidra and, at the weekend, one was spotted feeding on a carcass, though it was not clearly visible on the cameras. During the week the male and female were spotted with a fresh kill. With the return of fulmars and guillemots, as well as the first sightings of razorbills this year, the peregrines will now have an increased food supply on the island.

Andy and Claudia visited Craigleith on Thursday and were able to fix the cliff camera. During their trip they spotted the peregrine just below the camera, perching on top of the cliff. Upon returning to the Centre they were able to locate it, again just below the camera. The welcome return of the Craigleith camera also allows us to see groups of guillemots as well as the cormorant colony.

The May continues to show the nesting shags, Charlie and Juliette, as well as Portia who continues to interfere with their nest preparations. Seals can also still be seen on the beach as they return to the island to moult, as well as the guillemots on the stacks.

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan

75259 AOS!! We can shout it from the rooftops now, and I can finally add more ‘gannets’ to the Bass Rock model to bring it up-to-date!

May 2000, 15 years ago, as the Seabird Centre with its world leading remote cameras opened its doors and the eyes of the world as it beamed the first live images across the screens of this iconic rock with its vast gannet colony (appx 39,000 AOS.) To be able to observe behaviour and watch the breeding season unfold has brought so much excitement and interest from the thousands of visitors that have visited whether controlling the camera in the Centre, scanning for that first bird arriving, that first egg, or the first chic, or for others a boat trip around the rock that stimulates the senses as the noise, that distinctive odour engulfs you as your absorbed into the world of this gannet city. Webcam viewing links the world to this amazing colony and for others enjoying a cuppa on the viewing deck pondering on this giant ‘white volcanic plug’ that sits just 3 miles offshore some unaware of quite why it is white.

In 2004 the Centre started to land visitors, at first short visits but the reality that photographers needed more time brought the launch of the photographic landings and I fell into the role of Bass guide. That summer the 5 year aerial count was undertaken by Stuart Murray and along with Mike Harris and Sarah Wanless they revealed the colony had increased to 48,098 AOS. Each season the colony extended just that little further, we were losing areas. During one bad weather spell, on finally landing 8 new sites had been established and they were not moving! The rule, if they have the egg, the site is theirs. Unfortunately that created an ‘island’ which on one side was the rather sheer drop to the sea. It was cordoned off and by the following season the strip had infilled and the safety hazard gone with the cliff edge now inaccessible. One area close to the path just didn’t expand. I instilled a slight diversion for 2 seasons and soon they settled and importantly bred.

By 2009 the increase was very obvious. When you land and head up to the photographic area you find hundreds of non-breeders, club birds, others trying to take to a site and attract a partner, you are met by a sea of gannets. As the non-breeders move off , there is now an exposed bird on an egg…As I said, the rule is enforced and that bird is protected and dare I say through gritted teeth, as I know I’m on a losing battle with the space and before next season that lone bird will be surrounded.

2009 another count showing indeed the colony had extended to 55,482 AOS another substantial increase. What was interesting was in 2004 we were behind St Kilda in numbers by just over 11,000 pairs, by 2009 only by 5,000. The Bass was increasing at a dramatic rate and St Kilda was slowing down and we’ll look at the possible reason for that in subsequent bulletins.

From 2009 to 2014 the changes were quite dramatic – shags were being pushed out of their habitat, the mallow was vanishing on the area in front of the battlement and we had various ‘weegies’ trying to nest on paths which ‘rule of egg’ produced some rather creative dance moves to avoid them. Always watch the bill, need I say more for the male visitor! But winter visits were also providing vital information. The Rock may be desolate but the evidence is there. At first a few haphazard nests near to the keeper’s gardens, showing that odd birds were nesting, but slowly over a few years a uniformed line of craters emerged in areas not thought possible for nesting yet there was the evidence.

Summer 2014 per chance I’d met Stuart and was aware the count was due. I undertook a count of non-breeders, on the low promontory and battlements and passed that onto Mike and Sarah.

The Bass Rock is the world’s largest Northern gannetry with 75,259 AOS overtaking St Kilda by just over 15,000 and overtaking Bonaventure which had been expected to overtake St Kilda. St Kilda has remained ‘steady’, Bonaventure numbers have dropped, but it does show how easily numbers can drop whether climatic or the very complex issues within our oceans.

We are within 40 minutes commute of the Festival city. We have the largest Northern gannetry in the world 3 miles offshore. 10 miles away we have the largest east coast puffin colony and one of the largest grey seal east coast breeding colonies all on the Isle of May. The May with CEH and SMRU have some of the longest intense research programmes, covering 40+ years and don’t forget we had Bryan Nelson (our mentor) live and breathe the life of gannets on the Rock. This year we hope that some serious studies will be undertaken by Glasgow and Leeds university and CEH.

Let’s relish this wonderful news about the Bass Rock!

Wildlife sightings 5 Feb 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Alex

We still await the first gannet to arrive, with more and more sightings of them flying up the coast and even around the Bass Rock, though none have been spotted landing or resting on land, as of yet. Keep a look out on the Scope Deck as well as on the cameras!

The peregrine falcon also made a return and was sighted on Tuesday (3 February), the first appearance for many months!

The clusters of guillemots and fulmars can still be seen in the morning on Fidra, with the former growing in size as more and more return to their stacks, especially on the Isle of May. The peregrine continues to make a regular appearance also.

On the Isle of May Charlie (Blue ZCA) and Juliette (Red XIJ) continue to be seen making their nest as well as Portia (Green UAP) interfering in their nest building while the pair are away. There has been a slight increase in the number of shags on the May in the past week and, hopefully soon, Charlie and Juliette will have some neighbouring pairs building their own nests!

The May was also host to over 24 seals this week, with both bulls and cows returning to moult their pelts.

Our tank continues to thrive following the removal of the butterfish, and the introduction by Andy of spontaneous mini handling sessions of the starfish, periwinkle and hermit crab has been a big hit, especially with the children. The new 3D TV is also generating excellent feedback from both visitors and members!

Sightings by Maggie Sheddan

Bass Rock – They are out there, but are they sitting down by the foghorn? The planned trips have been thwarted again by weather. I think I’m having a race as to whether I land first or a gannet does. I suspect the latter, so keep watching. Great to hear the peregrine was seen at one of its winter vantage points that, within the next few weeks, will slowly be overtaken by the returning colony.

Sitting at home flipping through the webcams it was lovely to see the guillemots on Fidra. Has anyone spotted a cormorant with a white thigh patch? It won’t be long. I had been going to touch on gulls this week but with the breaking news below, perhaps another day. However, lesser-black backs (yellow legs) should be appearing soon. We recognise our three most common species seen and probably the black headed gull and the common gull. There have, however, been a few sightings recently of glaucous and Iceland gulls, which, in adult plumage although you may not know what they are, will stand out because they are different. The real difficulty comes with the juvenile plumages of all gull species, a study of its own. A couple of weeks ago I watched a young herring gull on the harbour wall pestering an adult close by, I may add to no avail. It was the constant cry that alerted me, but when people say there’s nothing much to observe, this was just a few metres away and fascinating to watch.

“Cannibal seals behind mystery deaths in Scotland”, the headline in today’s Scotsman. For several years now marine experts have puzzled over the unusual single, smooth-edged cuts that spiralled around the body found on dead seals washed up along Scottish shorelines. The Greenland shark at one point was thought to be the cause but was dismissed and attention turned to boats and more specifically, the propellers. Marine and Seabird surveyors, along with the public, were alerted resulting in more corpses being reported. The subsequent studies led to the conclusion that the mysterious ‘corkscrew‘ cuts were the result of being sucked into ducted boat propellers – (used on vessels that need to move slowly or remain stationary).

However, new research from the SMRU suggests male grey seals are most likely to blame. A bull was seen killing five young seals on the May, biting off chunks of blubber, leaving the dead animals with distinctive spiral injuries. On camera we have also witnessed attacks and, certainly on surveys, we have seen bulls attack young seals – not killing them, but still ferocious and aggressive. This, combined with recent evidence from Germany, suggests that such predatory behaviour may be more common than previously thought and could explain the unusual clusters of injured seals found in Scottish waters. The report has identified through thorough post mortem that the wounds are the same as those previously identified as propeller and, or shark injuries. The most recent studies carried out on the May show a single adult was responsible for at least eight of the deaths on the Isle of May. A further six dead animals were found near the same spot with similar injuries. The report also suggests the same animal could also have killed seals in Helgoland, a German archipelago in the North Sea. So, ‘killer bull ’has been fitted with a tagging device, which shows it is currently heading towards a grey seal breeding colony on the islands.

“In combination with recent reports of grey seals eating porpoises and harbour seals, these observations suggest that grey seals are acting as a top predator in the North Sea. The new evidence does not eliminate ship propellers, but the researchers say it is now less likely they are a key factor.”

It does shed a new and fascinating perspective on how we may view certain individuals of this species. As we have specific individual predatory gulls, it appears it is the same with the grey seal.

Galapagos Breaking news, “Ecuador has just announced a state of emergency in the Galapagos Islands, a week after a cargo ship with hazardous materials ran aground there. Booms have been used to contain a fuel spill in the pristine waters however it still poses a threat to the archipelago’s fragile ecosystem famous for their unique flora and fauna such as the giant tortoise, marine iguana and flightless cormorant. The emergency “will allow authorities to have immediate [financial] means to deal with the situation”. It is the third such incident in the Galapagos in the past year. The cargo ship was carrying more than 70,000 litres (15,400 gallons) of diesel fuel.

Wildlife sightings 29 Jan 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Claudia

We are keeping our eyes peeled on the Bass Rock. Last year the first gannet sighting was in mid February. So, only approximately two weeks to go! Who will spot the first gannet?

On Fidra we are greeted every morning by either fulmars or guillemots but, very often, the weather makes them disappear by midday. The peregrine makes a regular appearance and has been seen making a stoop (sharp dive) to catch something and later he disappeared just behind the rocks so unfortunately we couldn’t see what he caught. Only feathers were flying around…

Our Isle of May camera unfortunately became stuck. In the first half of the week it was pointing onto the shags and we could see that Charlie (Blue ZCA) and Juliette (Red XIJ) are still pestered by the other female Green UAP. We thought that, as we had seen her so often, we would give her a name, too. We decided upon Shakespeare and named Green UAP Portia. Unfortunately for us, later in the week, the camera moved. We now can see the guillemot colonies in the morning and I’m sure the researchers are happy to have this information again. However, it means that, at least for the moment, we have to wave goodbye to our shags until the weather has settled down and we can go to the Isle of May and see what is causing the problem.

Sightings from Maggie Sheddan

Bass Rock – Sitting at home with a cuppa watching a triangle of blue sky on the Bass web cam, just hoping to spot that unmistakable torpedo shaped body, distinctive ink tipped wings, gleaming in the morning sun, as they glide around the NE corner of the Rock that we can see on the camera….but not today. Of course, on the North side, by the foghorn, I suspect they may be coming in and sitting for short periods as, last Sunday out on my WeBS survey, there were several hundred flying around that NW corner. Definitely worth spending time on the viewing deck, watching. Like the first snowdrops, spotting the first gannets returning touches the soul. Spring and the new season, although a glimmer on the horizon, is not far away.

The WeBS survey was fun. I’d forgotten how many folk stop to chat, convinced you’re spotting exciting rarities.

In the days when we had our monthly walk from the Centre, we were certain to see redshank, turnstone, oystercatcher, dunlin, curlew and more. With growth in the town and busier beaches, there was a real downturn on the waders close to the Centre, but only a small part as to the reason for the decline along the entire coast of the common waders we used to see. That said, it was lovely to see the ringed plover flock that I’ve seen for several years now at the far end of the east beach, mixed with just a few dunlin. Redshank were few, less turnstones than usual, but I spotted three long-tail duck, razorbill, obviously eider, but interestingly, what I didn’t see were any black headed gulls or mallards that were always spotted at the far end of the beach.

It was beautiful light to scan the Craigleith cliffs . No sign of guillemots but plenty fulmars swooping along the cliffs

A quick update from Mark Holling who was surveying between Seacliff and Scoughall on Sunday: spotted at least 800 gannets flying in a long line east of the Bass, which included a couple of dark 1st year birds. I think these are possibly late breeders that spot groups of adults when they leave and just never head south.

From Lothian Birds: a few little Auk have been spotted at Barns Ness, Dunbar, Gullane Point and Cockenzie, another reason to enjoy the shelter of the scope deck and seawatch.


Wildlife sightings 22 Jan 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Claudia

The guillemots are making a regular appearance on the Isle of May in the morning. What a spectacular sight! There are dozens of these beautiful birds sitting on the stacks. We spotted some fulmars on the cliffs, too, but by far the most interesting thing happening are our shags. We have an established pair on the middle nest. Both birds are ringed and we have some information about them from the CEH. Charlie, the male bird (Blue ZCA), was ringed in 2009 and is a regular breeder on the Isle of May. Last year he paired up on the same nest with an unringed bird but this year he is back to his ‘old love’, a bird he paired up with two years ago. It is Red XIJ and we named her Juliette. Ringed in 2011 and a successful breeder, too. So we have high hopes for a good number of eggs this year! But the days are not without adventures. Another shag (Green UAP) decided that she likes the nest too, and whenever the pair leaves the nest, she flies in to re-arrange sticks as if it was her nest. Of course, that means that every time the pair comes back they have to un-do the handy work from Green UAP!

Sightings from Maggie Sheddan

The wind is battering against my seafront window in my little hideaway. If it were spring tides, I suspect I may have had the odd eider swimming on the patio, or perhaps even sitting on my sofa! Sea watching walks haven’t quite happened this week, but breakfast ritual is checking the May webcam. Somewhat surprisingly guillemots have been seen most mornings which given the weather is unusual. A short article this week from the BTO ‘Did you Know?’ mentioned that normally with the onset of stormy weather, guillemots head out to sea leaving the colonies empty. CEH team is thrilled at early morning images from the May and they, too, have found it is interesting that the auks have been in attendance during this stormy spell. I’ve seen several juvenile cormorants (still with distinctive pale bellies) close into shore. Unfortunately, the satellite dish was blown away and I lost communication, no updates last week !

Bass Rock – At this time of year we wait, we watch. When will the first gannets be seen on the Rock? Pan around the air space to the north. A planned visit this week was thwarted by the weather but I suspect we wouldn’t have seen any down by the fog horn. However, as we wait, researchers are already planning their studies for the season.

History – From Jan 2010 Bulletin. Studies undertaken by Keith Hamer (Leeds University) in 2009 had shown that foraging trips (during breeding season) had been much shorter than expected. Some of their observations had been undertaken via a dedicated webcam. Subsequent studies in later years where loggers were attached recorded their summer foraging revealing the various locations they preferred and was quite enlightening showing some foraged much closer to the Bass than realized, and particular birds favoured specific areas. Study birds have been monitored this last couple of years, for attendance, and breeding. It is hoped that this coming season loggers will again be deployed, regurgitation samples taken to see if diet is showing anything specific or unusual, as in garfish a few years back.

A study by Bob Furness, Glasgow University, undertaken in 2002/2003 where Geo locators attached to Bass gannets confirmed that they wintered further south and returning to the Rock later in the spring .

This was replicated by Keith’s team in 2008, and recovered in 2009 showing even more gannets were wintering off the coast of West Africa. Again this shows just how important ongoing research is to keep us updated on the changes we have witnessed this last few year. Papers are trickling out from last year. Who know what exciting information may be revealed!

Spend time on the Scope Deck, look out for gannets to the NW of the Bass, cormorants, possibly with white thigh patches, fulmars swooping along the cliff edges, and more.

Wildlife sightings 15 Jan 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Andy

On The Isle of May we were seeing large numbers of guillemots on the stacks in the mornings. They would then head back to sea by the afternoon. With the way the weather has been, though, the numbers have reduced and the length of stay has been shorter but it is still very early days.

We have also had regular sightings of a number of shags around the usual nest sites and have even seen one of our regulars called Charlie, (identified from his leg ring), sitting back on his nest and making a few repairs. The shags even have the tuft of feathers sticking out of their head, indicating the preparations for breeding season. Again, the weather has thinned out their numbers recently, but we expect them to come back when the weather calms down.

The seals have not been seen returning to our beach as it is receiving the full force of the wind.

One thing we are seeing more of are eider ducks in Dunbar harbour, where they seem to be coming in to shelter from the bad weather. Before long though, they head back out to sea.

Wildlife sightings 8 Jan 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Claudia

Over the festive days, our wildlife has changed again and we had to wave goodbye to our seals. They have all gone now and, hopefully, will do fine in their first year.

On the Isle of May we are now spotting shags returning to their nesting sites and one of them is our old friend Charlie, also known as Blue ZCA. He seems to have started another nesting season by bringing in sticks with another shag to the middle nest.

In the mornings, we spot guillemots on the stacks and on Fidra under the railings. They usually disappear mid morning. But what a lovely start to the day! The fulmars are back, too, and are occupying the cliff under the lighthouse. Most of the sightings are now on Fidra with the peregrine turning up most days and shags coming in the afternoon for roosting overnight.

In Dunbar we still have our reliable eider ducks and, of course, we still keep an eye out for Sammy.

The Bass Rock still lies still and empty and we are eagerly awaiting the first gannet.

Just before Hogmanay we had a bit of excitement in the Discovery Centre as an injured bird was brought in by the public. They phoned in to report an injured guillemot and we were wondering if it would fit into our little cat carrier. But, when it was brought in, we were amazed to see, not a guillemot but, a little small puffin (maybe one of this year’s fledglings?) in full winter regalia, which means of course in shades of grey with a lovely small beak. It was quite exhausted but fine otherwise and the SSPCA was taking care of it. Fingers crossed it will make it and is now back on the seas!

Sightings from Maggie Sheddan

Isle of May – The beach is now desolate, only gulls scavenging on the shriveled carcasses, strewn among the debris of the winter storms, a fading reminder of the joy, the trauma, and the captivating antics we’ve witnessed since September when the first pup was born. The last weaner left before 2014 drew to a close. Many times during this pupping season, high tides and strong winds have taken their toll on the rookery. We’re not sure if the last white coat seen on Christmas Eve survived the raging tides but the seal-breeding season is over for another year. Cows will be off feeding, replenishing their depleted blubber, bulls content, colonies deserted. The occasional weaner may haul out over the next few weeks on local beaches. Are they injured? Are they thin and wrinkly around the neck area? For these young they may be in need of help, but some, may just be having a long lazy nap, particularly if the seas are storming. They are young and not aware they are on a ’tourist beach.’ As with pups, to respond to any report, the location, and the condition of the seal is paramount in assessing whether rescue is required.

As the seal season was winding down, the stacks and cliffs brought glimpses of the season ahead with guillemots at times crammed tightly on ledges, not just on the May but on all the islands and east coast breeding locations. Post-Christmas, cameras were set to pre-sets allowing CEH researchers to observe at first light. 2015 dawned and, as we would expect, fulmars had returned to breeding sites. The occasional shag sporting a crest, regular sighting of the peregrine on Fidra, eiders rafting in the east bay, turnstone and redshank scuttling along the strandlines. The highlight though, and a wonderful start to 2015, was the Lesser Yellowlegs spotted foraging on the shoreline close to the Marine, probably more easily spotted by the band of twitchers sporting scopes and bins as they scanned for this slender, long-legged shorebird that readily shows off the brightly coloured legs that give it its name. It is an active feeder, often running through the shallow water to chase its prey (with thanks to Mark Holling and Lothian Bird News).

History – Plastic, netting, fishing line, nurdles: the list is endless. Warning bells were flashing over 40 years ago about the increasing ‘plastics’ floating in our oceans.
Dr Jan van Franeker, a marine biologist, working for IMARES (Institute for Marine Resources & Ecosystem Studies), is the organiser of the international ‘Save the North Sea’ (SNS). This project was aimed at reducing marine litter by increasing awareness. Since 1982, most fulmars’ corpses found in the Netherlands had plastics in their stomach. The specific aim of the Fulmar project is to use this species as an ecological monitoring instrument for assessing levels and trends in marine litter in the North Sea. January 2009, the Seabird Centre was involved in groundbreaking work that provided an ideal opportunity for teachers to discuss science, biology and environmental issues. Hundreds of pupils across Scotland watched leading scientist Dr Jan van Franeker perform a post mortem, beamed live into their classrooms, from the Centre. He took pupils through the dissection and findings before hosting a question and answer session afterwards. The procedure was shown on GLOW, Scotland’s national education intranet, digitally linking schools in Scotland. This was the second autopsy event held at the Centre, the first performed by Dan Turner. I helped Dan, again at the Dove Marine Labs, perform seven autopsies in one day. In every bird, plastic was found. Many die from suffocation or become weak and unable to feed because of it. As the years pass, research is showing micro plastics are being ingested by the tiniest of organisms to the largest of sea mammals and consequently plastic is in the food chain.