Monthly Archives: June 2017

Pups make an appearance in Kintyre at last

Patience is definitely a necessary virtue here in Kintyre, as pupping appears to start a good few weeks after everywhere else that we are surveying. However, I have finally spotted our first pups of the season here in Kintyre. I photographed two different mum and pup pairs on the 26 June at a site known as Island Muller, just north of Campbeltown. Last year, the first pup was observed on 23 June – so it is no surprise that I would have to wait a bit longer than the rest of the teams to see some pups.

First mum pup pair spotted in Kintyre!

This was the same seal photographed on 23 June 2017 – looking pretty large and evidently ready to pop:

Same female before giving birth and looking rather big

And here is the second mum-pup pair seen in Kintyre:

Count of mum-pup pairs goes up to two! about time…

The Island Muller site is interesting because a number of seals often haul out on skerries in the northern part of the small bay as the tide is going out, and then transfer over to a more extensive network of skerries in the southern part of the bay once the tide is sufficiently low for these to be exposed. This is great because it gives me two opportunities to photograph some of the seals. This is particularly useful if any of those hauled out on the northern skerries are in a position where I cannot photograph the sides of their heads or if they are being super lazy and not moving at all.

There have been a good number of obviously pregnant seals at the Muller Island site so I am looking forward to seeing more pups appearing over the next week or so.

Another of the soon-to-be mums at Kintyre

Written by Craig.

Busy haulouts

We use a digiscope system to photograph seals from the distance to avoid disturbing them

Pupping season is well underway in Orkney. Over the last few days, the number of both seals and pups has increased at the main haulouts, with less and less pregnant looking females and more tiny pups disturbing the quiet and peace of the haulout sites. Breeding season is a critical time in the life cycle of harbour seals, and so it is for us. One of the main objectives of the current project is to collect data on birth rates for harbour seals in areas where numbers of harbour seals are declining (such as Orkney) and in areas where the numbers have been stable or increasing (such as the West coast). During this time, we focus our effort at haulout sites that we know are used for pupping, and we try to visit them on a daily basis, weather permitting. So far, the weather in Orkney has allowed for almost daily visits to the selected haulout sites.

A count sheet and a waterproof notebook are essentials to our photo-identification data collection

When collecting data, we photograph as many seals as possible, ideally taking photographs from both sides of the head. If we see any obvious signs of pregnancy we will take notes to later on link those to specific photographs taken. The same goes if we can see a pup with a seal, but maybe we cannot manage to photograph the pup properly because it is hiding behind mum.



The first pups were seen in Orkney last week, with the first one being born to one of the females we tagged earlier in April. Just a few days later, another of the seals we tagged in that trip gave birth to her pup. She was seen at the haulout for a few days with a massive belly and looking rather uncomfortable. She is female Or085, known from our catalogue from last year. This female had spent the last few weeks, since she was tagged on 30th of April 2016, traveling and foraging around Scapa Flow, before returning to Burray to pup.

Female Or085 looking very pregnant a couple of days before giving birth

Movements of female Or085 during the weeks previous to having her pup

Or085 with her two day old pup

Or085’s new pup having a snooze after feeding

Births are a fairly quick business in harbour seals. When close to giving birth, seals can be observed changing position frequently, rather than resting still for long periods. Contractions can be observed and normally the birth will not be far from that point in time. Studies in Atlantic harbour seals near Newfoundland showed that the mean time from the onset of obvious contractions to birth was 3.5 minutes, with a minimum of 38 seconds and a maximum of 21 minutes (Lawson and Renouf 1985). That study also showed how newborn pups were very active, immediately trying to crawl and touch nearby objects. New mums can be seen making many nose-to-nose contacts.

Yesterday I missed the birth of two pups right in front on my eyes. The fact that the haulout-site is located in a rocky and weedy shore does not help, as I do not have full view of all the hiding places. When I arrived at the haulout I distinguished a seal with remaining of blood in her genital area as well as the face and flippers. After a while I distinguished a tiny pup behind her, who must just have been born.

Female harbour seal with a newly born pup hiding behind

Another seal kept moving further away from the water’s edge, and finally settled in a spot among the seaweed covered rocks. I photographed this seal the day before, when I noted she was massively pregnant. A while after, I saw there was more movement and suddenly a little head showed up! By then the female was busy checking on the pup while moving in circles to force the placenta out, check the video below! It did not take long for a group of great black-backed gulls to show up and take an opportunity to take advantage of the placenta. The pup was actively moving around, and the female kept on checking on it, while scaring off the group of seagulls. By the end of my watch the pup was suckling, and as the tide came in mum and pup went into the water. I will keep my eyes peeled today to see if I can photograph the pair again.

Female with a rather large belly resting photographed on 19th June 2017

The same female with her tiny new pup on 20th June 2017!


Post written by Mònica

New 2017 pups!

Pupping season has officially started in our Orkney and Isle of Skye study sites! Both Andy and myself saw the first pups during the weekend. Craig is patiently waiting to see the first one while monitoring the pregnant females at selected haulout sites along the Kintyre coast.

Harbour seals at Dunvegan this last week.  (Photo credit: Andy Law – SMRU)

Pups have a lanugo coat (white fur) while inside mum which they will shed before birth, so that when they are born pups already have their dark spotted adult coat. The pup seen in Loch Dunvegan seems to have a bit of white fur remaining, which can happen. Hopefully it’s only that and not a sign of having been born a bit too early. The pup, which had been seen by the boatmen at Dunvegan Castle for a couple of days before Andy saw it, cannot be more than a few days old, as the umbilical cord is still visible.

New pup in Loch Dunvegan with umbilical cord still visible (Photo credit: Andy Law – SMRU)

In Orkney, the first female seen with a pup was actually one of the seals we tagged last April. She is female Or021 in our catalogue and she was already a recapture from 2016. Last year she was not seen with an obvious pregnancy or with a pup, but this year the story is obviously different.

Female Or021 having a rest on wednesday 7th June with a fairly big pregnant belly

Female Or021 with her new pup, seen on friday 9th June!

I photographed Or021 last Wednesday, without a pup yet but with a big belly instead, and then saw her with her new pup on Friday and missing the extra belly. Checking on the seals on an almost daily basis allows us to estimate birth dates with a smaller error than if we only went once a week for example. In this case,  we know the pup was born sometime around Thursday 8th June (plus minus one day). On Sunday I went out and saw her again at the same haulout with her pup, who was suckling while she was taking a rest.

Female Or021 and her pup seen on Sunday 11th June

Or021’s pup having a short rest after suckling.

The second pup showed up during the weekend, as I checked the main pupping site in Burray. I could not see the pup to start with, just an adult seal checking on what looked like a wet dark rock hiding among the seaweed. That was no rock but a newborn pup! I must have just missed the birth, as the placenta could still be seen next to mum. Mum and pup made a lot of nose to nose contact while I was there. This female, which is Or148 in our catalogue, is a rather young looking female, based on her size compared to other adults. Last summer we photographed her, but never pregnant or with a pup, so this could well be her first pup. Female harbour seals reach sexual maturity around age 4, meaning they can start having pups around age 5. We will keep monitoring this and other females at the haulouts during the pupping season. By the look of it, things are about the get noisy and hectic at the haulouts!

Female Or148 seen looking rather pregnant last Friday 9th June

Female Or148 with a brand newborn pup on Sunday 11th June. The placenta can be seen next to the seal

Lots of nose to nose check ups between mum Or148 and her new pup

Written by Mònica

Familiar faces in Orkney

The second year of photo-identification collection has officially started in all three study sites, with Andy going out on the boat seal trips at Dunvegan Castle, Craig having settled in beautiful Kintyre coast and myself checking on the seal haulouts in Orkney. The first taste of photoID in Orkney was during our trip earlier in April to capture and release harbour seals in order to collect individual data on health condition as well as to deploy telemetry tags.

Harbour seals are so well camouflaged against the rocky shore! There are ~15 seals in this picture, can you see them?

During the first day out taking pictures we came across a group of 17 seals hauled out in Burray. I managed to photograph around 14 of those but had to give up on a few that were so comfortably sleeping that would not move at all to give me a view of the pelage pattern in their head. Once back in the office I checked the pictures and realized that I already had 13 of those seals in the catalogue of seals from last summer!

For example we saw Or146, a male harbour seal already photographed in 2016, who actually was seen fighting with another male last summer, as seen in the second video in this blog entry from last year.

Or146, a male harbour seal, seen on 16th April 2017

Or146 seen on 21st May 2016

We also spotted a known female, Or020, who we captured and released last year and then subsequently photographed during the pupping season. Last summer she had a pup, and by the looks of it she is likely to be pregnant again.

Or020, a female seen on 8th July 2016 with her pup to her right

Or020 seen on 16th April 2017

We also saw a couple of younger seals, which sometimes prove a bit more difficult to identify if their spot pattern in the pelage is not so well defined. However, that was not the case for this little female, Or105, already photographed last summer.

Or105 seen on the 10th June 2016

Or105 seen again on 16th April 2017!

We have not seen pups yet, but the first one cannot be far away from being born as the haulouts fill with pregnant females. Last week I photographed Or045, a known female from last summer, who had a pup last year and is currently very pregnant, as you can see in the photograph below.

Or045 looking very pregnant on 9th of June 2016

Or045 with her pup in 2016 (picture taken on 20th June 2016)

Or045 looking very pregnant this year (picture taken on 5th June 2017)

Information such as this will be recorded on an annual basis for all known and new females that enter the catalogue, and will help build up a database of information on which females were seen each year and whether they were seen with a pup or not. We will use such data to estimate birth rates in the different study sites. We can then compare those birth rates in study sites of contrasting population trajectories (e.g. study sites where the number of harbour seals have been declining or where they have been stable or increasing), which on its own will be very interesting given the very different population trajectories at different study sites (e.g. Orkney versus Isle of Skye). These birth rates together with survival rates that we will also estimate from the photo-ID data, can inform a population model for harbour seals. This model, which simulates what happens in a population over time, can be tweaked around with different scenarios of birth and mortality rates to understand which scenarios might be representative of the different population trajectories.

Meanwhile we will be going out to take pictures on a daily basis when the weather allows, counting the days until the first pup shows up… That day can’t be far given the activity in some of the females bellies! Check this wriggly pup in the video below:

Checking on Orkney seals…

Following our trip to Isle of Skye I had a couple of weeks of office based work, which allowed me to catch up with some of last year’s photoID data but mainly to finish organizing the upcoming photo-identification season at the project study sites in Dunvegan (Isle of Skye), Kintyre (West coast) and Burray and South Ronaldsay in Orkney. Once protocols, equipment and logistics had been organized it was almost time to head up to Orkney for our second trip in this study area to capture and release harbour seals in order to collect individual data, as we did last year. Like the 2016 trip and the recent Isle of Skye trip, the objective was to capture a number of harbour seals and collect individual data regarding their body condition and health, as well as to deploy telemetry tags on a sample of the adults. This information, collected annually and in different areas of contrasting harbour seal population trajectories, will help us get a better picture of what may be behind the decline in harbour seal numbers in the north and east coast of Scotland and in the Northern Isles, compared to the stable and in some areas increasing numbers of harbour seals in the west coast and Outer Hebrides.

Happy to be back in beautiful Orkney!

In mid-April we headed up to Orkney, aiming to finish the work within a couple of weeks. Despite having a rather summer-like weather at the start, things turned around very quickly and we were suddenly in proper autumn and winter weather for a good week and a half. We had snow, hail, and wind. And more wind, lots of it, which made working outdoors and in the water rather challenging. The team found extra energy where we thought we did not have it and we were out at every opportunity we had, working double tides if needed.

Phoenix the house cat was rather interested in our work

From summer to winter in 24 hours!








Getting snowed down… in April!

We were not the only ones disliking the weather though. Not surprisingly, the seals did not enjoy the heavy winds and chose not to use most of the haulouts where they normally would regularly come ashore to rest and decided instead to stay in the water, use haulouts out of our reach or only use those more sheltered. In addition to our limited ability to work given the bad weather conditions, most of the seals we captured in the first couple of weeks were mostly males, similar to what happened during our trip to Isle of Skye. This could have been caused by a segregation in the use of haulouts between the two sexes or maybe just by being unlucky and getting more males caught then females. Despite the challenging conditions our female scoreboard slowly started to fill up. A couple of calm and sunny days allowed us to travel further away to check on other haulouts around Scapa Flow, and we successfully caught another few harbour seals.

Good weather = exploring Scapa Flow coast line


Finally some calm conditions!

Overall, we captured and released around 20 harbour seals of different sexes and age classes and deployed telemetry tags on eight of the adult females. The tags, which are small and lightweight, are glued to the back of the head of the seals and will provide with detailed information on their location, movements and diving behaviour until they fall out sometime close to the start of the annual moult in late July and August.

SMRU GSM-GPS telemetry tags being tested before being deployed on seals

Despite tagging a very small proportion of the total population, the data we obtain from the telemetry tags are useful and interesting in many ways. For example, the location of the seals will inform and guide the photo-identification effort during the pupping season. Also, by looking at where and how often tagged seals use certain haulouts where the photo-identification data are collected, we can understand how representative our selected study sites (and the results coming out of those) are of the total population of harbour seals in Orkney. The telemetry data can also inform us about potential foraging areas, where we can get fish samples from to look at the prey availability and quality.

One of the adult harbour seal females tagged in 2017 in Orkney

The telemetry tags have been reporting back frequently and, similar to last year’s deployments, showing a variety of movements among the seals. The figure below shows the tracks of all 8 adult female harbour seals. For now most of the females have stayed within Scapa Flow or just south of it off Hoy and South Ronaldsay, but one female has taken a trip north to Shapinsay and from there she has been doing longer trips off the NW coast of Orkney mainland. For me I will keep a close eye on the whereabouts of these females, especially as we are approaching the peak in the pupping season in about three weeks’ time. Hopefully I will get to see some of them with their pups while I take pictures, and we can compare my observations with the results from the pregnancy tests conducted during the captures as part of the data collection on individual health status.

Movements from the tagged adult harbour seal females between the end of April and the end of May 2017

I almost forgot! We had an unexpected visit while we were up in Orkney, with a group of three fin whales showing up in Scapa Flow. The good weather conditions and the unusual sight filled up the roads between Burray and Kirkwall with curious observers. What a treat!

One of the three fin whales sighted in Scapa Flow in April

Massive blow from one of the fin whales, easy to see from far away

Blog post written by Mònica