Monthly Archives: June 2019

The field season in Kintyre has begun!

So the field season is well underway in Kintyre! So far three weeks of surveys have been undertaken to photograph individual harbour seals utilising sites around the peninsula.

It’s off to a brilliant start, with lots of cloudy days which is actually the best weather for field work! Ideally, we would like a little bit of sun every now and then (it is summer after all!). However, cloudy days produce the best photographs as there is minimal glare and haze which can otherwise make photographs blurry. In addition, if a seal has recently hauled out, and the pelage is wet, on a sunny day the light reflecting off the wet coat can make it harder to get a clear photo of the pelage pattern for photo-ID.

A gorgeous harbour seal photographed on a calm day at Southend

So far we’ve had no pups yet, but we have multiple pregnant females at some of the haul out sites, and we’re expecting the arrival of pups very soon! We also have quite a few males around the haul out sites, with a few juveniles up to their usual antics. Juveniles can be seen ‘porpoising’, a form of play in which they jump out of the water like a harbour porpoise (I have yet to capture this on camera!). Juveniles are smaller than full adults, and can have a lighter coloured pelage. They also tend to be more playful in the water too.

A curious juvenile photographed at Southend

My favourite seal is ‘Goggles’, photographed below at Southend on 8th June. He is a beautiful male, and is named for his very distinctive pelage pattern. He posed very nicely on this day to get some wonderful, clear photographs of each side for photo-ID. He was seen again on 16th June, also at Southend, but this time you can see how the pelage can look slightly darker because it is wet. However, we can still identify that it is the same male based on the pattern of his spots.

Pictured above is Goggles, hauled out at Southend, and showing his left side with his distinctive ‘goggle’ pattern, and front side below.

This is Goggles on a different day sighting, this time he has a wet pelage, however is still identifiable from his unique spot pattern

It’s a tiring life being a seal; an adult male is photographed here at Yellow Rock.

Not seal-related, but we have had other stunning wildlife make some appearances too. So far this season in Kintyre, there have been three sightings of otters, including one of a mum and pup at Yellow Rock, and two sightings of a pair at Southend. In addition, there have been sightings of mergansers, shelducks, ospreys, lots of oystercatchers and the occasional sighting of the elusive caravan park cats!

I was very lucky to photograph these two beautiful otters feeding at Southend!

As well as the harbour seals, we also have Atlantic grey seals utilising the same haul out sites. The grey seals look quite different to the harbour seals up close. I always describe them as having more of a ‘labrador-like’ face, with a more prominent snout, compared to harbours with more of a ‘cat-like face’. Grey seals also have much larger spot patterns too, as you can see in the photographs.

A grey seal enjoying the sun! They have much larger spot patterns than harbour seals, and have a more pronounced snout.

We’re looking forward to the imminent arrival of pups soon, and hopefully we continue to have many more exciting wildlife sightings this season!

Abigail using a digiscope to take photographs of harbour seals at Muller South, one of our Kintyre haul out sites.

Written by Abi

 

Harbour seal birth

The last week has been pretty hectic in Orkney, with more females having their pups. In general I tend to see the pups once they are already born, and normally manage to miss the births. The main reason is that the haulout sites we monitor in Orkney are your typical haul out site in Scotland: a bit of the coast that gets exposed at low tide, covered in sea weed and rocks, rather than a sandy beach. The observation points we have chosen that get us close enough to the seals without disturbing them are on the ground level, so we do not always get a full view of a seal, as there is always a rock or bit of ground with seaweed in front.

A couple of weeks ago I was working on the afternoon and evening low tides, knowing that, at some point, I would have to switch to the early morning tide. I finally decided to do so on June 20th, setting my alarm to 5:40 am, which is always a bit painful when you’ve finished the previous day’s data collection around 8:30pm. However, I do prefer morning tides than the late day ones, as the light is much better. There is also a rewarding feeling when you have completed your data collection by 10am to be honest, and you still have a full day ahead of you.

The morning of June 20th was promising, with the perfect light (slight overcast rather than full sunshine) and a light breeze too, which keeps the midges away. I arrived at the site before 7am, and spotted a few seals on the first observation point. One of them was Or085, a female that we have known since the start of this project in 2016, and that we also tagged in 2017 with a telemetry tag. She looked very big and thought to myself it couldn’t be long until she pupped now.

Or085 (front)

Once I had taken photographs of these nearby seals I started taking pictures of those further away. As I was scanning the shore with the scope and camera, I catched a seal just giving birth, but of course, I was pretty far away… This pretty much summarizes what has happened over the last 5 years. I see a seal … and then I see a seal with a pup! In this case it was Or045. The pictures below are less than 30 minutes apart…

A pregnant Or045 resting at the haulout site…

… and less than 30 minutes later, with her brand new pup!

Later in the morning I moved to a second observation spot to photograph these more distant seals. As I was finishing off I saw that the first female, Or085, was hauling out straight ahead of me in a nice bit of seaweed that is accessible once the tide has come up quite a bit, and that, as far as I can tell from my observations, is a favorite to the seals on the right tides. I decided to stay around, as I could see Or085 behaving a bit different than usual: changing position quite often, as well as making some suspicious movements that looked a lot like contractions to me. So, after 5 summers of coming to Orkney to monitor the harbour seals during the pupping season, I finally managed to see a full birth, which was very exciting and incredibly interesting. The video below is a summary of that process. Be aware that it does show a seal giving birth. Once the pup was born, there was a lot of nose-to-nose interaction between the mum and the new pup, which is very important to set the bond for a mum-pup pair. The pup then suckled for a bit and, with the tide coming up, both mum and pup ended up in the water (although the pup needed some encouragement).

 

Or085 and her new pup

Suckling time for Or085’s new pup

Since June 20th, I have been going back to the monitored site, and have seen Or085 and pup together, which is great news. Because the pup already has its adult coat with pelage markings, I should be able to identify it at least within this season, and check for how long it stays associated to mum.

Or085 and pup seen on June 21st

Written by Monica

2019 pupping season

It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was saying my goodbyes to Orkney at the end of the pupping season last summer. Well, we are back now and actually already two weeks into our 4th field season of this project (well, 5th year of fieldwork, but 4th photo-identification data collection year!). There is always a sense of excitement the first day going back to the field sites after all these months. Since we left at the end of last July, these harbour seals have undergone an annual moult (around August), a mating season, and a whole autumn and winter of foraging in the North Sea waters, and for the females, also preparing to pup again this summer. It was thus nice to recognize some familiar faces, like Or008 and Or023, two females that are frequently seen in a small haulout site in Widewall Bay, in South Ronaldsay. I normally do not tend to photograph seals in the water, as it is more difficult to get good head profile photos, but these two were posing just perfectly for me!

Harbour seals tend to come back to the same haulout sites every summer for the pupping season. That alllows us to follow the same individuals over the years, recognizing them based on their unique pelage markings, and noting relevant information to answer our research questions. It is of course possible that we might see some seals only once in the entire summer, while others are seen on a daily basis. Not all seals follow the same pattern, but, in general, they tend to be at a haulout site at some point or another during the season. As long as we go out regularly to check on them, we should be able to photograph them and thus have a record of their presence! Sometimes, however, we might not see one or more seals at all. That could be because they are elsewhere, or we just do not manage to see them when they are around, or they have have died; the numbers of harbour seals in Orkney have been declining continuously at a rate of 10% each year since 2001. The last count in Orkney and the North coast was in August 2016, when 1,349 harbour seals were counted compared with 1,938 in 2013. Overall, the composite counts for the North Coast & Orkney Seal Management Unit (SMU) have declined from approximately 8800 in the mid-1990s to 1350 by 2016, representing an 85% decrease in what was the largest single SMU population in the UK. The counts for the Sanday Special Area of Conservation show a similar trend, with a step change between 2001 and 2006 and a continuing decline at 17.8% p.a. (95% CIs: 13.3, 22.0) since 2006. There is more detailed information on the counts and population trends of grey and harbour seal populations in the annual reports to the Special Committee On Seals (SCOS), which can be found in the SMRU website (see this link). By collecting this annual data on presence/absence of known seals and their associated pupping history we can learn about their survival and birth rates, and how these help explain the observed declines, increases or stable trends in different areas in Scotland.

August counts of harbour seals in Scotland, taken from the 2018 SCOS report. See http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/files/2019/05/SCOS-2018.pdf

So far the weather in Orkney has been… well, Orkney weather. I’ve had dense fog, beautiful sunshine, incredibly strong wind, thuder and lightning, heavy rain and a gazilion midges. Despite that I’ve managed to get out more or less every day to check on the seals. The numbers have been increasing at the monitored sites, with more heavily pregnant females. Then on June 12th I saw the first pup! It was in Widewall Bay, where Or075 decided to haulout with her new pup as I was getting out of the car. Good timing!

Or075 with her pup on June 12th 2019 in Widewall Bay, South Ronaldsay

Since then there are at least another two pups in that same haulout site, from females Or007 and Or135. At another monitored site in Burray, as of yesterday 17th of June I have identified 4 pups, belonging to females Or024, Or025, Or065, and Or146. I am expecting to see a few more in the next week or so, at least by the looks of some of the females such as Or142… ready to pup!

Or007 with her 2019 pup. Check how dark is this pup compared to mum! (she is particularly pale too…)

Or024 and her pup

Or142 resting under the rain… look at that belly!

Written by Monica

 

Andy

This is a post I never thought I would have to write. Earlier this year we received the devastating news that Andy Law, one of our team members, had unexpectedly passed away. This came to an absolute shock to all of us that knew him. Andy was a much liked and respected member of the SMRU team; his enthusiasm for all nature related subject was contagious and his knowledge on the local (and not so local) wildlife was absolutely admirable.

Andy helping with SMRU fieldwork in Kylerhea

Andy joined the Harbour Seal Decline project from the start, by leading the exploratory trips around Isle of Skye and part of the Argyll coast back in the summer of 2015, to choose potential study sites to get data on harbour seal population demographics. He then went onto taking responsability for collecting the photo-identification data of harbour seals occurring at the study site in Loch Dunvegan (Isle of Skye), and then patiently and methodically processing the thousands of photographs collected. But Andy was known to the SMRU team way before that, as he had been collaborating with various projects occurring in Kylerhea waters in the past, right on his door step.

A mum-pup harbour seal pair from Loch Dunvegan. Photograph by Andy Law

Andy’s ability to recognize the different seals frequently seen in Loch Dunvegan was something else. He literally knew by eye a very large proportion of the around 500 catalogued seals in that area… Not only that, but he also managed to nickname most of them based on what the pelage pattern looked like! Andy was a very talented wildlife and landscape photographer, which was reflected in the photographs taken for the project. Despite being busy taking pictures as the boat would move fairly quickly past the hauled out seals, Andy would still find the time to chat to those lucky ones happening to be in the same wee boat with him, answering all the seal or other wildlife questions they had.

Harbour seal pup from Loch Dunvegan. Photograph by Andy Law

Curious harbour seal in the water. Photograph by Andy Law

Andy is and will be truly missed by all of us that were lucky enough to cross paths with him. Our thoughts are with Andy’s wife Debbie and his kids, Hamish, Isabelle and Madeleine.

Post written by Monica.