Our neighbours at Sealife Adventures provide excellent whale, whirlpool and wildlife watching boat trips from their anchor point near Oban. They have shared some of their tips and information with us and our visitors, so you can get the professional’s view on what to see, when and how around our beautiful shores.
Telling seals apart
Here on the west coast of Scotland we have two types of seal, common (or harbour) seals and grey seals. Almost every day on our boat trips you will get sightings of both types which is great but how do you tell them apart?
Well here are a couple of pictures, it is always helpful if you can to look at a seal sideways on, it makes it much easier with identification because the real difference between the seals when you look at them like that is where the eyes are on the face. The first picture is of a grey seal, you can see that it has a long “Roman” nose, the eyes are set quite far back from the nostrils about half way along the skull and the whole face is quite long. The next picture is of a common seal, the eyes and nostrils are much closer together, eyes about a third of the way back and the face is much shorter and quite like a spaniel. Generally common seals are also quite a bit smaller than greys, however although they are called “common” they are fewer in overall number than the greys. We are really lucky here to have healthy populations of both types.
Have you heard the one about the seals using smartphones? Well, it’s true, Seals in Orkney are to be fitted with smartphone technology to enable scientists to gain information about seal behaviour (however, since they don’t have opposable thumbs they won’t get to do any texting). The transmitters will fall off when the seals moult. In the last 16 years harbour seal numbers have declined by up to 90% in some areas including Orkney. Data will be gathered on a seals’ location,dive behaviour and its oceanic environment. Hopefully this study will help scientists understand why there are these changes in harbour seal populations in certain areas and to see what conservation and management options might help.
In our area we are fortunate in that our population of these seals is not in decline although they are still under threat from over fishing or being shot by salmon farms. On our trips we hope to see these amazing creatures most days either sunning themselves on the rocks or surfacing and checking us out!
The journey of migratory birds to and from Scotland
Terns are among the most beautiful of our summer visitors. The ones we see on our trips are arctic terns and common terns, they are known as “ the swallows of the sea” and the common tern’s latin name “hirundo” means swallow. There are very subtle differences between these birds and you have to be quite close to notice, the easiest way with binoculars is to look at the beak, the common tern has a black tip to its orange beak but the arctic tern does not, also the arctic tern’s tail is very swallow like with elongated tail streamers.
The common terns migrate to Africa in the autumn and return to the UK in the spring to breed. The Arctic tern is the absolute Olympic champion of migrators having the longest migration of any bird. Incredibly the ones that nest furthest north (in the Arctic) migrate furthest south (the Antartic!) so have almost constant daylight all year round. The furthest round trip is around 50,000 miles, and they do this every year.
The birds that we see will probably not go as far south as the Antarctic perhaps wintering in South Africa leaving Scotland in July to September and arriving back in late April or May.
Terns nest in scrapes on shingle or sand and this makes them very vulnerable to predation. American Mink (released from Mink Farms) have had a devastating effect on colonies of seabirds. In 2001 the Hebridean Mink Project was launched and since then over 17,000 mink have been caught and now there are signs of recovery of species such as Terns. Tern’s survival also depends on good supplies of fish species such as sandeels and like the puffins requires strong fisheries management to be in place, especially in the North Sea where sand eel decline has been caused by overfishing and possibly climate change. These are really beautiful, inspiring birds and we look forward to welcoming them back in the spring.
Puffins which are among our favourite seabirds have an amazing lifestyle. They are only onshore in the breeding season from April to early August, the rest of the time they spend at sea including all winter which makes them particularly susceptible to winter storms. Puffins from the east coast will go as far as the Norwegian coast while those from the west coast and Ireland have been found as far west as the grand banks off Newfoundland. Others have also been found south of the UK in the Mediterranean (the sensible ones!). Its seems that puffins will go where the fish stocks are and since their preferred diet of sand eels is under threat they will travel huge distances to find sand eels or even Capelin which is another favourite but only found in the west Atlantic.
When puffins are breeding they live in holes in the ground like rabbit burrows (sometimes it is a rabbit burrow which doesn’t impress the rabbits at all!). Newly hatched chicks are called pufflings and are covered in grey down, the puffling will stay in the burrow for up to 44 days when it flies down to the sea and then has to fend for itself. Oldest known puffin lived for 33 years. Did you know that in the winter puffins lose most of the colour in their beak and it becomes grey and dull colours.
Puffins are under threat because of predation, big storms in the winter when they are at sea and especially declining fish stocks. Let’s hope that robust fisheries management measures will be introduced to help the survival of this beautiful “clown” bird which we all love.
The Osprey we see lots of over the summer. It then heads over to its winter home in West Africa and we marvel at how these birds find their way back from Scotland. There have been lots of studies done with birds being tracked through Europe, the route usually takes them through England, western France and then Spain or Portugal. They often cross to North Africa at Gibraltar and then hug the coast line to avoid flying over a desert . The same birds will follow the same route every year which makes sense as they will know the way and where they can rest and feed on the journey. So why do they leave Scotland in the winter? Well it’s not so that they can sit and enjoy the warm sunny African climate (although that must be something to do with it), it is to do with their main diet; fish! Ospreys eat almost nothing but fish but they can only catch fish which are really near the surface as they are not built for swimming. This is fine in Scotland in the summer when trout and other fish are near the surface but in the winter a lot of Scotland’s lochs will freeze over and in coastal waters the fish will be much deeper and therefore inaccessible to Ospreys.
Adults return to Scotland in March to breed but this year’s young will not come back to Scotland until they are ready to breed, usually after three years. But why do they risk this hazardous journey to breed when it would seem sensible to stay in Africa? Well, there are several reasons:
- We have lots of lovely rivers with good fish stocks (when they are not frozen!).
- There are some great nesting sites in large trees in quiet areas.
- In Scotland there are relatively few predators to attack ospreys or their nests. (probably only pine martins could reach and take an egg). In Africa there are monkeys and snakes to attack the nests and crocodiles to attack osprey as they fish.
- Crucially Scotland has long daylight hours in the summer which is critical as the adults need good light to find lots of food for a hungry chick.