Wednesday 31 October 2018

Burwick to Barth and back

Since moving to Orkney about five years ago, we have sampled quite a few of the wildlife moments in the local nature's calendar. However, perhaps the most glaring omission from this unofficial list has been visiting the south west coast of South Ronaldsay to experience the Autumn pupping of Grey Seals.

Yes, as soon as the weather starts its stretching exercises for a Winter of storms, the heavily pregnant Grey Seal mums-to-be begin to haul out on the nursery beaches in not-so-sheltered rocky coves.

This year we decided to make the effort and see what all the fuss was about. The generally-accepted modus operandi is to walk quietly along the clifftop path, so as not to disturb the mums and pups. Binoculars and a camera lens with plenty of magnification are quite useful at this point.

We parked the car at the empty foot ferry terminal in Burwick on the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, the ferry service from John o' Groats having ceased until next Summer. Climbing up onto the clifftop path and continuing northwards, we soon began to hear the 'siren' song of nearby seals. Sure enough, in the first cove we encountered was a female Grey Seal and her fluffy white offspring.

As we wound our way along the clifftop, below us, rocky beach after rocky beach was full of nursing mothers. Each cove also seemed to have a couple of hefty bull seals loitering by the water's edge, trying to out-muscle and out-psyche each other in a bid to maximise any mating opportunity that might come along as the female seals flollopped between sea and shore.

We hadn't really known what to expect from the experience, but even our fleeting visit allowed time to witness all manner of behaviours from the assembled cast. New-born pups would wail, a fractious mum would engage in some 'handbags' if another mum invaded her personal space, the bulls would posture and snarl, but generally it was a cutefest of suckling pups, resplendent in their white fur.

Mums and pups...

Female 'handbags'...

Testosterone-charged bulls...

The only fatality we saw on the day...

The females come into season after giving birth, hence the loitering males. This pair were busy making out on the beach.

Once we reached Barth Head, we decided to turn around and retrace our steps, but not before noticing that, further north, the coves and, consequently, the pupping carried on all along the coast.

In other wildlife news, we had a flyby Merlin and saw a migrating Goldcrest, hopping about in the undergrowth beneath a rusting lump of farm machinery. One cove was full of Jackdaws, there were several Ravens 'cronking' loudly from fence posts and, bizarrely I thought, several Herons.

We later learnt that not everyone is sensible when it comes to seal-watching, with a small group of folk being seen down on the beach. Predictably, all the female seals had left their pups behind and taken to the water. It is to be hoped that they returned once the danger had past, but the concern is that a pup might be abandoned or left alone at a critical time. With decent views available from the clifftop, it is really regrettable that anyone would think it appropriate to disturb vulnerable wildlife in this way. More encouragingly, over 200 pups were counted, and hopefully in a scant few weeks, they will moult into their waterproof coats and take to the water.

Here's a link to some info about Grey Seals.

And here's a link to the Sanday Seal Cam on a neighbouring island.

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