Time to Go


White coat moulted and looking like an adult (sort of)


Only 3 weeks old and already independent


And all colours – including jet black!

Thursday 8th December comments: Its nearly time to go. The job is nearly complete as the Grey Seal season on the Isle of May is almost done for another year (how quick has that gone?). The number of new born pups has decreased dramatically in recent days and adults are looking towards the north sea getting ready to leave.

As for the young pups, most are now independent (as independent as they can be at just three weeks of age) but these ‘weaners’ are now on there own and looking to survive. The fat reserves they’ve put on in recent weeks will help them survive their next few weeks as they’ll head to sea and learn how to fish and fend for themselves (its a hard upbringing!).

And thereafter the Isle of May will fall silent and the dormant winter season will be upon us. But not for long…because spring is just around the corner and that means one thing; seabirds! So get ready because it won’t be long…

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Lunch Time


Our Norwegian friend (Kelly Robinson) 

GBB Gull chick 3

The Isle of May’s ringing scheme

Tuesday 6th December comments: Always learning, always something new. Even as we approach the end of the year we are still learning new and interesting facts about the birdlife which frequents the Isle of May.

Seal researcher Kelly Robinson photographed an immature Great Black-backed Gull feeding on some seal placenta and noted a colour ring on its leg (black with digits JC 719). As mentioned in previous blog posts we run a colour-ringing scheme of these Gulls on the island but we use yellow as the main colour and this individual was sporting a black ring (you can just see it in the photo).

After some detection work and help from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) it was discovered the bird was ringed as a chick this summer in south-west Norway! It just goes to show the value of such schemes and the discoveries you can make even in deepest darkest winter. As for the Gull I’m sure it’ll be happy tucking into its Christmas dinner and thanks for Kelly for supplying the information.

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Counting Forth Islands


Seal pups still being born in December


Seal pup on Inchcolm


Seal colonies on beach of Inchkeith


And a lot of history with it as well

Sunday 4th December comments: Although it feels like the end of the season and (almost) end of the year, the Grey Seal colonies down the east coast are still going strong. Yesterday we helped support the Fife Seal group count seal pups across several other islands in the Firth of Forth, as populations continue to increase.

In recent years the east coast has seen a ‘Grey Seal pup boom’ with Donna (Lincolnshire) and Blakeney Point (Norfolk) seeing particular impressive increases (now some of the largest colonies in the UK). The Isle of May supports almost 2,500 pups but unlike these other colonies, use aerial surveys from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) to quantify the islands population (we wait for final results of recent surveys).

As the population has increased, other non-disturbed areas have been utilised and the Fife Seal Group have been monitoring other small islands in the Forth. As a result the population is doing well and some good counts were achieved yesterday with full results expected by the end of the year. It’s certainly a good time for grey seals on the east coast and it’s good to be part of the group of islands which help support such important populations.

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December Seals


Although its December were still getting new borns


Whilst weaned pups prepare to leave


Bull seals still very evident


Time of year that mating takes place

Thursday 1st December comments: We’ve now reached the twelfth and final month of the year. The season has brought plenty of change and we’ve about to experience another transition on the island. In recent months Grey Seals have taken over the island but not for much longer as weaned pups and parents will start heading for the open sea.


Up and down the east coast, Grey Seal colonies have peaked although pups will still be born over the next few weeks (with late pups born into early January). As new born arrive, good numbers of weaned pups start forming large groups as they look to life beyond the island as the North Sea beacons.

As for the parents, the hard work is almost over. Mating takes place across the colonies once the pups are weaned and then the females will head out into the open sea to feed and put on valuable pounds which they lost during the lactation period. Bull seals will linger until all females have gone and then slowly and surely they’ll depart. By the end of this month, the Isle of May will become dormant as winter looms…

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Have you seen?



Stunning adult Shag in summer plumage (complete with crest)



Sarah with a colour ringed Shag chick

Tuesday 29th November comments: We need your help! Shag expert Sarah Burthe explains how you can help in a long-term study looking at the dispersal of Shags on the east coast, as she explains…

The colour-ringed scheme: The scheme is a joint venture between the University of Aberdeen and Central for Ecology and Hydrology who have been looking at the dispersal of the breeding Shags from the Isle of May and other east coast breeding sites. During the summer, breeding adults and chicks are fitted with a unique colour ring with three digits – which makes it easy to read at distance with binoculars or telescopes.

Background: The scheme has been running since 2008 and in that time over 40,000 re-sightings of almost 8,000 individual birds. This allows the team to look at where birds disperse to, where birds spend their winters and it also can help us understand the effects of climate change.

What does it show? Interestingly birds hatched on the Isle of May tend to remain and breed in the Forth, mainly on the Isle of May but also sometimes on the other Forth islands. However, birds have also turned up as far afield as Orkney and even the Netherlands. A proportion of shags that breed on the Isle of May also stay around the Isle of May in the winter but some also migrate away. Most of these migrant birds tend to go north to overwinter up near Aberdeen and Portknockie, with some going to Caithness whilst a few will winter south at the Farne Islands.

So why do it? The work is important as we can use the data to understand how climate change is affecting the birds. Climate change doesn’t just lead to warming but also to more frequent and severe storms. These can have really bad impacts on the birds as in 2012-13 and 2013-14 we had two really bad winters with high winds and many shags were washed up dead on beaches along the east and coast. The winter sightings data and ring recovery data really help us to understand how storms affect the birds; which birds survive and whether this depends on where they overwinter.

How can you help? We welcome shag resightings from any time of the year, but especially in winter time and also especially from areas like the Farne Islands and Northumberland where we don’t tend to get so many resightings. If anyone is out with a pair of binoculars or telescope, it’s easy – just check any birds sitting out of the sea, read the ring number and send us the details!

Sightings: To report any sightings please e-mail:  shags@ceh.ac.uk

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Morning Neighbours!


New neighbours in Fluke street (Kimberley Bennett)


Keeping the garden closed for a very good reason! (Kimberley Bennett)


To the new home in the Loch! (Kimberley Bennett)

Sunday 27th November comments: One thing you come to learn whilst living amongst wildlife is that the island  belongs to them. If the Arctic Terns want to nest on the roof you let them, if the Eiders want to nest on the road you let them and if the Seals want to pup outside your door, you let them!


Its never dull living on an island amongst such spectacular wildlife and in recent days we’ve had a new addition to the Fluke Street residency; a Grey Seal and her pup. The animal was on the main road just outside the house but gradually moved up and eventually settled at the nearby Loch. Thankfully we kept our front gates and doors shut so we didn’t have any uninvited guests!

The Isle of May is jammed packed full of wildlife but even we didn’t expect this. Its never a dull place and one thing is for sure, it’ll be a safe place for the mother to raise her pup over the forthcoming weeks as no storms will be reaching her. Someone once said, never work with wildlife…

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How do Seal pups stay warm (part 2)


Young pup in the snow but how do they keep warm?


This pup has just been born and is wet and skinny. It needs to dry off quickly so that its soft white lanugo can keep it warm. In the meantime it shivers and uses its ‘brown fat’ to make heat. Once fed on high fat milk for a few days its blubber will help to keep it warm. 


Inside the nose of this male grey seal skull you can see the delicate turbinate bones that help to retain the animals body heat as it breaths.

Friday 25th November comments:  Yesterday seal expert Kimberley Bennett started answering the question ‘how do seal pups stay warm in winter?’ Today we look at further reasons on how seal pups keep warm as not all Seal pups are born fat, some are born wet and skinny so how do they stay warm? Kimberley explains…

Make more heat! When the newborn gets cold, it can shiver, just like we do, and this uncoordinated muscle contraction makes more heat. But there’s another trick that all mammals have up their sleeves: they turn up the heat some more. In newborns there are specialised areas of fat that look different from normal white fat, called brown fat. Brown fat has lots of mitochondria, the energy generating centres in the cells, which contain a protein called thermogenin, or UCP1. When UCP1 is switched on, brown fat cells make heat without the need for shivering.

Be clever with blood flow! It’s no good generating heat if you can’t keep it inside because that just wastes energy, so the faster the pups can dry off (not easy on a cold rainy night) and put on fat the better. But there are a couple more anatomical adaptations that seals have to help them retain body heat. The flippers and the nose are not very well insulated. To avoid heat loss from these parts of the body, seals have a special arrangement of their blood vessels. Warm blood flows from the core of the body to the flippers in arterioles. The blood coming back from the flippers, which has been cooled a little, flows in the opposite direction in veins that run right alongside the warm arterioles. That means the cool blood gets warmed up as it returns to the body and avoids a drop in core temperature. It also means the warm blood going out to the flippers gets cooled down and less heat it lost once it reaches the flippers. Very clever! This is called a counter current exchanger. A counter current exchanger is also found in the nose. If you look in the nose of the skull photo you will see a complicated set of very delicate bones. These are called turbinates and they help the seal to retain body heat. As blood enters the delicate skin that covers the turbinates it slows down and warms the air in the nose before it can chill the lungs deep inside. Blood returning to the body core from the nose get rewarmed by that clever counter current system, so breathing cold air doesn’t cool the seal down.

The range of outside temperatures over which an animal can maintain its internal body temperature without having to sweat or shiver is called its thermoneutral zone.  The thermoneutral zone of a weaned seal pup goes from 23 °C all the way down to -7°C. In fact, it’s been estimated that they can survive temperatures down to as low as -85°C! So all these adaptations mean that seals can still have a comfy night’s sleep in the teeth of a gale, the pouring rain, in a frosty hollow on the Isle of May or on the ice floes of the Arctic.

So there you have it, four reasons on how seal pups keep themselves warm! Its all in the science.

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