Friday, 1 November 2013

Seal meat again.

1st November
It's the end of the season, the final guest has left (a day late after the planes were cancelled yesterday) and most of the staff have gone after a very busy season. Many thanks are due to all of them for their efforts this year - it's been another good one, so thank you Will, Richard, Teresa, Ann, Graham, Becki, Tracey, Steffan, Billy, Noa, Kieran, Daniel, Jake, Alex, Livvy, Chris, Rachel, Tim, Maggie, Liz, Jenny, Janet, Sally, Julia, Rob and Tegan and of course, Susannah. The Directors of FIBOT have also provided their usual mix of enthusiasm and expertise, which is so important to the Obs. There are many more people who help the Obs in a crucial way during the year and so thanks are also due to the many islanders who have helped out during the year including Angela, Hollie, Deryk, Raluca, Alice, Iain and Kenny who have all done various jobs at the Obs and for the many others who have helped out in other ways including Robert & Fiona, Jimmy & Florrie, Nick & Elizabeth, Elena, Tommy & Liz, Neil & Pat and Dave. Massive apologies to anyone I may have missed and thanks to all the islanders for their friendship and support. Susannah, the kids and I are very lucky to live on Fair Isle, not just for the birds and the beauty of the island, but especially the people.
Thanks also, of course, to all of you who have helped FIBO to continue its work, by visiting, volunteering or joining the Friends of Fair Isle.
I'll try to complete a more thorough summary of the year later, but as a brief look back, 2013 will be remembered from an ornithological point of view as another poor year for most seabirds but an excellent one for rare migrants. A regular dose of rarities (although a lack of many large falls) has brought us over 70 descriptions (around  half of them for BBRC), a current year list of around 212, with over 3500 birds (of over 110 species) ringed and two additions to the Fair Isle list (Swinhoe's Petrel and Red-eyed Vireo taking the island list to 381: with a few potential splits maybe on the cards [my money is on the Subalpine Warblers, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and hopefully Eastern Grasshopper Warbler, with a few geese maybe to come as well] I wonder how long it will take to get to 400?).
Today's plans for a quiet day were somewhat scuppered by the appearance of Killer Whales actually in North Haven. The five animals then spent a few hours hunting seals from Buness to North Light, although they often went missing for spells. What a way to end the season! 
Dum, dum. Dum dum. Du du duu du, du du duu du...

When Killer Whales are too close to fit in frame, you know it's been a good day.

The North Haven regularly holds small numbers of Grey Seals and, once they are trapped in there by a pack of hunting Killer Whales, their only escape is to stay in very shallow water or haul out onto land. A surge in Killer Whale sightings late in the autumn seems unusual, but perhaps there is a group in the area that knows the seals are vulnerable as they pup and mate on beaches around the island.

Not all the seals were quick enough to get out of the way; the Whales' first foray into North Haven was soon accompanied by a cloud of gulls and a few chunks of floating flesh, evidence of a succesful kill.
Hopefully the photographs may enable us to learn more about the history of these individuals. Five animals were involved in today's sightings, including one adult male and at least one probable immature male.

Don't look behind you! The group then moved into Furse where they spent around half an hour circling this seal trying to dislodge it from its tiny haven.
The scale of these enormous beasts was readily apparent as they repeatedly circled just below the cliffs.
Tail-slapping by one individual in particular may have been a signal to other members of the group, or perhaps it was an attempt to startle the seal and get it to make a break from its precarious position.
Close runs by the rock may have been intended to try to wash the seal into the water. At times, all the whales would head off slightly and seemingly regroup, before charging back in. It was as if they were having a little meeting away from the seal's earshot to discuss their next move!
The tense stand off amazingly saw the seal hold its nerve and remain on the rock until after the Killer Whales were well clear (by the time they returned 15 minutes or so later it had gone - and presumably had quite a story to tell all its seal friends). They came back into the Havens at least half a dozen times during the afternoon, presumably hoping to surprise another seal, although they weren't seen to kill anything else.
The bull would occasionally hold back and seemingly watch the rest of the group as they hunted.
After a last, brief pass through the North Haven, the group were last seen heading out past North Light. It's been a tremendous year for Killer Whale sightings, with each one proving an exhilarating experience (not least for Becki, who first spotted them in the North Haven from the Obs lounge window). At one stage, we left Grace at the window to watch out for their return - her prompt shouts enabled us all to get more good views as they made their final return into the North Haven! Whale-spotter is not a bad addition to the CV for a four year old!
A quick update on birds as well from the last few days, which has felt very much like the end of the autumn. A few arrivals still occurred, with Red-breasted Flycatcher and 2 Linnet (27th), and a day of finch movement on 28th brought a new Bullfinch (which remained to 31st), 5 Greenfinch and 3 Crossbill. On 31st there was a Long-eared Owl (in another quiet autumn for the species) and 31 Woodcock. Lingering birds included the Olive-backed Pipit (to 31st), Richard’s Pipit (to 29th). Other lingering species included up to 209 Snow Buntings, 2 Lapland Buntings, small numbers of Common Redpolls, up to 2 Grey Wagtail, a Tree Sparrow (still present from the late spring), up to 2 Black Redstart and small numbers of Blackcap (although the last Chiffchaff so far was seen on 29th). There was a noticeable clearout of thrushes on 31st as the birding started to settle into the winter routine.

Typically, a few white-wingers started to appear with up to 2 Glaucous Gulls (an adult and juv) and a first-winter Iceland Gull (1st), whilst Little Auks on 28th and 31st were also typical for the time of year (although the latter heading over the Kirk was less typical). A Great Northern Diver, up to 23 Long-tailed Ducks and a Sooty Shearwater (from the Good Shepherd on 29th) were the highlights from the sea, whilst the marshy areas yielded an impressive 132 Snipe (28th) with up to 5 Jack Snipe amongst them. A few Whooper Swans and small groups of Pink-footed Geese passed through, whilst a Hen Harrier lingered to 1st at least.
Early November can turn up some cracking rarities, but if the strong SW winds and rain that have set in today continue tomorrow I may well take advantage of the end of the season and have a lie-in and an afternoon listening to the football (which is suddenly looking a bit better as a Sunderland fan, although I'll not upset our many visiting Geordies by saying why)!

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