Thursday, 16 December 2010

BBC Autumnwatch Live webcasting from Stronsay 26th Oct to 7th November

Bull Grey Seal on Stronsay - note his bloody neck

Finally got time to go through the pictures and to review what for me was a brilliant experience. Firstly though, thanks to all of you who took the trouble to e-mail or leave messages about the Grey Seal Autumnwatch live webcasting. OK, so I knew the basics before I left home, as in I knew the difference between Grey and Common Seal's but that was about it, and this was mainly because I just don't encounter Seals around my part of the Severn Estuary. I felt that this lack of knowledge was not going to be a burden, but could indeed be an asset. Meaning that this new adventure for me would become a shared learning experience with the audience. I left home in Somerset on the 26th of October, flying north to Orkney. After my first plane from Bristol to Glasgow, I took a second from Glasgow to Kirkwall. Upon arrival at Kirkwall airport I learnt that the little island plane that was to take me on the short hop over to Stronsay was broken, or sick, or something like that, so I had to rush down to the docks to catch the ferry. Having finally arrived on Stronsay Island I was reunited with a familiar working team. The Autumnwatch webcasting team that I would be working with for the next 12 days consisted of, Phil Windley the Technical Manager, the one and only Mr. Jo Charlesworth our excellent cameraman, and of course the boss Jeremy Torrance, Producer. My role would be to provide live commentary every so often and to cut into any interesting live action with live commentary.

Base camp monitoring station Stronsay Island
The next day for Phil, Jo and Jeremy was spent going through all the equipment, making sure everything was ready to go live on the 28th. This gave me just one day to get familiar with Grey Seals. My viewing room was the front seat of a Landrover, with Jeremy sat in the passenger seat and Phil and Jo controlling the whole show from their command centre of the back seats. On the dashboard in front of Jeremy and myself was a small monitor. This was to be my view of the Seals. The monitor displayed both camera views, with one camera on what we would now call beach 1 and the other on beach 2. I could tell which beach the audience was able to see (or live) by a red light in the corner of the screen. The views were superb, showing the full extent of both beaches, now completely covered in Grey Seals. So, for me the rest of the 27th of October was like having a crash course in Grey Seal behaviour.

Starlings were always around, even on the beaches feeding around the seals

House Sparrows in big numbers as well, always hanging round the farm buildings

"I've never known a night like it"
The Stornsay Islanders were just so amazingly friendly and went out of their way to make this Somerset yocal and the rest of the team feel at home. The Island itself being around 7 miles across with some amazing deep cut bays, was really good for wildlife. As with most interesting wildlife sites there is also a human story to tell; indeed Stronsay has in the past been inhabited by over 5000 people, with an additional 5000 coming to work on the Island. Kelp was a major industry along with Herring Fishing, most of which finished after the 2nd World War. Now though only around 300 people live on the Island, which has 1 hotel, 1 school and 1 shop. Anyone who visits the Island must go to the fish mart at the head of the pier. In this building you will find the Museum which, although small, is just one of the best if its kind I have ever seen. The information about Stronsay's past is well detailed and as you absorbed the information you begin to really respect the Island as it was and as it is now.

On my first day on the island a Merlin nearly took my head off in pursuit of a Meadow Pipit, and each day of the live broadcast we were greeted by hundreds of Curlew, Grey Lag Geese, Lapwings, Sanderlings and Knot. These birds were in fact feeding in the fields and were very easily observed each morning as we approached the site. Raven's and Hooded Crows were also present, along with Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier. On Wednesday 3rd of November it became too windy for us to transmit any live webcasting so most of my day was spent with the Islands' foremost ornithologist, John Holloway, who has written several books about the birds of Stronsay and Fair Isle. John is an amazing birder with many tales to tell about the many rarity's that visit Stronsay, and his fantastic illustrations show his keen eye for the most minute of detail in a bird. John's precise illustrations mean of course that he can identify and clarify some of the real rarity's that turn up on Stronsay from time to time. The position of Orkney, being as far north as Oslo or Stockholm in Norway and Sweden respectfully, means that all sorts of birds get blown off course and end up there. Have a look at John's lists on his website if you want to find out more!
Turnstone in huge numbers around the beaches feeding amongst the kelp

Black Gillies around Stronsay Pier early morning before sunrise

Turnstone and Redshank


Winter Chiffchaff
In a farm buildling sunlit on the wooden beam. Stronsay is mostly mild in winter

Ring Tail/Hen Harrier.

In John Holloway's garden this is what greeted me. what a bird!

Because of the berry shortage on Stronsay the Islanders were working together to help Waxwings by providing fruit

The Orkney Islands form one of the most important places for Grey Seals in the world, with up to 15% of the entire planet's population breeding in the archipelago. When I was on Stronsay I was told that up to 10,000 Grey seals come up onto the beaches during the Autumn period, and this is just one Island. The cow Grey Seals come ashore to give birth and rear their pups. The weaning period is very quick and takes around 18 to 21 days to complete. Grey Seal milk contains up to 60% fat, so the pups grow very quickly. Indeed, the time the BBC had chosen to do this live webcasting meant that some pups had already been born when we arrived, with some half way to weaning and others almost weaned off, but of course as we witnessed there were more births to come, and that meant more drama would begin to unfold in full view of the live camera.

Bull (on the left) and Cow greeting each other in the water
Very much a pair (Bull on left Cow on right)

So, with Cows appearing on the beach and pups at all stages of growth, the scene was set for the Bulls to arrive. These Bulls appear at this time because during the rearing of the pups the Cows will come into season for a short period of time. We began observing these massive Bulls at first just swimming past the beaches perhaps testing and trying to mate with any Cows in the water. But as the time progressed more and more bulls began hauling themselves up on the beaches to try their luck. The best time to see them in action was around high tide, because of their enormous weight and short flippers, and because the beaches are covered with large rocks, they have expend a huge amount of energy just getting around out of the water. So, using the high tide they stayed in the water and only came ashore for short periods of time each day. This seemed all well and good at the beginning, but just as there seemed to be a pattern forming ..... enter stage right .... even bigger Bulls. These new bulls stayed ashore and began to stake out territories that they would defend from other bulls. This gave us some great action to watch.

'Rusty' the bull Grey Seal .... O.K naughty me.... we all agreed at the beginning of the live webcasting we would not name any of the seals as it could all end in disaster when poor old Gertrude the Grey Seal was found dead. I broke the rules though with Rusty, who seemed to be the King because any other bull that approached his beach was repelled in fine style, although interestingly mostly in a non-contact way. Rusty simply began edging his way towards the intruder and with outstretched neck would vocalise loudly and show off his great size and obvious strength. This seemed enough for most intruding bulls, however there were crafty bulls as well. Rusty would spend a lot of time asleep on the haul out beach, normally surrounded by his harem of cows. During these 'siestas' we noticed that other bulls would come ashore a little way from Rusty, catch up with a cow, mate with her, then hurry off back to the water before Rusty woke up. We did witness a few fights between bulls, but these were very short lived and actually come to think of it all of the serious bull on bull confrontations took place in the water.

Rusty the big Bull - showing the scars of battle

Cow Grey Seal shows agression towards an approaching Bull, note the seals on the beach in the background

Another view of "Seals on the Beach" Cow in the foreground

It was amazing to see what good mothers Grey Seal Cows really are, considering they are only with their pups for around 3 weeks before they abandon them to fend for themselves. There are exceptions of course, and for one reason or another one newborn pup was abandoned on one of our beaches. By now we were broadcasting to the whole planet, and everyone was sadened to watch the poor pup pull itself around the beach trying to suckle from other cows. On one occasion it actually managed to get a feed until the cow realised it wasn't her pup and saw the new born off. Inevitably during its voyage around the beach it would come across a Bull, in fact it even tried to suckle from a bull whilst it was trying to mate with a Cow. The Bull (not Rusty) picked up the pup by its tail and shook it, but through sheer determination the pup managed to pull free. With the live pictures of all this activity beaming out across the globe, people began to leave messages on the BBC Autumnwatch messageboards asking us to intervene, or to call in help. There was never any chance of us intervening, as we were positioned in our monitoring station some distance away from the remotely operated camera's on the beaches. Everything had been set up so that we would not disturb the normal behaviour of the Seals, and it was this normal, uninterrupted behaviour that we wanted to show the world. Very importantly, if we had made the decision to go on the beach and rescue the pup we would have started what the Seal experts call a stampede, put simply every adult on the beach would head for the water, possibly flattening anything in their path. So, in conclusion had we have gone on to the beach we would have more than likely killed many more pups trying to rescue just one. Then one by one the Seal experts came on to the message boards to explain just what the problem was, and played a really heart warming role in getting people to understand why we could not intervene. With so many Seals being born on this island at this time there would always be losses, indeed I had read that over 50% of all Pups born will not make it to their first birthday, and that is nature folks.

A ballooned Pup fast asleep, completely oblivious to me stood about 3 metres away

Not so ballooned - therefore a younger pup. I thought he was dead at first, but he was just asleep
A Cow Grey Seal seeing off the larger Bull, her pup is just between them in the background
The next morning when we turned on the camera the online audience saw and our worst fears were realised, the abandoned newborn had gone.

Away from the dilemma, we got to watch many other pups contentedly suckling, with their mother's carefully ushering them with the front flippers on to their teats. One of the most amazing observations was older pups being taken quite deliberately out into the water and trained by the Cows in the art of swimming. On stormier days the cows would deliberately stay open sea side of the pups and nudging them back to safe water if they ventured too far out.
As many of you know I can't miss the opportunity to interview someone, and on this webcasting we were blessed to have Gordon Buchanan come in for two interviews in the monitoring station, a total time of 1 and a quarter hours, now you wouldn't get that on TV or Radio. Both chats with Gordon I thought went very well indeed, away from the interview I managed to see Gordon in action filming the Grey Seals, and this really set me up perfectly to talk with him about the Seals. He opened up his chat by implying he did not really know a lot about them, however as one of the best wildlife cameramen around he certainly knows more than most people, and compared to someone like myself Gordon was the real seal expert. The first interview proved very popular so next we invited John Holloway into the monitoring station, where I interviewed him for half an hour on varying subjects to do with Stronsay, including the Orca's that swim round the islands during the Summer months. Indeed he even took some superb video of a small pod swimming off the bay near his house. Orca's would be a real threat to the seals of Stronsay, but more so to the Common Seals which have their pups during the summer months when the Orca's are likely to be around.

One of the many things that gripped me about Stronsay was the light, with the Autumn sun so much lower in the sky than at the home it was almost as though every hour of daylight was what photographers call the golden hour. Golden hour is the magic bit of the day when the sun is low in the sky and casts a golden colour across the landscape, creating a deep contrast to the light on the ground. Throughout my time on Stronsay it also felt that the island should be renamed Rainbow Island, for virtually everyday somewhere there was a rainbow, and I swear that one time I really did observe a triple Rainbow!

Sunset over Orkney
The whole adventure was a steep learning curve in Grey Seal behaviour, with just so much information pouring into my head because of the our privileged position watching the Seals intimate world. For me this would be an experience never to be forgotten. Indeed when I returned home there was an email waiting for me, asking me to do a talk on Grey Seals. I must admit I had think about it for a second or two, but then my new found confidence drove me to except the invitation. But I do so hoping to give the Seals something back, hopefully my new enthusiasm for these animals will indeed rub off on others as well. Not to forget I take with me the kindness and warmth that was shown by all the people of Orkney that I met.

Well I could go on forever. I could tell you about the Grey Seal pup that chased me across the field, but I won't as its far too embarrassing.

This is the frothy little blighter that chased me up the field!

If you ever get the chance to go Orkney don't forget to visit Stronsay. I should say if you get the chance to go, then take it!
One word of warning. If you have to fly back on three planes like I did, in a severe easterly gale take some extra food as I reckon I lost nearly 2 stone in weight on the flight back. Flying is for birds not for people.
Have fun, help your wildlife and its habitat where you live and I will write again soon.

Special Thanks to BBC Webcasting online team for putting up with me. BBC Autumnwatch for trusting me to do live broadcasts. BBC Radio 4 Saving Species for the Grey Seal piece we did from Stronsay during the live webcasting. Very special thanks to all the Grey Seals for being very special, and Gordon Buchanan and John Holloway, and last but not least all the people of Stronsay and the rest of Orkney. I will be back to see you all during 2011.

The magnificent light of Stronsay