In September I was lucky enough to go snorkelling with seals again, with St Martin’s Dive School on the Isles of Scilly. So often, when you see seals, they’re just a big, clumsy lump on a rock, or a nose and a pair of eyes poking out of the water. Neither of these views really does a seal justice. To get an idea of their grace and beauty you need to see them in their element, below the waves.
A couple of years ago I posted some pictures of snorkelling with seals, taken on a disposable waterproof camera. This time I was able to take my GoPro along, so the pictures are better quality, but sadly the seals weren’t as inquisitive this time, preferring to observe from a distance, rather than play with us. The water was rather murky as well, meaning seals floated slowly by, like pale ghosts, then disappeared into the green gloom. Still, it was a magical experience – it’s a privilege to see seals in their territory, and on their terms.
I had no shortage of opportunities to take photos for September’s Photography Challenge, the theme of which was seascapes. The photos below are a mix of ones taken with a proper camera, and ones taken by my phone.
Britain has internationally important breeding sites for some seabirds, particularly Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. Well, I say Britain, but actually it’s much more specific than that. These birds are quite particular in their choice of breeding sites, and our crowded mainland doesn’t really tick the right boxes. It’s the small islands with few humans (if any) that stand out at the seabird estate agents. Like the Isles of Scilly. But numbers of breeding seabirds have been declining even on these idyllic islands, falling by 25% between 1983 and 2006. Something needed to be done.
The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Programme was set up to reverse this trend. It’s a partnership between various groups, including the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. One of the factors in the decline was the presence of rats on the island. Rats prey on the eggs and young of breeding seabirds, and can have a huge affect on breeding success. Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel, saw a big increase in seabirds breeding resulting from their rat elimination programme. So one of the aims of the Isles of Scilly programme is to eliminate rats from the uninhabited islands, and St Agnes and Gugh.
After lots of consultation and preparation, intensive rat culling started in 2013, on St Agnes. Bait stations with poison were placed all over the island. Now they think all the rats have gone, they’re in a period of monitoring, using chocolate flavoured blocks of wax to check for rat teeth marks. There’s been lots of communication with island residents and visitors, and people are encouraged to report any possible rat sightings (to rat on a rat). The island has to be free from signs of rats for two years before it can officially be declared that rats have been eliminated. If all goes well, that landmark will be reached next year.
They’ve already seen benefits from the reduction in rats. In 2014 Manx Shearwaters have been breeding successfully on St Agnes, and this year storm petrel chicks were seen on St Agnes, both for the first time in living memory. Other ground nesting birds are also likely to benefit, and Scilly shrew numbers have also increased.
This project is a good example of conservation groups working together with a whole community to have a big impact. It wouldn’t be possible to eliminate rats without the support of the community. Lots of work has gone into communicating about the programme, and about the importance of seabirds, to both tourists and locals. That work is now paying off. Well done to all involved.
The lesser white-toothed shrew has one of the smallest distributions in Britain of any British mammal. It is found only on the Isles of Scilly (a idyllic group of small islands about 30 miles south west of the tip of Cornwall) and some of the Channel Islands. Hence they are often referred to as Scilly shrews, (although it’s not that unusual in Europe).
I’ve had rather mixed success at seeing shrews for my British Animal Challenge. I have seen common and pygmy shrews, but only when they’ve happened to be in dormouse boxes I’ve been checking, not when I’ve specifically been looking for them. Water shrews have proven even harder. After hours, over several days, of standing by a pond where I know they live, I still haven’t seen one (although I think I heard it). So, keen to maximise the of seeing one during my stay on Scilly, I did some research.
I emailed the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, to see if they had any advice. They replied, very helpfully. The best island to see them on is St Agnes, as work has been done to eradicate rats on the island, which has helped shrews as well as seabirds. That was encouraging, as I was planning to spend a week camping on St Agnes, not just a day trip. I also asked someone from the RSPB on Tresco, and local Isles of Scilly naturalist, Will Wagstaff for advice on how best to see a Scilly shrew.
Once I arrived on St Agnes, I was on full alert for shrews (luckily Scilly is only home to one type of shrew, which simplifies identification). Shrews have fast metabolism, and have to eat frequently, so they are active both day and night. Every stroll was slowed down by my staring at the stone walls that line every road on the island. My ears strained to hear the rustle of foraging, or a high-pitched squeak as two shrews meet. At night I used my powerful headtorch to try to spot light reflecting back from a shrew’s eyes, but all I saw were rabbits and pinpricks of light reflecting in the eyes of spiders and moths. I needed to change my strategy.
One of the easiest places to see shrews is on the boulder beaches, near the high-tide line of dried seaweed, where they come to forage. It’s not that they’re more likely to be there than elsewhere on the island (in fact, they seem to prefer being near houses), but you stand more chance of seeing them there as there’s less vegetation to hide them. So, after five days of no luck with seeing shrews, I decided it was time to get serious: I needed to spend some time on a beach.
On a sunny afternoon Dr C and I found an empty beach, and settled ourselves down on the large boulders at the edge. Armed with binoculars and camera, I scoured the seaweed line for shrews, while Dr C quietly read his book. There was plenty of birdlife, including a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher. After 45 minutes of hard looking through the binoculars, constantly alert, Dr C got my attention. He’d heard a sound, and then saw a shrew’s nose poking out from a gap between two rocks, just a foot away from where his foot was resting. I had missed it.
I was partly encouraged – we knew now we were definitely in the right place. And partly frustrated at missing one so near me. Mainly I was amused that while I’d been scouring the distance through binoculars, there was one so close. I think the shrew must have had a sense of humour.
Not long after the Dr C’s sighting, I spotted a grey back and tail scuttling between two rocks a couple of metres from me, and heard a squeak and then some twittering. A little later I spotted a womble-y nose poking up by Dr C’s foot again. So, I didn’t quite manage to see the whole of a Scilly shrew in one go, but if you put together the bits I did see at different times you’d be able to get a whole animal.
The things that struck me from the sighting we must either have been very good at keeping quiet, or the shrew wasn’t too bothered by our presence. It’s not often a wild mammal will come that close to you (even a house mouse will keep its distance).
So, another successful day for the British Animal Challenge. And one of the pleasantest so far – sitting on a beautiful, empty beach on a warm, sunny afternoon, seeing a species for the first time. What more could I want?!
While their American cousins, grey squirrels, are not universally popular in the UK, everyone loves our native red squirrels. Everyone may love them, but many of us have never seen them in the wild. The once widespread animals are now restricted to a few small pockets of England and Wales, with Scotland being their main stronghold in the UK. The only red squirrels I had seen were in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre.
Apart from wanting to see red squirrels because of their unarguable cuteness, I needed to see them in the wild if I am to ever complete my British Animal Challenge. So, on a recent trip to the Isles of Scilly, one of my goals was to see the charismatic creaures.
Red squirrels haven’t always lived on the Isles of Scilly. A small population was introduced to Tresco, the most wooded of the archipelago, in 2012. It was thought that the island, which is free from grey squirrels, would be a safe place for a new population, far from squirrel pox and the competition of the bigger grey squirrels.
The initial five squirrels, introduced in late 2012, didn’t fare too well, with only two making it through the winter. But in 2013 20 more red squirrels were helicoptered in (having been born in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre), and this batch seem to be thriving. By the end of 2014 there were estimated to be 40-50 red squirrels on the island.
So, a few days into our stay, Dr C and I got the boat to Tresco, and started on a squirrel hunt. A walk down through the woods in the middle of the island provided no sightings, so we decided it was time to ask for some advice. The RSPB had a small team conducting free bird watching walks around the island, so we joined one of these, and asked for hints as to where best to see them. The answer, unsurprisingly, was among the conifers. But there are also feeding stations in the Abbey Gardens, which are a pretty good bet. Just as the walk was finishing by the entrance to the gardens, I spotted a flash of red on the ground, rummaging in the leaf litter then darting off out of sight. I had seen my first red squirrel! Sadly my photos, taken in the shade of the trees and obscured by foliage, left something to be desired. Still, I had seen one, so Dr C and I decided it was time to celebrate with a spot of late lunch.
The Abbey Gardens cafe garden was pretty empty – just us and a couple of other people. And some red squirrel kittens and an adult. Like their relatives back at the British Wildlife Centre (and the house sparrows on Tresco), these squirrels were pretty bold (and pretty, for that matter). They came right up to our table. After having spent a while searching for them elsewhere on the island, it seemed almost too easy to have them walk right up to us. But neither of us were complaining. Lunch lay forgotten on my plate as I followed them round the picnic tables, trying to get a good shot. They’re speedy little things! Here’s what I managed.
Mum showed up after a little time, her tail much bushier, and her fur a beautiful deep red (the kits were still grey in places, and their tales were not yet the resplendent bottle brushes you expect from a squirrel). She posed for a while in a flower bed before disappearing off, leaving me to finish my lunch.
So, another new species seen for the British Animal Challenge. And a very pleasant day out.
Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!
Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.
Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.
Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue
Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
Every September my thoughts return to the Isles of Scilly, where Dr C and I spent our honeymoon (and several happy holidays since). Through my work I’ve travelled a lot of the world, but I still think the Scillies are the most beautiful place I’ve been. They’re also havens for seabirds and other marine wildlife. Here are a few of my favourite photos from the Scillies.
This blog is now a year old, and this is my 100th post. I think that’s a good excuse to have a look back through the last year of posts, and pick out some of the most popular, and some of my personal favourites.
Most popular posts (highest views per month):
Lundy Island photo special – it seems I’m not the only person who thinks Lundy is a special place. I’m glad people seem to enjoy my photography.
Whose pawprints are these? This post shares the results of my mammal tunnel, which allowed me to capture the pawprints of hedgehogs and mice. It also includes some footage of the nocturnal visitors to my garden.
How to build a mini pond: This post describes how we created a mini pond from a wine barrel. I’ve chosen this one as garden ponds (even tiny ones) are soooo good for wildlife, and ours is continuing to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to create one, if you don’t already have a pond.
In search of water voles: This describes my first adventure in the British Animal Challenge, and shows some of the signs to look out for with these very rare animals.
House sparrow chicks have fledged: It’s a pleasure getting to watch nesting birds in the intimacy of their nest boxes, and these were the first chicks to fledge from our camera nest box.
I’ve learnt a lot through both having to research my posts, and from the comments people leave. I’ve really enjoyed working on the blog – thanks to everyone who has read, liked and / or commented on my posts. I hope you will continue to keep me company on my adventures in the Wild South.
Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, and like everyone else I am reflecting on the last year. The first part of the year seemed quite hard work, as spring didn’t really seem to spring at all. None of our nest boxes got used, and winter seemed to last until about May, when summer began. The summer was splendid, with lots of sunshine (our solar panels made lots of electricity – it’s so nice getting cheques back from an electricity company!), and the regular company of hedgehogs.
In terms of my year with wildlife, two things really stand out. The first is getting more proficient at handling dormice. They can be surprisingly bouncy (when they’re awake), so getting to handle lots is important to build up the skill to handle them safely without letting them escape. Although this year hasn’t been great for the dormice at the sites I monitor most regularly, I have had the opportunity to help out a couple of times at a site that seems to be teeming with them, which has really helped boost my confidence. A particular delight was getting to handle some mega-cute baby dormice! In terms of my training checklist, I just need to do a nut hunt (for signs of dormice) before I can put in for my license. I have a nut allergy, so I’ll have to do the nut hunt carefully!
The other stand-out wildlife experience of my year was snorkelling with seals at the Isles of Scilly. I wrote a blog post about that, so won’t repeat too much here, other than to say it’s fantastic getting to interact with large, wild creatures who are just as interested in you as you are in them!
This summer we were lucky enough to go back to my favourite place on earth – the Isles of Scilly. They’re stunningly beautiful, and I had a wonderful time sailing about the channel between the islands. But the highlight of the trip was easily snorkelling with seals (thanks to St Martin’s Dive School for taking us out!).
This was the third time that Dr C and I have snorkelled with seals, and each time we’ve been very lucky, as they’ve been in a playful mood. The first time we did it we both swallowed quite a lot of seawater when a big bull seal swam straight up to us, kissed Dr C on the mask, and gave me a hug with his flippers. Since then we’ve been a bit more prepared (and less scared), but snorkelling with them does give you a different perspective from just watching them from a boat or land. They seem to enjoy sneaking up on snorkelers, and I have been made to jump more than once by a seal nudging me when I didn’t know it was there.
From a boat or dry land, you don’t really get a sense of their size. When you’re in the water with them they seem huge. An adult bull grey seal can weigh up to 250kg, and be up to 2.5m long. When they’re hauled up on rocks or beaches they are pretty ungainly, but see them in the water and even the biggest bull is graceful, agile and pretty speedy. Some of them seemed to enjoy showing off by corkscrewing around in the water, hanging upside down or doing headstands, before zooming off when they got bored.
Our encounters with the seals have been on their terms. They’re in their element, graceful and fast, while we are clumsy and slow in our wetsuits. I’m sure, if they wanted to, they could do a lot of damage, as they are fearsome predators, but luckily they’ve been content with nibbling my fins or gloves.
I’ve done a fair amount of wildlife watching in my time, from garden birds in Surrey to elephants in Africa. But snorkelling with seals is a very different experience. While usually, when watching wildlife, it’s very much you watching them (and trying to keep out of sight, sound and smell), snorkelling with seals is definitely a two-way experience. They seem as curious about us as we are about them. It’s an amazing feeling of connection: a wild animal taking time to investigate and play with me, for no other reason than curiosity.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 18 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk