Isle of May 2017 – Goodbye to the island… for now!

Time for the PHATS team to say goodbye to the Isle of May for 2017

Once again the time for the PHATS team to leave the Isle of May has come round, and this year the field season has absolutely flown by. As sad as it is to leave, we’ve had an incredibly successful time on the island and collected all the data that we were hoping to gather, which is great as this will be the last breeding season we have to work on before the PHATS project ends in August. I’m already back on the mainland as earlier in the week I brought off all the samples we collected to make sure they were safely transferred to Abertay University without getting defrosted, and the last three members of the team will be coming home tomorrow.

The Lady of the Lake in 2017 on Fluke street, her spotty pelage pattern clearly visable
The Lady of the lake in 2016 with her pup, right outside our front door!

The colony has emptied over the last week and there are hardly any weaned seals left anymore, let alone adults. We did get to see a familiar seal face during December however, as one particular female seal came up beside our house on the island to rear her pup last year, and this year she did exactly the same! Known affectionately as the ‘Lady of the Lake’ due to her habit of going for a swim in the reservoir at the end of Fluke street (where our house is), she is a particularly laid back seal who has successfully raised two pups in that location over the last two years. We don’t know why she decided to come up the road to raise her pup so far away from the other seals, but now she’s been here for two years it would be interesting to see if she continues to return to that spot in the future, or if other female seals followed her example. How breeding seals form new colonies and why some parts of the island are really dense with seals while other parts are empty are all a mystery currently so we can’t really guess what is motivating her to chose such an unusual location to rear her pup. When studying the seals on the island, we often have to look for flipper tags to recognise them, but as grey seals have stable spotty patterns on their fur you can also use that to identify the same individual every year, if you have a picture of them. This is how we know the ‘Lady’ is the same seal, and such photo ID methods are pretty common in the marine mammal world to repeatedly identify individuals in the wild.

Flipper tags, like this orange one on a yearling in a tidal pool on the Isle of May, can help you identify individual seals, but reading them can be tricky!

The PHATS team will be back out in the field in early January 2018, when we will return to the Isle of May to look for moulting grey seals that are a year or two old to study. We will resume blog updates then, so in the meantime we all wish you Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and hopefully see you in 2018!

Me working on the seal colony during november, the busy time for the breeding season.

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