Tag Archives: Grey Seal

Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore.  A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal.  We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake.  Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared. 

A grey seal swimming, (not the one referred to in the text whch took us completely by surprise)

This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising.   Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.

Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal.  The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight.  The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England.  Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight.  Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species.  Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal. 

Grey seal

Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help.  Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout.  Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead.   Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry.  Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water.  They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth.  More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage.  They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen.    On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed.  This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest.  There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about.  Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour.  The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast.  Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby.  Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast. 

The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings.  Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast.  By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France.   Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).

There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans.  They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed.   Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close.  Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves.   There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals.  Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems.  This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:

  • Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
  • Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
  • Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
  • Never feed seals 
  • Take all litter home 
  • Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water 

Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts.  We must, however, treat them with respect.  They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do.  We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.

I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

To report seal sightings in Dorset, use this link: http://seals.dorsetwildlifetrust.net/  , seal sightings elsewhere in the south west can be reported by emailing:   sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

This article also appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

A Saturday afternoon with the grey seals of south Devon

Back in September last year I spent a pleasant afternoon watching grey seals at Peartree Point in south Devon. It was fascinating to observe these creatures in their natural environment, lounging on the rocks and swimming in the water nearby. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I would spend part of the time watching humans and their reactions to the seals.

I wrote an article about my afternoon with the seals and this has just been published on the Land Lines blog. Click here to read.

Both of the pictures of seals shown here were taken at Brixham Harbour using a zoom lens.

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

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The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn

 

 

 

A sunshine walk, with bees and seals

Start Point is a narrow, rocky peninsula intruding nearly a mile in to the Channel from the South Devon coast. In the past, ships frequently foundered on the rocks and since 1836 a lighthouse has protected the spot. The sinister reputation of the Start Point peninsula is enhanced by its resemblance to the scaly back of a crocodile or sea monster; perhaps in recognition of this it was long ago christened Start after the Anglo-Saxon for tail.

lighthouse at Start Point
The view along the Start Point peninsula towards the lighthouse, looking back from the coast path.

 

Earlier this week, we walked a circular route beginning from the Start Point car park and this post describes some of the highlights. It was the first sunny day for some time and the calm sea across Start Bay was a deep sky blue on a largely wind-free day. What a great pleasure it was to walk in the sunshine, by the sea and in good company!

Our first surprise came as we walked down the road towards the lighthouse. A large bumblebee appeared, as if from nowhere, and after circling a few times to inspect us, landed on Hazel’s hair, buzzing loudly. Hazel kept her cool but, before I could get to the camera, this fine red-tailed queen had flown off. We encountered another red-tailed and several buff-tailed bumblebee queens as we walked and I suppose the warm weather had tempted them out.

The coast path soon deserts the lighthouse road, heading westwards over the spine of the peninsula before dropping down to follow the meandering coastline. There are fine views of the lighthouse and the rocky promontory.

After about half a mile we came to Frenchman’s Rock and its cluster of off-shore rocks; this is one of the places where South Devon’s grey seals congregate. The tide was falling and two impressively large seals alternately hauled out on the rocks and swam about vigorously.

Seal at Peartree Point
One of the seals hauled out on the rocks

 

Between Great Mattiscombe Sands and Lannacombe there is a mile of easy walking along the cliff top. Stonechats skittered about and patches of lesser celandine glowed in the sunshine. I spotted my first solitary bee of the year enjoying the nectar from one of these starry yellow flowers; based on its black and white striped abdomen and hairy back legs this bee was Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee.

poss Andrena flavipes
Andrena flavipes on a celandine flower

 

We stopped to eat our sandwiches at Lannacombe where there was a very full stream cascading across the rocks and beach. As it hurried towards the sea, the water created mobile patterns on the sand reflecting the low February sunshine.

Water at Lannacombe
The water at Lannacombe

 

After Lannacombe, the path turns away from the sea up a densely-wooded, steep sided valley where we discovered what might be supporting the bumblebees. Among the bare-latticed trees there were large stands of pussy willow (Salix caprea) covered in oval yellow flowers; from a distance I could see at least one bumblebee enjoying this food source. As I concentrated on the willow trees, the call of a male tawny owl echoed across the valley.

Our route continued up and down on minor roads eventually returning to the coast at Hallsands, a village largely destroyed by storms in 1917 and damaged again earlier this year. There is a prominent block of newly converted apartments; these are mostly second homes and were deserted although I noticed two buff-tailed bumblebee queens inspecting them. Back on the coast path, a mile of gently ascending but very muddy walking returned us to the car park, rewarding us again with ever-changing views across Start Bay towards Slapton and Dartmouth.

lighthouse at Start Point 2
The view from the coast path towards the lighthouse on the return journey

That should have been the end of the excitement but, as we drove away from the car park, we encountered a large number of small black and white birds on the road and nearby fences. This was a flock of thirty or more pied wagtails, flittering about and, of course, wagging.

The featured image is of Start Bay, viewed from the car park, looking towards Slapton and Dartmouth. We walked on February 23rd.

This is walk 18 in “South Devon and Dartmoor Walks” published by Jarrold.

A seal steals the show

The smooth sheet of water ahead of me alternates between sparkling and dull as the low sunshine and grey clouds compete on this mild, early December day. Across the water, bordering the beds of tea-coloured reeds at the river’s edge, a thin strip of brown mud holds on tenaciously against the high tide and a few curlews and one little egret take advantage of the drier land. I am standing on the raised viewing platform looking across the confluence of the Rivers Clyst and Exe just south of Topsham in east Devon; this is the western end of Bowling Green Marsh, a local nature reserve.

As I scan hopefully with my binoculars I hear someone nearby say “Did you see the seal?” I hadn’t, but when I lower the binoculars I can see great swirls of mud in the shallow water. Then, about twenty feet away, a shiny black shape breaks the surface; with its domed dog-like head this is unmistakably one of Devon’s grey seals. It looks about furtively and raises its head at an angle displaying thick, grey, wiry whiskers. Now we can also see a large flat fish in its mouth, still alive judging from the twitching tail. There’s a bit of a battle on; the pale fish is resisting and the seal is trying very hard to gulp it down with a little help from gravity. Eventually the seal gets its way; the fish disappears and I can almost hear the belch! It swims a short victory lap, dives and disappears but we count ourselves fortunate to be treated to such a display.

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The view from the road near the Bird Hide

 

The Bird Hide is a short walk away; it’s a new and rather luxurious building and I have never seen so many birders in one place. This human parade is trumped by the avian display outside the windows. Plump, brownish-grey wading birds with long legs litter the riverside grass across from the Bird Hide. There are up to a thousand of these Black-tailed Godwits on Bowling Green Marsh at present but I can’t see much detail from the Hide, the birds are too far away for my binoculars. From the nearby road I get a better view: the birds are rarely still, continually and edgily moving about probing the grass with their long spear-like beaks as they feed.

But the Black-tailed Godwits don’t have it all to themselves; I notice several elegant black and white birds picking their way cautiously among the flock as though trying to avoid something unpleasant on the ground. With their prominent black bibs over white chests and elegant swept-back, black crests these Lapwings look like a cross between a posh waiter and a 1920s flapper. On the edge of the main flock a few wigeon and teal are enjoying the shallow water. The teal spend much of their time searching for food from the river bed, paddling frantically to maintain this unorthodox tail-in-the-air position. When the low sun shines, their yellow, under-tail patch glows like creamy butter.

Before I leave, I walk back to the viewing platform. The tide is now falling rapidly, water giving way to mud and I almost miss the first major arrivals. A large group of waders, probably Black-tailed Godwits, appears suddenly as if from nowhere, descending rapidly, wheeling and banking as they come in to land. The low sunshine picks out their pale under-parts and once they are safely down, they create a dark slick on the shallow water and concentrate on the important job of feeding.

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Looking across the water from the viewing platform, the slick of waders is just visible

Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, December 4th 2015.

The featured image is a view across the Exe near Topsham.