Friday 29 November 2019

One Pom and some Seals 27th November 2019

Donna Nook is a point of land that lies on the low lying north Lincolnshire coast and is part of a huge area of around 10km of desolate saltmarsh stretching from Saltfleet in the south to Somercotes Haven in the north. Donna Nook itself is managed as a nature reserve by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust (LWT) although much of the area is also used by the RAF for bombing practice. According to the Trust this does not adversely affect the wildlife.

While worth a visit at any time of the year the main focus of Donna Nook is to protect the large colony of Grey Seals which come to breed there in November and December.

This year the latest count on the 22nd November amassed a total of 489 bull seals, 1629 cows and 1554 pups present on the saltmarsh, and it is thought there may well be over 2000 pups by December.

The area of saltmarsh where the seals come to breed has to be managed now by a host of volunteers from the LWT, as it attracts huge numbers of visitors from all over Britain. Over 43,000  came in 2006 and that number is probably far exceeded now.

Remarkably, up to 2007, anyone could and did wander out onto the saltmarsh amongst the seals but this created such disturbance to the seals at a very vulnerable time in their life cycle that a fence was erected along the edge of the saltmarsh, which visitors now have to remain behind and the seals are thus protected from any undue disturbance.

You can, however, get very close to the seals, as little as a metre in some cases, as the seals will come right up to the fence, so there really is no need to go out onto the saltmarsh and the LWT volunteers will  not hesitate to prevent you from doing so.

Due to various commitments, the only day I could manage to go to Donna Nook was today. If I had a choice I would have remained at home as frankly the weather was awful, a vista of low grey cloud and rain. Not the ideal day to visit a vast and open expanse of saltmarsh nor to dice with the rush hour motorway traffic on the four hour drive north.

I was spurred on though by the not inconsiderable incentive of a good chance to view a Pomarine Skua, an adult male to boot, that had decided to tarry a while in the seal colony, feasting on the numerous placentas left lying on the sand by the birthing seals.

I set off from home at 6.30am, in the first dull light of dawn and made my way in virtually constant traffic mayhem northwards. A huge jam caused by a bus that had crashed across the central reservation of the road north added an unwelcome half an hour to the journey. I took it easy and reflected on all those unfortunate souls in cars. vans and trucks around me, driving nose to tail and having to do this every day. What a nightmare it must be. Most of my driving on motorways is done in the middle of the night these days, on birding trips but I guess if you are stuck with the 'nine to five' you have little choice but it is insane and worrying as the number of vehicles on the roads just seems to grow and grow.

The weather was getting progressively worse the further north I went. First it was just rain and low cloud in the Midlands then approaching Lincoln it was fog and rain while beyond Lincoln it was back to even heavier and continuous rain. The forecast said it would stop and there would even be sunny spells. Dream on. There was no chance of that happening and it was obvious from the unbroken leaden skies that the rain was here to stay for the rest of the day. I was going to get very wet.

I arrived at Donna Nook via a series of lonely roads, wet and flooded, that wound their way through a sodden, flat landscape bereft of any semblance of charm. I drove down the long approach road to the Donna Nook car park, an area of unsurfaced flat ground behind the sand dunes, where a lady in a bright yellow high viz jacket relieved me of £4.00 to go and find whatever water free part of the car park I could find in a rapidly forming quagmire of churned mud and lake like puddles.

It was then into the waterproofs, ensuring everything, especially the camera, was made as rainproof as possible. On getting out of the car I could hear a distinct wailing sound, the kind of noise one makes to signify a ghost, a rising and falling 'oooooooooohhhhhhhhh'.

The sound was emanating from the seals, out on the saltmarsh, that lay the other side of the dunes that were rising before me. I cut through the dunes via a sodden sandy track and a boardwalk and came out onto a wide pathway that ran for six hundred metres between the dunes and a low fence, the latter to keep seals and humankind separated. It was bleak, cold and very wet. but all that was forgotten by the sight that greeted me.

Hundreds of Grey Seals, of varying shapes and sizes were scattered as far as you could see across the saltmarsh. Fat, cylindrical bodies lay everywhere, some dappled and spotted grey others just plain grey with smaller,  white, furry pups adding to the mix. Many of the seals were fast aleep, the rain of little consequence on their fat bodies. Pups snuggled up to their mother seeking milk whilst other seals, both young and adult just lay on their sides occasionally raising a head to look at you with a soulful expression, their opaque eyes huge, rotund and dark as night.

Some pup's fur becomes stained orange from the iron oxide deposit that is in
the mud they haul themselves over. This one was very distinctive amongst all
the other surrounding pups, all of whose fur remained white. 

I stood for a while to absorb this wonderful natural spectacle, the seals totally unconcerned at us humans gawping at them from just feet away behind the fence.

But where was the Pom Skua? Another birder pointed it out to me standing, a bit distantly, out on the saltmarsh amongst some slumbering seals.

It was a full adult but had lost the iconic 'spoons' that form the end of the long central pair of tail feathers that project from the rest of the tail. These 'spoons' are really the tips of the central pair of  feathers that have been twisted from the horizontal to the vertical and which at a distance look like spoons. With its dark brown upperparts and black crown feathers, looking like a beret set at a jaunty angle, the slighty rain bedraggled skua had an almost rakish air about it. I just love them!

The underparts were white and showed no breast band and barring on the flanks, just a few smudges on the upper flanks indicating this individual was most likely an adult male. They are such charismatic birds and a real treat to see close to, a true ocean wanderer, a pirate that mugs terns and gulls as it moves from the Arctic to the seas off West Africa on  its annual migration south.

The skua began eating the placenta from a seal. I watched as it tore off large chunks and swallowed them with relish. Eventually full it squatted by the remains of the placenta, presumably anticipating a return session when the pangs of hunger struck again. A Greater Black backed Gull approached and the skua was instantly wary, the gull being much larger than the skua and with a formidable bill which put that of the skua's into the shade.

The Pom rose unsteadily and I could see that it was lame in one leg which unbalanced it. Whether this had happened while it was here in the colony or  whether it had happened earlier and this persuaded it to stop here where the feeding was so good, I had no answer. Once airborne the skua flew up and around and then passed north along the saltmarsh to a distant spot near the track, where it landed.

I made as rapid progress as possible down the wet and now crowded pathway to find the skua standing on the saltmarsh and preening vigorously, the constant rain obviously stimulating it to attend to its soggy feathers and spending a great deal of time looking after its flight feathers in particular.

Wet and discomfited I looked to my left and saw a familiar figure crouched down pointing a big lens at the skua. It was Jim, another Oxonbirder. We commiserated about the foul weather and eventually parted, Jim to seek temporary sanctuary in his car, me to wait until the skua became hungry again and flew back to its meal of placenta further to the south along the saltmarsh.

A huge bull seal came humping its massive grey body across the wet mud, the rolls of blubber making ripples under its grey skin as it heaved itself on its two front flippers across the mud. He was not happy with a smaller and younger male interloper. Then he did something I have not observed before. He slapped his huge bulk hard down on the mud making a loud whoomph. as his vast body slammed down on the mud. He did this over and over again obviously giving a warning to the other bull seal. Just to make sure his message was understood, he roared a few seal obscenities too. All very impressive and enough to deter the other bull.

The aggressive Bull Seal

The 'interloper' a younger bull seal
A constant accompaniment of moaning was kept up by various cow seals, the noise emanating from all over the saltmarsh and difficult to pin down to any particular seal.

As the morning progressed more and more people were arriving, despite the rain, and I reckoned there were at least a hundred people present, virtually all intent on seeing the seals and not that interested in the Pomarine Skua unless it was pointed out to them. Not many remained for an extended period. it was just too wet and unpleasant. A walk up and down the 600m of track, some selfies with the seals and then, no doubt, it was off to the pub or tea room for something warm to eat and drink. Who could blame them?

The Pom took off once more and flew back to where it had been feeding but when I caught up with it I found it was now snacking on a dead seal. Oh well, waste not want not!

Once more it attracted the unwelcome attention of a Great Black backed Gull, a juvenile this time, and backed away as the huge gull tore strips of flesh from the seal carcase.

Juvenile Greater Black backed Gull and Pomarine Skua. Look at the difference in size and also of the respective bills!
I watched the skua for another half an hour but by now I was wringing wet, feeling cold and had reached the limits of any enjoyment. It was becoming attritional and pointless to remain so I retreated to the car and its welcoming dry interior.

I slithered the car across a now increasingly lake like car park and with some relief headed for home.

I heard yesterday that the car park is closed until further notice due to flooding.

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