Category Archives: Mammals

Hook nosed sea pig

Radio silence has been a tad prolonged this time, so apologies for that. I wasn’t able to get out and about last weekend so I’ve delved into the archive to write about the grey seal. The Latin name for this one of our native seal species – the other being the common seal (Phoca vitulaina) – is Halichoerus grypa – or ‘hook nosed sea pig. Which is a wonderfully descriptive piece of taxonomic nomenclature! It is the only seal to be classified in the Halichoerus genus.

Grey seal relaxing in the Menai Strait between
Anglesey and
North Wales

The grey seal is almost twice the size of the common seal and is immediately distinguishable by the long ‘hooked nose’ compared to the stubby rounded snout of the common seal. Males are around 2.1m in length and females 1.8m, weighing approximately 230kg and 150kg respectively, the female is therefore much smaller than the male.

Distribution of the grey seal is across the northern Atlantic Ocean with breeding colonies in northern Europe and North America. They are fish eaters feeding predominantly on cod and sand eels but are opportunists and will take a range of fish caught at depths down to 70m including molluscs and crustaceans and they fast during the breeding season.

Grey seal watching me watching it off the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around two thirds of their time is spent at sea, but they will haul themselves onto rocks, usually on uninhabited islands but also on some isolated mainland sites between tides and also come ashore to breed. This occurs at various times around the UK and while the females are nursing pups the males will also come ashore to mate. At this time the males may get into territorial battles with other males resulting in scarring to their necks. The pups which are white, suckle milk that is 60% fat for approximately 3 weeks during which time they will gain 2kg per day that is mostly sequestered as a subcutaneous layer of blubber providing essential insulation when the young go to sea.

Grey seals were the first mammals to be protected by legislation – the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914 – and since 1960 the UK population has increased to 120,000 individuals, around half the world population. They are affected by ‘seal plague’ – phocine distemper virus – although of individuals known to have succumbed to the disease only 10% were grey seals.

These delightful animals can be seen all around the UK coastline from the south west, Wales, Scotland and the east coast of England and due to the increase in numbers they have attracted the inevitable hatred of fishermen who claim that they are responsible for declining fish stocks, and they have also been implicated in damaging the nets of offshore fish farms and passing on parasites. The link with parasites is a complex one and further studies are required to establish the link between seals and transmission of parasites, or not.

Buntings abound: 29th and 30th January 2011

This weekend my meanderings took me to the open fields Histon and Cottenham, an area I haven’t properly explored for quite a long time. As I set off early on Saturday morning the weather was murky and very cold and consequently I was feeling pessimistic about encountering the local wild creatures.

Fortunately I was mistaken. The wild creatures were there aplenty. Flocks of mixed gulls, rooks, Corvus frugilegus, (N.b. I’m planning to make a taxonomic index of Latin names for the species on an adjacent page so I can avoid writing them here), and in particular, wood pigeon, Columba palumbus. Wood pigeon can often be seen in flocks but on this occasion there were many flocks, the  largest containing thousands of individuals. They are a farmers curse as they can devastate fields of new shoots, hence the sound of shotgun fire punctuating my progress. My father told me stories of my grandmother being given wood pigeon during World War II – a valuable source of free meat – and when opened up the crops liteally exploded as they were stuffed completely full of fresh green shoots. Multiply that up by several thousand birds and the damage they can do to crops is obvious. Still, they’re impressive to watch in those kind of numbers.

My aforementioned pessimism was tempered by the sight of hazel trees, Corylus avellana, covered in catkins, the first suggestion of approaching Spring time.
Hazel saplings festooned with the first catkins of 2011 – Spring is imminent!

And indeed, a friend told me on Monday morning she had seen daffodils shooting in the village. So I reckon that makes it official. In the same hedgerow as the catkins – the Merlin Hedge – (click here for a sketch map of my walk route), were a flock of greenfinch, Carduelis chloris, and a small group of fieldfare, Turdus pilaris, feeding on the ground. The greenfinch were manic, chasing each other as a flock around the fields either side of the hedgerow.

Turning right at the end of the hedge heading past the Yellowhammer Hedge – which didn’t contain any yellowhammers, or indeed any other birdlife – a big fox, Vulpes vulpes, was standing in the middle of the field beyond watching me and the dog:

A fox taking a keen interest in what me and the dog were doing

The fox was around 300m away and the quality of the image gives a good idea of the murky grey weather condiitions. Doesn’t convey how cold it was though! This one has a distinctly grey coat and I’ve seen foxes in this area before with similar coloration, so it could be the same one or one of his offspring. He’s close to where foxes reared a litter of cubs last year so he could be one of that family.  After the excitement of seeing the fox, I was scanning the adjacent field for any other signs of life and spotted a second fox – it could have been the same one but he’d have had to move very fast to get to the second location. And as it disappeared through a hedge a group of three roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, entered the same field.

Roe deer bounding across a field – and a bird taking to the air somewhere between me and them

The dog spotted the deer as soon as I did and immediately pricked his ears up, he was around 25m away from me and in order to avoid any dog/deer interaction I called him and the deer instantly turned to look even though they were around 300m away. They have incredibly acute hearing.

Between us and the deer were a flock of skylark, Alauda arvensis, on the ground (it could be one of them taking off in the photograph). It was impossible to count them accurately as they were whizzing around at very high speed close to the ground where their camouflage rendered them almost invisible, but I estimate there were between 10 and 20.

I’d been hoping to see yellowhammer, Emberiza citrinella, and I’d spent some time peering at the Yellowhammer Hedge and the surrounding fields but without seeing many birds at all. Then as I approached the end of the hedgerow leading to the Owl Shed I could see a flock of small birds flitting between the hedge and the Fallow Field and they turned out to be a mixture of reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus, and yellowhammer:

Mixed group of reed bunting and yellowhammer

Female yellowhammer
…and a male of the species. What a glorious colour!

Both species were numerous and could be seen flying around the hedge all the way along to the Owl Shed and dropping down onto the ground to look for food and to hide from me.

Reed bunting male

Young male reed bunting

The remainder of my Saturday morning sojourn was not quite so lively but numerous fieldfare, redwing (Turdus iliaca), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) and a kestrel (Falco tinunculus) were busy around the pig farm.

On Sunday 30th January the weather was brighter and more mild so I set off again towards the Owl Shed to try to get some more photographs. Despite the improved weather there was nowhere near the amount of wildlife around I’d seen the day before, although a hare (Lepus europaeus) appeared in the field where I first saw the fox. And fortunately the reed bunting and yellowhammer were still in the end of the hedgerow where I’d left them on Saturday, although not in the same numbers. So I got my pictures and then had to rush home to get off to my nephews 18th birthday party.

A very enjoyable weekend all round, and in particular the Emberiza species congregated in the Owl Shed Hedge.