Last one from the isle

Last blog from Rona 2012 – on Halloween! Some tricky weather, but plenty of treats too in a last bid attempt to eat up our leftovers…. In anticipation of leaving the island tomorrow there’s lots of packing and sorting happening this evening.

Today we worked really hard to weigh and sex weaners in the colony. We managed over 70 in total, not too bad!… Sore muscles are of course inevitable for tomorrow. The largest weaner today, weighing in at an impressive 66kg was O8’s pup. Luke felt particularly close to this one. A last minute distribution map of the remaining individuals AND bringing down the remaining hide, completed our work outside. Not a bad day’s work.


It’s been a rainbow-tastic, science-er-rific Rona field season. We’d like to thank you for reading our blog- we hope you’ve enjoyed our ‘notes from a small island’, to steal inspiration from Bill Bryson. We’ll continue with updates from St Andrews with the more bulky material we couldn’t email. Thanks again and here’s to next year!

This is Ronabase signing out.


Charlotte (Shazza ‘cutthroat’ McCairnsy), Amelia (Alba’s awful apparator) , Luke (The Count) and Paddy (Padenstein).

The end is near

Well, the weather has been keeping us on our toes, providing extra spice to the challenge of finishing off the work and taking down two of the hides. Just one hide remains on the hillside and that will be coming down tomorrow, all being well. As the breeding season comes to its end, we’ll be dedicating tomorrow to the weaners as we were diverted to other major repairs today. The grey box of death is now partially green.

Des news: He’s now a healthy moulting pup. Interestingly, he and his mum have moved down the slope a bit, as the weaners disperse up (???!) the hill. As we may expect considering Des’ progress, his mum has been seen to be the object of at least one male’s affections recently, so we expect her departure from the colony at any time.

Please give us a window of rainless, clear skies on Thursday morning so we can leave as scheduled. As much as we have enjoyed our time here, it’s time to get back to the mainland and engage in normal hygiene routines again. Fingers crossed.

Here’s a new pup from the Arena yesterday with rather a snazzy Mohican hairdo.


The snow cometh

Scottish weather, you gotta love it. Today, we had Rona snow. Rona snow (actually a constantly varying mixture of hail, sleet and snow) doesn’t fall, it simply whizzes by horizantally, helped on its way by a howling northerly gale. Amelia assures us that 5 layers are required inside today and even our hardy Skywalker dressed in 6 layers when he ventured outside earlier. It is brisk. The trusty hut seems reliably robust to the external icy winds (apart from the stuff that gets in the front door), which is reassuring. In spite of the conditions, Luke and I will be persevering with ‘Cammy’ trials on the weaners that we have watched grow over the past few weeks. It’ll be interesting to see if they react to Cammy like their mothers. Many fewer mums on the colony now.


Sky show: the other night we saw the northern lights. A rather inconvenient dark cloud spoiled things a bit, however we were able to see big luminous rays of greenish light shooting up into the inky sky. Needless to say, Luke “has seen better” (..on the TV).

In other news, the bacon tally reduces slowly. Luke is on cooking duty tonight and threatens a bacon bonanza. Des has become noticeably fatter. His mum had a major disagreement with an incoming neighbour this morning. Howls and flippering were exchanged, Des’s mum retained her place by the tiny pool she usually occupies, the wanderer withdrew and quiet was restored.

Overheard on Radio 2: Vanessa Feltz says (so it must be true) there is currently a “wet wipe fad” in the UK. We were there first, people. Outer Hebridean trendsetters strike again.

Till next time,

(Notes for (i) Charlotte’s mum: Happy Birthday! Hope you have a relaxing day and go out to celebrate somewhere; (ii) Wully: glad to hear you’re mostly OK (iii) Kelly and Hannah – Pillow Toby sends his best xx ).

Nearly Finished

The season is drawing to a close, and we’re completing the research for this year by recording when our study females are leaving the colony and mapping the distribution of the remaining seals. An unexpected late influx of pregnant females has produced a scatter of new pups around the ubiquitous weaners. In the next few days we’re due to weigh a selection of weaners to see how they’ll compare to weaners in previous years. We’ve already encountered a 60kg+ pup, so some of them are certainly fine. Des is also one of these – poor weather prevents an update photo, but believe me, he’s large!


Find of the day – fresh clothes in my case! Charlotte trumped my find by washing her hair, so we’re both feeling pretty clean (relatively) today. Charlotte is currently struggling to open the door because of the wind (outside) and Amelia is asleep on her feet. Paddy is festering quietly in the corner, very impressed with the observation that the knees of his trousers were steaming on return to the hut this evening.

In fresh news, the oven has seen service at last and all are still well. We also saw the aerial survey zoom by again (they’re super efficient this year) and waterproofs are leaking. The cludgie monster has been relatively well behaved and we’ve heard from Wully “Darwin” Paterson – we don’t envy you at all mate.

We miss our families of course, and pals – we’re on our way soon, clear the washing machines…… Best, L,A,C & P.

Love on the rocks

Very fat pups predominate in the colony now. With their mums gone to sea, “weaners” are scattered around the colony, lying in nests of their own neonatal white hair ( during a recent ‘Cammy’’ trial, the RCV drove through the edge of one of these and became even more camouflaged by a mass of white fur covering one of its wheels! Whilst this moulting process makes for very cute photos, it is also interesting to remember that grey seals are thought to have had an ice-breeding origin and the white hair (or lanugo) of pups is a vestige of this. White hair provided camouflage in the icy breeding sites associated with more northern latitudes, making vulnerable young pups less obvious to hungry predators. As the white coat moults out, the first patterned pelage emerges, like that sported by adults. There’s a backwards analogy of the ugly duckling turning into a swan here somewhere (arguable).


In addition to weaner “nests”, we have also seen an increase in male “action”, for want of a better word. Towards the end of the lactation period, females become receptive to males as they come into oestrus and accept mating. This is when males are busy. It’s very easy to tell where a male is if you’re downwind – they have a very distinctive musky odour. We’ve seen some of our departing study females getting intercepted by males lurking at the gully access points, resulting in “love on the rocks” (thank you, Neil Diamond). The really cool thing is that whilst females may be mated on Rona now, the development of the new foetus is suspended for a few months, thereby making them ready to give birth at approximately the same time next year! Clever hey?


Bacon update: slow going. Des update: getting to look a bit plump. Weather update: bonkers! Mild and days with no wind – wait till we want to leave!

Best wishes from the Rainbow Isle,

Bacon, bacon and more bacon

News! Our photo survey work shows that Des’s mum has been seen on Rona in previous breeding seasons. In fact, she’s been seen regularly since 2004. Our long-term studies allow us to pinpoint the ways that females can differ in their success during breeding seasons (for example: how many pups they produce, how big their pup gets before weaning, and whether their pup survives to weaning ). The way the different females behave can affect the outcomes of these different processes. The performance and behaviour of females are far from simple to predict. It is important to know for example if a mother that shows one type of behavioural pattern in a season is likely to maintain this or change gradually or abruptly. These individual differences are basic to producing predictive models that can inform decisions relating to the development of and regulations imposed on important industries, such as the fishing and energy industries.

So far we have neglected to inform you about our bacon. Before we came to Rona, we visited a large store that sold everything you could possibly imagine, in very large quantities. We thought packs of bacon would be a good plan. We bought 25 packets…(3 meat eaters, 6 weeks) . In fact they were packets of three. So, yes, we brought 75 packs of bacon with us. You might think, “so what? Bacon butties for every meal, great!”. However, the carnivores are so far failing to make much of a dent in our swine stash. It’ll have to be bacon, bacon, bacon for the next 10 days… I wonder how inventive we can be with recipes. By “we” I mean, “they”. I will stick to my imitation quorn chicken thank you very much.


Today for our picture we thought we’d show you a panoramic view of the main study area from the hillside where we have our hides- (on the right).

Bad Weather

So, the weather has officially turned chilly. It also shows a mischievous streak, springing heavy (hail) showers on us with unwanted repetitiveness. This makes our lives a tad more difficult for many reasons: it is certainly not as easy to see the seals in the rain, particularly rain blowing in from the north-east as it has been recently; neither Cammy nor the cameras we use to record behaviour are particularly fond of the rain; conducting photo surveys in the rain is not possible, and furthermore manual dexterity is substantially reduced in the cold making what you may think of as easy tasks a real challenge, such as holding a pencil. Nevertheless, we are persevering using the two powers that we Brits fall back on in times of adversity: moaning (as demonstrated by this blog) and tea. Indeed, our feelings towards the weather are shared by one of the seals…


It was sad to see one of the earliest pupping females leave today: Monachs L. As in previous years, she’d been an adventurous soul, choosing to clamber up a small mountain (in seal-terms), miles from the access point (in seal-terms) to give birth to her pup. After 3 amorous males caught her on her way back to the sea (that we saw), she left her now rotund pup and successfully re-traced her flops back down the slope and eventually down the rock gully back to the sea. Charlotte wishes her a very happy, fish-filled year away from Rona.

Although we promised a pic update of Des, there’s been so much bad weather, we haven’t a decent one, so watch this space. Mum and pup are doing fine tho’.

More inspiration – a potential plot for the next Indiana Jones film: “Indiana Jones and the Grey Box of Doom”. The ‘grey box’ is a food storage facility outside of our hut, approximately 3m x2m. Kelly called It the grey box of doom/death because, like the island’s gulls, it has a taste for blood. To date, in the battle of wo/man vs. box, wo/man is winning. In fact Amelia and Luke vanquished the box last night, with Galaxy chocolate bars and popcorn as their reward.

Sheltering from the rain

Yesterday we explored the rocky west coast of the peninsula here – known as Sgeildighe. Rona is mostly composed of a type of rock called gneiss, which has formed vast cliffs and caves around the island. The edge of Sgeildighe is an impressive cave that penetrates into the heart of Rona, if you follow the cave up its entire passage, you emerge in the ‘blow hole’, where a number of our study females like to hang out. At low tide we were able to enter the opening at sea level. It was wet and slippery and bright pink. Large male seals lurked all around. The cave is pink because it’s covered in pristine Corralina algae,exposed at low water and the seals watched us curiously while we explored and took photographs (while also sheltering from the rain!).

So far this field season the photo-ID tools wielded brilliantly by Amelia have identified over 130 individuals who have been photographed previously. Of these, approximately seventy are from our study catalogue of named females that Paddy can recognise by eye, without the aid of the computer. By using the computer programme to help us to match photos we have almost doubled the number of “recaptures”. This is a powerful tool to allow us to look at the history and movements of animals that we hadn’t “known” previously. Great news!

Updates: Look at Des – he’s getting fatter by the day. Also scarf colour number 3 has been reached! Some heavy work days lie ahead, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for reasonable weather. Well, you can but hope…



Luke writes:

The breeding season here has finally peaked, and we are seeing a drop in the rate of births on the colony. Nevertheless, there are still a few births every day, and we’ve been trying our best to record them. It is amazing to see how quickly the pups adapt once they’re born. They can be pecked quite viciously by gulls looking for a quick meal, but most can look after themselves! The mothers will also staunchly defend their newborns, and we’ve seen what can happen to the gulls if they are not fast enough…a few have broken wings. The pups seem to race to see how much weight they can gain before weaning. This weight gain is astonishing, with pups averaging around 15kgs when they’re born and anything up to 55kgs when they’re weaned around 18 days later. The mothers then return to sea, leaving the fat little ‘weaners’ on their own. We’re beginning to see the first of these weaners, who will hang around the colony for a few weeks before heading to sea themselves. Amelia pictured one of the first weaners yesterday.


Des and mum are right up the slope near the top of the hill, and looking good. Another pic will follow soon.

A note from Charlotte: Happy Anniversary to her mum and dad, Helen and Peter. Hope you go out to celebrate somewhere nice.

Fluffy Des

The weather has been chillier today, with strong NE winds finding their way past most layers of clothing.

There are a few mountaineering mums perched on the upper part of the Leathad slope now. One of these is just below the hide with a new pup. We’re in the process of checking if she’s new to the catalogue and will keep a running update on her and her pup’s progress (the pup is sooo fluffy it’s being called Des).


More thoughts (spawned by long hours in the hide) on seal types (with no reference to any manufacturers of any products sounding similar). You may want to play this game at home:

IMBEseal – like its human counterpart, not the sharpest tool in the shed; FRAMEseal – gets the blame for others’ misdeeds; sealIAC – has a very special diet; WINDOWseal – just a pain; BLASTOseal – drifts around aimlessly until it settles somewhere and then things develop

All well, with in my case a little antibiotic help, and although the rainbows are back, hail has also appeared…