Hello from Sian.

Hi this is Sian posting today’s blog from the team.

For the last 4 days we have had unexpectedly good weather and glorious sunshine. Paddy has been catching some rays in his deckchair (a wheelbarrow) on his lunch break.

James and I have been spending our days watching and waiting for the seal mums to give birth, in order to video the event to look at maternal behaviour and interactions between mum and pup with gulls. Much to our disappointment we have only been able to video one birth so far, but I hope that our perseverance will soon pay off. In the meantime, we’re kept amused by the antics of the seals, dozens of fulmars gliding over the colony, and yesterday we were treated to a brief aerobatic display of a kestrel chasing its lunch.

Contributions to our origami safari have been made by each of the team (thanks for the book Mum!). The most recent addition is an origami seal, which decorated the top of Paddy’s party hat for his birthday celebrations last night.

Hoping that tomorrow brings more sunshine, but most importantly, more births!

Beautiful weather and broken things

North Rona From the air

Here we are on the 1st of October in the Outer Hebrides, basking in 17 degrees with cloudless skies. This is the 3rd day of this – it’s very pleasant indeed. What’s not so pleasant is the number of things that have broken or stopped working recently. We’ve had computer problems of various sorts, new hard drives failing, batteries giving up, oven malfunctions (and successes) and a broken spade (impressive, Toby). Thankfully we’re all still OK, and still spending lots of time in the hides following animals. There are 14 pups now, some quite hefty looking, but it’s noticeable that few new animals have been arriving in the last few days. It’s tempting to suggest they’re avoiding the “hot” weather – but we’ll see.

Settling in and exploring the island.

It’s Wed and we saw the sun today. This prompted much photo taking and we attach the first one of the team.

Paddy, Sian, James and Toby

The guys have been exploring the island while there’s a chance – there are only 8 seal mums and 2 pups in the study area at the minute.

This year is the 21st season in a row we’ve been monitoring this breeding colony.  During this time the number of pups born here has fallen from around 1400 to around 600. Finding out the reasons for this decline is one of the reasons we’re here. We’ve started recording activity on the colony but won’t begin full photo surveys to check the identities of who’s here for a while yet.

Sian is hoping to record births in the study area to examine early maternal behaviour to see how this varies (in between making origami animals).

Further updates soon.

Best from the team

Here we go!

The 2013 North Rona field season is under way!
We arrived safely on the island on Saturday 21st September just in time to make the best of the remaining hours of dry weather before the rain came in and everything seemed normal.

The party this year has three new faces to brighten up the hut and make the old man feel even older.
Sian joins us fresh from a whirlwind tour of the West Coast, after a spell doing diet work at SMRU.
James is a known commodity as he’s just finished a Master’s at Durham, working on seal distribution in relation to topographical features – he finally gets to see in reality what has been a simple map until now.
Toby hails from Portugal, but came to us via working as a photo-ID specialist in Wales. He has just started work on a PhD with Paddy, the fourth member and team boss.

We’ve spent Sunday and today getting the hut into some sort of order then setting up the hides above the study area.
Despite the near zero visibility, we managed to see a handful of seals ashore – the real early birds.

Our next posts will update on what we hope to do this season.


P, J, S, T.

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).