Sunday 30 November 2008

Count down

Safety in numbers: second coat pups gathering together

Hows they change - a three week old pup

The team in action on South Wamses

Welcome to Sunday morning and I’m sure the dust will be settling on Bobby’s 50th birthday celebrations and there’ll be a few soar heads around this morning. However back on the islands, it’s been a settled few days with light winds and relatively flat seas which have given the wardens and the seals on the Farnes some rest bite. So the colonies have been visited and the latest counts are in, with just one week to go. Staple Island has cemented itself as a major colony and will rank as the second biggest on the Farnes this year with 338 already. It’s an amazing transformation and it’s only a mater of time before it becomes number one.

The South Wamses, the current champion, is home to over 350 and it was good to catch up with a few old friends that I’ve come to recognise over the years (yes, some females will pup in the same parts of the same island from year-to-year). The great news is that the island was brimming with second-coat pups including one little fella we hadn’t seen for a few weeks; Archie. It was clearly Archie as his red mark on his tail flipper gave him away but he’s changed. Like Nemo and Lucky, he’s made it. His second coat announces that he’s ready for the brave new world of the Farne Islands. Like all our pups, we wish him good luck and I suspect it won’t be the last time we see this wee chap on the islands.

However it isn’t all good news, it never is. It was very evident that most pups born on the north or east edge of the colonies have experienced great losses. The brunt of the storm had been felt on several islands and lifeless corpses were scattered across the colonies. As part of my job, I have to gather, tag and mark all dead pups found, and as I go though the process, I try not to ponder the difficult circumstances which they battled against, and lost. Mother Nature had done her job but she had done it too well.

However heads up, we’re getting some great success and mortality will be slightly below the 50% we expect on the islands. Since the first pup born in late September, the colonies now boast 1,114. As we head into the final week on the islands, a lot could change and a lot will, but you still with me? Keep reading stay tuned, as the islands are heading into December…

Saturday 29 November 2008

Happy Birthday Bob

Happy Birthday Bobby, 50 today!

Bobby at his finest

The one and only - Bobby's boat Glad Tidings I

Today’s blog news from the islands comes with a slight difference. Forget the seals, the birds and the islands. Today it’s about the people behind the scenes, but more to the point, one particular individual…

Glad Tidings I skipper Bobby Pearson is 50 today – congratulations Bobby,

A BIG HAPPY BIRTHDAY from the islands!!
Bobby is a well known character and a well liked skipper of a visitor boat which sails to the islands on a daily basis throughout the summer. His warm friendly welcome makes him popular amongst everyone he meets and greets. From the passengers on his boat to all the wardens, Bobby makes them feel at home and adds a certain magic to the trip around the islands.
I first met Bobby eight years ago on my first day as a new warden, and eight years later, I've come to regard him as a good friend, although with his strong Northumbria accent, I've had to interpret what he says for many a young warden. When the new lads start on the islands, there is a lot to learn and Bobby is always the first to welcome them and make an extra special effort to help them get to know the ropes (quiet literally!). Bobby is one of the many unsung hero's of this place and we wish him well for the future and no doubt he’ll have a few words about this posting. But have a pint on us Bobby, Happy Birthday old man! One final point, yes he does have a downside as I can never understand what he sees in his beloved NewcastleUnited...
Anyway tomorrow I'll be back to the seals as I'm going to bring you all a full round-up of all the news from the colonies, including the count figures and the news on our wonderful characters Archie, Rocky, Nemo and co.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Armed and Dangerous

A sad end, a dead pup being checked and tagged

Armed and dangerous, a warden with coloured spray dye

As never seen before: Staple Island (with Brownsman in the distance)

At last a really calm day on the islands and a chance to visit some of the seal colonies to see what has happened since we were last on them. Although we couldn't make all the colonies, the weather pattern appears to be settled for the time being...but not for long. Reports are starting to flood in that we are in for it yet again, as a north-easterly gale is due at the weekend. Oh boy, I thought we had seen the last of those and at this rate, I might be eating Christmas turkey out on Brownsman! (actually don't tempt me, that would be brilliant!). However it was the short leap over to nearby Staple Island a stones throw away from Brownsman.
Like Viking raiders, we landed on the shores of Staple, armed and ready. The island is one of two islands open to the public during the summer as the thriving seabird metropolis supports one of the largest Puffin colonies on the Farnes and it’s a spectacular sight for day trippers. However its late November and only one thing thrives; Grey Seals.
When I first started on the islands back in 2001, the island didn’t support any pupping mothers, but now it’s a major player on the Farnes. The count went smoothly and although we found a few dead, it was evident that mortality was well below the average, more nearer 15%. The sheltered aspect of the island certainly helps and probably one of the reasons why the seals have colonised the low sloping island in recent year. After a few hours marking, counting, tagging and mapping the colony, we return to Brownsman. Staple now has 338 seal pups, an impressive number by any colony standard.
The Farnes have seen a shift in the colonies in recent years as mothers have moved from the two islands of the Wamses (North and South) to the sheltered retreats of Brownsman and Staple Island. I must confess, I can't blame them, as the North Wamses registered a mortality rate of 72% not long back, compared to 22% on Staple. Now you may see why they are shifting! However we leave sheltered Staple Island behind as we move further out into the colonies and what will we discover out on those islands, only time will tell…

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Seals Ahoy!

A second coater at home on the front step

Even our shed has been taken over

Me at the front door, with our new neighbours
At last. After what feels like an age, I might actually get some sleep without the tiles on the cottage roof 'dancing' in the wind. Yes, the winds are easing and hopefully were heading into a few calm days on the Farnes and we maybe able to see the results of the damage caused by the northerly storms. Although I am expecting the worst, there are still plenty of Seals which have survived and will fight to remind me of that very fact. Little 'Rocky - love the name - is still alive and well and hopefully Archie will be moulting into second coat by the time we reach him.

On Brownsman, Seal pups are appearing everywhere on the island and the ‘second coat pups’ are becoming part of the furniture. The little blighters are getting everywhere and as the photos show, we’ve got one at the front door and another in the shed around the back of the island. Even the solar panel system has one living beneath it, so its home sweet home. However these are fairly gentle compared with what greeted me this morning, as a cow seal has decided to pup outside the front door of the cottage, so Mr Postman, forget beware of the dog, just beware of the seal! There’s nothing quiet like living on a small island in the North Sea and there really isn't a dull moment. I'm sure we'll have fun when we eventually come to leave the island, as we'll have a few seals to leap before getting to the boat.

However its the north beach which deserves some attention, after all, this blog and Autumnwatch would have not happened if it wasn't for that small colony on Brownsman, and I returned to see how our characters were getting on. It was easy to spot both Nemo and Lucky, as the young starlets appear very content and happy and so they should be. Both are now 'barrels' of blubber and they'll be soon off to discover what life is like below the waves. The north beach colony has been reasonably sheltered throughout the storms and its nice to see them doing well.

Whilst at the 'office' yesterday (well inside the Brownsman cottage), I was delighted to read all your messages because as most of you are aware, I’m new to this blogging business but thanks for all the support, from Aberdeen, to Bristol and far flung Hampshire! However I’ve still got plenty more to tell you and then maybe next year I'll be bringing you all the news, views and comments for a complete season from the islands. Watch this space...

Monday 24 November 2008

The fight continues

Mother and pup in the snow on Brownsman

Whats this? A second coat pup in the snow

The storm rages across the north beach colony on Brownsman
The wind blows and the storms rage as the Farne Islands are battered from the north for yet another day. There is no escape for anything or anyone and to complete the scene we soon have snow fall. The islands have had a good dusting today and the seals look a little bemused by the white stuff but they don't have a problem with such small trivial matters, as its the pounding North Sea which frightens them the most.
As I walk across the south beach, I discover two young Seal pups in the tangled kelp on the shoreline. Both are lifeless, both are dead. Death is something we have to accept out here, as it’s evident throughout the autumn months, as pups are lost to disease, or inexperienced mothers. However it was the harsh realities of the North Sea this time last year which accounted for over 600 of our pups and I'm expecting a repeat this time around. Once we've had the chance to visit the other colonies and crunch some numbers, I suspect we won't be too far away from that 50% loss. Its a cruel world out here and any pups born on the north end of the islands recently probably won't have lived to see the snow which fell this morning.
As the chill factor dropped to -5.9 degrees, I was stopped in my tracks. Life on a rock. Not all was lost in the storm and if I rubbed my eyes in disbelief at the discovery of the Otter tracks, then glancing over to Nameless Rock nearly bowled me over. For there clinging to life on top of the small island, is the pup I had given up for dead. That pup must have seen it all in the last twenty-four hours, but regardless its still alive and what a fighter. Without doubt we will have lost plenty but there will be many which survived and will live to see the world of the Farnes for another day.
However things are never that simple. BBC Radio Four crackles into life, it’s the shipping forecast:
Forth, Tyne, Dogger: Northerly 5-7 occasionally gale force 8, wintry showers.

Silence. Where not out of the woods yet, not by any stretch of the imagination...

Saturday 22 November 2008

Fight for survival

The storm lashing the east side of Brownsman early Saturday morning

Nameless Rock - an island with life - a Seal pup clings on for dear life

The Otter story made the national headlines and top billing on the local Teletext news report, and even the mighty Terry Wogan mentioned it on his breakfast program. But every day is different out here and the Otter story is quickly forgotten as we've got trouble, big trouble.

The storm has been raging from the north or north-west for two days now and as each day passes the sea builds in strength, power and magnitude. The North Sea is a vast place and a northerly backed wind will whip across it, increasing the swell and the waves. There's nothing stopping it until its reaches its first breaking point; the Farne Islands. Welcome to the Farnes in late November. This morning has been incredible, as I'm witnessing waves on areas of the island I've not seen before and even standing in the centre of Brownsman I can feel the sea spray breaking over. The islands weather machine is recording a chill factor of -2.4 degrees and its only ten o'clock. This is the true raw strength of the North Sea and it's not stopping. Its brute force will ravage the islands leaving very little standing and the outcome looks bleak.

The Grey Seals out on the colonies will suffer and the fight for survival is none more apparent than on Nameless Rock, a small low lying island opposite Brownsman (see photo above). A small pup was born on their just over a week ago and its now under siege. The waves are breaking over the top, the tide is rising and it's helpless and there is nothing we can do. Will he make it? The swell is crushing everything in its path and it won't stop for a small seal pup. It's mother must be distraught but I don't fancy its chance, I really don't. I'll know the outcome in the next few hours as high tide approaches but I can only but pray for the little life on the rock.

This is just one small story of the bigger drama which will unfold over the next few days on the Farnes. Without doubt the pups are paying a heavy toll on the islands as the harsh mistress that is the North Sea will be washing them off the rocks and beaches around us. Its a cruel time of year and for young pups, they won't stand a chance if they don't find safety. Moving just a few yards further up the beach can make a huge difference between life and death, but I suspect its to late. I'm fearing the worst and those with a nervous disposition may not want to read tomorrows entry... The storm is raging.

Friday 21 November 2008

You've Otter to be joking!

Proof in the mud! Otter tracks on Brownsman (photo by Alex Ash)

Its no Grey Seal, as Otter discovered on Farnes for first time (photo by Alex Ash)

The footprints in the mud tell its own story. An Otter has reached the shores of the Farne Islands for the first time ever and this wasn’t just any ordinary site, this is Brownsman, an island three miles out in the North Sea off the north Northumberland coast.

It’s staggering that an Otter could survive the perilous journey out to the Farne Islands, especially Brownsman which is so far from shore. There was initial shock and disbelief amongst us as we looked down and discovered the tracks. Just how the animal made it over is almost beyond belief. It’s tough enough for an engine driven boat to navigate the currents and rip tides, but an Otter?! Wow!

This is the first occasion that Otters have been sighted on the Farnes and this probably reflects the boom in the population around the north-east region. The tracks were discovered in the muddy pathway where our old boardwalk was sited (it's been ripped up for a new walkway) and they run for about ninety foot up the island. Although we don't know the age of animal, it maybe safe to assume that it is a young animal exploring from its home territory and it may remain around the islands for some time to come. The rocky islands will offer it a safe place to live as it should find an abundant food supply even during the winter months.
So forget the 80,000 seabirds, 3,800 Grey Seals, come and see the famous Farnes Otters! How strange does that sound and I never thought I would be saying that within my lifetime. My next mission is to see it! It’ll make the next few weeks even more interesting and I'll keep you all posted. As for the rest of the Farnes, those wintry showers with strong winds have just cranked up a notch and those Seal pups really could be in serious trouble...

Thursday 20 November 2008

The one that got away!

Nemo like you've never seen him before!

Nice and quiet - a seal pup sleeping on our path (Brownsman cottage in the background)

Just a quick catch-up of news and the latest from the world of the Farne Islands and Brownsman. I'm glad to report the engine returned in good working order and we we're set for a seal count but sadly, mother nature continues to pose us problems as the weather has turned once again. The strong winds have picked up, plummeting the chill factor and preventing us accessing some of the colonies. There is very little we can do, so it's another sit and wait game for the weather to ease and finally we might get a chance to take a look at the North and South Wamses colonies including wee Archie.
However we don't stop, as we still have access to the two big colonies on Brownsman and Staple Island, so we made our way to the north beach to meet up with some old friends. The world hasn't been the same since we discovered Nemo and blimey, just look at him now! He has made it, he's now a fully independent second coat pup and well on his way to a life as a Farnes seal. Nemo has moulted all his fur although he remains in his favoured position by the big rock. Nemo against all the odds has survived the 'Farnes statistics' and maybe one day we'll see him back on this north colony. It real was a roller coaster journey and I'm proud he made it against all the odds after losing his mother. As for Lucky, well I'll bring you his story soon and hopefully a catch up on all the seals.
Other than that, we sit and wait. The storms are set to continue to batter us from the north and mentions of snow flurries have been uttered on the local news. It may all sound cold, but the sea is what we'll be watching as big waves and large swell can spell doom for our little pups which are just being born to the world. Fingers crossed, because this could be the big storm we all didn't really want to see...

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Well done!

Just want to say what an interesting and fabulous stories about the wonderful seals and birds. Keep it up I really think its great!

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Doorstep Seal

'Second coat' pup ready for life as a Grey Seal around the Farne Islands

No go: Mother and Pup blocking our pathway

Its another day on Brownsman and the invasion continues. Late last night I decided to check for any 'northern lights action' and opened the front door, only to be greeted by a 'second coat' youngster, sleeping against the door frame. I'm not sure who jumped the most, but I did chuckle to myself, as this really is their island at this time of year. I managed to leap the sleeping pup and realised I wasn't alone. Brownsman is becoming an interesting place to live and we can't even walk outside the front door without bumping into a Seal or two (actually make that four or five). When we do eventually leave the island in early December, its going to be a challenge carrying our belongings down to the jetty!

Sadly our engine problems continued and the count had to be put on hold for another day. Thankfully the weather allowed me to escape to the 'engine hospital' on the mainland (also known as a boat repair yard) for important running repairs and we should be back in action from tomorrow (fingers crossed). The seal count will be huge this time, and we should top the 800 mark for the number of pups born. I'll also add some photos of Nemo and Lucky, because blimey, they have changed.

Otherwise its all quiet on the islands. The only seabirds which remain around the rocky shores are the Shags, whilst everything else departs for far flung wintering grounds and in some cases as far as the Southern Hemisphere. The last of the migrant birds moved through the islands but our attention is back on the Seals, as role on tomorrow, its count day...

Sunday 16 November 2008

Engine Trouble!

The Zodiac boat - a tool of the trade!

Seal Pups on Northern Hares opposite the famous Longstone Lighthouse

Seal Pups on the South Wamses

Mid-November and its hectic as usual on the Farne Islands. Its the height of the pupping season on the main island colonies, with huge numbers of new pups being born daily. The island of Brownsman has been invaded as we're now up to 93 pups whilst nearby Staple Island has tallied almost 200 pups. However we've not completed the count and North and South Wamses should be home to even more, so tomorrow should be another busy day.
Living on an island with Grey Seals is very different from the 'real world' across on the mainland (which does feel a million miles away at times). Forget the sound of traffic or children playing in the streets, we've got the cry of the pups, the occasional sound of a bull fight and the calling of the cows to keep us company. Even when darkness falls, Seals can still be heard as they go about their daily business. However its not all that simple, as walking outside the front door has now got its own problems, as two mothers (complete with pups) have made home on our boardwalk. Its now a case of dodging the angry mum before continuing the walk to the jetty. This scene is typical and will only get worse over the coming few weeks but its a nice problem to have as its nature up close and personal!
For the team it was just another day on Brownsman although a count was expected to be made on the most easterly island, Northern Hares. However not all went according to plan... The wardens heavily rely upon the small Zodiac boat we have for policing the islands and getting to the important colonies. However its every wardens nightmare that one day you'll run into difficulty and so we did. Despite all precautions, experience and training, the main boat engine cut out as we were heading to the Northern Hares to count seals. After a few anxious minutes, the boat started drifting and its at this point that skills come into play and thankfully the problem was rectified although the count was abandoned for a return to Brownsman to sort the problem. I'm sure a bead of sweat could be seen trickling across my brow...
So its onwards and upwards. More counting (hopefully with a fixed engine) and more pups to welcome to the crazy world of the Farnes. We're still on here for another three weeks so plenty more news to bring and surely this is the week that Nemo and Lucky will finally make it, but what about little Archie? Oh and one final bit of news: the forecasters are saying we've got big Northerly storms due at the end of the week... thats not good news, not good at all.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Pups Away!

Me, at the 'office' - counting with a difference!

Nemo, looking young fat and healthy!

Life on Brownsman for the wardens of the Farne Islands continues as we approach the first week since the Autumnwatch team departed these rocky shores. Life hasn't changed much, as we're going about our daily work and the Seals are getting on with raising young pups (and the wind continues to blow...). Its the height of the pupping season at this moment and the team are out counting today (and tomorrow). The volume of Seal pups results in a two day count to mark and count all the pups across the Farne Islands and news of the latest count, complete with updates of Nemo, Lucky and Archie will be bought to you all soon.

Despite the huge colonies of Seals scattered across the islands, its the small colony on the north end of Brownsman which I visit daily, just to keep a careful eye on Nemo and co. It's been an interesting start to life for little Nemo and what a life he has had (after only three weeks). He's had it all, swimming lessons at three days old, his mother driven off by another female before being accepted by yet another cow seal. Its been a turbulent start to life but he's nearly there. Little Nemo isn't so little these days and he's almost there. The white fur coat is gradually moulting away and his independent life is just around the corner. The day he leaves the shore of Brownsman will be a day of mixed feelings. I'll miss this little character, his crazy upbringing, but I'll be so relived that he has made it this far. Hand on heart, I didn't expect to bring good news but we're nearly there, just a few more days. Fingers crossed for little (or not so-little) Nemo. How the other seal pups are coping, only time will tell, but the lack of big northerly storms is helping the pups survive. Lets hope it stays that way.

Otherwise its all quiet on Brownsman as the dark nights close-in and bird migration starts dwindling away. The hustle and bustle of Farnes life is ebbing away for another year and it won't just be the Seals leaving soon, as the wardens prepare to head for the mainland for the winter. However it's not over yet, we've still got some seals to count.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Another day, another storm

'Second-coat' pup on the move - inspecting the cottage

Bull seal checking us out, but we're keeping our distance!

Long-tailed Tit, a rare and unusual visitor to the Farne Islands (by Alex Ash)
Since the BBC Autumnwatch team departed by helicopter on Friday morning, the wind has not eased and the storm has raged. The south-westerly winds have gusted up to 40mph and I suspect even stronger at times. It has been the same story every morning, rising to the dancing roof tiles of the 17th century cottage as the wind blows across the North Sea, battering the life out of this ten acre island. Life on Brownsman hasn't changed much although its a lot quieter on this remote rock without the lads from Autumnwatch.
Life on Brownsman remains the same, as we go about our work, checking the Seal colonies, recording migrant birds and report writing. Darkness falls about 4pm and its always a good time to catch up on paper work (yes we don't escape paperwork despite living on a rock!). Today brought more migrant birds including up to twenty Woodcock although the star of the show was three Long-tailed Tits - a very rare visitor to the islands and first time since 2004!
As for the seals, the colony is settled, although the bull seals are starting throw their weight around and I witnessed one epic fight between two 'heavy weights' which thankfully ended before any serious damage was done. The Cows are as attentive as ever and the pups still don't have a care in the world - after all, why should they? As for Nemo and Lucky, its looking good and are we going to have a happy ending? Lets hope so.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Tubby Nemo

Nemo looking fine and well

Great Grey Shrike, Brownsman (by Alex Ash) - a scarce bird to Britain and the Farnes

It was a wise decision to call in the helicopter for the Autumnwatch team as Saturday was dominated by strong southerly winds, reaching gale force for a time. The next few days appear to be changing little and life on the Brownsman will be restricted, once again, by the mistress that is known as the North Sea.
However work doesn't stop and I made my first visit onto the north beach since the BBC had departed and was delighted at what I found. As the autumn progresses more and more seal pups will be born on a daily basis and I was greeted by numerous more new pups scattered across the pebbled beach. However it was Nemo which attracted attention and WOW, has he grown!! Despite loosing his mum, then adopted by the crazy 'quadruplet' mother, he now has a new foster mum and is doing very well for himself. Nemo has put on the lost weight and is looking a good size for his age. It won't be long before he moults and we'll be saying a fond farewell to this little guy, who, by one way or another, will make it into the big world of first-year Seals. As for Lucky, well, no change, he's well on his way having enjoyed a 'normal' upbringing. Its been some story and more photographs will appear of Nemo and co very soon.
As for the rest of the Seal colony, all is well as the the north beach and the majority of the Farnes seal colonies are well protected from the southerly gales and things are looking up. Away from the seals more migrant birds are pouring through the islands including up to twenty Waxwings. However its the discovery of an impressive Great Grey Shrike on Brownsman which captured the imagination, as the bird lingered throughout the day. These fearsome birds, prey on small birds and sadly two Goldcrest and a Robin were lost to this robust visitor. However it was a delight to watch in action and he'll be heading west to winter in some remote part of Britain. Otherwise all was quiet on the Farnes and things are now starting to settle after two weeks of Autumnwatch, as November advances.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Lift off!

The team that did it (from left to right): Alex Ash (warden), Richard Taylor-Jones (producer), Matt meech (editor), David Steel (head warden), Andrew Yarme (sound/light) and Gordon Buchanan (presenter).

The team preparing to leave on Friday

(Sorry all for late update but back on track and daily updates will be posted)
The final day arrived and all the hard work put in over the past two weeks was nearly at completion. Thursday witnessed the final filming and editing on the Farnes for Autumnwatch 2008 and the program was beamed to over three million viewers, as they tuned in to bid farewell to the Farne Islands and the seal colonies. It was a great ending to a great two weeks and no one will ever forget the characters, the storms and the magic that is the Farne Islands. The BBC team of Gordon, Richard, Andrew and Matt have worked their socks off and all deserve a huge pat on the back for bringing you the amazing images from the islands.
Finally as we waved goodbye from Brownsman to the viewers, the credits rolled and the beer started to flow and the team celebrated and it was all over. Tomorrow the team would sail off the islands at 08:00 and that would be that...or would it.
It was an early start on Friday as everyone was up at 06:00 to pack and decamp to the jetty, with everything from satellite dishes to cameras. However it wasn't just the team that were up, as the wind was strong, very strong. Sunrise broke just after 7am and it was obvious that the team were not escaping the Farnes, as the big waves crashed all around us. Disaster. A quick check of the forecasts revealed a south-easterly weather-front had crept in and was due to sit over the Farnes for several days. The result was that storms were lashing the islands and the team would not be leaving the islands, for some time.
However, due to family life and work commitments, it was important everyone departed and therefore a helicopter was called and eventually, at long last, the team of four departed the Farnes mid-afternoon for pastures new. As for me and Alex, we stayed behind as the hard work has only begun. We've got another 800 seal pups to be born over the next four weeks and I'm going to bring you all the highs and lows and update you daily on Nemo and co and to tell the stories of the Farnes.
The Farnes 'photo of the day' blog will remain throughout November and I would be delighted if everyone would keep on reading and discover the trials and tribulations of this very special place. I'm heading to the north beach today and tomorrow I'll bring you all the news of Nemo and Lucky.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Penultimate Day

Matt at work in the 'cellar' which has been converted into editing suit

Gordon and Richard washing the dishes - multitasking!

Richard, the man who makes everything tick!

Welcome to Wednesday and it's the penultimate Autumnwatch show 'live' from Brownsman, Farne Islands. It's been a big adventure, bringing you the highs and lows of life on a 'rock', but all has gone well, so far...  As usual, it was an early start for the team (especially Richard and Gordon) who have worked their socks off. As for me, it was just another day at the office, with various Farnes business to sort (and more Waxwings to look at - watch out on the mainland!) although not before a brief visit to the north beach colony to check on all the seal pups.

A quick chat with Gordon reveals he had filmed what we all suspected, that the cow seal at the centre of all the problems was fighting off Nemo's mother. Little Nemo is helpless, as he watches his mother being driven back into the waves, but is it all bad news? From an early age Nemo was a fighter, swimming in the North Sea at a tender age of three days old and he's mot going down without a fight. Nemo appears to be gaining weight, but how? Regardless of how, it could be great news for this little fella and one we certainly won't forget. So has Nemo put on weight and how is he getting it? Hopefully all will be revealed.

One seal pup we fail to show, is Lucky, who is living the high life and it won't be long before we're reporting the success of Lucky making it to independence and beyond. Who knows, we'll probably see Lucky back on these beach's in a few years time as a proud parent. We wish him well but we'll keep you informed of progress. The seal colony is now changing in subtle ways as the bulls are starting to get more and more active. Cow seals come into oestrus about 14-18 days after giving birth, so mating is now being noted on a daily basis and the Autumnwatch team caught it all on camera.

So this is one interesting place and every day is different. Tomorrow will be a sad day as the last Autumnwatch program will be screened and the team will leave the Farnes early on Friday morning. For me, life will continue on this rock until early December, as the Farnes seals have still some way to go. I'll keep you all posted.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Count Day

'Archie' another addition to the Farnes

The Seal Team in Action

The Farnes Seal Team
(from left to right) David Steel, Ian McNee, Richard Berridge (sitting), Alex Ash (sitting), Anthony Hurd 

The mighty Tuesday had arrived and the islands were a beehive of activity as the BBC Autumnwatch team were active before first light (Gordon was out at 06:00 - one hour before sunrise). It wasn't just the Autumnwatch team, as the National Trust Farnes seal team were up, ready for the seal count.

It was the big day, as weather had prevented access to some of the remote seal colonies for several days and today was our chance. As expected the seal count took the majority of the day, as all seven pupping islands were visited, the seals marked and counted. It was pleasing to see the storm at the weekend had had little effect on the seals and their appeared to be good numbers of strong healthy pups, with attentive mothers. The South Wamses, the biggest Farne Island colony, produced over 150 pups (including little Archie) with the day bringing a total of 415 pups (a third of our overall expected population). The team of five worked hard all day and it'll be another four days before we return and can bring further updates from the colonies. 

Back on Brownsman, the Autumnwatch team were busy preparing for another 'live' and this time it featured the bulls, those ugly brutes of the north beach. If their is one thing you learn quickly on the islands, is that you don't mess with an adult bull seal. 

As for our characters, Lucky is growing by the day and is putting on the bulk weight we expect pups to have before independence. However attentions are back on Nemo, the pup with the underweight problems. Is Nemo going to make it? well I'll keep that for another day but he really could do with some milk... Keep watching.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

The Bulls have arrived

Not one, but three...

Up close and personal, a bull seal

Its the start of a fresh week and the team are ready for action with an early morning start as the first 'live' link for three days will take place this evening with plenty to squeeze in. The team have been given an extended slot on this evenings Autumnwatch, so more hard work required and is it me being biased, or is the Seal coverage good?

So what news from the colony? Its obvious things are changing slowly. More new pups are being born, one or two are moulting into 'second coats' ready for independence and yes, the bad boys are in town, the bulls have arrived.

Bull seals have no part to play in the pup-rearing process as their contribution is solely genetic (with a few fights along the way). These 300kg (up to 700lb) blubber fighting machines are starting to make their presence felt on the colonies as they have started taking up positions within the colony of females and they will defend their right to stay in the group. If that means fighting rival males or wandering bulls, then so be it and savage bites can be exchanged and neck wounds common.

As for the pups, they have few cares in the world and thankfully the storms have long gone so its back to the milk feeding and trying to work out which mum is which. The female offering free milk all round is still at it, whilst Lucky stays clear of all the problems and Nemo has started moulting his first coat. As for the team, well we're now fully stocked with food and water (I'm pleased to report). Supplies arrived and the sense of relief was noticeable in the team as the long-life UHT milk could be confined back to the cupboard. The evening went smoothly and the Farnes were beamed into the homes of millions once again. Its the start of another busy week.

Monday 3 November 2008

Relaxed Sunday

Bull Seal looking menacing

Inquisitive Seals

Its Sunday morning on the Brownsman and there is a relaxed atmosphere around the island, as the Seals are happily getting on with the day to day life and the Autumnwatch team are stirring for another day on the 'rock'.

The north beach has welcomed four new arrivals overnight, bringing the numbers to nineteen whilst nearby Staple Island has increased to forty-one. The colonies are still a few weeks away from peak season and we'll expect somewhere in the region of 150 and 300 pups on these two respective islands. As for our characters, Lucky is growing strong with its attentive mum, whilst Nemo snuggles into the rocky shoreline but still looks underweight.  

However it was the female at the centre of the controversy with the quadruplets, which caught our attention again, as she was back at it, but this time with another different pup, a newly born. Her odd behaviour has got us and nodoubt other cow seals very puzzled and her aggressive stance towards all others may have something to do with it. It may also be the reason why Nemo is underweight - has she being chasing Nemo's mother away? So many questions. Regardless, this free milk offering can not be turned down and even Nemo looked interested... 

The easterly winds continue to dominate and the big seal count across all the colonies is cancelled due to the difficult landing conditions on other islands, but this won't prevent us in the long term. Bird passage continues through the islands as a Little Grebe is discovered - only our sixth ever record!! although three Waxwings brighten things up as they move west to winter in the UK (watch out for those in your gardens!).

Otherwise all quiet on the ten acre island as we head into the final week of Autumnwatch, what will happen to the north colony pups? Will Nemo find his mum for that precious milk, will storms lash the islands again and what about those brute bull Seals which have just started to appear... all will be revealed.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Not all safe

Our newest arrival

A 'Seals eye view' of Brownsman cottage

Andrew (left) and Richard (right) capturing the latest from the seal colony

An early start and thankfully the storm has eased and moved off south down the North Sea. Clear skies and calm conditions greet us, as Saturday morning begins... First thing first, its to the north beach colony and what has happened to the Seal pups overnight? Has the storm claimed any lives? 

One, two, three, the head count of the pups begins. Nemo is present, that's a good start, but Lucky, where is Lucky? No this could be bad news... relief. Lucky is with its mum. So far, so good. It was obvious that the majority of the colony escaped the worst of the storm, but not all are present. Sadly it appears we've lost one pup to the storm the previous evening. It's sad and we'll never know how it was lost, as it will just become another statistic for the Farnes as the islands loose 50-55% of all the pups born in the first three weeks of life. It's a heavy toll as its a harsh existence being born on these rugged islands in the North Sea in late autumn. However life goes on and its pleasing to see that most survived and the storm has eased.

After the head count, Nemo is checked - still small, still underweight, but why? Suspicions may be that Nemo's mother is being bullied off the colony but its difficult to judge at this early stage. Theres no such worries about Lucky, he's growing up big and strong. Thereafter the team rolled back into action, with more filming and editing and a slight worry that we may be starting to run out of food, as its been some time since we've been able to escape this rock, due to the stormy seas. Its a challenge not only working out here, but also living out here, but the Autumnwatch crew have adapted very well (and that's just to my cooking) and we are loving every minute of it. As for tomorrow, its seal count day across all the islands on the Farnes and who knows what's out there...

Saturday 1 November 2008

There could be trouble ahead.

Seal pup without a care in the world

Gordon on north beach colony 

Stormy views from Brownsman towards Longstone

"Forth, Tyne, Dogger: north or north-east 7 occasionally gale 8, wintry showers, good"

For those not familiar with the shipping forecast, that brought only one thing on Friday: storms. Big cold northerly storms with powerful waves which crashed against the ten acre island known as Brownsman. Their was no escape. Weather is such an unpredictable feature of the Farne Islands at this time of year and when a storm blows, there is no stopping it. The day changed little throughout as wintry squalls constantly swept over the islands setting a dramatic scene, as moody skylines were broken by huge swell and large breakers.

This was not good news for the seal pups of the north end. Not good at all, but it wasn't the weather which was the main concern. The four pups were still being accepted and squabbling over the cow and its obvious she is losing weight but will the pups survive? Free milk may be an added bonus for any struggling pup, but will all four make it? But forget the squabbling quartet, something else caught the eye... Nemo.

Nemo may be in trouble. After nearly two weeks of life on the north colony, Nemo should be putting on weight, building up fat layers ready for independence, but its not and its clearly underweight. Why? That is a question I'll try and answer but its now in the balance whether Nemo will actually make it. Fingers crossed. Otherwise the colony was settled, Lucky was being just good old lucky and the cow seals were doing their bit to protect the pups from mother nature. 

It wasn't just the seal pups that were braving the weather, as the trusty team of four (the Autumnwatch crew) were out capturing the drama as it unfolded and eventually darkness fell to the sound of crashing waves and strong winds. Saturday will be a telling day. How many pups will survive the overnight storm? Will Nemo gain some weight and what about the troublesome foursome? All will be revealed, very very soon...