Return from the Isle of May and into 2017

Grey seal pup on the Isle of May, just over a week old (taken from a hide during a routine survey of the breeding colony)
A wild short eared owl on the Isle of May, caught for ringing by bird researchers on the island and then re-released.

A slightly belated happy new year to everyone reading this! I’ve returned safe and sound from my research expedition to the Isle of May over the winter, and I’ve more or less re-adjusted to ‘civilisation’  after two months of living on a little island off the Scottish coast with a bunch of seals (read more about our adventures and the research we do here). I had a fantastic time once again, it is my eighth season living and working on a seal colony and it honestly never gets old. I am working on processing all the photos from the trip, but there were plenty of reasons to take a ridiculous number of photos while I was there so it’s taking some time! My next update will hopefully include a detailed account of some of the seals, birds and behaviours I encountered while in the field along with all the best photos from the trip.

Surveying the grey seal colony over the winter on the Isle of May. The old rock walls and ruins on the island come in handy to hide from the seals!

In the meantime:

  • I’ve posted some of my photos from the last few weeks here on the mainland, including frosty mornings with garden birds and seals and seabirds from a day survey back out to the Isle of May in January (link).
  • I’ve finally finished a long overdue review of Edinburgh Zoo, my ‘local’ zoo and a particular favourite of mine (link).
  • I’ve also completed the overhaul of the website’s structure and appearance, so things are running much smoother and hopefully everything is a lot easier to find now. If you do find any broken links, missing images or typos then do let me know.
Robin on a frosty morning

In the coming months I also plan to write about my experiences with the Icelandic whale watching companies I was out with last year to see wild Orcas and I’ll be visiting Twycross Zoo soon, so there will be plenty of reviews and photos coming online along with all the seal related material I’ll be posting. I’ll keep putting notifications of updates to the site on my twitter feed (@KJRScience) so if you want to know when new things are online you can follow me there.

Now, back to those seal photos…

A curious weaned grey seal pup (between 3-5 weeks old) comes over to investigate my boots on the Isle of May. Grey seal mothers abruptly wean their pups at 18 days old and leave them to fend for themselves in the wild, but that doesn’t stop ‘weaners’ from being playful when they feel like it!

How Time Flies – New Zealand 2013

See the best shots from my New Zealand trip in my wildlife galleries under ‘whales & dolphins‘, ‘seals & sea lions‘ and ‘birds‘!

Has it really been a year already? Time certainly flies when you’re finishing your PhD. In the last year I’ve managed to do all the analysis, write up and hand in my PhD thesis, and I will have my viva (the final examination I guess) this week! Am getting pretty nervous about it but it will all be over soon, and that particular chapter of my life will come to a close.

My thesis has left me few opertunities to get out and take photos since my Northumberland trip. I managed a grand total of three trips to zoos in the year, and didn’t get back to Edinburgh Zoo at all until recently. On the plus side I did get to spend another season out on the Isle of May surveying the grey seals while they breed which is always amazing. I also got to go to New Zealand for about two weeks in december, and I had the time of my life!

Sand Fly Bay, Otagu Peninsula

I went to New Zealand to present some of the findings from my PhD work, and the conference was held in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zeland. The place was absolutely stunning and luckily enough was right next to the Otagu Peninsula, which has all kinds of unusual, endemic and endangered wildlife on it. While I was there I got to see the world’s most endangered penguin and sea lion species, the yellow-eyed penguin and the New Zealand sea lion. The sea lions were huge! and they were hauled out on the beach, not bothered at all by people unless they foolishly got too close. The penguins were amazing too, got to see them swimming in the surf and coming up the beach to return to their nests in the sand dunes. While we were there we also got to visit an albatros breeding colony! I have always wanted to see albatros, and we managed to see birds on nests with eggs, birds doing their courtship dances and pairs flying in sync with each other, was incredible.

Once the conference was over I rented a car and headed north along the east coast of the south island. There were several wildlife hotspots I’ve been dying to see my entire life along the way and I couldn’t wait to get to them! The first stop was a place called Akora to see the endangered Hector’s Dolphin, a very small dolphin species only found in coastal New Zealand. The company we went out with (Akora Dolphins, were excellent, they knew lots about the local area and wildlife to tell everyone on the boat and we saw loads of Hector’s Dolphins, they even tried to bow ride for a while! They aren’t really built for speed though so they couldn’t keep it up for long. On that trip we also got to visit a New Zealand fur seal breeding colony that had lots of tiny pups on it, was great watching the colony from the water as the seals weren’t disturbed at all, they make the most incredible noises I’ve ever heard from a pinniped! If you get a chance to go to the south island and are in the Christchurch area, I would really recommend going to Akora, not only is the wildlife amazing but its a beautiful place in spectacular scenery.

All too soon we had to heard north again though, this time to Kaikora. Any one who is a whale watching enthusiast knows that Kaikora is one of the best places to see Sperm Whales relatively close to shore due to the presence of a massive, deep ocean trench not far from the shore there. Its also a great place to see Dusky Dolphins, which I’ve wanted to see since seeing documentaries about their acrobatic antics as a child. The weather conditions were not great, but we managed to get out and see a spectacular male Sperm Whale, he was called Tutu! All the males are resident in that area so the whale watch guides ( can ID and tell you who is who while you’re out there. We did only get to see one whale, spotting and getting on them is really hard work and I felt for the staff on the boat, Sperm Whales are hardly very surface active and they stay under for such a long time, really makes the lives of the boat staff difficult! On that trip we also saw wandering and white-capped albatros too which was great.

Kaikora Mountains

The next day I was very keen to try and see some Dusky dolphins. We got up really early and went on a 5am trip out to try and see them, and it was well worth the early wake up call! We went out with a company called Dolphin Encounter ( and on the boat you can either get geared up and try to swim with the dolphins, or stay on the boat and watch them (and take photos in my case!). I was very wary of a company that advertises swimming with dolphins, but once we were out there I was pleasently suprised. We were really far from shore in very deep water, and we were on the pod periphery. Any dolphins that swimmers were near were there because they’d chosen to swim over to check the people out, which a fair number did! I personally prefer watching and taking photos to swimming with dolphins, but if that sort of thing takes your fancy then this company have got the right idea for doing it without harassing the dolphins. We found a massive pod of several hundred dolphins and it was an incredible sight, at any one time there were always two or three dolphins in the air breaching or doing somersaults, was hard to know where to look! There were loads of calves around too which was great to see, and loads of the dolphins made a beeline for the boat to bow ride much to everyone’s delight. All too soon it was time to go home, but it was an amazing experience!

Part of the Dusky pod off Kaikora

After that I was unfortunatly running out of time on the trip. I drove to the northmost point on the island to Picton and got a ferry to the north island and Wellington so I could go visit the Weta cave! I am a massive lord of the rings fan, and didn’t have time to go to any of the actual filiming locations on this trip, but the Weta cave more than made up for it! Then I got on a flight to Aukland, which was where my international flight back to the UK was departing from. I originally wanted to drive up through the north island too but I ran out of time! Ah well, hopefully I will get to come back one day. I had a spare day in Aukland so I went out one more time with a wildlife tour to try and see some Bryde’s whales, which I’ve never seen before! There is also always the chance of seeing orca while you’re out in NZ waters… but I was unlucky on both counts this time, and didn’t see any whales or orcas. We did find a huge feeding aggregation of gannets and common dolphins however, which was an amazing sight with all the diving birds and fast moving dolphins. So that was a lovely way to end my trip, before the horrible long flight back to the UK!

So I had an eventfull time in New Zeland and was extremely luck to go there and to see so many amazing things. The next stop for me after my viva this week is a trip to Sarasota in Florida to work with the Mote Marine Lab on bottlenose dolphins, which is VERY exciting! In the mean time I have some recent shots from the highland wildlife park and keilder bird of prey center to sort through and upload, so I’ll hopefully get them up before I leave (but definately before another year goes by!).

Northumberland – Snow, Seals and Sea Eagles

After two months of not getting out on any photoshoots, I’ve finally got some new shots to share from my fantastic Easter holiday in Northumberland with my family. I was so busy with PhD work in february and march I had no weekends free to go anywhere, not even Edinburgh zoo! So I was really happy to get out with my camera taking pics of my family, the dogs Tess and Colin the Border Collies and the wildlife in the area. I even had a go at some landscape shots! I’m considering adding a ‘Pets’ section to the website to put all my dog pictures into, will see how things go. In the meantime I’ve uploaded lots of seal, lamb and bird of prey shots from my time on holiday.

I’d not spent a lot of time in Northumberland before, the last time I was here was a short visit when I was in primary school, and it was great to explore a new region of the UK, the landscape is gorgeous! We went to Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh Castle, Kielder Water and one place I’ve not been to in five years, the Farne Isles! Some of my family are not too keen on boat rides so in the end it was only me and Rich who went on the trip. It was a sail around only, the breeding sea birds are not back in huge numbers so we didn’t think it was worth landing on the islands. We did see some puffins flying around, and a black guillimot! Which are rare in this area so that was neat to see. We also saw thousands of grey seals, which I of course loved! They are all there to moult at the moment so are looking very scruffy but it was still ace to see so many of them, even saw some tagged beasties from the Isle of May!

We went out with an organisation called ‘Serenity’ Farne Isles Boat Trips, and they were fantastic! They had a beautiful boat and the skipper and wildlife tour guide were both lovely and really knowledgeable about the islands and all the wildlife in the area. I had a great time, but I couldn’t understand why they had so few people on their boat compared to the other tour operator going from the Seahouses harbour, who’s boat was rammed. Don’t get me wrong, for us as customers it was great to have so much room on the boat (there were only 8 people on that trip) and so many opertunities to talk to the guide one on one, but I felt bad for them, I hope its not what happens all the time. It may be because when you type ‘Farne Isles boat trips’ into google search the other tour comes out as the top search result, and while the blog for the Serenity trips is at the bottom of the first page of search results, their actual web page with the trip info on it is harder to find. Whatever the reason, they are fantastic and if you’re planning a trip out to the Farne Isles I strongly recommend them! I’ve added their site to the list on my ‘links’ page but I’ll put it here too;

Serenity Tours website:                        Blog:

The other place that I really want to talk about is the Kielder Water Bird of Prey Center, which we found on our visit to (no suprise) Kielder Water. This is a fantastic, well designed center with one of the most varied collections of birds of prey I’ve ever seen and one of the best displays (sorry Kielder, I can’t ignore the awesomeness of Banham zoo’s flying display!). It was really windy but the display area is designed so they can still fly some of the owls in a part sheltered by the mews, but also fly the bigger birds in an open area the seating part looks over. I’m not explaining it very well, but it was a great take on a display area I’d not seen before, and despite the wind they flew three owls (barn, ural and european eagle), a black kite and a white tailed sea eagle! I was so excited to see this incredible bird in their mews, and to see them fly her too, was incredible! I’ve seen sea eagles in the wild on both the west and east coasts of Scotland but to see one close up, was amazing. The display was great too, got lots of the audience involved in flying to the glove and throwing bits for the Kite to catch, I was even asked to have some chicken put on my hat for the Kite to snatch off mid flight. Was great fun, yes the kite did steal my hat and then flew off with it for a while but she brought it back eventually, was great! So yeah, if you are in the area and like birds of prey definatly check out this place you won’t be disappointed.

Kielder Water Bird of Prey Center:

Now its back to Scotland and back to work on the thesis. I have no idea when I’ll next get out to take more photos, maybe will get to go see the moray firth dolphins in may or visit one of the southern zoos (banham/colchester/twycross) then, but it’ll depend on how much work I’ve done, and how much I still have to do!

Black Kite steals my hat!

West Midlands Safari Park – Good Day Out but Bad Zoo?

Last weekend I visited my boyfriend and his family in England. We were in the Birmingham area and had some time to kill so decided to go to the West Midlands Safari Park. I’ve not been to a big drive-through park before so was keen to see how it works, and I was lucky that I had Rich with me so he could drive and I could try and get some photos! There was snow everywhere which made some of the enclosures pretty amusing, as they specialise in afrcian and asian species. The animals that were out seemed to be having fun with it though, the african elephants were making snowballs and eating them! Was pretty funny to watch. It was great to have all the herbivore species so close and interacting with you too, you can buy food to feed them out of the car windows, and even though we had no food they all come up to see if you have any. Was great to see so many antelope species in such big herds, there was addax, eland, nilgai, gaur… the list goes on.  They also have two big prides of african lions. Actual prides of more than ten animals! I always think its kind of sad to see lions in captivity in small groups of rarely more than five, so to see these two big groups was great. All in all we had a lot of fun driving around the park and seeing some ace species, and I went off happy but with a few misgivings about the awful sea lion show we saw at the end of the trip…

I know that I’m a tougher person to please when it comes to animal displays, but I have enjoyed all the ‘shows’ I’ve seen in other zoos around the UK and while obviously some are better than others, all of them really tried to educate their audiences about the animals they were showing. Unfortunatly that was really not the case for this show, it was two thirds through the show before they told you what species of sea lion they had! Let alone where they live, what conservation issues they might be facing etc. They also were pretty focused on getting the animal to do tricks for the sake of entertainment, rather than show off natural behaviours of the species. Throwing hoops over the sea lions head? What relevence does that have to anything! Towards the very end it got a bit better and they explained the ways to tell seals from sea lions, but they could make it so much better! Like at one point they got the sea lion to jump out the water several times, and said ‘this is porpoising, which is a natural behaviour!’ Ok thats fine but… why not explain why they do it or how it helps them survive? Perhaps I’m being pedantic, all the kids obviously loved the show as there was a lot of jumping out of the water to hit targets and sea lions are cool charismatic creatures. But I’ve never before been to an animal display in the UK and felt so uncomfortable. And as it turns out… perhaps I was right to be concerned.

I was looking for some information about the individual animals at the park to put in the captions of the shots today and I came across some upsetting information. The Park has recently been reprimanded by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums for selling four white lion cubs to an organisation that trains animals for the entertainment industry, which then sold the lions to a circus in Japan. I’m not even going to go into how questionable breeding white lions is, in brief (like the problems with white tigers) it is not recommended because to get the white genes to turn up the animals must be inbred, and the resources spent keeping white lions could be better used on an endangered species. Despite this, the park bred them, infact over three years (2006-2009) their three white lionesses produced 22 cubs! The park then had a surplus of male cubs they could not house, as the females can remain in the pride but the males cannot. I understand that the cubs had to go somewhere, but to sell them to the entertainment industry!? Its shocking beyond belief, and who knows what has happened to the other male cubs they bred… Those poor lions in Japan, one of them has already been retired to a Japanese zoo because he became so stressed his mane fell out.

So that has taken the shine off my visit somewhat… its very disappointing. I really would not have thought things like this were still happening in UK zoos, and the park can claim that ‘they had no idea the lions would end up in a circus’ but they knew that they would be used for films and TV adverts… it’s just unbelieveable =(

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African Elephant eating snowballs XD

Edinburgh in the Snow

Meercat, Edinbrugh Zoo 2013

Yesterday I finally made it to Edinburgh Zoo while it was snowing, I’ve been trying to do this for years but since I move to Scotland we’ve either had no snow or so much that the zoo’s been closed. So me and two friends braved the icy temperatures and headed south for the day to try and actually see penguins in the snow without going to the antarctic!

Unfortunatly there was no snow left in the penguin enclosure(s), and where they have them currently is quite sad looking in truth because all the penguins are in various temporary enclosures while their main pool gets a make over. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before they are back where they belong. The meercats also looked very out of place in the snow, poor shivering things! But they seemed to want to be outside in the cold digging around in the snow, they did have access to their indoor house but there was even one up on sentry duty freezing his tail off, silly meercat.

Did get to see the amur leopards playing in the snow which was amazing, Zane especially was very active running, jumping and rolling around in the snow. The Jaguars Mowgli and Rica didn’t seem quite so impressed though! Was also very happy to see Tibor and Baginda (the Sumatran Tigers) in the same enclosure at last, hopefully the pitter patter of tiger cub paws won’t be too far away… And was amazed to see a sign for a Clouded Leopard on the big cat walk! I have never seen one of these cats before so can’t wait to see this new arrival.

All in all it was a good trip, although my camera lens continues to play up and there was next to no light to use to shoot in. It was really cloudy so no high shutter speeds were possible, a shame with all the antics Zane was doing. Never mind, hopefully the snow will stay around until my next trip in February and mabye then the sun will be out!

Next trip: either Ed. zoo again in February or perhaps wild capercaillies if I’m really lucky…?

Amur Leopard, Edinburgh Zoo 2013