In Search of…

Seals

A grey seal hauled up on the shoreline
Image Source: Steenbergs

From our clifftop vantage point, the whole of Tor Bay stretched out before us, a wide, sweeping vista of calm ocean. A light breeze ruffled my hair and I tasted the slightest hint of salt on my lips. In the distance, a flock of gulls – little more than tiny white dots to us – were following a small fishing boat. I turned my gaze downwards, scanning the rippling surface far below, searching for signs of movement in the water.

Alex and I were at Berry Head, a nature reserve on the southern boundary of Tor Bay, just east of the fishing town of Brixham. A diverse mixture of habitats can be found on this large headland, including heathland and exposed limestone grassland, and it is also a well-known bird migrant hotspot. Our goal this time, though, was to find grey seals – and that’s why I was studying the water at the bottom of the cliff I was standing on.

Two kinds of seals live and breed around the British Isles: the grey seal and the common, or harbour, seal. Despite the name, it is the grey seal that is the more numerous of the two in the UK. In fact, nearly half of all the grey seals in the world live on British coasts.

Seals – along with other marine mammals such as dolphins and harbour porpoises – are sighted fairly frequently around Berry Head, but we couldn’t spot anything of note from our particular clifftop. We therefore decided to settle down on a nearby bench and have some lunch. A red-tailed bumblebee kept us company for a while, buzzing around in the long grass. Pleasant birdsong reached our ears from the nearby scrub.

‘What’s that?’ Alex asked, pointing to an almost imperciptible white speck flying over the ocean in the distance.

Another gull? No. Upon raising the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the bird in question, I saw that it had long white wings with black tips, and a long neck. This was no gull; it was Britain’s largest seabird, a gannet.

The gannet vanished into a bank of clouds and we immediately began searching for more. Having spotted one, we soon started to see them almost everywhere. A few came closer, allowing us to see their dagger-like bills and yellowish necks. One gannet, when I had the binoculars trained on it, suddenly turned in flight, folded its wings over its back and plunge-dived into the ocean like an arrow.

A northern gannet calling
Nearly 70% of the world’s population of northern gannets breed around Great Britain and Ireland.
Image Source: Melissa McMasters

Following our excitement with the gannets, we rejoined the path and, upon reaching some crossroads, headed left. The path here sloped downwards towards the sea. It was lined on one side with prickly gorse bushes; on the other, there was a precipitous drop into a huge, disused limestone quarry. Bird song echoed up from it, making it hard for us to pinpoint exactly where it was coming from. Small black crags and crevices in the quarry walls opposite caught my eye, and I later found out they are home to greater horseshoe bats. The colony here is said to be unique in that it occupies both a winter hibernation roost and a spring maternity roost.

The sloping path led to the base of a rugged cliff and from there we could look up at a number of fulmars resting on cliff ledges. The last time we had seen fulmars, over a year ago, we had been above them, looking down. But now we had much better views of these seabirds, with some of them gliding just a couple of metres above our heads on long, stiff wings. Hopping among the boulders that stretched down to the water’s edge was a soggy-looking rock pipit that may have recently run afoul of a crashing wave.

After spending some time at the base of the cliff, we went back up the path and took the other route, into some light woodland. Above us, a group of rooks at their communal nesting site were cawing loudly. A song thrush hopped onto the path in front of us, its beak full of worms.

We soon emerged from the trees and reached the main headland itself. After a quick hot chocolate from the Guardhouse Cafe, we explored the area. It was much windier up here on the exposed plateau, but the ocean panorama showed dramatic views of Tor Bay and beyond.

If I may go on a slight historical tangent for a moment, I would be remiss not to mention the remains of two garrisoned forts located here at Berry Head. During the Napoleonic War, the sheltered waters of Tor Bay were used by the British fleet as an anchoring and resupply point, and the two forts were built between 1795 and 1806 to protect Brixham Harbour from the perceived threat of a French invasion. The Northern Fort housed 600 men plus cannons, while the Southern Fort contained a barracks, powder magazine, kitchen and storehouse, the ruins of which can still be explored.

There is also an unusual-looking lighthouse here on the headland. Indeed, at only 5 metres tall, it’s the shortest lighthouse in the country. However, because it’s situated on a clifftop a whopping 58 metres above sea level, it is simultaneously one of the highest! I suppose a lighthouse doesn’t require further elevation when it’s already on such a large headland. And the Berry Head lighthouse holds one more record: it’s also said to be the deepest lighthouse in the British Isles, for the optic was originally turned by the action of a weight falling down a 45-metre-deep shaft.

The Berry Head lighthouse
Built in 1906, the strange Berry Head lighthouse is still active today.
Image Souce: Nilfanion

But it’s probably the guillemot colony that Berry Head is most famous for. We heard these noisy birds before we saw them, their raucous calls being carried towards us by the wind. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Most were packed together on the rocky cliff below the Southern Fort – it’s the largest guillemot breeding colony on the south coast of England. These birds don’t build nests; they simply lay their single egg directly onto impossibly precarious ledges. Meanwhile, more guillemots were bobbing around on the ocean far below. Occasionally, a bird would launch itself from the cliff, its small wings beating frantically until it landed ungracefully (and often comically) in the sea. But although flying may be hard work for these black-and-white birds, they are superb swimmers, using their wings for propulsion as they zoom around underwater in pursuit of fish.

A World War II aircraft observation post and a Cold War nuclear bunker at Berry Head
Alex and I were interested to find a World War II aircraft observation post on the headland (it’s the building in the background of the photo above) and the entrance and air vents of a Cold War nuclear bunker (foreground).

If you’ve been reading our previous entries in this series, you may be aware that one of our target species, the cirl bunting, revealed itself very early on in our excursion to find them. This time, though, our target conveniently waited until almost the last possible moment.

We had continued along the coastal path, heading away from Berry Head towards Sharkham Point, across a patchwork of pasture and scrub, and were very close to the turn-off point that would lead back into Brixham when we saw a dark shape in the sea below us. It vanished underwater almost immediately. We waited and waited, hoping that it would re-emerge so that we could confirm it was a seal. But it didn’t re-surface, at least not in the area we were scanning. We had almost lost hope when, finally, just as we were about to turn away, it popped its head out of the water again. There was no doubt this time – it was definitely a seal.

A grey seal hauled up on a beach
The grey seal’s scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, roughly translates to ‘hook-nosed sea pig’.
Image Source: Andreas Trepte, www.avi-fauna.info

Just seeing one grey seal is superb. After all, at 2.5 metres in length (nearly a metre longer than the common seal) and weighing over 200 kg, this is Britain’s biggest carnivore, and the heaviest wild animal to breed here. But then, to make the moment even more magical, another seal appeared. The two animals frolicked with one another, rolling about in the water and raising their heads high above the surface. It was fantastic watching them playfully interact with one another in their natural habitat, and, after they finally vanished, we went to catch our bus buoyed with enthusiasm and joy.

We’ll be heading away from the coast next time and exploring some local woodland in search of woodpeckers.

Also seen on this walk: Turnstone, pheasant, chiffchaff

Running Total (Bird Species): 42

Author

  • With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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