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Wednesday 22nd January comments: Winter is a time of cold temperatures (!) heavy seas and short daylight hours and it’s one of the reasons why our seabirds depart the May and head elsewhere (they are seabirds after all and many prefer the open sea as less chance of being predated).

Whilst migratory passerines move south, our seabirds take on a very different strategy which differs between species. The previous blog highlighted the movement of Puffins but some birds will remain relatively nearby to the May. The largest of them all; the Shag, will generally remain around the island in good numbers and utilise the May as a safe overnight roosting spot (we’ll be bringing you a blog soon on how you can help with sightings). Small numbers of Eiders also winter around the Isle with vast numbers in the Firth of Forth. Interestingly our Guillemots having been away for two months into the North Sea but are returning daily at present albeit for just an hour or so at dawn before heading back out to sea. These winter-plumage birds will return to cliff ledges occupied during the summer as the urge to establish and defend a good cliff ledge is strong even in winter.

It all makes for fascinating viewing and it’s still impressive how each seabird picks a different strategy which works for them and although we’ve highlighted the species which remain, we’ll be telling you more about the birds which go much further in our next blog post.

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Puffins in the winter

Puffin on sea

Puffins on the sea (in summer plumage!)

Puffin on sea

Water water everywhere…

Wednesday 15th January comments: As Scotland and northern England is lashed by the latest winter storms (we must thank Storm Brendan for this latest episode) we often find ourselves bemoaning the winter weather but have you ever thought about birds, especially Puffins in these conditions?

 Puffins depart the Isle of May in early August and head off into the North Sea for the winter (from September-March) and will not return to land during this time period. Regardless of conditions or strength of wind these birds will ride out the storms on the sea. The majority of our Puffins remain in the North Sea although small numbers infiltrate the Atlantic (there have been recoveries of birds as far across as Newfoundland in Canada). Its impressive stuff considering they weigh approximately 450grams (roughly the same as a loaf of bread).

 However it’s in the design of the Puffin that tells you all you need to know. Puffins are hardy, compact birds, designed more for life at sea rather than land. As true pelagic birds they actually find land as the alien habitat and so a few storms during the winter don’t trouble them too much. So the next time you are bemoaning the weather, just think of those Puffins out at sea bobbing along….

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Owl time

Sunday 12th January comments: The Isle of May is very quiet at the moment. The last of the Grey Seals have departed the breeding grounds, small numbers of seabirds linger on the peripheries to utilise the island to roost whilst mice and rabbits roam the plateaus. The majority of the migrant birds have long departed leaving a handful of robins and wrens to winter.

However that is not all. The Isle of May in recent years has become an important over-wintering site as its free from disturbance with plenty of hunting habitat but most importantly of all, it has plenty of prey; the island mice. The Island  supports a good population of mice and the owls start arriving in the autumn, as birds escape the cold winters of Scandinavia and beyond. These birds make the island their home and will successfully overwinter before heading back off to northern breeding grounds in the early spring.

Its great to have them on the island and each winter has fluctuating numbers (the winter of 2015 had an impressive 24) but normally 4-6 overwinter. We’ll wait to visit the island in the near future before confirming this years numbers but one thing is for sure, its not safe to be a mouse on the Isle of May!

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Winter slumber

Battkle worn 2

Views of the visitor centre

Battle worn

Across the south end


Low light and far beyond

Monday 6th January comments: Just before Christmas we made our final visit of the decade to the Isle of May to lock the place down and check everything was in good working order. The last of the Grey Seal pups were been weaned and the place looked quiet as it was entering its winter dormancy.

Looking at the photos above, you can see the battle scars of a Seal season as the last of the vegetation clings onto life whilst the island looks barren and bleak. Its always impressive to see how the island recovers from this point as once the growing season kicks back in, the lush green vegetation will germinate and we’ll have a glorious Isle of May once again.

However we are some way off that and the island is currently sleeping with very little activity away from the resident mice and rabbits. Its a time of year we start preparing for the new season ahead as it won’t be long before we are back on the island and open to wildlife and the public. The countdown is on…

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2020 – are you ready?

Thursday 2nd January comments: Happy New Year to everyone and we hope you all had a very enjoyable festive period and welcome to a new decade and a new year; 2020! Although the new Isle of May season is some way off (89 days away – but we’re not counting) we still have plenty to celebrate and plenty to think about.

The new season will bring a lot including  thousands of nesting seabirds to lots of people who visit and enjoy the island. If you’ve not visited before its well worth considering as we boast over 40,000 pairs of Puffins, thousands of other seabirds including Arctic Terns as well as being steeped in history (dating back to the 7th century) as well as island walks and glorious views. Its also Year of Coasts and Waters so we’ll be celebrating in style along the way.

Over the next few months we’ll bring previews of the season ahead as well as news from island visits (we still go out during the winter for a variety of reasons) so plenty to talk about and share with you. So here we go, its the new year and the new season is just around the corner. Bring it on!

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Merry Christmas!


Merry Christmas

from the Isle of May

National Nature Reserve Team

We wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Puffin-filled New Year and we look forward to bringing you all the news and stories from the island in 2019. Seasons greetings to all!

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Final round-up

Top: Waxwing (left) and Long-eared Owl (right)

Bottom: Pallas’s Warbler (both)

Saturday 21st December comments: The final installment of the rare and scarce bird round up for the island saw the closure of the Bird Observatory in early November followed by the last of the staff to depart the isle in mid-November but not before one final flurry of birds.

If the weather is favourable (easterly backed winds) in early November the island can produce and on this occasion it certainly did. A spell of north-easterly winds brought some final major highlights of what had turned out to be an epic autumn. Birds of real note included a Pallas’s Warbler trapped and ringed on 4th-5th November and was surprising the first on the island since 2001. Other good birds included an Olive-backed Pipit on 5th (the 11th island record but 7th since 2015), a stunning male Firecrest on 7th-13th November, Hawfinch on 2nd (which was chased by a Merlin), Glaucous Gull on 3rd, a long staying Little Grebe from 8th-27th (a rare bird for the island), a scattering of Long-eared Owls and Waxwings.

The spring had been productive, the summer surprising and the autumn epic and that was the Isle of May during the 2019 migration season. Bring on 2020… 

Major Highlights:

                        1st         Collared Flycatcher

                        2nd        Crane (first since 2004)

2nd       Red-flanked Bluetail (first since 1975)               

                        4th        Siberian Stonechat (first since 1980)

                         5th        Blyth’s Reed Warbler (first since 2016)             

                        7th        Arctic Warbler (first since 2017)

                        8th        Aquatic Warbler (first since 2001 and earliest Scottish record)

                        8th       Melodious Warbler (first since 2012)

                       8th        Red Kite (first since 2017)                     

                        9th        Radde’s Warbler (first since 2016)

                       9th       Pallas’s Warbler (first since 2001)        

                       11th       Raven (first since 2018)

                       11th      Olive-backed Pipit (5th consecutive year and 7th since 2015)

                        13th       Hawfinch (six in last three years)                       

                       15th       Hoopoe (first since 2015)

  Scarce migrants

  • Bluethroat (best year since 1994)
  • Red-breasted Flycatcher (fourth consecutive spring)
  • Marsh Warbler (second consecutive year)
  • Icterine Warbler
  • Great Grey Shrike (first since 2016)
  • Red-backed Shrike (last blank year in 2003)
  • Shorelark (first since 2016)
  • Common Rosefinch (only 1 blank year in past 30 years)
  • Little Bunting (first since 2017)


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