Meet The Clean Up team

Tuesday 6th December comments: Meet the clean-up team. Large active Grey Seal colonies like that on the Isle of May has it all; fighting bulls, attentive mothers and thousands of new born pups. However there is a grizzly side to these colonies as someone or something has to clean it all up!

Over the course of the autumn, over 2,500 Grey Seal pups are born on the Isle of May. As expected in such big colonies, some young sadly don’t make it and will die (but it is just a very small percentage) and this is nature.

However it’s not all bad news as we say hello to the Clean up team, say hello to our Great Black-backed Gulls. These monster-sized birds have a varied diet throughout the year as they prey on a variety of things during the summer from seabirds to rabbits. However at this time of year, a dead seal pup or afterbirth is highly prized and they’ll take chances to grab it before another gull does. Interestingly with the onset of the seal season, our local Great Black-backed Gull population numbers increase as birds from the north arrive to take advantage of this autumn feast. Although it’s a bit grim, it’s also nature and these birds help tidy up the Isle of May ready for next season. So hats off to them, enjoy your dinner.

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Sunday 4th December comments:  Now we are into December the seal numbers on the Isle of May have started reducing as the season heads towards a close.

Many young pups will now be heading for independence as their mums have left them. After just 18-21 days, young pups start to moult their white fur and their once attentive mothers will abandon them for the open sea. At this young age the pups are on their own and they are officially independent (its a hard upbringing!) These pups are known as weaners and they’ll maraud around the island as they become familiar with their surroundings (just like young teenagers). As you would expect they do get short shift from adults but soon learn to keep out the way before eventually shuffling to the North Sea and freedom beckons.  

Although this may seem a tough start to life, it is also a successful one as the population of Grey Seals down the east coast has increased significantly over the last decade, so hopefully these young animals will return in future years to breed on colonies like the May. Nature is an amazing thing and to have this on your doorstep is just another reason why places like the isle of May are so special and so important.    

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Bull season

Thursday 1st December comments: The Grey Seal season is still alive and well out on the island but things have changed. The number of pups has now peaked, with good numbers of young reaching independence. However it’s not all sweetness and light as the bulls have arrived.

Slowly and surely the Bull seals have been arriving on the island and that means a big shift in the behaviour and nature of all the seals on the colonies. Bull seals can reach up to 2.3m in length (maximum of 7ft 7in) and can weigh 170–310 kg (370–680 lb) which means some of the biggest can be as much as 48 stone (that’s a huge amount of blubber!) And they only have one thing on their mind as it’s soon the mating season. Bulls will defend a harem of cows against others males from mating with them and this often results in violent fights and serious injuries are common place as fighting intensifies.

Towards the end of the lactation (about 20-21 days) the cow seal will become fertile and will mate although implantation is delayed for up to three months. It is at this time that the bull seals serve their purpose and its often the bigger the better as they fight off rivals. The gestation period for a cow seal is nine months and the end result is of pups being born at the same time of year each season. You really can’t take your eyes off the colony on the Isle of May but gradually things will be start to slow down but we are still some weeks away from that moment. So stay tuned and we’ll keep you up to date with the latest news.

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Early Autumn Migration Round-up

Top (left) Wryneck, Top (right) Treecreeper (both David Steel)

Middle (left) Common Rosefinch, Middle (right) Radde’s Warbler (James Silvey)

Bottom (left) Yellow-browed Warbler, Bottom (right) Hen Harrier (David Steel)

Monday 21st November comments: By late-June day visitors and visitors to the bird observatory ceased due to HPAI guidance and this remained the case until late-August, bird sightings from those allowed to remain on the island were slim pickings, typical of late summer.

However the highlights during the first two week of September included four Common Rosefinches (two trapped and ringed), Icterine Warbler on 4th and the islands first Wryneck since 2016 from 3rd-6th September (so long overdue!). The best bird during this spell proved to be a Greenish Warbler present in the Top Trap on 3rd September (21st record for the island) although a male Bluethroat trapped and ringed on 11th September was the first autumn record in nine years.

Large raptor migration occurred mid-month with a Honey Buzzard south on 13th followed by a Marsh Harrier on 14th September whilst the same day produced a Barn Owl (a scarce island visitor) in the bushes near the Bird Observatory which was seen on four subsequent days. Wader passage produced the typical spread of common waders with noticeable records including two Curlew Sandpipers south on 13th September (the first island records since 1998!) whilst a Black-tailed Godwit flew south the same day.   

Seawatching has increased in recent seasons and it came as no surprise that rarer seabirds were noted on passage. The North Sea had witnessed an influx of large shearwaters in late August/early September and on the morning of 17th September a Cory’s Shearwater was picked out flying north at 09:06 and just 25 minutes later an even closer Great Shearwater was seen heading in the same direction (the double!) The same seawatchers then had double delight the following morning as two Great Shearwaters seen flying north at 07:43 and 09:56, to complete a memorable 24 hours especially considering that these were 5th island record of Cory’s and 5th-7th for Great. Later in the month another Great Shearwater was recorded flying north on 26th September whilst a juvenile Sabine’s Gull in a mixed feeding flock of Kittiwakes and Little Gulls on 2nd October was the 17th island record (involving 18 birds).

The month finished like it had started with a flurry of birds including a lingering Yellow-browed Warbler, two Treecreepers and a scattering of migrants including the autumns first Woodcock and Jack Snipe. The pick of the bunch was a Radde’s Warbler discovered in the Top Trap on 29th September before being trapped and ringed. The bird was only present for the day but represented the 12th for the island although fourth in last four years.

So the action packed autumn had produced but then there was a small matter of October and November to follow… more soon.

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Spring bird migration review

Rustic Bunting (left Chris Cachia-zammit) (right Andy Williams)

Bluethroat (right David Steel), Hawfinch (left David Steel)

Ring-necked Parakeet (left) Icterine Warbler (top), red-backed Shrike (bottom) all David Steel

Friday 18th November comments: Spring migration was generally quiet through the Isle of May as weather patterns from early April followed those of the previous spring, with cool northerly airflows dominating. This resulted in a disappointingly slow migration for many common birds and this trend continued throughout most of the spring. Overall most common migrants appeared in low numbers and some even failed to appear at all, including Grasshopper Warbler.

April was generally quiet with the typical arrival of the first summer migrants of the year although a male Hawfinch was found on the Fluke Street bird table and remained for two days on 13th-14th. Although this was the 15th island record, it was the eighth in the last six years and a trend mirrored at other east coast migration stations in recent years. The month of May is the month in the spring migration calendar, but like all migration, it relies on the right weather. After a mundane opening two weeks with the only highlight being a heavily moulting Hooded Crow for two days, the island eventually witnessed an easterly airflow which started mid-Month and did not disappoint. The start of this purple patch saw an adult Honey Buzzard drift west, only the 11th island record and first spring bird since 1993. A few days later the jackpot came with good numbers of common migrants with a stonking male Rustic Bunting the highlight, discovered near the water tank bushes at the low light. The bird was the 15th island record (involving 18 individuals) and comes hot on the heels of the previous bird seen on 21st-22nd May 2021. The other noteworthy bird during this spell was a female Bluethroat favouring a gully near Altarstanes, on 16th May.

However the excitement of this spell of easterly winds was short lived, the weather patterns returned to a more westerly dominated flow and quieter times. Arguably, the most bizarre event of the avian year occurred in late May though, as an adult Ring-necked Parakeet was discovered coming in-off the sea on 21st. The bird was still present the next day but was discovered sitting on a wall at Fluke Street and took a liking to being hand-fed grapes, eventually preferring to sit on the shoulders of the bemused residents on the island, pirate style! As later discovered, the bird had escaped from captivity from Glenrothes and was soon reunited with its rightful owner, ending a very bemusing and bizarre record for the Island.

As early June arrived, it appeared the end of spring passage was in sight and that the island had experienced another slow spring. However, you can never underestimate or write off the Isle of May, and early June provided a final spring in the tail. Winds switched to the south-east on the 8th and a small flurry of migrants arrived late that day. A fine Icterine Warbler found the Top trap and soon after a belting male Bluethroat was at the base of the main lighthouse. The following day provided arguably the best birding day of the spring as the male Bluethroat was still present but was singing from nearby Elder bushes. Whilst this spectacle drew the crowds, the Icterine Warbler was present for a second day, a female Red-backed Shrike was found by the Low Light and a Cuckoo flew north. It proved to be the last hurrah of the spring, but was certainly well enjoyed by those present. The rest of June fell into a typical mid-summer slumber with a Quail on 5th July the only noteworthy species during the seabird breeding season.

The spring was over and generally disappointing but there was all to play for as autumn approached…   

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Migration through the May

Thursday 17th November comments: Bird migration is a wondrous thing and the Isle of May is one of the best places to witness it in the UK. The island sits six miles out in the North Sea and thousands of birds utilise the place over the course of the year. Birds migrating in and out of the country, whether they are heading north or south use the island as a service station to refuel and rest before moving on. With the general lack of predators, especially ground predators, tired migrants can rest and feed without too much hassle.

As part of this the island is ideally situated to welcome short-distant migrants but as a prominent island, we have had some really rare birds over the course of time and the bird observatory on the island was founded back in 1934 to study such movements and arrivals. This year has been no different as it is been a good year overall with a total of 175 species recorded, the fourth highest annual total and just five short of the record of 180 set in 2016.

As with any year, the weather patterns are significant as if it is good (easterly winds during the spring and autumn periods) then the number and variety of birds can be interesting and significant. However the opposite is said if we are dominated by westerly winds, as very few birds turn up (it’s not as simple as that but you get the idea). This year we witnessed both as the spring was poor but in complete contrast to autumn which was epic. Over the next few days we’ll look at the highlights of the season and pick out some of the very best which turned up on the Isle of May during 2022 so stay tuned. 

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Bird Obs closes for the winter

Photos from David Steel, Ciaran Hatsell and Bex Outram

Tuesday 15th November comments: It that time of year when the Isle of May starts closing down and we will leave the island to sleep in its winter slumber. On Saturday it was the turn of the bird observatory to close its doors as another season drew to a close.  

The Isle of May is home to Scotland’s oldest bird observatory having been founded in 1934 and is administered by a charitable trust (The Isle of May Bird Observatory and Field Station Trust). During the year it is manned by visiting volunteer observers between March and November having been founded by a group of young Scottish ornithologist. The bird observatory continues to depend on the enthusiasm of amateurs who come to the island, usually for a week at a time, to maintain observations. The accommodation, for up to six people is housed within the Low Light, a former navigational lighthouse. It can be booked, at a modest cost, by anyone who is willing to contribute to recording the birds and wildlife of the island.

This year the observatory opened its doors on 1st April and since then residents have helped ring thousands of birds and recorded 175 different bird species for the year (4th highest annual total). This was despite closing its doors for a six week period in July-August due to the presence of avian influenza in the seabird populations. Despite this, it’s been another hugely successful year as the observatory plays a big part in the island as its active members are an important aspect of the island community and we enjoy working and socialising alongside them.

A lot of hard work goes in behind the scenes by the Observatory trust to keep the place ticking along from trap repair work to building new Heligoland traps; it’s always busy regardless of the time of year. As usual, we thank everyone who has made it another enjoyable year full of great birds and good company. The Isle of May is very much back on the birding map and we hope everyone enjoys their winter break because we’ll be starting all over again next April. Bring it on.

For further information on the bird observatory, you can check out the Trust’s website link 

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Seal change

How the island looked viewing from the visitor centre in mid-September…

And how it looks in early November…

Monday 14th November comments: The Isle of May Grey Seal colonies have certainly changed as it was little over six weeks ago that the first pups were being born and now the island is littered with them. The latest counts indicate over 1,000 pups have now been born and you can see the contrast in these photos, as those on the left were taken in mid-September and those on the right in early November.

As you can see the island has changed considerably from a seabird island to a Grey Seal island and as a result the jetties are closed to the visiting public to reduce disturbance at this crucial time of year. The seal season will go on until mid-December as over 2,000 pups will be born and there will be a lot of action between now and then. Large numbers of pups are being born daily but also bull seals are starting to arrive. We also have some pups leaving, as they have reached the independent age of 21 days (yes just 21 days old!) but more on that in another blog soon.

So there is the Isle of May at present, a heaving mass of seals and we’ll bring you more stories throughout the next month or so. It’s also been another interesting spell of bird migration which we’ll highlight very soon. It’s all go and you can never take your eyes off this place.  

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Friday 11th November comments: Today things have been returning to normal on the Isle of May, well as normal as can be as I’m not sure too many people have Grey Seals and their pups moving in as neighbours and migrant birds galore arriving in their back gardens. Anyway after the turbulent day of yesterday, things have started to settle and life has continued on the seal colonies.

The cow Grey Seal which had brought its pup up to the accommodation building (reported on Wednesdays blog), eventually started heading down the road. To show just how relaxed the animals were around us, the mother stopped halfway down, rolled over and offered a tasty milk meal to its pup which it gladly accepted.

It’s a crazy world out here from start to finish as living amongst such amazing wildlife is both a privilege and an honour. The Isle of May is one very special place and if you have not already started to think about it, fancy visiting next season? We open our doors from 1st April and time will fly…

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Mother Grey Seals blocking pups to stop the North Sea from claiming them

Mother Grey Seal pinning her pup in

Pups n serious trouble in the turbulent North Sea

Mother looking for her pup and the beach being hammered by the sea

Thursday 10th November comments: Brutal. Nature can be brutal sometimes and today was one of those days. Having had a peaceful autumn so far, the westerly wind cranked up and by mid-afternoon the gusts reached gale force and the heavy seas were battering the island. It’s never a good time to have a gale of wind as the small coves and shallow beaches on the west side of the island are prone to big waves and seas and are full of seal pups…

Sure enough with the onset of high tide, pups were been dragged in and tossed about the North Sea like ragdolls although it wasn’t all bad news. Some cow seals were pinning their pups in against the beaches to protect them (as you can see in the photos above) whilst others were moving them as far as possible up the island from the savage North Sea.

Without doubt we will have lost pups today off the west side nurseries but if we are looking for some comfort, the vast majority of the Isle of May colonies are safe, well protected and doing well. The small west lying beaches took the brunt today but this is nature, this is how populations are kept in balance and as mentioned, huge numbers of young are safe and sound.

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