Walkers

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A very young Puffling on the Isle of May

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Will take 40 days from hatching to fledgling

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Fledged and ready to go!

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On the way! (Lesley Danks)

Tuesday 30th June comments: We’ve been talking about it and yesterday it happened,,,, we’ve got walkers….

Late yesterday we found our first Puffling (Puffin youngster) walking past the house heading for the open sea. After 40 days of being fed by its parents, the bird is old enough and big enough to fend for itself so it was time to head to independence. Under the cover of darkness young Puffins leave their underground burrow (without parents’ consent) and head for the open sea (they leave at night to avoid being eaten by large predatory Gulls).

Many of our Pufflings on the Isle of May will actually walk to the sea (rather than fly) and often follow the trails and pathways as it makes easier walking (better than stumbling through rank vegetation). However as its’ their first experience of the outside world, some get lost on the way down, but it’s not bad news as with a little helping hand the birds are sent on their merry way. For all the Pufflings on the island it is their first taste of the outside world and some don’t quite get it right. A few will end up in the visitor centre, or the toilets or even the showers (makes for an interesting start to the day when a Puffling looks up at you!) However it all ends well as we help them on their way and hopefully in three years time they’ll be returning to breed on colonies like the Isle of May.

So that’s it, the first Puffling is away and over the next 5-6 weeks we’ll be expecting many more night time walkers. The Pufflings are marching, be warned.

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Seabird Update

Sunday 28th June comments: As we approach the end of June we are now about to complete our third week back on the island. Although we missed April-May we have still managed to catch-up with the breeding seabirds and can bring you the latest news (well what we have so far).

It was evident that the majority of seabirds were raising chicks on staff returning to the island as Shags had both small and medium sized young in early June with the first fledgling leaving the cliffs on 22nd June. The auks were feeding youngsters with Guillemots and Razorbills all with chicks and the first fledgers were starting to jump off the cliffs from 23rd June. Small numbers of Puffins had hatched young by the time staff returned to the island with the majority of the colony hatching by mid-June. As usual, Kittiwakes appeared to have started later than most birds with the first young hatching from 14th June whilst Fulmars were still incubating with the first chicks not expected to hatch until early July.

On the island top, the Terns were well settled with the first Arctic Terns chicks hatching from 17th June whilst the majority of Eiders had completed their breeding season with very few evident by the time staff returned (small numbers were seen leaving for the open sea with ducklings). The large Gull species were (as expected) very vocal and very evident.

We still have plenty to go and the next four weeks are really crucial for our seabirds as it will make or break the season. Although we are currently experiencing some poor weather, we need a good July with plenty of sand-eels (prey) being brought in and then hopefully we can celebrate thousands of youngsters leaving for the open sea and a successful season. However these are seabirds and anything is possible, but lets just hope it all goes well.

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Whale of a time

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Distant Minke Whale off the island (Fife in background)

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BreakIng the surface

Wednesday 24th June comments: What a glorious day it has been on the Isle of May (and everywhere else in the UK?) as at long last the summer appears to have kick started back into life after a spell of fog/rain. The good weather and light winds have resulted in calm conditions across the island and the sea state has been virtually flat (looking more like a mill pond than the north sea).

As a result of these conditions it is much easier (as observers) to spot things which break the surface and today was a noteworthy day. Early morning off the north end of the Island (looking towards Fife) two Harbour Porpoise were seen and soon after four Bottle-nosed Dolphins were found. However the excitement did not stop there as just after 9am a Minke Whale broke the surface much to everyone’s delight. The animal slowly moved west up the Forth and it was the first record of the season. As July-August are the peak months to see these animals around May waters, it’s a good start to the cetacean season.

These sightings show the importance of the surrounding waters around the island as they provide the fish for the vast numbers of seabirds to survive on whilst also supporting a huge variety of life from whales and dolphins to seals and much more. We must protect and conserve the valuable habitats like the Isle of May but also the ecosystem that is the North Sea and the life it brings.

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Tern Out

Arctic tern chick (BO)

Our first Arctic Tern chick has hatched (Bex Outram)

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The magnificent Arctic Tern

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Stunning in flight

Tuesday 23rd June comments: New life. The Isle of May is in full swing and following the news that we have Kittiwake chicks, is the fact we have Arctic tern chicks. The birds arrived back in Isle of May waters in late April and we’re settled in mid-May but as everyone knows, we (like everyone else) were not around to witness it! However when we did eventually return on 8th June we were greeted by the sight (and pecks) of nesting adult Arctic Terns.

Soon after arrival we checked on the status and on 17th June the first chicks were hatching (incubation on average is 21 days). We’ve still got plenty incubating eggs (it’s always a protracted season) but it’s good to have the first youngsters. Over the next 7-10 days we expect many more to hatch and the parents will be full of busy foraging in nearby waters to find vital food for the young (which means they may not peck our heads as much as the parents will be out looking for food).

We’ll continue monitoring this important population and will follow the lives of these chicks at an early age until they are ready to fledge off the island. We hope the next 4-6 weeks are good, with plenty of fine weather and lots of food coming in so we call the 2020 season a success for these magnificent birds.

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Kitty…wake

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The graceful Kittiwake of the Isle of May

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An individual nesting on the cliffside

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Colonies of Kittiwakes

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New life and a new Kittiwake chick

Saturday 20th June comments: The cliffs of the Isle of May are packed with seabirds and one of the most iconic species to nest is the Kittiwake. These graceful gulls nest on the precarious outcrops on the island having returned in late March. Nest building activity started in mid-May and the first eggs were laid soon after (with an average clutch size of two). The first chicks started hatching on 14th June and now we have plenty of youngsters across the colonies.

Kittiwake chicks are born precocial (the young are relatively mature and have the ability to be mobile from the moment of birth) and are downy and white in colour. This downy plumage will start to be replaced by feathering after just five days after hatching and will take approximately thirty-five days to fledgling stage. The plumage of youngsters is distinct, as it has a black bill and black ‘W’ across its back and upper wings. Chicks will come back to the nest for several weeks after fledging and will eventually follow the adults at sea where they spend the winter. Kittiwakes reach sexual maturity at around 4–5 years old. Kittiwakes eventually leave the Isle of May waters in September-October.

Over the last twenty years the British Isles has seen a 44% reduction in the population of Kittiwakes (a huge concern for conservationists) and this has been mirrored on colonies like the Isle of May. Overall 3,061 pairs nested last year, but way down on the 8,000 that once did. Despite this, they have had reasonable successful breeding seasons of recent so there may be cause for some optimism for a brighter future. With counting underway we should know the population size for this season in the near future and as ever we’ll keep you posted.

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Pink Rock

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Rose-coloured Starling on the Isle of May

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Unmistakable! 

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Brightening up the foggy days

Wednesday 17th June comments: Before we turn our attention back to the breeding seabirds, we thought we would dedicate tonight’s blog post to one of our special visitors: our Rose-coloured Starling. The adult (presumed adult male) arrived on Monday evening and is still with us as it appears to be enjoying its stay on the island.

The species originates from South-east Europe but are known to erupt as they spread westwards and this year has seen a good invasion of them into the UK with over 80 different birds found and that number continues to increase. We’ve seen reports of birds on the nearby Fife and Lothian coastline so it was great to get our own. This represents only the fourth ever record for the Isle of May but hot on the heels of the previous in June 2018. Before then the previous two records came from September 1991 and June 1983.

This great bird has been one of several highlights in recent days but as the weather improves, they’ll be on their way leaving us to concentrate back on the seabirds and the job in hand.

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A Rosy Two Days…

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Punk rock; Adult Rose-coloured Starling arrived today

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A bit more subtle; a Marsh Warbler caught and ringed

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Icterine Warbler (Bex Outram)

Monday 15th June comments: We’ve had a seabird catch-up, we’ve had a weather catch-up, but today we bring you a bird migrant catch-up. The weather over the last seven days has been very mixed, but mainly cold with fog patches (we’ve had fog for three consecutive days now). Despite the cool temperatures, one thing the wind direction is good for is bringing migrant birds to the Isle of May. However, as it is now mid-June the majority of migrant birds are not migrating as they are where they should be, and are probably breeding and raising a family as I type. But not all are settled…

Mid-June is very much the tail end of the spring migration season but the Isle of May has a good reputation for bringing in good birds and so it has proved. Up until yesterday very little had happened but then someone turned on the tap and the birds arrived. Yesterday we welcome some rare visitors in the form of a Marsh Warbler and a Grey-headed Wagtail (a Yellow Wagtail sub-species which breeds in Scandinavia). We also welcomed some commoner birds such as Spotted Flycatchers, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps also on their travels.

Today the weather pattern remained the same but more new arrivals as an Icterine Warbler was discovered with a singing Common Rosefinch soon after. To complete a good 24 hours, another Marsh Warbler was found (this was caught and ringed and yesterday’s bird was still present) whilst a Common Crossbill was found late afternoon. However to finish off an outstanding 24 hours, a stonking adult Rose-coloured Starling was discovered; part of a national influx and the fourth ever record for the island.

So we’ve not been out long (seven days to be precise) but we’ve produced some good birds especially in the last 24 hours. The Isle of May never disappoints even when migration is over, well almost over as it clearly isn’t. Its good to be back.

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Best laid plans…

Sunday 14th June comments: All the best-laid plans on an island like the Isle of May can be thrown out of the window as life on an island is dictated by one thing; the weather.

Over the weekend the island has experienced an easterly backed wind which has resulted in one thing: fog. As we are heading into mid-June, we were hoping for some bright glorious sunshine (to top up the suntan) but unfortunately a lot of the core work has stopped. At this time of year counting the seabird populations on the cliffs is important but if you can’t see the seabirds or even the cliffs, then it’s called off. Fog is also no good for working with birds or wildlife as it can chill birds, so we do not go into the colonies in such conditions.

So that has stumped us over the weekend but we’ve had plenty of other work to do, mainly around the buildings to get on with so we’ve been kept busy. The easterly winds have also helped bring in a few bird migrants with one or two noteworthy species recorded, but more on that tomorrow…

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Guillemot cliffs

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What are you looking at? Bridled Guillemot of the Isle of May

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Same bird but side on

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An ‘unbridled’ Guillemot

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The chicks have started hatching

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The Guillemot colonies of the Isle of may

Friday 12th June comments: The Isle of May seabird breeding season is in full swing (despite the weather) as plenty of seabirds nesting as they are either rasing chicks or incubating eggs. The Guillemots of the cliffs seem well settled and as usual the vast majority are crammed into the tall west cliffs, an ideal place to shelter in these easterlies which are hitting us at the moment (the west cliffs are in the lea of the wind and heavy seas).

Amongst the throng of birds, a small percentage of Guillemots are ‘bridled’; they show a very smart white-eye ring which gives the impression that the bird is wearing a pair of spectacles. Approximately 4% of the islands population of Guillemots has this white-eye ring and are known as bridled Guillemots. These birds are not a separate species and the reasons behind why some birds exhibit such markings is unclear (but looks nice all the same). The Guillemots of the island have been ashore since spring and were presumably on eggs by late April (the first egg laying date the previous season was on 26th April).

On inspection of the cliffs, a small number of young have now hatched (the first chicks hatched on 31st May last year) and over the next few weeks more and more will hatch. It then becomes the responsibility of parents to feed the hungry youngster (they just lay a single egg and incubate on their feet) before the chick matures and is ready to leave. Counts of the islands population are now underway and although always difficult to judge, the population looks like it has increased slightly but the numbers will confirm.

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Puffin season

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Puffins not socially distancing on the Isle of May

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Puffins on the rock

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Head shot of a Isle of May Puffin

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Chicks have hatched! Puffins with Sandeels ready to head to burrows to feed hungry youngsters

Wednesday 10th June comments: The world of the Isle of May is at full tilt as the seabird breeding season is at its peak. Seabirds are nesting as they are either incubating eggs or feeding hungry youngsters as it’s certainly a busy place to be. The cliff sides are brimming with life, the Loch is filled with Eider crèches whilst the island tops have thousands of burrow nesting Puffins and vast numbers of large Gulls and Terns scattered across.

The most numerous species to nest on the island are our Puffins (known as Atlantic Puffins) which first touched land in late March (seems a long time ago since we reported their arrival). However although the human occupants of the island have missed the last two months, it’s been business as usual for our Puffins. Across the colonies thousands are nesting (the last census revealed over 40,000 pairs) and good numbers are once again present. However a few tell-tale signs indicate the presence of our first chicks as we’ve seen a reasonable number of adults carrying fish (which indicates they are feeding youngsters) and discarded egg shell can be seen at the entrance of burrows which are from successfully hatched eggs (these egg fragments are removed by adults).

So it’s now all go as over the next couple of weeks the majority of chicks will hatch and adults will be foraging from firs light at 4am all the way through to dusk at 11pm (they don’t get much time off!) So whilst we are just catching up with what is going on, the Puffins are fully at it and chicks are growing by the day. It’s all go on the May!

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