How do we do it?

The specialist tern terraces at the Beacon
Prime real estate for terns

Monday 26th July comments: So we’ve come close to having a breeding pair of Roseate Terns (see yesterday’s blog) and we attracted an individual which successfully raised a chick with a Common Tern in 2019 but how do we do it? Is it complete fluke that we have these birds arriving and sticking around? Well you’ll probably not be too surprised to hear that it is not, it’s down to some hard work…  

As we know in conservation, birds can respond to positive active management and seabirds are no different. We can protect the island, control visitor numbers and ensure disturbance is kept to a minimum but we can also create habitat that is suitable for a species.

In this case we have been building specialist ‘tern terraces’ on the island over the last six years, as we have been transforming areas of nettle and rank vegetation into nesting habitat. The idea is simplistic enough as we have large beds of gravel and sand complete with specialist Tern boxes. Throw in lots of hard work from lots of people especially our long-term volunteers over the years and we have ourselves some luxury specialist tern nesting habitat (prime real estate!)

The success is in the end result and since the creation of these terraces we’ve welcomed back more Arctic Terns, an increasing number of Common Terns, Sandwich terns have nested in four of the last six years and now we have Roseate terns interested. As with anything, it has had its up and downs, as some of the ideas we’ve tried have not worked, but it’s the trying which counts; trying to make a difference to seabirds which are already facing an uncertain future with bigger wider issues such as climate change. We’ll continue to do our bit and try hard to make a difference and sometimes, it pays off.

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Oh so Rosy…

Stunning Roseate tern on Isle of May
One of two…
Vocal and present for five weeks
Beautiful Roseate tern

Saturday 24th July comments: We brought you the great news about the Storm Petrels and we nearly added to it with the news about our roseate terns…but not quite.

A pair of Roseate Terns arrived on the island on 24th June and remained for the next five weeks and were observed displaying with fish and even scraping at the Beacon tern terraces. However, despite this promising start, the pair failed to breed but still continue to linger on the island to this day (down by the jetty). Both birds are ringed with details suggesting that they are from Rockerbill in Ireland. This comes off the back of our success in 2019 when an individual paired with a Common Tern and raised a single chick, the first breeding attempt in almost two decades.

Roseate Terns are rare breeders in the U.K. (red data list species) with Coquet island in Northumberland celebrating a record 150 breeding pairs this year but sadly there are none in Scotland. However, this ‘so close but so far away’ story is not all bad news. The positives to be taken from this series of sightings show that we have the right habitat to attract them especially the specialist tern terraces. So it’s a bright future as we hope to have them back next season to do it for real. The future is bright, the future is rosy….

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Storming to Success

Friday 23rd July comments: So the news is out and it’s great to have confirmed Storm Petrels breeding on the island, adding to our impressive array of seabirds which nest on this important national nature reserve.

After the discovery of the breeding birds, we’ll work together with the various island partners to try and establish how many breeding pairs we have. It’s no easy task as it has taken us two years to find the first, but through a mix of experience (learning the hard way?) ringing activities (thanks to Mark and Sam), late nights and some detective work, we hope to establish just how many we have. We certainly believe that the colony has several pairs and some figures suggest we could potentially have in the region of 15-30 pairs. Storm Petrels don’t fledge young until September so we still have plenty of time to try and establish the number of nesting pairs.

So it’s great news but the hard work starts here (or has already started). Storm Petrel will be added to our breeding assemblage and another reason why it’s important to protect our important seabird colonies and the surrounding seas.

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Storm Petrel Breeding!!

Close up Storm Petrel (David Kinchin-smith)
Survey work and listening carefully!

Thursday 22nd July comments: We’ve been waiting to publish a finalised press release and here it is, very exciting news…

Storm petrels have been confirmed breeding on NatureScot’s Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) for the first time. NatureScot, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), and the Isle of May Bird Observatory have suspected there may be a colony on the island since 2019, when storm petrels were first spotted displaying and calling.

The species is notoriously difficult to monitor due to its nocturnal habits and the team have been using a variety of techniques to survey areas of the island, including playing a recording of the bird’s calls over potential nest holes in the hope of eliciting a response. After several efforts a bird was finally heard calling underground during daylight hours when they could only be incubating or brooding a chick.

UKCEH researcher (and former NatureScot volunteer) Ella Benninghaus was the lucky individual to confirm with play-back a bird was underground, after smelling the presence of their strong body odour. She said: “Since storm petrels were first detected on the Isle of May in 2019, it has been an exciting but frustrating three years. We carried out some playback surveys with no success last year, but we were determined to try again this year. “Sure enough, as I was lying on the ground I heard the storm petrel call back to me very quietly. It is a very exciting find and amazing to be able to prove what has been suspected for a few years.”

Mark Newell, of UKCEH, added: “To confirm the presence of these mystical, magical birds 200 miles from the nearest known colony is one of the highlights of my many years on the isle.”

Storm petrels are small oceanic birds that breed in the UK during the summer months but spend their lives out at sea. The vast majority of the population can be found on remote islands, especially in the north and west of Scotland.

David Steel, Reserve Manager for NatureScot’s Isle of May NNR, said: “These special seabirds come ashore under the cover of darkness and nest underground in crevices, burrows, cairns or stone-walls. They will raise a single chick before eventually departing once again. During that time their nocturnal activities – singing away in total darkness – and unique smell contribute to make these birds so fascinating and mysterious. “We’re delighted to have confirmation of storm petrel breeding after such a great team effort over the last three years by so many people. The Isle of May National Nature Reserve is hugely significant for its breeding seabird assemblage and this exciting news adds greatly to the importance of this special place. ”  

Over the years, volunteers at Scotland’s oldest bird observatory on the island have been ringing non-breeding storm petrels and tracking their subsequent movements. Recoveries of ringed birds have shown links to much of the traditional range, mainly to the north and west of Scotland and Ireland.

Alan Lauder, Chair of the Isle of May Bird Observatory Trust, said: “Such a cryptic species, only visiting land at night, means it can be challenging to find storm petrel breeding colonies, especially where they exist in only small numbers. “Stormies breeding so far south in the North Sea might suggest other nearby colonies may have gone unnoticed, or perhaps that the feeding conditions in the North Sea are more favourable for them now, despite widespread declines in other seabird species.”

Thanks to everyone involved over the last three years including Bex Outram, Mark Newell, Mark Oksien, Sam Langlois, Ella Benninghaus, Carrie Gunn, Marine Quintin, also thanks to the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) and Aberdeen University.

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Say hello to the Storm Petrel

Tuesday 20th July comments: today we introduce a special seabird and for reasons we’ll explain very soon.  Say hello to a member of the tube nose family, say hello to the Storm Petrel…

Storm Petrels are small birds (about the size of a House Martin), black in colour apart from a distinctive white rump and a fluttering bat-like flight. The large majority of the population breeds on islands off the coasts of Europe, with the greatest numbers in the Faroe Islands, UK, Ireland, and Iceland.

These birds come ashore under the cover of darkness and nest underground in crevices, burrows, cairns or stone-walls. They will raise a single chick before eventually departing once again. During that time their nocturnal activities (singing away in total darkness) and fascinating smell (many who have smelt them really like the odour!) make these birds a mysterious seabird of the British Isles. During the Autumn and winter months the birds are strictly oceanic as they feed on small fish, squid and zooplankton while pattering across the surface of the sea and can find oily edible items by smell.

Many myths and stories are associated with the species as they have a long and deep-rooted association with storms. The birds are believed to be a bad omen to mariners as they are said to either foretell or cause bad weather. They are also thought to be the souls of perished sailors and it was bad luck to kill a Petrel. More interestingly, its old name was Mother Carey’s Chicken. Reading old tales, Mother Carey was a supernatural figure personifying the cruel and threatening sea in the imagination of sailors and she was a similar character to Davy Jones (who be some accounts may have been her husband!) Either way, Storm petrels were not popular amongst sailors. The other well-known story linked to Storm petrels is that they are called ‘St.Peter’s birds’ as the name was given to them because of their uncanny ability to seemingly walk on the water (St.Peter was the Apostle who witnessed Jesus do this).

So where does the Isle of May fit into this? Well more on that over the next few days…. It’s an interesting story….

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Puffin Nuffin…

Sunday 18th July comments: We’ve been talking about the Pufflings on the march in recent blogs but today we talk about the Puffins themselves – the adults.

Atlantic Puffins have been with us since late March although nesting started slightly later this year with the first egg laid on 17th April. Thereafter parents shared incubation duties underground until after approximately 40 days, the egg hatched. This year the first adults carrying fish (which indicates that young have hatched and need feeding) occurred on 26th May and thereafter thousands of birds hatched across the island. From mid-June, the island was alive with adult Puffins flying from first light until dusk, heading out to sea to find prey and feed their hungry youngsters.

The first Puffling started walking for independence from 5th July and since then we’ve had big number depart. So now what? Well the good news; it’s not over. The Isle of May national nature reserve supports over 40,000 pairs of Puffins, the third biggest colony in the U.K and the largest on the east coast, so we still have many thousands of young to go. However once early August arrives, the vast majority of youngsters will have gone and then with no responsibility, the adults can depart as well. Puffins will then head out to sea for the winter, not to return to the Isle of May until the following spring.

So if you want to see Puffins our advice is to not wait too long, the first wave of birds will depart by early August and then the final stragglers will leave by mid-August. You have been warned….

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Helping Hand

Friday 16th July comments: Sorry we’ve been a bit distracted of recent but we’ll be posting plenty of blog posts in the foreseeable future. Just to bring you up to speed and start off with a nice story; we’ll bring you the latest on our Pufflings.

As reported in a recent blog, Pufflings are departing the island in good numbers and over the last few nights, huge numbers have gone which is wonderful for the colony but also the future generations of the species. As part of this, the team are finding youngsters daily as they need a helping hand out to sea but what is going on, why do they need this help? Well let us explain…

Pufflings are raised by both parents, as for the first 40 days of their lives they remain in the relative safety of their underground burrows (away from predators) and are fed on nutritious sand-eels and sprats. However as independence looms, the birds venture to the front of burrows to stretch wings and eventually the decision is made to leave. Under the cover of darkness, these youngsters leave without parents’ consent and head for the open sea. Many of the islands birds prefer to walk down to the sea taking advantage of the pathways and tracks which are vegetation free.

Having never seen the outside world before, small numbers can be distracted and curious by the buildings on the island and become trapped. As a result, a daily job (not a bad job to start a day) is that the team have to check around the buildings and other structures to ensure none have become trapped (birds have been found inside buildings including our kitchen and shower!) However it all ends well as these birds are ringed and released successfully soon after, sometimes by boat to get them well away from the island.

So that is how some Pufflings start their independent life and we wish them all well! Just a normal day in the life of the Isle of May….  

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On the wing!

Friday 9th July comments; How quick they grow up. It doesn’t seem that long ago when the first Arctic Tern chicks were hatching and here we are now reporting the first flyers. Across the island tern colonies plenty of young are present (we are heading towards a good year) and now we have the first few flying youngsters.

Once over, the world seemed such a big place for these young Arctic Terns hiding away in vegetation waiting for their parents to return with food. However now they can fly they can follow their parents and learn how to fend for themselves (there is no escape for mother or father now!) It’s great to see and as our daily visitors arrive on the island, they are in the thick of the action with lots of tern young using the open jetty area to sit around. The numbers have yet to be crunched but it appears (on the face of it) as another reasonable year for the terns of the Isle of May which is important for the island and the overall species population.

It’s hard to believe that these young will follow their parents to the Antarctic over the next few months, so once they are strong enough to fly, they’ll be heading south and away for another year. The world of the Arctic Tern is as incredible as it sounds, the world’s longest distant bird migrant will be leaving soon and we wish them all safe journeys.

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Dolphin display

Tuesday 6th July comments: The Isle of May is a special place for wildlife at any time of the year but the summer months can be spectacular as the place is covered in thousands and thousands of seabirds. However it’s not just the island as the surrounding seas are teaming with wildlife, just as today’s visitors will testify.

Despite the poor weather start to the day (we had rain), the boats departing from Anstruther, Fife, were rewarded with two pods of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which showed extremely well around the boat as the photos above show (often jumping out of the water). These images were taken by May Princess crew member and keen photographer Ed Thomson and thanks to him for sharing these great shots.

As we are now into the summer months its well worth watching the seas on a trip over as August is a good time for Minke Whales and who knows what else may be seen. The Firth of Forth currently has a Sei whale which was seen nearby yesterday so anything is possible!

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World Seabird Day

A young Arctic tern chick
Doing well so far…
Adult with chick

Saturday 3rd July comments: As we celebrate World Seabird Day we thought we’d bring you an update on the world’s longest distant bird migrants; our Arctic Terns. These birds winter off the pack ice of the Antarctic and nest on predator free islands like the Isle of May on the east coast of Scotland.

Although we’ve counted this year’s population we are waiting to finalise a few points before releasing the total. However the breeding season itself is (so far and fingers crossed) going well with plenty of chicks hatching and well on their way to fledging. If we continue with good food supply and favourable weather, we will hopefully have another good breeding season but we are not there yet.  

Watching the chick grow on a daily basis, it’s hard to believe that these youngsters will follow their parents south in just a few months time and take on one of the longest bird journeys on the planet. Full respect goes to our Arctic terns, such impressive birds.

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