Butcher Bird in Town


Butcher bird in town…


…eating a mouse….


Great Grey Shrikes don’t mess


Just a youngster but its deadly

Saturday 19th October comments: This place has just got interesting… For the migrant birds and the mice of the island, beware as we have an uninvited guest which has arrived today; a Butcher bird!

The horrendous north-easterly wind with rain which battered the Isle of May this morning has brought in a Great Grey Shrike and these birds are not known as ‘butcher birds’ for nothing. This skilled predator will hunt small passerines and mice and like something from the grizzly medieval traitor’s gate in London, will skewer the bodies of its victims on to thorns to form a larder from which it will dine. The birds may be stunning to look at, but not if you’re a Goldcrest or Robin. They have been warned…

It’s not for the faint hearted but if you look at the second photo down, you can see the bird actually feeding on a mouse it has killed and pinned up…I told you not to look. Suspect this individual isn’t going to struggle for food….

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Thank-you Bex

Friday 18th October comments: We’ve been busy as ever on the island as work never stops (do islands ever sleep?) but more on that later. However one bit of big island news is that Bex has departed for the winter as holidays and a well-earned break is in order.

As assistant reserve manager Bex has been living and working on here since March and this is the end of her sixth season on the Isle of May. It’s some achievement, in fact the second longest serving member of staff with the current record set at seven years so maybe next year might be the record equalling season?

It’s a sad day to see Bex depart as she is a linchpin of the Isle of May as her dependable hard working and well organised nature ensures the national nature reserve operates smoothly as she deals with such a variety of tasks as part of her day-to-day job. Work can be as exciting as the science of counting cliff nesting seabirds or ringing Arctic Terns but can also be very mundane such as fixing toilet door handles or lifting timber off a boat. Bex is an unsung hero of the Isle of May and we thank her for everything she has done this season (we couldn’t do it without her!)

We hope Bex enjoys her well-earned break and a big thank-you from all for your support, hard work and friendship over the past eight months and suspect you won’t be a stranger to these parts.  Thanks again Bex go have a well-earned break!

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Owl Time…

roosting owl

Roosting Short-eared Owl on the island…can you spot it?


Better photo of one!

Sunday 13th October comments: The Isle of May sees so much seasonal change in its wildlife and we are now deep rooted in autumn with bird migration at its peak. We are also seeing Grey Seal numbers continue to increase and we have already seen signs of winter as the Owls are back…

Short-eared Owls escape the harsh winters of Scandinavia and migrate south utilising places like the Isle of May as safe wintering quarters. The island is perfect for these magnificent birds as it is relatively undisturbed and it has a fabulous food source; mice! The island mouse population peaks in late Autumn and the resident Owls take full advantage.

Over the next 3-4 weeks numbers of Owls will increase (we currently have four) and will remain resident until the early spring next year before departing back north. Until then we’ll enjoy these beautiful birds on a daily basis and lets see how many we end up with. In late 2015 the roost contained 24 individuals so lets get counting…

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Derek and the 1982 classic

1 Ringing hut

From left to right outside ringing hut: Derek Skilling, John Young, John McCubbin and John Skilling

Above the late Derek Skilling in his usual habitat enjoying the Isle of May

Friday 11th October comments: The Isle of May bird observatory has been in operation on the island since 1934 and apart from the war years has been manned ever since (based at the Low Lighthouse). There have been many highlights over those years including five ‘British firsts’ and nine ‘Scottish firsts’ (first time recorded) to name but a few. However 37 years ago today a series of north-easterly weather fronts brought one of the most impressive ‘fall’s of birds onto the island ever recorded.

On 11th October 1982 the island produced day totals of 15,000 Goldcrest, 4,000 Robins, 50 Redstart, 600 Blackcap, 50 Garden Warbler, 400 brambling, 3 Pallas’s Warblers and 3 Great Grey Shrikes amongst thousands of thrushes. Over the next few days even more birds arrived with daily counts of 30 Reed Buntings, 20 long-eared/short-eared Owls, 8,000 Redwing and 4,000 Fieldfare just an example of the many birds involved. The team who witnessed this incredible fall included Michael Carrier, Mike Harris, Tom Irving, Tom Shannan, Derek Skilling, John Skilling, Bobby Smith, Sarah Wanless and John Young.

Of these people Derek Skilling was a well-known and popular figure of the Isle of May Bird Observatory but sadly he passed away earlier this year. Derek first stepped foot on the island back in 1969 and over the next forty-nine years visited almost annually with his friends and family and this year would have been his fiftieth but sadly not to be. Derek was no stranger to islands having worked for the Crown Agents for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Service (now known as the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on Signy Island and South Georgia.

However it was the Isle of May he loved and his contribution to ornithology on this island will live on forever including being part of one of the most extraordinary events this island has witnessed on this day back in 1982.

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NNR event

David Steel signutre (A1583099)


Thursday 10th October comments: Last week the Isle of May welcomed some special guests as we hosted the annual SNH National Nature Reserve staff conference. This gives us the opportunity to discuss and exchange views, best practice, meet up with friends new and old and to keep in touch with what is happening on the fabulous National Nature Reserves of Scotland.

As well as meeting and discussing, we also had a day of work as the skills of the team were put into best practice with various projects including some dry stone walling and as you can see the island chickens were helping out! It was a great occasion to show off the island and the work we do on here and to take tips on future ideas and thoughts.  The two day event was excellent and was well received by all those who attended.

For further viewing, one staff member present made a short video of the day (check out the link to Georgie Pritchard video: https://youtu.be/5eYW2UAkZCY) whilst for more information on Scotland’s magnificent National Nature Reserves check out: https://www.nnr.scot/

We wish to thank everyone who took part in the two days, for all their help and enthusiasm and to the organisers of a wonderful event. The Isle of May did us proud.

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First Seal Pup on Pilgrims

1 Seal mum and pup

First Grey Seal pup on Pilgrims Haven beach

3 Seal mum and pup

Bond between mother and pup

4 Seal mum and pup

Newly born

2 Seal mum and pup

Looking for its first feed

Tuesday 8th October comments: The Isle of May Grey Seal colony is slowly and surely growing in size as we’ve now got eight pups born across the island. Yesterday we welcomed two new arrivals on the rocky beach at Pilgrims haven, the first to be born at that locality this year.

The Isle of May completely transforms at this time of year as the number of Grey Seals continue to increase and over the next few months we’ll have over 2,500 pups born. Watching the interactions between the pup and mum in the first few hours of life was fascinating as the youngster tried to feed for the first time. The rich mothers milk (contains up to 60% fat) is vital for the pup at a young age and soon the individual was feeding and life begins as a Grey Seal pup on the Isle of May.

Please remember autumn is an important time for breeding Grey Seals (including haul out sites) and as professionals we maintain a safe distance which does not disturb the animals and take photos with telephoto lens. Seals should not be approached or disturbed at this time of year.  For more information on safe watching of Seals, please read the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code: https://www.nature.scot/scottish-marine-wildlife-watching-code-smwwc-part-1

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Top: Great Grey Shrike both photos, second row: Robin and Woodcock, third row: Ring Ouzel and Goldcrest, bottom row; Yellow-browed Warbler and Red Kite

Monday 7th October comments: It proved to be a very busy weekend on the Isle of May as the wind strength increased from the east and the floodgates opened. Migration is an amazing thing but to witness it on this scale in the UK is just a very unique and privileged experience.

As dawn was breaking the air was thick with the sound of thrushes; Redwing and Song Thrush all migrating into the UK for the winter. However Blackbirds were caught up in the movement and a hugely impressive total of Ring Ouzels as we recorded 50 of these mountain thrushes during the day (a good count for the island). Birds kept on coming as Robins were discovered in huge numbers (over 200 on the island) and influxes of Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs. The totals below give you some scale of the day.

As expected amongst the thousands of common birds, more unusual migrants were seen. The star visitor the Red-flanked Bluetail remained for its third day whilst Common Rosefinch, Yellow-browed Warblers and Shorelark were all noted. A Red Kite drifted over the island only the eighth ever whilst a Richard’s Pipit was seen for the first time since 2015. However mid-afternoon brought hushed tones as a Great Grey Shrike arrived from the continent. This top predator (known as a Butcher bird – enough said) will devour small passerines (Goldcrest beware) whilst the island mice should start to worry…

All in all, an impressive day and check out the totals…. The Isle of May in action

 RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL   first-winter female for third day

  • Great Grey Shrike                  immature caught and ringed
  • Richard’s Pipit                        Rona (first since 2015)
  • Stock Dove                             scarce visitor to island for second day
  • Red Kite                                  immature over (only 8th island record)
  • Yellow-browed Warbler      1
  • Shorelark 1                             lingering (second day)
  • Common Rosefinch               female/immature (second day)

Totals: Wigeon 2, Teal 33, Mallard 1, Grey Heron 3, Sparrowhawk, Whimbrel 1, Bar-tailed Godwit 1 long stayer, Woodcock 8, Jack Snipe 3, Snipe 3, Short-eared Owl 3, *Red Kite 1, Kestrel 1, Merlin 1, *Great Grey Shrike 1, Stock Dove 1, Skylark 28, Chiffchaff 30, *Yellow-browed Warbler 1, Reed Warbler 4, Blackcap 25, Lesser Whitethroat 6, Whitethroat 1, Goldcrest 200, Starling 120, Ring Ouzel 50 (impressive number), Blackbird 150, Fieldfare 15, Redwing 2,500, Song Thrush 1,200, *Shorelark 1, Robin 200 (major influx), *Black Redstart 4, Redstart 7, Whinchat 1, Wheatear 1, **Red-flanked Bluetail first-winter female, Grey Wagtail 2, *Richards Pipit 1, Chaffinch 10, Brambling 98, *Common Rosefinch 1, Linnet 1, Siskin 3, Reed Bunting 5.

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