Seabirds 2019 (Part II)

Wednesday 11th December comments: Following Monday’s blog post about Seabird population counts (generally good news) our friends at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh (who are based on the island for three and a half months during the summer) have provided the following details about several key cliff nesting species.

The Isle of May seabird breeding season starts in early spring with the arrival of several species into May waters and the return rates for Razorbill, Puffin and Kittiwake were all above average. However both Shag (for the second consecutive year) and Guillemot (lowest return rate since 2007) showed disappointing declines in returns and the low return rate in Guillemots may have been linked to a wreck of this species in the southern North Sea in the late winter. Despite this, light winds dominated the season and there was no excessive rainfall to hamper breeding attempts and as a result it was a reasonable year.

The first Shag egg was laid on April fool’s day, bucking the recent trend for early starts (there are only two later years in the last decade, including 2018 after the ‘Beast from the East’). With the exception of Puffin and Fulmar first egg dates the other monitored species were later than average.  However, once things got going it turned into a reasonable season for most species except Puffin and Fulmar which were a little below average.  Razorbills had their highest breeding success since 2010, success of Kittiwakes were also well above average while success of Shags were above average for the 12th consecutive year.

Return rates

  • Guillemot return rate at 83.3% was poor, the lowest since 2007.
  • Razorbill return rate at 87.2% was above average.
  • Puffin return rate at 84.4% was slightly above average.
  • Kittiwake return rate at 80.5% was slightly above average.
  • Shag return rate at 77.6% was below average.

Breeding success

  • Guillemot breeding success at 0.71 chicks per pair laying was average.
  • Razorbill breeding success at 0.66 chicks per pair laying was above average and the highest since 2010.
  • Puffin breeding success at 0.68 chicks per pair laying was below average.
  • Kittiwake breeding success at 0.92 chicks per completed nest was well above average.
  • Shag breeding success at 1.53 chicks per incubating nest was well above the long-term average (1.15) for the 12th consecutive year.
  • Fulmar breeding success at 0.37 chicks per incubating nest was slightly below average.

Sandeels (Ammodytes sp.) remained the main food of young puffins, shags, razorbills and kittiwakes.  The diet of guillemots was dominated by clupeids.  For more information check out:


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Seabirds 2019


Puffin with sand-eels (Lorne Gill/SNH)


Fulmars sitting around on the rocks (Lorne Gill/SNH)

Guillemots (Uria aalge), Isle of May National Nature Reserve.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Guillemots on the ledges (Lorne Gill/SNH)


Arctic tern admiring the view (Lorne Gill/SNH)

Monday 9th December comments: As we approach mid-December its always good to look back and reflect on an Isle of May season (it feels like a long time ago since we were talking about the seabirds of the May) but here is a review of the season just gone.

Overall despite the weather (we had some poor wet days at times) it proved to be another successful season for the nesting seabirds of the Isle of May. As usual we had a few ups and downs along the way but on the cliffs Kittiwakes showed a very welcome increase (after several years of decline) with 3,061 breeding pairs but it wasn’t so good news for our breeding Shags which declined again, to 389 pairs a far cry from the 1,916 pairs that nested in 1987. However there was some good news on the cliffs as Razorbills have risen by 11% to 4,166 pairs and the second highest count in recorded history (the highest count was 4,713 pairs in 2005). Alongside this, Guillemots have also increased by 7% to 15,974 pairs which is in good response to last season drop in numbers. Elsewhere Fulmar numbers remained stable although productivity appeared disappointingly low.

The terns had an excellent season (both in terms of breeding population and overall productivity) with the highest breeding population of Common Terns since 2009 (an increase of 200% on the previous year) whilst Arctic Terns increased to 468 pairs (a welcome increase after the previous seasons poor total). Other good news came in the form of 10 nesting pairs of Sandwich Tern (no nesting attempt in 2018) and all young which hatched successfully fledged. The real big news was that a single Roseate Tern hybridised with a Common Tern (successfully fledging a single chick), the first attempt since the 1990’s.

Elsewhere Eider numbers remained very healthy (over 1,200 nesting females) whilst this year there was no official count of the large nesting Gulls (counted biannually) or Puffins. Overall we were fairly pleased with the season although as usual a mixed bag with some species doing well and others not so well. What will the 2020 breeding season have in store is any ones guess but we’ll be bringing the news and views throughout the summer so don’t go anywhere.

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Winter Wanderers


Youngster outside of Fluke Street (Andrew Wolfenden)


Chillin near the benches outside our house (Andrew Wolfenden)


Seals near the visitor centre still (Andrew Wolfenden)

Thursday 5th December comments: Yesterday we mentioned about the young Seal pups wandering around the island before departing for the open North Sea, well just to prove it we have some more photos (thanks to researcher Andy Wolfenden who is currently on the island)

Young seal pups are weaned off their mothers milk at a young age (20-21 days old) and left to fend for themselves. However having put on extreme amounts of weight (the mothers milk contains over 60% fat) the pups are in good condition to allow a bit of fasting before taking the plunge in the North Sea. At this early age the world is a big place and we often find them wandering various areas of the island and yesterday two took a shine to the main accommodation block in Fluke Street.

We are glad to report that after a snooze, both animals moved back down towards the colonies and the North Sea but not before checking out what was going on. Grey Seals are curious animals at the best of times and its amazing to think we live and work with them on our doorsteps. In this case it literally was OUR doorstep. The world of the Isle of May is nothing like any other and keep tuning in as we’ll bring you more news from the Jewel of the Forth.

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December on the May

Wednesday 4th December comments: Although we have departed for the mainland for the winter, life on the Isle of May continues even as the we enter the darkest months of winter. Often people ask about what goes on at this time of year and as ever, we have the answers…

The month of December witnesses the biggest change of all on the island as it goes from a hustling bustling Grey Seal colony to a quiet peaceful island. During the autumn the daily Grey Seal pup births peak in mid-November although some youngsters are still being born now and will continue to be born into early January. However the number has decreased considerably as the majority of females have now given birth.

At this time of year the bull seals are fighting for supremacy as they defend an area as they’ll mate with females once the cow seals have tending to the young (end of the lactating period). The young pups after just 21 days start moulting and are left to fend for themselves (are now officially independent!) and live off the fat reserves they’ve accumulated. Its always interesting to see where these youngsters get to as they maraud across the island before eventually heading for the open North Sea.

And that is where we are at now. Bull seals fighting, cow seals leaving and youngsters exploring the world for the first time. Over the next few weeks this pattern will repeat itself but slowly and surely all the Seals will leave. Then it’ll be left to the rabbits, seals and a few seabirds as the island will enter dormancy. Time to sleep Isle of May but not for long…

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Isle of May Roadshow

Monday 25th November comments: Following on from the blog post on Friday, the weekend event proved highly successful at the Scottish Ornithological Club (SOC) annual conference in Pitlochry. The weekend was a celebration of Scotland as a special place for birds, its habitats and the opportunities to enjoy them. As part of this the club presented its new smart phone app ‘Where to Watch Birds in Scotland’ (its free to download and use – well worth downloading).

As part of the conference a series of presentations were made by well-known Scottish ornithologists such as Prof Des Thompson (of SNH), Pro Rob Fuller, David Stroud MBE and Ken Shaw amongst others. The Isle of May was represented as I delivered a talk based on the seabirds and colonies of Scotland and (as you’d expect) the Isle of May featured heavily (it is in the premier league of seabird colonies after all!)

Scotland is an incredible place for seabirds with almost 5 million calling the country its home and it was great to talk about the birds and places that make it so special. The Isle of May roadshow will continue throughout the winter but next up on the blog; the seasons’ highs and lows as we look back on a good year.

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Busy week for the May!

Friday 22nd November comments: People often wonder what goes on behind the scenes of the Isle of May when the staff are not on the island. Well we’ve been busy settling back into mainland life (remembering what roads are and that Christmas really has taken over) but we’ve also been busy in many other ways.

On Monday BBC Radio Scotland carried out a live interview asking all about the island and our escape for the winter (we do live a unique lifestyle after all) whilst on Tuesday evening the Isle of May staff attended a parliamentary event at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood in Edinburgh as part of the wider SNH event celebrating National Nature Reserves (NNR’s). The event was a celebration of all the work we do on these magnificent areas of Scotland (SNH manage all or part of a whopping 29 National Nature Reserves) and to showcase the incredible opportunities the NNR’s can provide to the local community. It was also an opportunity to showcase the variety of partners we work alongside as on the Isle of May we work with everyone from various seabird research organisations to local Scout and school group. Our hash tag of #connectingpeopleandnature and we like to think we certainly do that.

Moving on, on Wednesday morning a Tern management meeting brought together expertise from around the First of Forth from different organisations to talk about the 2019 ‘Tern season’ and also to discuss ideas for next year (yes we’ve already started planning). That same evening an Isle of May Bird Observatory committee meeting brought together the Trust and discussions were based around the season of birding and ringing on the island.

And so finally onto this weekend, when I’ll be speaking at the SOC (Scottish Ornithologist Club) conference at Pitlochry on Seabirds of Scotland. The annual event attracts over 200 delegates and the talk featuring Seabirds of Scotland will take place on Saturday afternoon and is a chance to showcase the brilliance of seabirds. So as you can see, it’s all go although a trip is scheduled back out to the May very soon so we’ll bring you islands news along the way.

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The Answers!

GG Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – a rare visitor which used this bush by the visitor centre to store its food in a larder – mainly island mice!


Short-eared Owl roosting in the grass – a reasonable number over-winter on the island


A rare Pallas’s Warbler flying off from feeding on the rocks

woodcock 2

Migrant Woodcock landed on the beach having come in from Russia! (they winter in the UK)

Monday 18th November comments: So how did you do? Check your answers from the above images compared to yesterdays quiz! I suspect the birds were difficult (some are rare migrants) but good fun spotting them!

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