Pufflings

Thursday 4th March comments: This week we’ve continued our seabird series looking at the seabirds which nest on the Isle of May. On Monday, we took a closer look at the Puffin and today we continue that species story.

Following incubation of the egg, the single chick will hatch after 40 days and on the Isle of May this is usually late May although hatching across the colonies is protracted with some birds hatching young well into June. The young chick is known as a Puffling and will remain underground through the first forty days of life, otherwise there is a risk it will be predated by large predatory Gulls if it ventures outside when the chick is this young.

Throughout the feeding stage, both adults will actively prey on sand-eels, the species favoured prey items, from first light (4am) through until dusk (busy days for both parents). The bill of a Puffin is well adapted to grip a row of sandeels (its favoured prey) as the upper and lower mandibles come together in a parallel fashion to exert equal pressure along the whole length of the bill. The bill also has small spines facing in, to allow the fish to be held and hence why a Puffin can catch more than one fish at once (apparently the record is 61 sandeels in one fishing trip).

Chicks can gain 10g of body weight per day but after four weeks will take on 80g of fish per day (25% of its body weight). Eventually after 38-44 days (Pufflings will be 70-80% of adult body weight by the time they fledge), it is time to leave but that is another story for tomorrow….stay tuned!

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Learn more about Puffins

Tuesday 2nd March comments: Today we continue our seabirds series as we take a look at the most numerous seabird on the island; the Atlantic Puffin. The fans-favourite of the Isle of May seabirds has an interesting and diverse breeding biology and there is plenty to learn.

Description

Puffins (also known as Atlantic Puffins) belong to the family Fratercula which also includes the Horned Puffin and Tuften Puffin, both which are found in the North Pacific, whilst the Rhinoceros Auklet is also considered by some to belong to this family group. All species have similar features and Fratercula is latin for ‘little brother’ in reference to the black and white plumage which resembles monastic robes.

Puffins are unmistakable birds as they are stocky with distinct colours; black upperparts and white underparts, with large white cheeks contrasting against their brightly colour bill (beaks). They also have distinctive orange coloured legs and feet. Puffins are not large (some people mistakenly think Puffins are big birds) but are more like the size of a bag of sugar as they are 26-29cm in height with a wingspan 47-63cm, weighing 320-480 grams. Puffins are true pelagic birds as they are deigned for life out at sea rather than on land. Their wings are relatively short and adapted for swimming underwater (with a flying technique) whilst in the air can beat as many as 400 times per minute (fast rapid flight).  

Breeding Biology

The first Puffins will return to Isle of May waters in late March and touch land soon after having not seen land since last August (spending the entire winter out at sea as mentioned in yesterdays blog). Puffins nest in large colonies on predator free islands and will dig long underground burrows, sometimes up to 10 feet in length but usually about one metre depending on substrate. Pairs will pair bond for life and will return to the same nest chamber each year if it has not been destroyed. Usually the first job on their return to the island is to spring clean and remove any debris, which has accumulated inside over winter. Puffins will then lay a single egg in the chamber (usually in mid-April) and will incubate for forty days. During this time an adult will remain underground and will change with its partner to continue the duties of incubation.  

Once the chick hatches (in late May) then the fun really begins but more on that tomorrow as we continue to look at the Puffins of the Isle of May.

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Puffin Month!

Monday 1st March comments: Spring is well and truly on its way and today we welcome in a new month and an important one in the calendar of the Isle of May national nature reserve. Plenty will happen this month including the return of staff to the island and seabirds will start stirring as they head towards another breeding season. However the big news will come in the final week, if weather is settled enough, as like many other North Sea seabird colonies, the Atlantic Puffins will return!

Puffins are creatures of habit as during the winter months they spend the entire period between August-March on the sea in the North Atlantic. Many of our Puffins will remain in the North Sea but some do penetrate into the Atlantic itself. However as the daylight hours start to increase birds start returning to colonies and will touch land for the first time in eight months. This will happen at the end of the month and its such a special moment as the Puffins are back and it almost herald’s the start of a new season.

So on todays blog we’ve featured lots of Puffins images and over the next few days we’ll share even more and bring you the fascinating insights into the world of Puffins. It’s a good way to kick start a new month. Welcome to March.  

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May Be Still Winter

Saturday 27th February comments: We have completed our mission for the week as the island has been partially opened, cleaned and sorted ready for the next installment of preparing for a new season. The various health and safety checks have been done, the water system cleaned and treated and various other bits done as we push on towards the return of staff next month.

Looking around the Isle of May at this time of year, we are reminded very much that it is still the winter months and the island is in its dormant stage. The vegetation is showing the battle scars of winter storms, salt spray, seal impacts and cold temperatures but as we know best, it will recover as spring is just around the corner. Its hard to imagine that in five weeks time the Puffins will be flooding back in and the seacliffs will be teaming with life. At this moment, apart from the rabbits, it seems desolate and void of life. However this is the annual cycle of a North Sea island and we’ll soon be celebrating the new season as it fast approaches.

So onwards and upwards. We are looking forward to a new season and hoping that the future brings brighter prospects. We’ll keep on bringing you updates as we head towards that grand return as still plenty of stories to tell…

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Hard Wood

Friday 26th February comments: Its been an interesting few weeks for bird migration as the weather has had a detrimental effect on several species of bird. As reported in a blog post back in early February, hard weather movements of birds have been recorded which included Woodcocks.

Back in October of last year we reported the arrival of these majestic birds on the back of a ‘Woodcock moon’. These cryptic woodland dwellers breed in the UK but during the autumn these birds are bolstered by migrants from continental Europe. These birds are escaping the worst of the weather to the north and east of the UK as Scandinavia and Russia has the vast majority of breeding European Woodcock and they’ll move to warmer climes including the UK. Having overwintered, they’ll then return early the following spring when we can get one or two on the island as they head back.

However the cold harsh weather we had a few weeks ago pushed many birds to coastal regions including the Isle of May. On 11th February at least sixty were present on the island taking advantage of any unfrozen areas to feed and shelter. That is an impressive number for the time of year and over the following few weeks many have lingered including a handful which are still present to this very day. However it’s not gone without its moments, as several have lost their lives either to predators such as peregrines or to the brutal weather itself (struggling to feed). The natural world can be a harsh one but we know where one did not survive, many did and we look forward to the big moon at the end of October, as we suspect we’ll be seeing the flight of the Woodcock once again.

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Seabirds of February

Wednesday 24th February comments: It has been a tough month for seabirds including for those which reside on the Isle of May. Several species remain in the North Sea with some, such as the Shags, using the Island as a safe evening roost site throughout the winter months.

However the onshore winds combined with low temperatures and heavy seas has seen a number of dead reported and it’s evident from the sea cliffs of the island that many are currently ‘missing’ in action. The scale and damage caused to our local populations of seabirds will only be fully revealed during the summer months when we undertake population counts of the island.

Despite this, it has been a reasonable week of birds returning as Guillemots (mostly in summer plumage but some still molting) have been seen on the cliffs whilst a scattering of Razorbills have joined them. The Fulmars are present in healthy numbers whilst Shags look magnificent in their full breeding plumage complete with funky head crest. The large Gulls are also present on territory with the first returning Lesser Black-backed Gulls just starting to arrive. The only other birds of note are the Eider ducks which are increasing daily with their distinctive display calls.

Otherwise we still have along way to go before Puffins return (in late March) and then the Terns (in late April) and then we can claim we have a full house. However we can’t wait, things are getting exciting!

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Clean down

Tuesday 23rd February comments: Its been another busy day on the Isle of May as we’ve getting on with the job of opening up the island ready for the new season. Many people don’t see all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes as they walk on and enjoy the fabulous Isle of May but the prep work involved is long and hard.

Today we have been cleaning the accommodation from the dishes and cupboards to the pots and pans; everything needs a good wash and clean having been stored away for three months. All worktops, fridges, freezers, cookers, floors, skirting boards and even kitchen sinks need a good clean down after a winter of dormancy. Whilst the cleaning has been going on, the main water system has continued to be deep cleaned and treated ready for our return in March.

So it’s not all about Puffins and seabirds on the Isle of May, there is plenty of other jobs to get on with and after this work, we have habitat management, boardwalks and all the visitor infrastructure to sort and prepare but that’s for another day… onwards…

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Welcome back

Monday 22nd February comments: We’ve made it. We are now on the Isle of May (just for the working week) and considering the weather of recent weeks, we got extremely lucky with the sailing to the island today. The seas over the last three weeks have been rough (mountainous at times) but today it was easy going with light winds and calm flat seas. Even the sun made an appearance today which was both timely and welcome.

We are on the island to start the process of opening up the accommodation with various vital safety checks and jobs to be complete including the full scale clean and treatment of our water system. The water in the accommodation is pumped direct from a well and treated though a reverse osmosis unit which enables us to drink and use for showers etc (it has to be up to standard as it is tested by Fife county council). We also need such jobs doing as servicing of the generators, solar panels as well as fire extinguishers and alarm safety systems checks (its all go!)

So it’s going to be a busy week, all under covid restrictions to ensure we are socially distanced. It’s good to see the island (although its looking bare) and we’ll do more exploring tomorrow and will report on how the seabirds are doing (well the few which are here!)    

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Pre-start to the Season

Sunday 21st February comments: We may find ourselves in the grips of a worldwide pandemic (its almost been one year since it hit the UK – where does time go?) but we are still preparing for the start of a new season (albeit a restricted, socially distanced one). We are hoping the season will start from 1st April as boats from Fife and Lothian will head our way bringing visitors to enjoy the wonders of the Isle of May.

However before then we have an island to set up, accommodation to clean and to ensure the safety of all those who will live on the island over the next eight months. Tomorrow we are heading out to the island to start that process as we being a week of contractual work, everything from treatment of water systems to fire extinguisher tests, it all needs doing and no better time to do it.

So this week coming we’ll be bringing you daily reports from the island with updates, we are not expecting many seabirds (still early) but we can see what has been happening over the winter months and bring the stories to you. So stay tuned this week, plenty to tell but first we have a boat to catch…. See you on the other side.

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The not so Common Tern

Wednesday 17th February comments: Over the last week we’ve been focussing on the snow and weather which has hit the east coast, including the Isle of May, hard. We will know over the next few weeks what damage, if any, this has caused to our breeding seabirds but until then we’ll delve back into our seabird series which we were featuring seabirds of the Isle of May. Today we feature our second Tern species as we introduce the Common Tern.  

Description

Common Terns are distinctive birds as they are light grey upperparts, white underparts, a black cap, orange-red legs and a narrow pointed bill which is generally red with a black tip to the end. The Common Tern has a circumpolar distribution and it has four subspecies which breed in temperate and subarctic regions of the world. The species is a strong flyer as they winter in the southern hemisphere (but more on that in another blog soon)

Breeding Biology

Common Terns breed in a variety of habitats but generally flat, poorly vegetated surfaces which are close to water and can adapt to artificial floating rafts. They nest both in coastal waters and inland freshwater. On the Isle of May the first birds return in late April and aerial courtship displays soon follow above the island. The majority of birds nest on the Tern Terraces by the Beacon and by the third week of the May, the first eggs are laid and the nest site is usually a small scrape in shingle or gravel. The species can lay up to three eggs (rarely four) and the clutch is incubated by both parents and will hatch after 21-22 days. Once the chicks hatch, they are cared for by their parents and will take to the wing after 22-28 days (which is usually mid-July on the island). Like most terns, this species feeds by plunge-diving for fish but molluscs, crustaceans and other invertebrate can make up their varied diets. Following the breeding season, family parties will disperse the island in August and begin the long journey south to their wintering grounds.

However more on the species in the forthcoming days as these birds are not as common as their name suggests and we’ll reveal how many nest on the Isle of May! Stay tuned.   

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