Summer Time

Thursday 11th August comments: Like many places, the weather on the island has been hot and dry and this has brought a huge splash of colour to the island as large numbers of Butterflies have been arriving or emerging in recent weeks.

Flowering plants such as Thistle, Ragwort and Sea Campion attract a good array of butterflies across the Isle and species such as Small Tortishell, Small and large Whites, and Peacock are numerous whilst Painted Ladies and Wall butterfly’s are on passage. These important pollinators are on the move, some migrating whilst others are staying local to breed. This fuel stop on the Isle of May is vital for them and it’s great to see so many taking advantage of the nectar glut.

If you are visiting the Isle of May in the next few weeks, enjoy the impressive array of butterfly’s as the seabirds may have gone but if you look closely, there is plenty more to see than meets the eye. So make sure you visit to enjoy the fabulous Isle of May and its many hidden gems.

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Welcome Back!

Saturday 6th August comments: We can now bring you the exciting news that we are re-opening the Isle of May. After five weeks of closure, NatureScot’s Isle of May is re-opening to public landings from Monday 8th August, as the majority of seabirds have left the island. Some restrictions and biosecurity measures will remain however.

The island, a National Nature Reserve, was closed to help protect vulnerable seabird populations from the spread and impact of the current H5N1 strain of avian flu in seabird colonies.

The breeding season is now over for most species on the Isle of May, and they have left the island to overwinter at sea or moved to the nearby coast before migrating further afield. It’s not yet possible to assess how much the current outbreak of avian flu has impacted on the island’s breeding populations, but some species have successfully bred.

Visitors to the island will be asked to remain on paths, and biosecurity measures will be in place on boats and on the island. The virus has been found to stay on the ground and in bird faeces for a long time, so restricting access to any areas that still have nesting seabirds and taking simple steps to disinfect boots and clean clothing is crucial.

Seabird colonies on 23 other islands around Scotland remain closed to public landings, as they are still home to hundreds of thousands of breeding seabirds. At other coastal NNRs such as Hermaness in Shetland, NatureScot has asked visitors not to walk through seabird colonies but to enjoy the spectacle from a distance. Local signage is in place at those reserves affected.

Seabird breeding seasons vary significantly between species with some, such as gannets and storm-petrels, remaining at colonies until mid-October. The breeding seasons may also vary in different parts of the country by several weeks. NatureScot is keeping the situation under constant review on a site-by-site basis. Restrictions will be lifted as soon as possible in discussion with site managers. 

Eileen Stuart, NatureScot’s Deputy Director of Nature & Climate Change, said: “We hope the restrictions limited the spread of avian flu on the Isle of May, although more research is needed to confirm this in the coming months. We are grateful for the ongoing support from local boat operators during this challenging period. 

“On those islands which are still occupied by nesting seabirds, we’d ask for patience, as the restrictions are our best chance to reduce the spread of this deadly virus. We recognise that this will be disappointing for those planning a visit, but we hope people understand that this is about protecting our precious seabird populations for the future. We will continue to keep the situation under regular review over the coming weeks.”

For further information regarding boat sailing availability, please check boat companies:

Licenced Boat Operators 2022

May Princess (depart from Anstruther):  https://www.isleofmayferry.com/

Osprey rib (depart from Anstruther) https://www.isleofmayboattrips.co.uk/

Seabird Centre rib (departs from North Berwick): https://seabird-centre.seafari-edinburgh.co.uk/forth-ferry-and-isle-of-may

Bluewild rib (departs from Dunbar): https://www.bluewild.co.uk/boat-tours/

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Puffin…Nuffin

Wednesday 3rd August comments: We are now into August and it’s a month of change on the Isle of May as we say goodbye to the seabirds and welcome in a new season…the season of migration. However before we look forward, we shall look back as we are now saying goodbye to our seabirds. Overall we are actually pleased to see our birds go and the Terns have now moved to the nearby coastlines to prepare for their mammoth journey south. In the last few days we’ve also said goodbye to the vast majority of our Puffins.

Our Puffins are now moving into the North Sea for the winter and will not return to land until  next March (so that’s eight months sitting on the sea!) Regardless of conditions or strength of wind or even temperatures, these birds will ride out the storms on the sea. The majority of our Puffins remain in the North Sea although small numbers infiltrate the Atlantic (there have been recoveries of birds as far across as Newfoundland in Canada). Its impressive stuff considering they weigh approximately 450grams (roughly the same as a loaf of bread) but sit it out on the sea.

However it’s in the design of the Puffin that tells you all you need to know. Puffins are hardy, compact birds, designed more for life at sea rather than land. As true pelagic birds they actually find land as the alien habitat and so a few storms during the winter don’t trouble them too much. So the next time you are bemoaning the weather, just think of those Puffins out at sea bobbing along….and be thankful they are away, dispersed from colonies and the threat of bird flu. It’s been an interesting summer and we are all just relieved to see the back of it.

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Historical May

Monday 1st August comments: The Isle of May has some remarkable history dating back to the seventh century when hermits first descended on the island. From Scotland first lighthouse to the founding of Scotland first ever bird observatory, the island has seen it all.

Whilst recently sorting through some stock cupboards, we stumbled across some old photographs taken of various buildings and landscapes on the island. We have posted two today, taken at the turn of the twentieth century with a modern day photograph of the same view at its present setting. Not much has changed apart from the vegetation as the main lighthouse looks very similar whilst the nearby garden has now been turned over to migrant birds and mist netting areas.

In 1816 the new lighthouse was designed and constructed by Robert Stevenson and in 1843 the original fixed beam light was replaced by a revolving flash operated from oil but in 1885 that all changed. Work began to alter the light to operate on electricity and on the 1st December 1886, the Isle of May lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Scotland to be powered by this form of energy. Converting to electricity was not cheap, to a fine tune of £16,000 but the new light had some impressive power as it beamed at 25,000 candle-power and gave four quick flashes in quick succession followed by an interval of 30 seconds. The highest recorded distance at which the light was visible was an impressive 61 nautical miles.

As a result of this change, more staff were needed and additional accommodation complete with boiler house, engine rooms and workshop were constructed in a small valley nearby. This also included a small dam to produce a fresh-water loch for cooling of engines. The engine room was then fitted with two 4.5 ton steam-powered engines which powered the light. These buildings later became known as Fluke Street and still stand today as they are home to the reserve staff who live on the island.

A total of seven families were required to live on the May as a result of these extra engines and during this time two fog horns were constructed at the north and south end of the island. These fog stations were powered by compressed air, generated from the island’s power plant in the centre of the island, and delivered by cast-iron pipes laid on the ground. The North horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 2¼ minutes and the South horn provided four 2½ second blasts of the same pitch every 2¼ minutes. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately one minute apart.

So there you have a brief history of the main lighthouse and as we continue to look through these photos, we’ll post more and the history behind them.

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Super Seabird Sunday

Sunday 31st July comments: No real story to the blog just a celebration of some great and wonderful seabirds which nest on the Isle of May. In recent weeks our timelines have had some depressing news and stories which are very important to highlight. However today we are just posting some great images of some great birds from the island.

Foe those guessing what these birds are, from top to bottom they are: Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffin, Arctic Tern, Shag, Eider, Kittiwake and Fulmar. All these species nest and make up the important jigsaw that makes the Isle of May so special.

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Falcon Fantastic

One of two fledged Peregrine chicks off the Isle of May this year (Chris Cachia-Zammit)

An adult Peregrine on the May

Saturday 30th July comments: As usual it has been an interesting summer on the Isle of May and whilst we have had a rollercoaster of a journey for several seabird species, we are delighted to announce that we have had Peregrines successfully nest.

As expected Peregrines were resident throughout the winter months with 1-2 still present in late March. However it’s usually at this time of year when they disappear for the summer before eventually returning in August. But not this year. A pair remained with displaying and courtship noted and it became increasingly obvious that a pair were nesting and this was confirmed when a bird was seen attending a nest with two eggs. Over the next two months, two chicks hatched and in early July, both individuals fledged which was the first confirmed breeding since 2014. 

The history of the species is very chequered on the Isle of May as confirmed breeding in 2008 was the first since at least two young fledged in 1929 (yes a staggering 81 years between successes). Since then further breeding attempts (with mixed results) have occurred annually from 2009-2014 but nothing since. However that all changed this season and we are delighted to have this wonderful raptor nesting on our shores.

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Wader Time

Top both photos: Turnstone

Middle both photos: Purple Sandpipers

Bottom left: Redshank Bottom right: Curlew

Thursday 28th July comments: In wildlife terms we are starting to slowly and surely see a change on the Isle of May as the seabird breeding season is drawing to a close. Many successful parents are fledging chicks all across the island and within the next 1-2 weeks the seabird season will be officially closed. However we have also noticed change elsewhere as since early July various wading birds have started arriving on the island as they have already started heading south (its that time of year already).

The Isle of May is ideally placed on the migration routes of several wader species which are starting to head south. These birds are either non-breeders or failed breeders from the far north (they breed in the high arctic tundra) and use the May as a staging post to feed, rest and roost before moving on. The island is ideal as it is relatively free from disturbance, has plenty of good rocky shoreline for them to feed amongst and is generally safe from predators (no ground predators and very few raptors).

Since early July we’ve had Purple Sandpipers and Turnstone return with Redshank, Curlew and Whimbrel all very evident around the island. So it just shows you the value of the May to all aspects of birdlife and soon we’ll be taking a closer look at other migrant birds which use the place, but more on that August.

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Change around the corner…

Tuesday 26th July comments: Change is on its way on the Isle of May as our seabirds are starting to look at their next phase of their life; the autumn and winter. For the majority of our seabirds the open sea is a much safer place to be than on the land so once the breeding season is over and the job is complete the birds will be gone (under normal circumstances we would be sad to see them leave, but with avian influenza we just want them safely away!)

At present we’ve lost the vast majority of Guillemot and Razorbills as they’ve departed having generally had a successful season. Our Puffin numbers are starting to decline as some of our birds have already headed for the open sea and it won’t be long before the vast majority depart.

Elsewhere our Arctic and Common Terns have moved from their breeding colonies onto the nearby rocks at the jetties as they will start their mammoth journey south in the next few weeks (good luck on that journey!). Other birds will also start leaving whilst a few including our European Shags, will remain. Although it may not feel like it, but the autumn is approaching for the wildlife of the Isle of May and things are about to change…  

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Kittiwake Fledgers

Kittiwake chicks; three youngsters and an adult
Lots of young ready to fledge
Under the watchful eye of the parent

Monday 25th July comments: It’s been a tough time recently for our Kittiwakes as they have faced the brunt of the avian influenza on here but despite this, they have actually had a very productive breeding season. On the cliffsides we had our first fledgling Kittiwakes on 18th July and plenty more have followed. Broods of 2-3 are not uncommon on the island and it continues the trend of recent years, as the species tries to bounce back from catastrophic declines in the last two decades.

Kittiwakes return to the Isle of May in late March and are incubating eggs from late April/early May. They lay on 1-2 eggs (very occasionally three) and both parents will incubate on average for 27 days. 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 as you can see from the above photo. Chicks will come back to the nest for several weeks after hatching and will eventually follow the adults at sea where they spend the winter. So there you have it, we now have Kittiwake young on the wing and we hope many more will follow in the next few weeks.  

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SOC Podcast

Saturday 23rd July comments: After yesterday appearance on the BBC Breakfast show, our Reserve Manager David Steel has been kept busy as he has helped create a podcast with our friends at the Scottish Ornithologists Club (SOC).   

The SOC exists to promote the study, enjoyment and conservation of wild birds and their habitats across Scotland. It has 15 local branches across Scotland, over 3,000 members and it brings together like-minded individuals with a passion for birds, nature and conservation. You can find out more about the SOC at their Website: https://www.the-soc.org.uk/

As for podcasts, they are readily available and can cover all topics as people can record a series of digital audio files and make them available for downloading or listening. Mark lewis the Birding and Science Officer for the SOC has created a new podcast series called ‘Some Ornithological Chat’ and the first of the new series features an interview with our reserve manager David Steel.

Mark and David chat about the devastating avian influenza currently hitting our seabirds and the species it is effecting the most but also some optimism for the future. After David chats to Mark about his best birding advice, what he would do if he had a time machine, the next ‘first’ for Scotland (next new bird to be seen in Scotland) and what goes into his birding room 101… its well worth a listen.    

So if you have a spare 30 minutes driving the car or chilling in the garden, take a listen to the podcast, the first in the series and the links to the Podcast:

Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1cwfQRjJ1DNN45Xcmi7Y5g

Acast link: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/some-ornithological-chat/id1635138214

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