Thank You for the Support

Friday 1st July comments: This is just a short blog post to thank everyone for their continued support and help.

It’s certainly been a few hectic weeks as seabirds find themselves in turmoil following the spread of avian influenza. As a result we have closed the island but we have had some incredible backing and support from a lot of people regarding the decision to temporary close the island. Locally it hasn’t been easy for our local businesses as our boat operators are paying a heavy price (especially just coming off the back of two Covid years) but thank you to Alex, Rab, Alan and Colin for unwavering support and understanding at such a crucial time. The boat teams are an important part of the island family and we thank all the teams involved. We will be back.

Elsewhere our friends at the Scottish Seabird Centre have been as supportive as ever whilst Ciaran (St.Abbs Head) and Maggie (Bass Rock) have been brilliant in sharing information and keeping us in the loop. Within NatureScot the team behind the scenes of Emma, Caroline and Susan have been working tirelessly whilst on the island the staff and volunteers who have been dealing with the daily changes and keeping everyone together in difficult times have been tremendous. We also thank those at the bird observatory as once again they close (they were closed during the Covid outbreak) and the support they have shown. Thank you to everyone involved, it’s good to have that level of support and togetherness.

Whilst we appreciate not everyone will agree with the decision to close, we feel it’s the right move under the current circumstance and we have to remember that the birds welfare comes first. The decision to close will continue to be reviewed but until then we’ll be blogging regular updates to keep you all informed of the latest news and developments.

Also don’t forget, if you wish to support the local boat operators, although they can’t land on the island they will be making daily trips around the isle to show off the spectacular wildlife. For further details see their respective websites:

May Princess (sailing from Anstruther):

Osprey (sailing from Anstruther):

Seabird Centre (sailing from North Berwick):

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Confirmation in Kittiwakes

Dead Kittiwakes (Chris Cachia-Zammit)

Thursday 30th June comments: It’s been a turbulent week on the Isle of May and today we say a temporary goodbye to our visitors as we are closing the island due to the increasing issues surrounding avian influenza. As we were dealing with this, news has reached us that two Kittiwakes which were taken off for sampling have proven that these birds died of H5N1… avian flu. The sad news is not something unexpected as the death toll starts to mount as we realise we do have it in our colonies and now we can only hope it does not cause great damage.     

Kittiwakes (also known as Black-legged Kittiwakes) are generally pelagic birds of the arctic and subarctic regions and can be found all across the northern coasts of the Atlantic. Although almost exclusively coastal they do breed along the River Tyne at Newcastle/Gateshead, the furthest inland breeding colony in the world! Kittiwakes get their name from their call, a shrill ‘kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake’ (listen out for their calls when you next visit a colony).

Kittiwakes nest from late April/early May and lay 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. 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. Kittiwakes reach sexual maturity at around 4–5 years old. Kittiwakes eventually leave the Isle of May waters in September-October.

Over the last twenty years the British Isles has seen a 44% reduction in the population of Kittiwakes (a huge concern for conservationists) and this has been mirrored on colonies like the Isle of May. So this latest issue is something our birds could do without. Our concerns continue to increase.

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Isle of May closes

Island nature reserves close to protect seabirds

Monday 27th June comments: NatureScot’s Isle of May and Noss National Nature Reserves (NNRs) will be closed to public landings from 1 July to help protect vulnerable seabird populations from avian influenza.

Scotland’s nature agency will also be advising visitors not to take direct access onto seabird colonies on other National Nature Reserves such as Hermaness.

The measure is the latest in response to growing concern over the spread and impact of the current H5N1 strain of avian flu, particularly in seabird colonies.

The virus is widespread across Scotland, with positive cases recorded in Shetland, Orkney, St Kilda, Lewis and St Abbs. Large numbers of dead and sick seabirds have also been reported from Aberdeenshire, East Lothian and the west coast of Sutherland.

Great skua and gannets have been hardest hit. Sample surveys of colonies show a 64% decline of great skua on St Kilda and 85% at Rousay in Orkney. Great black-backed gull, Arctic tern, common guillemot and puffin have also tested positive.

The decision to restrict access to NatureScot’s two island NNRs, which in summer are home to hundreds of thousands of breeding seabirds, has been taken to limit the spread of the virus through bird populations and give colonies the best possible chance of survival and recovery by reducing any additional stress. While avian flu has been confirmed in gannets at Noss, there have been no confirmed cases on the Isle of May yet.

At other coastal NNRs such as Hermaness in Shetland, NatureScot will ask visitors not to walk through seabird colonies but to enjoy the spectacle from a distance. Local signage will be in place at those reserves affected.

Eileen Stuart, NatureScot’s Deputy Director of Nature & Climate Change, said: “The decision to close these reserves has not been taken lightly, but we are increasingly concerned about the devastating impact avian flu is having in Scotland, particularly on our seabird colonies.

“Our island reserves in particular are a haven for internationally important bird populations. The situation has been rapidly evolving and deteriorating, and we feel at this time that restricting access to these sites, and reducing it at others, is a precautionary but proportionate approach that gives us the best chance of reducing the spread of the virus and its impact.

“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. Visitors will still be able to enjoy the summer seabird spectacle at both island reserves by taking round-island trips without coming ashore, and at other reserves by viewing from a short distance without crossing through colony areas. We will be keeping the situation under regular review over the coming weeks.”

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Sticking together

Just some of the amazing people who work with seabirds up and down the country

Thursday 23rd June comments: Seabird colonies are incredible places; the sights, sounds and smells (!) make them one of most awe-inspiring places to visit in the natural world as birds occupy every available nesting site from rocks at the cliff base to the grassy slopes at the top. The U.K. is blessed by having some of the very best seabird cities in the world and they are amazing places which attack all senses; if you’ve never been to one just go and see it for yourself.

These wonderful places also offer the opportunity for people to live and work with seabirds; helping to protect, conserve and enhance these birds whilst also offering the opportunity to study and research them. The Isle of May is no different as we have national nature reserve staff and volunteers from NatureScot alongside researchers from various different organisations. At this time of year we are extremely busy but in recent weeks this has started to change and it is for one very good reason; avian influenza.

Avian influenza was first detected in Great Skuas last summer and has since swept down the east coast as large numbers of Northern Gannets have died and now the terrible disease is jumping across to other species with Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Terns and Eiders all suffering. What will happen next is anyone’s guess but the outlook looks bleak for the foreseeable future.

Whilst the birds suffer and birds welfare comes first, it’s also a very difficult time for those who work, watch and study them and in some cases it’s been a lifetime of blood sweat and tears. On a personal note, for someone who has worked with seabirds for 22 years it is devastating to sit back and watch the events unfold, feeling almost helpless to prevent the outcome. There are many good people working, studying, watching and enjoying seabirds up and down the country and like all, I hope this passes quickly. The timing of this could not be any worse as we have just come off the back of Covid-19, so I will give a big shout out to all those people involved; stay strong, stick together and we’ll get through this but be warned, I think we are in for a bumpy ride…     

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Wednesday 22nd June comments: Its been another busy period as our thoughts are still on avian influenza as we hear of seabirds and seabird colonies which are suffering. At present the Isle of May remains clear of the disease but we will keep you posted as things can change and develop quickly.

At present the seabird breeding season is at its peak and its great to see so many youngsters of all species hatching across the island. When the island has so many young that means the adults are busy foraging for food so its a very active island. We have even seen our first departures, but more on that tomorrow as the season continues.

So plenty going on and plenty happening but we’ll keep you posted of all the news and views from the island as it happens. Stay tuned.

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Seabird update

Friday 17th June comments: Avian flu is present in the Firth of Forth, mainly in the Northern Gannet population and we will keep you updated with regards to the Isle of May seabirds, but today we thought we would concentrate on the positives.

The seabird season is advancing by the day and plenty has been going on. Up on the cliffs it’s still action packed as we now have both Guillemot and Razorbill young, so its busy times. European Shags have been nesting since late march so some chicks are almost ready to fledge, whilst a few are still incubating eggs; its always a protracted breeding season for these delightful cliff nesters. The small Cormorant colony appears to be doing well with plenty of medium-sized chicks

On the island top, thousands of Puffin chicks have now hatched so adults are busy on foraging trips as the skies are full with flying Puffins. The Terns now have young but will still peck an unsuspecting visitors head whilst Fulmars are still incubating eggs; it’ll be early July before their chicks hatch. Elsewhere Oystercatchers have young chicks and Eider ducks are starting to reduce in number as successful mothers are taking their young to form big creches out in the open sea.

As ever it’s a busy place with thousands of seabirds nesting and plenty of hungry mouths to feed. The daily activities of a seabird colony are impressive to watch and if you get the opportunity to visit, come out and see the island for yourself as you will not be disappointed.

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Avian Influenza (bird flu)

Monday 13th June comments: The Isle of May was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1956 for its importance to seabirds as the island supports vast numbers of Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Shags, Razorbills, Eider amongst many more. Over the last few decades, our seabirds have had to deal with huge pressures including climate change, lack of prey, deaths through entanglement and development pressures amongst many other things. However, we are now faced with another potentially more serious issue; bird flu.

In recent months, avian influenza H1N1 (also commonly referred to as Bird Flu) has been detected in wild seabird populations in the U.K. Avian Flu is an infectious disease which spreads from bird to bird through contact with infected saliva and droppings. There have been a number of cases in recent years but this year it is impacting on seabirds. Initially it appeared in Great Skuas in the northern Isles late last summer but this spring it has spread to other species, especially Northern Gannets. It is now evident, that once it is in a colony it spreads rapidly and has devastating effects with serious declines in Great Skuas being reported. What is now becoming even more concerning is that the disease is being found in other seabird species including Auks, Terns and Eiders so the threat is real.

Britain’s seabird populations are of global significance, for example the U.K. holds 56% of the world’s Northern Gannet population so we are all very concerned for the next few months ahead. Potentially it could reach the Isle of May as we now have confirmed cases in the Firth of Forth, we will keep you posted on the latest. As you could image, everyone concerned with conservation, wildlife and seabirds are deeply concerned.   

For those who find dead birds, it is important to follow the strict guidelines as although it is low risk to public health, people should not touch dead or sick birds or allow their dogs to pick them up (please keep them on a lead). Please continue to report dead birds (particularly new species and locations) to the Defra hotline: 03459 33 55 77. 

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Busy times

Saturday 11th June comments: The Isle of May never sleeps at this time of year as the birds and the team living on the island are as busy as they’ll ever be. The various research teams, staff and volunteers are in the thick of the action and this next week we’ll introduce these people and the work that is done.

However its been a busy time recently as the NatureScot team have continued counting the nesting seabirds and yesterday we completed the important tern population counts. Three weeks after the first laying date of our Arctic Terns we enter the colonies to count the number of nests across the island. This date (three weeks after laying) is regarded as the peak number of Terns which will nest and it is repeated across all Tern colonies in the UK.

Yesterday it was our turn to count as the first eggs were discovered on 20th May. In ‘police search’ fashion, the team walked through the colonies (we are extremely careful to watch our feet and ensure disturbance is kept to a minimum, moving on quickly after a count). Each nest counted represents a pair of nesting birds so we can build our population levels from this process. The hard work of creating tern habitat has also paid off, encouraging more birds to nest. However the real hard work now starts, as we have numbers to crunch and we’ll reveal the population counts once all the figures are in. Fingers crossed it’s on the up and we can continue to help the Terns of the Isle of May.

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Spring in the tail

Top: male Bluethroat

2nd row: Red-backed Shrike (Hannah Greetham)

3rd row: Icterine Warbler (left) and Spotted Flycatcher (right)

4th row: Bird Obs team (left) and Wheatear (right)

Thursday 9th June comments: The Isle of May is a significant wildlife location for important populations of seabirds and Grey Seals. However it’s also an important place for bird migration as thousands of birds will use it like a service station on their log journeys. Birds will stop over to refuel and rest before moving on, hence why Scotland oldest bird observatory was founded in 1934 and still runs to this day.

As we stick six miles out in the North Sea we often get more than our fair share along with more unusual and rare visitors. This spring we have had a quiet time, mainly as result of wrong weather conditions to bring the birds in or just not happening at the right time. However in the last 24 hours that all changed as the island welcomed some surprise visitors.

Starting the charge, an elusive Marsh Warbler was discovered singing in the bushes near the low Light, the 11th record in the last twenty years. Then followed more good birds as a more obliging Icterine Warbler was seen and later ringed whilst a stunning male Bluethroat arrived and could be seen in song display flight! As this was all happening, a female Red-backed Shrike landed near the bird observatory and a Cuckoo flew over. Add several other common migrants including Spotted Flycatchers, Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and Willow Warblers amongst others, it’s been a busy few days.

We suspect this will be the last of the spring migration as birds start settling on breeding grounds, but its been a busy, buzzy few days and its been fully appreciated by all those who live and work on here.    

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Stevenson remembered

Wednesday 8th June comments: Today marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Stevenson. The Steveson family designed most of Scotland’s lighthouses including our very own on the impressive Isle of May.  

Scotland’s oldest lighthouse is called the beacon and it served the isle of May well for 179 years but gradually it limitations were proving decisive. Following the tragedy of two Royal Navy boats which were wrecked in 1810, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) finally took note and took action. In 1814 the Board purchased the Isle of May from the Duke and Duchess of Partland and called on their engineer Robert Stevenson to design and build a new lighthouse on the island. Construction work commenced soon after and by early 1816, the main lighthouse was fully complete and operational. During this time, the old Beacon was decommissioned and reduced to the ground floor but remained for historical context.

The main lighthouse was an impressive building, standing 78ft (24 metres) in height and was a showpiece for the Northern Lighthouse Board with its castellated tower reflecting influences of Sir Walter Scott. Unlike many other lighthouses built on wave swept rocks, Robert Stevenson was allowed to build the lighthouse to a grand design with a fine open-well newel stairway complete with mahogany handrail and carpet; the only carpeted lighthouse in Scotland.

From its roots in 1816, the lighthouse still stands and is still fully operational to this day beaming across the Firth of Forth.  Looking through the history certain dates stick out and as 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.

The island certainly has close links to its lighthouses and we’ll raise a glass tonight in honour of the family you designed the impressive building which still stands today.  

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