Sniffer Dogs…

The trained sniffer dogs and team lead by Simon Chapman

Wednesday 27th October comments: As many of you know we discovered a new population of nesting Storm Petrels on the Isle of May this summer but these secretive nocturnal seabirds are difficult to locate, so we tried something very unique to British seabird conservation, we brought in the help of the professionals… let us introduce the Storm Petrel sniffer dogs. Here is todays full press release explaining it all…

Sniffer dogs help discover storm petrel colony on the Isle of May in a UK first

For the first time in UK conservation, sniffer dogs have been used to locate a seabird colony, with the location of a storm petrels discovered on the Isle of May in September. Storm petrels were confirmed to be breeding on NatureScot’s Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) for the first time this past summer. But with the sniffer dogs’ assistance, the location and extent of the colony has now been detected.

Storm petrels are small oceanic birds that breed in the UK during the summer months but spend their lives out at sea. The vast majority of the population – about 26,000 pairs breed in the UK – can be found on remote islands, especially in the north and west of Scotland. The species is notoriously difficult to monitor due to its nocturnal habits and preference for these remote, rocky islands.

Five professional sniffer dogs were trained over a two-month period to locate the scent of storm petrels underground. Dogs have a much greater sense of smell than humans, and can cover larger areas in a shorter space of time to locate potential nest burrows. The time of year was crucial as storm petrels were still present in underground burrows, but all other seabirds had left the island. This ensured no other seabirds or wildlife were disturbed by the presence of dogs.

Dogs were used for 20 minutes at a time to walk transects and search for nesting storm petrels underground, allowing rotation and rest periods for each dog and handler. Set areas were checked and each positive indication was marked for further investigation. Work will be conducted next spring with endoscopes and playback recordings of calls to establish occupancy of these burrows. A total of 63 confirmed positive responses – revealing burrows were found. Burrows indicate where pairs are nesting, as well as sites for some non-breeding birds and prospecting young birds. 

David Steel, Reserve Manager at the Isle of May, said: “We were really excited to work with the dogs and the dog handlers to find out more about storm petrels on the island. These special seabirds come ashore under the cover of darkness and nest underground in crevices, burrows, cairns or stone-walls, raising a single chick. During that time, their activities – singing away in total darkness, as well as their unique musky smell, make these birds so fascinating and mysterious. We’re delighted to confirm the storm petrel colony after such a great team effort over the last three years by so many people.”

Dr Mark Bolton, the leading authority on storm petrels in the UK and a Principal Conservation Scientist for the RSPB, said: “It’s very exciting to discover a new breeding colony of storm petrels in the UK, which considerably extends their known breeding range on the east coast of Britain, and increases their resilience to the many challenges our seabirds face. The fact that specially-trained scent dogs were used to locate many of the nesting sites is ground-breaking in the UK, and I hope it heralds a new era of greater use of scent dogs for seabird monitoring here.”

Simon Chapman, Senior Trainer atK9 Manhunt & ScentWork Scotland, added: “Having trained lots of different dogs over the years on a vast array different odours, this was a first for us to work in conservation and to locate a new colony of nesting seabirds. Dogs are a cost effective and fast method to cover the ground when conducting these types of surveys.”

Over the years, volunteers at Scotland’s oldest bird observatory on the island have been ringing non-breeding storm petrels and tracking their subsequent movements. Recoveries of ringed birds have shown links to much of the traditional range, mainly to the north and west of Scotland and Ireland.

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Island road blocked!

the visitor pathway is well and truly blocked now!
Not a care in the world
Mum in the nettle patch!

Monday 25th October comments: The Isle of May is a national nature reserve like no other (well that’s a slight exaggeration but you know what I mean). It’s a brilliant place to visit, a brilliant place to work and a brilliant place to live. As reserve staff we still have a few weeks left before we depart for the winter, but life is certainly getting more interesting.

During the summer months we have to be conscious of breeding seabirds and ensure disturbance is kept to a minimum. As with the summer months, the autumn is no different as we now have to ensure that our breeding Grey Seals are not disturbed during this very sensitive time.

However someone once said “never work with nature” and so it has proved as despite keeping our distance, a mum Grey Seal decided to wander up towards the visitor centre and give birth on the road! It’s good to report that this mother is a regular to this area (is well known) and has always pupped in this area so is very much use to our presence. Despite that, we now have to avoid this area as the road belongs to her and her pup. It certainly is a different type of road blockage and diversion… road closed ahead, seal in road. 

It just shows the wonders of nature and working on a wonderful wildlife sanctuary like the Isle of May.

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Not one from today but just demonstrating just how small Little Auks are!
Little Auk on the sea

Friday 22nd October comments: The day of the Dovekie! Well for British birders, we know these birds as Little Auks, and today we’ve seen some!  

These small auks (smaller than a Puffin and they feed on plankton – they are that small) breed in the high Arctic in colonies which are estimated at being one million strong (that’s a lot of Little Auks). At this time of year, if the winds come from the far north, or north-west, the east coast of the UK can have big numbers recorded as birds are displaced and are then re-orientating and heading back north.

So today was a good day with 81 Little Auks counted (following some strong north-west winds) with small groups landing on the sea around the island suggesting we might record more tomorrow. These small visitors are incredible to watch and it was wonderful to note them in small groups around the island. The Isle of May is actually unique to the British isles for little Auk as it one of only a few sites which usually have Little Auks over-wintering so we may end up seeing even more over the next few weeks. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy today’s sightings and will be bringing you news about tomorrow…

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Jetty Seal Pup!

Our first seal pup at the jetty
Alive and well without a care in the world
Sleeping mum right alongside

Thursday 21st October comments: The Isle of May seal colonies are now fully active as more and more seals arrive around the island. Bull seals have started taking up position but more important heavily pregnant mums (known as cows) are arriving in the colony strongholds on the island.

The Isle of May is one super colony, supporting 8,000 Grey Seals at the height of the season which brings 2,500 pup births. However, the island can be divided up into smaller sub-colonies, as Rona, East Tarbet, Pilgrims Haven and the South End of the Isle are the four major areas. Yesterday we welcomed the first pup at the jetty system; the area that featured on the BBC Autumnwatch last year. Its an ideal area to be born, as it is relatively sheltered from storms but has good access to the open sea. However before these pups leave there is a long way to go and we’ll be bringing the story of these pups , mums and dads as the season progresses.

It’s important Grey Seals are not disturbed at this time of year as we remind people to keep clear of Seals especially haul out sites on the mainland and if you want to see them, attend an organised viewing if possible. From our side, we also do out bit as we’ll be closing the jetty systems very soon to allow the seals to take over, as after all the Isle of May belongs to nature.     

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Merlin meet Migration…

Tuesday 19th October comments: Merlin meet migration, migration meet Merlin (photos above are all images of Merlin). The number of birds moving through the Isle of May and generally across a broad front across the east coast of the U.K. has been impressive over the last few days. The sheer volumes of Redwing alone has been in their hundreds of thousands, with a supporting cast of other thrushes and Bramblings amongst others. It’s been brilliant to watch as nothing beats diurnal migration in action as these birds battle across the North Sea to arrive for the winter. However with this many birds, trouble is not far away…

On the Isle of May we don’t’ have any breeding birds of prey but at this time of year, migration also brings Kestrels and Sparrowhawks whilst a few Peregrines and Merlin are resident for the autumn and winter. These birds take advantage of our mouse population but also of tired migrants which have just arrived. In the last few days, two young Merlin have been working the island, taking their fill but in real terms this means just a few birds in the many thousands which cross the sea (and how many are lost out at sea?). Its nature’s way and Merlins have to survive and for young birds, this is a good learning experience.

Migration is amazing to watch and if you get the chance to witness it, go see it, you will not be disappointed. Until then we will keep counting, keep watching and keep reporting… it’s an exciting time of year on the Isle of May!

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Sunday 17th October comments: Its been one of those days. The Isle of May has been shrouded in low cloud, rain at times, but with a light north-easterly wind blowing meaning only one thing at this time of year; INVASION!!

Just after 8am a short but distinctive call was heard… a high pitched ‘seep’ as the first of the Redwings moved across the island. These birds had probably departed Scandinavia the night before and has battled across the North Sea. As they met poor weather conditions along the coast, they were looking for hope, and there it was; the Isle of May standing proud and the gateway to the mainland. These birds were travelling in various size flocks some flocks totalling into their hundreds and as they reached the island they knew that within a few more miles, the relative safety of the mainland would be reached. These birds are arriving from Scandinavia as they escape the cold harsh winters of the north and will successfully winter across the U.K. before returning to breed next spring. It wasn’t just redwings on the move, as other northern breeders such as Brambling, Blackbirds and Song Thrush were also caught up with the movement.

Every year we expect a good arrival of Redwings but today due to the weather conditions, it was more concentrated. For the birds it is sanctuary, but for the counters it is a nightmare as fast moving flocks swirl quickly over the cliff tops before dropping out sight into the murk and then onwards to the mainland. However the counts were good and the final figures revealed some impressive totals:

Redwing                      13,165

Song Thrush               500

Blackbird                     100

Fieldfare                      10

Ring Ouzel                  1

Brambling                    300

It’s been a good day for visible migration and it just shows you the importance of the Isle of May even to migrating thrushes. Now time for a rest. 

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Thank You Bex

Saturday 16th October comments: Time moves on (even island time) and it’s that time of year when we take a step closer to closing the doors for the winter months. Today witnessed another step in that direction as 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 eighth season on the Isle of May (yes 8!) It’s some achievement, in fact Bex has now become the longest serving member of NatureScot staff on the island in its history.

It’s a sad day to see Bex depart as she is a linchpin of the Isle of May as her dependable hard work 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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Sleepy Seals

Thursday 14th October comments: the wind has been blowing from the west, with waves crashing against the seacliffs and very little movement in terms of bird migration. however the isle of may is stirring into life as the grey Seal season is slowly maneuvering itself to be centre stage.

Acround the island the number of Grey Seals has increased considerably since the summer months, as we’ve gone from a handful of animals up to 800+ so far and this increasing. Amongst these we have had the early pupping pioneers as some of the main colonies now have their first pups. New born were sighted today on Rona, Pilgrims Haven and Burnett’s Leap amongst other hot spots. Its great to see heavily pregnant mothers up on the island and to ensure they remain completely disturbed free. Their habits, just like the pups are pretty much to sleep, but we all know this will change as time goes by.

In a few weeks times the island will be heaving and Grey Seals; with cows, bulls and pups littered across this place and as usual we’ll bring you the stories as they break. The Grey Seal colonies of the east coast are just stirring and it’s one of wonders of nature at this time of year.

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On the move through the May

Redwing on the move
Incoming! Barnacle Geese arriving

Wednesday 13th October comments: For those who watch, study and just enjoy bird migration, we all agree that the east coast has had it quiet this autumn (so far). Yes we’ve had a few highlights so can’t grumble, but the big ‘falls’ of birds have not arrived mainly due to the lack of favourable weather.

Yesterday we had a sniff of what could happen as a brief spell of easterlies brought in good numbers of migrants especially Jack Snipe as reported on yesterday’s blog. It also brought the first pulse of Redwing with over 680 logged early in the morning. These pioneers of the autumn migration are birds moving from Scandinavia into the U.K. for the winter. Over the next month or so we will see plenty more of this activity as birds move in, escape the cold harsh north winters.

As well as the redwings, we also logged almost 3,000 Barnacle geese, moving from their breeding grounds in Svalbard in the far north to wintering areas on the Solway Firth on the west coast. This count was a record for the island. It just shows what can be seen and enjoyed as Autumn migration picks up. What we now need is a few more easterly winds and it might get even more entertaining…

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Little Jack

You cant see me, right? Well yes we can…
Jack Snipe on the waters edge

Tuesday 12th October comments: It’s fair to say it has been a slow migratory season on the island this autumn with a handful of noteworthy birds and small numbers of common migrants. However today we experienced a flurry of action as the winds switched to the east (the most favoured winds for bringing in migrants) and sure enough, good numbers of irds arrived.

One of the most noticeable was the arrival of Jack Snipe, a species which breeds in the wet meadows, tundra and marshes of Russia and Northern Europe during the summer. However at this time of year, they move south and west to escape the cold harsh winters, with many arriving in the U.K. However there small size (much smaller than Common Snipe), cryptic camouflage and secretive nature make them difficult to find and see…unless you are on a small coastal island.  

Today we had up to 36 (and probably more)which represents a new island record breaking the previous record of 30. When you see a flock of 12 on one pool, you know you have plenty of birds in! It’s been a good day to see them as the photographs show above and we’ll tell you more tomorrow of the exciting day we experienced. It’s never dull…

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