Ducklings!

Wednesday 11th May comments: The cute factor has just increased on the Isle of May as the first Eider ducklings are now present on the islands loch. Eider ducks are very special seaducks; which can live for about 20-25 years and are the largest of all the ducks in Europe and can weigh up to 3kg in weight.

The male is unmistakable in plumage as he is black and white with a green nape. The female is mottled brown as she will incubate the eggs at the nest and therefore needs camouflage to blend in. Female Eiders nest all over the Isle of May (including along the paths and roads) and generally have a clutch of 4-6 eggs. The main nesting period is from late April-May and the first eggs were discovered on 16th April this year. The females will sit tight on the nest for the entire duration of the incubation period (which is approximately 26 days). During this period females can lose 40% of their body weight and as a result have to be in good condition before nesting.

Within 24 hours of the chicks hatching, the females will take the young to sea (or in some cases the islands loch). Birds will form large crèches as young and adults from a multitude of nests will just mix as young grow bigger and stronger as they head towards independence. However eventually all adults and young will move off towards the nearby coastlines where chicks will be raised. Predation by large gulls is one of the main threats to the youngsters.   

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Tern up the volume

Sunday 8th May comments: Look whos back!? Today proved to be another milestone in the Isle of May seabird calendar as not only did our Arctic terns arrive, but some touched land for the first time on the island. These incredible birds have been away for the winter as the entire population migrant to the Antarctic (yes the Antarctic) and return to the British Isles in April.

Over the last few days numbers have been increasing with vocal aerial displays over the traditional colonies (we got the tern terraces spring cleaned just in time) At present only 100 individuals have been seen but more will follow over the next week or so. Birds have been heard in vocal displays above the island and having travelled 90,000km, they are preparing for another rollercoaster of a breeding season on the Isle of May.

Its great to have these long distant flyers back and we look forward to the exciting moment when they settle properly and start laying eggs. Then the real fun begins and hats will need to be worn. Welcome back head-peckers!

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Tern Conservation

Saturday 7th May comments: Although we often showcase out breeding seabirds, amazing Grey seal colonies and everything else that goes on, on the Isle of May, we don’t often bring you the stories behind the scenes about the work that goes in.

Today we welcomed a team from Niras LTS International who visited the island to help with all the preparation work for the forthcoming Tern nesting season. Our Arctic and Common Terns have only just returned, but the larger numbers have yet to arrive so we took the opportunity to sort all the habitat and specialist tern terraces out. The team helped move sand to the terraces, install fencelines, hides and even placed out the nest boxes ready for the season. This is important conservation work which will benefit the terns on their arrival in the forthcoming weeks.

It’s hard work, plenty to be done but with a great team like today, you can achieve a lot. This is one of many examples of work which goes on behind the scenes and throughout the season we’ll bring you more stories like this including the researchers and all there work on the island and the conservation we do for other species. It all happens on the Isle of May!

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Humpy!

Tuesday 3rd May comments: Well we did say that you never know what you might see on a trip to the Isle of May and oh boy did yesterday deliver for a select few visitors… in the form of a Humpback Whale!!!

As one of the visitor boats was approaching the island a large Humpback Whale surfaced nearby and circled the boat before moving on. The photographs above were taken by skipper Simon Chapman, showing just how close the animal was and what great views the people had (we were very jealous). In recent years Humpback’s have started over-wintering in the Firth of Forth although this was only the third record in the last eight years from the island.

The majestic beast performed well before moving on and comes hot on the heels of our first Minke Whale of the season. The Isle of May seas are certainly worth watching and lets hope our special visitor returns for all to see.

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Slow start for Eiders

Tuesday 2nd May comments: The breeding season has felt slow at times and this is reflected with the number of Eiders currently nesting. The first female was discovered incubating from 16th April but numbers have been low but there is no need for concern.

Large numbers of Eiders are gathering around the island and on the islands loch, with hundreds of displaying males and females preparing to move up. Birds can actually delay their breeding season if they are not in good enough body condition but it looks like things will get back to normal very soon.

Female Eiders nest all over the Isle of May, sometimes on pathways (so you have to watch your feet when walking) and generally have a clutch of 4-6 eggs. Females will sit tight on the nest for the entire duration of the incubation period (which is approximately 26 days) and during this period females can lose 40% of their body weight and as a result have to be in good condition before nesting. Within 24 hours of the chicks hatching, the females will take the young to sea. Birds will form large crèches as young and adults from a multitude of nests will just mix as young grow bigger and stronger as they head towards independence. On the Isle of May the loch in the centre of the island is an ideal location for taking their young in the first few days. Eventually all adults and young will move off towards the nearby coastlines where chicks will be raised. Predation by large gulls is one of the main threats to the youngsters.   

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Dolphin Delight

Sunday 1st May comments: The start of a new month and what a start it was. The sun was shining, the seas were flat, the birds performed and visitors were even treated to the delight of some Bottle-nosed Dolphins and a Minke Whale.

The North Sea is a rich and vibrant place full of life and the May experience starts the minute you set sail from the harbours of Fife and Lothian. Today all the boats were treated to the delight of a small pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which showed extremely well alongside the boats. The boat operators are very experienced amongst cetaceans having had many encounters with them whilst they have also completed the UK’s national training scheme for minimising disturbance to marine wildlife (so we know the cetaceans are in safe company).

As a result the Dolphins were seen well alongside the boats before moving on, ensuring visitors has a great start to the trip. Later in the day a Minke Whale was also sighted. These encounters show what you can see on a wildlife cruise to the Isle of May and if you’ve never been, you are certainly missing out…

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Fulmars

Thursday 28th April comments: One of the unsung heroes of the seabird world is the Fulmar. Over 300 pairs nest on the Isle of May and they are very impressive specialist seabirds.  

Fulmars are part of the Shearwater and Petrel group, which also includes albatrosses. The group can sometimes be referred to as ‘tube noses’ because they have a tubular nostril on top of the bill. The word Fulmar comes from the old English word meaning ‘foul gull’. Fulmars are a common nesting seabird in northern Europe with large populations in the Northern Atlantic from Canada to Russia which includes two varieties; the darker variety is the majority breeder in the high arctic, while the lighter variety is the predominant breeder further south. The species also breeds in the Northern Pacific. Fulmars started colonising the east coast of the UK in the 19th century and the first written account of the species on the Isle of May was in May 1914 with the first breeding pair noted in 1930.  

Fulmars are very specialist seabirds as they have a salt gland above the nasal passage which helps them excrete salt due to the high amount of ocean water that they take in. They also have a very good defensive mechanise even from a young age which allows chicks to be left unattended without coming to any harm. If anything or anyone gets too close to Fulmars, they excrete a stomach oil which is sprayed out of their mouths which will mat the plumage of avian predators , which can lead to the predators death.

Fulmars remain around the island for the majority of the year, only ever being really absent for a longer period between the end of the breeding season (late August) to mid-November when birds move far out into the North Sea. During the winter months they’ll occupy the cliff ledges and by early spring, the new breeding season will have started.

Fulmars don’t start breeding until they are 6-7 years of age (which is old for any bird species) and will lay a single white egg on bare rock ledges or shallow depressions lined with plant material (usually the first eggs are found in mid-May on the island). However just before egg laying, the entire population disappear (this has been referred to as the honeymoon period) for 4-5 days and it is thought that birds do this to build up fat reserves. Once the egg is laid, they’ll then incubate for 49-53 days after which the young will hatch, usually in early July. The growing cycle is slow as can take 50+ days to fledgling with the first youngsters leaving the Isle of May in mid-August.

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Sunday 24th April comments: The season continues to advance as we welcome another seabird species to this years egg laying collection; the Guillemot.  

Guillemots are a member of the Auk family (which include Puffins and Razorbills) and are a common species in the U.K. Guillemots are chocolate brown and white (Razorbills are black and white) and have a very upright posture due to the position of their legs (the legs are at the back of their bodies as these birds are designed for swimming rather than being on land). Interestingly between 4-5% of the islands birds have a white spectacles around their eyes, known as ‘bridled’ Guillemots.

The first Guillemots started arriving on the cliffs of the Isle of May in late March (but also had been in attendance for short periods during the winter) as they prepared for a new breeding season. The species does not breed until it is at least four years old and they do not build a nest structure, as they lay a single large egg and incubate on their feet. Both sexes will help incubate and as colonial nesters, neighbours will help defend against predators. So it’s going to be a busy time on the island as parents will be incubating and many more will follow over the next few weeks. Despite this, we still have many seabirds still to lay and some have even yet to return, like the Terns, so it’s going to be a busy few weeks ahead…

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Eider nesting

Wednesday 20th April comments: Over the Easter weekend we welcomed the news that our Puffins were incubating eggs but also we had other seabirds laying; our first Eider duck eggs were discovered.

Eider ducks are very special seaducks; they can live for about 20-25 years and the species holds the record for the fastest level recorded flight (76.5.km/h) of a bird. The species is the largest of all the ducks in Europe as it measures 50-71cm (20-28 inches) in length, 80–110cm (31–43 inches) across the wings and can weigh up to 3kg in weight. The male is unmistakable in plumage as he is black and white with a green nape. The female is mottled brown as she will incubate the eggs at the nest and therefore needs camouflage to blend in.

Female Eiders nest all over the Isle of May, with the last population count revealed 1,183 nesting females which represents 1.5% of the entire U.K. population. However nationally the picture is a bit more concerning as numbers have fallen by 26% between 1992-2018 according to the latest report on the State of the U.K. birds. This shows how important colonies like the Isle of May have become and why it is important to protect such sites.

The main nesting period is from late April-May and females will sit tight on the nest for the entire duration (on average laying 4-6 eggs) with the incubation period (which is approximately 26 days). During this period females can lose 40% of their body weight and as a result have to be in good condition before nesting. Within 24 hours of the chicks hatching, the females will take the young to sea. Birds will form large crèches as young and adults from a multitude of nests will just mix as young grow bigger and stronger as they head towards independence. So it’s going to be an exciting few months ahead!

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Easter eggs!

Saturday 16th April comments: It’s always a big Isle of May event when our Puffins return to the island in late March and today we celebrated the next stage of their breeding season; the confirmation that birds are now incubating eggs.

An late morning check of burrows revealed a nesting bird although it’s still very early days as the majority of burrows were empty. Adults are still pair bonding and the vast majority of eggs will be laid over the next few weeks. Despite this, it’s still great news for the island and the Puffin population that we now have the first egg.

In recent years the discovery of the first Puffin egg has been around similar a time with indications showing that it has been around the 12th-16th April when the first eggs are laid. As well as burrow checks we also use the appearance of the first adults carrying Sand-eels as a good indicator for the first egg date. We simply note the first adult carrying fish (indicating a chick has hatched) and count back 40 days (the time it takes a Puffin to incubate an egg) – its a simplistic method but it gives us an egg laying date as accurate as we can get it. So we have an egg and now we will hopefully have plenty more Puffins.

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