Wednesday 5th August comments: It’s been a strange year on the Isle of May (and even stranger elsewhere!) but due to the restrictions and lockdown, the island has been operating under very difference rules this year. As a result the Isle of May bird Observatory was closed for the entire spring period but we are glad to report the exiting news that it is now open!
In recent weeks we’ve welcomed our first guests to the observatory but with the current restrictions, numbers have had to be capped to three households so the autumn season will see a reduced number of people able to enjoy the place. Despite the cap, we’re convinced the birding, migration census and ringing duties will be covered extremely well by the teams who make it out and we look forward to another productive autumn.
The Isle of May Bird Observatory is Scotland’s oldest bird observatory and the longest continuous running in the British Isles. It originally started in September 1934 but closed soon after in the autumn of 1938 as the international situation became acute as World War approached. During the war years the Admiralty took control of the island and based themselves on their throughout the duration of the war (the island has a very fascinating war history). However good news followed as on 13th April 1946 the observatory reopened and bird migration was once again studied through a combination of bird ringing and daily census. There was also some more positive news as the observatory moved into new accommodation; the Low Lighthouse cottage where it remains in the building to this day.
The observatory is now administered by a charitable trust (The Isle of May Bird Observatory and Field Station Trust) and manned by visiting volunteer observers between March and November (in a normal year. Members who stay on the island record all the migrant birds throughout the season and use the four specialist bird ringing catching traps known as Heligoland traps. Over 6,000 birds were ringed on the island last year and it helps continue our understanding of bird migration.
During the season as well as thousands of common migrants, the island has a reputation for rare birds turning up from all areas of the globe. Some of the outstanding highlights over the years have included Pine Grosbeak (from subarctic Fennoscandia) White’s Thrush (from Siberia), Calandra Lark (from southern Europe), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (from USA) and Britain’s first ever record of Siberian Thrush.
The Isle of May remains one of the best places in the country to observe and enjoy the world of bird migration and people will continue to study and marvel at the wonders of it all. For further information check out the Bird Obs website: https://isleofmaybirdobs.org/
Monday 3rd August 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 leave.
At present we’ve lost a lot of Guillemot and Razorbills as they’ve departed having generally had a successful season. Our Puffin numbers have declined as some of our birds have already headed for the open sea but the good news is that we still have some and are showing well in the main puffin colonies on the island. However it won’t be long before they move off so best get yourself here before it’s too late!
Elsewhere our Arctic and Common Terns are also looking to be heading away soon but several pairs still have small chicks so it maybe some time before they all go. There is also all the Shags, Kittiwakes and Fulmars still around the Isle so the seabird breeding season is not over just yet. And we’ll also be starting to focus on the next wildlife events in our calendar; the migrant birds and then the Grey Seal pupping season. It’s never dull out here…
Saturday 1st August: Welcome to a new month (where has time gone!?) and it’s a month which will see plenty of change on the Isle of May NNR. To bring you up to speed, here is a guide to the seabird species we have and what they are doing at this moment in time as we enter a new month.
Cormorant: The small colony (four pairs) on the north end of the island have successfully fledged two young today with more due in the next week.
Shags: Adults and fledged youngsters are scattered around the Island but their breeding season is well and truly over
Fulmar: All chicks are still present on the island as the first fledgling is due to leave later this month (over 300 pairs nest on the island)
Arctic Terns: Still good numbers present at roost with some chicks still yet to fledge (should be present for another couple of weeks)
Puffins: Numbers have decreased today for the first time as adults look to leave. Over the next two weeks more and more will depart for the open sea and not return until next March.
Kittiwakes: Good numbers of youngsters are now flying (distinguishable by their black markings on head and wings) and it appears to have been a good breeding season. The vast majority of adults are still present on the cliff sides.
Guillemot and Razorbill: Almost all gone now as parents have successfully fledged lots of youngsters and headed for the open sea. However we still have a few stragglers so well worth checking the clifftops for these individuals.
Eiders; One female Eider with six large chicks remain on the islands Loch but all others are now out in the open sea
Over the next few weeks we’ll start seeing a complete change on the Isle of May and then our attention will focus on other things such as history, migrants and then Grey Seals. Still plenty more to follow…
Thursday 30th July comments: Late summer is a brilliant time of year to visit the Isle of May and it’s not just for the wonderful seabirds or island which can appeal. August and September are arguably the best time to see cetaceans in this part of the world and an encounter with Harbour Porpoise is possible if you keep your eyes open as you cross to the island in the visitor boats.
However it can get much better as the above video shows (taken today by Simon Chapman on the visitor boat the May Princess) as a small pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins swam alongside this morning. This amazing wildlife encounter shows the rich variety of life that can be in the North Sea at this time of year as cetaceans start moving closer to shore to feed on the migratory fish such as Mackerel and Herring. It wasn’t just dolphins, as soon after a Minke Whale was seen in the area, showing just how good a visit can be.
It can be an incredible experience visiting the Isle of May and one we fully recommend. Boats continue to sail until the end of September and for further details check out the individual boat company’s website below:
Osprey Rib (departs Anstruther) website: https://www.isleofmayboattrips.co.uk/index.php
May Princess (departs Anstruther) website: https://www.isleofmayferry.com/
Seabird Centre Rib (departs North Beriwck) website: https://www.seabird.org/visit/boats/isle-of-may-landings/10/22/159
Bluewild (departs Dunbar) website: https://www.bluewild.co.uk/isle-of-may-landing-tour/
Sunday 26th 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 4-5 weeks the seabird season will be officially closed. However we have also notice 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 daily with Redshank, Curlew and Whimbrel all very evident around the island. A few days ago our high tide wader counts revealed a good number at roost including: 2 Knot, 110 Turnstone, 37 Purple Sandpiper, 14 Redshank, Common Sandpiper, 35 Curlew and Whimbrel. 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 later.
The first Razorbill eggs were discovered late on Saturday evening
Pair of Razorbills on the cliffs (Michael Christie )
Rocky Puffins on the May (Michael Christie)
Puffins galore across the island today
Friday 23rd July comments: Todays new word is Kleptoparasitism. What a great and wonderful word but what does it mean? Well it is the term that is used when one animal takes prey or other food that was caught or collected by another animal, in other words it is literally theft of food from another bird; its piracy!
So why do we raise this? Well we know seabirds are very good at such behaviour especially Arctic and Great Skuas which thrive by this method as they chase Kittiwakes, Auks and Terns for food as they head back to breeding colonies. We also know that Gulls can harass Puffins for sand-eels as they return from the open sea and even Tern species are known to get involve with piracy as Roseate terns can kleptopartise from other Terns species.
But what about Razorbills?
Razorbills are stunning black and white seabirds which are members of the auk family and nest in good numbers on the Isle of May (over 4,000 pairs nest on the island). However these birds have a more sinister streak than meets the eye as Razorbills also partake in kleptoparasitism on Puffins. Over the last few years observations have revealed that adult Razorbills track down puffins as they fly back towards the Isle of May with food (and can involve more than one razorbill in the hot pursuit) as they chase a Puffin down. This method of foraging has many benefits but it’s fascinating to watch and to see how successful they are. It’s not easy being a seabird and catching prey is just half the battle as they head back to the island to run the gauntlet of the pirates… Puffins beware.
Two large Cormorant chicks on the Isle of May
Another nest containing a smaller chick
Feed me now!
Tuesday 21st July comments: Well everyone is in agreement that it has been a strange season with the reserve managers returning to the island in late March but within days were locking the place up and leaving it to nature. During April and May no-one visited or was present and it was not until the second week of June that people eventually returned to work on the Isle of May.
During those two months wonderful birdlife of the island was just getting on with business as usual with plenty parents feeding chicks when the staff returned on 8th June. However it was evident that a small number of Cormorants had settled on the north end of the island and on further inspection, a total of four pairs were breeding. Chicks were spotted soon-after and as we now approach late July we can report that three of the four pairs have successfully raised young.
Cormorants breed on other islands in the Firth of Forth but not usually on the Isle of May although a pair nested a few years ago but failed at egg stage. This is the first confirmed breeding success we have had for this species and it will be interesting to see how this small colony develops over the next few years.
Young fledged Arctic Tern
Begging for food
Feed me mum!
As big as an adult but wanting food
And enjoying its first ever bath!
Sunday 19th July comments: How quick they grow up. It doesn’t seem that long ago when the first Arctic Tern chicks were hatching and here we are now reporting fledged young. Across the islands tern colonies plenty of young are present and even more are now flying.
Once over, the world seemed such a big place for young Arctic Terns hiding away in vegetation waiting for their parents to return with food. However a good number can now fly and some even follow their parents (there is not escape for mother or father now!) It’s great to see and as our daily visitors arrive on the island, they are in the thick of the action with lots of tern young using the open jetty area to sit around. The numbers have yet to be crunched but it appears (on the face of it) as another reasonable year for the terns of the Isle of May which is important for the island and the overall species population.
It’s hard to believe that these young will follow their parents to the Antarctic over the next few months, so once they are strong enough to fly, they’ll be heading south and away for another year. The world of the Arctic Tern is as incredible as it sounds, the world’s longest distant bird migrant will be leaving soon and we wish them all safe journeys.
Kittiwakes in flight over the Isle of May
Checking as it departs
Distinctive pattern of a youngster on the wing
Thursday 16th July comments: The seabird breeding season continues to march on and yesterday we had our first confirmed flying Kittiwake fledgling as a youngster was seen to take to the wing for the very first time.
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 have our first and over the next few weeks we will have plenty more. It’s an exciting time to be on the Island to witness birds leaving the impressive cliffsides and taking that big leap of faith into the unknown.
Thursday 15th July comments: We have lift off! In a normal season we would have been opening our doors on 1st April and by now many thousands of people would have been enjoying the spectacular Isle of May NNR. However as everyone knows this has not been a normal year (anything but a normal year) and in fact the island was vacant of all humans throughout April-May (as lighthouses have been operated since 1636 on here, I wonder when the last time the island was completely empty of all people? It makes you wonder).
Anyway today after much hard work behind the scenes by everyone involved, the boats finally sailed and the Isle of May was open. Although visitor numbers were reduced due to social distancing and a few restrictions in place on the island, it was a brilliant feeling to finally be sharing this magical place.
The island is still very much carpeted with seabirds from thousands of Puffins to other Auks such as Guillemot and Razorbill and everything else from Terns to Shags to large Gulls. The Isle of May is finally open and it was good to be back. Now we need some more good weather which will help complete a good seabird breeding season and help a few folk come and enjoy this place.