Seal Season Coming Soon

Saturday 19th September comments: Slowly and surely the number of Atlantic Grey Seals is increasing around the Isle of May and if you are visiting over the final few weeks of our season (the island closes at the end of September), you’ll certainly see more and more. But why?

The Isle of May is a hugely significant Grey Seal colony and young (called pups) are born on the island from mid-September to mid-December. Adult females (called cows) use the island as a safe place to give birth and over 2,500 pups are born annually on the island. This represents one the largest colonies in the UK with other major east coast colonies including Fast Castle (Borders), Farne Islands (Northumberland), Donna Nook (Lincs) and the North Norfolk coast.

Interestingly the first Grey Seal pups are born in the SW of the UK in August and the pupping season goes clockwise around the UK with the first pups on Isle of May in mid-September finishing with the first born in Norfolk in mid-October. So seal season will soon be upon us and we’ll be bringing you all the news and views over the next few months, so stay tuned.

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Thursday 17th September comments: In recent days the weather has been fabulous as calm conditions have settled over the island. The sea state over the last few days has been virtually zero; not a ripple or wave and as a result it has helped us in our quest of spotting ceteceans in the surrounding North Sea.

With such calm conditions a number of Minke Whales have been seen whilst Harbour porpoise have also been sighted. However on Tuesday morning a large pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins were seen coasting around the island. We don’t often see Dolphins this close to the island and it was evident it was mixed family parties as adults and youngsters were seen in the large group which totalled 40 animals. The short video above was taken as they started to move off. The Isle of May has so much wildlife even during its quieter times and its wonderful to record and see.

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Catcher of the Flys

Male red-breasted Flycatcher on Isle of May
Showing well
A little cracker!

Monday 14th September comments: The westerly winds have finally eased and today bird migration picked up as a result. Early morning brought hundreds of Meadow Pipits, Swallows, House and Sand Martins on the move as the recent winds will have been blocking their progress south. However the Isle of May can produce a surprise or two and today it came in the form of a stunning male Red-breasted Flycatcher.

Red-breasted Flycatchers are scarce visitors from the continent (they breed from Sweden and eastern Germany across to the South Caspian). The island is well placed for them having recorded them annually in recent years. However most are juveniles or females and the sight of a male is rare; this was the first to be recorded in this plumage since 2016.

Our star-studded guest is taking advantage of the insects of the island although the resident Robins have taken a disliking to it as they set up their winter territories. With the winds swinging to the east, this might be the start of another purple patch…you have been warned.

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March of the Mpipits

Saturday 12th September comments: Bird migration at this time of year can be very exciting as huge numbers of birds can arrive on the island as they head south (i.e. Willow Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats etc) or are just arriving into the UK to winter (i.e. winter thrushes like Redwing and Fieldfare). During this period one of the most numerous of all birds to be recorded on the Isle of May is the humble Meadow Pipit.

Meadow Pipits are a common breeding species of the uplands (have the distinction of being the most commonest breeding passerine above 500m) so Scotland has a very healthy population. At this time of year birds start leaving the uplands to escape the harsh winter weather and head south to the lowlands. During August-October a lot of Meadow Pipits will be on the move as they head for their wintering grounds in southern Britain as well as France, Germany and other Western European countries.

As a result the Isle of May is ideally located in the Firth of Forth as a key Meadow Pipit flyway as many hundreds, sometimes thousands can be recorded in a day. Peak counts have included over 7,000 in just one day on 10th September 1998 whilst most autumns bring day counts of over 1,000 per day. It’s an impressive movement and one that is under appreciated as these small noisy Pipits just get on with their daily lives and localised migration. With forecasts of easterly winds next week, it could be another exciting period of bird migration for the island so watch this space… 

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Windy Days

Friday 11th September comments: People often ask about wet and windy days on the island and what we get up to. Its interesting question as the visitor boats can’t sail and therefore we are free from the public. During the summer months we can get on with monitoring or seabird population counting amongst a lot of other tasks but at this time of year our focus is on the island itself.

As the seabirds have long departed, it gives us an opportunity to work in areas which we were restricted to working, especially with underground nesting Puffins or ground nesting Terns, Eiders and large Gulls to consider. At this time of year we can review the infrastructure of the island and put in place future planning and in recent weeks that has included several new measures to help protect our special wildlife.

A new boardwalk has been constructed on a particularly fragile soil cap which will allow visitors to walk along but keep the Puffin burrows safe whilst some new steps will ensure people don’t wander off the tracks. We’ve also been looking at drainage as despite a fairly dry period we know that too much rain at certain times of year can cause flooding issues, so best to deal with it now. Over the next few months we’ll continue to progress vital management work on the Isle of May so that both visitors and birds can enjoy this magical place.

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Views of the May…

Wednesday 9th September comments: Living and working on the Isle of May NNR for NatureScot is not only an incredible experience but also a privilege as we get to see some amazing wildlife and live on one of Scotland’s finest national nature reserves.

As part of that, we often see some impressive sunrises and sunsets and on today’s blog post we’ve decided to share some of views we’ve had over the last month or so. We really don’t have to say much more to say as I hope you enjoy the photos from the island, just part of what makes this place so special.

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Gooses, Geese’s…

Close up of a Pink-footed Goose

Monday 7th September comments: Autumn is early, its official (well maybe not official but it seems to have arrived early this year as we’ll explain). Yesterday marked a significant date in the diary as we heard our first Pink-footed Geese over the island and if anyone has heard the call of wild geese as they arrive to winter in the UK then you’ll know what I mean.

Pink-footed Geese breed in Iceland, Greenland and Swalbard and if conditions are right at this time of year, they start departing for wintering grounds in the UK. Aided by a westerly tail wind, they cross quickly and some will come down the east coast stopping off at well known Goose areas such as Strathbeg (Aberdeenshire), Montrose Basin (Angus) and Aberlady Bay (Lothian). Birds will winter in these area but many more will head further south to Northumberland with even bigger numbers in north Norfolk. Over the next four weeks we expect to record thousands as they move into the UK and it’s an amazing spectacle to watch.

Interesting yesterday is one of the earliest ever dates we’ve recorded them on the Isle of May as recent record show (dates show the first autumn return date);

2015:                23rd September

2016:                16th September

2017:                13th September

2018:                7th September

2019:                6th September

So just shows you that autumns are getting sooner (or at least the geese are moving earlier). So watch out and listen out, the Geese are on the move.

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Fulmar Feeding

Young Fulmar chick not far fro fledging
Feeding time
Parent feeding large chick
And done (although youngster wants more)

Friday 4th September comments: Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the majority of our Fulmar chicks finally depart the island as the youngsters take to the wing for the first time. These chicks have been cliff-bound since hatching in early July and they are now taking to the air for the first time (could you imagine how that must feel?)

Unlike many seabirds, adult Fulmar’s just leave their chicks to fend for themselves whilst they are out foraging at sea as they know the defensive mechanism of spitting oily fishy substance at any potential predator will keep the chicks safe from harm. However when the adults return the chick begs for food and is soon given a good meal. Adult Fulmar’s will exchange food by regurgitating the food it has caught and eaten and will feed it to the chick (as you can see from the above photos).

Fulmar’s will feed on a variety of prey from fish offal, whale meat, crustaceans and even jelly fish which also makes them vulnerable to eating plastics including bags and balloons. Fulmars are very long living birds (40+ years) and will only start breeding at the age of eight. The island population stands at just over 300 but hopefuly over time this will continue to increase.

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Seawatch Surprise

Top: Manx Shearwater

Bottom: Great Skua’s (with Herring Gull)

Wednesday 2nd September comments: Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the last of our breeding seabirds depart the island. Small number of Shags, Fulmars and Eiders remain but the 2020 seabird breeding season is well and truly over. However we have had some other seabirds visit us, birds which don’t breed here but were recorded during last week’s stormy weather.

Last week brought a series of north-easterly and northerly winds which pushed various seabirds down the north Sea and observers on the Isle of May were lucky to see several different unusual species. As with a lot of islands and headlands down the east coast, various seabird species were recorded during this period and the Isle of May highlights included both Arctic and Great Skuas. Both of these species were seen in reasonable numbers as they moved south for the winter from northern Scottish breeding grounds. The scarce Pomarine Skua from the arctic was noted on three occasions whilst the rarer Long-tailed Skua; a high arctic breeder was seen on three days including an island record count of six (one adult, five juveniles) as birds navigated back north and out of the north Sea.

It wasn’t just the skua’s as the oceanic wanders the Shearwaters were seen daily with peaks of 70 Sooty Shearwaters noted in one day. These large all dark shearwaters penetrate the North Sea at this time of year but only breed as close as southernmost South America and this was the largest number of the species seen off the Isle of May in over a decade. Its small cousin the Manx Shearwater was also recorded daily whilst wildfowl on the move included Brent Geese (heading into the UK for the winter) and various ducks including Velvet Scoter. Add in passage of more common species such as Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills, last week was certainly a time to keep your eyes on the sea.

Below is a list of the peak counts and highlights of the unusual species were recorded;

Wed 26th August: juvenile Long-tailed Skua north, 25 Great Skuas, 12 Arctic Skuas, 31 Sooty Shearwaters, 30 Manx Shearwaters and 5 Brent Geese.

Thurs 27th August: SIX Long-tailed Skua north including one adult, 7 Great Skuas, 7 Arctic Skuas, 4 Sooty Shearwaters and 19 Brent Geese.

Fri 28th August: 1 Pomarine Skua, 3 Great Skuas, 12 Arctic Skuas, 70 Sooty Shearwaters, 29 Manx Shearwaters and 27 Brent Geese.

Sat 29th August: 1 juvenile Long-tailed Skua, 4 Pomarine Skuas, 2 Great Skuas, 9 Arctic Skuas, 29 Sooty Shearwaters and 11 Manx Shearwaters.

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Welcome September

Tuesday 1st September: Welcome to September and time is flying. We’ve been a bit quiet on the blog of recent but now it’s a new month and technically autumn (from a bird migration point of view) so we’ll be bringing you more regular updates from the Island over the next few months as we’ve got plenty of stories to tell.

This month will see migration in action as birds moving south will use the island as a staging post to feed and shelter whilst October will bring birds from the north heading into the UK; the Isle of May is the gateway to Scotland for many passerine migrants.

On land the seabirds have long gone but attention will soon turn to the Grey Seals of the Island as we will expect our first Grey Seal pup later this month…followed by many more. From October-December the Isle of May becomes one of the most significant Grey Seal colonies in the UK with over 2,500 pups born across the island during this period. We’ll be bringing you all the news and updates from this exciting time.

And finally, we’ll also be bringing you plenty of other news from the Isle of May including the population counts of the various seabirds from this season, moth and butterfly updates and cetaceans. So stay tuned and keep checking the blog, the news will be coming thick and fast.

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