Guillemot update

Saturday 18th September comments: Just a quick update on the news story we brought to you on Thursday about the plight of Guillemots, as Dr Francis Daunt has commented that nine Guillemots and one Razorbill have been tested for Bird Flu by Scottish Rural college and the return results have proven negative.

None of the birds involved showed signs of bird flu. These ten individuals were collected off the beaches near St.Andrews in Fife and whilst it’s not the answer, it does help eliminate this as a potential reason and we’ll bring you the results as more information comes to light. Thanks to everyone who has reported dead birds, the scale of the event appears to cover a vast area of the east coast but please remember if you do find any dead birds, please wear gloves before handling.

Lets hope we can bring you some positive news soon.

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Guillemot concerns

Adult Guillemot with chick in May waters in July
Thousands breed on the Isle of May – we have over 16,000 pairs

Thursday 15th September comments: What is going on? Over the last 2-3 weeks we’ve had reports of large flocks of Guillemots feeding close inshore to the mainland down the east coast of the U.K. especially between Aberdeen and Northumberland. What is more worrying is that members of the public have been reporting dead or dying birds being washed up on beaches or being found in unusual circumstances, inland or feeding in shallow waters around peoples legs, so what is going on?

During the winter months large wrecks of seabirds can occur but this is linked to winter storms, heavy seas and low temperatures when food can be difficult to source. However in August-September we would expect food availability to be very good as the North Sea witnesses influxes of migratory fish such as Mackerel and Herring which are bolstered by good quantities of Sand-eels at this time of year.

However it’s evident that reports suggest birds are starving as birds have been found at half their normal body weight. So how and why are they starving? The quest is now to find out the answers as if it is starvation event is it also linked to disease or toxins or even bird flu which has been reported in Great Skuas in northern Scotland this summer or is it something more simple and that food availability is low for a number of reasons.

Dr. Francis Daunt of UKCEH has been leading the investigations and corpses have been sent off to be analysed, so hopefully we’ll have some answers to this concerning development. If you do find any dead or dying birds on the tideline we advise you not handle birds. Hopefully we’ll have some answers soon. It’s tough times for seabirds…

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Doing our bit

Solar panels on our accommodation roof

Wednesday 15th September comments: In today’s society we have all heard about climate change and the need to reduce carbon omissions. These very words would have been alien to many just a decade ago but now we are more aware of our impact on the planet and it is now that we need to do something before it is too late.

As part of this NatureScot and the Scottish government have set out a plan to reduce carbon emissions and become NetZero. NetZero is effectively ensuring the emissions produced are the same as those taken out of the atmosphere. The main greenhouse gases (GHGs) contributing to climate change include: Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (NO2) with both COand NO2 sources including fossil fuel combustion. To meet the NetZero targets laid out by NatureScot and the Scottish Government there has to be a reduction in emissions. These reductions must come from permanent and sustainable changes in people’s daily lives and how we work.

As part of this we are always striving towards reducing our emissions on the Isle of May and look at new ways we can help reduce our impact on the planet. As a result in recent years we have invested in more solar panels (we now have 72) which ensures that our power during the spring and summer is brought directly from the sun. Last year we purchased an electric Polaris vehicle which has reduced the use of petrol (and our solar panels now charge this!) We have invested in recycled plastic picnic benches and even specialist Roseate tern nest boxes are made from recycled plastic, whilst rain water harvesting is a big priority. We recycle what we can and reuse material that is washed in (often using timber, which has washed in on the tide for jobs around the island). We accept we still have a long way to go but we are doing our bit and improving our footprint on the planet, so we can have a better future.

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The world of Northern Gannet

Saturday 11th September comments: The east coast of the U.K has some impressive abd very important seabird islands and as you all know, at the entrance of the Firth of Forth lies the mighty Isle of May, known as the Jewel of the Forth. This magnificent national nature reserve is home to thousands of seabirds including over 46,000 pairs of Puffins. However to the south in the outer Firth there is a cluster of islands off the East Lothian coast near North Berwick which includes Craileith, Lamb and Fidra. However the most significant in this group of islands is the Bass rock, the world’s largest Northern Gannet colony in the world and we decided to pay it a visit.

Yesterday a small team all associated with the Isle of May decided to make a visit to this famous island (we decided to jump islands for a few hours) and with our great guide Maggie, we entered a world dominated by one species; the Northern Gannet. The Bass rock is the worlds largest Gannet colony as it boasts 75,000 breeding pairs and with non-breeders, the rock holds somewhere in the region of 150,000 individual birds (that’s a lot of Gannets!) It is without doubt one of the most impressive wildlife experiences you can have as you enter the world of the Gannet. Its noisy, its smelly but its magnificent.  

At this time of year thousands of young Gannets are getting ready to fledge. These birds known as gugu’s are often too heavy to fly and will drop onto the sea and paddle away, before living off fat reserves before eventually flying. It’s a strategy which is working as Gannets are one of the few seabirds which are increasing in significant numbers and it was wonderful to see. On a final interesting note, there is also an Isle of May link as the Bass is owned by Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple whose family acquired it in 1706 but before then it was in the hands of the Lauder family for almost six centuries…. and the Isle of May bird observatory Trust is chaired by non-other than Alan Lauder…. small world….

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Thank You Chris!

Wednesday 8th September: Today we said goodbye to our summer volunteer Chris who has been working on the Isle of May since early June, helping in all aspects of the island as he explains…

“Hi there! I am Chris, a seabird enthusiast from Malta and 2021 volunteer on the Isle of May. I have been volunteering since June and today is my final day (sad times). It has been a great opportunity to get back into seabird work and it gave me the opportunity to see new management ways to increase and protect seabird populations. Volunteering on the Isle of May is a great opportunity to work with different entities and with people from different walks of life, from various research organisations to members of the public and the boatmen that bring the visitors onto the island.

During my time here, I was involved in many projects, from monitoring terns to ringing Fulmar chicks to looking out for Storm Petrels. This opportunity has also given me the chance to inspire people about the breeding seabirds on the island and the issues that these birds have to face. Being an avid birder and a wildlife photographer, living on the Isle of May has given me the chance to see some very spectacular species and sceneries. From watching Puffins during the golden hour to counting Sooty Shearwaters in a Gannet feeding frenzy with Minkie whales breaking the sea surface.

On the whole this was a very enjoyable experience, with very welcoming, helpful people. I highly recommend volunteering on the Isle of May”.

So we say goodbye to Chris, and thank him for all his enthusiasm, help, support and friendship during the last three months and we could not have achieved the things we have without him. We wish him well for the future and no doubt he won’t be a stranger to these shore., good luck and thank you Chris.  

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Bird Obs meeting…

Tuesday 7th September comments: The Isle of May is home to Scotland’s oldest bird observatory and the longest continuous running bird observatory 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.

However on Sunday we welcomed the bird observatory trust committee who arranged an on-island-meeting all day meeting to enable everyone to see the latest work and discuss everything from Heligoland traps to vegetation management. The meeting proved to be very productive and it was great to get everyone together to help move forward with plans and thinking. Working together as island partners is very important and great to have likeminded people. For further details of the bird observatory work, check out their website:

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Feeding frenzy!

Friday 3rd September comments: Its been an interesting few days as we’ve been noticing a lot more activity off the island, especially as the seas are so flat calm. Watching from the south end of the island we have noticed an increase of birdlife and much more as we’ll explain…

Off the south-east corner of the island hundreds of Gannets have been plunge diving after prey and this is attracting other birds such as Manx Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwaters. Other birds are also getting in on the act such as Guillemot, Razorbill and even Puffin whilst predators such as the Bonxie (Great Skua) and Arctic Skua have entered the pack to steal a meal.

It’s not just bird species which are attracted to such frenzies as up to three Minke Whales are now resident with Harbour Porpoise and Bottle-nosed Dolphins are all part of this feeding attraction. So what are they after? Well the simple answer is food…fish! It’s the time of year when large shoals of Herring and Mackeral migrate in the area and the predators will follow. It’s great to watch and to see the North Sea so active and long may it continue and we’ll keep you posted if anything else arrive to take advantage of these bait balls.

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Seal season just around the corner

Wednesday 1st 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 month 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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Migration season

Tuesday 31st August comments: The Isle of May is internationally important for its breeding seabird assemblage and its Grey Seal nurseries in the autumn. However did you know it is important for migratory birds as well? At this time of year, we experience a high influx of migrant birds as they are very much on the move!

Migration in autumn is one of the much anticipated calendar events of the island as thousands of birds will use the place as a refuelling stop (plenty of food), safe place to roost (no ground predators) and a resting area before travelling on their way. Birds will be coming in from Scandinavia escaping the cold winter weather such as Redwings, Fieldfare and even Blackbirds. However there will be outgoing birds as well including several warbler species and chats all heading south to more warmer climes. The autumn months bring more birds than spring because it is not just adults on the move but also juveniles experiencing migration for the first time.

Looking at the weather charts, it might be good early next week for large arrivals on the May and as ever we’ll keep you posted. It also shows the importance of the island as its not just a place for seabirds, but Grey Seals, and even migrant birds. The Isle of May will never cease to amaze and it’s impressive what you can see and it will no doubt bring many more highlights in the future.

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Whale of a time

Sunday 29th August comments: Without doubt the best opportunity to see a cetacean (whale or dolphin) in Isle of May waters is to visit during August-September. In recent days we’ve had a Minke Whale resident which showed well yesterday for day trippers as it has been showing well off the east side of the island. Due to the flat seas helped by calm conditions, we’ve also managed to see Harbour Porpoise and Bottle-nosed Dolphins in the last week.

As certain fish species move into the area in late summer (especially Mackerel and Herring) we see an increase in predators such as Minke Whales and Bottle-nosed Dolphins. These large marine mammals are frequently recorded during the late summer and in recent years we’ve also recorded Humpback Whales (2019 and 2016) and Orca (Killer Whales) in 2015.

The North Sea is full of life and these large marine mammals are a good barometer of the health of the sea. If you are visiting or even just visiting a headland on the mainland, keep your eyes peeled as you never know what you may just see!

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