Thank-you everyone!

Friday 27th November comments: The dust is settling as we finally can say that the Isle of May is officially closed for another season. At times it has been a difficult season and like the vast majority of nature reserves and businesses around the UK, Covid-19 has had a serious impact during 2020.

The Isle of May was officially closed from late March to mid-June and even then only a handful of staff and researchers ventured out. It was not until mid-July that visitors, in restricted numbers could visit. The impact on local businesses from the boat operators to hoteliers and all other aspects of the tourism trade linked to the Isle of May suffered. Visitors themselves have felt the pinch as they have missed out on the majority of the year and the wildlife spectacle which is the seabird breeding season.

Despite all the bad news, it’s also been a year where we have pulled together and worked hard to achieve the results we have. We couldn’t achieve what we achieve without an incredible team including Bex (who completed her seventh year) who brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, hard work and determination to the island. We also have to thank Jen and Duncan both of who work on the Isle of Noss NNR (an island off Shetland) but due to that islands closure (the island was closed for the entire season) supported us throughout the summer and autumn in all aspects of the islands work. A fantastic effort by these three individuals to make the island tick during 2020.

Then we have the wider NatureScot team including great support from Caroline, Ian and Grieg and other starlets who helped make it all happen including Sarah, Juan and Rosemary. Without their support, we would not have opened in the first place. The wider team also includes all the boat companies and staff who pulled together to make it happen from the tourism side, as usual the support of the North Berwick Seabird Centre and the islands researchers and bird observatory teams who worked well in difficult circumstances. We should also thank the support network of Andrew and Peter for internet services, Neil for his water assistance and even the Autumnwatch team for bringing the Isle of May to the millions. Sadly some did miss out including our long-term volunteers, PhD students and some researchers, but we’ll look forward and not back, so bring on 2021 and let’s have it!

Thank you to everyone who made it possible, from those who visited to those who supported. The New Year is fast approaching and let’s make it a good one. Isle of May here we come!       

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Goodbye IOM 2020

Thursday 26th November comments: We’ve been building up to it but we can now officially say the Isle of May is closed for the 2020 season (well apart from some mop up research and maintenance trips). It’s been a strange old year on the May and one we won’t forget but already we are looking forward to next season and the challenges it will bring (hopefully not too many).

The doors have been locked, tools put away and the last of the human occupants jumped on the boat and headed west towards the Fife mainland. The Grey Seal season is still in full swing (we are over the peak birth rates now) so we will be bringing you further updates again in the near future. Until then, the island will now fall into its winter slumber, the seals will depart in early December and then just a scattering of seabirds, rabbits and mice will be left (oh and best not forget the Short-eared owls which feed on those mice).

We’ll be bringing you all the highs and lows of the season over the next few months on the blog from the seabird successes to the seals of Autumnwatch. We’ll also bring exciting news about next season as we have already started planning, so don’t switch off, keep following us on social media and we’ll keep you all posted with the news from what happened this year to what plans we have for an exciting 2021. It’s been eventful, it’s certainly not been dull, we’ll not forget it but goodbye Isle of May 2020, lets bring on 2021… you with us? 

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Ready to go…

Wednesday 25th November comments: We edge closer to leaving the island as the end of the season is close (more on that tomorrow) but the Grey Seal breeding season continues as more pups reach independence.

Across the Isle plenty of second-coat pups are now roaming and are very evident as they start to live off the fat reserves they have built up in recent weeks. Slowly and surely these pups, without the help of their parents have to head for the open sea and for many of them will touch the North Sea for the very first time. Some pups which have access to pools and shallow water will swim from an early age (as seen in Autumnwatch) but this is more unusual as the majority have not seen the sea before. Second-coat pups will now have to head to the open sea and find food for themselves (it’s a steep learning curve but their innate behaviour will help them survive). Almost 75% will survive the first year which is impressive during a very vulnerable stage of their life.

So gradually, the island will start to empty as the last of the mums will pup, the bulls will slope off and the second-coat pups will venture into the North Sea for the first. All this will happen over the next 4-6 weeks and then we’ll have an empty island. Speaking of empty island, its time the staff departed but more on that story tomorrow as we’ll bring you the news…

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Seal colonies

Monday 23rd November comments: As we continue to close down the Isle of May for another year (not long before we shut it down) the Seal colonies across the island are still very active with pups of all ages present. New seal pups are still being born across the island although the southern section is now looking full (but there is always room for more, even on the jetty). We also have pups being weaned off their mothers and plenty of ‘second coat’ pups scattered across the colonies whilst bull seals are entrenched and fighting for supremacy.

Despite this, it is now 23rd November (where has time gone?) and in little under four weeks time it will virtually be all over. The last of the seal pups will be being born but the island will be empty of seals (almost) and pups will be heading for the open sea. It’s a complete change and a dramatic change compared with the current scenes across the Isle of May but the decline of the seal breeding season 2020 has already begun.

Until then, we’ll have plenty more new born (the island will support in excess of 2,500 new seal pups by the end of the season). Then the island will be quiet giving it an opportunity to recover because little under eight weeks after that, the seabird breeding season will be about to start again. You ready for all this again? Of course you are, but stay tuned as still plenty more to tell you about this year and the end of the season.

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Preparing for closing

Sunday 22nd November comments: Its been a strange and unforgettable year (for almost all the wrong reasons) but the wildlife of the Isle of May has continued with life as normal throughout the seasons.

The spring period saw the closure of the island to all people as Covid-19 gripped the nation and it wasn’t until early June before the staff could return. It was then another month before visitors could enjoy the island (in restricted numbers) but regardless the seabirds got on with the job in hand of raising young. The summer was generally a success for the local wildlife whilst the autumn belonged to the islands Grey Seals and the migrant birds.

However we now find ourselves in late November with the shadow of Covid still hanging over us and the future unknown but life has to continue. We will be closing the island down for the winter this week to allow it to sleep and rest before we return next spring (we hope). This week is closing down week and we’ll bring you news as we say goodbye to the Isle of May for another season, a season like no other. Get ready for plenty of highlights as we look back at the year that was 2020.

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Meet the Moles…

Friday 20th November comments: Whilst some females Grey Seals move around looking for space to give birth and the bulls are fighting (boys will be boys) the Grey Seal pups of the Isle of May are just getting on with business; the business of growing up (mainly sleeping).

Plenty of youngsters have been born recently but there are also plenty well on their way to independence. There are also some teenagers about as their mums have moved off the colonies and left the pups for independence. It’s a big old world out there for a pup especially as its now on its own. However the pounds the pup has put on in its first three weeks of life will serve it well. Since being born its being feeding on fatty milk which helps it put on 2lbs per day and the thick layer of blubber below the skin will help it survive for a further few weeks at the very least. It will have grown from 16kg to over 60kg!

It is at this stage of life that the white coats are molted into a ‘second coat’ which is more dark (they vary in colour from grey to black) and thereafter the patterning will remain with them for life. In non-scientific terms we call them weaners at this age (also known as second coasters or even molys). Now they must look towards the sea as they must head out and fish for themselves. Who said it was easy being a seal pup? We wish them well.

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Hard Working Mums

Tuesday 17th November comments: It’s been a busy month or so as the island has transformed into a major Grey Seal nursery since late September. Whilst we worried about the lack of seals present in mid-September, we are now full into the seal breeding season and numbers have peaked across the colonies.

In recent blog posts we’ve been focussing on the pups and bull seals, but we should also take our hats off to the cow seals who actually do most of the hard work. Female Grey Seals are called cows and can be between 1.6–1.95 m (5ft 3in–6ft 5in) long and 100–190 kg (220–420 lb) in weight. In the wild bull seals live on average for 25 years but females can live well beyond 30 years of age. Cow seals give birth to a single pup between mid-September and mid-December. They will wean their pups for 18-21 days and although the pup gains almost 3lbs per day, the mother will lose about 6lbs per day (they look thin at the end of the lactation period having lost almost a quarter of their body weight – that’s one way to diet).

Once the pup is independent, the cows mate soon after on the colonies although have a delayed implantation they won’t become pregnant again until the new year. At that stage the job is done and the mothers can return to the open sea to feed and put on those valuable pounds ready for the winter ahead. Who said raising a pup was easy?

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Here come the boys…

Sunday 15th November comments: The season continues to change and the number of pups has now peaked across the Isle of May but it’s not all sweetness and light as here come the boys (known as bulls).

Slowly and surely the Bull seals have been arriving on the island and that means a big shift in the behaviour and nature of all the seals on the colonies. Bull seals can reach up to 2.3m in length (maximum of 7ft 7in) and can weigh 170–310 kg (370–680 lb) which means some of the biggest can be as much as 48 stone (that’s a huge amount of blubber!) And they only have one thing on their mind as its soon the mating season. Bulls will defend a harem of cows against others males from mating with them and this often results in violent fights and serious injuries are common place as fighting intensifies.

Towards the end of the lactation (about 20-21 days) the cow seal will become fertile and will mate although implantation is delayed for up to three months. It is at this time that the bull seals serve their purpose and its often the bigger the  better as they fight off rivals. The gestation period for a cow seal is nine months and the end result is of pups being born at the same time of year each season. You really can’t take your eyes off the colony on the Isle of May but gradually things will be start to slow down but we are still some weeks away from that moment.

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Saturday 14th November comments: The Isle of May is well renowned for its Grey Seal colonies but do we have Selkies… and what we are talking about? Well lets explain.

As we are an island on the Scottish east coast it is only right we should mention Selkies as they are steeped in Scottish folklore. The word selkie (also spelled silkiessylkiesselchies)means ‘seal folk’ who are mythological beings capable of changing from a seal to a human by shedding their skin.

The word selkie is diminutive for selch which in Scottish means ‘grey seal’ and folklore has many stories about these shapeshifting creatures (often involving romance). They were regarded as gentle souls and often overlooked in mythology by the more intriguing sirens or mermaids, but nevertheless had a place in Scandinavian, Scottish and Irish folklore. Traditionally Selkies were either men or women, but were always took the form of seals in the water. However once out of the water, they would undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore, transforming from seal to human. As a result it was always bad news if you killed a seal as misfortune was placed on the perpetuator. There are many Scottish folklore stories surrounding Selkies but we will keep those for another day. For now, at least you know what Selkies are and the next time you are visiting the Isle of May, keep your eyes open as you just never know what is lurking on the rocks, you just never know…

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Owls on the May

Thursday 12th November comments: Migration is a wonderful thing as places like the Isle of May see the action from start to finish (and we are very privileged to do so). During the early spring, seabirds are returning whilst thousands of summer migrants are arriving. Its also a time when other birds are departing having successfully spent the winter in the UK and returning to breeding grounds in the north. Generally the summer months are quiet as the majority of birds are on breeding territories (but there is always some exceptions to the rule) and then the migration cycle continues with the excitement of the autumn.

There is not may months of the year when there isn’t something moving although late November and December can by quiet except for the odd Blackbird or Fieldfare arriving. On the May we do have the added factor of having no disturbance as once we leave, the island is left to sleep for the winter. Its during this period that we have a very speiclist arrival as we welcome our Short-eared Owls. Although ‘Shorties’ breed in the UK, we don’t have them on the May until late autumn when birds arrive from Russia, Scandinavia and Iceland (just like the Blackbirds, they are escaping the poor weather).

These birds will set up home on the Isle of May safe in knowledge that they have a good place to roost and hunt. The islands mice provide them with enough food and they’ll happily live for the winter months on the sleepy Isle. Numbers fluctuate from winter to winter as a few years ago we had 24 but on average we normally have 4-6 individuals. This year the arrival has been late as unfavourable weather conditions have prevented many turning up, so at present we have two but I’m sure that will change (I hope the mice are paying attention). So it just shows, even in the middle of winter special places like the Isle of May can offer sanctuary and safe haven for our special wildlife.

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