Saturday 15th 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 (the first hatched on 9th May). 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 19th April this year (later than normal). 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.
Thursday 13th May comments: Look whos back!? Yesterday 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.
Due to the cold start to spring, our birds have been slightly later in returning but it’s great to see and hear them once again. 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.
In the meantime we have started preparing their nesting areas including the tern terraces on the island as 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!
Tuesday 11th May comments: The seabird breeding season is still ongoing and each day brings something different. Yesterday we had the Kittiwakes responding to recent rains allowing them to start nest building and now we have eyes on our Fulmars as the first eggs will be laid within the next week.
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 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. Interestingly 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. 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.
So another seabird about to start their breeding season and we are not far off the full set but having said that, still a few to go….
Monday 10th May Comments: The weather continues to be a talking point (today we had heavy downpours and stunning sunshine all in the same hour) but the most noticeable event occurred with our Kittiwakes.
Kittiwakes are a gentle looking member of the gull family and get their name from their call, a shrill ‘kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake’ (listen out for their calls when you next visit a colony). The birds have a white head and body, grey back, grey wings tipped solid black (look like they have been dipped in ink) and a yellow bill. They are 40cm (16 inches) in length with a wingspan of 90–100cm (35–39 inches). Most Kittiwakes have dark black legs but some can show pinkish-grey to reddish legs, making colouration a somewhat unreliable identifying marker.
Our breeding birds returned to the cliffsides of the Isle of May in late March and early April but have been pretty inactive until today. Following the rain, the island is now muddy (after a long dry spell) and as a result, the Kittiwakes are taking complete advantage. Both parents take part in nest building and nests are constructed on the sheer cliff sides and are made up of mud, vegetation and even feathers. The first eggs will hopefully be discovered in the next few weeks and each pair will lay 1-2 eggs (very occasionally three). Both parents will incubate on average for 27 days before chicks hatch.
So the breeding season takes another step forward and soon we’ll be reporting more incubating species, so watch this space…
Sunday 9th May comments: We have all been talking about it, but slowly and surely things are starting to improve in the weather (we hope). Last week was dominated by yet more cold easterly winds which stopped boats from sailing on three days, which is unusual by even our standards out in the North Sea. For everyone and everything, we just want to see temperatures increase and life to return to normal to allow our breeding seabirds to get on with their business.
Last week myself and Bex were off island on a First Aid training course (its important we are trained as the emergency services are not getting to us quickly out here) and glad to report that we were successful in passing the course. Whilst away the seabirds have been continuing (albeit slowly) their breeding season with more birds on eggs whilst we still await our Terns. We’ll bring you a full seabird breeding updated this week so keep checking the blog. As for migrants, despite the weather birds have still been on the move as our first Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler and Yellow Wagtails of the the year have been recorded. Its been a very slow migration season so far and we look forward to things picking up…
The island remains open daily (weather permitting) and we hope you can join us this summer to experience the sight, sounds and smells of this amazing seabird island. It’s not to be missed and you can keep up to date with all the news on this blog.
Tuesday 4th May comments: The opening six weeks of the new season have certainly been dominated by the weather as we started off with bright sunshine in late March which was followed by an extremely cold snap in early April which brought temperatures plummeting below freezing. Now we are into early May and once again we are experiencing another cold few days.
Yesterday morning the island was basking in sunshine (as shown above) with beautiful flat seas and calm conditions. Turn the clock forward six hours and we had strong easterly wind, heavy seas and then torrential rainfall which turned the island into this…
The heavy rain brought flash flooding and although it was most welcome (we’ve hardly had any rain in recent months), the cold wind was certainly not welcome. A few Puffins were also showing signs of wet underground burrows…
We are now hoping the worst of the weather has now moved on and we can get on with sunnier conditions…fingers crossed. And oh Happy Star Wars day… yes May the Fourth be with you (ha ha ha)
Saturday 1st May comments: A new month and some new experiences as the Isle of May NNR never disappoints. Despite a cool light wind this morning, the sun was shining and the sea was flat. As the visitor boats departed Anstruther harbour, they were greeted by a small pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins!
Its not everyday you get to see these magnificent animals up close and personal, but these individuals approached the boat (as the engines were dropped into low) and continued to surround the boat for several minutes before eventually moving off north. It was a great start to the trip for many of today’s visitors and just shows you what you can see when visiting a magical wildlife haven like the Isle of May.
Hopefully we’ll have plenty more encounters like this to report as the spring and summer progress. The North Sea has a rich diversity of life and the recent protection status it was given recently in the Outer Forth (which included the Isle of May waters) will help protect such important wildlife in the future.
Thursday 29th April comments: Its all bliss on the Isle of May as the seabird breeding season continues, the staff and researchers are back for another summer and we are open to visitors for the year. So all good? Well maybe not…
Puffins are not the cute and cuddly birds they may look (ask anyone who has worked with them before) and disputes do occur between rivals and neighbours but in recent days a fight ensued on the islands loch between two individuals which battled hard for several minutes. The dual was rather epic and looked full-on for both individuals as they were locked in battle for some reason. We are glad to report that it ended well with both birds swimming off but both looked tired from their ordeal.
It just shows the nature of a seabird colony and its fascinating to watch as the colonies progress and behaviour changes. Soon the majority of birds will be incubating whilst the first Shag chicks have actually hatched. Time moves on quickly.
Tuesday 27th April comments: We’ve turned the corner as the seabird breeding season has advanced rapidly in a matter of days as we have had the great news that both the cliff nesting Auks are now on eggs. Both Razorbills and Guillemots have laid which is another step forward in the seabird breeding season calendar.
Both species nest in good numbers on the Isle of May (4,124 pairs of Razorbill nest and 16,865 pairs of Guillemots nest) and these eggs are the first of many which will be found over the next week or so. Both species have a similar breeding strategy as they lay just a single egg, and incubate on their feet (like penguins) rather than building a nest. Razorbills incubate for between 29-32 days and Guillemots from 28-35 days so hopefully we’ll have our first young hatching at the end of May.
It’s certainly an exciting time on the island but we are far from complete as several species have not even started nest building yet such as the Kittiwakes and Fulmars whilst others are not even back yet (the terns), so we still have some way to go. Bring it on!
Monday 26th April comments: At last we are open! Today marked a significant day in the Isle of May calendar (especially this year) as we opened our doors to the public. Following a long hard winter with restrictions in place, we have been given permission to open with restricted numbers and today we welcomed people onto the island.
It’s great to share this magical place and although the weather was a bit cooler than in recent days (the wind was a bit biting) everyone enjoyed the experience and it was great to chat to those who had ventured out. The island will now be open (weather permitting) through to the end of September and you can book boats on the websites below.
So welcome back everyone, we have the seabirds and now the people to enjoy the place, so we can look forward to a good summer. I hope everyone gets the opportunity to visit the Isle of May and of course, if you can’t make it, you can still follow all the excitement from our regular social media updates. It’s good to be back.