Hard Weather Movements

(Top photos: Lapwing, Rabbit and the Isle of May in snow)

(Bottom photos: spot the woodcock, Sparrowhawk and footprints in the snow)

Monday 15th February comments: So a flying visit to the Isle of May (to fix a generator) revealed the island carpeted in snow for only the second time in recent years. The photos and videos are in stark contrast to the ‘normal’ images of the thousands of seabirds, Puffins and Seals which are posted from the island. However it wasn’t just the snow which caught our eye on the visit as we noticed something else as well…

The week before the visit the nearby mainland had been battered by easterly winds bringing sub-zero temperatures (-22 degrees in Aberdeenshire at one point) and plenty of snow. These difficult conditions make it challenging for any wildlife including garden birds, so that is why it is vital to keep feeding them through these difficult times (did you notice anything different like Fieldfares or Redwings or larger numbers of birds than usual visiting your gardens during this spell?)

Anyway as the poor weather continued, birds started moving (hard weather movements) as they looked for alternative areas to feed and survive (looking for unfrozen ground). In some cases birds on the agricultural fringe will move into suburban areas or move south and on the east coast there were reports of Geese, Woodcock, Skylarks and Thrushes on the move. Out on the Isle of May it was evident that this movement was occurring as the island was covered in Woodcock (a count of sixty was made – can you spot the bird on the ground in the photo above?) as these birds could be found feeding in the unfrozen areas of the island (it made for a great sight). Other species which had moved included a Lapwing (sadly becoming a scarce visitor to the island these days as numbers decline nationally) and good numbers of Thrushes (Blackbirds, Fieldfare and Redwing) alongside sixteen Skylark amongst others. The islands resident three Short-eared Owls also remained.

We hope conditions start improving soon (the forecast is suggesting conditions are due to warm) and these birds can get back to their daily lives and look forward to the approaching spring. The weather has been tough but time for a change.

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Snow videos from Isle of May

The main lighthouse panning across to the Beacon
Bishop’s Cove which is normally full of puffins!

Sunday 14th February comments: Its not something you see everyday so we thought we’d upload two videos of the snow on the Isle of May! It maybe cold but its impressive to watch. Enjoy 🙂 And here are a few more photos….

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The main accommodation block on the island, Fluke street and Loch covered in snow
The Low Light (the Bird observatory) looking impressive
The loch completely frozen
Footprints in the snow
Frozen cold island
Three Tarn Nick well and truly solid

Friday 12th February comments: It’s not every day we see snow on the Isle of May and it’s been a rare event in the past decade. The most significant snowfall of recent times occurred in late February-early March 2018 when the ‘beast from the east’ dropped a lot on the island with drifts blocking pathways and roads.

Three years on and this February we’ve experienced some cold conditions with temperatures plummeting to -10 degrees on the nearby mainland which has brought plenty of snowfall. As you can see in the photographs, the Isle of May has not escaped it either (it looks stunning in the snow). The conditions and snowfall have not been as extreme as March 2018 but it is still causing problems for seabirds. Thankfully yesterday the wind and sea state had eased allowing calmer conditions to return to give birds such as our Shags and Guillemots a chance to feed.

Away from the problems, it’s just nice to share some stunning images of the island in the snow and it’s hard to believe that this place will be covered in thousands of Puffins and other seabirds in less than eight weeks time… the season is growing ever closer…    

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Winter Wonderland

Yesterday…snow on the Isle of May (Sam oakes)
Looking dramatic and moody (Sam oakes)

Wednesday 10th February comments: The last seven days have produced some challenging conditions for our seabird as strong easterly winds have produced heavy seas and low temperatures. To add to that, yesterday we’ve had a good dusting of snow on the Isle of May, a rare event which last occurred during the ‘beast from the east’ in March 2018.

The photos above were taken by wildlife cameraman Sam Oakes yesterday from the adjacent mainland of Fife. Although it is distant, you can see the snow topped cliffs of the island making it stunning in the afternoon sun. Although it is beautiful, we hope the weather does ease soon to afford seabirds some rest bite in these challenging conditions. As always, we’ll keep you posted.

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Conservation in Action

Moonday 8th February comments: Today we’ll dip back into our series featuring the seabirds of the Isle of May. Whilst some species remain around the island and struggle in current conditions, some are in the southern hemisphere such as our Sandwich Terns, which are over 8,000km away (as featured in last week’s blog). 

Seabirds like many birds can respond well to active conservation management and in recent years on the Isle of May we’ve been doing our bit for the nesting terns on the island. In one area of the island we’ve been transforming areas of nettle and rank vegetation into specialist ‘tern terraces’ to help encourage and increase the number of nesting terns. The idea is simplistic enough as we have large beds of gravel and sand complete with specialist Tern boxes. Throw in lots of hard work and we have ourselves some luxury specialist tern nesting habitat (prime real estate!)

Between 1980-2015 Sandwich Terns had only attempted to breed in seven years with the maximum count of 305 pairs in 2001. However since the creation of the tern terraces on the island in 2016 the species has bred in three of the last four years. Conservation stories like this can make a difference and it has helped the national Sandwich tern population increase by 4% between 1986-2018 as the U.K. has approximately 14,000 nesting pairs. The nearest largest nesting colonies to the Isle of May can be found at our fellow National Nature Reserve’s at Forvie in Aberdeenshire to the north (for more information: https://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-nature-reserves/forvie-national-nature-reserve and to the south at the Farne Islands (Northumberland).

So there you go, behind the scenes we do our bit and help where we can and it does make a difference. It maybe simplistic but its conservation in action and the birds respond well to it. We’ll continue our seabird series on the blog this week whilst also bringing you any updates on the current situation our seabirds are facing with the current conditions. Stay tuned. 

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Stormy Seas Continue

The Shipping Forecast from today…
The wave buoy off the Isle of May showing current swell height of 3.8m (which is big)
Current data from the wave buoy – the temperature of the sea is currently 6 degrees!

Sunday 7th February comments: the wind direction and wind strength has altered very little over the last 24 hours as the east coast of the U.K. is being battered by a series of easterly winds. These strong winds have plummeted temperatures with sub-zero chill factors alongside heavy seas (big swell’s and big waves). These turbulent seas make it difficult for seabirds to forage and the low temperatures can be the difference between life and death as weaker seabirds will perish. If it continues for a decent length of time, then all birds will be at risk.  

For those interested we take our facts from a variety of means including the Shipping Forecast which is issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (the Isle of May is in the Forth shipping area). We also gain vital information from the wave buoy near the island which is managed by Cefas which beams back data of the current situation.

Cefas (the Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science) are a government agency of Defra and are the world leading experts in marine and freshwater science. As part of their work they have a series of strategic wave monitoring networks around the U.K. which provides a single source of real-time wave data from a network of wave buoys. There is one of these buoys just east of the Isle of May which gives us the data and we can see the current situation. Check out their website for more details: http://wavenet.cefas.co.uk/Map

So we are hoping for some change soon, a change in wind direction to allow calmer seas and give the opportunity for seabirds to feed. It’s challenging times at present and lets hope it passes. If anyone has found any seabirds dead along beaches and the birds are ringed, please check out recent blog posts as we’d love to hear from you.

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Trouble Brewing?

Friday 5th February comments: We take a short break from our seabird series as we bring you a seabird and weather update and a request for help.  

Over the last week, the east coast and the Isle of May has been battered by easterly storms bringing low temperatures, sleet and snow to some areas and heavy seas (huge swell). Whilst we as humans struggle with the temperatures you have to wonder how our seabirds are coping?  

Back in March 2013, almost three weeks of onshore easterly winds seriously affected seabirds with many birds perishing of apparent starvation as they struggled to feed in such turbulent conditions. These ‘wrecks’ are not uncommon but in 2013 it involved a plethora of species as birds were returning to breeding grounds at the same time and were caught up in the hard hitting weather. In other words it was extremely bad timing; vast numbers of birds returning to breeding grounds just when a continued easterly storm raged resulting in high mortality.

A similar event occurred in 2018 but wasn’t on the scale of 2013 but still good numbers of birds perished in very challenging conditions but some of these deaths would have involved birds washing ashore that are part of the ‘usual winter mortality’).

So its happening again. Onshore winds are now producing swell heights off the Isle of May in excess of 5m (just for the scale, pleasure boats can’t sail to the island if the height reaches 2m or more). So its tough times for our seabirds. The forecast is suggesting onshore easterly winds for another seven days and without doubt, birds will be struggling. So if you are out and about on the coast, braving a walk along a beach and find any dead bird, please report any ringed birds to the following addresses as it will all help us piece together the scale of the problem (if a problem exists – seabirds are hardy after all).

If you find a ringed dead bird report sighting to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) at: https://app.bto.org/euring/lang/pages/rings.jsp

If it is a ringed Shag, then please e-mail the details to: Shags@ceh.ac.uk   

Lets hope this weather front passes quickly and the seabirds can get back on with life.

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Sandwich on the move

Thursday 4th February comments: Yesterday we featured the breeding biology and identification of our largest nesting Tern; the Sandwich Tern. This summer visitor breeds in small numbers on the Isle of May, but where do they go in winter?

Whilst we know the majority of our breeding seabirds remain in the North Sea or North Atlantic, others travel further such as our Kittiwakes which head off towards Canada and Greenland for the winter (as mentioned in a recent blog post). However some of our birds go even further as a warmer winter appeals (and who would blame them?)

The Isle of May supports a small population of Sandwich Terns and they generally depart the island in August with a few stragglers seen in September. However from then on birds head south to West Africa for the winter. In recent years we know that birds from the Isle of May have been seen on a beach complex near Cape Town in South Africa approximately 8,198 miles south of the Isle of May (!) which is a known wintering site for Sandwich Terns (see photos above). Indeed each winter we receive news and on 30th December 2020, the colour ringed Sandwich tern (ring number UKN which is pictured) was seen at the Gansbaai Caravan Park in South Africa (thank you to Theuns Krugar for the sightings and photos). This bird was originally ringed as a chick on the Isle of May by the Beacon on 2nd August 2016.  

These long distance movements are part of an annual cycle for these Tern species, which nest on the Isle of May but it is not the only tern species which seeks out warmer climes for the winter (but more on those soon). Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the work we have done to attract Sandwich Terns back to the May as we continue our fascinating series on the seabirds of the island.  

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Time for a Sandwich

Wednesday 3rd February comments: The Isle of May supports an array of seabirds from the cliffnesters to the ground nesting species. All have different characteristics and different breeding strategies but importantly all use the Isle of May as an important breeding ground, which offers protection, good place to nest with plentiful food supply to raise young. Today we look at a species which is currently not in U’K. waters as we say hello to the Sandwich Tern.  


Sandwich Terns are the largest of all the British breeding terns and can be distinguished by their larger size, long black bill with yellow tip, crested shaggy crown and black legs. Interestingly it gets its name from the historic town in Kent where it was first described to science. The species is often very vocal, with a loud ‘kear-ik’ or ‘kerr ink’ call. The species is 37–43cm (15–17 inches) long with an 85–97cm (33–38 inches) wingspan and can weigh between 180-300g. Like the majority of tern species, it plunge dives for prey off the surface of the sea.

Breeding Biology

Unlike many other tern species, Sandwich Terns show little territoriality crowding as they nest together to breed often within other tern colonies which provide protection from predators. On the Isle of May they nest closely with Common and Arctic Terns and normally lay 1-2 eggs. Sandwich terns display little pre-breeding attendance unlike many other seabirds, laying 2-3 days after arriving already paired in many cases. The late arrival on the breeding grounds usually mid -may on the Isle of May) acts as an additional predator defence, since by cutting down the time spent at the colony they reduce the time that they are exposed to predators.

Both sexes will incubate and care for the young and after fourteen days after hatching, chicks can form large crèches, chaperoned by a few adults (usually 1 adult to 10 chicks). Sandwich Terns feed on a variety of prey but mainly on small marine fish, typically sand eels, clupeids (Herring) and sprats. After the breeding season, birds move off to the nearby coast before heading south and we’ll reveal more on their winter movements in tomorrows blog…

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Eiders Down but May Give’s Hope

Monday 1st February comments: We’ve start a new month but today we continue our series on the seabirds of the Isle of May. Over the weekend we introduced a species many people know and love; the Eider duck, but how are they doing locally and nationally?

The Isle of May is a hugely important breeding site for Eiders as the last population count revealed 1,183 nesting females in 2018. This represents 1.5% of the entire U.K. population of breeding Eiders. Due to the size of the colony, it is only counted biennially and we were due to count in 2020 but a certain pandemic got in the way. However our most recent results indicate a healthy population which has increased from 600 in the 1980’s to its current total.

However nationally the picture is a bit more concerning as numbers have fallen by 26% between 1992-2018 according to the latest report on the State of the U.K. birds. This shows how important colonies like the Isle of May have become and why it is important to protect such sites. We will continue our series in the nest few days as we start looking at some of the longest distance migrants of the world…we say hello to the terns.

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