Blackbird Migration

Redwing on the ground

Tuesday 10th November comments: The late autumn on the Isle of May is dominated by Grey Seals but we’ve also witnessed late autumn migration in action as yesterday brought a flood of Blackbirds to the isle.

Yesterday’s census of the island revealed 750 Blackbirds and a good scattering of Fieldfare and Redwing and as the photos show, they were taking advantage of apples we put out on the bird table and nearby Elder bushes. These Blackbirds are following their cousins as they are leaving Scandinavia for the winter to escape the harsh weather of the north. As they make the perilous sea crossing they pass over the Isle of May (with some stopping over to refuel) and several east coast headlands were reporting Blackbird movements yesterday. These birds will spend the winter in the UK (have you noticed an increase in the local Blackbird population?) before heading back north early next spring. It’s a migratory cycle which occurs every year and although Redwings and Fieldfares are celebrated for their migration, the Blackbirds is lesser well known amongst people.

However here they are, moving west to the Scottish mainland and we wish them well and probably will see one or two of them next spring. Bird migration is fascinating thig to study and even better to watch especially on this level. The Isle of May just never disappoints.  

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Survival of the Fattest?

Monday 9th November comments: Another day on the Isle of May and the seal colonies continue to change. Everyday newly heavily pregnant cow seals arrive to find a safe spot to give birth and the colonies are becoming very busy with over 1,000 pups born across the isle already. The two main colonies at the north and south end (the latter featured on Autumnwatch) have good numbers but there is room for more and more will arrive over the next few weeks.

We’ve also seen the arrival of plenty of bull seals, in all shapes and sizes. As seen on Autumnwatch bull seals can be of considerable size and it usually is the bigger the better as strength and power will oversee any other male challenger for the area each bull is protecting. Seals are polgynous which means that one male will mate with numerous females and a high ranking male can have a harem of 30 or more cows depending on his size and strength. Soon the real fighting will begin as battle grounds are drawn and the peak of the seal breeding season is not for the light hearted.

Its not just the bull seals showing off the weight as the pups are piling on the pounds as each day a pup can feed up to ten times a day on milk which contains 60% fat. As a result its easy for a pups to put on 2kg a day as it needs a thick layer of blubber to survive its early life once its mother leaves it after 18-21 days. The Grey Seal colonies of the Isle of May are full of busy and we’ll keep on reporting from the colonies as things develop. So don’t go anywhere!

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BBC Depart

Sunday 8th November comments: It was almost three weeks but at long last the BBC Autumnwatch team have departed the Isle of May. The team have lived and worked alongside us (socially distancing of course) bringing you all the sights and sounds of the active Grey Seal colonies on the island. Its been a brilliant time watching the live stream, the evening highlights and everything that has gone on behind the scenes.

Over the three weeks the BBC team have learnt a lot about island living, from the unpredictability of it all (which included a power cut just before going live) to the weather of a Scottish Island. However its all over and having packed the team departed for their next adventures. Like many across the nation, they won’t forget the Isle of May. As for us, we are now slowly sorting kit and equipment as we will be departing ourselves for the winter to leave the Isle of May for its winter slumber (it needs a well earned rest).

However we are not finished yet! We’ve still got plenty of Grey Seal news and action to report (more on tomorrows blog) whilst the tail end of the bird migration season has been bringing a few surprises which we’ll report on soon. So stay with us, keep checking the blog as we head into peak Seal pupping time…

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That’s it!

from left to right: Al, James and Sam

Saturday 7th November comments: That’s all folks! The last episode of Autumnwatch was screened to the nation last night on BBC Two and for the final time the Grey Seals of the Isle of May featured (as well as the Guillemots on the cliffs). Its been a brilliant two weeks which has showcased the work of NatureScot on the Isle of May and its wildlife at this time of year (we hope you have enjoyed).

We owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people for helping to produce the two weeks of stories and live feeds from the island including the BBC team on the island which made the magic happen including Al, James, Sam and Raymond as well as Michaela for visiting and highlighting the May every night. A big thanks to the team living on the island especially Bex and Duncan who helped accommodate everyone, as well as Peter for ensuring the internet behaved itself (we are an island after all) and of course the real stars of the show; the Grey Seals themselves.

You can still catch every episode on BBC iPlayer and stay tuned to this blog for more seal updates over the next two months as the season will eventually come to a close. However we’ve got lots to sort and plenty of packing to do as the BBC have to depart and that will be some job (more on this tomorrow). Autumnwatch maybe over but the Isle of May is still alive and kicking.

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Final Showdown

Friday 6th November comments: Where has time gone? The nation have been watching the antics of the Grey Seals of the Isle of May on BBC Autumnwatch for the last two weeks and tonight is the final show (starts 8pm on BBC Two). We’ve seen everything from new pups, to bull fights and even mating whilst introducing a few characters along the way.

The team have also brought you the story of migration through the Isle of May including Woodcock moons and an interview with reserve manager David Steel. You can check out that episode on BBC iPlayer here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000p3gn/autumnwatch-2020-episode-6

There have also been live cameras beaming daily from the seal colonies from 11am to 11pm and they are still running today so check it out here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e354mb/live/c6b5d4

And onto the final show tonight which will bring you the final action from the colonies, a round-up and the goodbyes. For us on the May life will continue and we’ll keep bringing you all the news as we start packing up (the BBC team need to depart) and the wildlife which makes this place so special. Stay tuned.

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Bird Migration through the May

Wednesday 4th November comments: Did you watch? Autumnwatch was back on BBC Two last night for its second week and the Grey Seals of the Isle of May NNR were once again heavily featured (as well as a nice bit about our NNR neighbours at Tentsmuir). However tonight’s program is going to look at a different aspect of the Isle of May; bird migration and the bird observatory.

The Isle of May Bird Observatory is 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. Over 6,000 birds were ringed on the island last year and it helps continue our understanding of bird migration.

The island is ideally placed to receive migrant birds down the east coast as we stick out in the North Sea and any bird undertaking the hazardous oversea route, this could be a lifeline. During the spring and autumn seasons, thousands of birds will use the May as a service station; refuelling, resting and roosting before moving on. Some of the more impressive movements logged over the years have included 10,000 Redwings on 13th October 1982, 30,000 Blackbirds recorded on 28th October 2004 and even 15,000 Goldcrest (Britain’s smallest bird) on 11th October 1982.

As well as thousands of common migrants, the island has a reputation for rare birds turning up from all areas of the globe. Some of the outstanding highlights over the years have included Pine Grosbeak (from  subarctic Fennoscandia) White’s Thrush (from Siberia), Calandra Lark (from southern Europe), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (from USA) and Britain’s first ever record of Siberian Thrush.

The Isle of May remains one of the best places in the country to observe and enjoy the world of bird migration and people will continue to study and marvel at the wonders of it all. For further information check out the Bird Obs website: https://isleofmaybirdobs.org/

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Isle of May Seal colonies

Tuesday 3rd November comments: The Isle of May NNR Grey Seal colonies are alive and well as each day brings more and more new seal pups across the colonies. As you can see from the photos above, the seals have completely taken over the south end of the island and the jetty which was once used by staff, researchers and visitors is now officially closed as it belongs to the seals (and we are not about to mess!)

This scenes is similar to the north end of the Isle as hundreds are pups are scattered across the isle of may as we start to head towards the peak birth time (we have 2,500 pups born on the island during the autumn months). Also just a reminder that if you are keen to catch-up on the latest news from the seal colonies, remember to watch Autumnwatch which starts again for its second week on BBC Two, tonight from 8pm.

As well as the news snippets from the Island, you can also check out the live Web camera: https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e354mb/live/c6b5d4 which is being beamed from the seal beaches from 11am-11pm (and keep your eyes peeled for the mice of the isle running amongst the seals). Anyway enjoy and here we go, week number two…

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New Life…

New to the world; an Isle of May Grey Seal pup
Exhausted but born to the world (mum behind)
Looking about to see what its all about
Its first feed!

Monday 2nd November comments: Another day on the Isle of May NNR and yet more Grey Seal pups born across the Isle. The last 24 hours has seen some drama unfold on the west beaches but despite the best efforts of Storm Aiden and the the North Sea, the pups remained unharmed (and we should mentioned after some great work from the mothers – see yesterdays blog post).

Today brought more new life as a good number of seal pups were born including the youngster pictured above, just beside the visitor centre (where the BBC Autumnwatch team are based). As you can see the pup was curious to the big brave new world it had just been born into but for mum it was a well earned rest (and she needed it). However it wasn’t long before the youngster need feeding and was soon enjoying the rich fatty milk of the cow seal.

This scene is now being played out across all the colonies on the Isle of May on a daily basis as the number of pups continues to rise. Over the course of the autumn over 2,500 pups will be born across the Isle of May making it one of the biggest and most important in the British Isles. To follow all the action remember to tune into BBC Two from 8pm tomorrow night for Autumnwatch or check out their website with the live cameras.

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Trouble on the high seas…

Sunday 1st November comments: Life on a Grey Seal colony can be extreme at this time of year as cow seals raise young on remote islands such as the Isle of May, six miles out to sea. Seal colonies bring many perils for new born pups from attacks from rogue bulls to disease but one of the biggest threats to life is the North Sea itself. At such a young age, pups must stay on land with their mothers especially for the first three weeks of life otherwise trouble may loom…

In the last 24 hours the islands have been battered by Storm Aiden as gale force winds have switched from the south-east to the south-west bringing heavy seas as it smashes into the Isle of May. Thankfully a good majority of our seal colonies are well protected including the beach which BBC Autumnwatch are filming from. The colonies in those areas are in the lea of the island and generally well away from harms reach, but not all have that protection…

The island has some very small rocky beaches on the west side of the Isle and one such small colony has taken the brunt of it. A small number of seal pups have been born on this beach and their mothers have been trying to shelter them from the worst of the weather. Yesterday a quick check revealed four pups, all in trouble as the sea smashed around them and eventually started to engulf them…

Seal pup in serious trouble (can you see its head?) on the Isle of may yesterday…

However a mothers instinct is incredible and we watched as the cows pinned their pups down, as the sea crept in…

However the North Sea wasn’t stopping…

Despite the storms best efforts, the mothers did a fantastic job as eventually the tide dropped and the pups were safe…for now. This is life and death on a rock and although the pups were a bit soggy, they were safe. This morning a quick check revealed four very happy and content seal pups as they’d survived. But its not over yet with more storms forecast so hold on, we’ve got some way to go before they are safe and well. The dramas of a Grey Seal colony, its never dull…  

Distance shot of the pups this morning – safe and well!
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Woodcock Moon

Saturday 31st October comments: The ‘Woodcock Moon’ was shining bright last night over the Isle of May and sure enough today we’ve welcomed a good scattering of these northern migrants to the island.

Woodcock are cryptic woodland dwellers which breed in the UK but during the autumn these birds are bolstered by migrants from continental Europe. These birds are escaping the worst of the weather to the north and east of the UK as Scandinavia and Russia has the vast majority of breeding European Woodcock and they’ll move to warmer climes including the UK. Having overwintered, they’ll then return early the following spring when we can get one or two on the island as they head back. These great birds are a joy to watch as they often ‘explode’ underfoot (erupt out of the vegetation within a few feet of you) whilst you walk around the Isle. However others can be seen in more unusual places sometimes on the rocks as the photos above show.

But what is a Woodcock moon? Folklore has it that the first full moon in late October/early November (which is happening now – the photo of the moon above was taken last night over the Isle of May) brings a major arrival of Woodcocks to the British coast. Well we can’t deny it certainly worked last night as Woodcocks were arriving and even the BBC Autumnwatch team got in on the act filming them (so watch out for those appearing on screen).

However like any bird migration, it wasn’t all plain sailing for these migrants as one unsuspecting individual was chased by a Peregrine before being hit and falling into a heavy sea (big waves smashing around it). Amazingly, after the Peregrine circled twice (it couldn’t get the Woodcock off the sea surface) so it disappeared back to the island, the Woodcock took flight (albeit missing some feathers) and continued westbound to the mainland! A lucky escape indeed.

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