Winter Wanderers

Tuesday 27th November comments: Over the last two months the Isle of May has been dominated by Grey Seals with not a seabird in sight. Our breeding birds are long gone but we often get asked the question; where are the seabirds at this time of year? Well let’s explain…

The entire Puffin population departed in August and have not touched land since. These small hardy seabirds are out in the North Sea, off northern Scotland or out into the North Atlantic and will remain at sea until next March regardless of the weather (now that is some existence). Our other Auks; Guillemots and Razorbills winter locally in the North Sea but will return to the islands cliff tops throughout the winter (which is currently being researched).

Kittiwakes are another which head off far and wide with many of our adults wintering off Greenland whilst our Shags and Eiders are two of the species which generally winter around the island. However the prize for the longest travellers belongs to our Terns with Common and Sandwich Terns wintering off West Africa whilst our Arctic Terns go even further….but more on that tomorrow…

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We’re off!

Thursday 22nd November comments: End of a season on the Isle of May. As darker nights arrive, temperatures drop and Christmas approaches it was time for one final change on the Isle of May; the island staff have departed. We’ve cleaned, packed, lock-down and now departed the Island for the winter months.

The island has been home to the SNH staff since mid-March and as like any year, we’ve had our highs and lows (I’m glad to say we have very few low points). Its been a fabulous summer (helped by the stunning weather) and we’ve done all and everything to make sure the Isle of May National Nature Reserve remains a special place to live, work and visit.

We’ve welcomed a record number of visitors, carried out lots of island related tasks, helped assist various research bodies and in general, you name it we’ve done it! We’d like to thank everyone who played their part in making the place the success it is from the various SNH staff, to the researches, the Bird Observatory, the fantastic volunteers, the boatmen, the visitors and to my assistant manager Bex who helps makes this place tick. Thank you to all and we look forward to 2019!

However its not over yet. We’ll keep you in touch with the place as we’ll be visiting the island during the winter and we have more stories to tell over the forthcoming weeks. So thank you for reading but stay tuned, we’ve got more….

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Fight club

Wednesday 21st November comments: Its mid-November, it’s the Isle of May and that only means one thing; bull time! Adult male Grey Seals are called bulls and some weigh up to 40 stone and don’t you know it! Grey Seal colonies are delightful, tranquil places…or maybe not. At this time of year there is a lot going on as seal colonies are active, noisy smelly places but they are also battle grounds…

Cow seals will protect their pup with aggressive gestures and if needed strong action (including biting) against intruders regardless of size or shape (hence why we ask people to stay well clear of Grey Seals at this time of year). Even bull seals can feel the wrath from a female if he strays too close.

As for the bulls, it’s a tough life as they are built to defend an area against rival bulls and occasional brutal fights can break out but generally one bull will stand down before conflict erupts. And all of this happens whilst the pups are oblivious and are just sleeping and feeding. However they’ve got it all to come…life of a Grey Seal…

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Citizen Science

GBB Gull 1

Young Great Black-backed Gull (Jan Rod)

GBB Gull 2

Its one of ours! (Jan Rod)

Saturday 17th November comments: One thing that is noticeable on the Isle of May (other than seals galore) is the number of Great Black-backed Gulls. These huge Gulls (they can eat Puffins) nest in small numbers on the May although at this time of year we have large influxes of birds from Scandinavia.

However not all our birds stick around the Isle of May and as part of our summer work we colour ring our chicks to track the movements (and we get some great results). Sharp eyed birder Jan Rod photographed this bird just two days ago on the Skerries beach in North Dublin County, Ireland. The youngster M:077 was ringed on the Isle of May on 19th June 2018 and it is less than seven months old.

It just shows the benefit of bird ringing and the results it can bring. We’ve had previous reports of birds in Cornwall and Northern France! So the next time you are walking a beach, just check those Gulls and more importantly those legs…you just never know how close the Isle of May is to you! (Thanks to Jan for the photos and sighting).

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Survival of the Fattest

second coat

‘second coat’ Seal pup

second coat sleeping

Sleeping beauty 

Second coat fat!

Survival of the fattest!

Thursday 15th November comments: The Isle of May is changing once again. The number of Grey Seal pup births has peaked and the colonies are super active. Huge numbers of seals now dominate the landscape and we really are on seal island. However within the annual cycle of life of a Grey Seal we are now entering a new phase…second coaters!

After just 18-21 days, young pups start to moult their white fur and their once attentive mothers will abundant them for the open sea. At this young age the pups are on their own and they are officially independent (its a hard upbringing!) These pups are known as weaners and they’ll maraud around the island as they become familiar with their surroundings (just like young teenagers).

However eventually they’ll have to venture into the North Sea to find food and that’s why its important to put on as much fat as possible at a young age; they’ll live off these fat reserves until they find food for themselves. Its a tough start to life but its a strategy which works and hopefully in 5-6 years time, we’ll see them back as breeding adults. Welcome to the world weaners!

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Seal Peak

(1) 17th october (downsized)

South end on 17th October

(3) 8th November 2018

and again on 21st October

(2) 31st october (downsized)

Takeover complete on 8th November

Tuesday 13th November comments: The takeover of the Isle of May is complete. As the photographs show, the Grey Seal colony now is peaking with a lot of cows, bulls and young pups present. The south end of the island is completely dominated by families and access is now denied unless you are a seal!

Over the forthcoming weeks we’ll see a subtle change in the colonies as pups become independent, cow seals will breed and depart for the open sea and bull will fight. Gradually as time passes, the island will slowly fall into its winter dormant state as the last of the seals will go.

It’s not just the Grey Seals leaving, but as the island residence, we’ll also be heading to the mainland for the winter leaving the Isle of May to the wilds of nature. Winter is nearly upon us….

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May-be Shortie

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One of our Short-eared Owl’s coming out of roost

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Alert and always checking

Sunday 11th November comments: Bird migration on the Isle of May is slowly and surely coming to an end. With the onset of winter, many birds have now moved through the island either heading south or into the UK for the winter. However not all leave…

The island supports small numbers of over-wintering birds including Wrens, Robins and Dunnocks which will shelter and survive on the island (generally free from predators). However these are not the only birds as a small number of Short-eared Owls also winter.

These majestic Owls escape the harsh cold winters of the north and over-winter on the island, taking advantage of the resident mice population (which is large at this time of year). In a good year large numbers  are recorded with as many as 24 counted in 2016 whilst at present we have four birds but this number will increase over the next few weeks. It’s always stunning to watch graceful Owls as these photos prove… enjoy!

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