Hoopoe Surprise!

Thursday 4th May comments: It’s been another cold spell on the Isle of May but this did not stop the excitement as this afternoon we welcomed a very exotic visitor; a Hoopoe! This majestic bird was discovered feeding amongst puffin burrows on the north end of the island before relocating to the sheltered lighthouse area.  

The bird had arrived on the back of some south-easterly winds as sometimes Hoopoes ‘over-shoot’ continental Europe (where they breed) and end up in the UK. This unique visitor was feeding well late in the day and was

This represents the 16th record for the island the most recent birds being in April 2019, October 2015, April 2008 and May 2002. Bird migration has been slow to get going due to the biting cold winds but we certainly hit the jackpot today and now we hope for even more but with a little bit of sunshine (please).

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Floodgates Open

Friday 28th April comments: We can all agree that it has been a cold spell of recent as the easterly airflow has dominated, trapping the Jetstream to the south resulting in cold temperatures on a daily basis. As a result bird migration has been slow, as we’ve been struggling to find summer migrants and yesterday we actually witnessed two Sand Martin leave the Fife coast, head south over the island and away south; getting away from the chilly conditions.

However today that all changed. The wind eased and the sun started to shine and as a result birds started arriving. A good scattering of warblers including Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were backed by two Blackcaps, two Lesser Whitethroats and three Whitethroats; all summer migrants heading north. Other birds from the south included a Yellow Wagtail, 15 + Wheatear and a Common Sandpiper amongst others. It was certainly a step in the right direction and feels like spring has finally arrived. Interestingly as we welcomed all these birds there was a reminder of winter as both Fieldfare and Redwing were recorded; both these species are heading back north to breed in Scandinavia.

The Isle of May is never dull and we look forward to bringing you more news over the weekend as the seabird breeding season continues and bird migration notches up a gear.  

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Thursday 27th April comments: It’s not every day we find something unusual nesting on the island, but in recent days we have discovered a pair of Ringed Plovers on eggs!

The pair arrived in mid-March and started to display and show an interest in the beach near the jetties and in the last week, we confirmed that the pair were incubating four eggs! Although we have up to 20 pairs of Oystercatcher nesting on the island, Ringed Plovers are usually an uncommon visitor recorded in small numbers on an annual basis. This breeding attempt is only the second ever on the island, following an unsuccessful attempt in 1977. So we are pretty pleased we have a pair and fingers crossed for a good outcome.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be keeping watch on the nest and hopefully when the chicks hatch, they’ll be enough cover for the youngsters to progress and fledge. It’s been a good start to life on the May this season as we’ve had a few surprises and long may it continue!

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Seabird Season Continues

Sunday 23rd April comments: Well it’s all go. It feels like the floodgates have opened as we have had a flurry of activity across the seabird colonies as the season has well and truly started.

On the cliffs, the first European Shag chicks have hatched (yes where is time going!) The first eggs were being incubated by 20th March and on Friday, confirmation arrived that chicks had hatched. However as with any Shag colony, it is often a protracted breeding season as some pairs are still only nest building! Elsewhere on the cliffs the first Guillemot egg was discovered yesterday (the same date as last years egg laying date) and over the next few weeks plenty more will be seen. Razorbills will be the next to nest in the next week whilst Kittiwakes have yet to start nest building.

On the island top, some of the Puffins are now on eggs whilst more female Eiders have been noted nest building and incubating; every day now we will see more and more as good numbers have started to build up. The large Gulls are taking their time as usual although the first clutches of Great Black-backed Gull eggs have been found. The terns have yet to return whilst there is some other exciting breeding bird news but we will bring that in a blog post in the forthcoming week. So there you have it, the season is underway and have you booked a place on a boat to visit because if you haven’t, you are missing out!!  

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King of the Eiders

The above photo of a King Eider is a library image taken off the internet (by Frode Falkenberg) and was not this morning individual.

Friday 21st April comments: Yesterday we were discussing the start of the common Eider breeding season but little did we know that we would see the King of the birds; a drake King Eider this morning!

During a regular seawatch off the north end of the isle, a male was seen flying west into the Firth of Forth with a small group of common Eiders. The handsome bird (shown in photos above) was observed flying west much to the delight of those who saw it. The species is a rare visitor to the U.K. as it breeds in the high Arctic and migrates to winter off the ice-free coasts off Iceland, Scandinavia and Greenland. However it remains a very rare bird in the British isles although a small number are seen annually, often in the far north of Scotland.

In an Isle of May context, it is the second ever record following “a male and 4-5 others which were observed off the island in October 1884” (Harvie-Brown 1906a), so it’s only 139 years to record our second! The migration season has been slow to start this year but this has certainly put a spring in our steps and now we are checking every Eider flock which we find around the island as you never know, it might just reappear…

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Eiders slow to start…

Thursday 20th April comments: Despite the quick start of the nesting European Shags (nesting by 20th March!) the breeding season has felt slow to get going and this is reflected with the number of Eiders currently around the island.

In recent days the numbers of Eiders gathering around the island and on the islands loch have increased but in general it’s been a slow start. Displaying males and females are present but hopefully we’ll see an increase in the next few weeks as the breeding season advances. Female Eiders nest all over the Isle of May, sometimes on pathways (so you have to watch your feet when walking) and generally have a clutch of 4-6 eggs. Females will sit tight on the nest for the entire duration of the incubation period (which is approximately 26 days) and 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. 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. On the Isle of May the loch in the centre of the island is an ideal location for taking their young in the first few days. 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.   

The first birds are now incubating eggs but plenty more will follow and it’s good to see their season has started. However still plenty of time to go and plenty more birds to arrive.

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Researchers arrive

Wednesday 19th April comments: Today we welcomed the first of our research organisations who live and work on the island during the summer months as staff from UKCEH arrived complete with plenty of food to feed an army (which is roughly how many people will live on here this summer!)

During the next three months the island population will increase from one to eighteen, as staff, researchers, volunteers, PhD students and helpers will occupy the island covering everything from seabird population counts to detailed individual seabird studies. Today Mark and Josie arrived with all the food supplies for the island so we were kept busy (plenty of lifting, sorting and packing) and suspect we won’t be running out of cheese or bread for a while! Stocking an island is a big operation and it’s important to get it right but with several team members now very experienced at this island living, we hopefully haven’t left anything behind (can someone send some biscuits please?)

It’s another important date in the Isle of May calendar and as the seabird season goes through the gears, we can now settle in and prepare for the busy season – we hope you are ready. Tomorrow we’ll be bringing you a full update from the islands seabirds.

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Meet the Razorbill…

Thursday 13th April comments: As the seabird breeding season continues to develop and move forward, the cliffs are filling up quite nicely and one species which is on the increase, is our Razorbills. So today we introduce the species…


The species is a member of the Auk family and has a very similar breeding biology to its close relative the Guillemot. It is black and white (unlike the cholate brown and white of a Guillemot) with a distinctive white stripe across its face and a broad laterally compressed bill which gives the species its English name. Both sexes are identical in plumage although males can be slightly larger. Like most seabirds, they are designed for a pelagic lifestyle, only ever coming ashore for the breeding season.

Breeding Biology

Birds return to the cliff ledges in late winter before eventually settling in mid-April. Like Guillemots, birds don’t build a nest structure but lay a single egg and incubate on their feet. Parents can pair bond for life and the oldest Razorbill has reached the ripe old age of 51 years.

Incubation is carried out by both parents for between 34-39 days and following the chick hatching, the youngster will jump of the cliffs after three weeks and follow the parent out to sea. Razorbills are good swimmers and feed on fish but are known (seen annually on the Isle of May) to Kleptoparasitise; a method of stealing prey from other birds especially Puffins. The breeding season is usual compete by late July and birds will head out into the north Sea for the autumn and winter before returning the following spring.

So make sure you are booked up and ready to visit as the Razorbill and much more is on offer as the Isle of May comes alive 🙂

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Meet the Shags

Monday 10th April comments: Today we introduce our first nesting species of the season as we take a closer look at our European Shags.


Shags are a medium sized bird approximately 68-78cm in height (27-31 inches) long and with a 95-110cm (37-43 inch) wingspan. Generally, the species is a dark metallic green/black with a yellow throat patch and during the breeding season displays a very elegant crest on its head (and hence how the species got it’s name). The species is smaller than its close relative the Cormorant which we’ll feature next on the blog. The species can be found all around the British Isles, the Faroe islands, Iceland, along the Norwegian coast and into Siberia, around the Iberian peninsula, north Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. They are generally long living (over 20 years) and are some of the deepest divers amongst the Cormorant family as they are benthic feeders (find their prey on the seabed) and have been recorded as diving as deep as 60-70 metre depths in search of prey. Unlike Cormorants, Shags are exclusively coastal birds with very few venturing into fresh waters

Breeding Biology

Shags will start breeding from 3-4 years of age and are the first seabirds to start nesting in a season. If the spring is mild, birds can be established on territories on the cliffledges by late February and nest building can commence soon after. Nests are usually constructed on rocky ledges or small caves and they build untidy nests of seaweed, twigs and anything else they can drag into their nest structure (including dead birds!) The first eggs are usually laid by late March (this year it was 20th March!) and clutches vary from 1-6 eggs but usually average 3-4 and the incubation period is 30-31 days.

The first chicks will hatch by late April without feathers or down (completely naked) and rely on the parents for warmth. Both parents with feed and care for their young, bringing in a variety of fish species depending on the season and locality but sandeels are highly prevalent in their diet. Chicks are fed by partial regurgitation with the young putting their bill inside the parents mouth. From hatching it can take 50-53 days to fledge and family parties will stick together for a few weeks after this period. By late July large numbers of young can crèche together around the island. The species can move some distances (more on that in the forthcoming days) but a good percentage of birds remain on the island all year, over-wintering on the island.

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Team work!

Thursday 6th April comments: Nothing beats team work. Today we welcomed our friends and colleagues from the nearby Tentsmuir NNR – well worth checking out that fabulous reserve on the east coast of Fife, for more information check out the website: https://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/visit-our-nature-reserves/tentsmuir-national-nature-reserve

The team arrived with one mission in mind; to rebuild the damaged stone walls. During the Autumn months some of walls are breached by Grey Seals, especially bull seals as they maraude around the island. As a result they need repairing and today the team worked hard and soon they had three areas repaired and looking as good as new.

National nature reserves rely on the dedication, commitment and hard work of staff but volunteers and help from other nature reserves is so valuable and without their help, we could not achieve the things we do. So thank you to the Tentsmuir team today and last week some great help from the Loch Leven team, who have all helped prepare the island ready for a new season. Now onwards and upwards!   

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