Autumn with a Bang!

Top: Red-flanked Bluetail

Second row: Eastern Stonechat (Ian Livingstone)

Third row: Collared Flycatcher (Duncan and Jessie Bell)

Bottom row: Great grey Shrike and Raddes Warbler

Thursday 19th December comments: The Isle of May had produced a good spring for passage migrant birds and an even better late flourish to summer with the arrival of both an Aquatic and Melodious Warblers in late July. However the real autumn show was only just beginning…

The month of August produced the usual flurry of south bound waders but it wasn’t until early September that migration picked up what a way to pick up. On the afternoon of 8th September an adult moulting male Collared Flycatcher was caught and ringed at the Top trap, the first ever record of the species for the island. Thereafter more typical arrivals included Common Rosefinch on 9th and 21st September whilst a male Eastern Stonechat (Siberian) on 22nd-23rd September was only the fourth island record and the first since 1980 (the Isle of May claims the first ever British record).

The first whiff of easterly winds produced an arrival of Yellow-browed Warblers with 10 on 22nd September followed by a good number over the following few weeks. Once a noteworthy bird of the autumn, numbers have increased considerably in recent years demonstrated by the fact that between 24th September-18th October a total of 33 individuals were recorded with 23 of these caught and ringed.

Another species which has increased nationally in the last decade are Red-flanked Bluetails but the arrival of a first-winter on the afternoon of 4th October sent the island into a spin. Despite nearby mainland Fife claiming five records the only previous Isle of May record concerned an individual in October 1975 (only the 12th for the UK at the time). Therefore the arrival of this individual (the islands second ever) was most welcome by the fourteen people who witnessed it. It was caught and ringed the same day as its arrival and remained for a further two days and was last seen on 6th October. During this spell between 4th-9th October other highlights included a Richard’s Pipit (on 6th and first since 2015), Shorelark (5th-8th), Red Kite (on 6th and only eighth island record), Great Grey Shrike (7th-9th), and Common Rosefinch (4th-5th) amongst many common migrants. The pulse of birds continued throughout October with more Yellow-browed Warblers arriving whilst the autumns second Richards Pipit was seen on 17th with the islands fifth ever Blyth’s Reed Warbler caught and ringed on 18th October. An approachable fist-winter Great Grey Shrike (the autumns second) on 19th-20th October enjoyed the taste of the islands mice whilst a Radde’s Warbler on 22nd-24th October was the islands ninth ever. However the season wasn’t quite finished as we headed into November and one final good bird was on the horizon….

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Summer Shock!

Top: Aquatic Warbler (Sam Langlois)

Bottom left: Common Rosefinch (left) and Melodious Warbler (right)

Monday 16th December comments: The summer months are generally dominated by the seabird breeding season (which attracted Roseate Tern and potentially Storm Petrels as breeders) and very little exciting happens in the way of passage migration. This year the island produced a scattering of Quail sightings, with birds on 16th June flushed from vegetation near Three Tarn Nick with another on 28th-29th July. The only other record of note involved a Treecreeper, a scarce island visitor on 12th July.

The end of July is usually the time when the first signs of autumn migration starts to stir as the first young Willow Warblers start filtering through but generally very little else moves. But not this year. The autumn kicked off in some style following the shock discovery of a juvenile Aquatic Warbler in rank vegetation at the north of the island on 27th July. This extremely rare visitor from Eastern Europe remained for a further two days allowing a total of twenty birders (including a boat of keen Scottish birders) to successfully see this individual. This represented the eighth island record although the first since 2001 and the earliest ever Scottish record.

The same spell of weather also produced a Common Rosefinch and a Melodious Warbler caught and ringed on evening of 30th; the islands 8th record and first since 2012 (another rare visitor). It was a tremendous end to the summer months and paved the way for the autumn, which went on to be one of the best….more soon….

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Spring Summary

Top: Common Cranes

Centre: Bluethroats

Bottom: Icterine Warbler (left) and Red-backed Shrike (right)

Saturday 14th December comments: It proved to be an outstanding year for the Isle of May in terms of rare and scarce birds which were found on the island during the season. Overall 179 species were recorded, the second best year on record (only one off the joint highest of 180 set in 2016). This day and age, spring passage can be light although it still produces its fair share of good birds…

It was a spectacular start to the new season as two Common Cranes flew north over the island on the 25th March, only the second ever record following a single in May 2004. Other noticeable highlights of the spring included a Hoopoe which wandered the island on 18th April the first since 2015 whilst a spell of easterly winds in mid-May produced a female-type Red-breasted Flycatcher on 16th the same evening a Humpback Whale was recorded off the north end of the island. However the flycatcher was just the start as the following morning a male Bluethroat was discovered on Rona and the floodgates opened with 12 present on 18th peaking at 15 on 19th May. The majority of birds (11) were adult males with at least three different individuals heard singing. The clear weather allowed birds to move on rapidly although 4 remained on 20th with 2 on 21st May. This was the best showing on the island since the spring of 1994. Following this the final flurry of spring excitement occurred between 5th-8th June with the standout candidate being a Marsh Warbler on 5th with two Icterine Warblers over a four day period and a female Red-backed Shrike on 6th June.

As an island it’s not all about the rare and scarce birds as a Moorhen which favoured the Loch from 5th-13th April proved to be the first record since 2002. However more expected was the arrival of the first summer migrants with first recorded dates of several key species in March including Chiffchaff (23rd) and Wheatear (28th). April first dates included Blackcap (7th), Ring Ouzel (7th), Swallow (11th), Willow Warbler (16th), Grasshopper Warbler (17th), Whitethroat (17th), Redstart (17th), Tree Pipit (18th), House Martin (19th), Sand Martin (19th), Whinchat (20th), Lesser Whitethroat (22nd), Common Sandpiper (24th), Pied Flycatcher (25th) whilst the month of May produced the first Sedge Warbler (8th), Garden Warbler (8th), Reed Warbler (9th) and Spotted Flycatcher (14th).

Following a reasonable spring, we then moved onto the summer months….more to follow soon.

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Seabirds 2019 (Part II)

Wednesday 11th December comments: Following Monday’s blog post about Seabird population counts (generally good news) our friends at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh (who are based on the island for three and a half months during the summer) have provided the following details about several key cliff nesting species.

The Isle of May seabird breeding season starts in early spring with the arrival of several species into May waters and the return rates for Razorbill, Puffin and Kittiwake were all above average. However both Shag (for the second consecutive year) and Guillemot (lowest return rate since 2007) showed disappointing declines in returns and the low return rate in Guillemots may have been linked to a wreck of this species in the southern North Sea in the late winter. Despite this, light winds dominated the season and there was no excessive rainfall to hamper breeding attempts and as a result it was a reasonable year.

The first Shag egg was laid on April fool’s day, bucking the recent trend for early starts (there are only two later years in the last decade, including 2018 after the ‘Beast from the East’). With the exception of Puffin and Fulmar first egg dates the other monitored species were later than average.  However, once things got going it turned into a reasonable season for most species except Puffin and Fulmar which were a little below average.  Razorbills had their highest breeding success since 2010, success of Kittiwakes were also well above average while success of Shags were above average for the 12th consecutive year.

Return rates

  • Guillemot return rate at 83.3% was poor, the lowest since 2007.
  • Razorbill return rate at 87.2% was above average.
  • Puffin return rate at 84.4% was slightly above average.
  • Kittiwake return rate at 80.5% was slightly above average.
  • Shag return rate at 77.6% was below average.

Breeding success

  • Guillemot breeding success at 0.71 chicks per pair laying was average.
  • Razorbill breeding success at 0.66 chicks per pair laying was above average and the highest since 2010.
  • Puffin breeding success at 0.68 chicks per pair laying was below average.
  • Kittiwake breeding success at 0.92 chicks per completed nest was well above average.
  • Shag breeding success at 1.53 chicks per incubating nest was well above the long-term average (1.15) for the 12th consecutive year.
  • Fulmar breeding success at 0.37 chicks per incubating nest was slightly below average.

Sandeels (Ammodytes sp.) remained the main food of young puffins, shags, razorbills and kittiwakes.  The diet of guillemots was dominated by clupeids.  For more information check out:


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Seabirds 2019


Puffin with sand-eels (Lorne Gill/SNH)


Fulmars sitting around on the rocks (Lorne Gill/SNH)

Guillemots (Uria aalge), Isle of May National Nature Reserve.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Guillemots on the ledges (Lorne Gill/SNH)


Arctic tern admiring the view (Lorne Gill/SNH)

Monday 9th December comments: As we approach mid-December its always good to look back and reflect on an Isle of May season (it feels like a long time ago since we were talking about the seabirds of the May) but here is a review of the season just gone.

Overall despite the weather (we had some poor wet days at times) it proved to be another successful season for the nesting seabirds of the Isle of May. As usual we had a few ups and downs along the way but on the cliffs Kittiwakes showed a very welcome increase (after several years of decline) with 3,061 breeding pairs but it wasn’t so good news for our breeding Shags which declined again, to 389 pairs a far cry from the 1,916 pairs that nested in 1987. However there was some good news on the cliffs as Razorbills have risen by 11% to 4,166 pairs and the second highest count in recorded history (the highest count was 4,713 pairs in 2005). Alongside this, Guillemots have also increased by 7% to 15,974 pairs which is in good response to last season drop in numbers. Elsewhere Fulmar numbers remained stable although productivity appeared disappointingly low.

The terns had an excellent season (both in terms of breeding population and overall productivity) with the highest breeding population of Common Terns since 2009 (an increase of 200% on the previous year) whilst Arctic Terns increased to 468 pairs (a welcome increase after the previous seasons poor total). Other good news came in the form of 10 nesting pairs of Sandwich Tern (no nesting attempt in 2018) and all young which hatched successfully fledged. The real big news was that a single Roseate Tern hybridised with a Common Tern (successfully fledging a single chick), the first attempt since the 1990’s.

Elsewhere Eider numbers remained very healthy (over 1,200 nesting females) whilst this year there was no official count of the large nesting Gulls (counted biannually) or Puffins. Overall we were fairly pleased with the season although as usual a mixed bag with some species doing well and others not so well. What will the 2020 breeding season have in store is any ones guess but we’ll be bringing the news and views throughout the summer so don’t go anywhere.

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Winter Wanderers


Youngster outside of Fluke Street (Andrew Wolfenden)


Chillin near the benches outside our house (Andrew Wolfenden)


Seals near the visitor centre still (Andrew Wolfenden)

Thursday 5th December comments: Yesterday we mentioned about the young Seal pups wandering around the island before departing for the open North Sea, well just to prove it we have some more photos (thanks to researcher Andy Wolfenden who is currently on the island)

Young seal pups are weaned off their mothers milk at a young age (20-21 days old) and left to fend for themselves. However having put on extreme amounts of weight (the mothers milk contains over 60% fat) the pups are in good condition to allow a bit of fasting before taking the plunge in the North Sea. At this early age the world is a big place and we often find them wandering various areas of the island and yesterday two took a shine to the main accommodation block in Fluke Street.

We are glad to report that after a snooze, both animals moved back down towards the colonies and the North Sea but not before checking out what was going on. Grey Seals are curious animals at the best of times and its amazing to think we live and work with them on our doorsteps. In this case it literally was OUR doorstep. The world of the Isle of May is nothing like any other and keep tuning in as we’ll bring you more news from the Jewel of the Forth.

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December on the May

Wednesday 4th December comments: Although we have departed for the mainland for the winter, life on the Isle of May continues even as the we enter the darkest months of winter. Often people ask about what goes on at this time of year and as ever, we have the answers…

The month of December witnesses the biggest change of all on the island as it goes from a hustling bustling Grey Seal colony to a quiet peaceful island. During the autumn the daily Grey Seal pup births peak in mid-November although some youngsters are still being born now and will continue to be born into early January. However the number has decreased considerably as the majority of females have now given birth.

At this time of year the bull seals are fighting for supremacy as they defend an area as they’ll mate with females once the cow seals have tending to the young (end of the lactating period). The young pups after just 21 days start moulting and are left to fend for themselves (are now officially independent!) and live off the fat reserves they’ve accumulated. Its always interesting to see where these youngsters get to as they maraud across the island before eventually heading for the open North Sea.

And that is where we are at now. Bull seals fighting, cow seals leaving and youngsters exploring the world for the first time. Over the next few weeks this pattern will repeat itself but slowly and surely all the Seals will leave. Then it’ll be left to the rabbits, seals and a few seabirds as the island will enter dormancy. Time to sleep Isle of May but not for long…

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