Feather Dusters

Long-eared Owl sitting in vegetation

Short-eared Owl on the ground

Saturday 22nd October comments: There has been an invasion! Following the arrival of huge numbers of birds mid-week, yesterday saw the arrival of lots of owls! These majestic migrants arrived in noteworthy numbers as by the end of the day we had counted 18 Long-eared and 12 Short-eared Owls. The bird ringers on the island ringed six Long-eareds showing the movement through the Isle. With plenty of mice and birds on the Isle of May, these feather dusters will not go hungry!

These counts are significant for the island (18 Long-eared Owls is the second highest count for the island) but why are they here and from where? Most of the owls we are seeing on here are migrating from Scandinavia, escaping the harsh winter months as they move west to overwinter in the milder UK. Long-eared Owls are also irruptive with numbers increasing in some years due to good breeding seasons or food shortages in the far north. These cyclical events are noticeable on migration stations like the Isle of May.

It’s certainly impressive to see so many on the island and hopefully they’ll feed up on our mice and continue west. The wonders of migration in front of our very eyes, it’ll never disappoint.

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Like buses!

Friday 21st October comments: Sometimes you just have to stop and admire the Isle of May and its amazing migration. It’s true not everything goes according to plan as weather systems can look good for bringing in lots of new bird arrivals but it doesn’t always work out that way. Well we can’t say that in recent days as the island has been inundated with birds and some more unusual than others.

On Wednesday we brought you the story of the islands third ever Red-flanked Bluetail, and today we are bringing you news of the fourth! Yesterday afternoon a Buetail was discovered on the western edges of the island, taking shelter from the easterly wind and rain and the assumption was that it was the previous days bird. However the previous days bird had been ringed and on closer inspection this new individual was unringed! So with great delight we had discovered our second in two days.

The amazing spectacle of birds which arrived across the island yesterday was on another level and we’ll bring you the full story soon, but until then enjoy more pictures of our latest Bluetail and we look ahead and wonder what is next…  

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Tuesday 19th October comments: BLUETAIL! Almost no other word gets birdwatchers excited as much, but today the Isle of May scored with a Red-flanked Bluetail. For any birder this is a jewel in the crown and although the number of British records of this species has increased in recent years (due to range expansion) it still is a beauty to behold (as the photos show).

This represents only the third ever record for the island but hot on the heels of the previous in 2019 but then a massive gap to the first in October 1975. These birds have slowly been increasing their range into Scandinavia and the number of records in the UK have increased but this still remains a delight for all,

As you could imagine the bird showed well for everyone on the island and it was later trapped and ringed. We certainly can’t complain with todays birds and what more will turn up? It’s the Isle of May after all.

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Sensitive around seals

Monday 17th October comments: As everyone knows we are now moving into the seal season with the first seal pups alive and well on the Isle of May. It’s also a good reminder for everyone that they should take care around Grey Seals at this time of year as they can be found along coastal areas.

Seals represent a tremendous resource for wildlife tourism, and a means to reconnect people with nature. Unnecessary disturbance undermines the opportunities – by making seals more nervous, and in turn more easily disturbed. So it is in both our interests and theirs to be as careful as possible. When on land, seals are usually resting to conserve energy or may be nursing young. There are important thermoregulation benefits of being on land and staying dry which help seals to moult and replace their fur, which is important for their health.

Disturbing seals into the water costs them energy, creates stress and can lead to impacts on health, especially during the annual moult. If you get too close to mothers and pups they may get frightened and agitated. Nursing can be interrupted which is serious as mothers do not stay with pups for long and the pups must achieve a certain level of body condition to have the best chance of survival. Pups can even be injured by stampeding adults or even abandoned if the mum is frightened off.

As well as pupping, seals will haul out (including on beaches like Tentsmuir NNR and St.Andrews West beach in Fife and may be disturbed by being closely approached from the sea or land, including by people on foot. They are particularly sensitive to the presence of dogs, even if the dogs are on a lead. Seals are one of the easiest species in which to identify disturbance. They have a clear three-stage response which has been documented in a number of studies.

When approaching seals, stop at a safe distance away and observe them through binoculars or a telescope. Determine their current behaviour and, as you approach, look for any changes to this behaviour. The first sign that seals are becoming disturbed is the “heads up” response. This is associated with vigilance and means seals are starting to perceive you as a potential threat. If you notice this behaviour, back off and/or change your method and speed of approach. The second stage of disturbance is usually shifting around and becoming agitated. At this point you are getting too close and should back off carefully. If you don’t, this may then lead to the third stage – flushing or stampeding into the water. This undoubtedly constitutes disturbance and should be avoided whenever possible. If the seals slip gently into the water one by one, this may be just curiosity – to get a better look at you – but it may be to ensure that they are safe and that you are not threatening. In most cases this is not a problem, although it may become so if seals are repeatedly leaving their haul-out sites as a result of disturbance.

So please respect wildlife especially seals at this time of year and for more information check out the full ‘best practice guide for watching marine Wildlife’ which is linked here: https://www.nature.scot/doc/guide-best-practice-watching-marine-wildlife-smwwc-part-2

And if you can’t go to see seals yourself then don’t worry we’ll be bringing you lots of news and stories from the Isle of May pupping grounds over the next month or so, so stay tuned and catch-up from the comfort of your living room. Its officially seal season…

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Wednesday 12th October comments: It’s been a slow start to the new Grey Seal season but slowly and surely we are getting there. Today we did a complete check of the island and discovered a total of eight pups have been born to date.

Most of these new born are doing well as the colonies are quiet but that will all change very soon. The number of heavily pregnant female seals has increased in recent days and a few bull seals are starting to appear. Gradually things will start getting busy and we’ll be closing down parts of the island to completely reduce disturbance and let the seals get on with their season. It’s hard to image that we will have over 2,500 pups born in the next six weeks or so.

As ever we’ll keep you posted with developments and hope you enjoy the photos we bring you from the island. Its Grey Seal season and its all change on the Isle of May.  

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40 years ago today…

Tuesday 11th October comments: The Isle of May bird observatory has been in operation on the island since 1934 and apart from the war years has been manned ever since (based at the Low Lighthouse). There have been many highlights over those years including five ‘British firsts’ and nine ‘Scottish firsts’ (first time recorded) to name but a few. However 40 years ago today a series of north-easterly weather fronts brought one of the most impressive ‘fall’s of birds onto the island ever recorded.

On 11th October 1982 the island produced day totals of 15,000 Goldcrest, 4,000 Robins, 50 Redstart, 600 Blackcap, 50 Garden Warbler, 400 brambling, 3 Pallas’s Warblers and 3 Great Grey Shrikes amongst thousands of thrushes. Over the next few days even more birds arrived with daily counts of 30 Reed Buntings, 20 long-eared/short-eared Owls, 8,000 Redwing and 4,000 Fieldfare just an example of the many birds involved.

The team who witnessed this incredible fall included Michael Carrier, Mike Harris, Tom Irving, Tom Shannan, Derek Skilling, John Skilling, Bobby Smith, Sarah Wanless and John Young. It must have been an amazing experience but also overwhelming, but bird migration at its ultimate. What a day…long remembered even after all these years,

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Merlin Magic

One Merlin…sitting below the visitor centre…

And another above it!

Monday 10th October comments: Merlin meet migration, migration meet Merlin (photos above are all images of Merlin). The number of birds moving through the Isle of May and generally across a broad front across the east coast of the U.K. has been noteworthy in the last 3-4 weeks as birds have been moving south as well as arriving from the north. However with this man birds, trouble is never far away…

On the Isle of May at this time of year migration brings Kestrels and Sparrowhawks whilst a few Peregrines and Merlin are resident for the autumn and winter months. These birds take advantage of our mouse population but also of tired migrants which have just arrived. In the last week, two young Merlin have been working the island taking their fill, sometimes working togther to capture prey but before people get dismayed, these birds need to survive and realistically this means a few birds in the many thousands which cross the sea (and how many are lost out at sea?) Its nature’s way and Merlins have to survive and for young birds, this is a good learning experience.

Migration is amazing to watch and if you get the chance to witness it, go see it, you will not be disappointed. Until then we will keep counting, keep watching and keep reporting… it’s an exciting time of year on the Isle of May!

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Seal colonies in the U.K

Friday 7th October comments: It’s great news that we are celebrating the birth of our first Grey Seal pup of the season (the seal season is October-December). However, a few people have been asking why was the first born now when in South Wales the first pup was seen in late August. Well let us explain…

The timing of Grey Seal pup births is rather interesting as the first pups born in the U.K. are born in the south-west in Cornwall and South & West Wales in late August/early September. The north-western parts of Scotland see their first births in September and then the east coast colonies follow in October and early November. The last of the east coast colonies starts in late October/early November along the Norfolk coastlines.

Therefore the births follow an anti-clockwise cycle around the U.K. and following our first pup we expect to get news from other major east coast colonies starting with Fast Castle (Borders), Farne Islands and Coquet Island (Northumberland) and then Donna Nook (Lincs) and the North Norfolk coast.

So expect lots of seal pups to be born at these sites but remember if you are visiting seal colonies please be responsible and follow the wildlife watch code which can be found on this link: https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/land-and-sea-management/managing-coasts-and-seas/scottish-marine-wildlife-watching-code  Please do not disturb seals at this crucial time of year.

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First SEAL PUP!!

First seal pup of the season taken from distance with telephoto lens (Gordon McDonald)

Thursday 6th October comments: SEAL PUP!! At last we have a Grey Seal Pup! We are celebrating the great news that the first seal pup of the autumn has been born and is fine and well. The pup was discovered on Rona and is slightly later than the first born of recent times. In early September we did discover two dead still-born pups, but this is the first living healthy pup.

The Isle of May is a hugely significant Grey Seal nursery; one of the biggest in the UK with over 2,500 pups born annually. The first pups are born at this time of year with a peak in early November before the last pup is born in mid-December. These young pups will remain with their mothers for 20-21 days, suckling on milk before they moult and become independent so we’ll keep an eye on this individual and report back as it grows. It’s great news and we are hoping it’ll be a productive season

So here we go, another seal season has started and its wonderful news for this important national nature reserve.

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Any day now…

Wednesday 5th October comments: It’s a changing world out here as the number of female seals is increasing daily around the Isle of May. Female seals are known as cows whilst males are known as bulls. Seals are impressive animals for example they can hold their breath for 30 minutes while diving, gain fat very rapidly and go for extended periods of time without food or water while they are on land during the breeding season.

The first seal pup will be born any day soon and will weigh 15kg when born but will triple its body mass in just 18 days as it feeds on its mothers milk which can contain 60% fat. The pup will be around 45kg at weaning. Its at this late stage of suckling that the pup begins to moult into its ‘adult’ pelage, which is much more sleek and waterproof and a lot less fluffy than the beautiful white ‘lanugo’.

So we are at the start of a new pupping season and the island will transform over the next two months. As the island is now closed, we’ll be bringing you all the news and views from here showing you how the seal colonies are building and how they are doing so stay tuned.

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