Thursday, 28 April 2011

First Time on the Isle of May

Jeannie Carlson and her family wrote this of their first experience of the Isle of May after recently spending a week staying in the Lowlight a week ago.

“We made our first visit to the Isle of May this spring. We enjoy bird-watching, and a visit to this lovely island lets you get up close and observe the beauty and drama of the life of sea birds and small birds on migration. It takes little patience to sit quietly and let the sights and sounds of the daily life the bird world unfold - courting and romance, adventure and daring, hustle and bustle, secrets and songs, preening and posing, even life and death.

At first it is just the sheer number of sea birds that are mesmerising, but eventually individuals emerge from the crowd. The puffins are an obvious delight to watch, but don’t overlook the shag’s trendy hair style, the razorbills’ cliff edge choreography, or a guillemot’s brindled eye patch. As you make your way around and over the isle, keep an eye pealed for the small birds that pass the island on migration. We saw our first barn swallows of the season taking a break in the shelter of a cliff wall on the rusty air pipes. Flitting about on the rocks on the hillsides are handsome Wheatears. We were very lucky to see a lone Golden Plover stopping over too. You never know what you might see. And if you are not sure what it is you have seen, don’t be shy to ask the resident wardens David or Jeremy. They willingly share their extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for the Isle.

Jeannie Carlson”

Monday, 25 April 2011

Dawn Chorus Isle of May Style

Spring is happening on the island but it takes a little while to tune into it here because we don't have the markers that everyone looks for on the mainland. True we do have a beautiful carpet of celandine's along Holymans road, a few daffodils that are an echo of past lighthouse keepers gardening and the scattered few bushes of elder struggle to put out a few leaves. But there are no bursts of blossoms, no flushing of trees in leaf and no deafening dawn chorus. Instead spring here is measured in a gentle, slow green blush of green across the island and by the birds. Our daily blend of migrant birds changes with the season. The early travellers, wrens, blackbirds, redwings and robins are thinning out. The warblers such as willow warblers, chiffchaffs, whitethroats and blackcaps are appearing more frequently. Now wheatears flicker on the top of the island on their way to the uplands, the earlier males are now making way for the later moving females. The later migrants of flycatchers and if we are lucky bluethroats have yet to appear.
We also take our seasonal clues from the gradually changing behaviour of the seabirds. The puffins have become less visible as one of each pair starts to incubate, guillemots and razorbills take up the uncomfortable, feed-up looking pose of a birds trying to incubate an egg on a sloping ledge, the kittiwakes have suddenly started nest building and the first shags have chicks resulting in food runs from parents.
And the dawn chorus here ? It is a bit different, sometimes a passing willow warbler might rattle off a song in hope and for practice, otherwise it starts will the gulls and continues with the intermittent pipping of oystercatchers and continuous 'muckmuckmuckmuck' of the female eiders. It isn't going to inspire any poets but it is very much of the place.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

After the mud

The kittiwakes have gone mad the last couple of days. It started on Saturday morning when we had the first shower of rain for several weeks. This was a relief for us as we are totally reliant on rainfall for our water supply and no rain means no showers. For the kittiwakes they use the mud for nest building and the shower kicked off a frenzy of collecting nest materials. Suddenly the grassy braes were covered with birds collecting mouthfuls of mud and grass. As soon as they have a mouthful the head off back to their nest ledge wearing a grass and mud moustache like Groucho Marx. Kittiwakes make a huge range of different noises and they have a special call when they have a beak full of mud, but that might be just that it works like a trumpet mute. Once back at their nesting ledge they pack the mud down and then tread it in so that it forms a packed, hard layer. It is a great sight to see these graceful birds staring off in to space looking like they are listening to an iPod while paddling down the mud with their feet to the music.
This mass nest building is likely to mean much early laying of eggs than last year when the first egg was recorded on the 7 May and this is generally good news as it means that the birds have returned from the winter out at sea in good condition. The next challenge for the birds is to ensure that the hatching of the eggs coincides with plenty of small fish in the seas around the island. For that we will have to wait and see.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Out on the town.

It's like a nightclub on a Saturday night just after the cheap drink offer has finished. The males are smart and stylish, cutting a dash, throwing some shapes, posing and calling out endearments while the females just busy themselves pretending nothing much is happening around them. Then suddenly a girl make her choice and the happy couple move off to the sidelines. It's the eiders I'm talking about and they have taken over the loch at the moment. A week ago there were just a scattering of eiders around the island and we were wondering where they had got to but suddenly they have returned to the island to pair up and not just the loch but every bit of sheltered water around the island is full of the these wonderful ducks, the males echoing call sounding a bit like Cybil Faulty saying "ooo I knooooooow". Over 50 dapper drakes on the loch were competing for just a handful of females but eventually over 1000 females will set up nests across the whole island.
These eiders have taken 3 years to reach the age to breed but an average life span is 18 years so they usually have a good span to reproduce. The eiders on the Isle of May have a relatively stable population and seem to be doing OK. We count the nest every other year at the same time as when we count the gull population so that we can keep an eye on how they are doing but in other parts of the country there has been a drop in non-breeding birds. The data that we collect on many of the seabirds on the Isle of May feeds into UK schemes so that an national picture can be formed for these birds and any changes can be quickly picked up. To help the Isle of May eiders breed as successfully as possible we need visitors to stay on the paths and give the sitting females some space.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Walking funny

We're all walking a bit funny out here at the moment. Before you get carried away it was the football match a couple of days ago that did it. A challenge was made and accepted to the BTCV volunteers and a football carefully selected from the 8 washed up on Pilgrims haven (it's a football magnet there). The only vaguely suitable place to play was the field called the tennis court but this had to made presentable by removing the rabbit and razorbill carcasses first. Battle duly commenced and the sharp shooting of Hanna and Chris won the day for the island team but I bet Rooney and Gerrard and co have never had to deal with thrift hummocks, and turf burns from all the dried rabbit poo. But oh the aching legs the next day.

And today, while the rest of the country suffered under a heatwave we were buried in fog. A real pea souper. So thick in fact that I was little worried that the May Princess visitor boat might miss the island altogether and end up in Holland. We were on the jetty waiting and listening and then she appeared, ghostly and silent out of the mist with 19 brave souls. And it was worth it for them as the fog had held large numbers of puffins on the island and half an hour before they left at half past five the fog finally burned off so they could then see the views and lighthouses that I had been promising were there.

A fine catch in the moth trap this morning, a shark. A chamomile shark actually, named because of the shark fin shape on the top of its neck. It is a relatively rare moth in this area but the Isle of May attracts it because of the scentless mayweed here that the caterpillar feeds on. The moth trap is only catching 4 or 5 moths a day at the moment but with a bit more warmth it will soon start filling up.

Once the fog had burned off we were treated with a rather nice sunset. Hope that tomorrow it burns off a little sooner.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


There are some large and impressive stone walls on the island. I am not sure when they were built but it seems likely that they appeared after the 16Th and 17Th century village that lay next to the priory and were more likely built as a way of occupying lighthouse keepers after the Mainlight was built in 1816. Looking at them there are a few mysteries as there are gateways that seem to lead to steep rock faces and over elaborate gate posts and some are of an impressive height far higher than was needed for cattle and sheep. The field names are not much help, one is called tennis court. It would be fascinating to know their history, why they were made, where all the stone came from, who made them and what was the reasoning behind the layout.
As for today they give a ancient, formal look to that end of the island but the years haven't been kind to them and up until a few years back there were many gaping holes caused by collapses. But they should be kept not just as historic features that illustrate a chapters of island life but offer cover to today's wildlife on an island where there isn't much cover. Migrant birds often use them to get away from the incessant wind, the resident pied wagtails nest in the dark cavities and lichens and thrift crust and colour them. So as a number of volunteer groups have over the last few years our fantastic team of BTCV set to to repair some of the damage and lead by skilled wallers they turned a ragged hole and a pile of rumble to a majestic length of wall. Every person laid their hands on stone and contributed and their hard graft created a restored part of island history that they can put their name to. And maybe they got a feel down through time of what the lighthouse keepers must have felt at the end of the day when they first built them.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Its Official - its early.

Things are happening out here and are happening fast. It is an early season all round. The visitor boats running early this year to take advantage of the school holidays and this means us who meet the visitor boats have to be out here early. But more importantly many of the bird have decide to start breeding early this year. This can be good news for the birds as it means that they have come through the winter in good condition having found lots of food and not having many storms to contend with and therefore have plenty of energy reserves to undertake the taxing business of nest building and laying eggs. But it also means that the researchers who study them have to be on the island early. Today Mark spotted the first guillemots with eggs and also the first razorbills. Once they have laid they get into a hunched sort of position to incubate the egg so Mark can tell just from the way they sit on the ledge as to whether they have an egg or not. It isn't surprising that they clutch the egg so tightly when you see some of the ledges that they use, some are on a 45 degree slope and if they let go the egg would be gone. As you can see from the pictures the puffins are also busy collecting bits of plant to put in their burrows and the rock pipit with the big tache is actually also gathering nesting material.
The island is packed with people this week as as well as the early researchers and wardens there will be builders, rope training contractors and 11 volunteers all on the island. The volunteers are on a week long work party from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, these people actually pay to come out to the Isle of May and spend the week helping us get set up for the season. Apparently the Isle of may is a BTCV most popular working holiday so it says a lot about the draw of the island. They will be helping us with smartening up the visitor centre, getting nesting platforms ready for the terns, cleaning out ditches, dry stone walling and any number of other essential jobs that are part of keeping the island up and together. Their first day was spent getting to know the island and it was good to see that when I went for an evening stroll they were all out and about savouring their first island sunset and seeing as much of the island as they can before it gets dark. In past years we have had some volunteers from the work party who have stayed on for weeks afterwards as they have fallen in love with the island so we will see if we work them hard enough that they will want to stay this time.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

All in the job (part 1)

The things we do for the public. In an effort to improve the visitor centre (called the Mousehouse for historic reasons, another story) we want to make things a bit more hands on. One aspect of this is to be a touch table where people can get their hands on skulls, eggs, shells and anything else that we think they might be interested in. So we though a seal skull would be good. One of the shag researchers Hanna told us about a seal skeleton that was down at the dam of the loch. Seals can die during the winter when they are on the island and his one obviously passed away fairly recently. Armed with only a hook on a pole we set off to seek out and find the carcass. Once located Jeremy, being the assistant was sent in to hook out the skeleton and retrieve the skull and we were in luck, the invertebrates of the loch had cleaned up nicely any bones lying actually in the water. Piece of cake we thought until Jeremy managed to hook the backbone and rib out only to find no head !. Had someone been there before us ? Had it just rolled off into deep water ? Anyway the search goes on for a seal skull but if you visit us later in the season you will see if we have been successful.

More folk came on this week, a new gang of researchers dragged onto the island early because it is their job to follow the shag breeding season and things have kicked off early. Luckily they managed to visit the supermarkets at an appropriate time and beat the licencing laws. Yeeesssss.

And our 2nd visitor boat of the season came today, 60 people including some keen photographers with huge lenses. Puffin hunting was what they were about but today the puffins were mostly at sea.

And while the visitors were on, bashing its way back to the harbour was a fishing boat streaming gannets, herring gulls and kittiwakes. The birds were there for the discards and it perfectly illustrated the link between man, the fisheries and seabirds. Some seabirds have done very well surviving on fisheries discards and what will happen to their population if the new rules reduce the amount of fish thrown away. Equally other seabirds have suffered from the efficiency of the fishing industry through reduced fish stocks. On the Isle of May it is no good just looking after the birds on the island, you have to look at conservation in the wider ocean and not just what you can see from the island but much further afield, some of our puffins winter in mid Atlantic.

Monday, 4 April 2011

It all starts with it being an island

It all starts with it being an island. As islands go the Isle of may feels like an in between sort of island. At 139 acres in size (that is 139 football pitches) it isn't big enough to have a proper community (rather than a seasonal bunch of researchers) with roads and shops and it isn't just an uninhabited rock. But it is big enough to have drawn people and wildlife for thousands of years as all island do. People came in the past for food (seabirds and seals), and then solitude and sanctuary and then a place to live and work manning the lighthouses. Now people come to use the island for a place of scientific study and visitors are drawn by the excitement of visiting an island. It doesn't matter how big a stretch of water you have to cross to reach an island and for the Isle of May it is quite a big bit of water, 6 miles at its shortest, but crossing over to an island is always exciting. I see it on visitors on every boat trip and we feel it ourselves who live over here that the Isle brings isolation from the outside world, untainted air, a chance to leave behind everyday baggage even if only fleetingly, a closeness to the natural environment, lots of weather and being surrounded by sea. It is the magic of being an island that makes the Isle of May special and all the rest, the seabirds, seals, migrant birds, wild cliffs, big seas, historic buildings, lighthouses, world famous research and strategic war time importance all come from it first and foremost being an island.
And the 3 of us on the island felt that today as the wind continued to blow and no boat made it across again. Hannah is busy setting up for her PhD on shag parasites and their effects while Jeremy and I continue to get things organised for the beginning of the season. Jeremy took advantage of no boats to paint the floor of the visitor centre (please compliment it when you see it) though by the end of it seemed to be suffering from the paint fumes or too much Radio 2. Tomorrow was meant to be a rubbish day, that is a day when the huge mountain of equipment and furniture and stuff that have come on to the island to die are removed off but the high winds mean that the mountain will have to move next week now. Still we are hoping for the RIB to come over bringing more researchers that will give a new slant to the dinner time conversation.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

All over the place

It has been blowing all over the place. Beautiful blue skies but a fair wind to go with it. The visitor boat didn't make it over Friday or Saturday but 15 brave souls made it across today to be our first visitors of the year. Amongst them a lady who has lived in Crail for the last 30 years, looking out at the May every day but made it across for her first visit.
So what was there for them to see. Well down at Lady's Bed one of the shags has got itself into a mess. As you can see from the picture it has got a plastic beer ring that holds group of beer cans together stuck around its body. If only the person who carelessly threw this away could see what their thoughtlessness has done. Here on the Isle of May a problem like this means much more because most of the shags are known personnally. As many as possible are ringed with coloured plastic rings with a individual code of letters (called darvic rings) and this shag, YY is a male that has been around for many years and is well known to the researchers. We will see what we can do about the bird before it gets harmed.
The puffins which are usually top of most peoples lists were mostly at sea. They don't just appear out of the mists, land on the island and get down to it. They take a long time making the transformation from their main lifestyle of living out in the middle of the sea to being land based for breeding. This means that they are on the island some days and off for others. The guillemots and razorbills are the same but today they were on. This was the first time this season that I have seen the cliffs full, even if only temporarily and the roar from the ledges that the day before were bare really gets the adrenaline running.
In contrast to the seabirds we have land birds moving throgh the island heading north with the wave of spring. Our first swallow flitted through closely followed by a couple of sand martins. Even more interestingly was the treecreeper found by Jeremy. These don't turn up very often on the May and this one was obviously very hungry as the tiny trees on the island weren't enough to satisfy it and so it creeped walls instead. The interesting thing about this bird is that it seemed to be very pale and with a clear, obvious stripe over the eyee. This made it a scandanavia bird where their treecreepers are slightly different. So no wonder it was so hungry, it was a long way off its course.