Wednesday, 29 June 2011

This week I have mostly been.......

.....enjoying a few more moths in the moth trap, the warm weather has at last brought a few include including this beautiful netted pug.

....welcoming some schools to the island, we have 3 in the last week.

....enjoying the snail formations on the walls and posts. Last nights rain sent then off and about in a frenzy of feeding.

...taking in the beauiful light, especially in some of the evenings.

...admiring the sea campion that is flowering everywhere after being burnt off by the big storms.

...incredibly frustrated when a visitor stepped on a terns nest breaking the eggs despite us having piut a ring of boulders round it and a large marker post. These birds have flown thousands of miles and fought off predatory gulls to breed here only for someones utter carelessness bring their season to an end in a moment.

.....sampling the contrasting lichen encrusted rocks with the haze of blue forget-me-knots.

....watching the researchers as they "grovel" for puffins, that is put their arm down the burrows to check pufflings.

.......meeting the full visitor boats that are coming over at the moment.

....marvelling at the common rosefinch that Mark found in the traps. A beautiful second year male with a pinkish blush that is a bit way off its normal migration route of Africa to Scandanavia.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Photograph less, see more.

We get lots of photogrpahers to the island at this time of year. Seabirds are large, striking, relatively tame and so easy to photograph and couple this with stunning backgrounds of seascapes, cliffs, carpets of thrift and sea campion and lichen encrusted rocks it draws photographers from all over Europe. There is also the puffin factor, people will travel across continents to photograph them and the Isle of May is one of the best places to achieve this. And it is a pleasure to see people connecting with the island and the beauitful images that result. But it has to be said that my heart drops when I see an array of huge lenses come off the boat because I know that there may be a challenging afternoon ahead.
To be clear most photogrpahers are exemplery on their visits to the island and treat it with respect but if you find someone off the path almost always they will have a large lens strapped to their face. For some reason the request to stick to the paths to avoid having an impact on the breeding birds doesn't seem to apply to the photogrpahers and their desire for the perfect image means that they consider their photograph to be more important that the breeding success of their subjects. The top wildlife photographers are expert ecologists who know the lives of their subjects intimitly and use this knowledge to get better photographs but we have had photographers turn up wanting to know why the puffins aren't carrying fish in early May (becasue they are all sitting on eggs then)or why is one gull teaching another to fly by carrying it on its back (it isn't, its mating).
And then there is their shopping list. Many photogrpahers come to the island with a list of images that they want to capture and leave miserable at the end of their visit if they have not got that picture of puffin with dew on it head or the right number and arrangement of sandeels that they wanted, or are grumpy as the light is not quite what they wanted. And meanwhile they will have missed hundreds of spontaneously stunning sights like a tern chasing a herring gull, or backlight sea campion, or shags gleaming in the sun feeding their young.
So perhaps there is a lesson to us all there, that there is so much to see on the Isle of May that with open eyes, an enquiring mind and a bit of pateience it can be experience and recorded by anyone without having an impact of the birds and the island itself. And real life is even better than watching on the TV or looking at photos.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Surrounded by water with nothing to drink......or wash

Seen from the island showers falling elsewhere.

St. Johns Well, water suitable for cattle and modern day island inhbitants.

Our modern day water puritfication system, it just add water to work.

View down the well.

Water is a hot topic of discussion with the island residents because we have so little of it.
But we aren't the first island inhabitants to be up against this problem. Water has always been in short supply even though there are 5 permanent wells on the island plus some springs and pools. Several hundreds of years back cattle were never raised in large numbers, just a few milk cows, on the island because of the amount of water they need. The lighthouse keepers had always had their water brought over to the island firstly from Crail and then in later years by the lighthouse supply ship. In 1868 Joseph Agnew, the principal lighthouse keeper wrote about the wells and none got much of a write up, for instance Lady's Well "had cool and refreshing water with a peculiar taste", Sheep's Well (so called from having a sheep drown in it) "was so bad that keepers were banned from using it" (an after effect of the drowned sheep ?) and St. Johns Well " a bit brackish and used for watering the cattle". And this last well is where we get our water from today.
It lies just down near to Kirkhaven and receives water as it passes through the aquifer that is the whole rock island. As it is near to the sea it is affected by the tide and as a consequence it is a little brackish. For many years we drank this water have been UV treated for bugs and soon got used to salty tea and coffee (the coffee tasted better than the tea). But new water regulations mean that we have to have the water treated further but tin this reverse osmosis treatment up to 80% of the water is rejected to be used for toilet flushing. Knowing this we have been on a 1 shower a week ration and minimal clothes washing but even that has not been enough. A couple of weeks ago the well literally ran dry, probably as a result of the very dry winter that didn't fill up the island aquifer enough. So this is where endurance and improvisation comes in. Some water comes over in containers on the May Princess and the rest is boiled rainwater. A number have been testing the washing in the sea options (cold, bracing and ultimately a bit sticky) while quick thinking Bethany took advantage of a heavy rain shower and washed round the back of one of the lighthouse keepers cottages (luckily no visitor boat was on !). The recent showers won't make much difference to the well and we really need a wet winter to refill the island rock. Two teenagers stepped off the May Princess the other day and said "ooo, what a stink" and we weren't sure if they were referring to the island as a whole or the small group of staff standing at the jetty so apologies to any visitors coming on over the next weeks and a suggestion that if they can they should stand down wind of any island residents that they meet.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

To and From the Island - 144 times in 6 months.

Most people come to the Isle of May from Anstruhter on the May Princess, visitors, staff and researchers. Kevin and Fiona Smith, writing below, are the boats crew that make that trip 144 times a season (weather permitting of course).
"Kevin & I originally came to work on the May Princess for the Summer season in 2008 having taken a sabbatical from our banking jobs and we are still here!! The Isle of May really gets under your skin and we feel really lucky to be able to visit the island throughout the season and see the ever changing face of this magical place.
The May Princess sails up to 7 days a week out of Anstruther, with up to 100 passengers. A typical day starts with Kevin & James, the skipper, preparing the boat for the sailing (most important job is to make sure the urn is on for cups of tea), while I issue the tickets from our kiosk on the pier. It takes just under an hour to cover the 6 miles to the May. Sometimes we are blessed with flat calm seas and at other times we experience some ‘rock and roll’ when the sea is a little choppy.
Our job is very rewarding and we meet lots of interesting and like minded people. It always a pleasure to share that first sighting of a puffin with a first time visitor as it is to see a well kent face returning for another island fix. Kevin keeps us informed of anything interesting that is happening at sea and helps our passengers to identify both the landmarks on the island and the birdlife around it. We try to do a full circumference of the island on each trip, doing one side as we approach and the other on our return journey.
We tie up in Kirkhaven harbour at the island and, after a brief talk from the warden, our passengers are free to go off and explore for two or three hours depending on the tide.
We also try and spend at least an hour each day going for a wander around the island and I can honestly say we see something different every day. Our picnic spot changes depending on the direct of the wind but one of our favourite seats is at Alterstanes or outside the main lighthouse on our favourite bench which we renovated in 2008 – think it is needing some work again though!!!
Then it is back to the boat so that passengers can buy a well earned cup of coffee before our sail back to Anstruther. All that sea air definitely does you good – half the boat is normally asleep as we cruise back across the Forth!!
Our passengers disembark, hopefully with lots of happy memories and numerous photos, most of them heading off for fish and chips. All that is left for us to do is to tidy the boat in preparation for the next day and another sail to the May."

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Big Jump

An adult guillemot brooding a chick under its wing.

A young chick not ready to jump.

Another one not ready to jump.

Gathering at the cliff top.

One of the lower ledges down to the sea.

It is tough on the spectators.

The next 2 pictures are of chicks about to make the jump.

Some people ask me what do we do for entertainment in the evenings after work especially as we don't have a television. For starters there is a sort of grey area between work and spare time on the island.
But last night we watch a real life drama as exciting, exhilarating, stress-inducing as any think you might so on the TV. The guilli chicks were jumping.
Guillemot chicks spend their first 3 weeks on the ledge where they were hatched being stuffed with large fish, often packed shoulder to shoulder with other families and buffeted by arguments, predators and weather. Their whole world is a few inches of rock ledge and a view down to the sea. At 21 or so days old with stubby wings with no flight feathers, covered in down and half the size of an adult this all changes because this is when they jump. Rather than stay on the ledges and get fed by the parents until they can fly guillemots and their close relatives the razorbills do things differently. The chicks are taken out to sea where it is safer from all the predatory gulls and they can be easily fed by a parent while they finish their growing. But first they have to get from their ledge down to the sea. It is literally a big step and it takes the chicks a long time to pluck up courage to make it. They pick windless evenings and you can usually tell if chicks will start jumping because in the whole colony there is a building air of excitement with the noise getting louder and loader. The chicks have a piercing call that carries through the braying and bickering of the adults and they stand on their ledge calling to their parent. This is a Dad thing as the mother takes a step back and leaves the Dad to persuade the chicks to jump and the Dads do this either next to them on the ledge or from down on the sea. Some chicks work their way down from ledge to ledge slowly and gradually but this has the disadvantage of bringing them into the middle of highly stressed adults who often give the chick a good pecking. But some just go for it and move from their natal ledge to the sea in one move. Of course having wings that don't work means that they drop like a stone, the lucky ones hit the water with a splash, the less lucky ones smack onto the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. They are so feather light that this usually only stuns them briefly and after a shake of the head they are able to wobble into the sea. But the jump is only one hurdle, they then have to find their Dads in all the bedlam and then paddle hard to get as far away from the island and the gulls under the protective cover of dark. Gathered at the bottom of the cliffs like undertakers with a tape measure ready are the gulls and any youngster that isn't reunited with their Dad immediately after they have made it into the water usually ends up as gull supper. But those that survive the jump and the gulls now have several weeks at sea being fed by their Dads and growing to adulthood in a world so different to what they were born into.
So we gathered at one of the cliff faces and for over an hour watched the chicks, one by one leap. One did a fine swallow dive and made it cleanly to the water while another cart wheeled down bouncing off a ledge as it went. Another spent so long that when it finally made it to the water there seemed to be no parent to meet it and the last we saw of it was paddling off into the gloom with no chance of survival. The finally dram of the evening was a small guillemot chick at the very top of cornerstone cliff face. for this chick things were not normal because somehow it had been raised by a pair of razorbills. Maybe a guillemot egg had rolled down and knocked their egg off, we can only guess but however it had started this chick had been feed the razorbill way, that is on lots of small fish rather than the big single fish that guillemots feed their young. So it was very small for its age and also 5 days older than the other jumpers. But it had decided it was going so it set off down a switch back of ledges, being hammered by stroppy adults as it went. Several times it changed its mind and tried to go back up but finally it could walk down no more and jumping was the only option. In the gathering dusk after much calling it went, missing the rocks at the bottom. Immediately instinct made it dive and then swim out to sea as soon as it surfaced. We wondered whether its razorbill foster parents would continue its upbringing but our last sight was this tiny chick meeting up with 2 razorbills and immediately setting off out to sea. No film would ever give such a dramatic, draining, roller coaster ride as this real life spectacle and the only way to mark it was to head back to the cottages through the fading light and drizzle, passed the dancing ghost moths and to celebrate the jumping with a whisky.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Seabird Open Day - who dares wins

Just a quick posting about our seabird open day yesterday. It was great. After a load of poor weather it dawned beautiful on Sunday and kept on all through the day. The people who came out couldn't believe their luck as when the May Princess rolled in, shortly after the Seabird rib from North Berwick, the sunny was gleamingly bright and what is more even warm.

After a welcome to the island everyone quickly headed out to explore and find out more about the seabird spectacle. The researchers (after a bit but not much smartening up) had been pushed out rather unwillingly to meet the public and surprised themselves by actually enjoying telling the public all about their work on the birds, showing off their huge knowledge and passing on the fascinating life stories of these birds.

Fergus the storyteller filled the south horn for the whole of the event with his "true" stories about seabirds (I have been kissing gulls since hearing them just in case we have any beautiful princesses here)

The face painters had their work cut out painting anyone that came near, island residents or visitors.
In case you can't guess Hanna is a shag researcher.

They even caught me, apparently my nose was just the right shape for a puffin bill.

The terns gave their usual Isle of May welcome to all visitors that came close enough.
So in the end the saying was right "who dares wins".

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Garden nesters - an update

The eider that was nesting just a few metres from my room was sadly predated by Herring Gulls in May. I was disappointed by this as she was just days from hatching. I was therefore delighted that she had relaid while I was in Turkey. I kept a close eye on her during this time of incubation and never saw her leave her nest even in the middle of warm nights. She would often keep me awake at night 'chatting' to other non breeding failed eiders!

I took this picture just after I relaid. I put the pile of down next to her which she used to line her nest.

Last Tuesday she finally hatched. I noticed she was acting differently to normal. She was very vocal and alert and very much on edge. She sat brooding the chicks for a few hours before she trotted off down to the loch. The other females showed an interest in her young when she got there and she joined the small creche that is currently in residence on the loch. She had two ducklings of her own.

Can you see the duckling sticking its head out behind her wing?

I wish her all the best and now I can get a good nights sleep!

She is just one of up to 1000 pairs of eiders that nest on the Isle of May NNR. The nesting season is nearly over for these seaducks but hopefully we will be seeing their young for weeks to come on the island. Up to 20000 eiders spend the winter of Tentsmuir Point NNR.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Terns - an update....

The Terns are still busily harassing everybody who is getting off the boat. Rinchen has been leading on watching which dastardly Gulls are predating the eggs.

On Tuesday a full count was conducted at the beacon with the help of the researchers on the island. We found 216 nests at the beacon and with a further 28 at the priory and 20 at the jetty. That makes a grand total of 264.

We also found that many of the nests at the beacon had just hatched! This is hard to see from the hides as the young are so small and easily get lost in the vegetation.

Hatching an egg is just part of the battle. Feeding young is the next part. Fingers crossed all round!

Curious seal

Sunday was a lovely day after all the bad weather on the Saturday. The sea was calm and the sun was out. The May Princess came in as normal. I went up to speak to the pilot about the open day. I saw a seal rising off the stern. I tried to take photo before it dived. They are normally a bit shy but this one swam up and just sat on the bottom and just looked up mat me! In the crystal clear water I managed to get a few shots.

It was lovely to have an encounter like this with an inquisitive seal. This is one of last years pups.
Numbers of seals are still quite low at the moment but it is still possible to see them on the Isle of May NNR at the South Horn or on Rona when you are coming in on the boat. Numbers start to build up at the end of September when females come in to pup.