Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Beach Rubbish

Pink footed geese migrating in off the North Sea at sunset.
Sunrise on the Isle of May this morning + watched with the first coffee of the day = no better start to the day.

The end of the visitor season on the Isle of May came to an end rather abruptly with the last few days of the May Princess sailings being cancelled due to crew illness. This made the Scottish Seabird Centre RIB that came on Sunday the last visitor boat for the year. It appears that it has been a record breaking year for visitors but we won't know for certain until we have a total up of all the boat numbers over the season.
So now we are doing a general tidy up of the island and shutting down all the visitor facilities so they don't get too battered by the winter gales. As part of this tidying up I did a last beach clean of the season at Pilgrims Haven so that it looked good for the last boat and the beach was clear of rubbish before the seals haul up. We do this regularly, probably every 2 weeks and it is always a depressing job because of the amount of rubbish that turns up, and often the same items. There must be plenty of footballers missing the target by a long way judging by the number of footballs that get washed up. Single shoes are another regular, but never a pair. But by far the commonest item is plastic bottles. For this last beach clean I picked up 44 plastic bottles of different types and everyone of them will have been discarded by someone in an irresponsible way. Of course those collected can now be sent to be recycled but it still leaves thousands just around the Forth that are gradually being broken up by the sea. The chemicals from the disintegrating plastic don't just disappear, they get taken up by organisms living in the sea and are concentrated at the top of the food chain, namely seabirds and seals. This is just one example of how people living miles away from the island can still have an impact on the wildlife there. So if you want to do one thing to help the puffins and seals that are so popular here then please recycle you plastic bottles.

Monday, 26 September 2011

The first seal pup of the year

Here it is! This pup was born on the afternoon on the 23rd September. I'd been out looking everyday for a week and finally found this one at dusk. There have been a few prospecting cows around the island so we expect more very soon. It is the first of around 2000 pups that are born on the Isle of May.

We keep coming across seals further on the island. We presume this yearling is sitting in the middle of Rona to escape the attention of the big bulls that are chasing females offshore.

This animal has been in Kirkhaven all week. It pays little attention to us while it sleeps on the beach.

The Seal Day went ahead albeit a watered down version. Visitors got a glimpse of the pup and the lucky one saw the Minke Whale off the North Ness.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Isle of May Seal Day

It's nearing the end of the season now. The tourist boat only has just over a week to run and though the visitor numbers are dropping, the numbers of grey seals start to increase as the males and females gather to give to mate and birth. September sees the opportunity get a look at these fascinating mammals and learn a bit more about their lives in the North Sea.

On Sunday 25 September, a seal expert will be on the boat explaining about the seals as the boat passes their haul out spots on the rocks at the ends of the island. Once the boat lands visitors will be able to visit the two viewing points set up on the cliffs, where there will be viewing scopes and experts on hand to answer questions about the seals.

For young people, and not so young people, the South Horn will host stories and songs about seals and selkies from Scotland’s rich mythological tradition. Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are mythological creatures found in Scottish, Faroese, Icelandic and Irish folklore who can shed their skin and turn from seals into humans.

The average first date of a seal pup is around the 22nd September. I've been out looking every day but have had no luck so far. There are however some very big haul outs of very big bulls all around the island. I can also hear them wailing as I walk about the island. The seal pupping season will be in full swing after we all gone away for the season. We will be replaced by the seal researchers.

Sailings to the island will be on the privately operated May Princess from Anstruther harbour, leaving at 11.00am, as well as the Scottish Seabird Centre boat from North Berwick at 11.10am.

For details on Anstruther Pleasure Cruises, who operate the May Princess from Anstruther, see the website http://www.isleofmayferry.com/, email info@isleofmayferry.com or phone 01333 311808. The Scottish Seabird Centre boat runs from North Berwick, for more information see the website http://www.seabird.org.uk/ or phone 01620 890202

Monday, 19 September 2011

Volunteering on the Isle of May

Katey Whyte came out to the Isle of May for 2 1/2 weeks in August as a volunteer to help us with the running of the island, this is her view of the island and her time on it:
"As I prepared to head off for the Isle of May I was unsure what to expect of the next few weeks. But after following advice to pack the essentials for island life (waterproofs and a camera of course) I felt I was ready for whatever the island could throw at me!
However, it seemed getting there was not to be so easy! Bad weather meant the boat was cancelled for 5 days in a row! Eventually I did make it across, although slightly damp and bedraggled looking, on an exhilarating RIB ride in heavy rain. Later that day, as I was shown around the island, David continued to assure me that this place has some of the best weather in Scotland due to the rain on the mainland usually bypassing the island. I must admit I was pretty doubtful. (But then again, I was also doubtful of his story about the seals singing to themselves while they lie on the rocks.... Turns out they really do sing!)
Right from the beginning of my stay I was kept busy with a wide variety of jobs. From dry stone walling to wader counts, from meeting the boats to path maintenance, there is always something to be done on the Isle of May! And as the days went by I became more and more at home on the island. Soon life back on the mainland seemed very far away, and sure enough it wasn’t long before I was swapping my rain jacket for suncream and shades as the weather improved dramatically!
One of the many highlights of my stay was getting the unique opportunity to experience the island and its wildlife in all different times of day and weathers. I also enjoyed passing on my enthusiasm for the island to the visitors. It is a great feeling to see people leave on the boat happy and keen to visit again! My personal favourite treat though was getting to sit by the sea for several evenings and watch as minke whales swam back and forth feeding as the sun went down. Simply magical.Low points were few and far between. Although I think the worst day was when we discovered an injured gannet on Pilgrim’s Haven. (See previous blog entry ‘Unlucky Gannet’.) It was amazing to see such an impressive animal up close, but unfortunately we knew that with a badly broken wing there was little hope for it.
It is amazing how such a small place as the Isle of May can be full of so many spectacular sights, smells and sounds to experience. You can never be bored of it, so by the time it came for me to leave I really didn’t want to go! However, after a slight shove onto the boat I was on my way home, and already planning the next time I can make a visit back there again! "

Sunday, 18 September 2011

From the east this time

I spoke a bit too soon in the last posting as an unforecasted blow appeared on Friday and Friday night. The only difference is that it was from the east which gives us a different view of waves crashing onto the island. The good thing about an easterly is that there is more of a chance of more interesting migrant birds appearing. So yesterday with some excitement Jeremy and I headed out to see what we could find. Initially the island seemed very quiet and there were few birds about but with a bit of searching, birds that had been blown off course while going about their normal migration on the other side of the North Sea started to appear. Some of them are species that we also find here in Scotland such a a song thrush, 2 common redstarts, a garden warbler, a whinchat, 2 crossbills and a common whitethroat. But there were a few others that are birds that don't breed here so we know that they had be blown across the sea. 2 Lapland buntings cheeped as the north end of the island, a beautiful bluethroat appeared briefly at the Lowlight bushes and today a delicate yellow-browed warbler was caught and rung before quickly being released.

Yellow-browed warbler

All of this adds a bit of spice to our day though of course we are still getting on with our everyday work of cleaning toilets, meeting visitors and report writing. But it lead me to look up a booklet that I have on my book shelf published 100 years ago about 2 people also experiencing autumn migration on the Isle of May. Back in autumn 1910 2 ladies, Evelynn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul were busy breaking the mould by studying bird migration as independent lady researchers on the Isle of May in a scientific way. These 2 ladies spent each autumn staying with the lighthouse keepers for 6 weeks and noting the birds using the island during that time. They then published their records and used the information to inform their theories on aspects of bird migration. It is interesting to note in the booklet that in that year they recorded a Lapland bunting that proved to be the first record for the Forth and also 1 bluethroat that turned up only a few days earlier in the year than our one this year. Perhaps the biggest contrast with today is that they regulary refer to procuring birds for identification and this means blasting them with a shotgun, something we don't do today. Rintoul and Baxter went on to be in the forefront of Scotttish ornithology for many years but it was their interest and studies in the Isle of May 100 years ago that has lead to the forming of the bird observatory here and the study of migrating birds that we contribute to today. It gives me a real feeling that the work here is part of greater project that has made big steps in increasing our understanding of birds in Scotland.

Friday, 16 September 2011

So Quiet

It's all quiet now. Katia has moved on and those of us left on the island have been relishing a wind-free existence. But it does feel a bit like we have skipped a season overnight. The wind has turned to the East and the breeze has a cutting edge making it a top coat colder and me reach for a hat. The grass has been bleached by the wind and salt, giving it a wintry colour and flattening it all in one direction like a well coiffured head. The nettles, sorrel, rhubarb and elder are blackened and shrivelled and we won't seeing much greenery from now till spring. To cap it all the geese have appeared in the last couple of days, groups of pink feet heading south, high up against a blue sky their calls to each other setting the season clearer than anything else.
And now you can hear yourself think and be able to stand without being shoved, the quietness can make itself heard. All things are relative and there is still plenty of sound but the birds are no longer saying "oi, look at me" and those that are left and just concentrating on getting through the winter. I wouldn't like it like this always but as a contrast and at a season's end, it's bliss.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Please touch

When people come to the Isle of May we really don't want them to spend very much time in the visitor centre as what we really want is for visitors to be out there and experiencing the island first hand. But the visitor centre can be a good place to either get the answer to a question or find out something new about the island. This year we have added a few things that are a bit more interactive and tactile. The touch table was made by our hard working volunteer, Rinchen, out of recycled materials (budgets are very tight this year). It gives people of all ages the chance to feel a gulls wing and even flap it, put their finger on the teeth of a bull grey seal, touch the webbed foot of a gannet and look closely at the differences in beaks of some of the seabirds. None of these things you can do as you walk around the island. Someone asked me how we clean up the skulls of the dead things we find around the island ? Well the traditional way is to bury them in the soil or the compost heap and let the microbes and worms clean them up. The problem is that it takes so long that most people forget where they bury them, there are so many skulls buried and forgetten around the garden that it is a job to find room to plant my pototoes. We have found a much quicker method.
- First take one nylon net onion bag.
- Put skulls in bag and tie long string around bag.
- Take it down to the jetty that goes out into the middle of the freshwater loch by the engine room.
- Leave in loch for 4 weeks
- Remove and leave in bucket of dilute bleach for 2 days,
- Dry and put on touch table.
This works becuase the loch which is like pea green soup most of the year has some mean creepy crawlies in it which clean of all flesh of the skulls within a month. I bet even David Walliams wouldn't do a sponsored swim across it, there would be nothing left of him by the time he got to the other side.
The other addition to the visitor centre is a large white board rescued from a SNH office. This gives us a chance to put up the latest sightings on the island and what work we are currently doing but also gives the opportunity for visitors to put down what they liked best from their visit. Some people seem to like it anyway.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Still Blowing

This morning is was still blowing hard but with the blue sky it looked fantastic. Rainbows appeared wherever you looked.
But the same as yesterday as it got closer to high tide the waves got bigger, the blue sky went to be repalced by lowering skies and allround rain.
The birds, me, the Lowlighters, everyone is just waiting for the wind to drop so we can start going about normal life again....well as normal as you get on the Isle of May. Tomorrow maybe ?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Another blow - Katia reaches the May

It was lovely this morning but you could see that something was brewing.
By lunchtime things were livening up.

And this evening it is really blowing. With weather like this you have to get out and see it and experience it. Though it doesn't compare to the big storm on 23rd May (see posting The Kitchen Window for that date) this one is still pretty impressive. So I had a bit of a wander around and found a couple of places where I could tuck myself down out of the wind and just watch the huge rolling waves crash into the cliffs. Its hypnotic and I found I couldn't tear myself away as I kept waiting for the next big one. Of course the pictures here can only tell part of the story as you can't show the roaring wind, shoving and pushing your every step, the spray coming in all directions, rain from above and seawater from below or even the seafresh smell.

The fog horn must about 10m tall, the cliffs another 10m so this spray is going up 20m, 60 foot high.

The first casualty of the storm, a dead guillemot washed up at tarbet.
It is dark now and the bumping and rattling around the cottage is getting louder. But these cottages have seen a lot of this, anything that could blow away would have done a long time ago. So it is a matter of waiting and seeing what the morning will show - but according to the weather websites she has finished with the island yet.

Out For Dinner

I went out to dinner last night, 7 for 730. This doesn't happen on the island much, especially when you are the only one on Fluke street but Ian, Colin and Frank who are in the Lowlight invited me over with the temptation of a very nice chilli and a fine 15 year old, malt whisky of course ! They are all long standing members of the Isle of May Bird Observatory with Frank having first visited the island in 1949 as a boy on birding trips. It made for a fascinating evening listening to stories about past birds, boat trips, the lighthouse keepers and the keepers goats. King Farouk was the billy and could be smelt from a fair distance away, I'm glad we don't have to deal with that sort of thing now though it was a close run thing earlier this year with the researchers and the shower ban. I tend to think of the island as having been a nature reserve for ever but when Frank first came out all the debris from a wartime occupation were strewn around and the island was first and foremost a lighthouse island in a strategically important place. The pioneering bird observatory guys were just mad bird watchers who flitted around the real work of the island. It just goes to show how far the management of the island and the thinking behind it have changed. So it gave me something to ponder as I wove my way home in the dark up over the island, internally warmed by the whisky, buffeted slightly by the increasing wind and intermittently lit by the Mainlight. I wondered what state the island would be in in another 60 years time.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

May in Autumn - Inbetween Times

This is a funny time of year for the island. It is very much inbetween times but that is not a bad thing. Most of the seabirds have finished their breeding cycle and left terra firma to head out to where they spend the bulk of their lives, far out at sea. The seals have spent the summer stuffing themselves with fish and are starting to return but haven't yet claimed the island for their own; that will come in 4-5 weeks time. So there is a tranquil, calm feel about the place. Even the gulls are down to ones and twos during the day though good numbers come back to roost over night. There are places to think without being immediately distracted by puffins or kittiwakes and the wind becomes ever more evident, even more so today as it is building for a right good blow tonight. No visitor boats today and unlikely for tomorrow. This end of season feel is strengthened by the colour of the plants. The elder and the nettles are turning black from all the winds, the yellow ragwort turning to fluffy seeds and the grass is in places just starting to show signs of winter die back. There are also more subtle signs such as the day length and the height and intensity of the sun in the sky and intensity that subconsciously tell us that summer is over the autumn is well with us.

Autumnal rustic - first island record
Pink-barred sallow
But there is still plenty to see. The migrant birds are coming to the fore and generate excitement with their amazing journeying. This morning a flood of swallows, sand martens, house martens and meadow pipits headed south with some purpose. Maybe they can feel the change in the weather and want to get far south as fast as they can? Over an hour several hundred went through the island, slipping between the gaps in the gusts of southerly wind. A kestrel followed them eyeing them up for a possible meal while a party of redpolls went through last evening with the same determination. Out at sea there is a lot of movement but the seabirds have different flight plans to the song birds with some heading north, some west and some south. The other night I got very excited as I saw my first sooty shearwater, a large brown (clue is in the name) seabird that breeds in the southern oceans but spends its winters in ours. The more familiar gannets are still trailing backwards and forwards past the island to a from fishing expeditions and kittiwakes, young and old, have been gathering in a group of over 4000 to roost on the island. On a smaller scale the autumn moths are often the best and in the last few days we have caught only the second ever pink-barred sallow and the first autumnal rustic for the island. My favourite is the latter as it is subtler and more stylish that the bubblegum pink and yellow sallow.
So on the Isle of May, even in inbetween times, it is not about whether you will see anything but just how long will you watch.