Friday, 28 October 2011

Marine Rubbish - This Is What Can Happen

A grey seal pup similar to the one caught in this incident.

The last few days have seen the Isle of May in the news but not for a good reason. A very young seal pup born on Pilgrims Haven decided to do a bit of investigation of a structure that it found on the beach. Unfortunately itwas a creel (used for catching lobsters) washed up on the beach after the last lot of stormy weather. It crawled in through a hole but then found it couldn't get out. Its mother stayed by its side all this time but it seems that though the pup was later seen out of the creel it didn't survive the experience and was dead on the beach a short time later. All this drama was captured on the live web cams that are linked from the beach to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick . Footage of the trapped seal was released as a press release to highlight the dangers to wildlife caused by rubbish washing up on the beach. The links to the BBC and STV television websites are below.

We clean Pilgrims Haven regularly of rubbish (see blog posting Tues 27 Sept) including removing at least 10 creels this season, the last time shortly before we left the island for the season. It is therefore very dispiriting to see more rubbish being washed up and causing this problem.

Watch the seals on Pilgrims Haven through the Scottish Seabird Centre webcam:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Close Down

Many apologies for the rather abrupt ceasation of blog updates but the end of our island season came a bit quicker than we expected. I ended up coming off the island in a bit of a rush and in the roughest weather I have yet experienced leaving Jeremy to hold the fort. But then Jeremy's computer went down with a nasty virus and to allow him to finsh his report he had to come off as well. So we have partially closed down the island for the winter leaving it to the seals, mice and rabbits but it is not completely abandoned as the Lowlight is still manned by the bird observatory monitoring the bird migration and next week the hard-core seal team from Sea Mammel Research Unit ( head out to the island for their 6 week stay.

And I will be heading out for short stays through the winter, just a night or two every so often to complete the final close down in December and make sure everything is OK. I will post the occassion blog posting about these visits but from now onwards there won't be any regular postings until March when we start the process of opening up the island again ready for visitors at the start of April.

But thank you very much for reading the blog over the season and I hope that you will join us for next season in our journey of finding out more about this special island.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Boys are back in town

First seal pup to be born on Pilgrims Haven this year, having its first meal.
On Rona there are seals draped across large parts of the island.
The big boys are waiting to get their beaches back.

The numbers of seals coming back to the island is going up every day.

The little bit of red you can see on these flippers is a numbered tag so the seal researchers can identify individual animals and plot their life histories.

Seal season is building up here and it seems to be an early one. There are already more than 8 pups on Rona, a pup at Tarbet and the first to appear on Pilgrims Haven (you can watch the seals on Pilgrims Haven from the web cam linked to the Scottish Seabird Centre, follow this link . And at each flat area of the island increasing numbers of seals are hauling themselves and starting to reclaim their beaches for the season. Whenever you go down to any of the bays you can feel eyes on you and just off the shore following your every move is a beach master a bull grey seal that is watching you. They spend a lot of time just floating around in the quiet water blowing bubbles, snorting and sizing up rivals but this is all a prelude to the real season when the seals come ashore. The Sea Mammal Research Unit are due out in a couple of weeks time to start their annual work looking in detail at the seals and they keep a blog going that tells of their work. Paula who writes the blog is a wizard at seal identification, she runs the project that uses the individual pelt patterns to identify different animals. To follow their work the blog address is and as they are the experts they will be able to tell you far more about these brilliant animals and their work.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Shrike on the Horn

Today began with coffee out on the deck of the Principal Keepers cottage over looking Kirkhaven and the most stunning sunrise I have seen for a while.

There wasn't a breath of wind and I could hear the seals from the end of the island grumbling and wailing. The last couple of days have been quite interesting as it has been generally fairly still but with light east winds bringing in at different times a deluge of rain, thick fog (called haar round here) and a whole pile of interesting birds.

Jeremy and I have been torn between wanting to lookf or birds and get on with the long list of island close down tasks, So a compromise was reached where we have been wearing our binoculars every moment of the day and have got on with the tasks but just very slowly, with repeated interruptions for checking out birds (message to line manager - don't worry Caroline, all the jobs were done, honest). For example Jeremy spotted his first crossbill for his Isle of May list when he was perched on top of a hide that we were reroofing with a hammer in his hand. It was a close run thing whether it was the hammer or the binoculars that he brought up to watch it.

A redwing

Things started getting interesting on Friday late afternoon when redwings started appearing, these beautiful thrushes come from Scanadnavia to spend the winter here in the UK. By Saturday there were at least 200 on the island with similar numbers of song thrushes and also parties of robins and blackbirds. A load of rain later on on Saturday briought in more migrants including my favourite a great grey shrike whh seemed to like perching on the trumpet of the South Horn.

Great Grey Shrike

While looking for the shrike I also found this tiny treecreeper on the side of one of the fog horn buildings. Normally you only see these birds fly a few yards in the woodland where it noremally lives but this little birds had flown hundreds of miles on migration. It was exhausted and starving and immediately started feeding.


Sunday was a better day for weather and we woke to find the island absolutely hooching with birds. Mostly they were goldcrests, unbelievably they are Britain's smallest bird yet they were stopping off on the island to refuel and rest while on a journey of hundreds of miles. Mixed in with them were chiffchaffs, bramblings, blackcaps, whitethroats, garden warblers and about 50 wheatears. The bird watching was exciting as you just didn't know what would should out of cover or drop out of the sky next.


The calm conditions of last night and this morning were good for travel so most of the birds have now left the island and just in time as tonight it has all blown up again. A south westerly gale is now howling down the chimney, rattling the gates, sending spray across the island and generally making life for humans and birds more difficult out here. According to the forecast it will be with us for 3-4 days and this will slow down or stop bird and human journeys until the next bit of favourable weather but until then I will be remembering 1200 goldcrests peep peeing from every wall and bush.

West Rona this evening.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Lighthouse Family

Another interesting visitor came last week. David Best, American landscape photographer from Washington State visited the island to photograph it. What made the visit more special was that he was a "several greats" grandson of Lucy Anderson. For those of you who don't know Lucy Anderson was the young babe who survive the lighthouse disaster of 1791 when the lighthouse keeper George Anderson, his wife and five of his children died after being suffocated from fumes from the ash heaps surrounding the old Beacon lighthouse. Lucy was saved and brought up in Anstruther before heading to the States with her husband. David isn't the first from the lighthouse keeper Anderson family to have visited the May and there is great satisfaction is maintaining the connection down time and across oceans with people with a direct link to the island. We showed David around the Beacon where his relatives lived and died and all round the island and we are very much looking forward to seeing his photographs of his visit.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Interesting Carcasses

Those of us working on the Isle of May are drawn to dead birds and seals like flies to rotting meat, literally. This is not just down to a general fascination with these creatures and seeing them close up or a need for skulls, feet or flippers for the visitor centre touch table. It is the tags and rings that we are after. A large of number of birds on the island are ringed as a way of marking individual birds but this ringing effort is only useful if rings are seen or found after they have been fitted. Some special rings put on birds can be read from a distance but most are small metal rings that can only be read when the birds are in the hand and dead birds are the easiest to get in the hand hence the unhealthy interest in carcasses.
So a few weeks ago when out on Rona I found 2 legs attached to a bit of a freshly cleaned carcass that were probably from a whimbrel or curlew that had been killed and partially eaten by a peregrine. Glinting in the gore was a metal ring on one of the legs - goldust. A closer look at the ring and things got even more exciting as the ring was labelled "Museum Zoolog Helsinki Finland", this bird had been ringed in Finland. I sent off the ring number and details to the Isle of May Bird Observatory ringing secretary who made contact through the right channels to the Finland Ringing Scheme. Apparently this bird had been ringed so recently that the details had not yet been submitted to the central office but the seems as if it is likely to have been a curlew ringed as a young bird in Finland. A look in the fantastic Scottish Birds book under curlews states that up to 2004 over 60 young curlew ringed in Scandinavia have turned up in Scotland. So through ringing a picture has been built up that shows that the Scotland is an important wintering ground for curlews breeding in the Nordic countries. We will have to wait and see what the details of this bird are but finding a ring like this makes all that turning over maggoty bodies and trying to find if the legs are still attached, worthwhile.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Two Ribs plus One

Notes from the memory log of Sept. 28, 2011.

Warm southerly air and brilliant sunshine was the surprise of a good part of this Scottish week. I will use the word "hot", on the May, surrounded by cool sea. I am here to substitute for Dave and Jeremy, away on an annual conference, keeping this volcanic rock stable and attending to various projects revolving around tern habitat and other maintenance.
James, the pilot of May Princess provides us with the to-ing and fro-ing of supplies and personnel as required. For this he uses his Rigid Inflatable Boat (Rib). On Wednesday he had arrived with three individuals surveying the Low Light and Katherine, one of the researchers who had returned to locate an "easy to find thermometer" hidden under a rock during the breeding season. She had forgotten it. I met them at the jetty and they went to attend to their business. James waited for them to return as the tide rose with flat, calm, clear water.
As ever, while stationed here, our eyes are kept to the sea. I first heard, then noticed two small Ribs skimming the waters off the east face of the May, moving south. As they moved past the slim opening to the harbour entrance the lead boat slowed down. The skipper had noticed James moored at Kirkhaven, our harbour. The second boat also slowed. They were soon navigating through the narrow, treacherous channel. I watched as they safely found the way in and greeted them first at the low water jetty and directed them to moor alongside James who had relocated at the main dock as the tide continued to rise. They informed me of their trip from Southampton, their charity fundraising for muscular sclerosis and Parkinson's, and their sexy boats. I welcomed and informed them of what wonders they had stumbled upon. If they had not seen our Rib they would not have stopped. I encouraged them to have a stroll and visit the island. They did so, returning with smiles on their faces. As they prepared to depart, we wished each other well. By-chance encounters are often so rewarding. A link to their blog is located here below.

Both Wednesday and Thursday provided the highest tides of the year. The photo below shows that the sea at it's highest came over the dock by about 5cm. (2in.) Fortunately, the weather provided for calm, flat conditions.

Oh yes. Katherine did recover her expensive scientific equipment. It took her more than half an hour to locate it, under an "easy to find rock".

Rinchen Boardman - Day 20 Wed. 28th Sept. 2011.