Saturday, 29 December 2012

Young seals having a hard time on the May

A bit of an update on what is happening to the young seals on the island. 
Young seals have a tough time of the island. Of the 2000 pups born every year over 200 die before they reach an age to leave the island. A PhD project currently under way is looking at what those reasons are. In some places on the island the density of adults and pups is very high and it is possible that with all the closely packed animals disease and infects are more easily passed to each other. Above is a pup, one of the last, on Pilgrims Haven which has some of the greatest densities of seals in breeding time. You can seen the amount of kelp, driftwood and rubbish that gets washed up that only compounds the problem.
But there is another problem that young grey seals are facing on the island but the cause is a mystery. This breeding season 10 recently weaned pups have been washed up dead with horrific but distinctive wounds. They all have huge spiral injuries that start at the head and corkscrew round the torso. I found this pup washed up the day I went out and a closer look at its back flipper showed that it was an Isle of May animal that had been tagged by the seal researchers. Ross, one of the seal researchers is currently carrying out a research project to find out why these seals are dying. The Isle of May isn't the only place where dead seals with these injuries have been found, they are turning up all along the east cost of the UK. One possible reason is that the seals are getting caught in ship propellers of a certain type but as yet this is only one theory and there is no actual evidence of this.
One thing it does show is the importance of places like the Isle of May where, when a problem like this arises the island can support vital research to answer questions. More information is available on the following link,

Meanwhile the last of the weaners lie on the island living off their fat reserves before they head out to sea to learn fast the skills of catching fish and surviving out in the sea. The one above is fast asleep, the one below is one that didn't make it.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Laundry and out.

Ross and Luke, the seal guys feed me extremely well. We did our best to finish what was left in the freezer, including eating what seemed to be half a pig. The next morning it was an early start to get the rest of the islands bedding all bagged up and loaded onto Colin's RIB so that we could get back into Anstruther before low tide blocked us. The builders from Crail came on at the same time to drain down the water systems of the island in case of deep freezes (not a common occurrence out in the middle of the sea). They came off the island with the last of the seal researchers and gear at the end of the day.

The laundry was unloaded and piled up to be sent off the Dundee to be spruced up ready for next season. Just one of many task I am working my way through in the island closed season; others include writing reports, submitting records, planning events and volunteer work parties and drawing up shopping lists.
However this closed season is going to be a short one as in January the builders will be back out to try to get the Lowlight finished and there are other contractors heading out including those who will try again to demolish the tractor shed. All before things kick off properly in March .

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The silent isle

It is the end of the human year of the island though it will keep going itself for a few more days. I headed out for a night a couple of days ago to close down the 2 cottages and collect all the laundry of the season. Ross and Luke, 2 hard core seal guys were the last men standing out there.
The first thing I noticed was the quiet. Not complete;ly silent but as good as compared to all that had gone before. Just a few days ago it must have been very different as 30 mph winds coming frrom the east combined with a high spring tide and a huge swell caused huge waves to crash onto the East side of the island. At Kirkhaven huge tree trunks had been washed in and left on the access road along with mounds of rocks. Landmarks had been moved around and a number of footballs left on a strand line. What is it about footballs that they always tuen up on the island. Must have been from the Rangers v Arbroath game when Rangers were playing seaward ?
The seals have left mud galore that the woodcock, redshank, oystercatchers and others had been taking advantage of.
The whole island seemed to be moving into a closed down state, the cliffs and rocks dark black where all the years guano had been washed off.
An Isle of May speed bump. There are still weaners lying around plucking up courage to head into the sea.

After the greyness of when I arrived there was a might blast of sunset as the sun dropped below the grey ceiling and scorched the island briefly.

On Pilgrims Haven a few seals lingered, a bull and a couple of cows. You could see their trails where they had slid out of the sea and up the beach. It was these wet trails that gave away their positions as they tried to be boulders on the beach.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Isle of May Bird Observatory needs YOU - next year.

Work is now well under way on the redevelopment of the Low Light on the Isle of May. In June 2012 a tender was let to James Aird and Sons, Builders, Crail to carry out the work. This consists of demolishing the ‘Black Hole’ and the brick extension which forms the wash room. In their place is being built a new extension which will consist of three twin bedded rooms and a flushing lavatory and a room for a future shower facility. The present bunk room is being converted into a kitchen and the living room is being refurbished.
This work is programmed be finished by December 2012 when we expect to have a wind and watertight building. It was always envisaged that some of the finishing work, in particular the decoration, would be done by voluntary work parties to save money.  The exact amount to be done will not be clear until the building is handed over to us in December.
However, it is likely to include (in addition to painting), laying floor coverings, fitting out the kitchen and probably the w/c and shower room, plastering and repairing plasterwork, repairing the stove and fireplaces, some landscaping and a lot of painting and general cleaning. The aim is to have the Low Light ready to take visitors from the beginning of April 2013.
To carry out this work and also any Trap refurbishments and maintenance, a volunteer work party will take place from 2nd to 30th March 2013. Accommodation will be in the Low Light.
 Obviously the building will not be in a completely finished state but it will be wind and watertight and as comfortable as the Low Light currently is. Accommodation and transport to the island will be free for work party members. We will arrange a boat each Saturday in the expectation that individual work party members would be able to manage a week on the island.  Some may be able to manage longer. If there are other boats going to and from the island in March, shorter stays may be possible but this will only be known nearer the time and, if volunteering, you should do so on the basis of a week’s stay.
 We would find it particularly helpful if you could let us know if you have particular skills or know of people who have those skills and would be ready to help. The particular skills we are keen to have available are: plastering, laying floor tiles, experienced carpentry, kitchen and w/c fitting. The new extension will hopefully have an electrical first fit “i.e. wiring only” and we would particularly welcome the services of a qualified electrician to help complete and certify the electrical installation.
Mark Oksien will be the overall manager of the work party and will be on the island for much of March. He will be responsible for drawing up an overall plan and programming the work.
The first week of the March 2013 work party is likely to be taken up with fitting the kitchen and the w/c. Subsequent weeks will be concerned with, plastering, wall tiling, painting, floor coverings and final a deep clean of the building and some landscaping work.
Catering: It is the intention to arrange the catering on a communal rather than individual basis and it would be appreciated if volunteers could indicate any special food needs.
If you would like to volunteer or discuss what is involved could you please get in touch with Mark Oksien 32 Struan Drive, Inverkeithing, Fife KY11 1AR.Phone 01383 419503. E mail  . In doing so could you please let him know the dates you can manage and what skills you can provide (or have a friend who can provide). Could you please let him know by the end of November.
Once we know how many volunteers we have, we will be able to plan the work party in detail. I do hope you are able to help.
Many thanks,
Ian Darling
Chairman, Isle of May Bird Observatory and Field Station Trust

Monday, 3 December 2012

What the seals are doing now

Going to see the building works gave me a chance to see what the seals are up to. According to the seal researchers it hasn't been an earlier season than normal but lots of females have pupped together so the island is actually starting to clear out a bit. For me it still looked like there were seals everywhere when I stepped onto the island with the eerie wailing and sharp musky tang on the air.
Youngsters weaned from their mothers are lying around the island living off their reserves. They often find small patches of water to roll around in and play in the mud before finally plucking up courage to work their way down to the sea.
When you see the mud baths that are created and what conditions the pups have to live in you can see why a percentage of  pups don't survive the first month or two but succumb to infections.
And dotted in amongst the seals are the environmental services team - the greater black-backed gulls the are busy clearing up the dead pups and afterbirth.

The weaners, those pups that have stopped feeding from their mothers get into all sorts of places such as this one welcoming us onto the island at Alterstanes and making sure we went off again.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The latest on the building works at the Lowlight

A flying trip made over to the island yesterday to look at progress of the redevelopment of the Isle of May Bird Observatory at the Lowlight.  After a blowy few days the crossing was fine and it was good to see that, although behind schedule, a roof was now on the extension and Neil, Fraser and Gordon had made fine progress. It might even have slates on the roof by Christmas.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Seal latest - what is happening out there now.

Still having technological problems but have finally been able to upload some photos from a day visit to the island I made last week. A clear day but with still a fresh north easterly wind meant that there was a nip in the air and a big rolling swell on the sea. On the approach the cliffs looked cleaner after all the rain  and more grim and imposing.Kirkhaven is closed to all boats because of all of the seals there so we jumped ashore at the iron ladder at Alterstanes.

  Once ashore we walked up round the corner to Burnett's Leap and immediately saw, heard and smelt the difference. The seals were now ashore in big time, covering the flatter parts of the island with boulder like adults and the pups crisp white dots amongst them. Any pools are favourite wallowing places and and large areas had become mud baths.

Down at Kirkhaven it was obvious why we could get boats in, the  jetty and beach are covered in seals and any disturbance would cause a stampede with pups getting squashed or abandoned.  As it is there are still plenty of disagreements between cows wanting to move and upsetting their neighbours. And yet this isn't peak season yet. This comes in November so there are still more seals to come ashore and many more pups to be born if we are to reach our usual season total of 2000 pups born.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sorry we have been off-line

Just a note to say sorry that the blog had gone very quiet, a number of reasons including some technical ones meant that it was not being updated, so apologies to all.
Both Jeremy and I are now both off the island having completed our "season" out there.
We have handed the baton to the Sea Mammal Research Unit seal researchers from St. Andrews University who will be there until mid December. The builders who are working on the development of the Lowlight for the Isle of May Bird Observatory are also out there for a few days each week.
Over the winter period I will be making the occasional day trip and overnight stay and will post news of what the island is looking like and what is happening out there as often as I can.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Rolled up crispy leaves

Away from seals and birds we are still running the moth trap and catching up to 9 of these beautiful moths. This is the angle shades moth and has these beautifully marked rolled wings that make it invisible amongst all of the dying back vegetation on the island. These adult moths are probably busy mating and egg laying at the monent as their second generation of the year caterpillers over-winter and then pupate and hatch out as adults in the spring. I just can't help photographing them at the moment.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The clean up operation

Everyday more and more seals are coming ashore. There the females returning to their pupping places, they usually go back to pup at the same place each year, and the males who claim, or try to, claim a beach or an area with females in it. The male will then mate with as many those females as possible, once they have pupped. Meanwhile younger males are constantly sneaking around the edges trying to creep in and mate with a female when the beachmaster isn't looking. The beaches are small on the Isle of May and so they can be chaotic places with all this going on. In this situation there are casulties and loses. Some pups are born dead, some die when young, but dead pups means a job for scavangers.
The main scavangers on the Isle of May are the greater black-backed gulls. During the summer about 40 pairs breed on the island but from September other birds from elsewhere pour onto the island to help with the clean-up operation. We are counting between 150 and 200 birds at the moment but at peak seal season there will be 500+ with the highest ever count totalling voer 2000 birds. They are helped with their job by the smaller herring gulls plus maybe a carrion crow or two and also maybe the little rock pipits. Another more unlikely possible contributor to the clean-up operation are the island house mice.
This seal pup was born yesterday morning but appears to have been still born or died soon after birth. Soon the greater black-backed gulls gathered, both 1st year birds (the brown ones) and adult birds to make a start with their vital work of clearing up the dead bodies. It isn't a pleasent job but someone has to do it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Open day seal pup star doing well.

Seal pups are appearing across the island over the last few days. Rona is becoming a no go zone with pups, cows and bulls dotted across the isle. The musty, foxy smell of the bulls is especially strong and can give you a warning that just around the corner is a big bull.
As I headed over to Rona today I had a look at the pup that starred in the Seal Open Day back on 23rd Sept. having been born the day before. It has been transformed from a wriggling little white bag of fluff weighting only about 15kg to a great blob, weighing nearer 40kg that spends much of its time guddling about in the pool. Its mother's high fat milk has enable it to put on the kilos (about 2 kgs a day) which is a good things as seeing as it is 17 days old  and in the next few days its mother will abandon it to fend for itself.  The cow herself will have hardly have feed for the time she was feeding her pup so she looks a little deflated and may have lost up to a 1/4 of her weight.  Before she heads back out to sea she will mate with the male that has been hanging around her pool.
We know from all the research carried out on the island that pup mortality on the Isle of May is very high so it is good to see this pup getting a good start to life.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Isle of May Mega Tick

It was the most stunning sunrise this morning on the island. On mornings like this all you want to do is just get out and enjoy the experience so before 7 I was out to take in the spectacular pinks and purples of the sunrise. After checking Kirkhaven for seal pups, on a whim I headed out along Holymans Road with the idea of going across to Rona at the north end of the island. Still not being fully awake I saw a large bird flying north along the side of the island in the half light, looked back to the path and then did a huge comedy double take closely followed by an air punch. Not only was the bird big, it was also an Isle of May mega tick, a real Isle of May rarity, only 9 or 10 sightings in the last 25 years, something that doesn't come along very often and a lot of people including me need it for their list. I was on a "hot streak" having already found this autumn other Isle of May rarities like tree sparrow and greater spotted woodpecker. In the rush to get my camera out and lens changed (typically I had the wide angle on for sunrises, not the telephoto) I nearly strangled myself there and then, but eventually managed to get everything out and pointing in the right direction. The light was awful, the bird a long way away but I  thought I would get something as proof of identification. But then the bird came down and settled on the sea and even better started to gently swim towards the Middens. I gave thanks and scuttled off along Holymans in a gait only used by twtichers overloaded with equipment. After much use of fieldwork skills I got into position and managed to get the all important pictures. The bird was a star, both confiding, obliging and it showed well as well and I was sure of my identification. But then I had the problem of whether to release the information, do I put it out there ?  Would there be a rush to see it? Well first I had to think of my collegue, I knew that he needed it for his list. Jeremy was still in his pit and I decided to scuttle again, all the way back to Fluke Street to yell through the door. "Mega tick, get out here" I hoarsely shouted and 10 mins later Jeremy stumbled along the path, doing up his trousers. tripping over his laces and trying to get his eyes working. Just in time. After just a few minutes of feasting our eyes on the beauty it took off and carried on its journey north.  We were both still in a state of shock as we headed back down to Kirkhaven to meet the builders delivery boat coming in and help unload.
 "What you been up to this morning already ?" asked Tom the boatman.
"Out before dawn birding, just had an Isle of May mega tick " I replied.
"So what was it? " said Tom the boatman, suddenly quite excited.
" MUTE SWAN" I said proudly, as I basked in the glory.