Friday, 30 March 2012

On the island - the start.

This is just ot say that I am on the island and our season has started (for the wildlife it6 is not as clear cut). Am unloading boxes galore and will get posting with pictures and tell you the news as soon as I can, hopefully in the next day or so.

Behind the Scenes Boys.

Neil rebuilding the access ramp to the visitor centre

Gordon power washing the jetties.

Alistair putting in a new shower in AK cottage

Frank and Nick putting in the new diesel tank.
This was written last week but couldn't post it, will add pcitures ASAP.

We were on the island for practical reasons, Frank and Nick from Dieselec were on to connect up the new diesel tank. It is always interesting seeing the island through new eyes and though birds were Franks least favourite things they were both stunned by the island once there. For them there wasn't much time to take it in as they worked long hours to get everything fixed and thanks to their efforts we now have a safer tank that is much easier to fill and less likely to leak .
Already on the island were Alistair, Gordon and Niall from the local Crail firm Airds who do a lot of our the maintenance work on the island. They are island old lags having spent many days in the last few years in all weathers carrying out building maintenance. This time they were on putting up new ceilings, wash basins, showers (hoping that we have water to use them and rebuilding the access ramp to the visitor centre that the storms knocked down. All invaluable work done in difficult conditions that helps the National Nature Reserve to fulfil its purpose.
I move out to the island next week and it might take a few days to get an internet connection sorted and computers up and running, so bear with us and I will get blogging as soon as I can.

The Puffins Are Coming.

Puffins everywhere across a flat sea.

And on land.

The middle bird still has lots of dark feathers on its face left over from its winter plummage.

This and the next post were written last week but lack of access to the computer meant I couldn't post them. 2 fabulous days on the island. The purpose was practical but the fringe benefits were spectacular. We headed out on Thursday morning across a mirror calm sea and in bright sunshine but as we got closer to the island the glassy surface was marred by black dots as far as the eye could see. The puffins were back in force. It was breathtaking and Colin stopped the boat when we were several hundreds yards from the island just so we could take in the sight. At almost the flick of a switch this was the seabird city coming back to life after a long, quiet winter. Once on the island the land had become a birdscape, with birds drawing the eye which ever way you looked. It was like a still life master piece had become animated, the Mona Lisa chatting away and getting up and going for stroll. With 45,000 pairs of puffins on the island and non-breeding birds joining them there was a lot going on as they landed, investigated burrows, jostled and just looked and whirled off again into a wheel above the island. I suppose if you had spent the winter months alone and isolated out in the Atlantic then had being dumped in the middle of busy London Streets with a partner you hadn't seen for 7 or 8 months then you might be in a bit of a state of shock. Meanwhile the other seabirds were busy getting sorted on the cliffs as well. The growling razorbills, braying guillemots, yowling kittiwakes, cackling fulmers and honking shags brought me back to an island atmosphere not seen since last June and were as welcome as a group of old friends long time not seen. Can't wait to get out there for the start of our season.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Tossing rabbits

The last day on the island this week and some of the practical tasks tackled. 
  • The CEH researchers put up a temporary hide to study the puffins from, this has taken the place of the one that was obliterated by the winter storms.
  • The compost heap was dug out and put into fish boxes ready for this years vege growing. The garlic planted last winter is already doing well.
  • I am in training for the "hill". The slope up from Kirkhaven to Fluke street seems steep at the beginning of the season but seems to get easier as the season goes on.  But at least I don't have to carry coal up it all day long like the first lighthouse keepers.
  • The winter has taken its toll on the rabbit population. Food is short and the rabbits are easy pickings for the gulls, especially the great black backed gulls. So the paths are littered with carcasses and so to improve the "visitor experience" these have to be tossed as far off the paths as possible. My total so far with only about half of the paths done is over 50.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

1, 39 and 10,000

The team processing guillemots.
Head and bill being measured.
Unique colour ring combination and a metal BTO ring.

About to be released.
They have big claws.
Razorbills pairing up in groups just off the island, more relate than dateline as they get to know their mates after a winter apart.

A magnificent sparrowhawk caught and ringed.

A seabird day today.
1 - The number of puffins seen on the boat trip over the the island the day before.
39 - The number of guillemots ringed - The researchers working on the Isle of May have managed to find out many of the secrets of the life histories of guillemots. Because the birds all look the same to humans, much of this has been done through putting unique colour ring combinations on birds legs so individuals can be tracked. Huge amounts of time are then spent looking down telescopes following these birds over the season and years. And every so often more birds needed to be colour-ringed to make up for the ones that have died. This morning at 0500 a small mist net was opened on on one of the guillemot ledges so that as the birds flew in from the sea at dawn they became caught up. At 0545 we headed down to the cliff to take the birds out of the nets and once all extracted we could then process then by putting coloured rings on their legs. quickly we had a system with 1 person putting on the colour combination, the next person put a metal BTO ring on and removing 1 or 2 feathers than in the lab can be used to sex the birds, then next glued and sealed the rings and measure the head and bill and the last person weight the birds and released them . All of the information gathered in noted down by a scribe. Even with this well oiled team it still took a couple of hours to process the world record catch of 39 birds that we caught. 1 bird caught already had colour rings on and from this we knew that it had been ringed back in the early 1990's. Amazing to think that it had been coming to the cliffs for at lover 20 years and was older than Brad, the sandwich student who was the scribe.
10,000 - this was the approx. number of puffins we saw on the sea around the island when we had finished ringing the guillemots. They had all arrived in the night and the early hours. How do they synchronise their movements and arrive at the same time? And how do they find the island again?  Magic.

Kittiwakes and razorbills are also returning, gathering in groups to find there partners, not so much Dateline but more Relate as they get to know their mate again after a winter apart.

And something very different, later on a sparrowhawk was caught and ringed in the top trap, What eyes !

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Diesel Tank

The tank arrives

The shags are looking their best, gleaming in the sunset.

Fire lit, lights on...cosy.
It is Monday and we are back on to the island for a few days. A whole range of tasks are to be tackled from seabird monitoring, visitor infrastructure management but firstly it is the moving of a diesel tank. We have a diesel tank on the island which holds the fuel for our back-up generator but it was installed with a fuel pipe to the generator that has 40 joints in it and goes through 5 rooms. Not a great design. So the job is to rectify this by putting a new tank into the same room as the generator. But firstly the tank needs to reach the island and then be moved to the generator room. Our trusty contractors from Crail tackled the job with the usual gusto taking an unused tank off the island in the same operation. Many things seems to come to the island and then die and stay so we are always taking the opportunity to remove unused stuff off the island.  With the contractors gone it was time to take a deep breath, admire the fine sunset gilding the seabirds and take a glimpse at Venus and Jupiter with its 4 moons through the telescope. It is good to be back.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Operation Deep Clean

Loading the boat, note Maggie's leopard skin bag - very Isle of May.
Coming into the harbour.

Isle of May lighthouses.

The tracks are greening up

Leaving the island
The task was Operation Deep Clean, the operative was Maggie. And so we set off to the island with various cleaning products and a carpet cleaner. Though we all take a turn in cleaning the lighthouse keepers cottages that we live in during  the busy field season it can be difficult to get into those hidden corners. So each year Maggie heads over to clean them through at the beginning of the season and this year word came down from above that a deep clean was needed, this called for a carpet cleaner. Maggie is one of the many unsung Isle of May heroes that does so much for the island. She knows it well as during the summer she is one of the main guides who takes visitors from the Seabird Centre around the island but relishes the chance to be on the island when no visitors are about.
It was a glorious morning and the island was quieter than last time. The guillemots were absent, at the beginning of the season they come onto the island for a few days at a time and go back out to the sea, gradually spending more and more time on the island. The gulls were gradually taking ownership of their colonies, herring gulls in their pristine breeding whites and even one or two lesser black backed gulls, recently returned from their wintering grounds in Spain. I got in a quick walk round and surprised a few more unusual visitors, a big female sparrowhawk in the Top Garden, a short-eared owl down buy the Lowlight and a woodcock along Holymans. And then I had to head back to the mainland, with the island sun-kissed, tranquil, golden and blue it was a wrench.  I might get to stay a couple of nights next week but my time for staying proper won't be for another 3 weeks.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Getting Going

The island looking blasted, brown and quiet.

Loading the boat

The guillis are back.

At first this odd looking razorbill looks like it has an invisible head or has been doing some painting and decorating but is acutally moulting its winter plummage out and hasn't quite got its full breeding feathers.

Shags and guillimots prospecting nest ledges, note the 2 beautifully marked bridled guillimots.

One of the first jobs will be to right Evelyn's purple hide.

The island may look dead but seedlings and shoots are sprinking up everywhere and after the mild winter things will green up fast.
Well this is it, the human side of the Isle of May operation is getting going, blog included. We started the opening up process for the island on monday with a trip out at the begiining of the week. The main purpose was to get the water engineer out there so that he could start the process of cleaning through the system but it gave a chance to see how things were progressing on the island. As usual we look at things from a human personal perspective and for us it is the start but for the island and some of its wildlife things are already up and running. There were lots of guillemots back on the cliffs grabbing their nesting ledges and looking for their partners. It is so long since I had seen them on the cliffs (end of June) that it was a real but pleasent surprise to see the ledges rippling black and white and hear their braying. Fewer razorbills were back, some still with winter plumage. The shags were a mixed lot, a few early starters were nest building but many obviously hadn't put any thought into breeding yet.  The island itself looked bleached and brown as we approached but up close amongst the churned up mud from the seals were seedlings and grass poking through ready to change the colour of the island like a chameleon from brown to green.
For the next month we will be making day trips and short stays to get work done on the infrastructure with the plan of going out to stay at the end of March. This will mean lots of boat trips too and from the island in a windy time of year so I hope the weather is kind on us. There is only a certain number of times you want to have to step ashore at Anstruther with a salty face and wet underpants.