Sunday, 29 April 2012

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

I'd had my Sunday breakfast and decided to go for a stroll. I stopped in and watched the Eiders for a while as the males were displaying to the female. I began to walk up Palpitation Brae up to the Mainlight pausing briefly for a look at a Chiffchaff and a male Ring Ouzel. As I got to the top I could hear a commotion in the Arnott trap. The Pied Wagtails and Robins were all alarm calling. I peeked over the wall to see a Long-eared Owl looking back at me. I dropped back down behind the wall and got the camera out. I rattled off a few shots but the attention of the Pied Wagtail was too much and the nervous bird flew into the cover in the trap. 

I walked back down to the Lighthouse Keepers cottages to find Mark to see if he wanted to trap it. He had actually seen the bird flying onto the island with an entourage of gulls. Though he had not even had his breakfast we set off to see if we could trap it only briefly pausing to stop and look at a Tree Pipit along the way.

Mark expertly and safely trapped the bird and took it to the ringing hut. The bird was ringed, weighed and measured.

Fluke Street and Lowlight occupants all were present with cameras.

The owl was released along Holymans Road away from the gulls. From here it would see the Lowlight bushes where it would be able to roost safely. 

Long-eared Owl is principally an Autumn migrant on the Isle of May. This season seen three already and trapped two of them. Both birds have been adult females. These may well be migrating north to breed in a woodland somewhere in Scotland. They are nocturnal and hard to find so it's always a pleasure to get a view of this breath taking species. 

Saturday, 28 April 2012

A week of birds!

The wind has mostly been coming from the north east this week . This is not great for a couple of reasons. The boats have been unable to land so we've seen few visitors this week and birds which are heading to the continent are having their migration hindered. However there have been lots of birds around the island for us to see and for Mark to trap.

This will not be the last picture of a Long-eared Owl you will see this season if we see more on the island

The lovely black black chin of a male Redstart. There have been three of these cracking birds present on the this weekend. They normally breed in birch trees on the mainland of which there are none on the Isle of May.

The injury to Marks hand was not done by the Redstart!

Here is the Redstart hopping around looking for food in the bare vegetation near the tractor shed.

This is a 'Continental' Robin. It is bigger, greyer with a more orange breast then the birds that breed in back gardens in the UK.

This Ring Ouzel breeds in the mountains. Is it trying to make it's way to Scandinavia?

A close look at this  different Ring Ouzel shows it is carrying a tick.

This is the first Fieldfare I've seen in the hand. What a fantastic bird to see up close!

Here is a Mark doing an impression of James Herriot calving. He's really extracting birds from the catching box.

We've been catching more then just birds in the trap. The girls were more delighted then the rabbits.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Volunteer Paula

A week flies by…

I’m not exactly a stranger to the Isle of May as I’ve spent several winter seasons out here studying the seals. However, it’s hard to imagine the island as a bird haven when my experience of the dawn chorus is one of howls (from the seals) and ‘who’s for coffee’ (from the seal researchers). So when the chance came to volunteer out here for the summer, I grabbed it with both hands.

I’ll be helping with a variety of tasks over the summer – general maintenance, talking to visitors and a bit of seabird research too. I’ve only been here a week, but it’s all been a learning experience so far – cleaning out cupboards has unearthed old equipment and tools from the lighthouse, as well as newspapers dating back to 1934 when a night at the theatre would cost you a shilling (or 5p in new money!). Adding stuff to the touch table has meant cornering a seabird researcher to find out what birds the skulls and feathers are from, and even sitting in the hide counting seabirds has taught me that puffins mate on water. And it doesn’t stop there - although I knew that the rabbits were originally introduced by the monks, I never realised how important they have become for conserving the maritime grassland. As for all the different birds…. well, there’s an awful lot of learning to be done there, but it’s impossible not to learn things when you are surrounded by them 24/7. Hopefully I can pass on some knowledge in return – there might not be as many seals here as there are during the breeding season, but there are normally a few hanging around, so if you’re visiting the island and want to know about them, make sure you find me when you’re here.

Paula (summer volunteer)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Billiard Room

The cupboards in the billiard room
There is on the island a room called the billiard room. This came as some surprise when I first came out here but the name comes from the fact that is is a room in the engine house where there is still the base of a full size billiard table, presumably an off duty entertainment for the lighthouse keepers. The table now is just the legs and stone base and is so big and heavy it is unlikely to be moved in the near future. This room is now used mainly for storage and Paula, our new volunteer for the season (more of her in later posts) and I were clearing out the cupboards in the room to give our building contractors more storage room. And hidden in the cupboards we found a small glimpse back in time with the lighthouse keepers.
Firstly the cupboards themselves looked perfectly normal wooden cupboards from the outside but inside their origins can be seen. Stamped on the dividing walls and door on one cupboards were stencils that showed that they were originally food packaging that had been turned into cupboards by the enterprizing keepers. "Symingtons essence of coffee and chicory" was on one. Symingtons was a Victorian food company still going now and set up by the innovative Thomas Symington who was the first person to develop a form of instant coffee where you just added hot water. They had an Edinburgh coffee works in the early 1900's. Another was made from "Fitzroy Brand compressed corned beef" box, corned beef from Australia which was a common product used on Antarctic expeditions and during the first World War.  The inside of one of the other cupboards had been used by a keeper as a notebook when no paper was to hand . "Gulam (?) got paint scrappers on 15th Aug" said one bit and something about the "south horn" said another.  
Thought it was a long time since the cupboards had actually been used there were still some bits and pieces in them that date back over the years, such as pieces of electric equipment, hessian sacks of nails and bolts, hawsers and sisal rope and other pieces that we had no idea what they were for. In amongst these was a cutlery fork with N.L stamped on the handle, Northern Lighthouse probably? And perhaps most interesting a box contained a wad of old newspaper all screwed up.  One of these was found to be part of the Sunday Post from 18 July 1971, over 40 years old and brought onto the island when it was still manned by keepers and their families. Even better, another piece when delicately unscrewed was from the Evening Dispatch, an Edinburgh paper and this was dated Saturday 27 January 1934. Reading the snippets of articles from these scrunched up bits we found that at an attempt was to be make the first aeroplane flight from Rome to Buenos Aires by Italian airmen, Aladdin was on at the Theatre Royal, birth and marriage rates were rising and infant mortality rates falling,  and the Student Representative Councils of the Scottish Universities were proposing more organised groups to take part in the new activity of "hiking" that included German tradition of singing while they walked. We were straight back to world of nearly 80 years ago.
The engine room has always been one of the most atmospheric buildings on the island with its big old engines and machinery still in situ but cleaning out these cupboards made us feel the link to the lighthouse keepers that little bit stronger.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Spice of Island Life

Just to show that we get plenty of variety out here on the island here is a selection of just a small amount of what has happened out here over the last 24 hours.
1) - Today it was great to see the May Princess out with 21 visitors who had a great bird spectacular to see. Bad weather has restricted here trips recently but hopefully this is the start of a good run of sailings.
2) - She wasn't the only boat out to the island today, a small RIB came out for its first trip of the year only to have engine trouble. Luckily the RNLI Anstruther lifeboat came out and gave it a tow back, causing a bit of excitement in the harbour at the same time. The lifeboat and its crew are vital for the island and its inhabitants as they are our emergency service.

3) - The migrant bird numbers are dropping, the robins peaked at over 100 but are now down to about 20. However a new bird appeared yesterday, a sleek ring ouzel, stopping off on its way back to the mountains,

4) - After the boat had left I spent sometime yesterday putting up a bat detector. Yes, you read it right, a bat detector. Though there have been fewer than a handful of bat records in recent years there is a suspicion that bats pass through the island on migration. Of course we aren't up and about at night to see them so a local bat group have brought out a fixed bat detector that bolts to the wall, switches it self on each night at dusk and records high frequency sounds. These records are stored on an SD card and downloaded when the card is full. Clever. So I have fixed it to the wall and set it running and we will have to wait and see if we have secret, night time migrating visitors on the May.
Caught in DIY action, thanks to my daughter for the picture
5) - The eider action is hotting up around the island with the males chasing females in any of the quieter areas of water including the loch and Kirkhaven harbour. This is just one of the beautiful males cooing and woohooing while doing wing flapping and head bobbing. As I was putting up the bat detector all I could here was the commotion going on behind me. Once a male and female have paired up on the loch the walk away as a pair to where the female will make her nest, looking rather bashful but purposeful at the same time.

Friday, 20 April 2012

How things are - "As Good As the Galapagos"

Well here is just a quick update on how things are looking on the island. It has been cold. And a bit wet. But the last few days the birds have been absolutely fantastic for the few visitors to make it across. The RIB Osprey has made it the last couple days and those few who braved the weather have had unforgettable experiences. The seabirds have been back in force with a few guillemots starting to lay, razorbills mating like rabbits and one or two kittiwakes starting to nest build. The eider ducks are back on the island as well with the first females being escorted to their nest sites by their partners who guards her for a day or so before promptly abandoning her and going off the find another mate.  But the puffins have been the spectacular sight with the island seemingly covered in them.  It is a breath-taking sight and those lucky few visitors have been in awe when they get back to the boat. One keen Spanish birder who came on today said that it was "as good as the Galapagos!" So it is a case of "who dares wins" so why not give it a go, check out the boat operators and come over!  But just wear warm clothes.

Puffins everywhere

Posing for the camera.

Many of the puffins are a bit grubby after doing some imporvementws to their burtrow before laying.

A beautiful male brambling caught on the island on its way back to Scandanavia.

One of the many robins on the island.

A blackcap feeding on the apple tree that Jeremy constructed outside of the kitchen window of the principal lighthouse keepers cottage

A very smart wheatear just dropped in to the island.
The bonus for the visitors today was that we also had a small fall of migrant birds, the first for the spring season. A trickle of new birds started to appear this morning and then a shower and fog brought more in. The bulk were robins, but mixed in were blackcaps, a common whitethroat, the first willow warbler of the year, song thrushes, redwings, fieldfares, a stunning male brambling, a reed bunting, a linnet and a couple of redpolls. By the end of the day we had ringed 34 robins and estimated that there were as many as 80 on the island. Fluke street at dusk sounded like a suburban garden in winter with robins chipping and clicking away from every corner.  There is nothing like a visible sign of bird migration to quicken the pulse and step. And what might be waiting for us tomorrow morning ? Could be nothing or could be more treasures to be found. Can't wait.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Island summer residents return - the researchers.

It is the time of year when the Isle of May seabird researchers return to their summering grounds. We don't know if it is day length, daily temperature, funding considerations or natural instinct but they suddenly become restless where they have wintered in offices, labs and night clubs and when the time is right they pack their bags and wing their way towards the island.
There is high excitement when they arrive and the island is filled with their raucous cries but they quickly settle down to the business of the season. Their gaudy winter plumage is shed for a summer plumage of more faded, muted colours that as the season goes on gradually picks up a speckling of white. Their dietary requirements also change from kebabs, beer and takeaways to a more wholesome fare generally but some work so hard that they forget the time and can even miss the evening feeding frenzy.  They are often shy of the visiting public and tend to hide and roost when the visitor boats are on the island but if visitors meet them then care is needed as if cornered they are apt to regurgitate huge quantities of data and theory.
As a species they have a huge world distribution but DNA CV studies show that many seabird researchers across the world have spent time on the Isle of May at sometime in their career. But they are declining and serious government funding is required for their survival. After all, it is through their work that we are gaining the knowledge to conserve some of the worlds most popular birds and are able to monitor  how the environment around us is affected in a changing climate.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Rain fell....

We've either got plenty of water or none at all. The Isle of May get up to 40% less of the rain that falls on the mainland. However during the first three weeks of April this year started 80.5mm fell, about 1/6 of our annual rainfall. This is the highest rainfall since records began (that's what they always say anyway). We know this as we have set up our new rain gauge at the beginning of the season. Showers for all currently, we will keep you updated on water levels.

Holymans looked more like the upper reaches of the Forth

Puffins don't expect to be swimming into their burrows

Razorbills looked confused by the waterfalls

The shags just kept their heads down

Ladies bed looked more like the Olympic canoe short course

The sun was shining on Fife by sunset