Thursday, 28 June 2012

Seeing the island - a volunteers view

Lucie's view of the island and its visitors seen as a volunteer.

Time is flying… It has been already 4 weeks since I arrived on the rough sea to the May shore. And it has been great. There hasn't been a day when I didn’t feel privileged .To be honest, even though I love nature I have only seen most of the sea birds just in a book or a TV. Here, they are literary everywhere. And it wouldn’t be me, if I didn’t bring my best friend camera with me, and of course the excitement of seeing and capturing something incredible from this tiny place in the world. I see many visitors with much better cameras and lenses than I have. They are pumped up with adrenalin and cannot wait until they are let free to explore the island. Many times, I can feel the expectation to see the unseen and to get the "special" picture. We are a part of nature on the island, and unconsciously some visitors put on a show just as ‘entertaining’ as the nature on the island. They are not hunting for food, mates, but for the best shot ever. I am a passionate photographer myself so I know what it is like. And I have more opportunities than most to produce an image that make me feel incredibly puffed up with invisible feathers of pride. Yet the peace of the island calms me down and I take time when working outside painting blue signposts or going to dig out muddy path to be prepared for nature spectacles. There is no need to hang out down the cliffs to see a bird in its element or walk through the fields to see a new migrant, I am not a ‘mad’ birdwatcher who would travel 4 hours on plane to see one bird. I don’t say, that bird watching people are doing something wrong. But I think that the unexpected also comes when my eyes are open and I have no exact expectations. I was painting the blue signposts, the sun was hiding behind the clouds and sun beams escaped the hug of clouds from time to time. And there it was, a guillemot sitting on top of a rock cleaning its feathers. The sea behind it was dark with a thin silver layer from the escaping sunshine. Campion and lichen in the front of me gave it the full 3D image. Just a few meters away, there were puffins with beaks filled up with sand eels and an odd sprat; sitting on rocks and looking around to choose the best time to take off and get into its burrow to feed its chick. I didn’t need to go and search for any speciality, it just came along when I was pottering around the path. Some visitors think the Wardens welcome talk is not necessary and just eating up their time to photograph their list but I think that maybe taking time, walking slowly seeing with open eyes rather than through a camera is the best advice to feel and experience the incredible power of this tiny island.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Fishing with puffins

Setting the nets up for fishing with puffins

Puffin with sandeels.

It is 5 am in the morning, close to Midsummer's day and I am standing out on the east side of the island in warm (for once), balmy conditions looking at the remains of a stunning sunrise and we're out fishing. It is the little sandeels that we are after and a small group of us are yawning and grunting but keenly watching a run of mist nets and suddenly the shout of  "puffin" goes out and we sprint for the nets. We are fishing with puffins.
Seabirds are linked to the sea by their food, the fish and for many birds this means mostly sandeels. So to find out how both the birds and the fish are doing we want to measure what and how many fish the birds are bringing back in. With puffins they do the fishing and we just take them off them when they come back not the island. This means getting up early, setting up mist nets and netting them as they come back from their first fishing expedition of the day.  When the puffin hits the net it drops its fish and there is a mad scramble by the island staff to 1) untangle and then ring and release the puffin  and 2) more importantly gather up the fish from the ground before the gulls eat them first. Each puffin load of fish is gathered and wrapped up in foil so that at a later date the species, weight and length of the fish can be measured. For the puffins this is really only a minor convenience, they make about 5-8 fishing trips a day to get fish for their chicks but can lose many to the pirate gulls who steal them as they come back to the island. We do puffin fishing every week from mid-May to mid July but with so many puffins (90 000 +) it is extremely rare to catch the same puffin more than once in a yea and so this removal of one feed in a season doesn't have any effect on the chicks. .
Puffin fishing has been carried out by researchers on the island for over 30 years and over this length of time changes in the puffin feeding have been noticed. For a start the sandeels that puffins are catching have been getting smaller, probably because the less plankton in the seas for them to feed on,  and so aren't as good at growing chicks. The overall weight of each fish load has been decreasing over time as well. To compensate for this we know at the Isle of May that puffins are bringing in more fish per load and increasing the number of loads per day but how long can they keep this up before they start to produce fewer young puffins?
In the meantime we continue to scrabble on the ground search for dropped sandeels and in between each shout of puffin admire that magnificent early morning. Until talk turn to breakfast and bacon sarnies and then it is hard to concentrate for the last few loads before we head back to the cottages, and its only its 6am.

Ringing puffins early one morning.

A puffin in the hand usually means blood shed for the ringer.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Lifeboat drama off the May

Dunbar (left) and Anstruther (right) lifeboats just of the east side of the Isle of May.

A bit of excitement amid the howling wind today when at lunchtime we saw the Anstruther lifeboat tearing in from the North Sea at a rate of knots straight to the island. Behind it was the Dunbar lifeboat going a bit slower but still disappearing in spray as it went bows on to the big swell. A further study showed it towing a small yacht called Dancer which had a shredded foresail. Both lifeboats came on in to the lee of the island before a bit of fiddling around enabled them to swap towing lines so the the yacht could be towed on in to Anstruther.
Taking the yacht Dancer under tow.
Living on an island 6 miles out into the North Sea, it is a constant reassurance to have those lifeboats on standby to help with any emergencies. We were delighted when the RNLI did very well out of the sweep stake we were running for the Eurovision Song Contest (winning last year with Azerbaijan and this year as well) and currently have England  in the Euro 2012 sweep stake so hopefully that will be a good omen and more winning will go their way (England need all the help they can get !).
 Meanwhile the island is absolutely waterlogged after another 24mm of rain was dumped on midsummer's night. The birds have bit hit hard again with lots more puffin burrows flooded while some of the paths are like stream.
Three tarn nick has grown to four tarn plus a stream nick.

Another flooded puffin burrow

But on the bright side the south westerly gale that got the yacht into trouble is now drying out the island if giving it a bit of a battering at the same time. If its not pouring its blowing. 
Alterstanes getting a washing down.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Midsummer on the Isle of May

A few images of the island at Midsummer (as I write this it is actually chucking it down and blowing a good one).

The guillemots are starting to leave the cliffs meaning that we are at the peak of the breeding season - there are still plenty of birds to see on the island.

The researchers have been hard at it ringing guillemot chicks so that when they return as adults, like this one  we can follow their life histories.

Spring migration has virtually finished with a rather drab looking common rosefinch bringing up the rear. Another few weeks a we will be looking for the first waders heading in the opposite direction.

It is ocean liner season with this huge one passing the south horn a few days ago.

The ever photogenic South Horn blushing pink in the sunset.

The South Horn set amongst a sea of sea campion, the island is looking stunning at the moment with its carpet of flowers.
The rock pipits are perhaps the least noticed of the island inhabitants but their descending song and display flight are one of the joys of the summer on the May.  At the moment they are busy feeding their just fledged young.

The terns take very seriously their welcoming role for the island.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Jumping time for the guillemot chicks

A chicks eye view of the jump.
One of the great privileges of living and working out here is being able to watch one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles you can see in this country. This is time when the guillemot chicks jump. To save on flying backwards and forwards with fish from the fishing grounds to the cliff ledges the guillemots take their chicks out to sea closer to the fish.  But to do this the chicks, that are only 20 days old and have no flight feathers, have to leave their few inch square home ledge that they have known all of their lives and get down to the water.  For some this isn't too much of a big deal as they are close to the sea or can work their way down the stepped cliff but for others it means a huge jump of 20 meters plus with only the hope that they will hit water rather than rocks. It is hard to imagine what a life change this is for a chick to go from being told not to move an inch to then being told to jump into the unknown. The intensity and excitement of this can be heard on the cliffs on warm, still evenings in the jumping season when the noise of adults braying and chicks piping picks up as the Dads (the Mums aren't involved in the upbringing from this moment on) encourage the chicks to the cliff edges and then drop down to the water to call the young down. Some chicks just go for it and jump while others take an age to pluck up courage to go, bobbing and pacing until finally ready to jump. And some get a helping hand, a sharp peck or nudge from a neighbour sending them spiralling down to the sea.  Once there they still have to find their parent and then head out to sea before the gulls get them. The drama of the event has to be experienced to be believed. Last night one chick jumped from its ledge about 2m down to a next door stack. It sat there for a little bit probably thinking that this jumping business wasn't as bad as made out with its Dad calling from the sea when suddenly a herring gull swooped. The chicks instinct made it jump to one side and the gull missed by inches but the jump took it down a split between one stack and another. From where we stood we couldn't see it but guessed that it was still alive and calling as the Dad was frantically calling at the entrance of the crack.  For what seemed an age but was only about 15-20mins, the Dad swam up the crack and back and just as we were giving up hope a big wave washed into the crack flushing the chick out. It popped out to find an ecstatic Dad and side by side they set off to get away from the island. A close shave for that one chick and one tiny part of the bigger drama that goes on the island every minute. And for us it was all too much and we headed back in doors unable to watch another jump until the next evening.

Two chicks nearly ready to jump.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Keeping up with the terns

It is difficult to know what to keep you up to date with at the moment as so much is happening but here is a tern update. Over the last 2 years the island terns have been having a hard time with fewer pairs returning to breed and those that do being under continuous pressure from gull predation.  So this year we have tried a couple of things to try to help them breed successfully.
Early in the season in often atrocious weather volunteers helped us build some nesting platforms that would provide terns with their favoured substrate to nest on but also offer vegetation cover for  the chicks to hide in from the gulls.

Tern nesting platforms with beautifully camoflaged eggs

The second was borrowed from the Farnes isles and is to use 6ft garden canes stuck in the ground to make it more difficult for the gulls to land and take eggs and chicks, a bit like barrage balloons in the second world war.

And the results ?
Well we still have terns, nearly 300 pauirs in total and there are lots of chicks hatching out all over the place. Down at Kirkhaven the colony there is vigorously defending itself as the visitors that land have found out. We have had a few bleeders, especially those photographers that  linger in the colony for an extra photograph despite being asked not to.  The small, satellite colony at` the Chapel seems to have suffered the most so far from gull attacks so far and has reduced in size. Up at the Beacon where the biggest number is, quite a few of the nesting platforms have been adopted, one platform by 2 pairs, one is each opposing corner. The gulls have had a go and quite a few nests have gone from around the edges but the core of the colony that is protected by canes is still there. So it is only another 4 weeks or so for the parents to keep defending their nests and then the young will have fledged.  Paula and Lucie are both putting in hours of work on the terns and if we do many to get chicks fledged then I think that we will all be as pleased as if they were our own. 
A bigger chick on walk about. The funny wooden things are shelters for the chicks to go under to avoid the gulls.

A just hatched tern chick

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Wetter than normal

Water-logged puffin burrow
Kittiwakes nests with water pouring down the cliffs through the nests.

Like everywhere else we got some horrible weather on Friday and Saturday and we are just having time to work out what the effect was. Continuous rain for 2 days resulted in about 1.5 inches of rain (courtesy of our new rain gauge) and this was on top of a pretty wet island already. This rain combined with a cold howling wind has been awful for the seabirds. A good look around when the weather had cleared revealed  what initially seemed to be disastrous. A number of puffin chicks were found driven out of their burrows by rising waters that had flooded burrows with more  been drowned in their burrows or picked off by the gulls. On the cliffs there were some completely water-logged kittiwake nests  that had lost chicks or eggs and one or two determined birds trying to continue to incubate while sitting under a waterfall of water flowing down the cliffs. 
For the shags it was the medium sized chicks that had suffered the most with a number of clutches lost that were too big to fit under their parents but too small to have lost their down and grown waterproof feathers. The cold and wet did for them. But even when dead something positive came out of it and Hanna has put in a heroic effort and dissected more dead chicks that Silent Witness to find out more about the intestinal parasites that they hold.
But the overwhelming thought is that despite these losses it is amazing that it wasn't worse. These seabirds show amazing fortitude to get through this weather and most are today now enjoying the warmer weather and thriving. 
The other benefit of all this rain is that you will notice that this year there are no references to smelliness of island inhabitants and shower bans as the well is`full and our personal hygiene standards have improved no end. A small silver lining to this big wet cloud. 
Water logged guillemot

Hanna doing her umpteenth dissection of dead shag chicks.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Isle of May Seabird Open Day 2012

 Yesterday was a day to celebrate the seabirds of the island and also a chance for visitors to find out a bit more about the familiar birds of the island by challenging the seabird researchers with searching questions.

Enjoying the stories in the South Horn

Face painters hard at work.

Despite the awful weather of the proceeding 2 days (1.5 inches of rain fell on Friday and Saturday) yesterday the wind dropped and the rain eased and the visitor boats came out. Over 120 people came onto the island for the Open Day and not only took in the spectacle of the seabirds at peak season but also heard stories and songs from the incomparable Claire in the South Horn and got themselves painted by Susan and June in the marquee. They also got to watch shag movies recorded by the researchers as part of their studies, found out about the ringing work of the Isle of May Bird Observatory and got the usual Isle of May welcome from the terns at Kirkhaven.

The Isle of May residents got into the swing of things by all getting their faces painted and in retrospect it maybe wasn't wise to give June and Susan free reign in choosing what to paint our faces. The boat crews were lucky to get away paint free.(Many thanks to Lucie for all of the photos)
The Isle of May crew full painted up.