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.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Scotland's Doorstep

                               One of the big ships passing the Isle of May on its way into the Forth.

                             The Bell Rocks gleams in the afternoon sun, out in the North Sea.

 When we are on the top of the island we have what I think is one of the best views in Scotland. The Isle of May is in interesting position. It lies right in the jaws of the Forth, on the edge of the North Sea and slap bang in the middle of one of the most important seaways in Scotland. It means that like Janus it looks both ways and those views are a complete contrast.
To the east is wide open space. Nothing interrupts the view from between Stonehaven near Aberdeen and St. Abb's Head, close to the border with England, except on clear days the Bell Rock lighthouse. A wide expanse of ocean gives the feeling of being in a wild, untouched landscape that is good for the soul.
Looking to the west and you look into the very heart of Scotland. Leith docks, Arthur's Seat and the spires of Edinburgh are all visible plus the tops of the Forth road and rail bridges . The Forth is the sea road to Edinburgh but also Grangemouth and the Rosyth docks and so there is a continual flow of boat traffic past the island of all shapes and sizes that has gone on for hundreds of years. And this is why the island was chosen for the location of Scotland's oldest lighthouse and has been a lighthouse island for over 370 years.  It's position means that it is a place of watching during both wars with U-Boat detection, plane and boat observers all being based here.And now it watches the sea ecologically with the seabird and seal scientists monitoring the state of the sea from the island.
All of this is maybe why people like to visit it so much. It isn't just all the wonderful wildlife or the historical atmosphere but it is the feeling of being on an island on the edge of their known world. Look one way and you get comfort of seeing the capital city but look the other way and it is the best of wilderness. It isn't bad living on Scotland's doorstep.
                                                          Sunshine on Leith

                                         Arthur's seat and a glimpse of the city at it's foot.

                                 The cities biggest buildings catching the first sun of an autumn morning.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Closing down but not closed down

                                           The Lowlight catching the early morning light.
                                                              The loch in the evening

It is closing down time of the island, at least for some. The plant garment that the island has wore for the season is changing fast. The cold nights and shortening day length mean that the plants are closing down for the winter. The green is fast changing to yellows and browns, the knee high thatch dropping to ground level and in places thinning. The mass of nettles and thistles dying back and looking like a bad comb-over, barely covering the bare earth. The lack of plant cover brings the lichen lawns even more to the fore.

The warmth of the last few days has brought  butterflies onto the wing and even a few moths. But many of the butterflies are now looking for a place t spend the winter, closing down in an almost final way. 

                                  The wonderful angle shades moths - can you spot three matching the dying thistles ?
                                            This peacock was stuck in the washhouse.

Jeremy and I are closing down as well. All the visitor boats stopped on the 30 September when people have to give way to seals. So for the last week or so we have been taking down hides and stowing them, removing all the ropes and signs, cleaning out sheds, tidying up around the buildings and generally battening down the hatches. The 6 months closed season causes a huge amount of wear and tear so what we can take down and store we do.
Of course not everything is closing down, the builders will be on till the end of October finishing the Lowlight development. The hardcore seal researchers will be coming out in a couple of weeks for their 6 weeks stint. And of course the seals are just getting going. More pups born in the last couple of days, we are now up to 11 pups, only another 1990 left to be born in the next 8 weeks.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My autumn visit

Lucie, our Czech volunteer from the summer, was back for a week in autumn, these are her thoughts and pictures.  

 "I was very excited going back to the Isle of May and to see its autumn coat. I was warned about the weather unpredictability and didn’t know  the exact arrival date until just one day in advance. The sun was 
shining and made the RIB crossing very pleasant, however by evening the wind was picking up. Sunny spells constantly changing to rain and wind is the normal situation on the island, and going out  just for a short time means being prepared for all weather conditions unlike the stable weather during the main bird breeding season.

The island is a home to a quarter million of sea birds in the peak season, it was noisy giving me a feeling of a busy city then. Suddenly  it felt very quiet with only a few nesting sea birds left when I left  the island on the beginning of August. I thought that the island will give me a similar impression now. Only shags and greater black-backed gulls are the cliff wardens of the island at the moment. Walking through the island 11/2 months later felt, in contrary, alive due to the many migrants singing around, yet very calming and peaceful. The cold wind didn’t allow me to fell asleep under the pleasant blue skies. The tiny birds were flying around, talking to each other and I felt like playing hide and seek with them when I tried to find them looking  through my binoculars.    


 Green grass is changing colour into orange; thistles became a prickly  hay; the ever present beautiful sea campion is hard to see. The dying off vegetation is accentuating the feeling of a peaceful sleepy island. Yet it would be foolish walking around with closed eyes. Migrants will fly off the way, yet the island became a  home for thousands of seals that start making themselves comfortable anywhere on the island. I started to get used to them, yet it is difficult to always spot them - even for trained eye - as they appear like a big boulder. Like one day, when observing many seals from a safe distance. I turned around and saw a huge bull. We had to give him  enough space to move away. It would be a quite scary encounter with a huge 300kg seal. And as the days go by, there are more and more mums with new born pups  which means that the area to walk freely gets smaller and smaller.
 Therefore, I keep enjoying the day to day island tasks and day-dreaming with open eyes to protect myself and the other islands inhabitants until the weather will be safe to get off the island  again..."

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Brave mum protects seal pup - watch the island seal action

The first pup has know been born on Pilgrims Haven. The good thing about this is that you can watch the action without having to come out to the island.. The beach at Pilgrims is covered by 2 seal web cams that are linked to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. Back there people can move the cameras about to watch what is going on. The pictures also go out on the Internet via the Scottish Seabird Centre (follow this link)  so anyone can watch the seals.

The pup was born yesterday and already there was a bit of trouble. A large bull that has taken over the beach was interested in the pup but its mother defended the pup and kept the bull at bay, including when it turned its back, giving its back flippers a nasty nip, enough to draw blood !

Monday, 1 October 2012

Sparrowhawk surprise

Regular blog readers might remember this photo of a stunning sparrowhawk that we caught and ringed on the island back in March this year. They are such impressive birds and have to be handled very carefully because they have incredibly sharp claws and hooked beak. You would think this bird could take care of itself, but we recently got news that this bird was found dead 2 months after it had been ringed, 266km away on Priest Island, the outermost of the Summer Isles on the North-West coast of Scotland. A funny place for a sparrowhawk to turn up. And what is more it seems that it might have been killed by a peregrine !  This is just one of the interesting stories that comes out of ringing birds.