Saturday, 14 December 2013

Red letter day

Yesterday was a red letter day form me. I had been out on the island again for a 2 day trip to help the seal guys pack up and help the builders get started again. Heading off with a full boat of seal gear Simon from the Sea Mammal Research Unit mentioned that they had had good views of 2 common dolphins on the way out to the island. This wasn't a surprise to me as it has been a common occurrence over the 4 seasons I have worked on the island that I have always just missed dolphins but never actually seen any, not even any of the bottle-nosed dolphins that regularly patrol the East Neuk coast. But sure enough as we motored along the sheltered east side of the island bracing ourselves for the splashy trip back suddenly we were joined by 2 beautifully streamlined and smooth looking common dolphins. As they surfaced several times we saw their streaky patterned sides looking like boy-racers go-faster stripes and watched them lunging through the wake of the RIB. I couldn't resist a discrete air punch and am hoping that they will be like the no. 17 bus and having waited 4 years to see them once I might get to see them loads of times!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Celine's latest visit


The island's photographer-in-residence for this year, Celine Marchbank, has made her latest visit to the island to see the seal season. She has now seen the island through all seasons from early in the year, peak seabird season, the late summer quiet time and now at the start of the seal mayhem. You can read more about her visit and see some of her photos on her blog:

Follow this link for her blog posting showing her latest photos

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Dinner time conversation with the seal crew

Dinner time has an vital role in the day to day life of the residents of the May, it is sometimes the only time you will get to see other residents so it is social, it is for information sharing and it is for getting answers to questions, and during the seal season this is no different. On my recent trip it proved to be a lively dinner time and the conversation ranged to many seal topics and beyond.
For instance it seems that many seals have returned to the island for the breeding season in great condition, which for a seal means really fat and heavy. This good as it means that the females then leave in good condition which can set them up well for their moult and the next year. Also the pups get plenty of food which gives them a good start. Indications are that pup mortality maybe down on the previous year which fits in. But why have they come back so fat? Where have they been feeding?
Also why do different seals have different moulting strategies, most moult in early spring but some will moult immediately after weaning their pup.
Then there are all the day to day discussions about which pup belongs to who? which female has pupped and when? and where have certain females gone? This leads onto planning of work programmes about which tagged animals are to be caught and by who? and programming work for the rest of the season. Boat movements are much more difficult during the winter due to the weather and limited landing opportunities on the island so these are all planned around the dinner table. And sometimes things veer towards more unusual subjects like what is the best way to get a skeleton of a seal cleaned up and prepared for use as a student teaching aid.  Luckily this had no effect on my appetite and the huge lasagne was just what was needed after a day outside in the field. So good company pondering unknowns, discussing practical science and loads of good food. Just the same as the seabird season. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Studying seals

So why are there 10 people stuck out on a small island for 6 weeks at the rough end of the year? Well these are the seal scientists and they are hardcore. It is hard work carrying out research on the Isle of May and it does take a certain type of person to do it. Most are connected with the Sea Mammal Research Unit based at St. Andrews University who have been carrying out studies on the island since the early 1980's making the Isle of May one of the most important and longest running seal research centres in Europe.
The work involves a mixture painstaking observations often taken over long hours in cold, wet and very windy conditions and handling animals for samples and measurements to be taken. The later means getting up close and personal to the seals which is hard physical work, dirty and can be hazardous (seal bites can go very septic very quickly!) but also takes great skill. Believe it or not some of the SMRU team have seal handling skills that are sought after all round the world.
The research covers a huge range of projects, this year there is working carried out on the island looking at the communications between mothers and pups, between weaners and other weaners and the hormones related to this, the variable heart rates in mothers and what causes the changes in heart rates. This can give an insight into what the effects of human disturbance can have on seals in breeding areas. The mother in the picture below has a heart rate monitor fixed to her back, temporarily, not an easy thing to achieve.
And then there is Martina who looking at the less cuddly aspect of seal life on the May, what eats the dead ones and which bits first. She is looking at both seal carcasses in the water and on land and is especially looking at the role of gulls is disposing of carrion. The gulls numbers fluctuate on the island during a year and one of the peaks seems to relate to peak pupping season. The gulls are sometimes better seal observers than humans and gulls hanging around a female can indicate that she is about to give birth.
By dipping into the world of Isle of May seal studies you gain and better insight of what is happening on the island, the seals there are not just lying around but all have complex and very varied struggles with survival.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Empire of the seals

After several abortive attempt I finally made it over to the island mid week after being away for a month. It was a rough trip over, the south-westerlies have been blowing all week so it was a matter of keeping your head down and taking the spray. But even if I hadn't been looking up i would have know we were getting close to the island because of the smell. 4000+ seals are going to smell and this was a wiff of a mix wet dog and fox poo coming downwind from about 100 yards.  Getting on to the island was a bit more difficult than normal, the waves were to rough to get close to the west landing and Kirkhaven had been annexed to the empire of the seals and is not accessible to humans. So it meant a quick jump to some rocks below the Lowlight as it is usually clear of seals. However as we clambered over the rocks to get up to the Lowlight we came face to face with a large female and her newly born pup, in a gully where seals haven't been seen before.

Once on the island you have to throw out your map of the island that you use in seabird season. The no-go areas during the summer can suddenly become no problem whereas summer access-for-all parts of the island become impossible to get to now. Seals appear in all sorts of places, one this year has pupped all the way up at Burnett's leap - maybe she liked a view. All of Kirkhaven is impossible to get to with a couple of hundred females pupping all over the beaches, jetties, tracks and flat areas. This is why we have to close the island to the visitors from the end of September.

The noises of pups and adults wafts over the island in the breeze giving it an eerie atmosphere. The smell wafts as well, not eerie but just pungent. So another face of the island is revealed, so very different from the seabird island but just as spectacular.

This weaner, that is a pup that has been fed by its mother for 21 days and then left to fend for its self was so fat that it was rolling around on the ground and only the face told you which way up it was meant to be.
Who says seals can't climb? This female was determined to make it up to its pup!

The Lowlight was looking fabulous. Not to be out done the island was dotted with blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares all having dropped in on their way south.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Seals everywhere

I took a trip out to the Isle of May last week and this will ogive you an idea of what I saw -the island has been taken over by seals. More tomorrow about the trip.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Record breaking year for the May

I have now done the calculations and added up the numbers and can report that this year the Isle of May received more visitors than any other year in its history as a National Nature Reserve. A grand total of        10 800 visitor made it across to the island, beating the previous record by over 1500.
The May Princess had a phenomenal year bringing just over 9000 visitors over, with the Seabird Centre boat (Seabird 1) and the RIB Osprey also breaking records bring 705 and 863 visitors respectively.  The total was supplemented by an amazing 111 kayaks and also a number of small privately owned boats.
So why was it such a good year? Well I think it is down to 3 reasons:
 - the fantastic weather for much of the season,
 - the increased profile of the island in the media, featuring on news, wildlife, historical and countryside TV programmes through the season and in the BBC Wildlife magazine.
 - all the hard work and professionalism put in by the boatowners and crews in improving the way they deal with visitors and working hard to make sure they have a fine day out.

Of course going back in history there have been busier times on the May. First and Second World Wars would have seen the island being a hive of activity. And going further back documents indicate that when the island was at its height of fame as a pilgrimage destination then it could receive up to 50 000 visitors a year.
Seeing as we only have 2 toilets in our visitor centre currently and archaeologist tell me that the priory had a 10 seater then this gives us an idea of how far we still have to go.

So if you haven't yet been out to the island and want to see what all the fuss is about why not put it high up your bucket list and make plans for next year.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Speak up for Isle of May puffins, the rest of the islands seabirds and the Scottish seas

The Scottish government is asking your (and everyone elses) opinion about the plan to put some sort of protection on certain areas of the sea around Scotland. But you only have until November 13th to place your comments.
If you are interested in making your views heard then below are a number of links that will give you more idea of what the issues are, what the options are and how to say your bit.

Firstly Mark Avery, an independent writer on conservation issues (and former head of conservation for the RSPB ) wrote  a blog piece with some thoughts. Follow this link: Mark Avery's blog -

The RSPB have also some hints and ideas that you might be interested in. Follow this link RSPB's hints and ideas

And the marine Conservation Society also give some advice on how to register your views.  Follow this link: Marine Conservation Society

And this is the link to the Scottish government pages on the consultation on the Marine Protection Areas (MPAs), follow this link : Planning Scotland's Seas

So if you have strong feelings about the Isle of May or other pieces of Scottish coast near to you and would like to see the best level of protection for this special places now is the time to put forward your thoughts and ideas. Go on, you will feel great once you have done it!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Thanks to Jeremy

 After 3 seasons on the May, Jeremy has now finished his work on the island today and gone back to work at Loch Leven NNR. So I would just like to say thanks for the work that he has done over that time which has, as is always the case on the island, been very varied and has included amongst other things posing for a calender (see below), introducing new words to the island vocabulary, dealing with celebrities (well Paul Murton and Lucy Versamy),catching tangled seal pups, nearly sleeping through an island mega tick,
and overseeing a photography project, and of course much, much else. Thanks Jeremy and best of luck with the future.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Isle of May goes to the big smoke

Last week the island took a trip up the Forth and into Edinburgh to give the city folk there a chance to hear some island songs and stories and find out what makes the place so magical. As part of the Scottish Storytelling Festival, Claire and Fergus McNicol gave a performance of stories and songs at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in the Royal Mile. Claire and Fergus has visited the island many times for open days and stayed a number of nights there so have many stories about the island both from their own experiences and stories passed onto to them. We heard of gull girls, seilkies, Claire's timekeeping and Fergus's muscial tastes and the Isle of May guillemot outfit also made an appearence. Just the head this time but that is scary enough, it looks like a nasty cross between Darth Vadar and Rod Hull's emu. We all got to sing the Isle of May song  by Ed Millar (check it out) and the magical Karine Polwart helped out with a song inspired by the island. All in all a great gig!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What's happening?

Apologies for lapse in postings, the island is at an in between stage at the moment so this is the state of play at the moment.
Jeremy and I have finished our residential stay on the island for the season though I will be making day trips (weather permitting next week) and occasional night stays through the winter. The bird observatory is only manned for this week and next and then it closes down for the winter.  The builders working on the visitor centre have moved off the island as the seals have taken over the building site and the seal season is in full swing with pups being born all over the place. And with the start of seal season comes the seal researchers. So tomorrow, weather permitting 10 hard-core, dedicated and slightly bonkers scientists head out to the island for a 6 week stay. They will be carrying out a whole range of research looking at amongst other things, communications between mother and pup, using close-up remote control cameras to get film of behaviours, find out more about the carrion community  that helps dispose of the dead seals as well and the long-term monitoring of the seal population on the May including counting this years total of pups born, over 2000 a year for the last few years.
So though the posts will be less frequent over the winter I will try to keep you up to date on want is happening out there but in the meantime you can always what via the Scottish Seabird Centre webcams that are pointed at Pilgrims Haven, why not have a peak?
They look cute and cuddly but cuddle one of these and you may never play the guitar again. Seals have  very sharp teeth and strong jaws and carry a bacteria on their teeth that can cause a serious infection from a bite. So it is a case of let sleeping seals lie.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Hey Luscinia!

There has been plenty of rare birds to the north and the south of us. Unfortunately we have not been seeing many rare birds out here but there has still been plenty to look at. The highlight of the last couple of days has been a pair of Bluethroats including one with a nice blue throat. Normally we see Bluethroats in the spring. They are much less common in the Autumn. It is a bird so synonymous with the island the bird club that they use it as their logo. With over 380 records for the island the two recorded are the latest records for the island.

Massive counts of Redpolls have been seen around the island giving the ringers a challenge of working out which race they belong too.

The same with Chiffchaffs around the island. There have been birds from as far afield as Siberia trapped on the island.