Friday, 31 May 2013

Woodchat shrike

The bird of the season so far ...maybe. This season is certainly proving to be of quality and not quantity in terms of bird migration. This morning  John and Callum, still walking funny after a night salsa ing, made it up to the Main light to see a very smart woodchat shrike pop up and over the wall. Bingo - the fifth record for the island of this beautiful little pocket battleship of a bird. It ended up showing off beautifully for the full boats of visitors that came on.
This bird has a particular resonance for the Isle of May because the first record for Scotland was recorded on the island by Rintoul and Baxter when a young male was found dead at the lantern of the Mainlight 102 years ago. It is a Mediterranean bird and probably enjoyed the scorching day but we will have to see what it makes of the return of more normal baltic conditions.

HOT latin dance night on the May

Things warmed up yesterday on the island and it wasn't just the weather. Our dance instructor from last year was back and lead the hoofers of the island through a searing lesson in salsa and merengue that left the walls dripping and the floor polished.
Iain English, a long standing inhabitant of the Isle of May Bird Observatory, was back with his mates for another week on the island monitoring the bird migration. He willingly agreed to give all the island inhabitants a dance lesson but probably didn't quite realise what he was taking on. The visitor centre's floor space was cleared, best dance outfits put on, shoes off and we were ready. It turned out that besides Iain there were 4 from the Lowlight, 11 from Fluke Street (bird researchers, volunteers and SNH staff) and much to their bewilderment Colin and Graham who were working for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) in the Mainlight and were invited down without really knowing what they had let themselves in for.
As we took our partners Iain (partnered by the extremely nimble Klara) talked us through some smouldering moves, first for merengue and then salsa while ratcheting up the simmering atmosphere. There was regular rotation of partners with Graham of the NLB showing particular potential especially when partnered with Livvy and by the end we were throwing shapes that would have made Bruce Forsyth swoon. As the evening progress the beats moved from latin to Balkan and onto an eclectic mix of the Monkees(!), ACDC, sixties soul and even the Levellers, well we like to keep an open mind on the island!
Another storming evening of entertainment that broke new ground, never before had Fluke Street, the Bird Obs. and the NLB taken part in such a social event of latin beats. Many thanks for all that made it so fun.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

A different seal

Keith Brockie was on the island last week and found a very unusual visitor, a common or harbour seal, not the grey seal normally found on the island.  Though they live a breed as close as Tentsmuir Point which is just round the corner of Fife Ness to the north they very rarely make it out to the island. So Keith's sighting was a special one.
But what made it even more special was this seal has a history.  The Sea Mammal Research Unit based at St. Andrews have been fitting loggers onto seals by attaching them behind their necks. This particular seal that goes by the name of 73363 had its logger fitted on 12 April at Kinghorn in Fife. These bits of kit cause no problems to the seals but generate valuable information about just where these seals go.  However there is a problem with 73363's logger so that though it is logging data, a glitch in the software is stopping it from transmitting the data back to the scientists. But all is not lost because these scientists now have ways of identifying individual seals by photographing the pelage or fur coat of the seal and using a computer programme to log the distinctive individual pattern. Then if a seal is photographed they can run the photo of the pattern through the computer and identify the seal. It turns out that 73363 has not been resighted since it was caught so Keith's sighting and more importantly his photograph are a vital piece of information to plot the travel of this seal.  Harbour seals are a declining species and so the more that can be found out about their life history the better chance of carrying out measures that will safeguard the species.
So if you see a seal with a gadget stuck to it, try to get a photograph of the side of the body and send it to the Sea Mammal Research Unit. Meanwhile we will be keeping an eye open to see if 73363 hangs about the island.And maybe at some later date 73363 might get caught again and then the full story of its travels can be downloaded from the logger.
Many thanks to Keith and Callan at SMRU for sharing the photographs and the information.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A rubbish day

A day of note yesterday.  A rubbish day. The ever adaptable May Princess came out to take off several tons of rubbish that we have been accumulating over the last year or so. Jeremy and myself have been sorting through outbuildings, cottages and the office plus the beaches and the rest of the island to gather together things that are not needed. Islands are terrible for for the accumulation of rubbish as it is often easier to just leave it lying there rather than do something about it. We do our best recycle as much as we can so about half of this rubbish was scrap metal which was sorted, scrapped and will go back into circulation.

Alec, Kevin and Fiona turned up in work gear and we just about filled the whole of the back of the boat. As ever there was a few items retrieved by hawk-eye re users who just couldn't bear the thought of something useful going off the island (tennis balls Polly?)

 About half of the rubbish came from the Lowlight where the Isle of May Bird Observatory is based. The redevelopment there has meant that decades worth of rubbish has been cleared out of cupboards and stores. The upgrading of the facilities also meant saying good bye to one of the islands oldest residents - Elsie - the chemical toilet. Many of Scotland's top ornithologists have sat on this throne (and a quite a few of its worst!) so it was with sadness that the current Lowlight residents (all long standing/sitting users) put her onto the May Princess. The only worry is what will they do when the new flush toilet runs out of water (always likely on the island)?

Of course it wasn't all sitting around. The light easterlies brought in another cracking female red-backed shrike and this little beauty, a red-breasted flycatcher.

The girls, who are much tougher than the chaps on the island,  decided to celebrate such a red-letter day by having a swim. Afterwards, it took several hours for their lips to turn back from blue to pink but apparently it was still worth it.

Monday, 27 May 2013

This weekend.

We've been very busy this week on 'Planet May.' Plenty of outdoor practical work going keeping the reserve tidy. I've been getting ready to do my bird counts which I will start on Saturday if the weather stays fine with us. I'm going to enjoy a few days off at Loch Leven NNR in between times.

Here is a few shots from this week.


Drake Eiders are still in good plumage but their numbers are dropping as they go off to moult. There are still many nests around the island and we are coming across more ducklings daily.

The Terns are back in force. We found our first egg on the evening of the 27th. The volunteers have started conducting the nest success watches that we do. This Arctic Tern was enjoying reading up about the new visitor centre plans.

What's new pussycat? This is a Sallow Kitten moth. It is potentially a new moth for the island if the author bothered to check the records. Moth trapping has been slow this season with only 10 species caught. We'll stick at it though. I've been running up and down Palpitation Brae to set a small Heath Trap in the top garden. Unfortunately it has yielded little but I'll stick at it and we'll keep you updated with further catches.

We've had spectacular clear skies over the weekend and on Saturday night the moon was fantastic hanging low to the south over St Abbs head. It's not the best shot of the moon as I was struggling with the correct camera settings but I have to include a picture as we turned off the mothtrap to get photos and forgot to turn it back on! Unfortunately it was too bright and clear to see the predicted Northern Lights on Friday night.

And finally..... There must have been a massive tide while I was off the island last time because there are loads of bits of driftwood outside the visitor centre. Maybe David will explain in forthcoming updates?

Sunday, 26 May 2013


I've only got this camera for a week or two so I need use it! Last night when it was empty, I set it up in the Tern colony up in the beacon to see what goes on.

Early last night there was hardly a tern on the island so I could sneak in and set the camera up. We assume the Terns had headed out to sea to feed for one last time that day.

We've been hearing a lot of Terns from the cottage quite late at night. I could imagine them being disturbed and getting up on odd occasions but even I was surprised by the amount of nighttime activity!



 This chap liked having his photo taken

 This chap liked having his photo taken

The camera puts a date stamp onto the photo which also records the time. I got a good picture of what goes on all night. The camera captured over 250 images over night.

After capturing a few pictures of bunny ears the first Tern returned to the colony at 23:03. Birds stayed in the colony until 00:35 when they went off again. They were back 32 minutes later where they hung around for over an hour before disappearing for approximately half an hour again. The Terns then settled down a bit more from 03:00 to daybreak where they went off again.

What were they doing? I can only speculate but one assumes they were taking advantage of the near still moonlit night. They were possibly feeding on Prawns, going on short fishing forays.

Other behaviour noted was watching them digging their shallow scrapes, plenty of Territorial disputes and I had at least two images of them mating.

I'm setting up Eidercam back down at the harbour because when I was making sure gangways were safe from that storm I was surprised how many drakes roost on the beach at Kirkhaven. I'll probably post the images on here no doubt!

Saturday, 25 May 2013


I borrowed a remote controlled camera from my colleagues at Loch Leven NNR. These cameras are a great way of seeing what goes on in the dark and capture natural behaviour that is not as easy to take in the field with a point and press. I've been setting it up to get close shots of Eiders with their chicks. I've been having a little trouble with framing as you can see below.

I'll stick with the traditional way too as well while I perfect my methods. We are seeing lots of Eider ducklings now all around the island. Visitors should be aware while they are moving about that eiders are everywhere. If you come across ducklings and mum just wait for them to move along and don't let them split up.

This bird is taking her 3 ducklings down from the Mainlight.We have also seen our first Kittewake egg this week

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Fugro Symphony

We were up late at night watching a film. This detail is relevant. Usually everyone is in bed by 10:30 (ish) but tonight we were up late. After the film had finished Klara got up and went over to the kitchen to notice a big ship moored quite close to the island and lit up like a Christmas. At first glace she did look like she was just off  The Maidens but a reasonable estimate was that she was probably 500 metres. The boat was called Fugro Symphony, built in Bergan and sailing under a Bahama flag.

500 metres is closer then we are used to. I watched her with a telescope she was certainly bobbing around a bit. Weather reports suggested that the north wind was blowing at 29 Knots though I doubt the crew are bothered as they were probably in one of the 2 saunas or large cinema that the boat has. I'll bet her showers are working too! 

It would have been no good if we'd called her up to see if we could take advantage of her luxury because the harbour was inaccessible. A wall of white water was rising every few seconds. This was quite spectacular in the darkness.

Anyway the film that we happened to be watching was 'The Boat that Rocked,' where the pirate radio station ship sinks at the end. How about that for a coincidence?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A puffin counters view of the island

Amanda Kuepfer spent a week on the island mainly taking part in the puffin burrow count. This is her story of the week.

My Isle of May week 27 April - 4 May 2013.
Having recently moved to NE Scotland for a (mainly office-based) job as Seabird Ecologist with JNCC, I was determined to spend my spare time in the field, by the sea, amongst the birds. After a few enquiring emails to various individuals and organisations, I received an offer by Mark Newell from CEH to volunteer for this year’s puffin count on the Isle of May. Perfect!
The timing of the puffin count week couldn’t have been better. After a 5 day brain-frying statistics course in land-locked Birmingham I boarded the May Princess at Anstruther Harbour with my oversized rucksack, bins around my neck and a layer of sun cream on my nose – always a satisfying combination of stuff, I find!
The crossing was wonderful - calm, sunny, with gannets gliding beside the boat; razorbills, common and black guillemots rafting on the water, and WOOHOO, the puffins are back too! With the exception of one lone puffin at the Fowlsheugh reserve two weeks prior, I had so far only seen numerous dead ones washed up on the coast of NE Scotland – the remnants of the puffin wreck caused by the prolonged cold weather and strong winds. So it felt good to see dozens of them bobbing up and down on the water as we approached the island.
Upon landing, I was received by a bunch of friendly faces - the more permanent island crew I would be working and staying with. They introduced me to our base and the most important house rules, including ‘No Showers’ and ‘Never apologise for your cooking’. Suits me fine.
The puffin count wasn’t going to start until the day after so I used the time to explore the island. In the company of PhD student Klara and photographer Celine, I followed the path around to the edge of the cliffs where the winds blew harsh and cool. Dramatic and breathtaking, the cliffs dropped down several hundred feet where the waves crashed angrily against them. Kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags and fulmars brought the static cliffs alive, squealing and flapping, squabbling and snuggling – a truly heart-warming sight. Down below, grey seals lazily stretched out on a rock in the afternoon sun. Up above, herring, lesser and greater black-backed gulls circled the skies, screeching their little hearts out. Oystercatchers flapped past us with their wonderful piping calls, eider ducks waddled about, and little passerines including wheatears, pied wagtails and linnets crossed our path as we continued to follow it around the island. And then there were the bunnies. Hundreds of them! They are the ever so important gardeners of the May without which the island’s vegetation would be considerably different and unsuitable for puffins to dig their nesting burrows. But where ARE all the puffins? Oh they have returned. But this early in the late season, they prefer spending most of their time on the water, and only return to their nesting sites every couple of days.                     
After a delicious dinner, Mark showed me around the various hides along the southwestern cliffs, one more ingeniously built than the next, allowing for fantastic views of the nesting sites. This is where much of the hard work happens, with the continuous monitoring of the different species and individuals from their return to the colony to their departure at the end of the season.
The puffin count started bright and early the next day, following a briefing by Mike Harris. Actually, it wasn’t so much a puffin count as a puffin burrow count, counting the holes in the ground which showed some sign of activity – puffin guano, clear openings, etc. This may sound deceptively straight forward. But the ground off the main paths is completely undermined by a network of burrows and required hopping between solid rock and thick tufts to avoid stepping through the burrows. With winds blowing so strong I wondered if I could free-fall into them, balancing on isolated solid patches turned out surprisingly challenging! Luckily the winds calmed down over the following days, and with continued sunshine and an army of several people, the burrow count advanced well and we developed the fashionable island tan that starts at the chin and ends at the eyebrows below the brim of the woolly hats.
It did feel slightly bizarre counting thousands of burrows without a single puffin in sight. But that changed on Tuesday, when, like the previous mornings, I got up just before 7 to scan the island for puffins. I was just putting on my shoes, still half asleep, when Klara rushed through the door with the good news: The puffins are back! And so they were. As I swiftly walked to the hide, I passed hundreds of them perched on rocks, working at their burrows, preening, and greeting their mates through a vigorous and adorable display called billing where they knock their beaks together. Once in the hide, I noticed hundreds more arriving, frantically flapping their way across the water onto dry land. I’d never seen this many puffins!
The patch visible from the hide was covered in burrows, each of which had a small numbered pole next to it. Many of the puffins inhabiting them wore unique colour ring combinations which were fitted in previous seasons. This was going to be the first of several mornings when I would be looking to find which specific individuals had safely returned to breed, which burrow they were nesting in, and which mate they were breeding with. Combination red-orange on left leg, green-BTO on right leg - back in number 35. Puffins are amazingly loyal to their burrows. They are also very loyal to their mates, although so-called divorces do occur, when either of the mate dies, or for other reasons. It felt a real privilege to be able to observe this iconic bird from so close, watching them crawl in and out of their burrows, many emerging absolutely covered in soil and with clumps of mud in their beaks, obviously doing their annual spring clean.
But it’s not all rosy in the Puffin neighbourhood. A few mornings later, when I was crouched in the hide again, and having just taken pleasure in seeing the pair at number 5 performing one of their very many billing sessions, a greater black-backed gull took a fancy to them. Whilst one escaped into the burrow, the other put up an increasingly feeble fight against the vicious pecking of its enemy, until, eventually, it was dragged into the air by its beak and disappeared from my view. … Such is the harsh reality of nature.
But besides the wonders of the birds and the incredibly atmospheric scenery of the island, another very memorable aspect of my week on the May were the people I worked with. In the evenings, after 10pm when the working day drew to an end, there was always a relaxed and content atmosphere in the living room, drinking fine whisky, reading about the outside world, playing cards and enjoying the heat of Jeremy’s blazing master fires in the stove. However, you always had to be aware of your phrases as not to end up in the legendary quote book. True to British culture, the innuendo was rife.
The last evening was one of those perfectly clear nights that made the night-time island just as stunning as the day. With a cool breeze on my face, binoculars to my eyes and the ‘Owwwwoooooo’ of the eider ducks in my ears, I looked up at an incredibly starry sky and wished that I could stay.
But my last day came and, boarding the Princess once again, I received a lovely farewell from everyone. When Jeremy and Cash detached the bridge from the boat, I couldn’t stop the tears welling up as I realised that a very special week had come to an end.
Thanks to everyone, until next time when I return to the beautiful Isle of May .


Monday, 20 May 2013

Dad dancing at the kittiwake colony.

The rain that we have had on the last few days has had a dramatic affect on the kittiwakes. For the past few weeks they seemed to have been hanging around making a lot of noise on their nesting ledges but showing no sign of getting on with it. With the rain soaking the soil and filling a few pools suddenly the kittis have switched to nest making mode and are frantically digging up beaks full of mud and grass which they fly back to their nests looking like the have a very full, bushy moustache. The best bit happens once they are on the ledge as they put the mud onto the platform and then tread it in with their feet. At the moment if you look across the kittiwake colonies all you can see are birds puddling their mud, sticking their bums out while staring into the distance and looking like a bad case of  Dad dancing at a wedding disco.

Kitti dancing with the bum in the air.

A lot of grubby bills.

Where the kits have been digging in the mud.
Big tache.

Bluethroat and Shrike

The north-easterly winds have finally born fruit with a collection of very smart birds on the island. Red-backed shrikes and bluethroats are always fantastic to see, the Isle of May being one of the best places in Scotland to see these birds when they are on migration. What next?
The bluethroat was a female so only had a hint of blue on its throat.
Continuing the theme of throats a lesser whitethroat dropped in as well.

The bluethroat heading for the rhubarb patch after being ringed.
One of 4 red-backed shrikes that turned up on the island over the last couple of days - this was is a smart male. One of the birds was found in the heligoland trap in the middle of eating a previously ringed willow warbler. It is just what they do.