Saturday, 31 August 2013

Death Plastics

I found the remains of the dead fulmar earlier on this week. It had died on the ledge just beyond Burnett's Leap and I went down to see if it there was a ring on it. What I saw in amongst the carcass was very disturbing. As the bird has rotten down its stomach contents have become visible and there nestled in amongst the bones were a collection of multi-coloured plastic. Fulmars are particularly prone to picking up pieces of plastic as the feed across the surface of the sea. These pieces either stay in the stomach or worse can be regurgitate for the chick to eat. In this way chicks can end up having an even higher loading of plastic than their parents.

So where is all this plastic coming from? It is coming from all of us. That drinks bottle that you couldn't be bothered to find a bin, that helium balloon that you released to celebrate a birthday. Those are the sort of pieces of plastic that end up in the oceans and are then picked up by seabirds. Over this season we have picked up a couple of thousand plastic bottles washed up on the island, everyone of them should have been recycled. So if you care about the seabirds found around the UK then all plastics should be recycled or disposed of responsibly or better still not purchased in the first place.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Calum's wall and a nameless manxie.

You might have heard of Calum's Road, well on the island we now have Calum's Wall. As part of the Lowlight redevelopment a wall was needed to screen the gas cylinders and Calum Scott, longer term Lowlight regular, has turned his skills to the task completing the wall today. Reusing stone from the demolished out buildings he has built up an impressive and attractive wall that has a couple of special features - two rock pipit nesting holes.
The Lowlight has benefited from a huge volunteer effort that has enable the works to be finished and has saved the Bird Observatory thousands of pounds

Today the island's second ever manxie chick had its last weighing. Looking less like a fluffy haggis and more like a proper bird it has been receiving feeds every night and so has been growing at a rapid rate. It still has a bit of growing to go, and definitely needs to get rid of the fluff before it makes it way out into the outside world. And it definitely hasn't been given a name as naming it is a surefire way of reducing its chances of survival.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Island of Death?

It can be a tough time of year on the island.There are always going to be deaths when you have so much wildlife packed onto a small island but at this time of year it just becomes more obvious.
And this year it seems even worse. This is because myxomatosis reached this island about a month ago and is sweeping through the rabbit population. Myxomatosis is a natural rabbit disease originating from South America where it is relatively harmless but in European it is fatal to about 95% of a rabbit population. Previously it came over to the island in autumn 2007 and knocked out most of the rabbits on the island with only a few surviving and having resistance. But rabbits being rabbits the numbers soon recovered and by 2011 numbers were back to the normal level. What is interesting is that in others areas on the mainland rabbits are building up resistance to the disease so each times it comes back fewer die so we will have to wait and see what happen to the population on the May.

We don't know how the disease has reached the island this summer but the suggestion is that it might be gulls that have brought it over. The disease is spread by rabbit fleas so a gull may have been eating a diseased rabbit on the mainland and brought infected fleas over but we will never know for sure. What will be interesting is seeing the changes in the vegetation next year with the removal of most of the grazing animals. It is likely that next year the island will look quite shaggy but with no rabbits eating the thrift flowers it could look absolutely spectacular.

It is also the time of year that young herring and lesser-black backed gulls wander the paths. These are probably the third of three chicks, the runt of the litter, that never fully fledged before being abandoned by its parents. These chicks end up wandering the paths trying to make a living from scraps, some will survive but others won't.

We are also finding some late pufflings but unfortunately some of these are not strong enough to make it. The seabird researchers have found that birds that breed late in the season are often not as successful as early breeders. The older, more experienced birds and those in good condition tend to breed earlier while the less experienced and ones in poor condition breed later and therefore are more likely to be unsuccessful.

It can be tough seeing these youngsters struggling but it is the way nature sorts out its populations and if you want to work somewhere like the Isle of May you have to be able to face the good and the bad.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Pharos, painting, arches and loops

 I knew that the Pharos, the lighthouse board supply ship was off the island (you can't miss her) but I didn't know that they were here to do their annual storing on the Mainlight, apparently they had the wrong phone number. That means taking all of the years waste off and reprovisioning it. Until I got an email to say that the helicopter flights would start shortly. Luckily it all fitted in with the visitor boat leaving the island and they had a clear run for a couple of hours to taxi back and forward from the ship to the lighthouse. It is always impressive to watch a skilled pilot and this was no exception. The helicopter seems to come within in feet of the building to drop off and pick up containers. And then after a 2 hours, peace reigned and the ship moved off for another year. Disappointingly I didn't manage to blag a ride in the chopper, but maybe next year guys ?
The RIB Osprey is dwarfed by the Pharos as she comes in to pick up a couple of contractors.

Another big event of the day was the painting of the Lowlight extension. The Isle of May Bird Observatory tat inhabitants the Lowlight have over the last year been improving the accommodation by building an new extension. The work has taken longer than anticipated but took a great step towards being finished when volunteers David and Emma painted the outside to give it a very smart finish. An opening ceremony is planed for next year.
At the end of the day Calum and I took a wander down to the Mill door Arch to pick up all the rubbish that was washed up on the beach down there. As usual we recycled all the plastic bottles that had come ashore. But we took the opportunity to enjoy the sight of the natural arch, this is a part of the island that is usually inaccessible to people due to the concentration of seabirds so it is only when they have left that we can get down to it.

At Mill door one of the loops of the 2nd World War U Boat protect system came ashore. Its purpose was to detect U-Boats coming up the Forth and so helped to protect the important dock yards at Rosysth.  Nowadays all that is left is the big heavy metal casing that protected the loop cable.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ragwort - the true story

It has been a fantastic year for ragwort on the island this year. In places it has created a golden duvet of colour but some people who have come over to the island look at it as being a problem that needs to be controlled. 
Firstly the reason why we have so much ragwort lies in the weather of a couple of winters ago. Between Christmas and New Year a huge south westerly storm hit the island in Dec 2011 and scorched off a lot of the vegetation with salt spray leaving lots of bare ground. Opportunistic plants took advantage of these bare patches and last summer we had a sea of prickly sow-thistle forming large beds. This is an annual but ragwort is a biennial, it takes 2 years for the plant to flower and it is only now that the ragwort that sprouted in the bare soil has become obvious. 
And it is a great plant to have on a nature reserve. It provides the food and home for 77 species of insect, 30 of which feed exclusively on ragwort and a number of which as scarce. Another 117 species of insect use it as a nectar source when travelling.
 And as for the legal bit about having to remove it from your land? Ragwort is mentioned in the Weeds Act 1959. This is what the Act says "(1) Where the minister of Agriculture fish and food (in this act referred to as ' the Minister') is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.

So I think our ragwort is safe to others 6 miles out in the Forth. Finally John Clare the poet had a more positive view of the plant.
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold...
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright & glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
& seems but very shadows in thy sight.
John Clare 1831

Monday, 26 August 2013

And suddenly it is clear.

After being fog bound for the last 3 days it was such a joy when it cleared at about 3pm this afternoon. It felt like the curtain had been drawn back, the light switched on, I had been give back my eyesight as suddenly we could see all that we knew was out there but couldn't lay our eyes on. Normally we take our bearings from the sea that is all around us. You constantly check it to see what the wind is doing, what weather is coming next, what birds are out there and what cetaceans are close by. For 3 days that had been removed and once it appeared again as the blue bit between the land and the sky I couldn't get enough of it. The fog had cleared just in time as we had scheduled a wader count for this afternoon so we set off with a spring in our steps.

One of the nearly fledged fulmar chicks, Calum came face to face to one and got splattered.

Great rocks

Calum in action


A sanderling, an uncommon record for the island.

The island isn't very big but when you have to hike and scramble all round the high water mark it suddenly seems much bigger. Kirkhaven to the Lowlight takes 5 mins to walk along Holymans but following the coast it takes over a hour. But with a sun overhead and an open sea to the right it was a pleasure. The totals are below:
Turnstone 140, Purple sandpipers 20, Curlew 64, Redshank 18, Oystercatcher 69, Sanderling 1, Common sandpiper 3, Golden plover 1.
And though some are good totals, the number of purple sandpipers is depressingly small. And even more depressing was that the other group covering the north half of the island found a corncrake very nice record!

And once the fog cleared it appears that the Northern Lighthouse board supply ship the Pharos has been moored off the island but we never knew it was there. 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Frustrating Fog

 A bit of a frustrating day on the May as we have been in the middle of a pea-souper. First thing this morning at 0630 I could see as far as the harbour and was surprised to see a great big surf rolling in. Half an hour later the harbour disappeared as the fog rolled in and stayed for the day. The big breakers and thick fog were enough to keep the May Princess in Anstruther but the 2 RIBs made it in, Osprey from Anstruther and Seabird from North Berwick, the Seabird skipper teeling us that the fog only started a couple of miles off the island with North Berwick being in bright sun.. Both RIBs had to hang off the harbour entrance and pick their times to get in in between the big sets of waves .
On the bird front the fog has meant that though some of yesterdays birds have stayed, virtually no new birds have found the island so the bird list is a little disappointing today. Frustrating, because other places seemed to have received some interesting birds on these gentle south-easterly winds and also be basking in sunshine.
But with the standard, blind, illogical optimism of the bird watcher, maybe something exciting will turn up tomorrow?

A tree pipit that decided to stay for the day, it was very vocal as it seemd to circle trying to find a way out of the fog.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Return of the easterlies

It has been a busy and fun last couple of days but not necessarily for the visitors to the island. After seemingly many days of south-westerly wind it has changed round to the south-east with the immediate effect of blowing some migrating birds onto the island. This combined with a sometimes blistery wind and some rain meant that the human visitors today and yesterday have had somewhat trying conditions. But these winds have also blown birds that are migrating  down the east side of the north sea across to the UK. Once here a bit of rain or fog is all that is needed for the birds to drop down onto the island for a bit of a rest and a feed.
So in the last 2 days the island has hosted a good range of species including -  a barred warbler, an icterine warbler, about 11 pied flycatchers, 2 spotted flycatchers, 4 whinchats (see one above that was caught to be ringed),  10 wheaters, 2 common whitethroats, a redstart and some willow warblers. And throw in a few interesting waders such as a black-tailed godwit, 3 golden plovers, 2 ringed plovers and 2 common sandpipers and it all makes a very interesting bird island. And with tomorrow forecasting more south-easterlies in the afternoon, the ridiculously over optimistic birder is me is excited about what might (but probably won't) turn up tomorrow.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Close to nature

One of the joys of living on the island is that you are right in the middle of a huge numbers of creatures. This can mean very close encounters with some of the island residents. These are just 3 of the close encounters that we have had over the last 24 hours.
Firstly a late puffling turned up outside the cottage. This one had left its burrow a bit early and though under all its fluff is had a full set of plumage and was also very tubby it still should have spent a few more days in its burrow.

At the moment you leave the door of the cottage open at your peril. The flies that come in are bad enough but this young gull (below) came in looking for food and after a quick tour ended up resting up on the ghetto blaster. It was ejected despite a very loud protest. I just hope that the sound quality of the CD player will be undiminished despite the copious deposits left by the little chap.

And just before the visitor boats left a young grey seal, a yearling decided to lounge around on the beach in front of all the visitors giving them a bonus wildlife experience.