Tuesday 7 January 2014

The Isle of May NNR blog is moving to a new site

The Isle of May blog was Scotland's first National Nature Reserve blog and has been so successful that other National Nature Reserves are following our lead and setting up NNR blogs as well.

Scottish Natural Heritage would like all the NNR blogs to have the same format and style so the island blog will now move across to a wordpress format. All the content of past posts has been moved across to the new blog so you will still be able to relive past island history by looking at past posts.

So this is the last post in the blogspot set up and from now onwards all new posts will be in the new blog so if you want to keep following what is happening out on that very special island you will need to follow the link below and set it in your favourites. Many thanks for following us so far, apologies for any inconvenience but I hope you can make the jump

New Isle of May NNR Blog address is : http://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com

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.