Wednesday, 18 January 2012

May in January

So what is the island like in January?
I feel very lucky to have seen it in the depth of winter as it is a time of year that few people have seen it since the  Lighthouse keepers left in 1989. After seeing the island is all its manic frenzied, mayhem of seabird breeding season and heaving, groaning industry of seal breeding season the quiet, spent calm of January is another side of the islands contrasting character. The recent storms have scorched the vegetation brown and blasted anything loose off into the sea. All the beaches on the west side have been deep cleansed, all the litter, plastic and driftwood and been cleared away by the huge waves leaving only the biggest timbers. Heading home under the west cliffs we could see numerous pale patches, big and small, where the crashing waves have broken rocks off continuing the gradually erosion of the island that will eventually see it go under the sea.
Last winter, when snow and ice covered the mainland, a number of birds moved across the water to spend the winter on the unfrozen May but this mild winter means that apart from a few blackbirds, a robin or two and several wrens the body of the island is virtually free of birds. It is only come dusk that the usual bird landscape reasserts itself with gulls, herring and greater black backed and shags come on to the rocks to roost for the night. 2000 herring gulls makes an impressive site, a milky way of white dots in the gloom. On the morning that we left the drop in wind brought a few of the May cliff nesters back onto the island prospecting for mates and staking out a breeding site. A few guillemots were hanging around on the cliffs in their extremely smart new breeding uniform while a few pairs of fulmers smooched and cackled together, a sound that took me straight back to spring.  An after dark walk with Mark and a strong lamp caught us a rather grumpy but extremely impressive adult greater blacked back gull. Ringing it was an experience, it was like ringing a set of bagpipes smelling of fish. Compared to last year our stay in the lowlight was very comfortable, actually too warm on the first night though we were all wearing enough clothes to qualify as refugees.  A modern Scottish diet of pizza, chocolate and crisps supplied the calories eaten in a room steeped in history that has hosted most of the eminent ornithologists of the last 70 years. But most memorable of all once the gas lamps were out was going to sleep  listening to the booming roar of the wind in the chimney and lit by the glowing orange of the fire. As my daughter would say...awesome.
Next visit February to start the process of opening up the island for the season.

Fantastic sunrises.

Th whole of the vegetation on Rona had been blasted and washed by the storms.

Rabbits along with the gulls were the most obvious island inhabitants

Fulmers showing signs of getting frisky and settling on the cliffs.


Pizza in the Lowlight

Ringing an adult reater black back gull - treat with respect.

The island in the murk.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What The Wind Did

2 nights on the Isle of May in January isn't the best offer I have ever had but seeing as there has been a bit of wind recently I thought I would tag on to the seabird researchers trip to look at wintering shags, to see what the damage was. For once the weather was with us and a quiet weather window opened up so Mark from CEH, Hannah, who's PhD has lead her to look for shags up and down the East Coast and myself headed off to the island each wearing a wardrobe of clothes. With us was Maggie and Paul from the Seabird Centre who were daytripping to try to fix the webcam link from the May. As we approached all the usual landmarkers could be seen intact but as we ran down the east side I noticed a slew of splintered wood down the cliffs near the Lowlight. Following the trail up the cliffs I realised that the hide used for close study of the puffins had disappeared. Ooops.
Coming into the harbour the first thing to notice was the lack of seals compared to our last visit in December.
The whole island has been blasted brown.

Th Arnot Trap flattened

The mousehouse a bit battered.

How we found the puffin hide.

Hannah bringing the bits of hide up the cliffs.

What the hide looked like once the wind had finished with it.

The lochan from the engine room

Home for a couple of nights.
We shouldered bags and headed off to the Lowlight where we were staying. The whole island had a very quiet, blasted feel, most of the vegetation was scorched brown and gulls were the only obvious inhabitants. The first thing was to help Paul and Maggie move the satellite dish back into position from where the wind had twisted it out of alignment. Once it was up and running they headed back to the boat and went back to Anstruther leaving the 3 of us to have a longer look around the island to check for damage and make ourselves at home in the Lowlight. The damage actually wasn't too bad. The puffin hide that had stood for the last 30 years was the main problem. The other hides that were at the top of the cliff tops and seemingly in the full force of the wind were all fine. The purple shed hide at the south end was just blown on its side but not damaged at all. The heliogoland traps used by the bird observatory are also in a pretty poor state and the railings on the Visitor Centre ramp had been flattened but the buildings themselves were all sound. The Beacon looked a bit tattier, a few slates blown off the Lowlight and the outhouse door was blown off its hinges (despite accusations this was done by the storm rather than the occupants).  By the time dusk came the wind was picking up yet again and Mark and Hannah were at different ends of the island trying to read the ring numbers of shags coming onto the island to roost. Blasted, bleak and empty the island had a different sort of magic to the summer.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Finding out about why not all young seals survive.

Johanna is a vet and pathologist carrying out a PhD on disease in grey seals between the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews and the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh. She is looking at causes of death among just born pups and, in particular, which bacteria, parasites and viruses they are carrying that may be shared with other species such as terrestrial mammals and birds. Grey seals are at the top of the food chain, live where the marine and terrestrial environments meet and as such may hold valuable information about the health of our marine coastal waters.

Although grey seals populations are relatively healthy, neonatal mortality is surprisingly high over the Isle of May colony, with 10-20% of pups succumbing in this period depending on the year. This year, she carried out post mortem examinations on seal pups that she found dead on the colony, looking to see if differences in causes of mortality depend on the type of ground the seals choose to pup on. Pupping areas stretch over the majority of the island and include the bouldery tidal beaches of Pilgrim’s haven, the grassy slopes of Tarbert and the rocky, muddy pools of Rona Rocks; so lots of different conditions to give each seal pup a very different start in life.

Infections of the umbilical cord were quite a common finding in seal pups in all areas of the colony – not a surprise though when you see how much time they spend in muddy pools! Here’s a picture of a rarer finding: enlarged thyroid glands (congenital goiter) in this newborn seal pup, the exact cause of which we have yet to look into. The thyroid gland (arrow) is almost 4cm long in this picture whereas it should be about 1.5 to 2cm long in a normal seal pup. In terrestrial mammals such as cattle, this can be caused by excessively high or low maternal iodine levels so that is something that remains to be investigated in grey seals.