Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Cuckoo, clouds and canoesailor

A mixed bag of C's today.
A juvenile cuckoo flying overhead.
More birds moving south as migration tide has slowly turned. Today we had a beautiful juvenile cuckoo stay on the island for the day. Having followed the BTO cuckoo tracking project where cuckoos migrations were followed using satellite tags I am in awe when I think that this bird is heading south to spend the winter in the African continent, travelling purely by instinct.
A different sort of magic was a chiffchaff that turned up in the traps that was rung in mid May on the island but hasn't been caught since then. Has it been hiding on the island all this time away from prying binoculars ? Or was it returning south ?
We have had some spectacular clouds coming over.

Lots of huge rain clouds have been dumping some heavy showers but making the most beautiful skies, including a perfect rainbow this evening touching the south horn and just north of Kirkhaven.
Gold can be found just near the south horn.
Gavin the canoesailor turned up in the afternoon

An unusual craft turned up today, a canoesailor, skippered by Gavin Miller. Gavin is sailing round the UK starting from his home near Southampton and this afternoon was passing the island on route from Dunbar to Crail and decided to stop for a rest and a look around. Fortified with Isle of May coffee (it powers the island) and sheltered from the latest heavy shower he had a quick look around and then headed on his way. Best of luck Gavin and may the winds stay fair for you. You can find out more about Gavin's journey on his website www.canoesailor.com. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Island's seabirds latest

 It is the end of July and the seabird breeding frenzy is starting to quieten down on the island. But it is never a sudden end and the bird spectacle is still here but the mix and make up is gradually changing.  The cliffs tenements have good numbers of kittiwakes and, better still after a successful breeding year, kittiwakes chicks which are doing their best to keep up the noise levels. The shags have mostly finished nesting though there are young shags standing sentinel on rocks and ledges all round the island. The gulls, all 10 000 of them plus extra lodgers keep the island atmosphere going with their constant noise as they struggle to feed whining brown chicks on nearly every bit of flat land.  The guillemots and razorbills have virtually vacated the cliffs but the other island auk, the puffin is still on or around the island. Fewer adult puffins are zipping in with fish to feed chicks now but there are thousands of puffins still hanging around the island doing some end of season socialising. Some days they are rafting up on the sea but over the next few weeks we still expect some "puffin days" when they pile onto the island and gather every rock to pair up, check out neighbours and suitable housing and generally passing the time of day.
The good things is that this thinning out of the birds just gives you a chance to take a deep breath after the heaving masses and concentrate on those that are still here.


Sunday, 29 July 2012

Toilet repairs

It is a nightmare scenario being on the island and one of the two visitor centre toilets breaks and you know that the next day there could be over a hundred visitors due, many of which are bursting having not wanted to dare the toilets on the May Princess on a bumpy day.  This situation calls for improvisation and so last night I was desperately trying to fit an old door handle and spindle to the cistern as a temporary repair until the builders can do a more permanent repair. With the sun out it is surely to get a good testing today, let's hope it lasts !

Friday, 27 July 2012

The eye of the kestrel

The southerly drift of birds at the end of the breeding season is just starting on the island, a sign of the seasons moving on. A young kestrel appeared today and I was lucky enough to find it hunting this afternoon from a perch on the Mainlight. Every so often it would plunge down from its perch to the bank below the Beacon, grab a prey and head back up to its perch again. I was watching it through binoculars and could see that it was catching small objects that may have been beetles and it gave me a clear idea of just how good a kestrel's eyes are. With my x 8 binoculars and standing the same distance of about 30m away I couldn't see  exactly what the bird was picking up but the kestrel could spot them and also identify that they were food. In fact kestrels have a massive density of cone receptors in their eyes  which enable them to spot small things such as bugs from great distance. Another adaption they have is the ability to see ultra violet light. This helps them catch another of their prey, small rodents as mice and voles leave a trail of urine and poo as they move about the vegetation as a trail for others to follow. Kestrels can see the light reflecting on this trail and move in for the kill. It does make you wonder just what the world looks like through a kestrel's eye.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Swallows - a brush with nature

High excitement, the swallows have successfully hatched out chicks!. No swallows have bred on the island for 12 years and though an old nest still clings forlornly to the rafters in the Castle and each year birds spent a few days looking around prospective sites, none stayed. Until this year, and not one but 2 pairs. The pair in the bathhouse seemed to have abandoned their nest but came back, laid a clutch of 4 eggs and they have now hatched. Yesterday when walking in through the door I met one of the swallows flying out and felt a gentle brush of its wings across my check as it zipped by. A real brush with nature.
The other pair nesting in the freezer room of the Castle are a bit further forward and yesterday we ringed the 4 chicks who are already starting to grow feathers and open their eyes.
Mark putting the ringed chicks back

Carrie putting a ring on one of the chicks.
We don't know why the birds have decided to return this year, especially when it seems to be a relatively fly free island this year but we are glad to see them anyway.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012


Yesterday was probably the best day we have had this year, warm and hardly any wind. These days are perfect for travelling to the island by alternatives means. It is when the kayakers appear, we have had a few already. Paddling over to the May is a fairly serious undertaking as it is 6 miles out into the sea, you have to be sure of the weather for the whole day and use the tides to help you. Once out at the island a gentle paddle along the cliffs is a great way to see them but we always tell paddlers that they must stay at least 50m away from the cliff faces to avoid disturbing the birds. Kayaks too close to the cliffs frighten birds off the ledges, but why is this a problem as they can just fly straight back ? The birds will be protecting eggs or chicks and if these are left exposed then gulls come straight in a take them. Luckily most of the paddlers behave responsibly but I have see kayakers merrily paddling along touching the cliffs and having a fantastic time watching a waterfall of auks cascade of the cliffs but not seeing the massacre going on behind them as gulls snatch defenceless chicks.  So feel free to visit the island by kayak but please give the birds a chance and give the cliff faces a bit of distance.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Things are looking up in the moth world on the May

The cold wet weather and strong easterly winds has been disaterous for the moths of the island so far this year. Coupled with this the vegetation took such a hit from the winter storms and high rabbit population that there isn't much for what moths are about to feed oand lay eggs on. But with the winds going round to the south west and the air warming up suddenly we are getting a few more moths in our trap that we run each night. The interesting thing is that many don't breed on the island but are blown over from the mainland which goes to show that moths don't have to disperse just by their own wing power but spread around the country using their the winds. Most moths are adapted to be able to deal with difficult years and hopefully with different conditions we will be getting 200 moths per trap again next year. Here are a few from the last few days.
Light arches - only recorded  in one previous year in 2007.
Marbled beauty - a moth that lives on lichens growing on old buildings,  rocks and stone walls - habitats we have in abundance on the May.
Brown China- mark  - a micro moth that has larval that live under the water in pools and ditches, again something we have a lot of this year.
Campion - in lives on the ripening seeds of the sea campion that carpets the island, you'd think we would have more of them.
Burnished brass with its metallic glistening patches on its wings.
Brimstone moth  - only 2 previous records, in August 1979 and August 1910. Its caterpillers lives on hawthorn and related bushes so this one must have been blown over from Lothian.
The true lovers knot - a beautiful little moth that lives on heathland and moorland, its caterpillers are thought to feed on heathers, a long way from the island.

Others that escaped the cameras include a treble bar and the first record for the island of a light emerald, a moth of broadleaf woodland !

Monday, 23 July 2012

To the ends of our known world

At the north end of the island looking south.

A ceiling of gulls.

More rain on its way.
 No boats today due to an ever increasing south westerly wind so this afternoon we headed out to count the islands waders. You normally think of wading birds wandering around huge muddy estuaries but the Isle of May is actually quite important for these birds. The island has been designated for a whole load of features including for being important for non-breeding populations of turnstones and purple sandpipers, But many other waders use the island as a motorway service station to refuel when heading south (but with a better and healthy selection of food and cheaper fuel). So between July and early October we systematically count all the islands waders every 2 to 3 weeks. We divided up the islands shoreline and Lucie and I drew Rona, at the north end of the island, the end of our known world. This is good as it often holds good numbers of waders and bad because the count is done at high tide and it means wading across creeks and gully's that separates the different islets.
It was slow` work as we zig-zagged our way round the shore, scanning each pool and slab. First a dunlin, next a couple of purple sandpipers and then a bigger flock of turnstones, we gradually added to our total. Past the wreck of the Mars, a small coaster that hit the island in the 1930's and never left. Gull chicks shuffled out of our way or edged themselves in cracks pretending they couldn't be seen while their parents yelled above. Progress made was dry until we had to cross a thigh deep gully which needed shoes and socks off. Next up was a wider but supposedly shallower strip of sea to cross. I made it fine but half way across Lucie decided to sit down on the job and so got soaked up to her waist. Valiantly she carried on and 2 hours later we finished. Luck was with us for the last crossing as the tide literally parted and retreated like the Red Sea and we zipped over slippery rocks before the next waves came through. After 2 hours of having several thousand gull screaming at us we were glad to leave Rona, it is a bit like New York City, exciting to visit with fantastic sights but the density of inhabitants,  the smelliness and rubbish lying around make it uncomfortable after a while and a pleasure to leave. So we gladly headed back for well earned pizzas clutching bootie of a found oar that was washed up .
And the final total for the whole island ? As follows:-
turnstone 157, purple sandpiper 43, dunlin, 2, curlew 25, whimbrel 4, common sandpiper 2, oystercatcher 28, redshank 6. Not bad for a big lump of rock.
The Mars wreck.

After the soaking.

Gull chicks wedged in every crack.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Who dares the rain will get puffins.

Everyone knows it has been a wet year. The Isle of May is normally one of the driest places in Scotland receiving only about 560mm a year....but not this year. On Wednesday we got a months rain in a day 47mm or a 2 inch layer of water over the whole island and this is on top of twice the usual amount of rain for the last 3 1/2 months. This latest water logging soaked late guillemot and razorbill chicks on the cliffs, saturated unprotected gull chicks and flooded more pufflings out of their burrows. It is ironic that in a year where there have been plenty of sandeel's and other small fish prey for the birds they have had to struggle with poor weather. And it is another reminder that the climate is changing, wildlife is being affected and we must all do our bit if we want to continue to see seabirds such as puffins on islands close to Britain.

As we splashed around in the torrential rain we were treated to a spectacle sight. The poor weather had brought in amazing numbers of puffins and they covered the island. At this time of year lots of puffins including young non-breeding birds, gather on the island for burrow prospecting, partner choosing and socialising and these numbers are at their most with the bad weather. So if you are booked to come out to the island on one of the boats and are thinking of cancelling because it is raining think again, you might see a special sight and as they say who dares wins, after all it is only water. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Black Guillemot

The May Princess landed in on Sunday and out jumped Kevin keen to tell me that he was certain he'd seen a Black Guillemot near the Lowlight. He went on to describe the bird perfectly.

This was good news. I am a real fan of these birds. They look fantastic and it was a new bird for my island list. I had a quick look while the boat was on but drew a blank.

I saw the boat off and went for lunch. I decided to have a look just after lunch. There were thousands of Puffins in big rafts on the water. It was going to be a needle in a haystack trying to find it.

 Is that it?

I started at Kirkhaven and went all the way round to the Lowlight and literally the last bird I looked at was a Black Guillemot!

I could not get decent photos as it was always a long way away.

This bird differs from Common Guillemots by being black all over with white ovals on the wings. This bird had black markings on the white. This suggests it is a bird that was hatched last year.

Here is a picture of a Common Guillemot for comparison. This bird still has a chick.

July can be a quiet month for migrating birds on the Isle of May but this bird and Wood Sandpiper means that it's worth going out searching for things. You never know what is next to turn up.

Black Guillemots are recorded almost annually on the Isle of May. They appear mainly in the winter. It is a scarce bird along the east coast of Scotland but reasonably easy to see along the west coast.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Terns Fledging!

We've put a lot of effort into our Terns this year. Lucie and Paula have been both watching the colonies for  up to three hours a day before they first started laying eggs. We've also put down shelters, put in canes to confuse the gulls and kept the photographers from venturing too close.

We are finally seeing the fruits of our labour. At the time of writing at least 13 youngsters have fledged and hopefully more will come.

This was the first bird to fledge near the tractor shed

It is funny watching them take their early flights. Their wings are not pointed like the adults and have more of a rounded shape. They get attacked by the adult terns, confused by seeing different coloured birds in their colony.

We've even had more eggs laid this week too. We're wondering just how long and protracted this tern season will be. LAst year only one chick was raised.

These two fledglings near the Beacon were enjoying a bath in a puddle

There are still chicks going about of all sizes

Hopefully with increased understanding through observation we can improve productivity for these birds for the coming years.