Sunday, 31 March 2013

First Day of the Visitor Season - Hot and Cold

This is what the May looked like first thing this morning, this being the first day of visitors coming out to the island. On the positive side at least I have now sorted my Christmas cards for next year.

And this is what the island looked like at the end of the day as the first May Princess sailing of the visitor season left to go back to Anstruther.

Quite a transformation. 39 visitors came out on the first sailing of the May Princess by the new skipper Alex Gardner and loved the warmth (once out of the cold wind) and sunshine little realising quite what the island had looked like a few hours before.  Who knows what will hold for us tomorrow morning!

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Bird News on the Isle of May

 Having been on the island for a couple of days I am starting to get a feel for what the different birds are up to. The guillemots and razorbills are starting to get established on their nesting ledges on the cliffs. First thing each morning the brays of the guillis can be heard. They mostly leave the cliffs and head out to sea by lunchtime but some are staying on the cliffs longer each day.
 With not some nay other birds on the cliffs the fulmars are the most obvious seabird. They are on the island in force doing their mad laugh calls continuously. The shags and puffins are few and far between at the moment and the kittiwakes are mostly off the island gathering on the sea.

 Though the cliffs are quiet the island itself is looking spectacular in the sun.It will not be many days before the ledges stay to fill and the noise builds (and the smell).

 Amongst the other birds on the island are a flock of lapwings. The flock had grown to about 50 today and round every corner was a lapwing. They are great fun to watch, especially like a few of the ones on the island they start calling their pewit calls and tumble around the sky in courtship. They are a declining species across the UK and they used to breed on the island but haven't done so since1986 but maybe like the swallows that returned last year after a long absence maybe they will have a go.
 Peregrines have been very obvious with 3 birds zooming around on Thursday. Here is one of the birds resting on the top of the cliffs.
 The stonechat is still around, making use here, of one of the lighthouse keeper's marker stone
A beautiful long-eared owl found roosting in the top garden. It was not pleased to be woken up.
Not birds but there are plenty of grey seals longing around the island. Many are going through their moults so are a patchy colour with the new coat showing where the old cost has come out. It is an itchy process as they seem to spend a lot of their time scratching with their flippers or rubbing themselves against the rocks like this one. 

Friday, 29 March 2013

Changing Isle

The Isle of May has existed for thousands of years, it is just a big lump of rock that doesn't change, just what is on its surface. Or so you would think but walking around the island after being off for the winter gives me a chance to spot changes and differences.
For instance there has been a big rock fall on the cliffs in Pilgrims Haven behind the Angel. The picture above shows the scar of red rock left where rocks the size of a small lorry dropped off the cliff. What is amazing is that there is very little debris at the base of the cliff, the winter storms have magicked away or broken down all that rock.
Also at Pilgrims Haven, about half the beaches big round pebbles have disappeared. For the southern half of the beach it is down to bedrock. Another name for the beach is Chatterstanes as the pebble make that noise in a storm. Well if this carries on the beach will need to be renamed.
Just along from the big rock fall is another rock the size of a sofa just hanging on. The winter storms, rain and ice have all helped to break it away from the cliff but not quite enough for it to fall.
It all goes to show that even a big bit of rock is constantly changing, Erosion is taking chunks off the island each year while the tidal and wave power of the sea and currents are also shifting around the results of the erosion. Each spring when we come back onto the island we can see pale patches on the west cliffs where flakes of rock, large and small have broken off leaving fresh scars. It makes you wonder how long the sea stack, the Angel will stay standing with such a heavy column supported on a small base.

Another change that is directly attributable to man is our new solar panels, fitted in early March to supplement our existing bank of panels. These will help to reduce our diesel usage and the hope is that in the future any excess power generated can be used as heat in the cottages. Now that would be very welcome.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


I am on the island. A rough, wet and cold trip out with a boat full of bedding, food and equipment but with the help of the ever excellent Colin at the helm of the RIB Osprey plus Mark, Carrie and Adam with the unloading it is good to be back on.
It is not as if there hasn't been a presence on the island for much of the winter, we have had a variety of contractors on the island plus some researchers but being back marks the beginning of our island season .
It is an early start, and the snow flurries don't help with the misapprehension that it is still winter.  The birds are not really geared up either with a handful of kittiwakes mooching around offshore, very few shags lingering  and a few guillemots on the cliffs in the morning but apart from the fulmers and the herring gulls no-one else is showing much interest in breeding.
Of even more concern is that we are finding dead puffins. These are part of this east coast wide wreck but it will be a few days before we get a better idea of the scale of the wreck and how many are dying  around the island. These cold east winds are not helping the seabirds but they are blowing in some interesting migrants. Yesterday Mark found woodcock, thrushes, a flock of lapwing, a short-eared owl, a group of skylarks and of most interest a stonechat and best of all a woodlark. Both were still here today and I got a buzz out of seeing them. .Stonechats live on the mainland coast within sight of the island but rarely make it across the water, woodlarks are even more infrequent with only about 20 records for the island previously. This is one is the earliest island record. Tomorrow is unpackign and clearing the island ready for the first visitors.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A day trip and nearly there

The Isle of May is a long way out across a rough sea.

Across the Forth to Bass Rock

At the beginning of the season its hard to remember how the life jackets go on!

Colin in the RIB Osprey coming into Anstruther after the first trip.

I day tripped over to the island today but got no further than Alterstanes landing and it was snow whipped, bumpy trip but good to get to the island if only briefly for me.  The RIB Osprey had already taken one load of contractors and gear over to the island, the first trip to the island for 10 days. The second load I was on and was a bunch of boxes of equipment for myself and for the researchers. We couldn't get to the Kirkhaven harbour as the swell was too big so we had to land the researchers and boxes at Alterstanes where it is more sheltered from the easterlies. So for me it was case of standing on the landing for a few minutes and then off again while Mark, Adam and Carrie are staying on the island for the night to check if any seabirds are showing signs of starting to breed and do some repairs to the hides. I came back to the mainland again but go back over with another load tomorrow  to stay.
One worrying thing is that we are starting to get news of a puffin wreck, that is a mass mortality of puffins. It seems that 100 or so were found dead near St. Cyrus, 20 + near Carnoustie and as we approached the island today we saw 1 dead on the water and another being eaten by a GeeB (Greater Black backed Gull). These wrecks happen when the birds haven't been able to feed well, often due to rough weather when it is more difficult for them to catch fish. Overall this winter doesn't seemed to have been a good one for seabirds. The changing climate seems to mean more storms and big weather events which is not good for seabirds. Take some time to think about what you are doing that might affect the climate and what lifestyle changes you might like to make to help the puffins ?

Monday, 25 March 2013

All scrubbed up and ready to sail.

The RIB Osprey sertviced and ready to go for its 5th year of servicing the island and taking visitors back and forth.
The May Princess, fresh from the slip way in Arbroath and with a striking new coat of paint. Many people will remember her as all white but now she is has a very smart dark blue hull making her look workman-like and ready to go.

Over in North Berwick the Scottish Seabird Centre boats are champing at the bit as well.

We are still struggling to make it across to the island at the moment but in the meantime the two boats in Ansturther are full serviced, scrubbed up, waiting and ready to take visitors across. The first day of sailing is Friday 29th March, an early start due to an early Easter. So if a trip to the island is something you have been meaning to do why not grasp the nettle and book a place.
Check out the websites for more details, ticket prices and sailing times:

May Princess -

RIB Osprey -

Scottish Seabird Centre -

Season Starts - Not Going Out

This is pretty much the start of the season and I start with an apologies for the silence of the blog, some of you will be wondering about how we are progressing in preparing for the start of the season. Well for this week very little progress has been made. These cold easterlies are stopping me getting anywhere near to the island and so I am onto about Plan W by now. The Isle of May lies 6 miles out into the North Sea, further out than many seabird islands open to the public so we struggle a bit when the weather gets up.
There is a gap in the weather middle of this week and i hope to be going for it to get out to the island so that I can start getting things ready for the start of the visitor season which is next Friday, Good Friday the 29th.
Overall the weather hasn't been too bad since New Year and contractors working on the island have managed to get quite a lot done. But now I need to clean the paths of winter debris, clean out the visitor centre, put up visitor warning signs that keep the birds and visitors safe and get a couple of boat loads of equipment over to the island, sorted and stowed. So as you can see things are getting a bit tight.  But somehow the island will be ready to receive the first boats of what is a very early start.
This weather isn't only delaying us it is also delaying the seabird and the Scottish Seabird Centre have reported to me very little puffin action or shag action on their cameras on the island.
So at the moment all the mountain of boxes are packed and ready to go but i just need a drop in the wind and the flattening of the huge swell that makes the harbour inaccessible.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Keep alive and carry on

The story of one of the winter research projects carried out on the island. 

Keep alive and carry on: My experience in the Isle of May during grey seal pupping season 2012.
Please, it is strongly recommend that when reading the following listen to:
1.       Seal - Crazy
2.       Pearl Jam – Alive
3.       Kansas – Carry on my wayward son
4.       Simple Minds – Alive and kicking
5.       Bee Gees - Stayin’ alive
My name is Martina and I am here to share my story.
Everything began when I started my PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2011. My project title was ‘The role of the marine mammal carrion in the ecology of the coastal marine system’… “
Marine mammals may have an important influence on ecosystems they are part of, because of their size, mobility and abundance. But, when they die, they have the greatest impact on the recycle of nutrients, as their body becomes a source of food for other animals.
The Isle of May, during winter hosts one of the largest grey seal colonies of UK. Between October and December seals come to the island for pupping and breeding and during this period the species experiences its highest mortality, which can reach up to 30%. Between birth and weaning, pups can die for a whole range of different reasons. For instance trampling and wounds due to interactions between adults and pups may lead to severe injuries or infections and finally to death. The incidence of starvation in pups is very common as well, and it is almost certainly due to the failure of formation, or the breakdown, of the bond between mother and offspring. The latter can happen on crowded breeding sites due to disturbance which can be caused by adjacent adults, storms, high tides or humans, and also due to pups wandering away from their mothers and becoming lost. 

Such carcasses of neonate seals may attract opportunistic birds or mammals that would transfer marine-derived energy inland, like seagulls, crows or mice. Moreover, when carrion is washed off because of high tide or storms, marine organisms can consume it.

Therefore, the Isle of May was for sure the best place where to carry out my fieldwork. I spent six weeks there with a few other researchers, with whom I shared one of the best experiences of my life. 

 I had never been in such close contact with wildlife before going to the Isle of May. Grey seals are such big animals, and, honestly, at the beginning I was very scared of them (the live ones). When mothers protect their pups, they can be very aggressive and I was not used to their usual reaction. To increase my confidence with seals, I had to face daily a pup, which decided to share the hide with me, but not very happy of my presence, it was crying all of the time. Despite my imploring, it never gave up in calling its mum. Results: for the first days, I was constrained to work outside her hide, hidden by the lovely seal family. 

Part of my typical day in the Isle of May was making observations of gulls scavenging on dead pups occurring in the Loan and East Tarbet. Gulls visiting the two areas were mostly Great Black Backed Gulls and juveniles, which behaved opportunistically feeding not just on carcasses, but on vomit and placentas as well! A new born was, in fact, always celebrated by very noisy gulls that cry and fight to have a piece of fresh placenta. However, they were behaving differently with dead pups as they could spend from few minutes to hours on the same carcass, partially avoiding competition among individuals. Generally, the first bird to exploit carrion is that one who can open it. Unfortunately I did not spot any Golden eagles in the Isle of May, although it would have been such great fun. Here, the Great black backed gull is the largest bird with the best capability in using its beak to penetrate the body. So, generally it opens first the carcass. Instead, juvenile individuals, because of their inexperience in catching food, opportunistically feed on the corpse once opened by adults. In the Isle of May there were just few carrion crows and I did not detect them on carcasses, but it is known that usually they arrive at the latest stages of the carcass consumption to not compete with gulls.
Gulls never forget to wash their mouth after eating: once they finished they were immediately washing their beak into the sea!

As seals and gulls share the same areas, interactions among them are inevitable. When a gull pecked a pup to understand if it was alive, it was at high risk of bite from the seal mother. Lots of inexperienced young gulls showed, in fact, injuries on their wings or legs. Broken Wing was one of them. I regard him very highly, because, even if disabled, it was putting all its efforts to survive through the winter. 

Depending on the location where a pup dies, it becomes source of food available to different scavengers. According to the topography and weather conditions, pupping areas could be affected by tide or storms which can increase mortality, but also move carcasses into the water. When a carcass is underwater, scavengers living on the seabed feed on it. Among them, gastropods as nassariids, shore crabs, but also other small crustaceans like amphipods and fish.
For this purpose, I ran an experiment in the sea water pool occurring at Foreigner Point: by using a heavy frame equipped by an underwater camera, I recorded the initial consumption of a small carcass. Despite the high number of marine scavengers, the underwater process of consumption is very long, not just because of their size, but also because their less effective capability in breaking the body.  

Evaluating the carrion inputs available to the marine system results very difficult, but outside of the water this can be achieved more easily. At the end of the season I and my islander mates surveyed all island to estimate the total biomass available to scavengers deriving from pup mortality. The number of carcasses found was 233, whose total weightwas estimated more than 5 thousands kilograms, which are potentially available to the wintering gulls of the island.
One of the original etymologies of the name “Isle of May” is the island of gulls.
My story is not a sad story, but it’s the celebration of life after death.
And now listen to Bee Gees again!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

1 down, 99, 999 to go

Heading into Kirkhaven
Another Monday morning, another early start and myself plus Neil and George, the expert plumbers from Filpumps were heading over to the May to clean through the whole water system in the Fluke Street cottages and the Mousehouse visitor centre. I was just on for the day, they were on for a whole week, they had obviously done something really bad to be sent out for that long. It was bitterly cold and a bit splashy so we were hunched down a bit when about half way across I saw a small bird fly over the boat, "PUFFIN", I yelled and everyone perked up. It wasn't much to look at as it was still in its sooty grey-faced winter costume but it was the first seen since before Christmas and maybe a sign that they were starting to make their back towards the island after a winter out on the sea far from land. Only another 99,999 to go for a full set.
The Lowlight with its nearly finished extension.

Plenty of seals lounging around Rona

Once out on the island the plumbers set to work and I had a phone call from the Scottish Seabird Centre. Another seal in trouble. They seem to line themselves up for when we are on the island. This time it was animal that had got some fine fishing netting round its neck and this had cut in causing a horrible looking wound. The people in the Seabird Centre had spotted it on Pilgrims Haven with their remote control cameras. After asking them to switch the cameras off I went down armed with a pen knife, a pair of kitchen scissors and a large sheet. Luckily it was low tide and the seal was well up the beach fast asleep. So I creep down and got as close as possible. It didn't wake up in the best of moods and the sheet that I threw over its head didn't improve the way it was feeling and with a lot of growling it quickly wriggled out of the sheet and headed off to the sea with a short diversion to see if it could nibble my leg. This allowed me, with a bit of nimble footwork, to grab its tail, throw the sheet back over it head and then try to dart in and snip the netting with the scissors. The next few minutes were a bit of blur, both for me and the seal, there was a lot of lunging and swearing from both of us, but suddenly the netting seemed to fall away and I let the seal's tail go so that it could finally head own to the sea in a very disgruntled fashion while I did a discrete air-punch. I was grateful for the cameras being off as I am sure the film of "man holding the tail of angry seal with sheet on head" would have gone viral on Youtube.
The seal still has a nasty wound on its neck caused by the net but we have seen seals recover from worse injuries than that in the past so we hope that it has a good chance of survival.
Of course this incident also brings home the effects of discarded fishing gear and plastics in the seas and by posting this I hope that it will be a reminder for us all to dispose of all rubbish and litter responsibly.
The young grey seal with the fishing netting around its neck. This was before I woke it up and removed it.
The fine but very strong netting once it was removed from the seal.