Thursday, 31 January 2013

Wrecked wreck - the Island has moved.

As we worked our way round the island last week we realised that a number of landmarks had changed. The most startling was the wreck of the ship The Island. This was a Danish ship that ran aground on the Isle of May in thick fog in 1937. Over the years it has been battered and broken by the seas but there was still several big chunks of metal work lying on sloping rocks on the east side. These had become taken over by the shags during the breeding season with up to 60 pairs nesting in and around the wreckage. It was always a smelly job for the researchers checking and ringing those birds as it sometimes involved a belly crawl under rusting plate slabs to reach stinking and parasite ridden shag chicks.
 But things have changed. When visitors looked at the wreck which lay about 30m from the high tide mark up a slope, they wondered how the wreck got there. Well, this winter the big swells that have battered the east side of the island have reached the wreck, washed away lots of the smaller pieces of ironwork and turned the biggest lump 90 degrees and rolling it over. It is hard to believe the sea reaching this far up the island and having the power to shift tons of steel but it has.
This next breeding season it is going to be interesting to see what the birds make of it. On the negative side all their nesting ledges and sites have been totally changed or removed but on the plus side maybe lots of the external parasites have been sluiced off the nesting areas. This is one of the benefits a long-term research project as there is a baseline of data on nest positions and where ringed birds nest so changes can be plotted to give us a better understanding of what influences these birds in their decision making for breeding. Can't wait for the next season.(Thanks to Mark Newell for the photos.)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Funny Divers and May Ticks

You might think that in the depth of winter then island would be dead to birds and that there is no migration. But we found out on the island last week that things are happening and that birds can and will move at anytime in the year.

The day we arrived one of the most obvious island inhabitants were the woodcocks. These were pinging up from every wet gully and pool across the island. An estimated 50 + were there and our guess was that the snow on the mainland had driven them across the firth to one of the few places still unfrozen, wet and therefore full of food. We managed to trap one in the Heligoland trap and so Carrie ringed it. They are the most stunning of birds to see close up with an intricate brown pattern for camouflage to rival the female eiders.

Also on the island was a long-eared owl that Mark managed to trap for ringing. These birds look huge on the wing but in the hand they seem to shrink. This was a young female who had eyes that could clear a night club in Edinburgh.
 The fulmers were very evident, lots of them on their nest sites cackling to each other. They have a much lower profile in the summer so it was good to see them taking centre stage.
An unexpected find was when I lifted up a slab of stone I found a nest of hibernating house mice. They barely moved when I looked in so I tucked in all the feathers and nest materials and put the slab back donw so they could settle down again till the weather warmed up.
Another little mystery was this dead gull found on Fluke Street. It is a glaucous gull, a very large pale gull that breeds in the Arctic but a few winter around the coast of Britain. This was a first year bird that hadn't made it through the winter. It would have been a May tick for me if only I have been able to get in breathing again.
Some birds come out to the island to stay the winter, a few blackbirds, robins and wrens but signs that others were on the move and using the island as a service station was the group of fieldfare that turned up on the second day and also 3 twite.

Isle of May's first white-billed diver.

But most exciting was what was happening off-shore. Firstly we surprised a red-throated diver as we came to entrance of Kirkhaven and had a great close-up view of it. Later, mooching around the edge of Rona were a group of 3 great northern divers (a May tick) looking purposeful as they fished amongst the frailer looking shags. Mixed in were a couple of tysies (another May tick for me), black guillemots, an uncommon visitor to the island at anytime. But a closer scrutiny of the divers revealed another one that looked a bit different. Bigger, with a great pale dagger of bill and pale patches on the nape it proved to be a white-billed diver (or confusingly a yellow-billed loon as it is called in the States), a very rare visitor, an everything tick for me and a first for the island. High fives and air punches all round and well done to Will for picking out the beauty.  The next day a couple of cracking looking long-tailed ducks, more arctic visitors, wandered along the west side of the island.
So even in the dead of winter there are surprises to be found out there.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Diggers, shags and snow

After waiting for a couple of days for the swell to drop a small group of us headed out to the island for a couple of nights. It was cold, very cold with a bitter east wind and the swell was still quite big and though there was no snow on the island either side of the Forth was well covered almost down to sea level.

Bass rock with a back drop of snow
   It was the first time I had seen the demolition works of the week before. It has to be said that the island isn't probably looking at  it s best at the moment what with the aftermath of the seals combined with the demolition works, the storm damage and the still on going building works at the Lowlight. However bearing it mind that 15 ton vehicles have been running about the place and a big building has been knocked down, crushed and disposed off the island could have looked a lot worse. But the whole place will be tidied up and looking a lot better in time for the first visitors at Easter. The seabird researchers were mainly over to count and identify roosting shags as part of the project to see where they go and what they do over winter. But they also checked the coast for dead birds that had succumbed during the period of rough weather. Shags find it difficult to feed in rough, windy weather so a prolonged period can cause them to starve. As many of the shags have coloured and coded rings on their legs if you find a shag on a shoreline this winter check it for rings and make a note of its code. You can then send it to SNH who will forward it to the right researchers.

The next morning we had a surprise as it had snowed in the night. Just a light sprinkle but enough to cover the worst of the mess and a rare sight on the Isle of May.

One of the dead shags with a covering of snow

The big swells of the winter have moved many landmarks of the island. This big plastic tank had sat on Rona 40 yards from the sea but has now been washed to a gully about 30 yards away. It is quite scary and hard to believe the size of the seas that would have done this.
 There are still plenty of seals around the island watching with interest the funny people slipping around on the rocks!.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Over and out

3 days after landing the contractors have completely demolished the tractor shed, crushed the concrete and it has been disposed on the island. Some of it will form the base of a new building in the place of the tractor shed, if we get permission and the money. More will be used as ballast for new set of solar panels that are to be fitted on the island. Only the rotten girders and other corroded metalwork will go off the island to be recycled as scrap.
As shame the building had to go but if it wasn't knocked down it so would have come down of its own accord.
If you want to see what it originally looked like have a look at the posting for Saturday 8 th September 2012  Good-bye to the tractor shed. Thanks to Colin Murray, skipper of the RIB Osprey, for the photos.

Monday, 21 January 2013

3rd time lucky...just

Last week the demolition machinery to tackle the tractor shed finally made it ashore....just. The week before another attempt was made following the first attempt in September but the barge had to turn back due to the swell. Finally a week ago today the barge made it into the harbour after nearly turning around again due to the swell. We're not used to having such big machinery on the island, they just dwarf the jetty and other fixtures.Thanks to Colin Murray, skipper of the RIB Osprey, for the photos.