Our week on the Isle of May was like an oasis of calm in an otherwise frantic world. No traffic, pollution, television or stuff-to-do. Just a few like-minded friends, the natural environment and the birds. Very refreshing.
Puffins and Terns may have been the stars of the avian show, but here are a few of the other breeding species. I like the Shag's green eyes. It is smaller and less reptilian in appearance than its larger cousin the Cormorant. It is red listed as vulnerable because over half the population is found at fewer than 10 sites, one of which is here. They do not stray too far from home usually, which is why it was a pleasure to see one at Cabo de Gata in Spain last year.
Oystercatchers are very common birds in Scotland, inland as well as on the coast. They are quite photogenic in black, white and red.
The Island hosts large numbers of Razorbills. They generally stick to the steepest cliff faces and are usually in company with another of the auk family, the Guillemot. One particularly large, steep cliff face on the Island is known as "Seabird City". One can pass a very pleasant hour or two watching the hundreds of nesting birds coming and going here.
Eiders nest all round the island, choosing flat sites often some distance away from any water. One female was incubating eggs on the stone patio outside the door of our accommodation at "Low Light". They show no fear of us at all. Males do not appear to participate in the incubation of eggs or rearing of young. Very few males were evident on the Island, but there were many females with chicks.
Eiders are Britain's heaviest and fastest flying Ducks. They eat molluscs, mainly mussels which makes them unpopular with mussel farmers.
Rock Pipits are the only really resident small birds on the Island. Many other small species make appearances, Pied Wagtails and a few Barn Swallows may nest here, but the Rock Pipit is quite numerous.
At least 285 bird species have been recorded on the Island, many of them rarities which mostly turn up during the migration periods of Spring and Autumn. There are several Heligoland Traps and and ringers use mist nets to capture, record and ring birds. In June though very few vagrants are expected. During our week a Grasshopper Warbler, a Chiffchaff and a Spotted Flycatcher were ringed but that was about it as I recall. I spotted a solitary Curlew, there were resident Barn Swallows, a few Sandwich Terns and Cormorants were nesting, otherwise the only birds were those in considerable numbers that I write about and post here.
Kittiwakes nest on tiny ledges clinging to sheer cliff faces which looks extremely precarious. particularly for the chicks, but there always appears to be a parent bird present to protect them from falling.
They make a fine sight as they tumble aerobatically up and down the vertical cliff faces, using the updrafts to act as an elevator.
Unlike gull chicks, which wander about at a very young age, Kittiwake chicks instinctively remain still to avoid falling. It is apparently instinctive, but one look at the sheer drop below would make me sit still too, perhaps they are just too terrified to move.
Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are very numerous. They nest on the grassy hillsides amongst the Puffin burrows. Puffins are left alone except when they return from a fishing expedition, when they are at great risk of being robbed. Gulls will not follow a Puffin down a burrow, which is narrow and over a metre in length. In there they would be at a severe disadvantage, susceptible to being bitten by a big, brightly coloured bill.
Here's a pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls engaged in a tug-of-war, no idea why but they seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps a trial of strength.
Greater Black-backed Gulls are at the top of the food chain on the Island, the apex predator. Elena was quite upset by the sight of a G B B Gull brandishing a herring gull chick at the raucous mob of gulls around it, before swallowing the chick whole. It is the largest Gull in the World. The only predators that routinely take them are large Eagles and Killer Whales, none of which are present here. In spite of their physical superiority there are far fewer of them on the Island than the other gull species.
The Fulmar Petrel is not related to the gulls even though it resembles them in appearance. It is in a group with other tubenoses, the Petrels and Shearwaters which are all allied to Albatrosses.
The Island hosts large colonies of nesting Arctic Terns. This amazing bird made a great impression on me and it has become one of my firm favourites.
The Arctic Tern was once known as the "Sea Swallow", describing its slender shape as it swoops over the water with extreme grace and speed. It is very beautiful. But there is much more to admire about this species. It is very feisty, showing no fear in defending its nesting grounds by attacking any perceived intruders, including us.
We stuck to the footpaths which wind through their nesting areas but it's necessary to wear a hat or hold something over your head as they attack quite fearlessly, screaming as they swoop in to peck at your highest point.
I discovered that my 500mm lens was quite useless when it came to photographing this bird. Instead I fitted my little extreme wide-angle Sigma 8 - 16 mm lens and held it up as the Terns came in fast and low, firing shots in multiple bursts. It was the only way to capture the action.
Occasionally I would capture on camera the bird's third weapon of attack. Apart from its sharp beak and intimidating screams, it likes to fire streams of excrement at the enemy, me in this case. A waterproof hat and jacket was the best protection.
It was not all feisty aggression however. We witnessed many instances of birds passing fish back and forth between mates, obvious signs of bonding and affection.
Perhaps the most impressive fact to consider about the Arctic Tern, is that this lovely little graceful, elegant bird travels about 90,000 km (56,000 mi) annually, by far the longest migration known in the animal kingdom. The young reared here will, once fledged, fly off to Antarctica for the the Southern Summer, and six months later will set off once again to return. They certainly clock up the air-miles!
Our friend Mike Martin invited us to spend a week at the Bird Observatory on the Isle of May. The IoM is 5 miles off the coast of Scotland at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. Most visitors are day trippers but up to six people can stay for one week at a time in very nice accommodation in the "Low Light" (below).
The Island is a major nesting site for around 200,000 seabirds. mainly Puffin, Arctic Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Eider, plus three Gull species and numerous resident Rock Pipits.
Instead of a daily account of our activities and sightings I have decided to deal with each major bird species in turn, providing a photographic snapshot of the avian life on the Island in June, the height of the breeding season.
The Atlantic Puffin is perhaps the biggest attraction for visitors. It Spends autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, returning to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies by digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole fish, here primarily sand eels. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and does not return to land for several years. Most of those from the IoM will end up in Norwegian waters. Interestingly I once spotted a solitary Puffin off the Spanish coast near Sotogrande, while on a sailing trip out of Gibraltar. They do disperse around coastal waters all over Europe..
There are no natural predators on the Island, raptors are driven away by the Gull population and the only animals present are rabbits. However Puffins returning to their burrows with fish are regularly mugged by marauding Gulls.
If a puffin is caught a violent struggle ensues which can last for some time until the weary victim reluctantly gives up its fish in order to escape. The triumphant Gull must grab the fish quickly or it will in turn be mugged by others of its kind.
I was impressed at how dertermined the Puffins were to hold on to their fish even under extreme duress. Occasionally they would break free and find safety in a burrow, but usually the much larger Gull would prevail, as in this case shown here.
Puffins numbers in some regions have declined quite drastically for various reasons so it is officially listed as threatened, vulnerable to extinction. It is a tribute to the excellent stewardship of the Isle of May that from only five pairs of Puffins breeding here in 1958, twenty years later there were 10,000 pairs and numbers are up again this year. Great news.
Retired seafarer living in Frigiliana, a white village in Malaga Province in southern Spain. Married to Elena. Keen bird and wildlife watchers.
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